Interview with Director of Movie

Michel Ciment: In several of your previous films you seem to have had a prior interest in the facts and problems which surround the story -- the nuclear threat, space travel, the relationship between violence and the state -- which led you to Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange. In the case of The Shining, were you attracted first by the subject of ESP, or just by Stephen King's novel?
Stanley Kubrick: I've always been interested in ESP and the paranormal. In addition to the scientific experiments which have been conducted suggesting that we are just short of conclusive proof of its existence, I'm sure we've all had the experience of opening a book at the exact page we're looking for, or thinking of a friend a moment before they ring on the telephone. But The Shining didn't originate from any particular desire to do a film about this. The manuscript of the novel was sent to me by John Calley, of Warner Bros. I thought it was one of the most ingenious and exciting stories of the genre I had read. It seemed to strike an extraordinary balance between the psychological and the supernatural in such a way as to lead you to think that the supernatural would eventually be explained by the psychological: "Jack must be imagining these things because he's crazy". This allowed you to suspend your doubt of the supernatural until you were so thoroughly into the story that you could accept it almost without noticing.

Do you think this was an important factor in the success of the novel?

Yes, I do. It's what I found so particularly clever about the way the novel was written. As the supernatural events occurred you searched for an explanation, and the most likely one seemed to be that the strange things that were happening would finally be explained as the products of Jack's imagination. It's not until Grady, the ghost of the former caretaker who axed to death his family, slides open the bolt of the larder door, allowing Jack to escape, that you are left with no other explanation but the supernatural. The novel is by no means a serious literary work, but the plot is for the most part extremely well worked out, and for a film that is often all that really matters.

Don't you think that today it is in this sort of popular literature that you find strong archetypes, symbolic images which have vanished somehow from the more highbrow literary works?

Yes, I do, and I think that it's part of their often phenomenal success. There is no doubt that a good story has always mattered, and the great novelists have generally built their work around strong plots. But I've never been able to decide whether the plot is just a way of keeping people's attention while you do everything else, or whether the plot is really more important than anything else, perhaps communicating with us on an unconscious level which affects us in the way that myths once did. I think, in some ways, the conventions of realistic fiction and drama may impose serious limitations on a story. For one thing, if you play by the rules and respect the preparation and pace required to establish realism, it takes a lot longer to make a point than it does, say, in fantasy. At the same time, it is possible that this very work that contributes to a story's realism may weaken its grip on the unconscious. Realism is probably the best way to dramatize argument and ideas. Fantasy may deal best with themes which lie primarily in the unconscious. I think the unconscious appeal of a ghost story, for instance, lies in its promise of immortality. If you can be frightened by a ghost story, then you must accept the possibility that supernatural beings exist. If they do, then there is more than just oblivion waiting beyond the grave.

This kind of implication is present in much of the fantastic literature.

I believe fantasy stories at their best serve the same function for us that fairy tales and mythology formerly did. The current popularity of fantasy, particularly in films, suggests that popular culture, at least, isn't getting what it wants from realism. The nineteenth century was the golden age of realistic fiction. The twentieth century may be the golden age of fantasy.

After Barry Lyndon did you begin work straight away on The Shining?

When I finished Barry Lyndon I spent most of my time reading. Months went by and I hadn't found anything very exciting. It's intimidating, especially at a time like this, to think of how many books you should read and never will. Because of this, I try to avoid any systematic approach to reading, pursuing instead a random method, one which depends as much on luck and accident as on design. I find this is also the only way to deal with the newspapers and magazines which proliferate in great piles around the house -- some of the most interesting articles turn up on the reverse side of pages I've torn out for something else.

Did you do research on ESP?

There really wasn't any research that was necessary to do. The story didn't require any and, since I have always been interested in the topic, I think I was as well informed as I needed to be. I hope that ESP and related psychic phenomena will eventually find general scientific proof of their existence. There are certainly a fair number of scientists who are sufficiently impressed with the evidence to spend their time working in the field. If conclusive proof is ever found it won't be quite as exciting as, say, the discovery of alien intelligence in the universe, but it will definitely be a mind expander. In addition to the great variety of unexplainable psychic experiences we can all probably recount, I think I can see behaviour in animals which strongly suggests something like ESP. I have a long-haired cat, named Polly, who regularly gets knots in her coat which I have to comb or scissor out. She hates this, and on dozens of occasions while I have been stroking her and thinking that the knots have got bad enough to do something about them, she has suddenly dived under the bed before I have made the slightest move to get a comb or scissors. I have obviously considered the possibility that she can tell when I plan to use the comb because of some special way I feel the knots when I have decided to comb them, but I'm quite sure that isn't how she does it. She almost always has knots, and I stroke her innumerable times every day, but it's only when I have actually decided to do something about them that she ever runs away and hides. Ever since I have become aware of this possibility, I am particularly careful not to feel the knots any differently whether or not I think they need combing. But most of the time she still seems to know the difference.

Who is Diane Johnson who wrote the screenplay with you?

Diane is an American novelist who has published a number of extremely good novels which have received serious and important attention. I was interested in several of her books and in talking to her about them I was surprised to learn that she was giving a course at the University of California at Berkeley on the Gothic novel. When The Shining came up she seemed to be the ideal collaborator, which, indeed, she proved to be. I had already been working on the treatment of the book, prior to her starting, but I hadn't actually begun the screenplay. With "The Shining," the problem was to extract the essential plot and to re-invent the sections of the story that were weak. The characters needed to be developed a bit differently than they were in the novel. It is in the pruning down phase that the undoing of great novels usually occurs because so much of what is good about them has to do with the fineness of the writing, the insight of the author and often the density of the story. But The Shining was a different matter. Its virtues lay almost entirely in the plot, and it didn't prove to be very much of a problem to adapt it into the screenplay form. Diane and I talked a lot about the book and then we made an outline of the scenes we thought should be included in the film. This list of scenes was shuffled and reshuffled until we thought it was right, and then we began to write. We did several drafts of the screenplay, which was subsequently revised at different stages before and during shooting.

It is strange that you emphasize the supernatural aspect since one could say that in the film you give a lot of weight to an apparently rational explanation of Jack's behavior: altitude, claustrophobia, solitude, lack of booze.

Stephen Crane wrote a story called "The Blue Hotel." In it you quickly learn that the central character is a paranoid. He gets involved in a poker game, decides someone is cheating him, makes an accusation, starts a fight and gets killed. You think the point of the story is that his death was inevitable because a paranoid poker player would ultimately get involved in a fatal gunfight. But, in the end, you find out that the man he accused was actually cheating him. I think The Shining uses a similar kind of psychological misdirection to forestall the realization that the supernatural events are actually happening.

Why did you change the end and dispense with the destruction of the hotel?

To be honest, the end of the book seemed a bit hackneyed to me and not very interesting. I wanted an ending which the audience could not anticipate. In the film, they think Hallorann is going to save Wendy and Danny. When he is killed they fear the worst. Surely, they fear, there is no way now for Wendy and Danny to escape. The maze ending may have suggested itself from the animal topiary scenes in the novel. I don't actually remember how the idea first came about.

Why did the room number switch from 217 in the novel to 237 in the film?

The exterior of the hotel was filmed at the Timberline Lodge, near Mount Hood, in Oregon. It had a room 217 but no room 237, so the hotel management asked me to change the room number because they were afraid their guests might not want to stay in room 217 after seeing the film. There is, however, a genuinely frightening thing about this hotel which nestles high up on the slopes of Mount Hood. Mount Hood, as it happens, is a dormant volcano, but it has quite recently experienced pre-eruption seismic rumbles similar to the ones that a few months earlier preceded the gigantic eruption of Mount St. Helens, less than sixty miles away. If Mount Hood should ever erupt like Mount St. Helens, then the Timberline Hotel may indeed share the fiery fate of the novel's Overlook Hotel.

How did you conceive the hotel with your art director, Roy Walker?

The first step was for Roy to go around America photographing hotels which might be suitable for the story. Then we spent weeks going through his photographs making selections for the different rooms. Using the details in the photographs, our draughtsmen did proper working drawings. From these, small models of all the sets were built. We wanted the hotel to look authentic rather than like a traditionally spooky movie hotel. The hotel's labyrinthine layout and huge rooms, I believed, would alone provide an eerie enough atmosphere. This realistic approach was also followed in the lighting, and in every aspect of the decor it seemed to me that the perfect guide for this approach could be found in Kafka's writing style. His stories are fantastic and allegorical, but his writing is simple and straightforward, almost journalistic. On the other hand, all the films that have been made of his work seem to have ignored this completely, making everything look as weird and dreamlike as possible. The final details for the different rooms of the hotel came from a number of different hotels. The red men's room, for example, where Jack meets Grady, the ghost of the former caretaker, was inspired by a Frank Lloyd Wright men's room in an hotel in Arizona. The models of the different sets were lit, photographed, tinkered with and revised. This process continued, altering and adding elements to each room, until we were all happy with what we had.

There are similar movie clich├ęs about apparitions.

From the more convincing accounts I have read of people who have reported seeing ghosts, they were invariably described as being as solid and as real as someone actually standing in the room. The movie convention of the see-through ghost, shrouded in white, seems to exist only in the province of art.

You have not included the scene from the novel which took place in the elevator, but have only used it for the recurring shot of blood coming out of the doors.

The length of a movie imposes considerable restrictions on how much story you can put into it, especially if the story is told in a conventional way.

Which conventions are you referring to?

The convention of telling the story primarily through a series of dialogue scenes. Most films are really little more than stage plays with more atmosphere and action. I think that the scope and flexibility of movie stories would be greatly enhanced by borrowing something from the structure of silent movies where points that didn't require dialog could be presented by a shot and a title card. Something like: Title: Billy's uncle. Picture: Uncle giving Billy ice cream. In a few seconds, you could introduce Billy's uncle and say something about him without being burdened with a scene. This economy of statement gives silent movies a much greater narrative scope and flexibility than we have today. In my view, there are very few sound films, including those regarded as masterpieces, which could not be presented almost as effectively on the stage, assuming a good set, the same cast and quality of performances. You couldn't do that with a great silent movie.

But surely you could not put 2001: A Space Odyssey on the stage?

True enough. I know I've tried to move in this direction in all of my films but never to an extent which has satisfied me. By the way, I should include the best TV commercials along with silent films, as another example of how you might better tell a film story. In thirty seconds, characters are introduced, and sometimes a surprisingly involved situation is set up and resolved.

When you shoot these scenes which you find theatrical, you do it in a way that emphasizes their ordinariness. The scenes with Ullman or the visit of the doctor in The Shining,like the conference with the astronauts in 2001, are characterized by their social conventions, their mechanical aspect.

Well, as I've said, in fantasy you want things to have the appearance of being as realistic as possible. People should behave in the mundane way they normally do. You have to be especially careful about this in the scenes which deal with the bizarre or fantastic details of the story.

You also decided to show few visions and make them very short.

If Danny had perfect ESP, there could be no story. He would anticipate everything, warn everybody and solve every problem. So his perception of the paranormal must be imperfect and fragmentary. This also happens to be consistent with most of the reports of telepathic experiences. The same applies to Hallorann. One of the ironies in the story is that you have people who can see the past and the future and have telepathic contact, but the telephone and the short-wave radio don't work, and the snowbound mountain roads are impassable. Failure of communication is a theme which runs through a number of my films.

Read the full interview at: http://www.visual-memory.co.uk/amk/doc/interview.ts.html