Jan Harlan is well qualified to make the
intimate documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures, which premiered
at the Berlin Film Festival last February, and is part of the newly remastered
DVD set of Kubrick's films. Aside from being the executive producer of all of
Kubrick's films since 1975's Barry Lyndon, (including the upcoming A.I.)
he is also the director's brother-in-law.
Harlan displays a charming old-world manner,
speaking with a light German accent smoothed by many years of living in England.
We spoke over breakfast the morning after his film was shown at the Seattle
International Film Festival.
Gianni Truzzi: The first
thing I noticed, from the opening minute, was the love and affection that went
into the making of your film. What do you most want your audience to come away
with at the end?
You have an impression of one of the greatest American artists of the time.
This impression was so far limited to the films. You could say that's good
enough, that there's no need to add to it; you don't need to know about Picasso,
in order to appreciate who he is, because the paintings are good enough and the
same is true of Kubrick, but many, many people would be interested in knowing a
bit more, particularly since there is a distorted picture around the globe about
the strange man, the strange recluse. I thought it would only right to correct
this picture a bit for those that are interested. I'm not saying that it's
absolutely necessary to see this film. It's necessary to see his films,
So, you feel that the popular picture [of Kubrick as both a filmmaker
and individual] was wrong?
It almost didn't exist. It was fed a little bit by the British press, since
he never talked to the press, with very few exceptions. Like, at the end of each
film he would give two, three interviews to major American magazines, Time and
Newsweek or so on, that was it, and he did that very reluctantly and
really only to support Warner Brothers, not to let them down completely on the
publicity side. That was his motive, you see: he always said he had nothing to
add. Anything important would be in his movies. I certainly wanted to give
In some respects I thought that as far as his work was concerned, much
of what had been said wasn't too far off the mark, in term of his hard driving
JH: Oh, yes! He was a man who
really didn't make any short cuts. He wanted his films to be meaningful and
correct, to satisfy himself. I don't consider it an accusation if someone calls
him a perfectionist, I consider it a compliment. But he was certainly not a
recluse. To be a recluse and a film director is a contradiction, unless you
define it as a person who doesn't talk to the press or go on television. If
that's your definition, then yes, you are a recluse but he really wasn't because
he had such a dense grid of telephone contacts and correspondents around the
world, so many friends. And I think this comes across in the documentary. Just
think of John Kelly, for example, who was the chief of Warner Brothers at the
time of Clockwork Orange (and is now the head of Sony pictures). They
must have spoken in the last twenty-five years, weekly, just as an example.
GT: Many of the actors he worked
with talked about the process of discovery. What did you discover in putting
JH: I had so much information
about people, working with him for thirty years, it was not a process of
discovery. I had the material, I knew the material, and I wanted this
documentary to be representative of the man as he was. I didn't have to approve
of him, I could afford to let critical remarks stand. I didn't have to make him
"Saint Stanley"; that was
totally unnecessary. He was okay as he was. The fact that such a creative artist
could be sometimes difficult and demanding is acceptable. It is always the great
talent that moves things and makes things better for the world. Most people are
not in that category. I'm not.
The actors liked him very much, this totally
new atmosphere of trying to get something right, not working to the clock,
absolutely ready to abandon a whole day's work. You can only do that if you have
low operating costs. We typically would spend in a week on what other films
would spend in a day. So we could afford to take so long. That was the great
luxury he afforded himself.
I knew him so well, I spoke to him every single
day for thirty years. The other day somebody asked me, "How often did you
talk to Kubrick?" I made a little calculation, and said, "only 50,000
telephone conversations." And of course, we had our offices less than a
mile apart so I saw him almost every day.
GT: I was struck by how Kubrick's
career comes out of still photography and his experience with Look magazine.
When he jumped to film, did he abandon still photography?
JH: He didn't. He always had a camera with him, he was always taking
pictures. That's why I have such a glut of pictures of his family and his
children, and dogs and cats, what have you. I must have thousands of photographs
of his cats and dogs. And 8mm films. I have a whole box full of 8mm films.
GT: Is there an undiscovered
vault of Kubrick's stills?
JH: There's a huge amount of
unpublished stills. I'm working on all these things because I'm sitting on a
mountain of material. Next year I will go through all his papers, see what is
interesting to the public, what is not, I'll talk to the trustees about this. My
job is to sort through all this stuff.
GT: It was intriguing to see a
bit of Fear and Desire (Kubrick's first film), although it's hard to tell
much about from such a short clip, and so few people have seen it. What can you
tell me about it?
JH: I just put that in for the
sake of completeness, but its not available. He didn't like it, so I'm not going
to make it available. It's a fictitious war. You could see that he had a
tremendous eye for visuals. But he disowned the film. It was a useful exercise,
but he didn't want it to be seen as his film, and I respect that. One day, maybe
the children, when they are in charge they may have to do something else. I'm
not in charge; his wife is in charge, and she doesn't want it to be shown.
GT: In the documentary, Malcolm
McDowell commented that in the film business you have a very intense
relationship and move on. I thought that characterized what Kubrick did with his
subject matter, progressing from film to film, there's rarely a common thread.
JH: The common thread is there,
it's just a bit hidden. It's human nature. The frailty of human nature, the
dependence on our emotions rather than on intellect or technology. If you look
closely, you'll see that. Strangelove, the driving element is an emotional
thing, insanity. In 2001, HAL the computer is working perfectly well.
It's not HAL that screws up, it's the people that force HAL to not disclose
information. I'm quoting Kubrick by saying this, "we are governed, in the
end, when it comes to the crunch -- he used another term, actually, which I
don't want to repeat -- the famous fan -- then our emotions take over, totally.
Knowledge, rational thinking, pure IQ are all out of the window. You see that in
relationships, with children, partners, 25% of all human energy is absorbed in
jealousy and rivalry, and very often unfounded.
Of course, he was interested in Napoleon, an
expert in Napoleon. The interesting thing about Napoleon was that how can such a
hugely talented man, relatively young, who was received by the neighboring
countries he invaded with applause, fantastic politician, great military genius,
and then, in the end, he turned against himself. He got totally carried away,
didn't manage to have peace with England, although it was offered, did this
folly of going to Russia which totally finished him off. Why? How come? He
should have known better. He could have known better, but it's not the knowledge
that governs him.
GT: It seemed like timing killed
that project [Napoleon].
JH: Yes, sure, that's right.
Because Waterloo came out, it was a good film but it didn't do well.
GT: Yet he never came back to it.
JH: I can tell you why. Then he
did Clockwork Orange, and that was a big hit. Then he was interested in Barry
Lyndon. Then, by the time he could have focused on Napoleon, he
should have made it for television. Now something else has happened. These kind
of long, sweeping epic films were done extremely well by the BBC. Over eight
hours, big long historic films. And he didn't want to work for television. But
he thought, actually that this would be much better, if he had six hours instead
of three. But that was not his thing. So, it drifted away. In the meantime, he
had bought Arthur Schnitzler's novella in 1972 -- in fact, I bought it, for him.
Life goes on. He never offered the Napoleon script to anybody else. It
was his baby.
GT: Was Barry Lyndon a
kind of surrogate for Napoleon?
JH: I've read that. Just because
it's also a period film doesn't mean it's a surrogate. Napoleon was
focused on this man who could hardly be prepared with the Barry Lyndon
character, this lightweight, love-starved figure. No, it's too farfetched. But a
lot of people have said that.
GT: What was your role as
JH: I did everything having to do
with money. With making deals, with negotiating, talking to the outsiders about
money. I had nothing to do with the artistic decisions. Nothing. I suggested
music, when it came to classical music, but I didn't decide. Everything you see
in a Kubrick film was his decision. We were not a committee. He always said no
committee has ever written a great symphony or a great novel or painted a great
picture. The same is true for films, no committee has ever made a good movie.
Our "army," small as it was, had a
general and soldiers. There were hardly any middle ranks. But the advantage of
that is that he took everybody very, very seriously. He took the hairdresser,
the makeup man, he had direct contact. He really dealt with each person who
contributed to the look of his pictures. And he very often had the experience
that, when he called people, they didn't believe it was him. Because he did this
kind of direct contact that other big directors or big executives didn't do;
they go into the level of command. If he had a problem with the level of his
printing, he would call the fellow in the lab who actually laces up the
negatives. He didn't want to talk to his boss. And so you had people picking up
the telephone and he would say, "this is Stanley Kubrick" and of
course the didn't believe him. They thought it was a hoax.
It was as recent as Liz Ziegler, the steadicam
operator on Eyes Wide Shut [and brilliant at it – G.T.]. Stanley called
her because he wanted to first have an impression of this important crewperson
over the telephone, because a steadicam operator is a key, key person if you
plan to use a lot of steadicam -- they are in close contact. So, he simply got
her telephone number and called her up and said, "Hello, this is Stanley
Kubrick," and she says, "Pull another one!" and put the phone
down. And this happened quite often to him. At the moment, he was quite
irritated, but he says, oh well, I've got to live with that. So he calls her
again and says, "Look, why don't you call Warner Brothers, they'll give you
my number and you can call me back," and finally he convinced her that he
is genuine. But this happened quite a lot.
GT: In the early '60s period,
Kubrick was coming into his peak time at the same time as the French New Wave
and the notion of the auteur. How much effect did that have on his
outlook? Did it grease the skids for his approach to directing?
JH: I don't have a neat answer
for that, except to say that we are all influenced by the art of our time. He
loved early Bergman. He watched everything. He was extremely well informed. That
was one of the reasons I wanted to have Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese in the
documentary, even though they didn't know Kubrick, they knew and admired each
other's work. Stanley saw Radio Days three times in a week, said it was
like a family album. He was a true American, a true New Yorker.
GT: But the emergence of the idea
of the auteur filmmaker, which Kubrick seemed to have taken full
JH: Yes, it suited him extremely
well. He knew very, very early on that he didn't want to work in a machinery
where he was dictated to. He would rather do something very small but be in
charge. He had to be in charge in order to be happy. That was why he was so
unhappy about Spartacus. Nobody is to be blamed, I don't blame Kirk
Douglas. He was in charge -- good for him. This is not a criticism; that's just
how it was.
GT: He was, from what I've read,
rather dismissive of Spartacus.
JH: He just didn't identify with
the way the script was structured. He didn't like the ending. He liked the
battle scenes, he liked the training camp, but that's only an element in the
film. He really didn't like the ending. It's not important, even, because it's
obvious. I don't think Spartacus is a bad film at all, but it doesn't
really have his handwriting. It has it in scenes, but compare it to Paths of
Glory. That was a true Kubrick film. His ambition was not to make many
films, but every film he made should have staying power, should mean something,
should be more than just entertainment. I think he succeeded, and that's why
Warner Brothers left him alone and trusted him. He was a good trustee with
Warner Brothers' money. He could be trusted. So he took a year longer. Nobody
bothered him about it and nobody complained. " Just leave the guy
alone." was very much Warner Brothers' attitude, he'll probably come
through, and in most cases he did. Barry Lyndon was a disappointment because
people didn't like it, the English-speaking world would say it was a failure.
But in the Latin world, it did extremely well. The city of Paris outgrossed the
whole of Great Britain.
GT: What do you want to be sure
that my readers know?
JH: I would like them to know that Kubrick was a great American artist of his time. I put him on the same level like Shostakovich, Picasso. He belongs to a group of fifty, sixty people worldwide who are in that category. He always split his audience, split the critics, it doesn't really matter, so did all the other names I just mentioned. They were not generally applauded. Beethoven was booed when his symphonies came out. It didn't do any harm in the long run.