by Tim Cahill | Copyright ©1987 The Rolling Stone
He didn’t bustle into the room and he didn’t wander in. Truth, as he would reiterate several times, is multifaceted, and it would be fair to say that Stanley Kubrick entered the executive suite at Pinewood Studios, outside London, in a multifaceted manner. He was at once happy to have found the place after a twenty-minute search, apologetic about being late and apprehensive about the torture he might be about to endure. Stanley Kubrick, I had been told, hates interviews.
It’s hard to know what to expect of the man if you’ve only seen his films. One senses in those films painstaking craftsmanship, a furious intellect at work, a single-minded devotion. His movies don’t lend themselves to easy analysis; this may account for the turgid nature of some of the books that have been written about his art. Take this example: “And while Kubrick feels strongly that the visual powers of film make ambiguity an inevitability as well as a virtue, he would not share Bazin’s mystical belief that the better film makers are those who sacrifice their personal perspectives to a ‘fleeting crystallization’ of a reality [of] whose environing presence one is ceaselessly aware.’ ”
One feels that an interview conducted on this level would be pretentious bullshit. Kubrick, however, seemed entirely unpretentious. He was wearing running shoes and an old corduroy jacket. There was an ink stain just below the pocket where some ball point pen had bled to death “What is this place?” Kubrick asked. “It’s called the executive suite,” I said. “I think they put big shots up here.”
Kubrick looked around at the dark wood-paneled walls, the chandeliers, the leather couches and chairs. “Is there a bathroom?” he asked, with some urgency. “Across the hall,’ I said.
The director excused himself and went looking for the facility. I reviewed my notes. Kubrick was born in the Bronx in 1928. He was an undistinguished student whose passions were tournament-level chess and photography. After graduation from Taft High School at the age of seventeen, he landed a prestigious job as a photographer for Look magazine, which he quit after four years in order to make his first film. Day of the Fight (1950) was a documentary about the middleweight boxer Walter Cartier. After a second documentary, The Flying Padre (1951), Kubrick borrowed $10,000 from relatives to make Fear and Desire (1953), his first feature, an arty film that he now finds “embarrassing.” Kubrick, his first wife and two friends were the entire crew for the film. By necessity, Kubrick was director, cameraman, lighting engineer, makeup man, administrator, prop man and unit chauffeur. Later in his career, he would take on some of these duties again, for reasons other than necessity.
Kubrick’s breakthrough film was Paths of Glory (1957). During the filming, he met an actress, Christiane Harlan, whom he eventually married. Christiane sings a song at the end of the film in a scene that, on four separate viewings, has brought tears to my eyes.
Kubrick’s next film was Spartacus (1960), a work he finds disappointing. He was brought in to direct after the star, Kirk Douglas, had a falling-out with the original director, Anthony Mann. Kubrick was not given control of the script, which he felt was full of easy moralizing. He was used to making his own films his own way, and the experience chafed. He has never again relinquished control over any aspect of his films.
And he has taken some extraordinary and audacious chances with those works. The mere decision to film Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1961) was enough to send some censorious sorts into a spittle-spewing rage. Dr. Strangelove (1963), based on the novel Red Alert, was conceived as a tense thriller about the possibility of accidental nuclear war. As Kubrick worked on the script, however, he kept bumping up against the realization that the scenes he was writing were funny in the darkest possible way. It was a matter of slipping on a banana peel and annihilating the human race. Stanley Kubrick went with his gut feeling: he directed Dr. Strangelove as a black comedy. The film is routinely described as a masterpiece.
Most critics also use that word to describe the two features that followed, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). Some reviewers see a subtle falling off of quality in his Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Shining (1980), though there is a critical reevaluation of the two films in process. This seems to be typical of his critical reception.
Kubrick moved to England in 1968. He lives outside of London with Christiane (now a successful painter) three golden retrievers and a mutt he found wandering forlornly along the road. He has three grown daughters Some who know him say he can be “difficult” and “exacting.”
He had agreed to meet and talk about his latest movie, Full Metal Jacket, a film about the Vietnam War that he produced and directed. He also co-wrote the screenplay with Michael Herr, the author of Dispatches, and Gustav Hasford, who wrote The Short-Timers, the novel on which the film is based. Full Metal Jacket is Kubrick’s first feature in seven years.
The difficult and exacting director returned from the bathroom looking a little perplexed.
“I think you’re right,” he said. “I think this is a place where people stay. I looked around a little, opened a door, and there was this guy sitting on the edge of a bed”
“Who was he?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
“What did he say?”
“Nothing. He just looked at me, and I left.” There was a long silence while we pondered the inevitable ambiguity of reality, specifically in relation to some guy sitting on a bed across the hall. Then Stanley Kubrick began the interview:
I’m not going to be asked any conceptualizing questions, right?
All the books, most of the articles I read about you — it’s all conceptualizing.
Yeah, but not by me.
I thought I had to ask those kinds of questions.
No. Hell, no. That’s my . . . [He shudders.] It’s the thing I hate the worst.
Really? I’ve got all these questions written down in a form I thought you might require. They all sound like essay questions for the finals in a graduate philosophy seminar.
The truth is that I’ve always felt trapped and pinned down and harried by those questions.
Questions like [reading from notes] “Your first feature, Fear and Desire, in 1953, concerned a group of soldiers lost behind enemy lines in an unnamed war; Spartacus contained some battle scenes; Paths of Glory was an indictment of war and, more specifically, of the generals who wage it; and Dr. Strangelove was the blackest of comedies about accidental nuclear war. How does Full Metal Jacket complete your examination of the subject of war? Or does it?”
Those kinds of questions.
You feel the real question lurking behind all the verbiage is “What does this new movie mean?”
Exactly. And that’s almost impossible to answer, especially when you’ve been so deeply inside the film for so long. Some people demand a five-line capsule summary. Something you’d read in a magazine. They want you to say, “This is the story of the duality of man and the duplicity of governments.” [A pretty good description of the subtext that informs Full Metal Jacket, actually.] I hear people try to do it — give the five-line summary — but if a film has any substance or subtlety, whatever you say is never complete, it’s usually wrong, and it’s necessarily simplistic: truth is too multifaceted to be contained in a five-line summary. If the work is good, what you say about it is usually irrelevant.
I don’t know. Perhaps it’s vanity, this idea that the work is bigger than one’s capacity to describe it. Some people can do interviews. They’re very slick, and they neatly evade this hateful conceptual- izing. Fellini is good; his interviews are very amusing. He just makes jokes and says preposterous things that you know he can’t possibly mean.
I mean, I’m doing interviews to help the film, and I think they do help the film, so I can’t complain. But it isn’t…it’s…it’s difficult.
So let’s talk about the music in Full Metal Jacket. I was surprised by some of the choices, stuff like “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” by Nancy Sinatra. What does that song mean?
It was the music of the period. The Tet offensive was in ’68. Unless we were careless, none of the music is post-’68.
I’m not saying it’s anachronistic. It’s just that the music that occurs to me in that context is more, oh, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison.
The music really depended on the scene. We checked through Billboard’s list of Top 100 hits for each year from 1962 to 1968. We Were looking for interesting material that played well with a scene. We tried a lot of songs. Sometimes the dynamic range of the music was too great, and we couldn’t work in dialogue. The music has to come up under speech at some point, and if all you hear is the bass, it’s not going to work in the context of the movie. Why? Don’t you like “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'”?
Of the music in the film, I’d have to say I’m more partial to Sam the Sham’s “Wooly Bully,” which is one of the great party records of all time. And “Surfin’ Bird.”
An amazing piece, isn’t it?
“Surfin’ Bird” comes in during the aftermath of a battle, as the marines are passing a medevac helicopter. The scene reminded me of Dr. Strangelove, where the plane is being refueled in midair with that long, suggestive tube, and the music in the background is “Try a Little Tenderness.” Or the cosmlc waltz in 2001, where the spacecraft is slowly cartwheeling through space in time to “The Blue Danube.” And now you have the chopper and the “Bird.”
What I love about the music in that scene is that it suggests post combat euphoria — which you see in the marine’s face when he fires at the men running out of the building: he misses the first four, waits a beat, then hits the next two. And that great look on his face, that look of euphoric pleasure, the pleasure one has read described in so many accounts of combat. So he’s got this look on his face, and suddenly the music starts and the tanks are rolling and the marines are mopping up. The choices weren’t arbitrary.
You seem to have skirted the issue of drugs in Full Metal Jacket.
It didn’t seem relevant. Undoubtedly, Marines took drugs in Vietnam. But this drug thing, it seems to suggest that all marines were out of control, when in fact they weren’t. It’s a little thing, but check out the pictures taken during the battle of Hue: you see marines in fully fastened flak jackets. Well, people hated wearing them. They were heavy and hot, and sometimes people wore them but didn’t fasten them. Disciplined troops wore them, and they wore them fastened.
People always look at directors, and you in particular, in the context of a body of work. I couldn’t help but notice some resonance with Paths of Glory at the end of Full Metal Jacket: a woman surrounded by enemy soldiers, the odd, ambiguous gesture that ties these people together…
That resonance is an accident. The scene comes straight out of Gustav Hasford’s book.
So your purpose wasn’t to poke the viewer in the ribs, point out certain similarities…
Oh, God, no. I’m trying to be true to the material. You know, there’s another extraordinary accident. Cowboy is dying, and in the background there’s something that looks very much like the monolith in 2001. And it just happened to be there.
The whole area of combat was one complete area — it actually exists. One of the things I tried to do was give you a sense of where you were, where everything else was. Which, in war movies, is something you frequently don’t get. The terrain of small-unit action is really the story of the action. And this is something we tried to make beautifully clear: there’s a low wall, there’s the building space. And once you get in there, everything is exactly where it actually was. No cutting away, no cheating. So it came down to where the sniper would be and where the marines were. When Cowboy is shot, they carry him around the corner — to the very most logical shelter. And there, in the background, was this thing, this monolith. I’m sure some people will think that there was some calculated reference to 2001, but honestly, it was just there.
You don’t think you’re going to get away with that, do you?
[Laughs] I know it’s an amazing coincidence.
Where were those scenes filmed?
We worked from still photographs of Hue in 1968. And we found an area that had the same 1930’s functionalist architecture. Now, not every bit of it was right, but some of the buildings were absolute carbon copies of the outer industrial areas of Hue.
Where was it?
Here. Near London. It had been owned by British Gas, and it was scheduled to be demolished. So they allowed us to blow up the buildings. We had demolition guys in there for a week, laying charges. One Sunday, all the executives from British Gas brought their families down to watch us blow the place up. It was spectacular. Then we had a wrecking ball there for two months, with the art director telling the operator which hole to knock in which building.
Art direction with a wrecking ball.
I don’t think anybody’s ever had a set like that. It’s beyond any kind of economic possibility. To make that kind of three-dimensional rubble, you’d have to have everything done by plasterers, modeled, and you couldn’t build that if you spent $80 million and had five years to do it. You couldn’t duplicate, oh, all those twisted bits of reinforcement. And to make rubble, you’d have to go find some real rubble and copy it. It’s the only way. If you’re going to make a tree, for instance, you have to copy a real tree. No one can “make up” a tree because every tree has an inherent logic in the way it branches. And I’ve discovered that no one can make up a rock. I found that out in Paths of Glory. We had to copy rocks, but every rock also has an inherent logic you’re not aware of until you see a fake rock. Every detail looks right, but something’s wrong.
So we had real rubble. We brought in palm trees from Spain and a hundred thousand plastic tropical plants from Hong Kong. We did little things, details people don’t notice right away, that add to the illusion. All in all, a tremendous set dressing and rubble job.
How do you choose your material?
I read. I order books from the States. I literally go into bookstores, close my eyes and take things off the shelf. If I don’t like the book after a bit, I don’t finish it. But I like to be surprised.
Full Metal Jacket is based on Gustav Hasford’s book The Short-Timers.
It’s a very short, very beautifully and economically written book, which, like the film, leaves out all the mandatory scenes of character development: the scene where the guy talks about his father, who’s an alcoholic, his girlfriend — all that stuff that bogs down and seems so arbitrarily inserted into every war story.
What I like about not writing original material — which I’m not even certain I could do — is that you have this tremendous advantage of reading something for the first time. You never have this experience again with the story. You have a reaction to it: it’s a kind of falling-in-love reaction.
That’s the first thing. Then it becomes almost a matter of code breaking, of breaking the work down into a structure that is truthful, that doesn’t lose the ideas or the content or the feeling of the book. And fitting it all into the much more limited time frame of a movie.
As long as you possibly can, you retain your emotional attitude, whatever it was that made you fall in love in the first place. You judge a scene by asking yourself, “Am I still responding to what’s there?” The process is both analytical and emotional. You’re trying to balance calculating analysis against feeling. And it’s almost never a question of, “What does this scene mean?” It’s, “Is this truthful, or does something about it feel false?” It’s “Is this scene interesting? Will it make me feel the way I felt when I first fell in love with the material?” It’s an intuitive process, the way I imagine writing music is intuitive. It’s not a matter of structuring an argument.
You said something almost exactly the opposite once.
Someone had asked you if there was any analogy between chess and filmmaking. You sald that the process of making decisions was very analytical in both cases. You said that depending on intuition was a losing proposition.
I suspect I might have said that in another context. The part of the film that involves telling the story works pretty much the way I said. In the actual making of the movie, the chess analogy becomes more valid. It has to do with tournament chess, where you have a clock and you have to make a certain number of moves in a certain time. If you don’t, you forfeit, even if you’re a queen ahead. You’ll see a grand master, the guy has three minutes on the clock and ten moves left. And he’ll spend two minutes on one move, because he knows that if he doesn’t get that one right, the game will be lost. And then he makes the last nine moves in a minute. And he may have done the right thing.
Well, in filmmaking, you always have decisions like that. You are always pitting time and resources against quality and ideas.
You have a reputation for having your finger on every aspect of each film you make, from inception right on down to the premiere and beyond. How is it that you’re allowed such an extraordinary amount of control over your films?
I’d like to think it’s because my films have a quality that holds up on second, third and fourth viewing. Realistically, it’s because my budgets are within reasonable limits and the films do well. The only one that did poorly from the studio’s point of view was Barry Lyndon. So, since my films don’t cost that much, I find a way to spend a little extra time in order to get the quality on the screen.
Full Metal Jacket seemed a long time in the making.
Well, we had a couple of severe accidents. The guy who plays the drill instructor, Lee Ermey, had an auto accident in the middle of shooting. It was about 1:00 in the morning, and his car skidded off the road. He broke all his ribs on one side, just tremendous injuries, and he probably would have died, except he was conscious and kept flashing his lights. A motorist stopped. It was in a place called Epping Forest, where the police are always finding bodies. Not the sort of place you get out of your car at 1:30 in the morning and go see why someone’s flashing their lights. Anyway, Lee was out for four and a half months.
He had actually been a marine drill instructor?
How much of his part comes out of that experience?
I’d say fifty percent of Lee’s dialogue, specifically the insult stuff, came from Lee. You see, in the course of hiring the marine recruits, we interviewed hundreds of guys. We lined them all up and did an improvisation of the first meeting with the drill instructor. They didn’t know what he was going to say, and we could see how they reacted. Lee came up with, I don’t know, 150 pages of insults. Off the wall stuff: “I don’t like the name Lawrence. Lawrence is for faggots and sailors.”
Aside from the insults, though, virtually every serious thing he says is basically true. When he says, “A rifle is only a tool, it’s a hard heart that kills,” you know it’s true. Unless you’re living in a world that doesn’t need fighting men, you can’t fault him. Except maybe for a certain lack of subtlety in his behavior. And I don’t think the United States Marine Corps is in the market for subtle drill instructors.
This is a different drill instructor than the one Lou Gosset played in An Officer and a Gentleman.
I think Lou Gosset’s performance was wonderful, but he had to do what he was given in the story. The film clearly wants to ingratiate itself with the audience. So many films do that. You show the drill instructor really has a heart of gold — the mandatory scene where he sits in his office, eyes swimming with pride about the boys and so forth. I suppose he actually is proud, but there’s a danger of falling into what amounts to so much sentimental bullshit.
So you distrust sentimentality.
I don’t mistrust sentiment and emotion, no. The question becomes, are you giving them something to make them a little happier, or are you putting in something that is inherently true to the material? Are people behaving the way we all really behave, or are they behaving the way we would like them to behave? I mean, the world is not as it’s presented in Frank Capra films. People love those films — which are beautifully made — but I wouldn’t describe them as a true picture of life.
The questions are always, is it true? Is it interesting? To worry about those mandatory scenes that some people think make a picture is often just pandering to some conception of an audience. Some films try to outguess an audience. They try to ingratiate themselves, and it’s not something you really have to do. Certainly audiences have flocked to see films that are not essentially true, but I don’t think this prevents them from responding to the truth.
Books I’ve read on you seem to suggest that you consider editing the most important aspect of the filmmaker’s art.
There are three equal things: the writing, slogging through the actual shooting and the editing.
You’ve quoted Pudovkin to the effect that editing is the only original and unique art form in film.
I think so. Everything else comes from something else. Writing, of course, is writing, acting comes from the theater, and cinematography comes from photography. Editing is unique to film. You can see something from different points of view almost simuluneously, and it creates a new experience.
Pudovkin gives an example: You see a guy hanging a picture on the wall. Suddenly you see his feet slip; you see the chair move; you see his hand go down and the picture fall off the wall. In that split second, a guy falls off a chair, and you see it in a way that you could not see it any other way except through editing.
TV commercials have figured that out. Leave content out of it, and some of the most spectacular examples of film art are in the best TV commercials.
Give me an example.
The Michelob commercials. I’m a pro football fan, and I have videotapes of the games sent over to me, commercials and all. Last year Michelob did a series, just impressions of people having a good time —
The big city at night —
And the editing, the photography, was some of the most brilliant work I’ve ever seen. Forget what they’re doing — selling beer — and it’s visual poetry. Incredible eight-frame cuts. And you realize that in thirty seconds they’ve created an impression of something rather complex. If you could ever tell a story, something with some content, using that kind of visual poetry, you could handle vastly more complex and subtle material.
People spend millions of dollars and months’ worth of work on those thirty seconds.
So it’s a bit impractical. And I suppose there’s really nothing that would substitute for the great dramatic moment, fully played out. Still, the stories we do on film are basically rooted in the theater. Even Woody Allen’s movies, which are wonderful, are very traditional in their structure. Did I get the year right on those Michelob ads?
I think so.
Because occasionally I’ll find myself watching a game from 1984.
It amazes me that you’re a pro football fan.
It doesn’t fit my image of you.
Which is . . .
Stanley Kubrick is a monk, a man who lives for his work and virtually nothing else, certainly not pro football. And then there are those rumors —
I know what’s coming.
You want both barrels?
Stanley Kubrick is a perfectionist. He is consumed by mindless anxiety over every aspect of every film he makes. Kubrick is a hermit, an expatriate, a neurotic who is terrified of automobiles and who won’t let his chauffeur drive more than thirty miles an hour.
Part of my problem is that I cannot dispel the myths that have somehow accumulated over the years. Somebody writes something, it’s completely off the wall, but it gets filed and repeated until everyone believes it. For instance, I’ve read that I wear a football helmet in the car.
You won’t let your driver go more than thirty miles an hour, and you wear a football helmet, just in case.
In fact, I don’t have a chauffeur. I drive a Porsche 928S, and I sometimes drive it at eighty or ninety miles an hour on the motorway.
Your film editor says you still work on your old films. Isn’t that neurotic perfectionism?
I’ll tell you what he means. We discovered that the studio had lost the picture negative of Dr. Strangelove. And they also lost the magnetic master soundtrack. All the printing negatives were badly ripped dupes. The search went on for a year and a half. Finally, I had to try to reconstruct the picture from two not-too-good fine-grain positives, both of which were damaged already. If those fine-grains were ever torn, you could never make any more negatives.
Do you consider yourself an expatriate?
Because I direct films, I have to live in a major English-speaking production center. That narrows it down to three places: Los Angeles, New York and London. I like New York, but it’s inferior to London as a production center. Hollywood is best, but I don’t like living there.
You read books or see films that depict people being corrupted by Hollywood, but it isn’t that. It’s this tremendous sense of insecurity. A lot of destructive competitiveness. In comparison, England seems very remote. I try to keep up, read the trade papers, but it’s good to get it on paper and not have to hear it every place you go. I think it’s good to just do the work and insulate yourself from that undercurrent of low-level malevolence.
I’ve heard rumors that you’ll do a hundred takes for one scene.
It happens when actors are unprepared. You cannot act without knowing dialogue. If actors have to think about the words, they can’t work on the emotion. So you end up doing thirty takes of something. And still you can see the concentration in their eyes; they don’t know their lines. So you just shoot it and shoot it and hope you can get something out of it in pieces.
Now, if the actor is a nice guy, he goes home, he says, “Stanley’s such a perfectionist, he does a hundred takes an every scene.” So my thirty takes become a hundred. And I get this reputation.
If I did a hundred takes on every scene, I’d never finish a film. Lee Ermey, for instance, would spend every spare second with the dialogue coach, and he always knew his lines. I suppose Lee averaged eight or nine takes. He sometimes did it in three. Because he was prepared.
There’s a rumor that you actually wanted to approve the theaters that show Full Metal Jacket. Isn’t that an example of mindless anxiety?
Some people are amazed that I worry about the theaters where the picture is being shown. They think that’s some form of demented anxiety. But Lucasfilms has a Theater Alignment Program. They went around and checked a lot of theaters and published the results in a  report that virtually confirms all your worst suspicions. For instance, within one day, fifty percent of the prints are scratched. Something is usually broken. The amplifiers are no good, and the sound is bad. The lights are uneven…
Is that why so many films I’ve seen lately seem too dark? Why you don’t really see people in the shadows when clearly the director wants you to see them?
Well, theaters try to put in a screen that’s larger than the light source they paid for. If you buy a 2000-watt projector, it may give you a decent picture twenty feet wide. And let’s say that theater makes the picture forty feet wide by putting it in a wider-angle projector. In fact, then you’re getting 200 percent less light. It’s an inverse law of squares. But they want a bigger picture, so it’s dark.
Many exhibitors are terribly guilty of ignoring minimum standards of picture quality. For instance, you now have theaters where all the reels are run in one continuous string. And they never clean the aperture gate. You get one little piece of gritty dust in there, and every time the film runs, it gets bigger. After a couple of days, it starts to put a scratch on the film. The scratch goes from one end of the film to the other. You’ve seen it, I’m sure.
That thing you see, it looks like a hair dangling down from the top of the frame, sort of wiggling there through the whole film?
That’s one manifestation, yeah. The Lucas report found that after fifteen days, most films should be junked. [The report says that after seventeen days, most films are damaged.] Now, is it an unreal concern if I want to make sure that on the press shows or on key city openings, everything in the theater is going to run smoothly? You just send someone to check the place out three or four days ahead of time. Make sure nothing’s broken. It’s really only a phone call or two, pressuring some people to fix things. I mean, is this a legitimate concern, or is this mindless anxiety?
Initial reviews of most of your films are sometimes inexplicably hostile. Then there’s a reevaluation. Critics seem to like you better in retrospect.
That’s true. The first reviews of 2001 were insulting, let alone bad. An important Los Angeles critic faulted Paths of Glory because the actors didn’t speak with French accents. When Dr. Strangelove came out, a New York paper ran a review under the head MOSCOW COULD NOT BUY MORE HARM TO AMERICA. Something like that. But critical opinion on my films has always been salvaged by what I would call subsequent critical opinion. Which is why I think audiences are more reliable than critics, at least initially. Audiences tend not to bring all that critical baggage with them to each film.
And I really think that a few critics come to my films expecting to see the last film. They’re waiting to see something that never happens. I imagine it must be something like standing in the batter’s box waiting for a fast ball, and the pitcher throws a change-up. The batter swings and misses. He thinks “Shit, he threw me the wrong pitch.” I think this accounts for some of the initial hostility.
Well, you don’t make it easy on viewers or critics. You’ve said you want an audience to react emotionally. You create strong feelings, but you won’t give us any easy answers.
That’s because I don’t have any easy answers.