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Stanley Kubrick on Napoleon and many other things

Stanley Kubrick (John Henry)

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.

 

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The Sea

The Sea (Julia Chetwood)
  I thought long and hard before deciding to move the fifth pawn from the left two spaces forward. Then

Sunset

Sunset (Leitu Bonnici)
  As the boy sprinted through the trees, his body jolted with each heavy footstep as it hit the ground.

Relative Size

Relative Size (Caitlin Brown)
  Life has a tendency to demand decease in its wake; there is nothing without cost.    Relative size. Emi

Jim & Julie

jim and julie

 

Staring, catatonic at the screen; before him, young men jumped and ran, crowds cheered their heroes on, and in his mind, he almost forgot that he existed on this brown, sagging couch. A shrill and electronic interruption of the phone jolted his spine straight and his heart all but stopped for that moment, before commencing its stuttering pace. And so the phone carried on and on. He gripped the side of the couch and the cushions below him firmly as he rose and began his way to the phone. He was almost halfway when the click of the answering machine preluded a smooth voice: “Hello, this is Julie calling from Media Reach Surveys. I was just calling to collect Jim’s survey results –”

Jim grabbed hold of the phone and raised it to the side of his head, calling out, “I’m here! I’m here! Hello.”

In the midst of her automatic answering machine spiel, Julie heard Jim. She started, unprepared for actual human interaction, “Oh! Hello, Jim. I’m Julie from Media Reach Surveys. How are you?”

“Very well, thank you, just watching the telly, the Bombers are playing! And yourself?”
She could hear the dust in his voice as it quavered and cracked after days of silence. Their eagerness to talk always made her uncomfortable. Most people, nowadays, slammed phones down on cold callers, giving a curt goodbye at most. She was guilty of this herself. And yet, these people that she called, these generous, waning people, were always so pleased to hear from her. “I’m pleased to hear that,” – her expression had plateaued two hours ago at a dull glare, but through the phone she sounded sweet – “Is this a good time to collect your survey results?”

“Oh yes! I filled it out just as it arrived in the mail; I’ve been keeping it next to the phone since then.”

Julie heard the rustle of papers and she knew that he would take a while to get to the page starting the survey itself. They always did; their dry and papery fingers fumbled and couldn’t turn the pages.

“Hang on a minute, would’ya love? I just need to find my specs,” before his eyes, the numbers swam and drifted upstream.

Jim hurried off to the bedroom to locate his glasses, his slippers scuffing the wooden floorboards. He settled back by the phone, heart racing, he gasped, “Are you ready?”

Julie’s cheery reply spread a smile thick across his face: “Ready when you are!”

“Steady! Go! 3 – 3 – 7 – 1 – 2…4 – 3 – 7 – 6 – 1 – I’m not going too fast for you?”

“Not at all,” Julie sighed away from the mouthpiece.

They almost never were. She kept her eyes fixed on the paper; the satisfaction of filling in each blank square was wearing thin. Each number corresponded to the rating of a show or a personality. She never knew which shows they liked or hated, because she never bothered to check; but she did know that box 72 got a 7, so he must have liked it, whatever or whomever it pertained to.

And so for eleven minutes and twenty-three seconds it went on – Jim droning on from one end, and at the other, Julie hastily filling in blanks. Until, all at once, Jim, in the middle of a four, inhaled sharply and toppled over.

The phone hit the ground and Julie, on the other end, jerked away from the noise and whilst the thud wasn’t distinctly human, what had happened was unmistakable. “Jim? … Jim, are you there?”

Through the line came the tinny voice of the footy commentator. Julie hesitated before calling out again. After a minute she lowered the phone and hung up. She looked down at the half finished survey and clutching the sides of the desk, pushed away from it, the wheels on her chair spinning into the carpet. Her tongue was rough against the roof of her mouth. Picking up the empty mug beside the phone, Julie left the room.

She wandered through the narrow corridor. Glossy photo portraits of men in suits hung around and her shoulder twinged with the sensation of being watched. Their stares dropped away as the corridor opened up into a wide room. There was a white kitchenette off to the side, sticky dishes tottering in the sink, a bench and a coffee machine in the centre, and a corner of vending machines. The broadcasting station was always empty at the time of night that she worked. Julie poured herself a mug of hot water and dunked a tea bag into the steam a few times. As she turned back towards the corridor, a disgruntled South-East Asian lady came around the corner dragging a cart of cleaning equipment. The two exchanged fleeting smiles as they passed, the cleaner all but smearing her face with war paint as she approached the sink.

Back at her desk, Julie dialled Jim’s number, she was greeted with a hollow beep, his phone was off the hook. On her left lay a stack of surveys yet to filled, on her right, the few that she’d already completed, and in the centre, Jim’s half-filled sheet. She could not move forward with the others with this one incomplete, however; she now had no way of completing it. She picked up her phone for the final time that night and dialled three numbers. Glancing down at the sheet, she relayed Jim’s address and details to the emergency services before packing up her things and heading out into the night.

 

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Come Back

Come Back
  I saw you yesterday In a vacant mood I passed with mind Closed my eyes and travelled through time

The Greenhouse

greenhouse

 

The white roses are her favourite.

Delicate snow petals, spilling out from the centres, like a ballerina’s tulle frozen forever mid pirouette.

A violent assault of deep reds, canary yellows, rich blues; each more colourful than the last surround her in the greenhouse. The roses are like her children, all scrambling for her attention, for her eyes to linger for just a second more upon their technicolour cries.

Amid the harlequin chaos the white roses sit patiently, quiet, solemn. Their subdued silence sings loudest of all.

She still loves every rose in the garden of her greenhouse though. She feels guilty for having favourites.

At first she would visit every so often; a few minutes at first, which turned into a few hours, then whole days.

Eventually leaving became too hard. So she just never left.

It’s peaceful here. She feels secure. It’s not like how things were on the outside. Dark and shadowy and turbulent. Everything was too overwhelming as though she was being suffocated by the invisible grasp of her monsters.

Sometimes he comes to visit her. He is the one thing from the outside that she allows in.

She knows that he wants her to leave, leave the safe haven she has made for herself in the greenhouse. But she can’t.

When he talks she gets drawn into what he has to say. It makes her feel wistful, a strange twinge of melancholy fluttering in her chest.

He lulls her with soft coaxing anecdotes; how there was a galah in the backyard that didn’t run away when he approached it, how the leaves of the elms on his street were starting to golden, or how he’d left the stove on to boil water and had come back to a pot burnt black. He tells her how much he misses her. So, so much.

He reminds her that there is life outside. She would have forgotten long ago otherwise.

Each time he’s with her, her greenhouse starts to get fuzzy, like the remnants of a dream before it slips through your fingers like sand.

It scares her.

Memories of the outside start to seem more vibrant, more alluring.

Memories of dipping her feet into the cool wet sand of the ocean, sitting next to a cosy fireplace with heavy rain outside, homemade spaghetti nights, fighting over who got to finish the last serving.

Memories with him, experiencing all those things.

Memories with him; shivering, trembling, shallow breaths, burning holes into her skin with his mouth.

Every day he comes, the roses decay. She keeps finding more of their shrivelled little corpses scattered along the branches of the bushes, faded and stained brown.

She desperately puts her nose to the buds, searching for a hint of fresh perfume but all she can smell is death.

There is a bitter taste in her mouth, metallic like she has gargled blood.

It’s all his fault. Poisoning her with his stories, taking her away from her garden with his allure.

When he’s there, the gold rays of sunshine that stream down through the glass seem to taunt her, knowing that she will never venture beyond the walls to feel its warmth on her skin.

One day he comes to visit, but she ignores him.

“Go away.” She is pruning the roses carefully with a small pair of clippers. She doesn’t look at him. Looking at him is too hard.

“Why?” He asks.

She continues to prune the roses as if he weren’t there. Snip. Snip. Snip.

“What’s wrong?

Snip.

It hurts to breathe. The silence chokes her.

Snip.

Snip.

“You can’t come visit me anymore,” she says finally.

“What? Why not?”

Snip.

Snip.

Pause.

“You’re killing the flowers.”

Sni-

Her hand falters, slipping, dragging against the rose bush’s thorns, slicing into her flesh like butter. Her fingers are on fire. She is on fire.

Her eyes flash up at him, burning. “You’re ruining everything.”

He sighs. “Why can’t we go back to how it use to be? When you weren’t like this?” He asks exasperated.

“What do you mean?”

“I hate you being here, in this place. I hate you not being at home with me.”

“I like it here. I feel safe here.”

“You’ll be safe with me.”

“I’m safe in my greenhouse.”

“Ha. Your greenhouse?”

“Yes!”

“Don’t you understand? This isn’t real – none of this is real!”

“Wha – “

She feels dizzy, the rose bushes, the earthy scent of dirt, the greenhouse walls all start to blur and distort. The vibrant colours start to fade, dissolve; sickly sweet sugar-coated lies.

“Wha- what do you mean?”

The glass walls start to crack. The sun streams into the darkest corners of her mind. It’s liberating, it’s horrifying, it’s terrifying. Fuck.

The world is grey. Grey linoleum floors and dull grey walls. A thin grey mattress covered in a single sheet on a cool metal bedframe. She blinks. Hard. Once. Twice. Why won’t the grey go away?

Where are her roses? Where is her garden? Where is her greenhouse?

“You’re crazy.” His voice cuts her like jagged glass. “You’re fucking crazy! Why can’t you just-“

“Stop!” Her vision is blurry. Everything hurts. Why won’t it stop? Stop. Stop. Stop.

She plunges the rose clippers straight into his chest.

Stop.

He chokes, staring at her in wide disbelief. She gazes back blankly at him.

With one sharp jerk she wrenches the blade out. Then she thrusts it back in again. Again. Again. Again.

The blood spurts out of him slowly at first, a rusty drink tap being turned on for the first time in years. And then it gushes out all at once.

Everything is red. Warm, warm, warm on her fingers and hands and arms and clothes.

The room is spinning.

The walls, the bed, the floor are all marred with splatters of crimson. She looks down at her hands, a pair of blunt craft scissors glistening red clutched tightly in her fist.

She scans the walls around her, garish childlike drawings of roses scrawled with coloured crayons, cut out clumsily and thumbtacked on every inch possible.

This isn’t real. It can’t be.

She blinks. Hard. Once. Twice.

And then it all rushes back.

Everything is still again. Everything is better. The greenhouse walls, the flowers, the colours have all solidified again. Everything is real again. Familiar. Safe.

The dirt of the garden bed is soaked with blood, still warm. Alive.

Small white rosebuds are starting to dot the branches around her.
She smiles. They are beginning to grow again.

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Cabin 85

Man in Train Compartment1
  Emanuel K had missed his stop. Hat over his eyes, en route to his job at the bank, he