First published in 2005, Taschen Books’ The Stanley Kubrick Archives provides fans and film scholars an unprecedented look behind the scenes of the iconic director’s life and work. But perhaps unsurprisingly, the 544-page book hardly penetrates the wealth of material that Kubrick retained from the production of his 13 feature films. The Stanley Kubrick Archive at the University of the Arts London stands as an even richer resource — and yet, for his students, aficionados, and disciples, this still doesn’t seem like enough.
But even if Kubrick the man remains largely unknowable to the public, there were indeed people who did know him. Christiane Kubrick, the filmmaker’s third wife, first met him in 1957 during the shooting of Paths of Glory, and remained with him until his death on March 7th, 1999. To commemorate the recent Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Christiane sat down for an exclusive conversation about her late husband’s life and work. In addition to discussing and contextualizing the behavior that earned him labels like “reclusive” and “eccentric,” Christiane talked about the challenge of choosing what parts of a private man’s life should be made public, and offered her thoughts about the myriad interpretations applied to the work of a filmmaker whose career was nothing short of mythic.
"I think Stanley would have been totally amazed at the amount of interest."
When you were preparing the Kubrick Archives book for Taschen, how did you decide what you wanted to include, and how did you decide how much you wanted to pull back the curtain on Stanley’s creative process?
It was with great difficulty. I was left all of these hundreds and hundreds of boxes of stuff we’d been climbing over all of our lives. There was so much rubbish that came out of each film, and Stanley never tidied it up. It was very melancholy work to go through these things when he was dead, and I was just a basket case, trying to do this. And then a Frankfurt museum became very interested and they sent an archivist — and that opened my eyes to how to do that, and what would be of value to young people, and also very much [gave me] an awareness that all of these films were made without computers, and so there was so much more documentation. Unfortunately, on computers, much gets lost, while rubbish gets saved forever and ever. And then we would go through it box by box by box, and we left this to the University of the Arts London, which is a huge university combining all of the other art schools with a vast website. And I thought very carefully who I should leave this to, and I chose them. And then they dedicated a big part of the building — almost a wing — to it, which they decorated like the big wheel in 2001. And so I was happy with all of that. And then following all of these exhibitions, eventually when the exhibitions are finished, it will also go to the university so it will all be in one place, and they’ve dedicated all of the new technical ways of saving every photograph and that sort of thing.
How comfortable do you think he would have been showcasing the work in the Archives book?
You know, you save your own stuff, and you know exactly what you want people not to find, and what you want people to find. And especially in his very early work, there were certain films — your first efforts in journalism or writing, how many people do you want to read that? And so there’s obviously some that I don’t give out, and lots of personal things I don’t. But I tried to imagine if he was hanging over my shoulder, when would he start screaming, you know, “Don’t show this to anyone”? And this is how it would go. And I think Stanley would have been totally amazed at the amount of interest he has. We, his family, were amazed; we knew he was a good film director, we knew that he made films that did well — we were very aware of that. But we didn’t know that he was well-known. And so that was both ghastly because he had just died, and wonderful to see how much he was remembered.
And the great complaint about him not giving interviews was so easy to explain — because he was also the producer of his films, he wanted to advertise them well. He wanted to be in control. He wanted to write the text he wanted, posters and all, that he wanted — and he didn’t want to ruin it by giving bad, hasty interviews. Especially chat shows, he considered extremely dangerous at selling your product. And so he just didn’t give many interviews. And he had a few selected journalists all of the time, but on the whole, not much.
That’s the only sin he committed in the press’ eye, and so they went to town on him. They made him into a completely, utterly insane fruitcake, you know, who had the most unattractive phobias. And that was very hurtful for us to read — and totally invented. And the only reason we then finally as a family got together and said, “We actually now have to say it, otherwise it gets carved in stone.” These things are not true at all! He was not even remotely like that. And then my daughter and I got together and my son-in-law and anybody who could write a little bit, and we met some journalists and said, we want to now say what he was like.
Because you’re trying to shepherd a more balanced perception of him, are you making decisions to show things he might not have wanted to be made public, but that you feel have artistic or personal significance?
I knew him for a long time, so I imagine I’m doing it more or less right. And I try not to be overwhelmed by questions that make me say things that are too personal; women always get asked much more personal questions than men. My brother is always getting the technical, cool questions. I always get the moisture-seeking missiles. [laughs] So that’s harder.
How much do you feel like he would have embraced the technology of DVD and Blu-ray, particularly since he was so careful to frame his films to suit the aspect ratios of VHS presentation?
Yes, he would want very much good prints [to be transferred to video] and we’re fighting for that. And Warner Bros. is wonderful, you know, really wonderful in the way they’re doing this for us, and for themselves also. I think that Stanley was always so careful with the technique — I mean, he was the first person with a computer, ever, that I knew of. And you had to have lessons — do you remember? Ah, you’re too young. But they were these great, big, huge beige things that would arrive and some young lad would come up and teach him and scream at him. But he would have so [loved] every new thing that comes out, every iPhone, every iPod, everything. I think of him, how much he would have liked that.
"He always used to say, 'either you care, or you don’t. There’s no in-between.'"
Looking back at his films, were there any that we now just think of as a masterpiece, but at the time of their making, he really struggled with?
He had both fun and he struggled. He liked struggling. He always used to say, “Either you care, or you don’t. There’s no in-between. And if you care, then go all of the way.” And I think he did, and I think his life was more interesting for it. I found it more interesting than anybody else because he was so intense. Not beavering away like a suffering, hard-working person, no. That was his toy. He liked filming, he liked all of the difficulties, and he worked all of the time — because that’s what he liked best. He at the same time did not interrupt anything, because he had one enormous gift: that he could concentrate very well. And if children and dogs and the country matters — because we live in the country now — would intrude on whatever he was doing, he would pay attention to it without freaking out or anything, and then go right [back] to the middle of a sentence. And I think that was the gift of a very concentrated person. But he wasn’t trying for that, he just had it.
You have been very active in correcting the misperceptions about who he was. But in something like your daughter’s documentary, Making ‘The Shining,’ he’s working with Shelley Duvall in a rather aggressive way. What do you make of his actions there?
They are exactly what Stanley felt at the time, because he wanted to give his daughter the chance to do this documentary because she had learned how to do it and she was very gifted, and at the same time he realized he now has his youngest daughter being a nuisance. And when there was a fight, as there was — I remember the one with the leading actress who hadn’t paid attention, he screamed at her because they were already having trouble snowing onto a district where people didn’t want salt and plastic in their gardens. So it was a bit iffy and expensive to do this, and she ruined a scene by not paying attention. So he screamed at her — not very much, not very loud, but of course his daughter was right under his nose, filming [her] deadly father. And that of course gets a lot of attention because there aren’t many moments by him that would show that. So sometimes when I see it over and over and everything, it really gives the wrong impression — you know, maybe once a year he would lose it over something, and then somebody takes a close-up shot of you. Thank you! You wouldn’t like it. [laughs]
Have you heard about Room 237, the documentary about the many interpretations of The Shining?
Yes, yes, yes. You know, I’m absolutely certain your subconscious creeps into a thousand things, and it is very much your subconscious — you don’t know [exactly] what it is. And if other people think they know, the field is open, with anything you do.
Notwithstanding that subconscious, do you feel like his films had finite interpretations, whether in The Shining or any of his other works?
He wanted to make a ghost film. A ghost film! You know, just that — a good ghost film [that was] scary. That’s what he wanted to do. The rest, I don’t know. I would never try to interpret the depth of your undercurrents — it’s impossible. I don’t know how to think that way, but some people do. And it’s a free world.
There are several unproduced Kubrick scripts being shepherded towards production. How do you feel about that wealth of unproduced material — are there people working now who can, and should, bring it to the screen?
My husband gave two or three stories to his son-in-law, Phil Hobbs, and he’s trying to make something with it. He’s waited for a long time to do this, and I hope it comes through because they’re good stories. He had loads lying around — he wrote them all of the time or he bought the rights to books all of the time. So, you know, there’s a lot of stuff.
The touring Stanley Kubrick exhibition will next visit São Paulo, Brazil, before making its way to Toronto in late 2014.