The Rolling Stone Interview: Stanley Kubrick in 1987

March 7, 2011 4:55 PM ET
The Rolling Stone Interview: Stanley Kubrick in 1987
Illustration by Steve Alcorn

He didn't bustle into the room, and he didn't wander in. Truth, as he would reiterate several times, is multi-faceted, and it would be fair to say that Stanley Kubrick entered the executive suite at Pinewood Studios, outside London, in a multifaceted manner. He was at once happy to have found the place after a twenty-minute search, apologetic about being late and apprehensive about the torture he might be about to endure. Stanley Kubrick, I had been told, hates interviews.

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It's hard to know what to expect of the man if you've only seen his films. One senses in those films painstaking craftsmanship, a furious intellect at work, a single-minded devotion. His movies don't lend themselves to easy analysis; this may account for the turgid nature of some of the books that have been written about his art. Take this example: "And while Kubrick feels strongly that the visual powers of film make ambiguity an inevitability as well as a virtue, he would not share Bazin's mystical belief that the better film makers are those who sacrifice their personal perspectives to a 'fleeting crystallization of a reality [of] whose environing presence one is ceaselessly aware.' "

This article appeared in the August 27, 1987 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

One feels that an interview conducted on this level would be pretentious bullshit. Kubrick, however, seemed entirely unpretentious. He was wearing running shoes and an old corduroy jacket. There was an ink stain just below the pocket where some ball point pen had bled to death.

"What is this place?" Kubrick asked.

"It's called the executive suite," I said.

"I think they put big shots up here."

Kubrick looked around at the dark wood-paneled walls, the chandeliers, the leather couches and chairs. "Is there a bathroom?" he asked, with some urgency.

"Across the hall," I said.

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The director excused himself and went looking for the facility. I reviewed my notes. Kubrick was born in the Bronx in 1928. He was an undistinguished student whose passions were tournament-level chess and photography. After graduation from Taft High School at the age of seventeen, he landed a prestigious job as a photographer for Look magazine, which he quit after four years in order to make his first film. Day of the Fight (1950) was a documentary about the middleweight boxer Walter Cartier. After a second documentary, Flying Padre (1951), Kubrick borrowed $10,000 from relatives to make Fear and Desire (1953), his first feature, an arty film that he now finds "embarrassing." Kubrick, his first wife and two friends were the entire crew for the film. By necessity, Kubrick was director, cameraman, lighting engineer, makeup man, administrator, propman and unit chauffeur. Later in his career, he would take on some of these duties again, for reasons other than necessity.

Kubrick's breakthrough film was Paths of Glory (1957). During the filming, he met an actress, Christiane Harlan, whom he eventually married. Christiane sings a song at the end of the film in a scene that, on four separate viewings, has brought tears to my eyes.

Kubrick's next film was Spartacus (1960), a work he finds disappointing. He was brought in to direct after the star, Kirk Douglas, had a falling-out with the original director, Anthony Mann. Kubrick was not given control of the script, which he felt was full of easy moralizing. He was used to making his own films his own way, and the experience chafed. He has never again relinquished control over any aspect of his films.

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And he has taken some extraordinary and audacious chances with those works. The mere decision to film Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (1961) was enough to send some censorious sorts into a spittle-spewing rage. Dr. Strangelove (1963), based on the novel Red Alert, was conceived as a tense thriller about the possibility of accidental nuclear war. As Kubrick worked on the script, however, he kept bumping up against the realization that the scenes he was writing were funny in the darkest possible way. It was a matter of slipping on a banana peel and annihilating the human race. Stanley Kubrick went with his gut feeling: he directed Dr. Strangelove as a black comedy. The film is routinely described as a masterpiece.

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