The Kubrick collaborator discusses working with the master

With Stanley Kubrick having passed away in 1999, a void was left in the world of cinema that could never be filled. Having created so many masterworks of the medium (Full Metal Jacket, A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, etc.) there was great sadness that we would no longer be getting any films from this master of moving images. Also, there were many questions left to ponder and probably the biggest was just who was Stanley Kubrick? Jan Harlan had the pleasure of working with Kubrick on a number of his seminal films and he also made the in-depth documentary, Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, which actually attempts to answer that question.

With Warner Home Video Director's Series: Stanley Kubrick coming to DVD on October 23, Harlan recently sat down with us to discuss working with Kubrick, his documentary and what film Stanley Kubrick might have made after Eyes Wide Shut.

What do you think Stanley Kubrick would have thought of DVDs, Blu-ray Discs and HD-DVDs as a means of viewing his films? Knowing how much he embraced technology do you think there is a format he would have chosen over the other (Blu-ray or HD-DVD)?

Jan Harlan: He would have been very enthusiastic about the new HD technology and the large plasma screens, but he would still prefer his films to be seen by a large "dedicated" audience in a good cinema, focusing on the story without the ever present potential for distraction and interruption.

Of all the films you worked on with Stanley Kubrick what is one that stands out the most in your mind and why?

Jan Harlan: Eyes Wide Shut, since this was his last film, my last film with him, a deeply ingrained memory of the struggle and effort he put into this difficult topic. He worked on the script on and off for 30 years and I am so glad that he considered this film his most important contribution to the Art of the Cinema. The film was very successful in some counties and not at all in others. Time will tell whether new audiences can face the mirror that is held in front of their eyes. It appears to be the case: Many people had a second look and realized what a carefully crafted and intelligent film this is. Stanley's films always split the critics and audiences, but he was used to this and there was nothing he could do about it. Vincent van Gogh never sold a painting and was ridiculed, Stanley at least found always a large global audience and did not depend on domestic success.

There are a lot of books written about Stanley Kubrick. I have read a few of them. Based on your documentary, some seem to get certain aspects right while others do not. What is one glaring mistake you seem to always come across when you read things written about Stanley?

Jan Harlan: Describing him as a recluse because he did not talk to the media and was not easily available for interviews and never for chats on radio or TV. Most books about Stanley Kubrick were written by people who never met him and gathered information from articles written by others who didn't know him either. The great exceptions are the books by Michael Herr and Michel Ciment, to name just two. I don't wish to comment on the book by Frederick Raphael which was written immediately after Stanley's death and would not have been written while Stanley was alive.

Did Stanley ever wish that he had made more films? That he could be like some directors who just crank them out one after another?

Jan Harlan: Yes, he did, but this was simply not given to him. He also prepared a number of films over the years which then were abandoned. He was generally slow and not easily satisfied with his own work. He admired other directors who were so different in every way, like Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg or Ingmar Berman and who were so prolific and could easily delegate. He was different, but it is not the quantity that matters in the end.

Had it always been the plan to have your documentary be a part of a Kubrick collection? I only ask because I remember seeing this thing on Cable TV years ago?

Jan Harlan: No, not at all. The plan to make the documentary about Kubrick was quickly developed after his death. This documentary was needed and would have been made by Warner Bros in any case and the family would have supported this, would have had to support this. I was glad that Terry Semel wanted me to make this film and I am grateful to Warner Bros. for the completely free hand they gave me. The decision to market this within the DVD Collection and to sell it to TV was made by Warner Bros. and it seemed the right decision. I know nothing about marketing and trust the expertise of Warner's executives.

Looking at the DVDs, are you still amazed by how amazing 2001 looks today?

Jan Harlan: Yes, it is amazing that 2001: A Space Odyssey has not aged at all, except for a few minor technical gadgets. The main reason is, of course, the philosophical or spiritual element in this story. We know as little today about the secrets of Creation and evolution as we knew in 1966, and it is not likely that we'll ever know much more. We'll have to be satisfied, as Kubrick was, respectfully admiring the potential for evolution within the mystery of the universe's creation.

If Stanley were still alive what kind of film do you think would have come after Eyes Wide Shut? Would he have gone the fantasy route? Made another drama? Might he ever have made a Superhero movie?

Jan Harlan: No, not the fantasy route. May be A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, although I think he would have tried a second time to convince Steven Spielberg that this was "a Spielberg Film" much more than a Kubrick film. Stanley loved this story which allowed him yet another variant of his piercing look at human folly and inventiveness It is not impossible that he might have turned back to Napoleon, this story which had occupied him over two years from 1968 to 1970. Stanley was a political animal and fascinated by the story about this hugely talented, charismatic soldier who became Emperor, the "Enlightened Despot" who failed at the height of his power. The story is so relevant for us today, the story of power out of control, power without wisdom, decisions without being aware that they will lead to disaster. This is drama enough and would have fitted well into the catalogue of Stanley Kubrick's films about the human condition and its frailty.

Warner Home Video Director's Series: Stanley Kubrick hits DVD October 23.

Cinemark Movie Club
Evan Jacobs