KUBRICK GOES GOTHIC
by Harlan Kennedy
At EMI-Elstree Studios outside
It wasn't an army that
marched through Elstree, but it was the
cinema's closest one-man equivalent. Stanley Kubrick's
marathon production of The Shining occupied the studios from May 1978
to April 1979, jostling for space with The Empire Strikes Back and Flash
Gordon during forty-six weeks of shooting. The film,
starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall,
is now opening across the country.
As for that fire, Kubrick's crew didn't start it, of course. It was an
accident that occurred on one of his stages after shooting wrapped for the
day. But even accidents happen in a big way with this reclusive moviemaker.
With the blaze echoing the climactic conflagration in the Stephen King novel,
on which the film is based, The Shining seems to have trailed clouds
of eerie misadventure into the film studios themselves.
King's story – he also
wrote Carrie – gives us the ultimate in haunted houses: a giant
off-season Colorado hotel, perched atop a snowbound mountain and alive and
ever busier with menace, ghosts, and psychic violence. Three people – a
caretaker, his wife, and their five-year-old son – occupy the house of
horror during the winter months, "like microbes in the intestines of a
monster," writes King. The tensions dormant in their relationships are
soon awakened by the psychic terrors that rain around them.
Stephen King is
currently one of the hottest writers in the film-rights market. His recent
novel, The Stand, will be
filmed soon by George A. Romero, and his newest, Firestarter – due out in September-has been snapped up for $1 million
by the British-based company Allied Stars. According to King, Kubrick, looking for a supernatural subject, chose The
Shining after buying stacks and stacks of books. He would sit down with
them in his office, read the first two or three pages of each book, and then
fling it across the room
against the wall. Kubrick's secretary was in the
outside office listening to this series of thumps. One day the thumps ceased;
his secretary listened for a while, puzzled, and then went in. Kubrick said, "This is it." He was reading The
King had already
written a script of The Shining for Warner Bros. when
Kubrick came to the film. He chose not to read the
script, wanting to infuse the film with his own ideas. He worked on the
screenplay himself, collaborating with the novelist Diane Johnson.
But Kubrick did turn to King for advice, calling him at his
Kubrick has been inordinately
secretive about The Shining,
but King reported, "The movie, as he shot it anyway, follows
the salient points of the book." One change involves the novel's
sinister hedge animals, on the hotel grounds, which move and change shape. Kubrick couldn't get a satisfactory special effects
equivalent, and instead built an elaborate maze to replace them.
There were also
exchanges between King and Kubrick about a
different ending to the story. Kubrick proposed
that the family be seen sitting at a table at the hotel, pleasantly dining,
while the manager is busy greeting the new caretaker and his family. They
walk past the table, but their eyes look right through the persons sitting
there, who have become invisible. They are ghosts. When Kubrick
asked him what he thought, King replied that audiences might feel cheated.
But King said he expects his only reaction to any changes in the movie will be –
do they work or don't they?
Once ensconced at Elstree, Kubrick colonized the
studio in the way – and for the length of time – that he, virtually alone
among modern filmmakers, has the power to do. He held on to sound stages
while The Empire Strikes Back,
the Star Wars sequel, waited patiently for access. He built
the entire maze on the Elstree backlot,
as part of the grounds abutting the giant facade of the hotel, and he also
made a smaller scale maze for overhead camera shots.
To simulate snow for midwinter
scenes, he covered the backlot with white salt,
from whose defoliating effects the Elstree soil is
still struggling to recover. And throughout shooting he maintained closed
sets and a state of top secrecy, forbidding his actors and his crew to discuss
the film in interviews. The movie finally budgeted out at $18 million, a
figure that moved Stephen King to the wry comment: "I managed to
create The Shining for a total cost to me of $4.50."
Jack Nicholson, who
plays the caretaker in The Shining, added to the tensile challenges of playing the lead
– a fiery, violent role – by doing postproduction work after hours on his own
movie, Goin' South. Playing the boy,
whose power to "shine" – that is, receive and send psychic messages
– gives the story its title, is seven-year-old Danny Lloyd, the son of an
American steelworker who was picked by Kubrick
after videotaped auditions in the States.
After the picaresque
wanderings of Barry Lyndon,
which Kubrick shot entirely on location
Whatever kind of movie
The Shining turns out to be – and with Kubrick
it's reckless to conjecture – it's at least sure to be a film made
challengingly against the grain of the genre Kubrick
has chosen and to be stamped with his own questing originality and eclectic
Ken Adam, who first
worked with Kubrick as production designer on Dr.
Strangelove and later won an Oscar for Barry Lyndon, recently gave this assessment
of the director: "
probably the one director today who has a completely free hand," Adam
continued. "Whatever you say, it's always
Kubrick offers no easy job
for theme-hunting critics. They can wheel and whirl around his films to
their hearts' content trying to spear a common theme, but the oeuvre won't
yield one. What Kubrick's movies do have in common –
from Lolita to A Clockwork Orange, from Paths of Glory to
Barry Lyndon – is not
a theme so much as a method. Kubrick is the
cinema's anthropologist: a hunter in the atavistic jungle of human nature,
an explorer set on discovering what happens to men and women when pushed to
extremes in differing stressful environments.
Kubrick's settings vary with
almost reckless versatility – winging from ancient
Like Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, and A Clockwork Orange, The Shining is a story of breakdown: a
horror-driven apocalypse treading in the footprints of Kubrick's
other tales of revelation under stress. Where sexual suffering battered and
broke Humbert Humbert in Lolita, where science and
society emasculated Alex in A Clockwork Orange, and where the fragile
pillars of free-world democracy in Dr. Strangelove buckled under the
bureaucratic blunderings of a push-button nuclear
The Shining gives us a father, mother, and son whose dormant familial
tensions are catalyzed by the supernatural.
Not surprisingly, a Kubrick production is defined by its paradoxical
extremes. Violence and science, passion and pedantry, serendipity and calculating
perfectionism combine in an operation that often seems military in its
comprehensiveness. Kubrick's famous long
production schedules are part of the same syndrome. From first conception to
final attentions – including the vetting of individual release prints and
projection quality in the cinemas – a Kubrick film
is a Kubrick film.
T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD
ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JUNE 1980 ISSUE OF AMERICAN FILM.
KENNEDY. All rights reserved.