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by Harlan Kennedy


At EMI-Elstree Studios out­side London, it looks as if Napoleon's army has marched through. Not a blade of grass is left stand­ing on the formerly verdant backlot. And a few hundred yards away in the Elstree complex, a honeycomb of charred and gut­ted walls bears witness to a fire that broke out one freezing evening in February 1979 and virtually obliterated Sound Stage 3.

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, Firestarterdue 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 home in Maine for elabo­ration on points of character and plot. Ex­cept for a one-day visit, King kept away from the set, thinking it "considerate" not to have the original writer on hand. He found Kubrick friendly but reserved. "He's a man you can go out and have a few beers with as long as you don't think you're going to go on and drink all night," King said.

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 in England, Ireland, and Germany, The Shining is a typically Kubrickian change of pace. Preproduction second-unit work was done in Washington State, but Kubrick himself concentrated mostly on studio work. By so immuring himself and his crew within the walls of Elstree, he has created an intriguing sym­biosis between the story and the produc­tion. King's tale of claustrophobia, isola­tion, and obsession is mirrored in the enclosed single-mindedness of the film­making.

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: "Stanley is a very complex personality. My first impression of him was of this almost naive charm, but then you find behind the naive charm there is a gigantic brain-I can only compare it with a computer. At the age of fourteen or fifteen, you must remember, he was almost in the grand-master class of chess play­ing."

"Stanley is probably the one director today who has a completely free hand," Adam continued. "Whatever you say, it's always Stanley's film. He is an absolute perfectionist, and he will go on and on until he gets his thoughts and ideas over to you. And `you' includes the cast, the crew, the craftsmen, and finally, of course, the audi­ence."

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 Lyndonis 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 Rome (Spartacus) to outer space (2001) to eighteenth-century England (Barry Lyndon). But the variations aren't a film­maker's dilettantism, nor merely a ploy to dodge the theme hunters. Kubrick is look­ing for human essentials: for those kernels of human nature that pop out when the shell of society and manners – no matter in what historical place or time – is broken.

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.








©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.