The legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was rarely heard from in his lifetime, preferring to sidestep the publicity spotlight and leave others to comment on his films. Author Anthony Burgess and actor Malcolm McDowell, for example, were front and centre for interview appearances to publicise Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971).
French documentarian Gregory Monro’s Kubrick by Kubrick (2020) allows us to hear the reclusive director talk about his films and philosophies in a series of audio interviews with French critic Michel Ciment, that spanned 30 years. Monro’s previous works include the documentaries, Calamity Jane: Wild West Legend (2014), Jerry Lewis: The Man Behind the Clown (2016), and James Stewart, Robert Mitchum: The Two Faces of America (2017).
Speaking with PopMatters at the Tribeca Film Festival, Munro remembers his first encounters with Kubrick’s films and his desire to humanise a filmmaker who has been scrutinised for his reputed cold and harsh nature.
What first captured your imagination about cinema?
I was very young. I’m not sure what the first film I watched was. It might have been a cartoon, probably Disney. It might have been either [Charlie] Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy. I remember when I discovered the French comedian Louis de Funès, I said to myself I wanted to be in films and to make that my craft. He was the one that penetrated my heart because I wanted to do the same thing he did–be an actor and a comedian.
When I discovered Spielberg’s films, and later Kubrick, I wanted to be part of the magic. It’s incredible how someone can tell a story on the big screen and you’re in a theatre in the dark with other people, eating your ice cream, or your popcorn. It’s like a communion between you everyone else. I loved that experience. Ever since I’ve always wanted to be in the movies, either as an actor or a director.
It’s beautiful when you’re able to express yourself and make films, no matter if they’re short films, documentaries, or features. My goal is to share my passion and to talk about the artists I appreciate. … To earn money doing what you’re passionate about is very rare. One must be conscious of that. We’re lucky to be working in the craft.
We need to develop an eye for cinema, gradually expanding our horizons and discovering new types of films. It’s an ongoing journey, and there are those films and filmmakers we come to appreciate with age, while others leave a mark on our youth.
Today it’s different because young people have iPads and iPhones to watch movies on. In my day, the only way was if you were allowed to watch a movie on TV, or if you were taken to the cinema.
When I was around ten years old, I started to choose what I wanted to watch. Kubrick is important to me because that’s when I discovered him. It was in 1985, and the first Kubrick film I ever watched was Barry Lyndon (1975). There’s no easy Kubrick film for a kid, but that one is incredibly beautiful. I thought, ‘What is this?’ It was a piece of art–the lighting, costumes, and music–all of which speaks to a young person, even a ten-year-old.
The second film I watched was 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), thinking it would be like Star Wars (1977-1983). I was more confused about 2001 than Barry Lyndon. If you watch his films every ten years, which I did until my documentary, when I had to watch his films again and again to choose clips, each time is a new experience.
Kubrick’s movies don’t age, but you mature and find new things. It’s very Kubrickian and it’s unique. Spielberg is great, but when I see his films again they remind me of my childhood. I have feelings of nostalgia. But when I watch a Kubrick film, I don’t feel nostalgic–it’s like I’ve had a new experience. I’m sure there are other filmmakers you can say that about, but it’s personal.
A.T White, director of Starfish (2018) said to me, “…[Kubrick] has a very cold quality that I find makes it difficult to be engaged with his characters. I respect him immensely from a visual perspective, and from jumping into different genres all of the time.” I understand his point-of-view, and there is a coldness in Kubrick’s films, but they emotionally provoke the audience, and they’re not without warmth.
His movies aren’t cold. Kubrick wanted his audience to choose whether they’re going to like them or not. If you allow yourself to identify with Alex [Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange] who’s not a nice character, is that a problem? If you identify with Barry [in Barry Lyndon], who’s not a pleasant character, is that a problem? There’s no danger in identifying with either evil or negative characters because we all have positivity and negativity inside of us.
I feel emotion in all of Kubrick’s films, so you can’t say that they’re cold because if they were, you wouldn’t express emotion or feel something. When you listen to Stanley Kubrick, he’s anything but cold [laughs]. The point of my film is not to help you learn new things about him. You must not forget that my film is an adaptation of Michel Ciment’s interviews for his book and the audiotapes. A lot of people forget that.
I’m grateful that I’ve had good reviews, but the ones that weren’t [positive] say there’s nothing new. People don’t understand this is the first time you have Stanley Kubrick talking about his films. In all the other documentaries people talk for him and paraphrase him.
The point of the film is not to be biographic, it’s about humanising Kubrick. When you hear his soft and warm voice, he’s a humble guy. He was very tough at work, but most directors are. The first time I listened to Kubrick the human being in conversation with Michel Ciment I was surprised. I doubted it was him I was listening to.
It’s very positive for [him] because during his lifetime and after, people created a cold myth. Everyone spoke about the negative aspects of Kubrick the man, not his films. What interested me is when he spoke about humanity and the duality of man, which is a common thread in his movies.
Listening to Kubrick, what struck me is that we look at him as this giant of cinema, and yet he was always searching, trying to realise the film he wanted to make. The interview with Ciment positions him as a great filmmaker who was part of something bigger than himself.
At the end of the film, he says that one day someone will break the narrative structure. I felt that he was very humble because he didn’t include himself. He didn’t consider that he’d broken it when he did. Not in all of his films because you can see the classical narrative in some. He was humble when he spoke, and one must try to listen to him to better understand the man.
In which of his films did Kubrick break the narrative structure?
2001 and also Barry Lyndon, because that voiceover was new. When I say he broke the narrative, I mean to say it’s a documentary process. …Dr.Strangelove(1964) has something weird about it, but it’s more because of claustrophobia. Full Metal Jacket (1987) is also weird because it’s in two parts. You have two different films, and in 2001, you had the impression of two or three films–it was bi-polar. A Clockwork Orange (1971) is a classical narrative, but there’s still a bi-polarity in most of his films that you can sense, compared to other classical movies. From Strangelove on, you sense that he tries to tell a classical story, but the way he uses the music, or the way he breaks the rules, is amazing.
I don’t know about Eyes Wide Shut (1999). The narrative is classical, but it’s deeper than we think. People must read Traumnovelle (Dream Novel, 1926) by Schnitzier. It’s a short story that’s a dream. When you read it, you’ll better understand some of the moments in Eyes Wide Shut. The [story] may have also been a dream, but it’s difficult to analyse every aspect of it because there’s so much to say.
Kubrick was known for his attention to detail. Was he a perfectionist or is this a misconception?
He talks in the documentary about how he wasn’t always sure what he wanted. The reason why he did a lot of takes was because he didn’t feel it was what he wanted, or he wasn’t able to express it. I don’t know if it was conscious or unconscious. From what Jan Harlan [producer and Kubrick’s brother-in-law] or Michel Ciment told me, I’m not sure it was because he was a perfectionist.
I don’t think he liked that word. He did it because he had something in mind that he wanted to obtain from the actors. He learned with the actors from take-to-take. He learned to know them better, or in a scene, things were added each time. He wanted things to be as realistic as possible.
It was difficult for Ryan O’Neal [in Barry Lyndon] because Kubrick asked him to do nothing. He told him, “You shouldn’t express anything.” Imagine for a young actor like Ryan, who did Love Story (Hiller, 1970), to have Kubrick saying to you every day, “do nothing”. It would have been frustrating.
You have these characters like Barry, then you have other characters that are masked, and others that are extreme, like Peter Sellers’ Strangelove, or the sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. Kubrick liked characters that either didn’t express warmth or expressed the total opposite–characters that were possessed or crazy.