When Stanley Kubrick hit upon the idea of making a horror movie, he had his staff bring him a stack of books to read with a view to finding one he could adapt into a movie that would be commercially viable and artistically fulfilling.
Kubrick’s secretary would later recall hearing the familiar thud during this period as the director threw a book onto his reject pile after only a few pages. Then one day she realised she hadn’t heard the familiar noise and went in to check on the director. She found Kubrick deeply engrossed in a copy of Stephen King’s The Shining.
Released in 1980, to mixed reviews from critics – and King himself – The Shining has since undergone reappraisal. Now rightly regarded as a horror masterpiece and a truly unique cinematic experience, The Shining is back in cinemas for Halloween and accompanied by a short film Work & Play: A Short Film about The Shining.
Ahead of its release, loaded spoke to the documentary’s director, Matt Wells, about all thing Kubrick.
loaded: Why did you decide to make a documentary about The Shining?
Matt: My interest came from a place of curiosity rather than fan adoration. Not many people are able to make such distinctive films with that kind of budget behind them and it was about trying to understand how and why Kubrick was able to do that. It’s also a film that people have a similar reaction to. They will often say it gets under their skin and stays with them and has this sort of lingering sense of dread.I was interested in why it has that effect on people.
loaded: What is it about The Shining that makes it so scary?
Matt: I’ve spent all this time researching the film, talking to the people that made it and talking to different critics and I still don’t really know what makes it so scary. I’ve got a sense of some of the ingredients that went in to making it have that effect but there’s still something mysterious about it.
loaded: Do you think Kubrick’s film surpasses the original Stephen King book?
Matt: They are different things – the book and film – when you hear Stephen King talk about the movie (he hated it), even as a fan, I kind of get what he’s saying. There are things he did in the novel that were not done in the film so I can understand why he might feel let down. But it works so well on its own terms as a film that it’s almost hard to compare the two – they live separate lives.
loaded: What would you say you learned about Kubrick and The Shining from making this documentary?
Matt: I’ve started to understand some of the myths around Kubrick more. Some of these ideas that are often written and talked about but, in truth, are somewhat divorced from reality. There’s always a grain of truth, of course, but that’s usually only a small part of a far bigger picture.
You get an amazing view of what he was like as a filmmaker from the Stanley Kubrick Archive in East London. Pretty much everything he ever worked on for a film and every idea he ever had and wrote down has been kept there. It offers an amazing insight into his filmmaking methods and the astonishing level of rigour in his approach. It’s striking.
loaded: So was Kubrick as notorious a taskmaster as some people have made out in the past? Everyone has heard the stories about him doing multiple takes.
Matt: It’s hard to say. I wouldn’t want to speak for any of the actors that have worked under him. I would say some of the reports of him doing multiple takes go against what is in the archive.
You hear reports of the sequence involving Jack (Jack Nicholson), Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and the baseball bat being shot a 130 times but if you look at the archive only four shots were logged. I don’t know what that means or if there are missing reports or they weren’t logged but it’s interesting. Not that I would ever go against the account of someone like Shelly Duvall who was there and experienced it.
A lot of people had very positive experiences working with him though. Danny Lloyd who played Danny and Lisa and Louis Burns who played the twins speak very highly of him, as do pretty much all of the crew from The Shining. They all seem to agree he was a taskmaster but also someone who was considerate and professional.
loaded: The documentary paints Kubrick as being a far warmer father and man than most would have you believe – how is that possible?
Matt: Kubrick was a very private man. If you were a reporter who was kept at arms length you might consider him cold and that might influence how you wrote about him. Creating that inner sanctum allowed Kubrick to create a warm and loving environment which might have been harder to do if he had not kept the press at arm’s length. Kubrick never appeared on talk shows. He never put himself out as a public figure. He just wanted to make his films.
loaded: What’s your favourite scene from The Shining?
Matt: For me, it’s the stuff Garrett Brown [the inventor of the Steadicam] talks about in the documentary. That feeling the camera creates of relentlessly pushing you in through corridors, landscapes and the maze. This relentless forward motion that just kind of buries its way into your mind when you watch it. It has more impact on a viewer than most camera work you can think of.
loaded: The Shining ends quite ambiguously – how do you interpret that final image of Jack among the Overlook Hotel’s staff from the photograph dated 1922?
Matt: I don’t want to interpret the ending of The Shining. There’s a lot to be gained from its ambiguity and to put a reading on it might reduce it. It makes it all the more intriguing and mysterious. It leaves room for audiences to speculate on what is going on. That’s part of the reason why the film has enjoyed the longevity it has. It throws you this curveball at the last minute that leaves you rethinking the last two hours. It’s a careful balance.
loaded: Do you think Jack Torrance was already evil or did the Overlook turn him evil?
Matt: This is one of Stephen King’s main complaints about the film – that in his book you start off with a regular guy who by the end of the novel has lost his mind. Whereas in the Kubrick movie, as soon as Nicholson is on the screen there is a sense that ‘this is the bad guy.’ Someone who is already a psychopath. I don’t have a strong feeling either way.
loaded: Would you agree Jack Nicholson’s performance has an aggressive, almost, bully-like quality to it, though?
Matt: There’s a slight edge to everything and a menacing undercurrent to the performance. Even at the beginning, it’s never an easy watch, even before things turn violent.
loaded: Was Jack writing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” from the moment he arrived in the Overlook or do you think he started on a novel and then scrapped it?
Matt: I prefer to leave it open in my mind rather than think about it too much. What I do know is that pile of pages was written out, mostly typewritten, for real, save for a few photocopies. There were also different piles of paper for each language version of the film. It would have been someone’s job to literally sit there and type out “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over again for I don’t know how long.
THE SHINING is in cinemas across the UK on 31 October 2017 accompanied by short film ‘Work & Play: A Short Film about The Shining’ (Director Matt Wells)