Stanley Kubrick, director of Lolita
An Interview with Stanley Kubrick Director of L O
L I T A
Unpublished; 1962; NYC
Terry and Stanley had a starcrossed relationship--like two planets dancing in orbit with each other--achieving perfect alignment--then veering off into remote areas of the universe. They met when they needed each other most: Stanley was making a movie about the annihlation of planet earth--and needed a miracle to make it funny. Terry, about to be dubiously crowned 'The Candy Man' needed a break from the 'Quality-Lit' scene he was getting bored of teasing. They found each other through Peter Sellers, who, at Christmas time, bought 100 copies of his favorite novel, The Magic Christian, and gave them to friends--friends like Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick saw in the novel a talent which could be orchestrated--a writer of dialogue who could be cut loose like Charlie Parker.
Before Stanley read The Magic Christian, Esquire sent Terry to do an interview with the unknown director who had just finished Lolita. Upon meeting Kubrick in England, Terry's New Journalism investigations were bursting out across the pond in Esquire, including: "How I signed up for $250 a Day For the Big Parade Through Havana bla, bla, bla and Wound Up In Guatamala Working For the CIA," and "Twirling at Ole Miss"--which Tom Wolfe cites as the story which started New Journalism and Gonzo. Upon Strangelove's release, with Terry so popular, and with the previously contraband Candy making her debut as a controversial best-seller --the press turned Terry into the 'author' of the film--a tresspass Kubrick never completely forgave.
An Interview with Stanley Kubrick
by Terry Southern
July, 1962; NYC
Probably the most talented, surely the most ambitious, and absolutely the youngest full-fledged film-maker on the American scene today, is Stanley Kubrick -- who, at only 33, has created a body of work (six features and two documentaries) as richly diverse as it is substantial.
Paths Of Glory, acclaimed by critics throughout the world as one of the best war pictures ever filmed was made when he was 28 years old -- certainly as remarkable a cinematic achievement as that of any contemporary American.
At 30, he was given the singular distinction (if not exactly honor) of directing the super production, Spartacus, with a budget of ten million dollars. Aware, intuitive, and deeply attuned to his times, Kubrick is a chess-playing poet and extremely articulate, speaking in visual metaphor, with the kind of relentless honesty of principle and direction that is a rare felicity indeed.
The following interview took place in the New York office of Harris-Kubrick Productions, and is a transcript of the taped recording.
Southern: What was it mainly that appealed to you in the novel, Lolita?
Kubrick: Well it's certainly one of the great love stories, isn't it? I think Lionel Trilling's piece in Encounter is very much to the point when he speaks of it as "the first great love story of the 20t century." And he uses as his criteria the total shock and estrangement which the lovers, in all the great love stories of the past have produced on the people around them. If you consider Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, The Red and the Black, they all had this one thing in common, this element of the illicit, or at least what was considered illicit at the time, and in each case it caused their complete alienation from society.
But then in the 20th century, with the disintegration of moral and spiritual values, it became increasingly difficult, and finally impossible, for an author to credibly create that kind of situation, to-to conceive of a relationship which would produce this shock and estrangement -- so that what was resorted to achieve the shock value, was erotic description. Whereas Trilling felt that Lolita somehow did succeed, in the classic tradition, having all the stormy passion and tenderness of the great love story as well as this element of the lovers being estranged from everyone around them. And, of course, Nabokov was brilliant in withholding any indication of the author's approval of the relationship. In fact, it isn't until the very end, when Humbert sees her again four years later, and she's no longer by any-stretch of the definition a nymphet, that the really genuine and selfless love he has for her is revealed. In other words, this element of their estrangement, even from the author -- and certainly, from the reader--is accomplished, and sustained, almost through the very end.
Southern: I want to ask you some questions more about the actual filming of Lolita, but first I'd like to go back for a moment--to the time when you were 21, working as a Look photographer, and ask you how you got started as a filmmaker.
Kubrick: I just rented a camera and made a movie--a 28 minute documentary--Day of the Fight was the name of it, a day in the life of a boxer, from the time he wakes in the morning until he steps in the ring that night.
Southern: I understand you made the film entirely by yourself--did you also finance it?
Kubrick: Well, it didn't cost much--I think the camera was ten bucks a day--and film, developed and printed, is ten cents a foot. The most expensive thing was the music...the whole film cost 3900 dollars, and I think about 2900 of it was for the music, having it sync'd in.
Southern: Your first feature was Fear and Desire?
Kubrick: Yes, a pretentious, inept and boring film--a youthful mistake costing about 50,000 dollars--but it was distributed by Joseph Burstyn, in the art houses and caused a little ripple of publicity and attention. ..I mean there were people around who found some good things in it, and on the strength of that I was able to raise private financing to make a second feature-length film, Killer's Kiss. And that was a silly story too, but my concern was still in getting experience and simply functioning in the medium, so the content of a story seemed secondary to me. I just took the line of least resistance, whatever story came to hand. And for another thing I had no money to live on at the time, much less to buy good story material with--nor did I have the time to work it into shape--and I didn't want to take a job, and get off the track, so I had to keep moving. Fortunately too, I wasn't offered any jobs during this period--I mean perhaps if I had been offered some half-assed TV job of something I wouldn't have had the sense to turn it down and would have been thrown off the track of what I really wanted to do, but it didn't happen that way. In any case, I made that picture Killer's Kiss, and United Artists saw it and bought it.
Southern: It was about that time, wasn't it, that you met James Harris and formed your own company?
Kubrick: That's right. He was running a television distribution company at the time...together we made The Killing. That's the first film I made with decent actors, a professional crew, and under the proper circumstances. It was the first really good film I made, and it got a certain amount of attention...then we bought the rights to Paths of Glory. That was a book I had read when I was about fourteen, and one day I suddenly remembered it.
Southern: I understand there was some controversy over the ending of the film--where the French soldiers are executed for desertion--that you asked to change it so that the men would not be shot at the end of the film.
Kubrick: It wasn't a controversy--I mean there were some people who said you've got to save the men, but, of course, it was out of the question. That would have been like making a film about capital punishment in which the executed man was innocent--it would just be pointless. And also, of course, it actually happened--the French Army mutinies of 1917 were fairly extensive, whole regiments marched out of the trenches, and men were executed, by lot.
Southern: Is Paths of Glory still banned in France?
Kubrick: Yes--it's also banned in Switzerland, Spain, and Israel, because of reciprocal agreements these countries have with France.
Southern: Did the film in fact, make any money?
Kubrick: It's probably made some money by now. But what you have to realize is that the period of movies, starting from about the middle fifties, began to decline in terms of box-office, right down to where it is now, which is about 40% of what it was before television. Television, you know, was a big threat in the beginning because it was free, but then they ran out of things to show and it started to get boring -- and at that point the major studios, in order to show better balance sheet, very unwisely began unloading their pictures, selling them to TV, which then gave the networks something at least as good and sometimes better than what could be seen in the theatres. Now Paths of Glory was made about the middle of this period of decline in movie business, and by comparison to the average 'A' picture during that time it did average business. So it wasn't exactly a smash success, and I suppose there are a lot of films which can't be expected to be, but which are still worth making -- if you feel like making them.
Southern: There are always a few films which, after their initial round of distribution, start being recalled -- and this seems to be happening to Paths of Glory, as though it were becoming a sort of cinema-club classic.
Kubrick: Well, the owner of the New Yorker theatre called me the other day, for example, and said they didn't want to give him a print of the film. You see, the distributor gets about fifty bucks for renting a print, and so he doesn't even want to bother dragging it out of the vault. I mean they've got so many other things working for them they just don't want to be bothered.
Southern: Now, after Paths of Glory, you got involved with Brando's production of One-Eyed Jacks, which you were supposed to direct, I believe-- what happened there?
Kubrick: Well, we became friendly, you know, and he told me about this 'western' he was doing . . . and it's really a very long and involved story, but anyway we worked on it, the script, for about six months--Marlon, Calder Willingham, and myself . . . and Guy Trosper, Carlo Fiori, George Glass, Walter Seltzer, Frank Rosenberg. . .
Southern: I suppose it must have become apparent at one point that Brando wanted to direct the picture himself.
Kubrick: That became apparent, yes. . that I was there just as a sort of wing-man, you know, to keep him from getting shot down by the studio. It also became apparent that we were going to have extreme difficulty agreeing on the story, and...well, finally it just didn't seem that it could work out as far as my directing it was concerned.
Southern: Brando has been quoted as saying of you, "Stanley is unusually perceptive and delicately attuned to people. He has an adroit intellect and is a creative thinker, not a repeater, not a fact-gatherer,. he digests what he learns and brings to a new project an original point of view and a reserved passion." This being his attitude towards you, it seems strange that you should not have been able to work together on the film.
Kubrick: It's possible, of course, for two adroit, perceptive, delicately attuned people not to agree in any way, shape or form.
Southern: Well, from there you went to direct Sparticus--this is the only picture you've done, isn't it, where you weren't pretty much your own boss?
Kubrick: Yes, its the only picture I've worked on where I was employed--and in a situation like that the director has no real rights, except the rights of persuasion...and I've found that's the wrong end of the lever to be on. First of all, you very often fail to persuade, and secondly, even when you do persuade, you waste so much time doing it that it gets to be ridiculous.
Southern: Now that brings us to your chef d'oeuvre, Lolita. After the script was finished you began casting--and I imagine you must have looked at quite a few young girls. Did you actually look for a girl who was between 12 and 13?
Kubrick: Well, she had to be between 12 and 13 at the beginning, but between 16 and 17 at the end--I mean one girl who could play both parts--and we did look at quite a few young girls, some of them very young indeed. It was amazing how many parents would write in, you know, from Montana and so on, saying: "My daughter really is Lolita!"--that sort of thing. But we looked at them all, and of course, Sue Lyon was just one of them--but the moment we saw her, we through 'My God, if this girl can act--because she had this wonderful, enigmatic, but alive quality of mystery, but was still very expressive. Everything she did, commonplace things, like handling objects or crossing a room, or just talking, were all done in a very engaging way...and, incidentally this is a quality which most great actors have, it's a strange sort of personal unique style that goes into everything they do--like when Albert Finney sits down in a chair and drinks a bottle of beer, and, well, it's just great and you think 'God, I wish I could drink a bottle of beer like that,' or the way Marlon, you know, pushes his sun-glasses on his forehead and just leaves them there instead of putting them in his pocket...and, well, they all have ways of doing everyday things that are interesting to watch. And she had this, Sue Lyon--but of course, we still didn't know whether she could act. Then we did some scenes, and finally shot a test with Mason, and that was it--she was great.
Southern: And Mason--did he occur to you right away as the choice for Humbert?
Kubrick: Yes, I always thought he had just the right qualities for Humbert--you know, handsome but vulnerable...sort of easy-to-hurt and also a romantic--because that was true of Humbert, of course, that beneath that veneer of sophistication and cynicism, and that sort of affected sneer, he was terribly romantic and sentimental.
Southern: One of his big scenes, of course, is at the end, when Humbert finds Lolita again, and breaks down when he fails to persuade her to go away with him. This is a long and very complex scene--how long did it take to shoot it?
Kubrick: We shot that for twelve days. One of the things I wanted to get there, as completely as possible, was this element of disparity, which you see in life but practically never in film, where two people meet after a long time and one of them is still emotionally involved and the other one is simply embarrassed--and yet she wants to be nice, but the words just sort of plunk down, dead, and nothing happens...just sort of total embarrassment and incongruity.
Southern: For the film, you greatly expanded, or at least developed the role of Quilty, didn't you?
Kubrick: Yes, well, it was apparent that just beneath the surface of the story was this strong secondary narrative thread possible--because after Humbert seduces her in the motel, or rather after she seduces him, the the big question has been answered--so it was good to have this narrative of mystery continuing after the seduction.
Southern: This role, the role of Peter Sellers as Quilty, and his disgusted recurrance throughout the film, seems unique. I don't recall any other instance in movies of such an elaborate combination of the comic-grotesque--was this treatment derivative of something you had seen or read?
Kubrick: Well, that aspect of the picture interests me very much-- I've always thoughtt for example, that Kafka could be very funny, or actually is very funny -- I mean like a comic nightmare, and I think that Sellers in the murder scene, and in fact in the whole characterization, is like something out of a bad dream, but a funny one. I'm very pleased with the way that came off and I think it opens up an avenue, as far as I'm concerned, of telling certain types of stories in ways which haven't yet been explored in movies.
Southern: Now, this is an erotic film--I mean, in the sense that sexual love is necessarily treated, and is sometimes in the foreground of a dramatic scene. Do you have any particular theories about the erotic?
Kubrick: Only that I think the erotic viewpoint of a story is best used as a sort of energizing force of a scene, a motivational factor, rather than being, you know, explicitly portrayed. I thought, for instance, in Les Amants, when the guy's head slides down out of the frame, it was, well, just sort of funny--though it shouldn't have been...when you're watching it with an audience it just becomes laughable. I think it's interesting to know how one person makes it known to another person that they want to make love, and it's interesting to know what they do after they make love,--but while they're doing it, well, that's something else...it's such a subjective thing, and so incongruous to the audience that the effect is either one of vague embarrassment, or just the feeling of mischief on the part of the filmmaker.
Southern: In any case, since this was your own picture, there
was no pressure on you to be overly prudent or anything like
Kubrick: None whatever. We had complete freedom about every aspect of the production.
Southern: You have some interesting double-entendre things in there -- like this "Camp Climax" for girls, and lines like: "Your uncle is going to fill my daughter's cavity on Thursday afternoon." Were there any objections to those?
Kubrick: No. And, of course, the general public is a good deal more sophisticated than most censors imagine--and certainly more so than these groups who get up petitions an so on can believe. After all, if a film is really obscene, it simply doesn't play in a theater, because the police of that city close it down--so that if a movie is playing, it's obviously not obscene...prevailing law-enforcement takes care of that, so there's really no point in those petitions. It's a matter for the courts.
Southern: How do you account for this increased sophistication on the part of film audiences?
Kubrick: Well, for the past few years, they've been getting used to better and better movies...Television was the best thing that ever happened to American movies, because it knocked out this middle-of-the-road mediocrity type picture which had so long dominated the field.
Southern: What do you think to the techniques and stated philosophy of the French New Wave directors--Vadim, Resnais, Truffaut--and of the reigning Italian directors: Fellini, Antonioni, De Sica, etc.?
Kubrick: Statements of philosophy aside, they've made some superb films.
Southern: What do you feel would be the best training ground for a movie director: television, the stage, or still photography, as in your case?
Kubrick: I don't know--the main thing is to want to make a film bad enough to get some sweet, trusting and insane friends or family to lend you the money to do so.
Southern: I understand that you often play music on the set, to help everyone get in a particular mood.
Kubrick: Yes, well, that was a device used, you know, by silent-film actors--they all had their own violinists, who would play for them during the takes, and even sort of direct them. And I think it's probably the easiest way to produce an emotion...which is really the actor's main problem--producing authentic emotion. We play it before the take, and if the dialogue isn't too important, during the take and then post-synchronize the dialogue--its amazing how quick this will work, and I mean making a movie is such a long, fragmented, dragging process, and you get into, say. about the ninth week, you're getting up every morning at 6:30, not enough sleep, probably no breakfast, and then at 9:15 you have to do something you feel about as far from doing as you possibly can...So it's a matter of getting in the right mood--and music I've found is the best for this, and practically everyone can respond to some piece or other.
Southern: What were the piece you used in making Lolita?
Kubrick: Well, there were a couple of bands of West Side Story that must have somehow been very important to Shelly Winters--we used those in her crying scene--and she would cry, very quickly, great authentic tears. And let's see, yeah, Irma la Douce, that would always floor Mason. And I've forgotten what Sue's was...a ballad by someone--not Elvis, but someone like that.
Southern: In making this film, do you feel you encountered any problems or considerations which were categorically different from those you've dealt with in other films?
Kubrick: Yes, I think the thing of gradually penetrating the surface of comedy which overlies the story into the, well, the ultimate tragic romance of it puts it in a category apart. And then, too, treatments of mood, subtleties and range of mood...I mean Lolita is really like a piece of music, a series of attitudes and emotions that sort of sweep you through the story.
Southern: I'd like to ask you now about your general attitude towards filmmaking, other than what you've already indicated--first, what particular advantages do you feel that films have over other media of expression and communication?
Kubrick: Well, for one thing I think it is fairly obvious that the events and situations that are most meaningful to people are those in which they are actually involved--and I'm convinced that this sense of personal involvement derives in large part from visual perception. I once saw a woman hit by a car, for example, or right after she had been hit, and she way lying in the middle of the road. I knew that at that moment I would have risked my life if necessary to help her...whereas if I had merely read about the accident or heard about it, it could not have meant too much. Of all the creative media I think that film is most nearly able to convey this sense of meaningfulness; to create an emotional involvement and a feeling of participation in the person seeing it.
Southern: Do you feel you have some specific goal or direction as an artist?
Kubrick: In making a film, I start with an emotion, a feeling, a sense of a subject or a person or a situation. The theme and technique come as a result of the material passing, as it were, through myself and coming out of the projector lens. It seems to me that simply striving for a genuinely personal approach, whatever it may be, is the goal -- Bergman and Fellini, for example, although perhaps as different in their out-look as possible, have achieved this, And I'm sure it is what gives their films an emotional involvement lacking in most work.
Southern: I understand that you cut and edit your own pictures -- don't you feel there are experienced editors who could do this?
Kubrick: I feel that the director, or the film-maker as I prefer to think of him, is wholly responsible for the film in its completed form. Making a film starts with the germ of an ideal continues through script, rehearsing, shooting, cutting music projection, and tax-accountants. The old fashioned major-studio concept of a director made him just another color on the producer's palette -- which also contained all the above "colors". Formerly, it was the producer who dipped into all the colors and blended the "masterpiece". I don't think it so surprising that it should now fall to the director.
Southern: Do you think that a young director, with new ideas, can get ahead in Hollywood--making films the way he wants to--without creating enemies?
Kubrick: I don't think you make enemies by doing films the way you want to do them; I think you make enemies by being rude, tactless and nasty to people.
Southern: You have won 'unreserved critical praise for a least three of your pictures. At 33 you have already directed one of the biggest pictures ever made. Will success spoil Stanley Kubrick?
Kubrick: Fifth Amendment.
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