In a new film bundled with the 10-disc Blu-ray box set Stanley Kubrick: The Masterpiece Collection , released Tuesday, documentary maker Gary Khammar takes a shot at piercing the director’s formidable mystique. “I went into this project being a fan of Kubrick’s films but I really didn’t know who he was as a man,” Khammar says. “I wanted to take a close look at Stanley Kubrick the person, not some oddball director who faked the moon landing and was afraid to fly.”
To that end, Remembering Kubrick features fresh interviews with the filmmaker’s wife and kids, along with crew members and actors including Malcolm McDowell (Clockwork Orange) and Vincent D’Onofrio (Full Metal Jacket). The resulting composite portrait paints Kubrick as a gregarious guy from the Bronx who just happened to make some of the 20th century’s most enduring movies.
Khammar talks to Co.Create about Kubrick’s fondness for nepotism, his obsession with perfect lighting and the misconception that the man who directed 2001: A Space Odyssey was an anti-social recluse.
“People didn’t think Kubrick went out,” notes Khammar. But as Kubrick’s longtime casting director Leon Vitali says in the film “He did go out. This was before the days of paparazzi and social media and a lot of people didn’t know what he looked like. He could live somewhat of a normal life.”
However, Khammar adds, “Kubrick didn’t have to go anyplace because he had this magnificent 120-room estate an hour north of London that had an editing room, his screening room and his offices. It’s not that Kubrick was anti-social but he had everything he needed at home.”
In the course of making his film, Khammar learned “Kubrick was pretty much this regular guy from the Bronx and he had a large circle of friends–scientists, writers, all sorts of people. Kubrick was incredibly inquisitive and wanted to know everything about everyone.”
Kubrick spent years doing meticulous pre-production on epic pictures that never happened. After ditching a Napoleon bio-pic when the now forgotten Waterloo got released, Kubrick immersed himself in research on his Holocaust project The Aryan Papers.
Then his friend Steven Spielberg came out with Schindler’s List.
“Stanley felt people wouldn’t accept two holocaust movies so close together so he decided not to make The Aryan Papers. As his wife Christiane points out in the film, this was also an excuse for Kubrick not to make the movie because he was so horrified by the research that on some level he didn’t want to be a part of it. In a way, Kubrick was relieved, but he’d put an awful lot of work into it.”
“Kubrick worked with a small crew of just five or six people because he could save money that way,” says Khammar. Kubrick’s brother-in-law did the catering, his son-in-law produced Eyes Wide Shut and his daughter worked in the office making photocopies of script pages. “I don’t know how much of a choice they had,” Khammar laughs. “Christiane told me she’d come home in the afternoon and the furniture would be gone. Stanley had taken it and used it on the set.”
After making Spartacus for actor/producer Kirk Douglas, Kubrick vowed never to work under someone else. As producer, he micro-managed every facet of his movies’ marketing. “Kubrick would check ads from all over the world and call the London Warner Bros. office telling them the ad that’s running in the newspaper in Rio de Janeiro is not the correct size,” Khammar says. “They’d measure it and sure enough, it’d be a quarter inch short.”
Kubrick insisted on impeccable lighting, sometimes laboring for days until a scene was lit precisely to his specifications. “Kubrick knew what he wanted the image to look like and he’d stay on set and have his crew re-light until the vision that he had in his head was realized, whether it took one day or five days.” In the documentary, Barry Lyndon star Ryan O’Neill describes the on-set tedium. “It was interesting to hear Ryan say that Kubrick wouldn’t tolerate stand-ins and if he moved a quarter of an inch, he was in trouble because they’d have to spend the whole day re-lighting,” Khammar says.
Kubrick would became notorious for demanding dozens of takes, but Malcolm McDowell didn’t endure lots of re-dos while shooting Clockwork Orange. “This may have been something he developed later,” says Khammar. “Ryan O’Neal remembers telling Kubrick, ‘Stanley, I just did 16 takes the exact same way,’ and he’d go, ‘They were all very good. Do it again.’ There’s a school of thought that Kubrick wanted to break the actor down and get beyond their mannerisms so by the 60th take, it’s fresh.”
The more-the-better approach may have been rooted in Kubrick’s experiencing directing Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, Khammar observes. “One person we spoke to said Sellers would do 50 takes and 49 of them weren’t any good. But that 50th take–you could never match it.”
“Stanley’s wife Christiane says he played chess when he was a teenager back in New York and was good enough to make money at it,” Khammar says. “When Kubrick moved from California to London, that put him hours ahead of the movie studio people in Los Angeles. This was a way of staying in control of the game. “
Kubrick kept it simple when giving directions to his actors. For Full Metal Jacket, Vincent D’Onofrio remembers Kubrick telling him “The scene has to be big–Lon Chaney big.” Kubrick told Jacket co-star Matthew Modine to “Look more scared.” And whether or not actors understood what Kubrick was looking for in their performances, Khammar says, “Stanley was going to stay there with that actor until he got what he wanted.”
The Room 237 documentary speculates that Kubrick embedded The Shining with subliminal messages. Khammar begs to differ. “Sometimes I think people read into Kubrick’s movies more than what’s there. I talked to Kubrick’s brother-in-law Jan Harlan about The Shining and Room 237 and he just shook his head and said, ‘None of that’s true. All Stanley wanted to do was make a good ghost story.”
While Kubrick’s films largely reflect a bleak view of humanity, the personal life chronicled in Remembering Kubrick gave little cause for pessimism. Khammar says “Kubrick’s wife Christiane comes from this German family, she meets this Bronx Jew when he casts her in Paths of Glory, they fall in love, get married, and are happy until the end of his life. I found that to be the most romantic fish out of water love story I’ve ever heard.”
Kubrick could afford to go dark in his work because, Khammar says, “He felt safe in his life. He knew he was loved by his wife, by his children, by his team. You can’t ask for more than that.”