- 29 Jan 07
From Dr Strangelove to Eyes Wide Shut, film director Stanley Kubrick cast an enigmatic shadow over film. Since his death, the director’s widow, Christiane Kubrick, has dedicated herself to preserving his legacy. Here she offers a glimpse of the man behind the legend.
The late Stanley Kubrick’s wife, Christiane, arrived in Derry shortly before Christmas to attend the Foyle Film Festival screening of the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures.
Accompanied by her brother, Jan Harlan (director of A Life In Pictures and executive producer of all of Kubrick’s later films), Christiane participated in a public Q&A session after the screening. The duo have been very hands-on in protecting the legacy of Kubrick’s films (which include such classics as Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining), conducting interviews, travelling to film festivals and overseeing the touring exhibition of the director’s archives.
Still, it must be strange for Christiane to have talked so much to the press about her late husband’s work over the past few years, particularly as Stanley himself did so few interviews during his own lifetime.
“It is very peculiar, it’s not my thing at all,” she acknowledges, over a drink at the City Hotel in Derry. “Shortly after he died, especially, I found it extremely painful. I’ve got a little more used to it now, but I still wouldn’t say it’s a talent of mine. A big part of the reason we got into it all was to redress a lot of these ridiculous myths that had grown up around Stanley, about how he was so spooky and peculiar and reclusive, and so on. Normally, while Stanley was alive, the ridiculous rumours about him were funny. Sometimes not, but mostly you wouldn’t think about them too much. But once he was dead, they really hurt.
“It would have been disgusting had we not said something, so we did. And we were very nervous indeed; we were not a family who had ever been in public in any way. But it worked. We managed to get the point across that he was not only a maker of good films, but also a very nice man. But, you know, we still have to do it. They still want to know how grumpy and eccentric he was. Just recently I had someone come to the house. We have a huge library and all he pointed out was this one book by the Marquis de Sade. I said, ‘Yeah, it’s one book, it’s not the whole library!’ People always pick up on whatever they think fits this spooky image.”
Kubrick died in March 1999, shortly after he completed work on his final movie, Eyes Wide Shut. The film, which tells the story of a doctor (played by Tom Cruise) who explores the seedier side of New York nightlife after his wife (played by Cruise’s then real-life partner, Nicole Kidman), confesses she’d once considered cheating on him, was released that July to considerable controversy. Debate raged over everything from the artistic merit of the film to its titillating marketing campaign (which backfired badly). Perhaps the most contentious point of all was whether or not the film was fully finished.
“I think he would have done the publicity launch much differently, but who knows what more he might have done?” says Christiane. “He tended to tweak to the very end here and there, but it was finished. However, the advertising campaign went totally wrong and I didn’t really have a voice in that. There were a lot of articles saying that this was a story about two psychiatrists having affairs with their patients, and I think some people were almost expecting a porn film. That’s not what the film is about.
“I know it has an orgy in it, but Stanley wanted it to be a cliché orgy in the way that, when you say the word to western people, it conjures up this kind of Roman tableau – luxurious rooms, grapes, fornicating couples, and people watching. Stanley wanted to convey the shock that if you actually went to one… you would cross your legs, wouldn’t you?! It really is terrifying to see it, and he shows that. This is vicious, and it hurts, so don’t do it.”
Christiane, herself an accomplished painter who holds courses throughout the year at the family home in Childwick Bury, has some of her own work on display in
“Yes, Tom and Nicole’s apartment in the film is a bit of a copy of the apartment Stanley and I had in New York,” she says. “Stanley liked to use materials that he was familiar with so that the props looked real. So he took a lot of my stuff – furniture, vases, clothes, my paintings, my daughter’s paintings – and played with it until it looked to him like that was the kind of apartment that they might have. It’s a very lush, very American apartment – it’s obvious that they are a successful couple. It was very important to him that these were two people who had no problems; they’re successful, they’re beautiful, they have no problems getting lovers – but they know how to hurt each other.”
Christiane, a native of Germany, met Kubrick while he was on location in that country in the mid ’50s shooting his brilliant anti-war drama Paths Of Glory. Then an actress, she has a famous scene at the end of the movie (Steven Spielberg’s favourite in any Kubrick film), in which she plays a frightened young girl brought on stage to sing for a group of battle-hardened soldiers. After being initially jeered, she eventually moves the soldiers to tears with her performance. What are her memories of the shoot?
“The film was shot in sequence,” recalls Christiane. “Stanley hired me and also came to see me perform in a theatre in Munich. But because the film was shot in sequence, my scene wasn’t filmed until two months later. By that time we already knew each other and had decided to marry. It was a fun shoot.”
In the later part of his life, the gaps between Kubrick’s films grew increasingly long, as he looked to develop films that would justify the unique level of freedom he was given by Warner Bros. There were seven years between The Shining and Full Metal Jacket, and well over a decade between the latter film and Eyes Wide Shut. One of the numerous projects he considered during those years was an adaptation of Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume, about a homicidal perfume maker in 18th century France, currently in cinemas, starring Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman.
“Stanley did read Perfume, but in the end he decided not to do it because he didn’t know what to do with the middle of the story,” reflects Christiane. “He said the central character sits in that cave forever, wondering what to do, and he couldn’t see it in pictures. I’m dying to see what they’ve done with it, actually.”
As well as having a singular gift for creating unforgettable images (he began his career as a photographer for Look magazine), Kubrick also used music brilliantly in his films, from the orchestral grandeur of 2001 to the ’60s rock and pop of Full Metal Jacket. One long-standing rumour suggests that he initially intended to use excerpts from Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother in A Clockwork Orange, but ultimately failed due to licensing issues.
“It’s possible,” says Christiane. “Stanley was always talking about could he do this or could he do that; he had a thousand ideas a day, so anything goes really. But I couldn’t say definitively.”
Finally, it must be gratifying that Stanley’s films now have such a great legacy around the world?
“It’s very nice,” concludes Christiane. “I broke my leg recently and I was lying in bed, drugged, and they showed his films all in a row, in one week. And that was lovely, even in the slightly spaced-out state I was in; I did think they really all worked. Sometimes it’s melancholy, obviously, but most old women aren’t allowed to talk about their husbands – people don’t invite them again. So I’m the exception!”