To mark the 30th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining, film journalist Jan Gilbert chats to JAN HARLAN, Kubrick’s executive producer and brother-in-law.
Harlan talks about The Shining’s enduring appeal, its place in popular culture, and his own favourite Kubrick project.
MMM: You knew Kubrick very well as both a brother-in-law and a colleague, having worked together for many years producing his films Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut. But was there anything you found particularly surprising when you made your documentary, Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures?
Harlan: I was surprised to get enthusiastic support from everybody – even Jack Nicholson agreed to be in my film, although he is most reluctant to do anything like this. I worked with Stanley for 30 years and enjoyed it and was very pleased to get such a positive echo from others.
MMM: What would you say set Kubrick apart as a filmmaker?
Harlan: His self-criticism and care. It took a long time until he was satisfied with his work. He was in no rush to make a film – it had to matter to him whether a film was made or not.
MMM: This year is the 30th anniversary of The Shining. What attracted Kubrick to adapt Stephen King’s novel for the cinema? What aspects of the story do you think most appealed to him?
Harlan: He wanted to try himself in this genre and he right away insisted on the freedom to change King’s novel. This freedom was granted to him by contract. I can’t tell you what aspects of the story most appealed to him – his choices were personal and you would need to get a psychoanalyst to get the right answer. It is almost like asking what aspects of a person you love do you find most appealing.
MMM: Can you tell us a little about your experience of working with him on The Shining? How did it compare with your other collaborations with him?
Harlan: On this one most of the second unit shots in Oregon were made by the cameraman Doug Milsome and myself. The two of us were alone for weeks in this mountain hotel, waiting for virgin snow and a fog-free early morning. That was quite a unique experience.
MMM: Three decades after its original release, The Shining has been declared the scariest horror film ever made. What do you think the film owes its enduring appeal to?
Harlan: I think this is owed to the film’s ambiguity and not giving an answer or explanation where either would be false and constructed.
MMM: What was Kubrick’s own opinion of the film?
Harlan: He liked it a lot and was most satisfied with the result.
MMM: And what do you think he would have thought of the film’s huge influence on popular culture?
Harlan: In retrospect he would have been delighted. Unfortunately the response on first release was disappointing. It took a long time until The Shining found its audience. From a film-business point, this is regrettable. But this is the destiny of many artists – just think of the French Impressionists.
Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut is very similar. Finally people realise what a great film it is – it was not well received in the UK and USA when it came out. Luckily there was France, Italy, Spain and Japan.
MMM: Which of the films you worked on with Kubrick is your favourite, and why?
Harlan: I can’t be objective since I am too close. My favourite is Eyes Wide Shut since it was the last film, the last huge struggle to tell a most complex story on a topic where everyone in the audience is an expert.
MMM: Talking of Eyes Wide Shut, last year the film celebrated 10 years. Can you talk a little about the challenges you faced bringing it to the screen after Kubrick passed away?
Harlan: The biggest problem, apart from having lost Stanley as a person, was the trouble with the censor in America. The so-called orgy had to be changed. It was argued that this look into a modern hell of empty and soulless form without substance contained too much “accumulated female nudity”.
We could not change Kubrick’s cut, so we had no option but to digitally superimpose more black-cloaked voyeurs. Had Kubrick lived, he could have changed this in one afternoon, showing more of Tom Cruise walking through this hell and putting the voyeurs more up front – they were the centre of the scene, after all, not what they had arranged for their amusement and satisfaction.
MMM: At the last Edinburgh Festival there was an exhibition of Kubrick’s research documents for a film he was planning to make called The Aryan Papers. How likely is it that we’ll see his vision brought to the big screen by another director, as happened with AI: Artificial Intelligence?
Harlan: I can’t judge this. The property is owned by Warner Bros. It needs the right director.
MMM: Taschen recently published Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made, a weighty tome about Kubrick’s unmade Napoleon project. Do you ever envisage this film making it to the cinema?
The Space (Southern Performance & Creative Energies) presents a special screening of The Shining followed by a Q&A with Jan Harlan and Leslie Tomkins, the film’s Art Director, at Brighton’s Duke of York cinema on 28 February 2010.