An Interview with Stanley Kubrick by Terry Southern

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“Two of my heros.”

-F.F.

July, 1962; NYC

Probably the most talented, surely the most ambitious, and absolutely the youngest full-fledged film-maker on the American scene today, is Stanley Kubrick — who, at only 33, has created a body of work (six features and two documentaries) as richly diverse as it is substantial.

Paths Of Glory, acclaimed by critics throughout the world as one of the best war pictures ever filmed was made when he was 28 years old — certainly as remarkable a cinematic achievement as that of any contemporary American.

At 30, he was given the singular distinction (if not exactly honor) of directing the super production, Spartacus, with a budget of ten million dollars. Aware, intuitive, and deeply attuned to his times, Kubrick is a chess-playing poet and extremely articulate, speaking in visual metaphor, with the kind of relentless honesty of principle and direction that is a rare felicity indeed.

The following interview took place in the New York office of Harris-Kubrick Productions, and is a transcript of the taped recording.

Southern: What was it mainly that appealed to you in the novel, Lolita?

Kubrick: Well it’s certainly one of the great love stories, isn’t it? I think Lionel Trilling’s piece in Encounter is very much to the point when he speaks of it as “the first great love story of the 20t century.” And he uses as his criteria the total shock and estrangement which the lovers, in all the great love stories of the past have produced on the people around them. If you consider Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, The Red and the Black, they all had this one thing in common, this element of the illicit, or at least what was considered illicit at the time, and in each case it caused their complete alienation from society.

But then in the 20th century, with the disintegration of moral and spiritual values, it became increasingly difficult, and finally impossible, for an author to credibly create that kind of situation, to-to conceive of a relationship which would produce this shock and estrangement — so that what was resorted to achieve the shock value, was erotic description. Whereas Trilling felt that Lolita somehow did succeed, in the classic tradition, having all the stormy passion and tenderness of the great love story as well as this element of the lovers being estranged from everyone around them. And, of course, Nabokov was brilliant in withholding any indication of the author’s approval of the relationship. In fact, it isn’t until the very end, when Humbert sees her again four years later, and she’s no longer by any-stretch of the definition a nymphet, that the really genuine and selfless love he has for her is revealed. In other words, this element of their estrangement, even from the author — and certainly, from the reader–is accomplished, and sustained, almost through the very end.

Southern: I want to ask you some questions more about the actual filming of Lolita, but first I’d like to go back for a moment–to the time when you were 21, working as a Look photographer, and ask you how you got started as a filmmaker.

Kubrick: I just rented a camera and made a movie–a 28 minute documentary–Day of the Fight was the name of it, a day in the life of a boxer, from the time he wakes in the morning until he steps in the ring that night.

Southern: I understand you made the film entirely by yourself–did you also finance it?

Kubrick: Well, it didn’t cost much–I think the camera was ten bucks a day–and film, developed and printed, is ten cents a foot. The most expensive thing was the music…the whole film cost 3900 dollars, and I think about 2900 of it was for the music, having it sync’d in.

Southern: Your first feature was Fear and Desire?

Kubrick: Yes, a pretentious, inept and boring film–a youthful mistake costing about 50,000 dollars–but it was distributed by Joseph Burstyn, in the art houses and caused a little ripple of publicity and attention. ..I mean there were people around who found some good things in it, and on the strength of that I was able to raise private financing to make a second feature-length film, Killer’s Kiss. And that was a silly story too, but my concern was still in getting experience and simply functioning in the medium, so the content of a story seemed secondary to me. I just took the line of least resistance, whatever story came to hand. And for another thing I had no money to live on at the time, much less to buy good story material with–nor did I have the time to work it into shape–and I didn’t want to take a job, and get off the track, so I had to keep moving. Fortunately too, I wasn’t offered any jobs during this period–I mean perhaps if I had been offered some half-assed TV job of something I wouldn’t have had the sense to turn it down and would have been thrown off the track of what I really wanted to do, but it didn’t happen that way. In any case, I made that picture Killer’s Kiss, and United Artists saw it and bought it.

Southern: It was about that time, wasn’t it, that you met James Harris and formed your own company?

Kubrick: That’s right. He was running a television distribution company at the time…together we made The Killing. That’s the first film I made with decent actors, a professional crew, and under the proper circumstances. It was the first really good film I made, and it got a certain amount of attention…then we bought the rights to Paths of Glory. That was a book I had read when I was about fourteen, and one day I suddenly remembered it.

Southern: I understand there was some controversy over the ending of the film–where the French soldiers are executed for desertion–that you asked to change it so that the men would not be shot at the end of the film.

Kubrick: It wasn’t a controversy–I mean there were some people who said you’ve got to save the men, but, of course, it was out of the question. That would have been like making a film about capital punishment in which the executed man was innocent–it would just be pointless. And also, of course, it actually happened–the French Army mutinies of 1917 were fairly extensive, whole regiments marched out of the trenches, and men were executed, by lot.

Southern: Is Paths of Glory still banned in France?

Kubrick: Yes–it’s also banned in Switzerland, Spain, and Israel, because of reciprocal agreements these countries have with France.

Southern: Did the film in fact, make any money?

Kubrick: It’s probably made some money by now. But what you have to realize is that the period of movies, starting from about the middle fifties, began to decline in terms of box-office, right down to where it is now, which is about 40% of what it was before television. Television, you know, was a big threat in the beginning because it was free, but then they ran out of things to show and it started to get boring — and at that point the major studios, in order to show better balance sheet, very unwisely began unloading their pictures, selling them to TV, which then gave the networks something at least as good and sometimes better than what could be seen in the theatres. Now Paths of Glory was made about the middle of this period of decline in movie business, and by comparison to the average ‘A’ picture during that time it did average business. So it wasn’t exactly a smash success, and I suppose there are a lot of films which can’t be expected to be, but which are still worth making — if you feel like making them.

Southern: There are always a few films which, after their initial round of distribution, start being recalled — and this seems to be happening to Paths of Glory, as though it were becoming a sort of cinema-club classic.

Kubrick: Well, the owner of the New Yorker theatre called me the other day, for example, and said they didn’t want to give him a print of the film. You see, the distributor gets about fifty bucks for renting a print, and so he doesn’t even want to bother dragging it out of the vault. I mean they’ve got so many other things working for them they just don’t want to be bothered.

Continue Interview


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