Behind the Scenes with Kubrick

By Adrien Mory, September 15, 2011

Shining (GB/USA 1980) © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Shining (GB/USA 1980) © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

La Cinémathèque française in Paris is hosting a complete retrospective of the work of Stanley Kubrick. The exhibition is a great opportunity to re-discover the world of this unique and mysterious film maker who made such a mark on the 20th century.

Twelve years after Stanley Kubrick’s death, La Cinémathèque française is hosting the Kubrick Exhibition to celebrate the life of the cult movie maker with a complete retrospective of his movies, from Paths of Glory to Eyes Wide Shut. First held in 2004 by the Deutsches Filmmuseum in Frankfurt, the Kubrick Exhibition has since been travelling Europe. The Stanley Kubrick Archives are brimming with souvenirs, newspaper articles, letters, props, sets and mementos from his movies. It appears that the master used to keep everything, which was no doubt a great help to the curators, who were also assisted by Kubrick’s wife Christiane (who he met during the shooting of Paths of Glory; she was the German singer who appears in the last scene of the movie).

The exhibition is a great opportunity to re-discover the world of this unique and mysterious film maker who made such a mark on the 20th century. It reveals some of the hidden faces of Kubrick and also puts some of his uncompleted projects on show.

Kubrick made thirteen movies in total from 1953 to 1999, including two war movies (Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket), one epic (Spartacus), one science fiction movie (2001: A Space Odysee), one thriller (The Shining) and one historical movie (Barry Lyndon). The work of Kubrick was clearly incredibly diverse. He was a perfectionist and the shooting of his movies always took longer than planned. As he explained to Nicole Kidman, having time to make his movies was one of the great privileges he had.

He was no stranger to controversy with movies such as Lolita and A Clockwork Orange and his work had a powerful influence on generations of film audiences and movie makers. He was without question a visionary. In spite of all that has been written about him, Kubrick remains something of a mystery and it is still difficult to identify common features to describe his work. Maybe there are none. Kubrick did not like giving interviews, explaining ‘I always feel obliged to give a spiritual and brilliant résumé of my intentions or talk about style or technique. There are critics who do that very well’.

On the set of Spartacus in Spain (USA 1959-60) © The Stanley Kubrick Archive.

On the set of Spartacus in Spain (USA 1959-60) © The Stanley Kubrick Archive.

This exhibition at La Cinémathèque offers a great opportunity to go behind the scenes of Kubrick‘s movies with unique items on display. There is even a model of the set of Dr Strangelove and Jack Nicholson’s axe from The Shining but most exciting of all, is the sexy furniture of the Korova Milk bar that Alex and his ‘droogs’ frequented in A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick fans will love it.

But more than that, the exhibition space that is dedicated to his incomplete projects is probably the one I found most fascinating.

Here are 10 things I discovered about Kubrick :

1. Before shooting his first documentaries, Kubrick started at 16 as an apprentice-photographer for the New-York magazine Look. Pictures of his early years are displayed and they already show his talented eye.
2. While shooting his first movies on a reduced budget, he had to act as writer, producer, editor among other roles. That is probably one of the reasons why he was so demanding with his film crews.
3. Released in 1957, Paths of Glory was his first major movie. Adapted from the best-seller written by Humphrey Cobb (inspired by a true story from WWI known as the Drama of Souain). This anti-war movie was not shown in France until 1972, due to pressure from the military authorities and the French government. The release was also delayed in Germany and the film was censored in Spain.
4. At the age of 32, he was asked to replace the director Anthony Mann for the shooting of the mega production of Spartacus. Kirk Douglas had had repeated arguments with Mann about the filming and the actor suggested that the production hire Stanley Kubrick (who Douglas had worked with on Paths of Glory). For this reason Kubrick never considered Spartacus as his own film but more like a ‘command’. Although he managed to handle the size of the production, he added some controversial touches with some bloody scenes as well as some that hinted at homosexuality (between General Crassus and his slave, played by Laurence Oliver and Tony Curtis respectively), scenes that were censored in the original version and restored in the reworked 1991 version.
5. Stanley Kubrick made a significant contribution to technical improvements in the cinema. In The Shining, he was one of the first to use the ‘steadycam’ (allowing for smooth camera movements without a track) in the cult scene where little Danny is cycling in the hotel corridor. In Barry Lyndon, the lighting techniques were very innovative. Kubrick was fascinated by the ‘chiaroscuros’ of Georges de la Tour and he wanted to shoot the scenes using only candlelight. Using a Zeiss lens originally developed for NASA (shown in the exhibition), he managed to film those cult night scenes with such exceptional light and atmosphere.
6. Stanley Kubrick did not like to travel much. In 1978, he bought the Childwick Bury Manor, in Hertfordshire, which he used as his home and the heart of Kubrick productions until the end of his life. To shoot one of the most important scenes of Full Metal Jacket, he transformed the disused Beckton gas works, in East London, into a giant set. Other scenes were filmed in a British Army base.
7. 2001: A Space Odyssey required a $11mn budget, which was a lot at the time. Kubrick had a giant wheel built to film the scenes inside the discovery spaceship. He also used innovative special effects which are explained and demonstrated in the exhibition.
8. He was approached by Marlon Brando to direct ‘One Eyed Jack’ (1961); six months after starting working on the movie, they had a disagreement. Kubrick was sacked and relieved of the project. Kubrick was later quoted as saying that Brando wanted to make the movie alone.
9. Although Nabokov worked on the adaptation of his novel, Kubrick was only partially faithful to it and there are many differences between the book and the film, due to the strict censorship of the 60s.
10. Kubrick worked on various projects which were never completed, including three different films: Aryan Papers, Napoleon and A.I. (Artificial Intelligence).

Stanley Kubrick and Malcolm McDowell on the set of A Clockwork Orange (GB/USA 1970-71) © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Stanley Kubrick and Malcolm McDowell on the set of A Clockwork Orange (GB/USA 1970-71) © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

In an interview with French critic Michel Ciment, Kubrick stated ‘Napoleon himself said that his life would have made a perfect novel’. He was fascinated by Napoleon’s life story carried out a great deal of research to prepare for the movie. In the exhibition we can see the detailed cards written with a history student showing the daily activities of the French Emperor. He was supposed to shoot it right after 2001 : A Space Odyssey. Locations were scouted and costumes were tried. At the time, he thought Al Pacino would make a good ‘young Napoleon’ and he also thought of Audrey Hepburn to play Josephine. However, the movie required a massive budget and after the financial failure of the 1970 film ‘Waterloo’ by Sergei Bondarchuk, MGM judged the project to be too risky. Kubrick tried to resuscitate the project a few years later without success.

Stanley Kubrick also had a great interest in the Holocaust period, probably due to his grandparents’ Jewish origins. In 1992, Warner announced that Kubrick’s next film would be called ‘Aryan Papers’, about the Holocaust. The preparatory work, including costumes are shown in the exhibition. Shortly before the start of the shooting, he decided to abandon the project after learning that his friend Steven Spielberg had already started the filming of Schindler’s List.

After seeing Jurassic Park, Kubrick realised that special effects had improved enough to launch his ‘Artificial Intelligence’ project. He was supposed to shoot it right after Eyes Wide Shut, but eventually decided to let Steven Spielberg shoot it. The movie was released a few months after his death.

Kubrick became a cult movie maker and influenced many of his younger counterparts. Joel Cohen described the Master with the words: “I always admired Stanley Kubrick for the fact that he managed to beat the system somehow. I think he kind of had it all figured out.”

If you have a chance to visit Paris before the end of July, I recommend you book tickets in advance because the exhibition is a huge success, proving that Kubrick can still fascinate and pull in the crowds.

I will end with Stanley Kubrick’s own words on the joys of film-making: The Exhibition at the La Cinémathèque française in Paris closes on 31 July 2011.
For more information consult the site: La Cinémathèque française

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