Monday, 12 March 2012

Kubrick’s Maze: An Interview on The Shining

The Shining (Directed by Stanley Kubrick)
The Shining is Stanley Kubrick’s epic gothic masterpiece – a stylish and eerie adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel. Frustrated writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) arrives with wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and psychic son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to take a job as the winter caretaker of the opulent and forbidding Overlook Hotel. Driven by his frustrations as a writer and his fondness for alcohol, his gradual descent into madness allows Kubrick to explore themes of evil, creativity, the supernatural and of movie-making itself. One of the texts Kubrick and his co-writer Diane Johnson, referred to when adapting King’s novel was Freud’s 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny’. The essay, which examines the disturbing effect of strange elements in life and supernatural literature, defines the uncanny as ‘that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.’ In other words, the uncanny is ‘something which ought to have remained hidden but which is brought to light.’ The recent documentary ‘Room 237’ wittily recounts various theories about what lies buried beneath the technical and stylistic grandeur of The Shining. From the credible: that it is a fable about the genocide of the American Indians, to the bizarre: that The Shining is a veiled confession of Kubrick’s supposed involvement in faking the NASA moon landings. No doubt Kubrick purposely constructed ‘The Shining’ as a cinematic maze of hidden clues and visual incongruities waiting to be discovered. The following is an edited extract from an extensive interview Stanley Kubrick gave to the film critic Michel Ciment in 1982 about the making of The Shining:

Michel Ciment: In several of your previous films you seem to have had a prior interest in the facts and problems which surround the story - the nuclear threat, space travel, the relationship between violence and the state - which led you to Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange. In the case of The Shining, were you attracted first by the subject of ESP, or just by Stephen King’s novel?

Stanley Kubrick: I’ve always been interested in ESP and the paranormal. In addition to the scientific experiments which have been conducted suggesting that we are just short of conclusive proof of its existence, I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of opening a book at the exact page we’re looking for, or thinking of a friend a moment before they ring on the telephone. But The Shining didn’t originate from any particular desire to do a film about this. The manuscript of the novel was sent to me by John Calley, of Warner Bros. I thought it was one of the most ingenious and exciting stories of the genre I had read. It seemed to strike an extraordinary balance between the psychological and the supernatural in such a way as to lead you to think that the supernatural would eventually be explained by the psychological: ‘Jack must be imagining these things because he’s crazy’. This allowed you to suspend your doubt of the supernatural until you were so thoroughly into the story that you could accept it almost without noticing.

Do you think this was an important factor in the success of the novel?

Yes, I do. It’s what I found so particularly clever about the way the novel was written. As the supernatural events occurred you searched for an explanation, and the most likely one seemed to be that the strange things that were happening would finally be explained as the products of Jack’s imagination. It’s not until Grady, the ghost of the former caretaker who axed to death his family, slides open the bolt of the larder door, allowing Jack to escape, that you are left with no other explanation but the supernatural. The novel is by no means a serious literary work, but the plot is for the most part extremely well worked out, and for a film that is often all that really matters.

Don’t you think that today it is in this sort of popular literature that you find strong archetypes, symbolic images which have vanished somehow from the more highbrow literary works?

Yes, I do, and I think that it’s part of their often phenomenal success. There is no doubt that a good story has always mattered, and the great novelists have generally built their work around strong plots. But I’ve never been able to decide whether the plot is just a way of keeping people’s attention while you do everything else, or whether the plot is really more important than anything else, perhaps communicating with us on an unconscious level which affects us in the way that myths once did. I think, in some ways, the conventions of realistic fiction and drama may impose serious limitations on a story. For one thing, if you play by the rules and respect the preparation and pace required to establish realism, it takes a lot longer to make a point than it does, say, in fantasy. At the same time, it is possible that this very work that contributes to a story’s realism may weaken its grip on the unconscious. Realism is probably the best way to dramatize argument and ideas. Fantasy may deal best with themes which lie primarily in the unconscious. I think the unconscious appeal of a ghost story, for instance, lies in its promise of immortality. If you can be frightened by a ghost story, then you must accept the possibility that supernatural beings exist. If they do, then there is more than just oblivion waiting beyond the grave.


This kind of implication is present in much of the fantastic literature.

I believe fantasy stories at their best serve the same function for us that fairy tales and mythology formerly did. The current popularity of fantasy, particularly in films, suggests that popular culture, at least, isn’t getting what it wants from realism. The nineteenth century was the golden age of realistic fiction. The twentieth century may be the golden age of fantasy.

After Barry Lyndon did you begin work straight away on The Shining?

When I finished Barry Lyndon I spent most of my time reading. Months went by and I hadn’t found anything very exciting. It’s intimidating, especially at a time like this, to think of how many books you should read and never will. Because of this, I try to avoid any systematic approach to reading, pursuing instead a random method, one which depends as much on luck and accident as on design. I find this is also the only way to deal with the newspapers and magazines which proliferate in great piles around the house -- some of the most interesting articles turn up on the reverse side of pages I’ve torn out for something else.

Did you do research on ESP?

There really wasn’t any research that was necessary to do. The story didn’t require any and, since I have always been interested in the topic, I think I was as well informed as I needed to be. I hope that ESP and related psychic phenomena will eventually find general scientific proof of their existence. There are certainly a fair number of scientists who are sufficiently impressed with the evidence to spend their time working in the field. If conclusive proof is ever found it won’t be quite as exciting as, say, the discovery of alien intelligence in the universe, but it will definitely be a mind expander. In addition to the great variety of unexplainable psychic experiences we can all probably recount, I think I can see behaviour in animals which strongly suggests something like ESP. I have a long-haired cat, named Polly, who regularly gets knots in her coat which I have to comb or scissor out. She hates this, and on dozens of occasions while I have been stroking her and thinking that the knots have got bad enough to do something about them, she has suddenly dived under the bed before I have made the slightest move to get a comb or scissors. I have obviously considered the possibility that she can tell when I plan to use the comb because of some special way I feel the knots when I have decided to comb them, but I’m quite sure that isn’t how she does it. She almost always has knots, and I stroke her innumerable times every day, but it’s only when I have actually decided to do something about them that she ever runs away and hides. Ever since I have become aware of this possibility, I am particularly careful not to feel the knots any differently whether or not I think they need combing. But most of the time she still seems to know the difference.


Who is Diane Johnson who wrote the screenplay with you?

Diane is an American novelist who has published a number of extremely good novels which have received serious and important attention. I was interested in several of her books and in talking to her about them I was surprised to learn that she was giving a course at the University of California at Berkeley on the Gothic novel. When The Shining came up she seemed to be the ideal collaborator, which, indeed, she proved to be. I had already been working on the treatment of the book, prior to her starting, but I hadn’t actually begun the screenplay. With The Shining, the problem was to extract the essential plot and to re-invent the sections of the story that were weak. The characters needed to be developed a bit differently than they were in the novel. It is in the pruning down phase that the undoing of great novels usually occurs because so much of what is good about them has to do with the fineness of the writing, the insight of the author and often the density of the story. But The Shining was a different matter. Its virtues lay almost entirely in the plot, and it didn’t prove to be very much of a problem to adapt it into the screenplay form. Diane and I talked a lot about the book and then we made an outline of the scenes we thought should be included in the film. This list of scenes was shuffled and reshuffled until we thought it was right, and then we began to write. We did several drafts of the screenplay, which was subsequently revised at different stages before and during shooting.

It is strange that you emphasize the supernatural aspect since one could say that in the film you give a lot of weight to an apparently rational explanation of Jack’s behaviour: altitude, claustrophobia, solitude, lack of booze.

Stephen Crane wrote a story called The Blue Hotel. In it you quickly learn that the central character is a paranoid. He gets involved in a poker game, decides someone is cheating him, makes an accusation, starts a fight and gets killed. You think the point of the story is that his death was inevitable because a paranoid poker player would ultimately get involved in a fatal gunfight. But, in the end, you find out that the man he accused was actually cheating him. I think The Shining uses a similar kind of psychological misdirection to forestall the realization that the supernatural events are actually happening.

Why did you change the end and dispense with the destruction of the hotel?

To be honest, the end of the book seemed a bit hackneyed to me and not very interesting. I wanted an ending which the audience could not anticipate. In the film, they think Hallorann is going to save Wendy and Danny. When he is killed they fear the worst. Surely, they fear, there is no way now for Wendy and Danny to escape. The maze ending may have suggested itself from the animal topiary scenes in the novel. I don’t actually remember how the idea first came about.

Why did the room number switch from 217 in the novel to 237 in the film?

The exterior of the hotel was filmed at the Timberline Lodge, near Mount Hood, in Oregon. It had a room 217 but no room 237, so the hotel management asked me to change the room number because they were afraid their guests might not want to stay in room 217 after seeing the film. There is, however, a genuinely frightening thing about this hotel which nestles high up on the slopes of Mount Hood. Mount Hood, as it happens, is a dormant volcano, but it has quite recently experienced pre-eruption seismic rumbles similar to the ones that a few months earlier preceded the gigantic eruption of Mount St. Helens, less than sixty miles away. If Mount Hood should ever erupt like Mount St. Helens, then the Timberline Hotel may indeed share the fiery fate of the novel’s Overlook Hotel.

How did you conceive the hotel with your art director, Roy Walker?

The first step was for Roy to go around America photographing hotels which might be suitable for the story. Then we spent weeks going through his photographs making selections for the different rooms. Using the details in the photographs, our draughtsmen did proper working drawings. From these, small models of all the sets were built. We wanted the hotel to look authentic rather than like a traditionally spooky movie hotel. The hotel’s labyrinthine layout and huge rooms, I believed, would alone provide an eerie enough atmosphere. This realistic approach was also followed in the lighting, and in every aspect of the decor it seemed to me that the perfect guide for this approach could be found in Kafka’s writing style. His stories are fantastic and allegorical, but his writing is simple and straightforward, almost journalistic. On the other hand, all the films that have been made of his work seem to have ignored this completely, making everything look as weird and dreamlike as possible. The final details for the different rooms of the hotel came from a number of different hotels. The red men’s room, for example, where Jack meets Grady, the ghost of the former caretaker, was inspired by a Frank Lloyd Wright men’s room in an hotel in Arizona. The models of the different sets were lit, photographed, tinkered with and revised. This process continued, altering and adding elements to each room, until we were all happy with what we had.

There are similar movie cliches about apparitions.

From the more convincing accounts I have read of people who have reported seeing ghosts, they were invariably described as being as solid and as real as someone actually standing in the room. The movie convention of the see-through ghost, shrouded in white, seems to exist only in the province of art.


You have not included the scene from the novel which took place in the elevator, but have only used it for the recurring shot of blood coming out of the doors.

The length of a movie imposes considerable restrictions on how much story you can put into it, especially if the story is told in a conventional way.

Which conventions are you referring to?

The convention of telling the story primarily through a series of dialogue scenes. Most films are really little more than stage plays with more atmosphere and action. I think that the scope and flexibility of movie stories would be greatly enhanced by borrowing something from the structure of silent movies where points that didn’t require dialog could be presented by a shot and a title card. Something like: Title: Billy’s uncle. Picture: Uncle giving Billy ice cream. In a few seconds, you could introduce Billy’s uncle and say something about him without being burdened with a scene. This economy of statement gives silent movies a much greater narrative scope and flexibility than we have today. In my view, there are very few sound films, including those regarded as masterpieces, which could not be presented almost as effectively on the stage, assuming a good set, the same cast and quality of performances. You couldn’t do that with a great silent movie.

But surely you could not put 2001: A Space Odyssey on the stage?

True enough. I know I’ve tried to move in this direction in all of my films but never to an extent which has satisfied me. By the way, I should include the best TV commercials along with silent films, as another example of how you might better tell a film story. In thirty seconds, characters are introduced, and sometimes a surprisingly involved situation is set up and resolved.

When you shoot these scenes which you find theatrical, you do it in a way that emphasizes their ordinariness. The scenes with Ullman or the visit of the doctor in The Shining, like the conference with the astronauts in 2001, are characterized by their social conventions, their mechanical aspect.

Well, as I’ve said, in fantasy you want things to have the appearance of being as realistic as possible. People should behave in the mundane way they normally do. You have to be especially careful about this in the scenes which deal with the bizarre or fantastic details of the story.


You also decided to show few visions and make them very short.

If Danny had perfect ESP, there could be no story. He would anticipate everything, warn everybody and solve every problem. So his perception of the paranormal must be imperfect and fragmentary. This also happens to be consistent with most of the reports of telepathic experiences. The same applies to Hallorann. One of the ironies in the story is that you have people who can see the past and the future and have telepathic contact, but the telephone and the short-wave radio don’t work, and the snowbound mountain roads are impassable. Failure of communication is a theme which runs through a number of my films.

You use technology a lot but seem to be afraid of it.

I’m not afraid of technology. I am afraid of aeroplanes. I’ve been able to avoid flying for some time but, I suppose, if I had to I would. Perhaps it’s a case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. At one time, I had a pilot’s license and 160 hours of solo time on single-engine light aircraft. Unfortunately, all that seemed to do was make me mistrust large airplanes.

Did you think right away of Jack Nicholson for the role?

Yes, I did. I believe that Jack is one of the best actors in Hollywood, perhaps on a par with the greatest stars of the past like Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Cagney. I should think that he is on almost everyone’s first-choice list for any role which suits him. His work is always interesting, clearly conceived and has the X-factor, magic. Jack is particularly suited for roles which require intelligence. He is an intelligent and literate man, and these are qualities almost impossible to act. In The Shining, you believe he’s a writer, failed or otherwise.

Did the scene where he fights with Shelley Duvall on the stairs require many rehearsals?

Yes, it did. It was only with the greatest difficulty that Shelley was able to create and sustain for the length of the scene an authentic sense of hysteria. It took her a long time to achieve this and when she did we didn’t shoot the scene too many times. I think there were five takes favouring Shelley, and only the last two were really good. When I have to shoot a very large number of takes it’s invariably because the actors don’t know their lines, or don’t know them well enough. An actor can only do one thing at a time, and when he has learned his lines only well enough to say them while he’s thinking about them, he will always have trouble as soon as he has to work on the emotions of the scene or find camera marks. In a strong emotional scene, it is always best to be able to shoot in complete takes to allow the actor a continuity of emotion, and it is rare for most actors to reach their peak more than once or twice. There are, occasionally, scenes which benefit from extra takes, but even then, I’m not sure that the early takes aren’t just glorified rehearsals with the added adrenalin of film running through the camera. In The Shining, the scene in the ballroom where Jack talks to Lloyd, the sinister apparition of a former bartender, belongs to this category. Jack’s performance here is incredibly intricate, with sudden changes of thought and mood – all grace notes. It’s a very difficult scene to do because the emotion flow is so mercurial. It demands knife-edged changes of direction and a tremendous concentration to keep things sharp and economical. In this particular scene Jack produced his best takes near the highest numbers.


He is just as good when he walks down the corridor making wild movements before meeting the barman.

I asked Jack to remember the rumpled characters you see lunging down the streets of New York, waving their arms about and hissing to themselves.

Did you choose Shelley Duvall after seeing her in Three Women?

I had seen all of her films and greatly admired her work. I think she brought an instantly believable characterization to her part. The novel pictures her as a much more self-reliant and attractive woman, but these qualities make you wonder why she has put up with Jack for so long. Shelley seemed to be exactly the kind of woman that would marry Jack and be stuck with him. The wonderful thing about Shelley is her eccentric quality – the way she talks, the way she moves, the way her nervous system is put together. I think that most interesting actors have physical eccentricities about them which make their performances more interesting and, if they don’t, they work hard to find them.

The Steadicam allowed you to do even more of those long-tracking shots you have done in all your films.

Most of the hotel set was built as a composite, so that you could go up a flight of stairs, turn down a corridor, travel its length and find your way to still another part of the hotel. It mirrored the kind of camera movements which took place in the maze. In order to fully exploit this layout it was necessary to have moving camera shots without cuts, and of course the Steadicam made that much easier to do.

In the normal scenes you used dissolves and many camera movements. On the other hand, the paranormal visions are static and the cuts abrupt.

I don’t particularly like dissolves and I try not to use them, but when one scene follows another in the same place, and you want to make it clear that time has passed, a dissolve is often the simplest way to convey this. On the other hand, the paranormal visions are momentary glimpses into the past and the future, and must be short, even abrupt. With respect to the camera movements, I’ve always liked moving the camera. It’s one of the basic elements of film grammar. When you have the means to do it and the set to do it in, it not only adds visual interest but it also permits the actors to work in longer, possibly complete, takes. This makes it easier for them to maintain their concentration and emotional level in the scene.

How do you see the character of Hallorann?

Hallorann is a simple, rustic type who talks about telepathy in a disarmingly unscientific way. His folksy character and naive attempts to explain telepathy to Danny make what he has to say dramatically more acceptable than a standard pseudo-scientific explanation. He and Danny make a good pair.

The child creates a double to protect himself, whereas his father conjures up beings from the past who are also anticipations of his death.

A story of the supernatural cannot be taken apart and analysed too closely. The ultimate test of its rationale is whether it is good enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. If you submit it to a completely logical and detailed analysis it will eventually appear absurd. In his essay on the uncanny, Das Unheimliche, Freud said that the uncanny is the only feeling which is more powerfully experienced in art than in life. If the genre required any justification, I should think this alone would serve as its credentials.

How do you see Danny’s evolution?

Danny has had a frightening and disturbing childhood. Brutalized by his father and haunted by his paranormal visions, he has had to find some psychological mechanism within himself to manage these powerful and dangerous forces. To do this, he creates his imaginary friend, Tony, through whom Danny can rationalize his visions and survive.


Some people criticized you a few years ago because you were making films that did not deal with the private problems of characters. With Barry Lyndon and now with The Shining, you seem to be dealing more with personal relationships.

If this is true it is certainly not as a result of any deliberate effort on my part. There is no useful way to explain how you decide what film to make. In addition to the initial problem of finding an exciting story which fulfills the elusively intangible requirements for a film, you have the added problem of its being sufficiently different from the films you have already done. Obviously the more films you make, the more this choice is narrowed down. If you read a story which someone else has written you have the irreplacable experience of reading it for the first time. This is something which you obviously cannot have if you write an original story. Reading someone else’s story for the first time allows you a more accurate judgement of the narrative and helps you to be more objective than you might otherwise be with an original story. Another important thing is that while you’re making a film, and you get deeper and deeper into it, you find that in a certain sense you know less and less about it. You get too close to it. When you reach that point, it’s essential to rely on your original feelings about the story. Of course, at the same time, because you know so much more about it, you can also make a great many other judgements far better than you could have after the first reading. But, not to put too fine a point on it, you can never again have that first, virginal experience with the plot.

It seems that you want to achieve a balance between rationality and irrationality, that for you man should acknowledge the presence of irrational forces in him rather than trying to repress them.

I think we tend to be a bit hypocritical about ourselves. We find it very easy not to see our own faults, and I don’t just mean minor faults. I suspect there have been very few people who have done serious wrong who have not rationalized away what they’ve done, shifting the blame to those they have injured. We are capable of the greatest good and the greatest evil, and the problem is that we often can’t distinguish between them when it suits our purpose.

Failing to understand this leads to some misunderstanding of A Clockwork Orange.

I have always found it difficult to understand how anyone could decide that the film presented violence sympathetically. I can only explain this as a view which arises from a prejudiced assessment of the film, ignoring everything else in the story but a few scenes. The distinguished film director Luis Bunuel suggested this in a way when he said in the New York Times: A Clockwork Orange is my current favourite. I was very predisposed against the film. After seeing it, I realized it is the only movie about what the modern world really means.’ A Clockwork Orange has been widely acclaimed throughout the world as an important work of art. I don’t believe that anyone really sympathizes with Alex, and there is absolutely no evidence that anyone does. Alex clashes with some authority figures in the story who seem as bad as he is, if not worse in a different way. But this doesn’t excuse him. The story is satirical, and it is in the nature of satire to state the opposite of the truth as if it were the truth. I suppose you could misinterpret the film on this count, if you were determined to do so.


How do you see the main character of Jack in The Shining?

Jack comes to the hotel psychologically prepared to do its murderous bidding. He doesn’t have very much further to go for his anger and frustration to become completely uncontrollable. He is bitter about his failure as a writer. He is married to a woman for whom he has only contempt. He hates his son. In the hotel, at the mercy of its powerful evil, he is quickly ready to fulfill his dark role.

So you don’t regard the apparitions as merely a projection of his mental state?

For the purposes of telling the story, my view is that the paranormal is genuine. Jack’s mental state serves only to prepare him for the murder, and to temporarily mislead the audience.

And when the film has finished? What then?

I hope the audience has had a good fright, has believed the film while they were watching it, and retains some sense of it. The ballroom photograph at the very end suggests the reincarnation of Jack.

You are a person who uses his rationality, who enjoys understanding things, but in 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining you demonstrate the limits of intellectual knowledge. Is this an acknowledgement of what William James called the unexplained residues of human experience?

Obviously, science-fiction and the supernatural bring you very quickly to the limits of knowledge and rational explanation. But from a dramatic point of view, you must ask yourself: ‘If all of this were unquestionably true, how would it really happen?’ You can’t go much further than that. I like the regions of fantasy where reason is used primarily to undermine incredulity. Reason can take you to the border of these areas, but from there on you can be guided only by your imagination. I think we strain at the limits of reason and enjoy the temporary sense of freedom which we gain by such exercises of our imagination.

Of course there is a danger that some audiences may misunderstand what you say and think that one can dispense altogether with reason, falling into the clouded mysticism which is currently so popular in America.

People can misinterpret almost anything so that it coincides with views they already hold. They take from art what they already believe, and I wonder how many people have ever had their views about anything important changed by a work of art?

Did you have a religious upbringing?

No, not at all.

You are a chess-player and I wonder if chess-playing and its logic have parallels with what you are saying?

First of all, even the greatest International Grandmasters, however deeply they analyse a position, can seldom see to the end of the game. So their decision about each move is partly based on intuition. I was a pretty good chess-player but, of course, not in that class. Before I had anything better to do (making movies) I played in chess tournaments at the Marshall and Manhattan Chess Clubs in New York, and for money in parks and elsewhere. Among a great many other things that chess teaches you is to control the initial excitement you feel when you see something that looks good. It trains you to think before grabbing, and to think just as objectively when you’re in trouble. When you’re making a film you have to make most of your decisions on the run, and there is a tendency to always shoot from the hip. It takes more discipline than you might imagine to think, even for thirty seconds, in the noisy, confusing, high-pressure atmosphere of a film set. But a few seconds’ thought can often prevent a serious mistake being made about something that looks good at first glance. With respect to films, chess is more useful preventing you from making mistakes than giving you ideas. Ideas come spontaneously and the discipline required to evaluate and put them to use tends to be the real work.


What kind of horror films did you like? Did you see Rosemary’s Baby?

It was one of the best of the genre. I liked The Exorcist too.

And John Boorman’s The Heretic?

I haven’t seen it, but I like his work. Deliverance is an extremely good film. One of the things that amazes me about some directors (not Boorman) who have had great financial successes, is that they seem eager to give up directing to become film moguls. If you care about films, I don’t see how you could want someone else to direct for you.

Perhaps they don’t like the actual shooting.

It’s true – shooting isn’t always fun. But if you care about the film it doesn’t matter. It’s a little like changing your baby’s diapers. It is true that while you’re filming you are almost always in conflict with someone. Woody Allen, talking about directing Interiors, said that no matter how pleasant and relaxed everything seemed on the surface he felt his actors always resented being told anything. There are actors, however, with whom communication and co-operation is so good that the work really becomes exciting and satisfying. I find writing and editing very enjoyable, and almost completely lacking in this kind of tension.

– Kubrick on The Shining. An interview with Michel Ciment in ‘Kubrick’.

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