12 Stanley Kubrick Strategies for Perfecting a Film

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Director Stanley Kubrick died in 1999, but he still remains an integral part of our culture today. The recent documentary Room 237 explored various conspiracy theories about The Shining. An extensive Kubrick exhibition is touring the world. And Kubrick’s work is continually noted as influential on contemporary directors of huge blockbusters such as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. Here are 12 things Stanley Kubrick would do in order to perfect a shot, performance, or film.

1. Adapt any source material.

Kubrick left no stone unturned when it came to genre or source material. He sometimes worked with non-fiction elements and other times adapted novels into films. He used shorter stories as basis for 2001: A Space Odyssey and Eyes Wide Shut, one a science fiction epic and the other a character-driven drama.

Stephen King has been vocal about his hatred for Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, and Kubrick’s attempt to include author Gustav Hasford in the process of making Full Metal Jacket was a failure. Despite his reputation, Kubrick actually accepted a lot of help with his screenplays, including assistance from Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote the screenplay for the 1962 film.

2. Don’t succumb to traditional film structure.

As Martin Scorsese explained, “[Kubrick] doesn’t deal with traditional, dramatic structure. He was experimenting.” The obvious example of Kubrick’s break from structure is 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its three independent sections, “The Dawn of Man,” “Jupiter Mission,” and “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.” The segments are very different in terms of both action and theme, but that does not stop Kubrick from making a coherent film.

Kubrick showed an interest in experimenting with structure long before 2001; in his 1956 film The Killing, chronology does not limit the plot.

3. Build elaborate, expensive sets.

Anyone who has seen The Shining knows that the Overlook Hotel is a main character, and the set itself reflected that. Kubrick used his budget to create elaborate interiors, including a two-story-tall lobby. And he insisted on having an actual wheel with a 38-foot diameter to represent the spacecraft in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Built by engineers, the wheel cost a total of $750,000. Later in his career, Kubrick became more averse to flying, so he sent staff to Manhattan, where Eyes Wide Shut was set, in order to get the exact measurements of streets and locations for set pieces like newspaper racks.

But the most famous set designs of Kubrick films don’t even scratch the surface. Steven Spielberg once told the Dr. Strangelove set designer, “That War Room set for Strangelove is the best set you ever designed. No, it’s the best set that’s ever been designed.”

4. Shoot as much as he wanted for as long as he wanted.

Kubrick was known for taking his time with each project. Eyes Wide Shut even holds a Guinness World Record for the longest constant movie shoot with 400 days. The film was released in 1999, yet no production schedule since has come close to surpassing the record. Kubrick used three weeks of the shoot to film a 13-minute scene with Tom Cruise and Sydney Pollack. The Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey  also had shoots that are still famous for their extensiveness.

5. Let the actors take charge.

Kubrick empowered his actors to try scenes over and over again in different ways. For example, Malcolm McDowell came up with the idea for the infamous use of “Singin’ in the Rain" in A Clockwork Orange. Actor Peter Sellers once explained how involved he was allowed to be, claiming, “If a scene didn’t seem quite right, we’d sit round a table with a tape recorder and ad-lib on the lines of the passages we’d chosen; in that way we’d get perfectly natural dialogue which could then be scripted and used.”

Kubrick asked Jack Nicholson to interpret what the script for The Shining might mean by the direction, “Jack is not working.” Nicholson suggested he be throwing a tennis ball against the walls of the hotel, which became a prominent part of the final film.

6. Freak out his actors.  

Though Kubrick empowered his actors, they still tended to treat him like the legend he was, which made for an intimidating set at times. Tom Cruise developed an ulcer on the set of Eyes Wide Shut, but he did not talk about it publicly because he was worried about Kubrick’s reputation. Kubrick was notoriously hard on Shelley Duvall during the filming of The Shining and she has been very vocal about their tense relationship. She eventually acknowledged, “I might have hated him at the time, but I now see him as a really important filmmaker who gave me that role of my life and made me the sort of actress I never dared think I’d become.”

7. Go way over budget... 

2001: A Space Odyssey was supposed to cost $6 million to make, but Kubrick used $10.5 million. Barry Lyndon cost $11 million, which, it’s hard to believe, was shockingly high in 1975.

8. ...With anyone’s money.

Kubrick reached out to his family and friends for money to make his first two films, Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss. His father even gave up his life insurance for cash to help finance Fear and Desire.

9. Argue with experts in the field.

After his two family-funded films, a 28-year-old Kubrick made The Killing with a Hollywood budget. And a Hollywood budget meant Hollywood big shots, who were shocked to learn how confident and capable Kubrick actually was. One infamous on-set story describes an argument between Kubrick and famous cinematographer Lucien Ballard. As later described by the film’s associate producer, Alexander Singer:

"Stanley was, needless to say, very specific about this particular setup, as he was with all setups...So it’s all been pre-planned. Then he gives the finder to Lucien Ballard, and Lucien has watched him and says, ‘I see, it’s going to be a very nice shot.’ Lucien gets to work, Stanley walks off the set to do some piece of business. He comes back a few minutes later and Lucien has indeed set up the dolly track but he set it up at a considerable distance from where Stanley’s position had to be - in terms of the proximity to the set. Now Stanley said, ‘Wait a minute, Lucien, what are you doing, Lucien?’ ‘Well, I took your dolly shot and instead of the 25mm, I’m just going for the 50mm, but I’m at a distance where you would get the same image size...it won’t make any difference.’ Well, it’s all the difference in the world. As soon as you back up, you can hold the same image size, but the entire perspective changes...Stanley looked up at Lucien Ballard and said, ‘Lucien, either you move that camera and put it where it has to be to use a 25mm or get off this set and never come back!’”

10. Turn serious subject matter into comedy.

He created the hilarious 1964 satire Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb out of the serious novel Red Alert. Making light of nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction was particularly outrageous during the Cold War, but that did not stop Kubrick. The film is often compared to Fail Safe, which was also released in 1964. That film took on the subject matter with a much more serious tone, but it would be hard to find anyone who'd argue Fail Safe is more notable in the world of film than Dr. Strangelove is.

11. Make himself legally vulnerable.

On the subject of Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick knew that his film might get the attention of the government. Production designer Ken Adam remembers when a serviceman visited the set one day and was taken aback by how accurate the film was. Adam claimed, “I got a memo from Stanley saying, ‘You better make sure that you know where all your references came from because otherwise we might be investigated by the FBI.’”

That serviceman was not the only one who couldn’t believe the film’s accuracy. Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who released the Pentagon papers, said of the comedy, “That was a documentary!”

12. Invent his own technology.

Long before James Cameron was inventing new filmmaking technologies to complete Titanic and Avatar, Kubrick was a technical innovator. During the making of Barry Lyndon, Kubrick decided he wanted to light portions of the film with only candles. He bought three of the ten lenses that NASA used to take pictures of the moon in the 1960s. He then attached the lenses to his own cameras so that he could get the shots with the lighting he wanted.

The Shining is often cited as one of the first films to make good use of the Steadicam. It was especially noteworthy because the camera was often following around a young boy on a tricycle, which was much more low to the ground than Steadicams had previously been. The crew used a wheelchair specially designed to assist with many of the shots.