AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
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 Shining.
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 intelligence.
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 age, 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.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JUNE 1980 ISSUE OF AMERICAN FILM.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.