A Talk With Kubrick Documentarian Jan Harlan
Stanley Kubrick is one of the most dicussed contemporary Directors. There's alot know about him, but until now no one has put it all together quite like Jan Harlan, whose fantastic Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures is being released as a key part of The New Stanley Kubrick Collection.
We had the opportunity to talk to Jan about Kubrick, and used questions submitted by DVD Talk Members as the basis for our interview.
To what extent was Stanley Kubrick interested in the DVD format? What kind of exposure did he have?
It was early days and the most exiting thing for us was that the dubbing territories, Germany, France, Italy and Spain, could now have the possibility of getting rid of this nasty dubbed tract and going back to the original version. And if they didn't speak any English at all, they could have the French or German or Italian subtitles, but this was a much better compromise. You know Stanley didn't like dubbing, although we tried very, very hard to get it right. But it is something you cannot get right. It's always flawed. Remember him saying that the German's took revenge for having lost the war by dubbing his films. I thought that was a funny line.
I'm sure seeing Paths to Glory dubbed in German would be kind of surreal.
Oh it's terrible. I mean any film dubbed in Germany is terrible. Any film dubbed in French or Spanish. Imagine the other way around. You'd see a German film. Imagine The Blue Angel or "M", imagine it dubbed into English. It doesn't work.
Speaking of alterations to Kubrick's work, one of the most controversial recent Kubrick moments surrounds the orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut.
I want to know if you could help shed some light. Was Kubrick at all involved in that decision? How did the digital elemets get decided on?
Okay, I can answer that totally and completely. The film was first shown on the first of March to Bob Daily, Tom Cruise and Nicolle Kidman in New York. The work print was screened. Madrigal, the editor, was there. They absolutely loved the film. They were totally enthusiastic. They called Stanley and told him how much they liked it and all of them were very, very excited. So Stanley was very, very happy and died a week later.
So then, six or seven weeks later when the whole thing calmed down, we had to finish the film. Since we couldn't touch the cut - that was impossible - but we had to do the dubbing, some music recording. It was all planned anyway. We just executed what he had already decided. So we faithfully did our job.
Then came parallel to that, the rating issue. We had to show a copy of the print to the MPAA and they insisted that the orgy scene be changed. How do you change it? Had Stanley lived, he would have because he had to deliver an R-rating that was not to be discussed and of course was out of the question. But had he lived, he would have re-cut it. It's very easy to do. I could have done it. Anybody can do it. You just go back to Tom and in the objectionable copulation scenes are visible, you just go back to Tom walking and looking and then you go back and then that's how you do it.
But we couldn't do that. There would have been an uproar had Warner Bros. or anybody cut Stanley's cut. So we had only one option and that is to add electronically or digitally, more of the black cloaks bit by bit and as little as possible until the MPAA agreed it is now an R-rating. That's the complete answer.
Will we ever get to see the scene as it was shot?
I don't know. I mean the rest of the world has it in the original version and in the United States, we have the R-rated version. I can't answer the question. It's down to Warner Bros. I think Warner Bros. will not do it because they don't release NC-17 rated films on DVD.
Did Kubrick ever tangle horns with the MPAA about his films?
With the MPAA? Well not in fight. I mean the MPAA people are very, very nice. There was a woman who was in charge and I negotiated with her. She was a very intelligent person. She said "Look, I mean I personally,it doesn't bother me. I think it's very silly, this process, but I have to follow my rules." Her rules are: You can have this and not that. I mean it's very simple. There was too much nudity. Yeah you can have a bit, but not too much. Don't ask me why. I mean, because I don't think there's much difference whether you see three nude people or seven, but apparently there is. These are the rules.
Of all Kubrick's movies, was there any one that he personally was most satisfied with or held higher up than any of his other films?
Well I think he particularly liked Eyes Wide Shut. Yes. He really was happy with that. Probably because it was the hardest film to do for him. It was such a struggle and such a difficult topic. It was a hidden film. There were so many things the audience had to really decipher for themselves. And tremendous performances by everybody, and he was very happy with it. But obviously I think the audience didn't share his enthusiasm in the Northern European Anglo-Saxon world. In Japan they did. And in Italy, Spain and France they did. But you know that's just what you get to do. That's how it is.
He also liked his other films. I mean he basically liked his films. No doubt about it. He was happy with this 2001.
Did Stanley ever watch his films? Did he revisit them years later?
Only if he had to. And he had to when, for example, there was an issue of a new print or for a new release, or for television. Then he would watch it and make sure they have a good print. Or for technical reasons. But he would not watch his own films for entertainment.
What films and directors did Stanley Kubrick admire? There were many. He loved Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Ingmar Bergman, Carlos Saura, Edgar Reitz, Felini. Yeah, lots. Edgar Reitz, he did a film called Heimat. Amazing scenes there. The best thing that came out of Germany after the war. Mind you, very little came out of Germany after the war, but I mean Reitz is great. He loved Carlos Saura, a Spanish director who did a film called Cría Cuervos. Wonderful film. Also Blood Wedding by Saura. Hhe loved Woody Allen and he liked Steven Spielberg films. Oh he liked lots of films. He was very knowledgeable and in fact he saw everything. I also know there were a lot of films he would give up after ten minutes. We had stacks of prints in our projection room and many times he would only see reel one because if reel one somehow leaves you totally cold, the risk is too great to go on and waste another hour and a half. He was an ardent film lover.
You mentioned how Kubrick loved Spielberg and Allen and other people who you've ultimately talk to in your documentary. And in the documentary they refer to Kubrick, almost universally, as one of the great directors ever to walk the face of the Earth. What qualities do you think are influencing so many people and putting him into a position of such a highly revered director?
Well, he was in one way quite unique. I guess you could say the same thing of Scorsese that he was very influential for young people and young filmmakers by seeing how something is done. In that respect, he was like Picasso. You don't have to like Picasso. Not taking anything away from him, he was, objectively speaking, a real switch on the tracks. He just established himself as one of the major influential painters of the century. But then the same is true for Shosta Kovich as a composer. In that sense, Kubrick was just a major influence on the whole generation of filmmakers. And it didn't even require that you liked his film. There's an element of objectivity where you recognize somebody's craft.
Combined form and content. There were in history marvelous filmmakers. Take Charlie Chaplain where it was all content. And the form was real sloppy. Or you have people who are only form and the film actually is totally shallow, but the art department and special effects are brilliant. The content you wouldn't be able to tell anybody what it is about. But the other extreme, he tried to combine both. Very consciously, he wanted the films to look really right, to be well photographed, everything had to be good in his filming, camera side, but he insisted on content.
One of the people who sites him as a definite influencer now is kind of seeing one of his final projects to completion and that would be Steven Spielberg with AI. How much of Kubrick's work has been carried through to the theatrical version of AI?
A lot. I mean, a lot. I mean we had over a thousand drawings. Chris Baker, the artist from Birmingham, very, very talented young man, were hired by Steven as well. Of course all the screenplays, the various versions, I gave them all to Steven and discussed it. Steven rewrote the screenplay and showed it to me and I read it, and it's terrific. It's excellent. Stanley would have been the first to applaud. There's no doubt in my mind. He made a few changes, but they were all very good. He actually improved it. Steven is a great talent and in fact, as different as these two men are, the common denominator is just sheer talent. Which is something that is hard to define because talent is outside of intelligence or knowledge, it's a mixture of instinct and I don't know what it is...it's definitely a quality that is there and that comes up as ideas. It has a vision. Kubrick was full of this, but so is Steven. I mean Steven is really a tremendous talent. No doubt about it.
Now there are obviously at least two other works that Kubrick shelved along his career, Napoleon and The Aryan Papers. Do you know if any plans to either publish those manuscripts or screenplays?
Maybe I'll do that. I have such an enormous amount of research material on Napoleon and it would be fun to publish the Napoleon screenplay illustrated with our research material. Maybe I'll do that next year when I have a bit of time. There's no rush. It has been sitting there for thirty years. It can wait another two.
The Aryan Papers is out of my hands. It belongs to Warner Bros. I have no rights in this. It's one of those. I don't know what they're doing. I just spoke this morning to somebody there. I know that people are interested in it, but it's a very difficult film to make.
Kubrick was often maybe mistakenly seen as a recluse. First of all, do you feel that he was reclusive?
He was not a recluse at all. There were always people coming to visit him at his house. But what is true is that he didn't speak to the press, television and radio people, and he was not a partygoer. He went to my New Year's Eve party for twenty years in a row, but that was about the only one. There's always been sort of thirty people there so he knew them all. So if that's a recluse, then he's a recluse. I don't define a recluse like that.
Was there any particular reason that he gave to not do press?
There was a reason. He always felt very strongly that he didn't have to add anything to his films. He felt "If there was anything important I could add, I would have put it in the film in the first place." He didn't want to explain himself. He didn't like it at all. "What did you mean in 2001?"
So if he had survived and as DVD technology continues and his work is reissued, odds are he probably never would have done what is called a "Director's Commentary."
Absolutely not. But he applauded DVD. The invention is brilliant, typically for the reasons I explained first and also the fact that you could have such good quality. He certainly liked that. He was a very visual man and he loved the idea. But the fact that before dubbing territories could be served better, he really liked that very much.
What brought Stanley Kubrick to England from New York and then L.A.?
A plan that helped to attract foreign filmmakers into Britain. It was an act of financial incentive and for Lolita, it was great. You know it was the time of the man who got the big budget approvals. He got used to Britain. But he always returned back to America and in fact, he started with Arthur C. Clarke working on 2001, in New York. But then it was time to shoot, he went to the "M" Studio, which then existed in Borehamwood in England. It was much, much easier to do it there than going to California. Well, then the children grow up and they go to school. Things come together and he liked England. He also hated traveling, and he didn't fly so it was such a drag to go by boat back and forth and so, so he finally lived in England. So that was started off by just very practical financial considerations. It ended up because he liked it. He also liked the climate. He liked bad weather.
Are there any myths that surround Kubrick or his films that you could help put to rest?
A myth? Well what the myth was, other than he was a recluse? He was a neurotic? I don't think he was neurotic at all. He was a perfectionist? Yes, he was a perfectionist. So what? I consider that a compliment. What else did they say? In the British Press they said he was mad like a dog. Well they're just wrong. He certainly wasn't. He was a very humorous, kind, demanding man. He was no pushover that's for sure.