The definitive house of horrors

Stanley Kubrick is the world’s greatest film-maker. Nearly every film that he made was a masterpiece. The Shining lives up to the title of my article, something which can’t be said about a Darren Aronofsky film that failed to be released in Japan – Mother!

One of the things which doesn’t get much notice is the hidden eyes – the sort of motif that can be found in other Kubrick films. The eyes tend to be either lights, photos, windows or doors. There always seems to be a higher authority or higher entity in all of his work, never seen but always implied. Keep in mind that there is, at times, also a hidden face. The most important subtext is that the film is actually about a man who molests his son. Reading between the lines is crucial so as to learn how to trick an actor into playing a role which he doesn’t realize that he is playing.

Gordon Stainforth, one of the assistant editors, had enough things to say which got me thinking that he should have been the second commentator in the DVD and Blu-ray audio commentary (the first being a steadcam operator named Garrett Brown) instead of some author. Gordon says:

I’m about 99% certain that Stanley did the voiceover of the radio announcer. The dialogue was something like You’ve got your one Hell of a big storm out there tonight. Get the cows in the barn. If that isn’t Stanley, it’s one hell of a good imitation! I have a vague memory of Stanley going off with Winston Ryder to record it.

The Shining was previewed in New York about 3 days before it was first released. It was as a result of this preview that Stanley removed the notorious, and enigmatic, hospital scene (it implied that Ullman was part of the supernatural living past of the hotel) which came immediately before the final riddle of Jack in the ballroom photo.

Stanley was fascinated by the Iranian hostage crisis while we were cutting the film. We were talking about it every night – e.g. how President Carter might solve the problem.I was only involved in the very early cuts, but only as the person wielding the joiner, doing exactly what I was told). Not the cuts when it was first put onto video. 

The takes of “All work and no play” between takes 25 and 45! The point about Stanley, that a lot of people (even many of his technicians) did not quite realize, was his enormous strength of character. He not only had very high standards, but very high principles too. None of what he did, or the way he operated, happened by accident.

The cobwebs and bones scene was actually a bone of contention (do forgive the pun!) during the cutting. I remember a lot of discussion about it in the cutting rooms, though not directly with Stanley. The point is that Stanley himself did not seem too happy with it, in that he took it out at least once, and then put it back again. I remember talking about it on several occasions with both Ray Lovejoy (the main editor) and Vivian Kubrick (daughter). Vivian and I was against the scene, but Ray was all the more for it.

Someone else has commented about the ballroom scene being completely ridiculous. I’ve never heard anyone say that before. I know that Stanley was particularly keen on this scene and put an enormous amount of effort into it! Personally, I love it because we really enter a dream world (mostly what’s going on in Jack’s demented head) and there’s also an immense sense of fate taking over him by leaving him powerless to escape. He is now somehow trapped into reliving and reenacting the madness of his father in 1921.

Since I actually cut the scene of Halloran’s murder with Stanley, I feel compelled now to put an end to speculation. The way that Stanley originally shot and cut it was indeed much more gory in that it involved two blows with the axe. It was one of the most shocking things I have ever seen on film. But the very next morning, Stanley came in to say “We cant leave it like that” and got me to remove over half of it. The removed section was never kept, but was dismantled. Stanley thought that his first version was unjustifiably and unacceptably protracted.

It is a good example of just how responsible he always felt about the amount of violence in his films, and just how ruthless he was capable of being when cutting his own work – I am sure that a lesser director would have been unable to resist keeping the gratuitously bloodier version. Since that first version was NOT the way that Stanley wanted it, I feel it would be wrong of me to describe it in any greater detail – sorry. But I must emphasise that it was absolutely nothing whatever to do with the MPAA, but simply part of the creative process any scene goes through in the cutting room.

All this about Stanley wanting to make 2 versions of The Shining is way off beam. The exact truth is that he was disappointed that the film had not done as well as he’d hoped and he’d listened to a lot of people’s criticism of it. He definitely decided – mostly for commercial reasons – that the film must be shorter. I also suspect this was a very tough decision for him to take; and I’m not at all sure how happy he was about this. :worried

What I’m saying is that the decision was mostly economic, but not completely. IMHO, the person who could shed a lot of light on this question would be Martin Hunter, who did these cuts with Stanley. I think I’ve got his email address – can’t find it right now – if I do, maybe I’ll ask him about it. :thinking

It was something which Stanley felt that he had to do because I always got the sense that he was not 100 percent happy with the first version anyway. :dull He made some comments to me once, very late at night, about it that I shall never forget…and will never divulge until I’m very old, or maybe just in writings which I leave behind me.

I have every intention of doing so one day. Maybe as part of a longer book of reflections on overall creativity (a kind of autobiography – but that sounds very grand, doesn’t it?). It would be very far removed in tone, let me assure you, from Frederic Raphael’s book – and would paint a much more gentle, paradoxical, even mysterious, picture of Stanley. Because he was a very deep guy (underneath his often quite light and jokesy outward appearance) who kept all his cards very close to his chest. You could argue that because of his experience during the writing stage of Eyes Wide Shut, Raphael has a right to speak out (maybe he did feel he got a bit of a bum deal as someone else has said).

His book just comes across as plain tacky, not to mention arrogant and patronising. His account is, at best, mildly interesting. :smile I’m being generous, because he really says so little that is new. Its overwhelming flaw for me is that the Kubrick which he describes bears but a scant resemblance to the Stanley who I worked for and got to know quite well over the space of 16 months. Stanley was a multifaceted personality and it is arrogant in the extreme to think that you can talk authoratively and expertly about such a person on the basis of just three meetings with him.

I cut the title sequence. While I did the first cut, it is just possible that Ray Lovejoy made some alterations to the picture when he was finalising the front titles and credits. I do have a recollection that at one stage in the movie some of those cuts were going to be dissolves. It is just possible that when we changed that mix to a straight cut, we went back slightly beyond the center point of the dissolve to get the absolute maximum length out of the shot. Musically and emotionally, I remember we needed absolutely every usable frame of that first long shot with the titles.

Although The Shining was shot with the full academy aperture, it was designed and composed entirely for the 1.85:1 ratio, and that is the only way it should be projected in the theater. All the Steenbecks in the cutting rooms had their screens marked, or even masked off, with the 1.85:1 ratio. The 6-plate Steenbeck in Stanley and Ray’s main cutting room was masked off with black masking tape, because you cannot cut a movie properly unless you can see the frame exactly as it will appear in the cinema.

The helicopter shadow, dangerously near to the edge of the 1.85 frame as it was, was NOT visible on any of the correctly marked-up Steenbecks, or in the main viewing theater at Elstree, when correctly masked and projected – at least, not the first version of the film. Every one of the show prints of the first 6 interpositives for the U.S. release of The Shining was personally checked in Elstree by Stanley himself.

Incidentally (or not so incidentally!), Stanley was NOT at all bothered by the vague shadow of the rotors at the top of the frame in the last shot of the main titles. Unfortunately, the masking and racking in many theaters is incredibly inaccurate. In 1989, I remember seeing a James Bond film (Licence to Kill) in Scotland where the frame line at the bottom of the frame (and the top of the next frame) was visible for the whole of the first reel. I was so angry that I went up to the projection box to complain.

We used a bit of that part of Utrenja with the sirens in the maze, but rather low, the way it was finally mixed. We listened to absolutely every piece of Penderecki music that was available up to 1980, and we simply chose whatever worked best for the movie. As simple as that. One of the things which Stanley and I were on the same wavelength about with the music was using it as a COUNTERPOINT to the action, rather than just underlining the emotional content of the film in the simplest possible way. Often the really obvious pieces of music worked surprisingly badly when you tried them with a paretic scene.

The piece which I used on the big “All work, no play” scene (from Polymorphia) has of course a kind of chattering sound on the strings and timpani that is not at all unlike a typewriter, and that compared with everything else we tried DID work very well, so we
went with that. Let me assure you that the reasons for paretic pieces of music was quite a lot less intellectual than many people believe. Dear old quizzical and unpredictable Stanley would I think have been quite amused by these kind of speculations – I think he would have listened quite intently  then would suddenly have appeared to have lost interest and given them his stare! He did that, you know.

From my experience of working with him, the vast majority of Stanley’s creative decisions were made simply on the basis of whether they felt right, and only very rarely for some deeper arcane reason. I’ve made this point several times before about Stanley (an idea that has not always been well received in some quarters) that he was very much more of an intuitive artist in the way that he worked than an analytical intellectual – certainly when it came to the acting, camera movements, editing and music (which was all about timing, and pace, and emotional content).

Not only did he not like people discussing his work in an overly analytical way, I think he resisted any such tendency as being fundamentally at odds with a true creative process. Many times, I saw him refusing to be drawn into conversation about his films. He would just shut up completely, almost as if to say end of conversation.

That section of Utrenja with the choir, where Shelley runs up the stairs, was in fact chosen by myself. I was very excited by it, but a bit anxious that Stanley might think it over the top. Fortunately he loved it, so it stayed in, exactly as I first did it. It’s true to say that it was the emotional rhythm that always led the way in Stanley’s films – one might almost say the ‘musical rhythm’ (I mean in the vague sense of the natural rhythm of the film BEFORE the music had been laid). I have mentioned several times the immense pains he went to when cutting the red washroom scene to get the timing just right. He kept going back to it, lengthening the pauses very subtly, in effect stretching out time.

He watched his movies dozens of times before they were released. On The Shining, checkprints were made from each of 6 different interpositives, and he watched those back to back all through the night in the dubbing theater at Elstree to check that there were no blemishes before the interpositives for making the release prints were sent off to America the next day. It is true to say that there has never been a film director on this planet who has got to know his own films, in the process of making them (because of his very slow and meticulous hands-on way of editing), quite as well as SK.

Prior to cutting each scene, he would look at all the rushes on the Steenbeck for literally hours and hours. I remember him watching all 56 takes of the big tracking shot of Jack and Wendy in the Colorado Lounge (“Let’s talk about Danny”) that I was putting on the Steenbeck for him – making a shortlist of his favoured takes, or part of, and then re-viewing those endlessly. We then cut it then he still was not satisfied and we looked at most of the material again and substituted another take for the second part of the tracking section (where Jack is talking about “A contract!”). The winter maze, likewise, involved days and days of viewing then cutting.

Then, he was there in the dubbing theater, every hour of the day, sitting next to Bill Rowe the dubbing mixer. In trial run-throughs, Stanley himself would usually do a lot of the mixing himself – trying different levels, etc. (particularly with the final music mix), with Bill in effect assisting him. When it came to the final mix, Bill would do it with Ray Merrin with Stanley sitting next to them.

To summarise my memories of working for him: he was a very quiet, shrewd, careful, thoughtful craftsman. Fascinated by the medium in its simplest, purest, most challenging way. If I had to sum him up in one word it would be: a purist. But there was nothing remotely simple about him; there was always a lot more going on in his work than met the eye, just as there was a lot more going on in him as a person than many people sometimes realised. A very deep person with quite a simple front.

During The Shining, Stanley was wearing glasses the whole time – well, about 95 percent of the time. There were definitely a few times, in the cutting room, when he wasn’t wearing glasses, because I have this image of him in profile rubbing his eyes when he was tired. He had just taken his glasses off and put them on the top of the Steenbeck. But most of the time when he was sitting at the Steenbeck, he would have them on. I can remember he always tilted his head back while he was looking at the screen so that he’d be looking through the bottom of his glasses. So I think they must have been varifocals.

I’m sure that he would have been very fussy about their exact prescription. They were a complete non-issue. I do remember him once saying that he always used just ordinary soap and water to clean them. I remember seeing him doing that with them under a tap; and such was his influence, I’ve always done the same ever since!