From: Playboy - August 1999
Title: My Adventures with Stanley Kubrick by Ian Watson
What was it like to work for cinema's renegade icon? Imagine a mindfuck in four dimensions.
Early in 1990, in my cottage in a little English village 60 miles north of London, the phone rang. The man on the phone, Tony Frewin, introduced himself as Stanley Kubrick's assistant and said that Stanley wished to talk to me. Why me? It transpired that Tony had phoned various science fiction book dealers to ask who they rated as a writer with lots of bright ideas. Kubrick, I was to discover, had a project for a science fiction movie to be called AI (for Artificial Intelligence). The inspiration was a brief story by British author Brian Aldiss, first published in a special issue of Harper's Bazaar in 1969, shortly after I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in a cramped Tokyo cinema, much envying the sheer spaciousness of Kubrick's vision of the future.
A few hours later a courier arrived and handed over a package containing nine sheets of flimsy fax paper bearing the text of Super-Toys Last All Summer Long, faded as if retrieved from an ancient file. The story proved to be set in an overpopulated future society where, to control breeding, pregnancy is allowed only if you win a permit in the weekly lottery run by the Ministry of Population. For several years childless Monica has been yearning to win permission. As a stopgap child-substitute she has a synthetic toddler, David, together with a robot teddy bear. Pathetic, puzzled David frets about whether he is real and whether Mummy loves him, while the simpleminded interactive teddy be helps out with lamebrain advice.
A few days later I turned off one of the main roads out of St. Albans, 20 miles north of London, into a private parkland harboring a dainty mini-village of homes originally built for estate workers by the former owner of the spread, millionaire racehorse owner Jim Joel. Stanley had bought the manor house of between 50 and 100 rooms - estimates varied - and the immediate grounds. I headed along a half-mile lane through paddocks and pastures till I reached a modest security gate. Pushing the button of an intercom, I identified myself and the low gate duly unlocked and swung open. Past masking shrubbery I drove around a corner to a lodge-house, the bailiwick, of Tony Frewin, who proved to be a droll, friendly chap.
My memory of that first meeting with Stanley fades into untold other meetings, but the impression that abides (since his appearance never changed) is of a quizzical, scruffy figure, bespectacled eyelids hooded, receding hair and beard untidy, dressed in baggy trousers, a jacket with lots of pockets and pens and tatty old jogging shoes - and with a quirky, amiable dry humor and an intensity of focus that could flick disconcertingly from one topic to another far removed.
I never mastered the topography of even part of the ground floor of the mammoth house, but its labyrinths included a mini movie theater where Stanley could study the latest screen releases, a sepulchral computer room where two cats who never saw the light of day glided like wraiths, a subtitle control room (as I thought of it), a billiard room minus billiard table devoted now to books and armchairs where Stanley and I were to sit brainstorming for hours - with occasional excursions to twin toilets along a gloomy corridor - and the much cheerier huge kitchen, where I was to share the first of many lunches with Stanley.
That first lunch was Chinese take-out ferried in by Stanley's Italian chauffeur, Emilio d'Alessandro, who was to become my guide to Stanley's quirks and my sanity prop on several occasions. (Tony would wise me up to certain house rules designed to preserve Stanley's happiness, such as never mentioning A Clockwork Orange unless Stanley himself raised the subject.) At this meeting Stanley skated briefly over some of my stories he had read. Since I hadn't seen Full Metal Jacket, he gave me a videotape. Also, a copy of Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio, about the puppet who yearns to be a real boy but who gets into such naughty scrapes, and a book about artificial intelligence by Hans Moravec, Mind Children. The movie was to be a picaresque robot version of Pinocchio, spinning off from the Aldiss story, but the plotine had bogged down - global warming was flooding New York and an ice age had set in a thousand years ahead. Stanley wanted me to write an original 12,000-word story, doing whatever I liked with the Aldiss tale and the main ideas to date. For this I would be paid $20,000.
Three weeks later I mailed the result, and Stanley summoned me again. My story was of no use for the project, but Stanley did like the way I had gone about writing it. Would I work with him on story development on a week-by-week basis? Warner Bros. would telephone to make me an offer.
Warner Bros. phoned the next morning, but instead of proposing a fee as I expected, they asked how much I wanted to be paid per week. "We don't know how to rate you. Are you low? Are you high? Are you in the middle?"
"I'll have to think that over," I said. In view of the $20,000 I had received for my story, I said I would need to consider how much I might earn if I spent one week writing a story of my own and sold it. Then there might be future reprint and translation income, none of which, obviously, could materialize in the case of something written for Stanley's eyes only. An hour later Warner Bros. phoned back: Stanley had ordered them to offer me $3000 a week right away because he wanted me to start as soon as possible. The bonus carrot, if all went well, would be $100,000.
For eight months, from May 1990 till January 1991, I was Stanley Kubrick's mind slave, writing scenes in the morning to fax around noon for lengthy discussion by phone in the evening. Sometimes I was collected by Emilio to arrive in time for lunch and an afternoon of mental gymnastics with Stanley. When my presence was announced, a hospitable crackle might come over the shortwave radio: "Bucket of beer for Ian!" Since the manor house was so large, communications with Stanley were often by radio. I sat nattering with Tony for almost an hour one day when Stanley walked in and glared. "You're supposed to tell me when Ian gets here." "Your radio isn't switched on, Stanley...."
Stanley would lead me to the kitchen to fix lunch. Or, in his case, breakfast. After over 20 years' residence in Britain, Stanley still slept on American time except when the exigencies of making a movie interfered with his preferred schedule, and he liked the same menu each and every day until it palled on him. After a few weeks of Chinese takeout served from foil containers came the era of the vegetarian cooks, until he realized they couldn't cook very well and were not personally vegetarian. After that, big salmon steaks poached in milk by Stanley in the microwave oven, a skill of which he was proud.
While we ate, the television in the kitchen was invariably tuned to CNN, a background and stimulus to conversation. Large floral arrangements decorated the light, airy, long room, subjects for the paintings of his wife, Christiane, some of which hung there and in the adjoining salon. These images were truly beautiful, quite comparable to Bonnards in their vivacity, color sense and luminosity. When Christiane dropped by one lunchtime, the matter of A Clockwork Orange did crop up. One reason the Kubricks had moved to Britain was that Britain seemed a lot safer than New York. (Nevertheless, while a local policeman was paying a visit to the manor house one day, Stanley tried to find out how fast an armed response unit could turn up if necessary.) Following the British release in 1971 of A Clockwork Orange, with its ultraviolence, some copycat incidents ensued, perpetrated by hooligans dressed as droogs, resulting in much to-do in the press. An exhibition of Christiane's work to raise money for charity went ahead on condition that reporters focused only on art and charity and asked nothing about the movie. Of course, a reporter did ask, and seized on the only comment she would make to come up with the headline MY MAN IS NOT A BEAST SAYS CLOCKWORK ORANGE SPOUSE. Stanley banned further showings of the movie and any sale of videos in Britain forever after. Forewarned, I refrained from mentioning that pirated Dutch-subtitle videos were reportedly on regular sale in London outside the Camden Town Tube station.
Even ordinary conversations with Stanley were disconcerting, since he would suddenly shift topics as if he had forgotten or lost interest in what was of consuming interest a moment earlier. When we were discussing the story line itself, these veerings became almost three-dimensional - we weren't just into lateral thinking; this was Escher mind-space. One moment: What if our teddy bear has a kangaroo pouch to keep things in? Next moment: So, will the Laborites introduce currency controls when they gain power? After a few minutes of politics: How about a cafe where other robots hang out? Eventually I decided that Stanley's intention, whether deliberate or purely instinctive, was to maintain mental intensity hour after hour, never mind how exhausting this might prove - a way of sustaining and heightening my performance and his own too, perhaps. If as a consequence your brain turned into scrambled eggs, as did mine on a few occasions, Stanley would seem genuinely surprised. What he wanted he did not really know, and it was up to me as soothsayer and dream interpreter to guess - though he could be remorselessly logical in finding loopholes in proposed scenes, hairline cracks that could rapidly widen into uncrossable chasms.
Story conferences were akin to building a precarious house of cards, often doomed to collapse toward the end of the afternoon when I was hoping to make my departure with my pages of scribbled notes. True, this was only because he wanted the best, and more and more of it, and believed that plugging away relentlessly at something of which he had an instinct would eventually bear fruit. Was it 58 times that Stanley reshot Jack Nicholson crossing a street in The Shining in the hope, as he told me, that something interesting would happen? I had made it clear from the start that I would work only weekdays, leading to sallies about trade unions and productivity agreements. Once, when a plot mishap escalated into a catastrophe, Stanley eyed me gravely. "There's a lot of money in this for you, Ian," he said - referring to the pie-in-the-sky bonus.
Even when the story line had not crashed, converting my notes into scenes the next morning could be problematic. Sometimes, while perfectly accurate, they consisted of lines such as "She says, 'Blah-blah,' so he says, 'Blah-blah,"' because neither Stanley nor I had the foggiest notion what the characters could say under the circumstances, though we knew they had to say something.
To maintain pathos, dialogue between robots needed to be particularly literal-minded and simple. The movie might be about machine intelligence, but there were no fast-track cybernetic intellects outthinking the human race. I must watch Peter Sellers as the retarded, childlike gardener in Being There.
Heigh-ho: "You are beautiful. I have a clean dick." ("That's more like it," Stanley told me over the phone.) "You are a goddess. May I sit in your car?" ("Stop writing dialogue! Just describe it!") ("No, write it all in dialogue!") I was beginning to feel like a deranged robot myself, a roboscribe, with contradictory programs running. Would I go the way of HAL, losing control of my language and my mind?
Sometimes what I faxed to Stanley pleased him. "You're on a roll, Ian. Carry on. God bless you." This was after I introduced a male sex-robot to accompany David and Teddy around on their travels and travails. By themselves the artificial boy and robobear were fairly naive and incompetent. "What we need," Stanley had informed me, "is some G.I. Joe character to help them out." "How about a gigolo robot," I had suggested, and wrote scenes. Stanley's response: "I guess we lost the kiddie market-but what the hell."
On other occasions he would chastise me over the phone. "It's like you're writing a B movie for a moron" was one of his pithier castigations. After a run of scenes he had savaged, he called and conceded, "It happens to read well today." "Maybe it isn't an accident that it reads well," I suggested. "I know you're trying to befuddle me," came the reply. Ah, he had seen through me! As he said when I attempted to defend a scene, "The trouble with you writers is you think your words are immortal."
Irrespective of writers, Stanley was in his unique way much preoccupied with the welfare of dumb animals. I might have deemed it a raw deal for the computer-room cats never to venture into the garden, but Stanley worried that the golden retrievers would tear them to pieces. A third cat lived permanently upstairs at a climate-controlled temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit or so, and each day Emilio dutifully cut a trayful of fresh grass from the garden for it to roll in; then he would vacuum up the grass. They all drank Evian water. Emilio told me that arguments had raged in the past about Stanley's using the Spode china as food bowls. "You do not use the Spode, Stanley!" "But I only want the best for the animals," Stanley had protested.
When Stanley became convinced the birds on the manor house grounds were starving, he took to throwing whole loaves of bread out the windows. Before long the birds were becoming so stout that they could hardly take off. Inevitably one of the obese starlings fell down a chimney. The fireplace in question had been boarded up. Behind the board the bird fluttered frantically. Soon a mishap was heading toward an expensive catastrophe as Stanley phoned animal welfare and rescue organizations in Britain and America.
"Look," said Emilio, "all I need is a saw and a clear plastic bag. I cut through the board, I hold the bag over the hole, the bird sees daylight and jumps into the bag." "I don't know," said Stanley, "you might harm it." "But," Emilio exclaimed, "it will die of exhaustion while you phone all these organizations!" Despite deep reservations, Stanley allowed Emilio to proceed. Rapidly, the bird was in the bag, which Emilio held aloft. "Now, Stanley, do you want to phone Harley Street for a bird psychiatrist?" "Well," began Stanley, "maybe we ought to-" Hastily Emilio took the bag to the nearest window, and the bird flapped down to the lawn to gorge on more loaves.
When you were valuable to Stanley, it was difficult to escape. One day Emilio was driving me down the Ml motorway in the black Mercedes en route to the manor house. "Ian," he said, "Stanley phoned me on Sunday afternoon, even though he promised I could have Sunday afternoon to myself. 'I need some string, Emilio,' he told me. Stanley likes to tie things up with string. Ah, but Ian," Emilio continued, "I know about these things by now. So I said, 'Stanley, where are you?' 'I'm in the computer room.' 'All right, Stanley, do you see the wall with the shelves? On the middle shelf in the middle there is a ball of string.' 'I can see it!' 'Wait! Go directly to the shelf, and come back here with the string, and tell me you have it! "'"But Ian" Emilio said triumphantly, "I have string in every room for situations such as this. And I have extra balls of string hidden in each room as well!"
So there were ways of coping.
This particular Mercedes was not the original one, with the sunroof. During the filming of The Shining, Stanley's favorite food for several weeks on end had been Big Macs. Finishing one of these in the car while Emilio was chauffeuring him, Stanley crumpled up the rubbish, spied the open sunroof and threw the wrappings out. The wind promptly tossed them back in, all over him. "Fuck," said Stanley, "this car isn't much good." A joke, or a genuine grouse?
Could it be that Stanley had become slightly detached from reality? When Emilio was driving him to London, Stanley became puzzled. "Why are all these cars on the road?" "Because people go to work, Stanley." "Why don't they work at home?" "Why are you in a car, Stanley?"
Being a low-slung car to climb into, the white Porsche was not used much, even though once a week Emilio switched on the engine to charge the battery and check that everything was in working order. Eventually a letter arrived from Porsche UK: Dear Mr. Kubrick, We are distressed that you are abusing our fine engineering product by not having it serviced regularly.... Brandishing this letter, Stanley confronted Emilio. "It says here you are abusing the Porsche." "But no one uses it," Emilio protested. "I am trying to save you money, Stanley! Save you £400 minimum service fee when the car needs no service!" "Well, I don't know. It says here.... " The head of Porsche UK needed to write a personal letter to Stanley before the catastrophe relapsed into a mere mishap.
Just as well that Emilio had a sense of humor! We got on so well during our regular trips that he reactivated the Porsche for me, and I even started learning Italian from him. "Stanley e nostro zio," we would chorus: Stanley is our uncle. It was Emilio who resolved my puzzlement as to how Stanley could always be wearing exactly the same clothes, which while rumpled had not yet become filthy. When Stanley found something he liked, he bought many spares. He was not in fact dressed in the self-same jacket and trousers, as I thought, but in identical replicas all in much the same used state. His scruffy sneakers, however, were the one and only pair. Christiane had recently bought him a new pair, which he dutifully wore for a few days before begging Emilio, "Look, lose these, will you?"
Stanley did adore acquiring things. "Do you know what the essence of moviemaking is?" he asked me. "It's buying lots of things." The Labor Party was responsible for the fact that nothing bought in Britain worked properly, so he preferred to buy from overseas. When Full Metal Jacket was filmed in England, a plastic replica of a Vietnamese jungle had been airfreighted in from California. Stanley took one look at it and said, "I don't like it. Get rid of it." The technicians parceled out the trees, giving a new look to gardens in North London, and a real jungle was delivered instead - palm trees uprooted from Spain.
I discovered in Boots the Chemists a highly suitable bag for carrying my papers, a free gift with each purchase of a £15 bottle of French Caractere aftershave. When next I visited Stanley he admired the bag. The time after, he admired it even more. "That is a very good bag, Ian." "Well, you can't have it," I told him, "unless you buy a bottle of French aftershave." Promptly he picked up a phone. "Tony, call Boots in St. Albans...." This was done. Two bottles of aftershave and two bags remained in stock. "Buy them both, Tony," Stanley instructed. "Drive into St. Albans and get them now." Half an hour later, Tony delivered the loot to the ex-billiard room. Happily Stanley ripped the cellophane off one bag and patted it. Two months later, bottles and bags still rested in the same place on the carpet.
On the 2nd of August Iraq invaded Kuwait, and five days later America began deploying Desert Shield in Saudi Arabia. Stanley became much preoccupied by the psychology of Saddam Hussein and global strategy, as the director of Dr Strangelove well might. "Caught between Iraq and a hard place," he predicted over salmon.
October arrived: mellow fruitfulness and chilly nights. Saddam continued to cause concern. "If he nerve-gases Israel, will the Israelis nuke Baghdad?"
I faxed, I disked. But a Bermuda Triangle was beginning to emerge, a zone in which disks and secret text could go astray. Catastrophe struck in early November when Tony phoned to report that Stanley had lost a disk. Paranoia deepened. A week or so later, Stanley phoned to say he had lost another disk.
Eventually, at the end of the year, Stanley told me to write up the whole story in 90 pages, omitting, on his orders, some of what I thought were the best bits. At times I couldn't help feeling that the unfolding story was ridiculous and that perhaps Stanley was leery of tossing his cap back into a ring now dominated by the likes of Steven Spielberg. Blessedly, the resulting pages seemed to read pretty well.
Three months later, just when I thought it was safe to answer the phone, Stanley called. "Ian, you know that story you wrote for me?" How could I have forgotten it? "Well," he went on, "I lost it."
"You lost it," I repeated numbly. "It's on disk too."
"I, um, wrote over that disk."
"You wrote over the disk," I muttered. And no, it wasn't on his hard drive.
I supplied a replacement printout and disk.
"This," declared Stanley, "is one of the world's great stories. Would you write a short synopsis of it I can show to people?" I was rehired for a week to write 20 pages. I faxed, I disked. "It's great," said Stanley, before uttering the fatal words: "I might just tinker with it a little..."
A year went silently by. Ring, ring: Stanley had suddenly remembered the project. He had lost all the material again. Up the motorway came Emilio.
"What's Stanley been doing for the past year?" I asked.
"Mainly, Ian, he has been sitting in a room watching a dog die."
Special pills had been flown in from California. "I had to sit in that room too," Emilio said. "The dog stank. For ten days it could not eat. It could not shit. Stanley kept feeding it the miracle pills." When the crisis had at last occurred, at eight one morning, Emilio hastened to waken Stanley. "Stanley, you must get up." "What's it dying now for?" Stanley had complained.
Emilio announced: "Ian, I have given notice to Stanley. I am quitting."
"What?" I cried.
"Yes. I have given him three years' notice."
Three years, hmm?
Another year passed and the phone rang again. Stanley was really eager to get on with the project. Unfortunately, he had Lost the Material.
Stanley ignored Emilio's countdown. One year to go, Stanley. Six months. Three months. "You must pay attention, Stanley - you must make other arrangements. Stanley would not listen. Zero hour arrived; Emilio had already sold his house. Stanley refused to let him go and rented a house for him to live in for another six months. At last, at long last, Emilio escaped to his vineyard.
Throughout the Nineties misinformation appeared in the press or on the Internet. Stanley was about to start filming the life of Coco Chanel. He was about to start filming in Bratislava a movie set in the aftermath of communism - this came as a considerable surprise to the media liaison for Slovakia, whom I happened to bump into. Special effects wizards in Hollywood had built a robot boy for Stanley, who was about to begin filming Al in Ireland.... (And maybe a robot boy is indeed palely loitering in the billiard room.)
But lo, Stanley did film - very protractedly - Eyes Wide Shut, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. The rumor circulating on the Internet was that he agreed to do this for Warner so that they would release vast sums of money for Al. Eyes Wide Shut takes place in New York (though the film was shot in England, of course), and apparently in one scene the Cruise and Kidman characters buy an enormous teddy bear. Was this an omen?
And now Stanley is dead, of a heart attack, just after finalizing Eyes Wide Shut. Two other collaborators, who followed me and who had been sworn to secrecy, have emerged: writer Sara Maitland, brought in to provide a feminine and feminist fairy-tale spin to the robot-Pinocchio saga, and artist Fangorn (alias Chris Baker), whom Stanley hired to produce a thousand drawings of futuristic images and who was on the point of moving into the manor house full-time when Stanley decided that with Eyes Wide Shut under way he could no longer also concentrate on Al for the time being. But we all feel Al was the tremendous movie that it was Stanley's main and enduring ambition to make.