Brian Aldiss talks about his flirtations with the movie industry.
1. The Financial Carpet Gets Beaten
British cinema has an uneven history behind it, and possibly ahead of it as well. American cinema – with its guns and its superb confidence in narrative – is, of course, the world-beater. There, I am glad to say, I have on occasions been able to assist it to fame and fortune, without achieving either for myself.
In my time, I. have worked with or against four powerful American directors and producers, Cy Endfield, Roger Corman, Ileen Maisel, and Stanley Kubrick. The experiences have been fun – can you, have hard fun? – without changing either the course of history or their minds – if not for glory, then for some profit.
Being a film fan is one way of extending adolescence into old age. Why do we watch some movies over and over, if not to stay the passing years? In 1965, I had seen the film “Zulu” more than once, when I received a phone call from its director, Cy Endfield. Would I care to meet with him? I would.
Cy lived comfortably in Thurloe Square, in the busy heart of London. He was a bouncy plump man, though no more plump, I suppose, than I have since become. He was riding high with the tremendous success of “Zulu”, as well he might.
“Zulu” is a wonderful film, a man’s film. It begins well with the dance of the near- naked, full-breasted Zulu maidens, and then shifts to about an hour and a half of carnage, as the beleagured British garrison of Rorke’s Drift fends off thousands of native attackers. When our family used to visit another family every Christmas, the division of the sexes became apparent. Men and boys rushed into one room to watch “Zulu” on TV, while the women and girls congregated in another room to discuss – well, cookery, perhaps.
Later in the day, we played charades. Our team did a popular charade on the name “Zu-lu” (two syllables).
Cy Endfield had had a difficult career. He had spent many years in Hollywood. He deemed it best to retreat to England during the years of Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt for Un- American Activities. In England, he made some rather B-featurish movies, such as “Hell Drivers” in 1958. In this feature, rival lorry-drivers chase each other, doing at least 45 m.p.h. round a series of British B roads. One of the drivers is Stanley Baker, often described as classless’, with whom Cy struck up a partnership. Baker took the heroic starring role in “Zulu”, co-producing with Cy. “Zulu”, incidentally, gave Michael Caine his first big chance as an actor.
Chatting with Cy, I found he was an avid SF reader. My novel, “Hothouse” (“The Long Afternoon of Earth”) was his favourite. Cy had heard that Stanley Kubrick was making “2001: A Space Odyssey”, eventually to have its premiere in 1968. Cy was a fast operator. He wanted to bring out an SF movie before Kubrick did, possibly to ride on its coat tails.
His idea was for a movie to be called “Only Tomorrow”. He talked and talked. I was the man he needed to write the screenplay. I said, No, sorry, Cy. I’m really too busy. My absurd ambition was to be a novelist.
I had just returned from a long stay in Jugoslavia, as it was then, and needed to get back into the incomprehensible flow of English life.
In the autumn of 1965, I was Guest of Honour at the 25th World SF Convention in London. My GoH speech was given in a large crowded hall. As I was talking, double doors in a distant wall opened. A short and stubby figure stood there. He raised a rectangle of paper above his head.
After my speech, this figure made its way through milling fans, to flaunt the rectangle. It was a cable from one of Hollywood’s moguls, Joseph E. Levine. It guaranteed Cy a financial carpet for the making of “Only Tomorrow” with figures usually connected with distances to nearby stars: thirty million dollars, I believe it was.
“Now will you work with me?”, Cy asked.
The adrenalin was running high in any case. I said Yes, even as I signed my name in another tattered old paperback copy of “Bow Down to Nul”.
Here’s my excuse. I had just endured an expensive divorce in the law courts, engaging John Mortimer as Q.C. Perhaps I have appeared, disguised, in a minor and unhappy role in one of the episodes of Mortimer’s long-running TV series, “Rumpole of the Bailey”.
The Endfieldian idea on which I had agreed to work was basically a thriller set in the future. These gangs of aliens have landed on the dark side of the Moon. They planned to conquer Earth. They have set up a secret Earth base behind a Chinese laundry in New York. The base was being infiltrated by our hero. Hero to be played by Stanley Baker, no doubt. I persuaded myself it had promise.
Thus far in the plot I had reached, working in both Thurloe Square and at home in Oxford. One day, Cy said, “I’ve changed my mind. Scrap this Chinese laundry bit in New York. Let’s have this base a really big show-place office, all chrome and glitter, in Los Angeles. Okay?”
“You want me to scrap the Chinese laundry?”
“Sure. It doesn’t make sense.”
I started again.
Cy often changed his mind. He phoned me once to say he had found he could rent the Golden Gate Bridge for only ten thousand dollars an hour. And the car to be blown up there was going to be a Daimler, not a Rolls Royce.
It was not easy to work with Cy. But working with other people was never a picnic. That was why I valued my precious independence as a writer. Why I got into these situations is another question. I swear it was not really the money. Thirty million could not be a real figure.
At the end of 1965, when my divorce came through, I married Margaret Manson. I was still involved with the screenplay of “Only Tomorrow”. Cy came bursting in one day. “You were in India, Brian?”
When I said I was, he produced a dog-eared script printed in blue ink on blue folio paper. It proved to be the screenplay for a film about the building of the Taj Mahal – “the world’s greatest love story”. All we had to do was a quick re-write, ‘a face-lift’, and go out to India for – was it six months? A real quickie! A money-spinner if ever there was one. We could finish “Only Tomorrow” afterwards.
“Cy, I’m newly married. I cannot possibly leave Margaret.”
“Bring her along. Maybe we can find a part for her.”
It could not be. Hot climates were no friends of Margaret’s. And the script was immeasu reably terrible. But immeasureably.
By 1969, Cy and I were still wrestling with “Only Tomorrow”. I used to drive round London in a Rolls with Cy and Stanley Baker, who seemed rather a gloomy old thing. Cy’s latest movie was being prepared for showing. Margaret and I were invited to a private cinema in Mayfair for an early preview. Drinks were served. Plush was the word. It was like an upper crust porn movie house. Many big names from the film world were present. Joseph E.Levine had sent a deputy.
The lights went down. The screen lit. We watched, in some dismay, “Sands of the Kalahari”. Harry Andrews, Susannah York, and Derek Nimmo were involved. Stanley Baker had to wrestle a baboon. One of those baboons with which the Kalahari desert is notoriously infested. Now I understood why Baker looked so gloomy.
By the end of the movie, Levine’s golden carpet was slithering away from under our feet with a tinkle of ice cubes. I breathed again.
Poor Cy! But it was interesting to see how these things were done. Without finesse. I was to witness a similar bouleversement again.. See next week’s thrilling episode.
In 1970, the first novel of my trilogy about sex, adolescence, and war, “The Hand- Reared Boy”, was published, to soar to the top of the best-seller lists. At one of the many riotous parties which marked the glowing fag-end of the sixties, I encountered Lindsay Anderson. He had made that classic of British cinema, “This Sporting Life”, starring Richard Harris, yet was always to find funding for his next film difficult – one of the curses of film-making in Britain at that time. Lindsay told me that he and John Osborne were eager to make “Hand-Reared Boy” into a film; but when the censor was approached on the matter, he advised against it. No masturbation on camera. Ah, those dear dead days! Lindsay made “O Lucky Man!” instead.
John Osborne told me that he wanted Jill Bennett to play the school matron.
“O Lucky Man!”, that vastly entertaining film, has a wonderful cast, including Ralph Richardson, Rachel Roberts (late of “That Sporting Life”), Arthur Lowe, Helen Mirren, Graham Crowden, Dandy Nichols, Mona Washborne, and Alan Price and his group. Also two actors who were later employed in Kubrick’s films, Malcolm McDowell and Philip Stone.
In the book of the film which Anderson wrote with David Sherwin, mention is made in Sherwin’s foreword of the fate of “Hand-Reared Boy”.
“What did you think of it?”, asks Anderson.
“I loved the book. I told you. But I thought it would be impossible to make,” Sherwin replies.
“But if it were made it would make a fortune.”
“Yes, it would.”
Clearly, I was being typecast. The conditional tense was to be my lot.
As for the future tense, my marriage brought me a new burst of creativity. I was writing a novel a year, as well as short stories. Most of this crop was science fiction. My books were being translated and published all over the world. Summertime, and the livin’ was easy…. Yet being labelled “science fiction writer” had its shortcomings. I was a writer, and a creative one. If you add adjectives to the noun, you become a lesser thing, be it sports writer, crime writer, or whatever.
My writing did not receive sufficient recognition. So I thought. So I still do. So does many a writer. Like a horse, it comes with the turf.
Not that we don’t have our preferences. When I met Penelope Lively, she said, “My son reads all your books.”
To which I replied, “My wife reads all yours.”
We burst into laughter. Like kissing, reading goes by favour.
Not only was I wary of the label. I was bored by the lack of understanding shown by many in the SF world. My SF novels were non-generic. “Report on Probability A” and “Barefoot in the Head” were received with hostility, by and large. I got a letter signed God, postmark Reigate, which cursed me in no uncertain terms. Reigate obviously had a bad effect on the Almighty’s temper. I considered leaving the SF field to write renegade ‘mainstream’ novels. Then I met B. S. Johnson.
Johnson was a rather depressed renegade author. He wore shabby grey suits, which heightened the sense of depression. His novel “Trawl” won the Somerset Maugham Award. He then went on to write his ‘novel in a box’, “The Unfortunates”, the sections of which could be shuffled, to demonstrate the random nature of experience. Randomness or not, one of the pleasures for readers down the centuries has been to follow the continuity of narrative, with life for its characters hurrying by at a pace even more brisk than those of us embedded in the real world experience, and turning the pages.
Anyhow, Far Thing Films, operated by a charming rich youth whose name has long escaped me, hired Johnson to write a screenplay of my novel, “Greybeard”. More riding about London in cars. This time a Bentley. More eating in restaurants I would never have visited under my own steam. I read some of Johnson’s screenplay. It was very original. The screen was often to go blank for a minute or more.
Johnson must have known what he was doing. He had had several projects filmed for BBC TV and the British Film Institute, including one excitingly entitled, “Up Yours Too, Guillaume Apollinaire!”
But “Greybeard” was never filmed. The screenplay was never finished. Johnson committed suicide in 1973. Maybe it was something I said.
1973 was the year my possible intended gesture of farewell to SF was published. “Billion Year Spree” was a record of the sort of writing which, in all my life, gave me the most profound and unembarrassed pleasure. It provided a refuge throughout early youth. The book, in particular a footnote in the book, led to my meeting with Stanley Kubrick.
My Life Outside the Movies was originally published as a series of articles in The Guardian,
the version published here has been re-written and expanded by the author.
2. The Long Afterglow of Earthly Hopes
Robert Abel Associates is not the best-known name in the film world. However, during the sixties-seventies, my relations with this Hollywood company were extremely cordial. Which is to say that they paid me regular sums of money, annually renewing options on my novel “Hothouse”.
Indeed, the company at one time suggested they should pay me more, to keep pace with inflation. I raised no objection.
Another company of which I knew nothing took out an option on “Non-Stop”. I assumed that this company intended to make a movie from my story of interstellar travel gone wrong. But no. As I was to learn later, the company was a shadow Kubrick organisation, simply gobbling up – for low cost – any property which might be seen to offer opposition to Stanley’s “2001”.
Robert Abel were not like that. Robert Abel himself had a partner, a science fiction fan of long-standing, called Carl Pederson. They had devised between them a slave camera device, with which they fully intended to make a main feature animated movie of “Hothouse”. All they needed was sufficient finance for lift off. They financed themselves, meanwhile, by making ingenious commercials. The famous one was the Coke bottle exploding out of ice.
Carl’s wife was a good commercial artist. She designed a modern version of the famous Columbia trade mark, the vestal virgin with a torch. Her design has now been replaced by a more teen-friendly lady. Nothing lasts. We should not expect it to be otherwise.
When I was in Hollywood, I discovered how dedicated the Associates were. They came to dine with me on the Starlight Roof of the Beverley Hills Hilton, and showed me their storyboard. They spread before me beautiful designs for my strange future world, the Age of Vegetables, Nature green in tooth and claw, when the Earth has ceased to rotate and the sunlit side of the world is covered by one mighty tree. The partners’ children were as familiar with the Hothouse characters, Gren and the rest, as were the progeny of Tolkien addicts with Frodo and Middle Earth.
Although I certainly did hope to see the completed movie, my peculiar disposition ensured that I never desired to climb a mountain; I just wanted to write myself out of a hole.
This worry-free situation was not to last. Eventually, the Abel operation collapsed. The organisation had designed the computer graphics for the Disney film “Tron”. On the success of this movie depended the making – at last – of “Hothouse, The Movie”. My son Tim and I went to the American Embassy in Berkley Square to a preview of “Tron”. Unfortunately, this was 1982, when “Tron” faced major SF opposition in the cinemas. “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan”, “Blade Runner”, and “ET” – not to mention “Jekyll and Hyde… Together Again” – were all showing that year. “Tron” never made it. It never made “Hothouse”.
And what exactly was I doing in Hollywood, dining friends on the Starlight Roof, living high on the hog? I was witness on a case which never came to trial. Shortly after the first of George Lucas’s “Star Wars” movies appeared, Universal brought out “Battlestar Galactica”. Lucas and Fox sued for plagiarism. But Universal’s defence lawyers looked up a definition I had given of ‘space opera’ in a book of that name, some years earlier.
The definition reads in part:
The Earth must be in peril… Space must flow past the ports like wine from a pitcher. Blood must run down the palace steps, and ships launch out into the louring dark. There must be a woman fairer than the skies and a villain darker than a Black Hole. And all must come right in the end…
The “Space Opera” anthology was published in 1973. It defined an existing genre. So there could be no case for plariarisation. A Western director cannot sue another Western director for plagiarisation just because cowboys jump onto horses and shoot each other; it is generic that they should do that.
Universal offered me untold wealth to stay with the Starlight Roof and be their witness. I had the stature, the English accent, the greying sideburns. They needed me. But I wanted to get home to my family.
And I had no wish to watch more bad space movies back-to-back in an elegant little flick house on the Universal lot. My eyes had to be pinned open like McDowell’s in “Clockwork Orange”.
Eventually, the plagiarism suit was settled out of court. The greying sideburns were not required.
By that time, I had other matters to attend to. I was writing my “Helliconia” novels and I had met Stanley Kubrick. The sideburns greyed even further.
It says something about either my altruism or my idiocy that I pressed Stanley to film a novel of Philip K.Dick’s I admired, “Martian Time-Slip”. This novel, written in the sixties, possessed my imagination, not least because I saw how it could be brought up to date without altering the plot structure. Like, you could not longer credibly have autochthonous Martians, but you could replace them with Tibetans.
Stanley simply swept my suggestion out of the way. No discussion. No time to be wasted.
I did not give up on Phil Dick. Dick was a friend and a wonderfully creative man. I wasted much time and effort trying to get “Time-Slip” screened. In that endeavour, I was assisted by Frank Hatherley, an Australian buddy. Frank and I first met in July of 1975 when, in collaboration with the writer Robin Chapman, I wrote “Hot Local and Galactic News” for BBC TV. Frank was our script editor.
In those days, BBC plays went out live. Tape was costly. Robin and I met on the Monday. The play was cast as we wrote it, and rehearsed as we wrote it, sets were built as we wrote it, and the complete package was transmitted on the Saturday evening. It was great for the adrenalin. Afterwards, a fantastic party, everyone smashed to the nines.
Later, when Frank became independent, I hired him as my media agent. It was Frank’s idea to put together an evening revue we called “SF Blues”, playlets and sketches compiled from my writings. With me in the cast were Ken Campbell and the glamorous Petronilla Whitfield, both experienced in thespian lore. Frank stage-managed. Margaret was in charge of the front-of-house.
“SF Blues” was an intoxicating hobby. We toured it all round England – though never in my home town, Oxford, till the year 2000 – and in Germany and Holland at that unforgettable World Con. One of the items we found most popular was “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long”. It had appeared originally as a short story in “Harper’s Bazaar” in 1969, designed for Christmas reading.
Frank and I put in a proposal to BBC TV for a televised version of Phil Dick’s novel. We met with Michael Wearing, who was then, if memory serves, in charge of Serial Drama. He wanted to be convinced that the idea of humans living on Mars was not fantasy.
That serious approach was much to my taste.
I wrote Wearing a little paper on how we could soon journey to Mars, and what might then happen in the way of terraforming. And of how sectors of Mars might come under the jurisdiction of various United Nations states. And of how Tibetans might be induced to go to Mars as indentured labour, being bereft of a country and accustomed to rarified atmosphere – and be rather badly treated by white colonists.
Wearing was convinced. Frank and I were commissioned to write a screenplay in five parts, fifty-five minutes a part. Two hundred and seventy-five minutes air time! Wow!
What luxury! A real spread at last for serious SF, based on psychology rather than gimmicry…
We had a good script editor, Susan Hogg, who worked with Wearing. Sue was entirely supportive and never made anything but sensible suggestions.
The discipline of writing for the small screen, paring away words and details, was pleasureable. Like having your hair cut to the bone. Frank and I collaborated with a will. We delivered an outline of the five parts. Eventually, after long afternoons spent in dusty class rooms, working with a whiteboard, and evenings with a computer, we drew up an outline of the entire thing and put the first episode together. We sent it to Wearing without a qualm.
It was rejected. Wearing’s position in the BBC had altered. We never heard from him directly. We learnt, however, that he was now looking for something with ‘contemporary relevance’. As if Tibetans and exploitation were an irrelevance. So yet another cop show went on in our spot.
However, we did not give up on “Martian Timeslip”. We knew we had a terrific drama to offer. At that time, a lady called Ileen Maisel had been appointed head of Paramount UK. Frank and I went to see Ileen in Wardour Street.
Ileen’s office buzzed with elegant little ladies all phoning busily or clicking away at computers. Ileen herself wore black leather and sat rocking in a rocking chair. She was a quick-minded woman, a striking figure. She took us to an exclusive restaurant in the recesses of Kensington, known only to high-flying Americans, where we discussed terms.
Her first project was a remake of “Jane Eyre”, filmed on a tip outside London, near Staines, I believe. The movie preoccupied her, but she really liked “Martian Time-Slip”.
So one morning, bright and early, Frank and I were strolling down Wardour Street, going to see Ileen and actually about to sign a contract…
Frank popped into a newsagent on the way to buy a copy of “Variety”. I couldn’t think how he could let himself be distracted.
He came from the shop glaring at the journal.
“Ileen’s been sacked!”, he said.
And there it was. Seemed “Jane Eyre” had flopped. Sudden death had happened.
The Paramount offices, when we entered, were tomblike. The young ladies of Paramount sat quiet. No phone rang, no computer clicked. Some young ladies were reading the Appointments Vacant columns of newspapers.
Ileen was looking mildly vexed. “The bastards didn’t even call to tell me. I had to read it in ‘Variety’ myself. Sorry, guys! Some other time…”
Frank returned to Australia.
All this while, life went happily along. Show Bizz was not taken too seriously. My novel, “Frankenstein Unbound” was optioned by Roger Corman. After twenty years away from directing, Roger decided to make a come back. “Frankenstein Unbound” had already been well received, and had been dramatised on BBC Radio London. I played Victor Frankenstein. It made an LP in the States.
Roger Corman and his able producer, Kobi Jaeger, came to dine with Margaret and the family at our house on Boars Hill, outside Oxford. Both were pleasant and witty men. At the end of the meal, I said, “When you’ve got “Frankenstein” in the can, you’ll have to film the sequel – “Dracula Unbound”.”
Roger said cordially, “You write it, I’ll film it.” This was in 1989.
What a courteous and generous man Roger is. He paid for Margaret and the children and me to stay in a hotel on the shores of Lake Como, to watch some of the filming. We had roisterous nights with John Hurt and Bridgit Fonda, while Charlotte, our youngest, fell for Michael Hutchence, who played P. B. Shelley.
One element of Roger’s script particularly worried me, and still does. John Hurt, as Bodenland, travels from the future back to 1818, where he finds a trial in progress. The screenplay has him entering the courtroom. There he sees Mary Shelley (Bridget Fonda) in court. He asks a bystander, “Is that Mary Shelley?”
The bystander replies, “Yes, she’s Lord Byron’s whore”.
But Mary was no such thing. She fended off Byron’s advances. When I pointed this out to Roger, he said, lightly, “But the bystander is a parson. No one is going to believe a parson.”
John Hurt and I did rather a lot of drinking off set. On one occasion I became convinced I was Frankenstein’s monster. Grappa plays such tricks. I admired Roger’s patience when filming. How calm he was. And a good tennis player.
Roger’s movie was first shown in 1990. We all went up to a cinema in Leicester Square to see it. Apart from us, there were six people in the audience. Although I wrote “Dracula Unbound” first as a screenplay, then as a novel, it never got filmed. Such is destiny.
I was fortunate in persuading Roger and his wife, Julie, along as Guests of Honour at the Conference of the Fantastic in Florida.
I mentioned “Dracula Unbound” to Roger. He said, “It’s too expensive for me, Brian. I’m a cheapo outfit!”
A more exquisite rejection I never had. I thought, if only Roger had Kubrick’s genius – and Kubrick had Roger’s unabrasive nature.
One must never be disappointed. The future has more surprises to come. One should always be grateful if one’s book is filmed.
There are many reasons for being in the film trade, not all of them artistic. You are more likely to meet pretty actresses if you work in movies. Bridget Fonda is very attractive. Tim took a photo of me gazing lasciviously at Miss Fonda. We christened the shot with a spoonerism on the John Cleese movie of the time, “A Wish Called Fonda”.
But working with Stanley Kubrick was a more serious matter.
My Life Outside the Movies was originally published as a series of articles in The Guardian,
the version published here has been re-written and expanded by the author.
3. A Sojourn at Castle Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick’s reputation rests, not only on his films, but on his seeming isolation and determined independence. No other director has managed so successfully to stand outside the Hollywood system – and flourish. Little wonder his name is legendary.
Stanley never rested on such laurels as were accorded him. He worked hard and obsessively until the day he died.
I saw an example of this independence when the top brass of Warner Brothers wished to meet Kubrick. Pleading a hatred of flying, Kubrick got the top brass, on whose financial support he relied, to come over to London. Once there, the executives invited him down to meet them at the Cumberland hotel. Kubrick said he was too busy. So Warner Brothers made a further trip to St Albans to meet him.
The treatment of his servants was stamped by the same self-regard: genial but exacting. Kubrick expected other to work hard, as he worked himself hard. His dedication was admirable, heroic.
Kubrick’s early films are rather second rate, thrillers cast in familiar mode, until he produces “Paths of Glory” in 1957. Then follow “Spartacus” and the weird and wonderful “Lolita”. It is in 1964 that his indisputable misanthropic masterpiece, “Dr Strangelove”, appears. From then on, the course is set, with “2001”, followed by “A Clockwork Orange”, a film appearing every four or five years – dazzling films of various kinds.
Variety was one of the qualities I valued, being a restless man myself. I admired many of the films and the legend. However, it was more in a spirit of mischief than a quest for truth that I dubbed him – admittedly only in a footnote on p.261 of “Billion Year Spree” – “the great SF writer of the age”.
To praise Kubrick was to snub those egotists in the SF field who regarded themselves as the greatest writers of the age.
Kubrick bought my book. So he happened to see the footnote. He rang me. We got talking. We met up in July 1976, when we had lunch at a restaurant in Boreham Wood, to talk movies and SF, and drink. Kubrick appeared in Che Guevara guise: boots, jungle greens, beret crammed over curly hair, beard. The likeness was striking.
Stanley’s knowledge of SF was impressive – the typical reading material of an intellectually bright but poor New York kid.
“Barry Lyndon” had been released the previous year. Although the photography is of unparalleled beauty, its perfect cut-glass frigidity had not proved to be to the popular taste. In Cameron Crowe’s book, “Conversations with Billy Wilder”(1999), Wilder remarks, apropos technique, “[Kubrick] worked six months trying to find a way to photograph somebody by candlelight, not artificial light. And nobody really gives a shit whether it is by candlelight or not”. But Kubrick did give a shit. It was giving a shit that made him a great director. His attention to detail was magnificant, scary!
Perhaps Kubrick was in a dilemma as to what to film next, following “Barry Lyndon”. Our relationship was cordial; we met for one or two tunches over the years. He was always most genial. This was when I unwisely tried to persuade him to film Philip Dick’s “Martian Time-Slip”.
Margaret and I drove over to Castle Kubrick a couple of times, to lunch with Stanley and his artist wife, Christiane, whose bright canvases lit many a wall. Stanley liked actors. They were so clever. He thought Peter Sellars was a genius. He built up a casual repertory of actors he liked, such as Sterling Hayden, Philip Stone, Leonard Rossiter, and Sellars.
“You don’t need this bit of dialogue,” he said on one occasion. “A good actor can convey all that just with a look.”
While filming Stephen King’s novel, “The Shining”, he was necessarily elusive. He surfaced again in August 1982, referring in a letter to our previous lunch when “we spent most of the time talking about “Star Wars” and why fairly dumb stories might really be an art form. What has remained with me, however, is the persistent belief that the short story (i.e., my “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long”) is a fine beginning for a longer story, though, sadly, I have had no further ideas about how it could be developed. Anyway, I begin to think the old subsconscious doesn’t really begin to work on something which it doesn’t own…
This was when he made me an offer for “Supertoys”. One sees with hindsight that, ironically, owning the story made no difference. Neither he, nor anyone who worked on it, could think how it might be developed. The reason is simple: my story is a vignette, complete in itself. Any logical development should be inward, towards the psyche, not outwards towards the stars.
At that time, I was writing my “Helliconia” novels. And I had developed PVFS (post- viral fatigue syndrome). Nevertheless, the family urged me on. I signed a complex contract in November of 1982, after much to-ing and fro-ing among agents. The signatory of the Hobby Films contract was that of Jan Harlan, Stanley’s brother-in-law and producer.
Every day, a limo would come to my door on Boars Hill, and Emilio D’Alessandro would drive me to Castle Kubrick, Stanley’s Blenheim-sized pad. Stanley had been up half the night, wandering his great desolate rooms choked with apparatus. He would materialise in a rumpled way. “Let’s have some fresh air, Brian.”
We would open a door onto his rolling acres. Stanley would light up a cigarette. We would stroll forward, half the distance of a cricket pitch, with Stanley puffing away. “That’s enough,” he would say. Back in we would go for the day. It was a kind of joke. Our relationship was also kind of joking. Stanley was great company.
Rather ominously, when I first went to work with him, he gave me a beautifully illustrated copy of the story of “Pinocchio”. I could not or would not see the parallels between my five-year old android and the wooden creature who becomes human. It emerged that Stanley wanted David to become human, and wanted, too, to have the Blue Fairy materialise. Never consciously rewrite old fairy stories, I’d say.
For a while all went well. I wrote a linking episode called “Taken Out” in February ’83 and faxed it to him overnight. He rang me, full of enthusiasm. S: It’s just brilliant. I’m so thrilled. The way to do SF must be to tell it as if it’s just ordinary, with nothing that needs to be explained. B: In other words, you treat the reader as if he also is part of the future world you’re describing. S: I guess so, you just don’t go into all the gory scientific detaiIs… B: The more you explain, the less convincing it gets. S: You seem to have two modes of writing – brilliant and not so damned good.
That exchange is taken from a note made at the time. I have three volumes of notes. We had our stand-offs. I never again pleased him as well as with “Taken Out”. Though we often rocked with laughter while working together, we made no progress. Plot line after plot line came to a dead end.
Stanley never discussed what else he was working on. Occasionally, we would take a break and wander through the vast place to a pleasant bare room where his wife was sitting painting. We would talk to her and he would then be relaxed. We would go into the huge kitchen where the dogs slept. There Stanley would cook us steak and string beans.
On the first occasion when we lunched together, he asked me if I wanted wine or water with my meal. Possibly it was a test of character. He approved when I chose water. We never drank alcohol when working.
We used to discuss the world situation, which generally filled him with gloom. Stanley was sensitive to international crises.
“What ever happened to England, Brian?”, he asked, despairingly. Who could answer that question? It was a sign he loved the country.
“The Shining” appeared in 1980. It is certainly horrific. The most perceptive book on Kubrick’s work so far is Thomas Allen Nelson’s Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze (1982). Nelson makes largely convincing claims for what others may see as mere inconsistencies, explaining them as givens in any horror fantasy. Still, the film could have been improved if some shading had been given to the character of Wendy Torrance (played by Shelley Duvall). Methinks the lady doth gibber too much.
It was surprising to discover that Stanley was uncertain where to go next. He asked me once what sort of movie he could make that would gross as much as “Star Wars”, while enabling him still to retain his reputation for having a social conscience.
When I arrived at his castle on one occasion, he would talk only about Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” Perhaps he admired the way much of “E.T.” is filmed from hip height, in emulation of a child’s vision. As some of “The Shining” is shot by Steadicam from young Danny Torrance’s viewpoint.
Stanley would have none of my reliance on narrative. He pointed out that a movie can contain at most sixty scenes, whereas a novel can contain any number, one fading into another. A film needed only about eight “non-submersible units”, as he called them. (We got to three before we broke up, by adapting two of my early stories, “All the World’s Tears” and “Blighted Profile” to the line of the original short story.)
This episodic method shows in “2001” and, at its best, in “The Shining”. Here, blackboards announcing starkly “A Month Later”, or, simply, “Monday”, warn the audience pleasureably that something awful is going to happen on those occasions, and that Jack Nicholson is going to be a little more over the top than before. Non-submersibles happen. The breaks add frisson.
One sees how the breaks work in “2001”, giving the film much of its mystifying power. Stanley saw the future as unknowable: a more creative stance than that in evidence in “Only Tomorrow”, let’s say.
The years dragged on. I took notes during the day. Getting home, I would turn them into screenplay material, fax them to Stanley, and then write up my diary notes. Meanwhile, I also strove to remain a husband and father. I had surrendered my three decades of proud independence for a long dusty trail. My “Fuck it!” attitude to life was taking a beating…
Stanley perceived a problem with the android boy. It could be done by faking. But his perfectionism suggested a real android might be built. We went into that in some depth. The first technological hurdle to be overcome was to make the little thing walk in a manner resembling a real boy – to walk and run and turn and sit, etc.
In 1987, Stanley’s “Full Metal Jacket” was released. This late take on Vietnam became a hit in Japan, while proving less successful elsewhere. With the aid of thirty-six palm trees imported from Spain, Kubrick created Vietnam within the ruins of a site in London’s East End “It’s almost impossible to build plausible ruins,” Stanley claimed. “And winter sunsets in England resemble sunsets in Vietnam”.
By 1990, we were in difficulties. Agents and lawyers were exchanging letters. Stanley and I had flooded New York, only to have the Blue Fairy emerge from the depths. I tried to tell Stanley that he should create a great modern myth to rival “Strangelove” and “2001”, and to avoid fairy tale.
It was absurd of me. I was wheedled out of the picture.
He never said good-bye or uttered a word of unmeaning thanks. Instead, another cigarette was lit, the back was turned. And “Super-Toys” was rechristened “Al” – destined never to be made by him.
Several other people were summoned to collaborate on the “Al” project. All were flops. It was hard to work with someone who wished only to do everything himself.
Stanley was two kinds of genius. Besides his films, sedulously thought through, artefacts rather than mere product, there was the gift he had of keeping the world from his creative door. He always knew time was short. He created a legend for himself.
Geniuses do not bother with ordinary courtesies. They have other things on their mind. You do well not to resent their meaner habits. And even Arthur C.Clarke, Stanley’s partner on “2001”, could not expand my vignette into a major movie. There’s a lesson there for all of us, if only I could think what it was.
It was a relief to go my own sweet way again. For a few years, I had served as one of Kubrick’s tentacles. He had many tentacles. On one occasion, we were struggling with the concept of having a real android boy. It would be a first. Stanley claimed that Americans saw robots only as menaces. It was the Japanese who really liked robots; so they would breed the electronic wizards most likely to construct the first genuine androids.
He summoned his right-hand man, Tony Frewin, another sound SF buff.
“Get me Mitsubishi on the line.” (Let’s just say it was Mitsubishi, because the real company’s name eludes me.)
“Who do you want to speak to at Mitsubishi, Stanley?” Tony asked.
“Get Mr Mitsubishi on the line.”
A while later, the phone rang. Stanley picked it up.
A voice at the other end said, “Oh, Mister Stanley Kubrick? Is Mr Mitsubishi speaking. How can I help you?”
Everyone on the planet knew the name of Stanley Kubrick. One must expect such a man to be unlike the likes of us.
My Life Outside the Movies was originally published as a series of articles in The Guardian,
the version published here has been re-written and expanded by the author.
4. On Spielberg’s List
Truly, the eternal artistries of circumstance bound into our lives are fascinating. I gave little more thought to “Supertoys” until Stanley died in 1999. While I felt regret, I nevertheless went and dug up my old contract with Hobby Films to see if their claims on the story had died with their progenitor. It was not so. The phrase ‘in perpetuity’ cropped up a number of times.
Stanley’s death meant another disruption in life. It was a time of interviews, not only with the BBC and independent producers here, but with American, French, German, and Italian crews. Everyone seemed to be making documentaries on Stanley Kubrick. At first, I liked to talk about him, but repetition soon grows tiresome. And the question arose, Why exactly had a man of Kubrick’s intelligence spent several years of his life trying to turn that vignette into a movie? Why was he obsessed by it?
Like much SF, beneath the surface of David’s tale is a human and affecting story. Supertoys is the story of a small boy who cannot please his mother, no matter what he does. Was that what had touched Stanley? Thinking again, I concluded that – unknown to me at the time – that was why I had written it. I had been such a boy. My autobiography, “Twinkling of an Eye”, elaborates on that remark.
In an attempt to sound somewhat intelligent, with another interview pending, I went back to look at that little 1969 tale again.
It occurred to me that there was a continuation of that innocent story to be told. Immediately, I sat down and wrote it, entitling it “Supertoys When Winter Comes”. No sooner was the tale finished than I had a visitor.
Jan Harlan came to see me. As previously stated, he was an invaluable partner of Stanley’s. He was planning a documentary and wanted me to be in it. He also told me of the negotiations whereby Steven Spielberg, by agreement with Warner Brothers, would take over Stanley’s workings on “Al”, and make the film according to Stanley’s plans. Well, Spielberg is King of Hollywood, and can virtually please himself, just as Stanley could. It still seems a generous act. But the two men were friends; Spielberg had attended Kubrick’s funeral.
Jan and I got on well. I gave him the new story. He kindly sent it to Spielberg. It was then I saw a possible conclusion to the David story. I had no plans for a big space movie, such as perhaps was in Kubrick’s capacious mind; instead, I visualised an intense interior drama, rather claustrophobic, which would treat for the first time on film the question of Artificial Consciousness, asking, If David was programmed to be conscious, how – in what way – was that to be distinguished from ‘real’ consciousness? (Perforce this evades the real scientific question of how one programs in consciousness; I do not consider that a near- future possibility.)
Clearly, the path to acceptance is lubricated if a noted director receives an offering from a friend rather than a stranger. Spielberg accepted the story.
So I sat down and wrote to Spielberg, suggesting a possible further scenario in a letter. I know this sounds rather opportunistic, but I had the wind in my tail…
Rather surprisingly, Spielberg responded to the letter – though to Jan Harlan, rather than me. He wanted to buy from the letter one sentence, which he found striking. Jan offered me some money for it. I was intrigued to be confronted with more money that I usually received for the advance of a novel, but immediately – well, a day or two later, to be honest – saw that I really had to write that third Supertoys story myself, a story employing the idea contained in that sentence. So “Supertoys in Other Seasons” was written.
And Jan kindly sent that also to Spielberg.
I’m amazed at everyone’s civility and kindness. Spielberg has actually bought these two new stories, despite their containing the themes and characters of the story already in his possession, and so contractually his already. Warner Bros have been nothing but helpful, even genial. Jan has become a friend.
These two stories can play little part in Spielberg’s “AI”, as far as I can see. He is making his friend’s film. Still, I have had my say. One must rest content with that.
Spielberg will begin production of ‘AI’ in the month of July. I hope to meet him then. And next week, Jan and I are having a celebratory lunch in Woodstock, Oxfordshire. You might really think I had written no other stories since 1969! Life continues to astonish.
the version published here has been re-written and expanded by the author.