I recall the 90s fondly, the height of film geek culture, when America mimicked the French way of celebrating movie directors. This was in part due to Miramax films, which elevated pop culture’s taste in movies… and for unleashing Quentin Tarantino on the world. A flesh and blood film encyclopedia, Tarantino brought attention to many things, including Stanley Kubrick. Today considered by many – the greatest film director ever – at the time, Kubrick was an arcane figure. His name was known, but he hadn’t released a movie since 1987 in “Full Metal Jacket.” Some people I spoke to thought he was already dead.
There were retrospectives of his work, mainly showing “A Clockwork Orange”, “2001” and “The Shining.” But overall the knowledge of Kubrick and even what he looked like was limited. Vincent LaBrutto wrote a biography which was forgettable and John Baxter wrote one too, which was entertaining but questionable in its authenticity (though much more fun than LaBrutto’s). Other film giants did interview books (Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Robert Altman). In other words, if you wanted to know about a film director, Kubrick was the last guy who’s process you could study. What you knew about Kubrick was that he was reclusive, shot 100 takes – at least – and when he did a movie and he was rarely seen and maybe he was dead. Kubrick certainly was invisible from the rich film movement of the 90s. And then came “Eyes Wide Shut.”
Kubrick didn’t just come back, he enlisted the world’s biggest movie stars, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, to star in an erotic film of some kind. That is what the press entailed in any case. Suddenly, Kubrick transformed into a household name. “Barry Lyndon” which at this time was rarely screened (in Los Angeles anyway) suddenly was shown in some retrospectives. To illustrate how difficult it was to see “Barry Lyndon” projected, I had to sneak into a UCLA class to catch a screening once. Suddenly, along with Martin Scorsese, Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman, Kubrick was considered a great living director. People began connecting “2001” to “A Clockwork Orange” to “The Shining.” The same guy made those all those films. Holy cow!
And when Kubrick died before “Eyes Wide Shut” was completed, he of course transcended into something even bigger. He became arguably the “greatest film director ever.” There were more revelations about how the master worked. Matthew Modine published his diary, “Full Metal Diary.” Frederic Rafael who co-wrote “Eyes Wide Shut” also put out one, “Eyes Wide Open.” Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s brother in-law, published “Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never made” which includes the master’s research, screenplay, and interviews. Malcolm McDowell has done amazing DVD commentary for “A Clockwork Orange” that reveals a great deal about Kubrick. Even Steven Spielberg directed what would have been Kubrick’s next film, “AI: Artificial Intelligence.” The knowledge about the “greatest film director ever” was rich. Retrospectives of all his films were constant, in a loop, never ending (I just saw another one in Paris last June).
While I know many details of my favorite directors, I never thought I would know everything there is to know about Stanley Kubrick… and I was okay with that. There’s the legendary Playboy interview he did and a great interview with him on YouTube. Kubrick was mostly silent and allowed his films to speak for themselves. He was the consummate cinema God. A mystery that would never be solved, like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. He generally took the Fifth Amendment with the press. You had to work to find out about him, only increasing his God status.
Well, this changed two weeks ago when I started reading “Stanley Kubrick and Me: Thirty Years at His Side” by Emilio D’Allessandro with Fillipo Ullivieri. Emilio was Kubrick’s devoted assistant since “Barry Lyndon” and has essentially converted the God into a Man.
An all-purpose assistant, right hand man, confidant, Emilio was Kubrick’s Tonto, Robin, Kato, whatever, he was an essential part of who Kubrick was, how he lived, and how he made his films. The essential sidekick for any superhero. Kubrick didn’t even want to make “Eyes Wide Shut” without Emilio. What’s special about his account of working with one of the rare geniuses of our lifetime (there have been very few in human history, and less in cinema, even though the word “genius” is tossed around like a football) is that Emilio didn’t even understand who Kubrick was. He didn’t watch his films, he rarely watched any films (he was too busy working for Kubrick 12-16 hours a day, even when Kubrick wasn’t shooting a movie). In fact, the two had almost nothing in common. Except that Kubrick needed him and Emilio needed a job. Emilio simply loved the guy, while remaining almost totally naive about who he was. And that’s probably why Kubrick liked him so much. Emilio accepted Kubrick for who he was, a controlling, fearful, creatively-ravenous, animal-loving hoarder who never, ever accepted “no” for an answer and hardly trusted anyone. He even forced Emilio to give up Formula Racing, his life’s passion (Kubrick was terrified Emilio would die racing).
If you actually love movies and if you actually love Stanley Kubrick, this book is your wet dream. This book converts the Genius into a neurotic, funny, obsessed, wise, terrified guy who had complete control over his life… until that control finally killed him (read how in the book). There’s tons of anecdotes I can mention, such as Kubrick’s obsession over balls of strings, how he made Emilio stalk the lab person who handled the dailies, or how much he liked people – but you’re going to read about it.
I’d rather list some things I had no idea were portions of Stanley Kubrick’s personality. And let me add, I considered him my favorite director since I was 17. I went so far as to track down his early photographs for Look Magazine. I partook in film geek activities I’d rather not admit to understand how this guy worked.
WHAT I DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT STANLEY KUBRICK
(and I’m only listing what I remember)
1) He was a big time animal lover. I read an interview a long time ago, wherein the journalist witnessed him picking up after one of his dogs. But I thought he had several dogs, maybe a dozen at most. But he had MANY dogs and MANY cats. He even made his assistants carry leashes in case they found stray dogs. I recall in John Baxter’s account of Kubrick how he gave Spielberg a hard time for how he handled the snakes in “Raiders of the Last Ark.” But the length he went to care for animal, this you simply have to read about. When one of his cats was dying, he made the Vet live in his house in case he needed him around.
2) You’ve read about what a nut Kubrick was with details, how orderly he is. But did you know he was a messy guy? His office, quarters, etc, were ruins, warehouses of stuff, books he owned, books borrowed from the library years overdue (with other overdue books used as bookmarks), couch shredded by cats, and sometimes cat urine. Like a Tasmanian devil, he would cause a mess simply by stepping into a space. He would spread out papers in the backseat of his car while he was being driven somewhere.
3) Stanley didn’t like keys. He was terrified of losing them. So he didn’t lock anything. He made Emilio make copies of all the keys in the house (there were over 100). For a man who didn’t trust anyone, this is astonishing. You would think he would convert one of his dogs into a guard dog or something.
4) Stanley was not an egomaniac. I don’t think any of my heroes are nice guys. Most film directors sound like people you never want to be around (99% of them sound like assholes). Kubrick appeared to be at the top of this list of obsessed, gigantic egos who would crush anything that stood in his way. In this book, you didn’t get a sense that he had a big ego.
He definitely suffered from OCD, sure, and that could drive you insane if you were working for him. Look, he was obsessed, but he actually asked people for their ideas all the time (this is seconded by Matthew Modine and Malcolm McDowell). Yes, he sometimes did hundreds of takes, but making the greatest film was always the reason, never to prove he was the smartest guy (the proof is in the pudding… his films are the greatest).
Stanley pushed the medium further than any Hollywood director before or after him. As he got older, he got better, which occurs like 1% of the time (Douglas Sirk is the only other director I can think of who made a great last film). Emilio was trusted because he always knew why Stanley wanted something. He treated his films no differently than his real life. The guy was a critical thinker and he applied this to his movies. His ego was absent from the equation, but his fears were a different story.
5) I used to wonder why Stanley made only 11 films. After reading this book, it’s amazing that he made as many as 11 films. This was the only way he could make movies. He was a method director. For “The Shining” he studied every hotel in America. His movies are so rich because he has studied his subjects with bottomless depth. He had critically thought every detail and micro-detail. Yes, this I knew, but reading about it in this book, you truly get that he could not have squeezed out another movie. He needed 5 million questions answered before the felt comfortable enough to shoot it, which is the total opposite of what happens today. Of Spielberg, he openly wondered how he could make films at such speed. Kubrick wanted to transport you into another world. He needed to break that world down and remake it brick by brick himself (with the hands of his assistants). How this occurs is micro-detailed in the book in a way no other books about Kubrick even comes close to illustrating. We’re lucky we got 11.
Throughout film history, you either get directors who openly say they expect their audience to think (Woody Allen) or who openly say they just want to entertain (Michael Bay). In his Playboy interview, and I paraphrase here, Stanley professed that he wanted to make films smart and stupid people could enjoy together. He is the only director who has ever said this. We can safely say he has achieved this. This new book by his angelic, non-judgemental sidekick who felt unconditional love for Stanley Kubrick is a Valentine to a man who cared for dumb and smart audiences alike, since he didn’t separate intelligence from stupidity. Since we are all very smart and very stupid, THE THEME in all of his films. Stanley himself was very smart and very stupid, in other words, a homo-sapien who lived 73 years during the twentieth century, who happened to be one of its geniuses. Whether it’s a smart or dumb thing to say, this book is perhaps the greatest document of a film director ever written.
Written by: Norith Soth