I FIRST met Stanley Kubrick 10 years ago at the wedding of his daughter Anya to one of my oldest friends. At the reception, in a marquee on the lawn of Anya and Jonathan’s house, I was surprised at the ease with which he could be approached. Kubrick even seemed shy. And while I stuttered on about how I was about to fly to the Gulf to cover the conflict with Saddam Hussein, scared of boring him and slightly in awe, he listened intently.
Rather than being dismissive and aloof, as I expected, he instead seemed fascinated. Kubrick, a man with a consuming passion for the detail of conflict, was asking me the questions. Here was a man in total contrast to the fiend the media had portrayed, who, as Jonathan has described, “was always glad to find the point of contact with another person and to discover what it was that fired, amused or annoyed them”.
When the Kubrick family first suggested to me that I write an article designed to correct the myth which has built up around Stanley Kubrick, I thought for a very long-time before I accepted. From a journalistic point of view it’s a big story. Kubrick, who died of a heart attack last March, was a larger than life character in the film business.
Hurt by the myths
A legendary film director, responsible for such works as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dr Strangelove, he was as famous for the artistic control he exercised as for the films themselves.
But I was more concerned over whether it would be possible to accomplish what his family so desperately wished: a fair picture of the man they feel has been demonised.
Painfully aware of the fact that anything they say about Stanley will appear self serving and be written off with the comment: “they would say that wouldn’t they”, they do nevertheless want their say.
Though the Kubricks admit that many wonderful things have been written they have been genuinely hurt by the number of popular myths that have grown up about Stanley – due in no small part to his choice to remain distant from the media.
The request came very informally. I was standing in the large kitchen which doubles as a conservatory in Anya and Jonathan’s house outside St Albans. Outraged by yet another article written since his death in March, Anya Kubrick asked me if I would be prepared to write a defence to the picture being painted. Their idea was to use the wealth of interest in Kubrick in the run up to his last film, Eyes Wide Shut, to put the record straight. They were worried that if they did not, their silence would be seen as indifference and that the rumours would “wind up carved in stone.”
And so, the family have gathered together some of their memories and stories to try and set the record straight, and give a truer and therefore less sensational portrait of “SK”, as he was often referred to by those who were close to him.
“All we want is to correct some of the false impressions and replace it with our, all be it, subjective “facts” and personal experiences,” said Christiane Kubrick, his wife for 41 years. “Stanley did not want to be seen as this monster but he did not know what to do about it. He used to say ‘look at this, am I this spitting thing that sits in a corner shouting at people?'”
The picture presented by the press is far from the man they know. Reclusive? Obsessive? Dictatorial? A loner who walled himself up inside his castle, slept during the day and worked at night, who, as one paper said could “only occasionally be glimpsed outdoors, a huge bear of a figure”?
The first time I visited the Kubrick house at Childwickbury I did so nervously. So much of the media hype is grounded on his supposed hermit-like existence and dislike of social contact.
Influenced by articles I had read, I truly felt that I was on the road to some forbidden land. A notion curiously at odds with the truth. I took a wrong turning, passed an old rusty gate, observed only by ramblers rather than the security cameras I anticipated, then eventually hit a little gate with a sign telling me to slow down for children and animals. Without knowing it, I had passed through the mythical security ring. While a casual visitor might not have got into the house, they could get very close to the home of the alleged Hughes-ian figure.
Soon I was playing football on the lawn with children and joining the annual Easter Egg Hunt with the Kubrick family and friends. It was an event that gave Stanley great pleasure – especially the following weeks grazing for unfound chocolate eggs.
“Let’s tackle some of the more ridiculous lies straight away,” says Christiane. “Stanley didn’t have helicopters spray his garden with insecticides. He didn’t go that often to restaurants, theatres or parties but he didn’t exclude them either.”
“Family life came first. My mother, his children and lately his grandchildren, and his closest confidantes were all incredibly important to him,” says Anya. “When filming in Ireland for Barry Lyndon became a necessity, we all travelled together like a gypsy caravan, dogs and all! It’s very strange to find ourselves defending this desire to be with his family and if possible at home. I thought it was what most dads wanted.”
To be, as Philip Hobbs (Kubrick’s son-in-law) has described, “working in the office, with one eye on his wife painting out in the garden, and another on the Superbowl on TV” was his idea of bliss. As Anya has commented, “What Stanley liked was to be able to emerge from his office and walk straight into the family kitchen; and then back to the desk which was covered with the books he was working on, each book bulging with white markers.”
Ducking the media spotlight
It was Kubrick’s desire to stay out of the limelight that fuelled the media myth of the director as hermit. He felt uncomfortable being recognised by strangers and kept such a low profile that someone managed to successfully impersonate him for two years – so little did the public know his face. He found that maintaining a low profile allowed him to enjoy a normal life. “He liked to be able to walk around nearby St Albans, or London and browse the aisles of the supermarket unmolested. He knew that he would lose all that if his face became well known,” said Katherine Hobbs, eldest of the Kubrick daughters.
Only very infrequently would he risk a run-in with the press, and when he did it brought home to him all the reasons why he avoided the glare of publicity.
“When we went to see Nicole [Kidman] in The Blue Room at the Donmar Warehouse we went backstage to congratulate her only to bump into a lot of people -Joan Collins, Nigel Hawthorne, Tom Cruise and Nicole among others all attracting dozens of photographers to the stage door,” said Christiane. “Definitely unused to this situation, Stanley found himself suddenly recognised for once, his incognito failing him. There were steep iron stairs, myriad blinding flashes and dozens of hands and voices grabbing and calling him. ‘Stanley, Stanley, look over here, Mr Kubrick, here! Here! “He was dazed and nearly tripped, until his driver, used to such situations, levered him into the car. As he slumped, stunned into his seat, ever ironic, he said, ‘We really must do this more often’.”
His love of irony was naturally a side of Kubrick his family saw more of than the press.
On one occasion, in a restaurant in London, with his parents and family, he realised to his horror that he had been recognised. Unable to get away, he faced the unwanted fan only to discover that the man had mistaken him for Francis Ford Coppola and wanted to pay homage for The Godfather. The humour would not have been missed by Kubrick.
As a young man during one of his first films, he gave a long radio interview. He was nervous, of course. Suddenly he found himself scolded by the presenter, who switched his microphone off and bawled, “I thought you wanted to have an interview. Talk! You ****!”. It was his first taste of stage fright and one Kubrick learnt from.
The minutiae of interviews bored him, he was bad at small talk and questions like, ‘What made you choose this book?’ made him squirm. So he avoided them. “It’s like asking me why I married my wife,” he was to tell his brother-in-law Jan Harlan, the executive producer on many of his films. This is not to say that Stanley disliked publicity per se. Where his films were concerned he couldn’t have enough. He just felt that he didn’t have anything personal to add beyond his films.
It was a rule he briefly broke to record a rare, last encounter with a camera when he delivered his thank-you speech for the DW Griffith Award from the Director’s Guild of America. “He postponed being filmed reading his speech to the last minute,” said Christiane laughing. “Looking most unhappy in his Sunday suit, I sent him with Leon Vitali, his assistant, to get on with it. After a long time I was asked to judge the result. It was a catastrophe! Stanley was upset at my laughter but I still made him do it again. When he had the courage much later to look at it, he said ‘You see, you see that’s why I don’t go out there,’ while collapsing into paroxysms of laughter.”
The on off English love affair
Kubrick’s camera shyness left the media with a free hand on his life and unchallenged, a myth grew of a man fleeing censorship problems in America over the film Lolita, into self-imposed exile in the UK.
In fact he moved to England in order to make Lolita. Along with many of his peers, he was attracted by the high quality of British film technicians and the Eady Plan, a package of economic measures to encourage and attract foreign investment into the British film industry. For both Christiane and Stanley, England was a revelation, “by the time the filming of Lolita was completed, we had fallen in love with England.” This love affair was soon to pale.
His eccentricity quickly became material for the British press.
“Let’s tackle some of the more ridiculous lies straight away,” says Christiane.
“Stanley didn’t have helicopters spray his garden with insecticides. He didn’t go that often to restaurants, theatres or parties but he didn’t exclude them either.
He wasn’t a food faddist. The only thing that is true is that he would not fly.”
This fear is understandable enough. As a photographer for Look magazine early on in his career he needed a pilot’s licence and got one very quickly and nearly crashed his plane. Shortly after, a colleague was killed piloting his plane and for some reason his friend’s camera and notebooks, horribly squashed and burnt, were sent to Kubrick.
Christiane remembers one occasion when he had just read a newspaper piece that claimed he never drove above 30mph and always wore a crash helmet. He just said wryly that: “whenever you read an article about something you have first hand knowledge of, the major facts are invariably wrong.” Then he added with a shy smile, “For all we know Lech Walesa could be a woman.”
It was an event that was to traumatise him. Unaware of the extent of the shock, it was only when he flew to Spain to film Spartacus that the reaction hit him. Terribly ill, in a state of nervous shock, the return flight was his last.
This refusal to fly and unwillingness to explain it gave birth to a view of Kubrick that stung him, painting him as dictatorial, obsessive, living in secretive solitude in a dark, Gothic pile.
“One part was true,” says Christiane. “Stanley did not need much sleep – working during the evening he was able to add some Californian office hours to his day.” The picture that was being painted disturbed him, and a few weeks before his death he became concerned enough to consider defending himself in the press. Christiane remembers one occasion when he had just read a newspaper piece that claimed he never drove above 30mph and always wore a crash helmet. He just said wryly that: “whenever you read an article about something you have first hand knowledge of, the major facts are invariably wrong.” Then he added with a shy smile, “For all we know Lech Walesa could be a woman.”
Probably the biggest media flare-up surrounded A Clockwork Orange.
The withdrawal of the cult film is one of the best maintained of the stories surrounding him. Instead of seeing the film’s deeper condemnation of violence, the media preferred to play it as an endorsement.
In the wake of this came a more dangerous development. “A ‘fan’ left a small ticking parcel behind – as it turned out it contained a real ‘clockwork’ orange,” said Christiane.
The ticking orange
“To further his decision to withdraw Clockwork Orange from UK distribution, the popular press tagged ‘Clockwork Orange’ to every crime story headline.
“Added to the brew were Lord Longford and Mary Whitehouse’s campaigns to hold the media responsible for social problems and crime. With his film being blamed for almost any act of violence Stanley became very nervous about the death threats made against him and us. The police advised him to take them seriously. This was what finally drove Stanley to withdraw the film. At the time both fans and cranks frequently appeared at the door.”
Most people are familiar with the image of Kubrick as the great dictator who took years to make a film and an age to shoot a scene. This myth the family tempers rather than dispels.
“The headlines like ‘film takes two years in the making’, ‘a 100 takes to get a shot’,” commented Christiane, “and the allegations of psychological sadism and deliberate attempts to break actors into characters were all just convenient additions to the popular Stanley Kubrick photo-fit.”
Anya Kubrick says: “They weren’t merely inaccurate they also left his artistry out of the picture.”
As Manuel Harlan, the stills photographer on Eyes Wide Shut has said, “Stanley always developed and changed the script in the course of shooting and rehearsing with the actors. He placed an enormous importance on this collaboration. His chief extravagance was to leave himself the possibility to repair his artistic mistakes, which often directors do not have the opportunity to do. His so-called obsessiveness was perfectionism.”
Jan Harlan, Manual’s father, who also worked with Kubrick on the never realised Napoleon, remembers his dedication. “He did his work over and over again without blaming anyone. And, in his own way, he worked alone. As Stanley used to say: No committee ever wrote a symphony.”
Man and general
Fascinated by the generalship of Napoleon, Kubrick had once got close to making the film in Bucharest in 1970. It was a project for which he had secured 5,000 horses and men from the then still existing Romanian cavalry.
A master of organisation, according to Harlan, he ran his offices with a simple hierarchy. “It was one of general and soldiers. Not many meetings, rather a one to one relationship between the boss and any individual on his team. It was up to them to keep each other informed. The actors floated on their own islands and were treated like the very special commodity they are.
“He had the reputation of being dictatorial – commanders usually are,” said Harlan. But Kubrick did not press-gang any one into his films and as Jan discovered: “criticism of Stanley’s supposedly difficult character was countered by the fact that so many people dropped everything just to work with him again and again, knowing full well that a long, hard slog lay in front of them.”
Strangely in the 15 or so hours of interviews that were given to write this piece the picture that emerges of Kubrick the man does have some passing resemblance to that other Kubrick the family detest so much. It is a similarity they are willing to admit but it is, they say, a poor shadow of the man. In a final statement, eloquent in anger, the family hit out at both the myth and those they think are guilty of perpetuating it.
“The many books and articles published, while sometimes correct at a trivial level, are horribly inaccurate in their depiction of Stanley’s personality, opinions and that dreadful word lifestyle. Those inaccuracies were much easier to live with when he was alive, now it is not so easy so we are defending him.”
First published Scotland on Sunday Magazine and the Sunday Express