Despite turning 89 this year, Stanley Kubrick just concluded principal photography on his new film Napoleon. It is Kubrick’s first work since the hypnotic Eyes Wide Shut, and he is quietly confident about it.
Upon pulling up at Childwickbury Manor, it is impossible to resist the allure of the place. Its character announces itself from far away, like one of the mansions in Kubrick’s beautifully-shot Barry Lyndon. The abode absolutely reflects the man: mythic, but still concrete; isolated, but still occupied; aging, but still imposing.
Kubrick is standing on the front lawn waiting for me when I arrive. I feel an irrepressible need to rush towards him, not to waste a second of his time. Childswickbury Manor towers over his declining stature, but it only makes him seem greater.
“Hello, yes, thanks for coming,” are the first words he says. He comes across as spritely and affable – two qualities I imagined to be antithetical to his character. After some of the horror stories told of his behaviour on set, this pleasant introduction was unexpected. Perhaps age has mellowed him.
I follow him up to the front of the house. He walks with a cautious steadiness, which gives me time to formalise my thoughts. “We will do the interview out here. It’s a nice day for once, so we will get it done out here.” We sit down on some outdoor vintage furniture, and he locks me in with his penetrating gaze.
“Relaxing out here, isn’t it?” He remarks. “I don’t get out here enough, it’s really quite nice.”
“Actually, before we get started, no questions about politics. I’m over it all, if we could just focus on movies, that would be great.”
“Sure, we can do that,” I reply.
The filming of Napoleon was secretive. Can you tell us whether you used film, or whether you used digital technology?
Yes I can reveal that. These days, everyone is always ‘revealing’ something. Not, uh, telling you something, but revealing it. I find that strange really.
We chose to film the picture on 35mm. There were some discussions about using digital, which I have experimented with and enjoyed, but this just wasn’t the film to use it. With Napoleon we are going back to the 19th Century, and we thought that 35mm would better capture the time period we were going for. I’m eager to use digital technology in my films, but this wasn’t the film for us to do that.
That choice did cause us a few problems, because of the cost of shooting on film.
Is that one of the reasons why there’s such a gap between this and Eyes Wide Shut?
Yes. It was a bit of a fight for us to get our way, but I wasn’t going to make the film any other way. It had to be done on 35mm. It would be a totally different picture if it was filmed with digital technology. It wouldn’t be the film I wanted to make. And when you get to this age, you only want to be making the films that you want to make. You don’t want to spend your years making things you aren’t happy with. You might as well work at a desk job.
I had a few health problems that set me back a bit in between this and Eyes Wide Shut. That was irritating to me; health getting in the way of work. But, I suppose you can’t always get around that.
Does the amount of time you’ve invested in the film mean it’s an almost perfect product?
I couldn’t really answer that because the whole process isn’t done. There’s still a lot for us to do to finish the film. And even if it was done, I don’t know if any film could be considered perfect or not. Maybe some could, but there’s always that human error element in films. Something could always be done better, whether that’s my doing or one of the cast and crew. I think you can minimise the faults with a film, absolutely; but I’m not sure you can make a perfect film. Something like Bergman’s Wild Strawberries is close to a perfect film, and maybe it is.
Actually, Metropolis is a good example. It’s a good film, a really marvellous, grand piece of cinema. But it’s full of flaws. The story in places is downright implausible, and its tone is sometimes a bit disorientating. But that’s because parts of it are missing.
You usually make emotionally distant films…
I don’t know if that’s the way to put it. I always get told this, but I don’t see it. The kind of films I make are the ones that appeal to me, the ones that stick out to me. I think they do deal with emotion, most of them. They deal with human characters, and there’s always an element of emotion connected to that.
So you think the commentators are getting it wrong?
I’m not in a position to say that. Obviously, everyone brings different things into their experience of a film, and I think they’re entitled to their judgements of my films. Of course, I’ll have my own ideas of my own movies, and others will have theirs. That’s what creates a healthy film community – discussion and interpretation. I don’t believe in forcing my opinion of my films down the throats of my audiences, so let’s just leave it at that.
What made you pursue this film so strongly? What motivates you to keep working?
The story of Napoleon has always intrigued me, he’s one of those characters that never seems to stop bothering you in your mind. I think to be a ruler like he was, uh, you have to be an interesting person. He actually wrote a romance novel before he became a military leader. It was called Clisson et Eugénie. He was such an adept military leader, a powerful man; but he wrote a novel about love? See, that kind of thing is interesting. It reminds you, no matter how history is told, that people are multi-faceted creatures. You can’t just pin someone down as one thing. They might be something else as well.
His life, I think as I’ve said in the past, is a real epic poem of action. To be able to capture that in a movie is just something I have wanted to do for a long time. There’s not really a good way to explain it, other than that there is something that really draws me to him and his life.
As for why I still work, what else would I be doing? Making movies is something I have to do, it’s much more preferable than rotting away in a home or something to that effect.
Do you have any regrets looking back? On the way you conducted yourself or anything like that?
As I said before, there are always things you could do differently. But is there much point worrying about that? No. I think there’s something to be said for acknowledging the past – your triumphs, your less pleasant times – but regrets aren’t something I think about. I don’t worry about them. In the moment, I always do what I think is best. That’s what you do.
Is there a film that you’ve made that stands out to you?
The simple answer is no. All the films I’ve made I’ve made for a good reason, bar a few I made early in my career. Fear and Desire is one of them, there’s only a few good moments in that. I’m not ashamed of it, but looking back it’s not a great film at all.
I’m not in the habit of ranking my movies, and prefer to think of them all as discrete expressions of my thoughts and ideas. They are all different, and offer different things to an audience. A Clockwork Orange questions the authority of the state: should the state have complete control to modify our behaviours? Eyes Wide Shut explores the dynamics of marriage, and the insecurities we all hold in relation to our partners. Another film I wasn’t happy with was Spartacus. There’s no truth to it.
Personally, I find 2001: A Space Odyssey to be your most ambitious film, if not your best. For the time, and even now, it is just like nothing else we’ve seen.
I always wanted to make a big film out of 2001. A lot of what ended up in the film came from Arthur (Arthur C. Clarke) who was really one of the great science-fiction writers. We wrote up a novel alongside the screenplay to the film. As you can imagine, we wanted to get it right, make sure it was as unique as possible. I would refrain from calling it my best film, but I am certainly very proud of it. And I think it stands up against any sci-fi picture that has been made since.
Kirk Douglas, Spartacus’ brainchild, recently turned 100. Did you send him your wishes?
Now you’re just being facetious. My question would be whether he’s still working or not.
The Melbourne International Film Festival is showing a Kubrick retrospective from November 1.