Plumbing Stanley Kubrick
For almost two decades Stanley Kubrick was obsessed intermittently by a project for a science fiction movie, featuring a robot child, originally known as Supertoys and subsequently called AI (for Artificial Intelligence). The inspiration was a brief story by British author Brian Aldiss entitled “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long,” first published in a special issue of Harper’s Bazaar in 1969, the year not only of the first Moon landing but also of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Back in 1969 I myself was a young lecturer teaching literature at a couple of universities in Tokyo. Watching that movie from a cramped bucket of a seat in a Japanese cinema, how I admired the sheer spaciousness of Kubrick’s Orbital Hilton and of the spaceship Discovery bound for Jupiter — not to mention the breadth of his and Arthur Clarke’s vision.
Seven years later I became a full-time writer of science fiction. Early in 1990, in my cottage in a little English village sixty miles north of London, the phone rang. Stanley Kubrick’s assistant, Tony Frewin, introduced himself and said that Stanley wished to talk to me. Why me? It transpired that Tony had phoned various specialist SF book dealers to ask who they rated as a writer with lots of bright ideas, and several of my story collections, such as Slow Birds and Evil Water, were duly delivered to Stanley.
Tony offered me a chauffeured ride to (and back from) the manor house just outside St Albans twenty miles north of London where Stanley had lived in enigmatic seclusion for years, very far from Hollywood. Coincidentally St Albans, the Roman town of Verulamium which Boadicea burned to the ground, was my birthplace, although I was raised in the north-east of England. In preparation for my visit I should read a story which would be sent to me promptly by motorbike courier. (As I was to discover, Stanley’s interest in a project might lapse for years on end but as soon as it re-awakened things must happen instantly.) Unable to elicit any further clue as to what my visit would be about and feeling a certain frisson, of the entering-a-lion’s-den variety, I opted to drive there in my own car. A few hours later the courier arrived and handed over a package containing nine sheets of flimsy fax paper bearing the text of “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long,” faded as if retrieved from an ancient file. I was aware from magazine gossip that Northern Irish writer Bob Shaw had recently been working with Stanley on “a science fiction project,” and this must be it. Bob was the inventor of fictional “slow glass,” which allows owners to look out of their windows nostalgically upon sights from the past, and he had moved from strife-torn Ulster to the northwest of England, 150 miles by railway from St Albans.
The Aldiss story, which was either highly contradictory or ambiguous depending on one’s point of view, proved to be set in an overpopulated future society. To control breeding, pregnancy is only allowed if you win a permit in the weekly lottery run by the Ministry of Population. For several years childless Monica has been yearning to win permission. As a stopgap child-substitute she has a synthetic toddler, David, together with a robot teddy bear. Pathetic puzzled David frets about whether he is real and whether Mummy loves him, while the simple-minded interactive teddy bear helps out with lame-brained advice.
Duly instructed on how to find the manor house, a few days later I turned off one of the main roads out of St Albans into a private parkland, harbouring a dainty mini-village of homes originally built for estate workers by the former owner of the spread, millionaire racehorse-owner Jim Joel. Stanley had bought the manor house of between fifty and a hundred rooms — estimates vary – and the immediate grounds. I headed along a half-mile lane through paddocks and pastures till I reached a modest security gate. Pushing the button of an intercom on a post, I identified myself to Tony. The low gate duly unlocked and swung open. Past masking shrubbery I drove round a corner to a lodge-house, Tony’s own bailiwick beside the gateway to a gravelled courtyard, across which a horseless stable block faced the front of the manor.
Author of One Hundred Years of Science Fiction Illustration published in 1974, Tony had worked with Stanley on 2001 and later became his personal assistant. He proved to be a droll friendly chap of wide-ranging and recherché interests, with a detestation of Edith Sitwell (who happens to be buried in the village next to mine).
My memory of that first meeting with Stanley fades into untold other meetings, but the impression which abides (since his appearance never changed) was of a quizzical scruffy figure, bespectacled eyelids hooded, receding hair and beard untidy, dressed in baggy trousers, a jacket with lots of pockets and pens, and tatty old jogging shoes – and with a quirky amiable dry humour and an intensity of focus which could flick disconcertingly from one topic to another far removed.
I never mastered the topography of even part of the ground floor of the house, but its labyrinthine grottos included a mini-movie theatre where Stanley could study the latest screen releases in darkness and privacy, a large sepulchral computer room where two cats who never saw the light of day glided like wraiths, a sub-title control room (as I thought of it – more of this anon), a billiard room minus billiard table devoted now to books and armchairs where Stanley and I were to sit brainstorming for untold hours, with occasional excursions to twin toilets along a gloomy corridor — and the much cheerier huge kitchen, giving on to the patio and herb garden, where I was to share the first of many lunches with Stanley before we decamped to that billiard room.
That first lunch was a Chinese take-out ferried in from nearby Harpenden by Stanley’s Italian chauffeur Emilio d’Alessandro whom I was to come to know well, and who was to become my guide to Stanley’s quirks and my sanity-prop on several occasions, just as Tony was to wise me up to certain house rules designed to preserve Stanley’s happiness, such as never mentioning A Clockwork Orange unless Stanley himself raised the subject. If I didn’t need to know what Stanley was up to, then Tony didn’t know either, even if he knew full well. (“Dunno, moosh”– or might this be mouche?)
At our first meeting Stanley skated briefly over some of my stories which he had read. Since I hadn’t seen Full Metal Jacket, released three years earlier although not yet on general sale in video shops but only for hire (extremely careful economic management of his movies being quite obsessional with Stanley), he gave me a videotape. Also, a copy of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, about the puppet who yearned to be a real boy but who gets into such naughty scrapes, and a book about artificial intelligence by Hans Moravec, Mind Children. The movie was to be a picaresque robot version of Pinocchio, spinning off from the Aldiss story, but the plot-line had bogged down. Aldiss had worked on story development around 1982, and again recently, so it seemed. (Later, Tony told me that Aldiss was fired for faxing “banal crap.”) Bob Shaw was then hired but only survived for six weeks. The story-line had ramified – global warming flooding New York and an ice age setting in, but Stanley did not wish me to see any of my predecessors’ material apart from the seed-story. Instead he wanted me to write an original 12,000 word story, doing whatever I liked with the Aldiss tale and the main ideas to date. When I mentioned that Aldiss happened to loathe me, Stanley said dismissively, “Don’t bother about him. I own the story.” (Much miffed, Aldiss was to tell a fan magazine, “Not only did the bastard fire me, he hired my enemy instead.” Taking fright at his indiscretion, he then browbeat the magazine’s editor into recalling copies and reprinting the relevant page.)
During the course of our conversation Stanley discovered that I supported the Labour Party, then in its 11th year of opposition, and especially figures on the far left such as Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone — lover of newts and of science fiction, about which I had interviewed Ken at a World SF Convention in Brighton — and that I had even stood as a Labour Party candidate. (Instead of running for office as in America, in Britain people stand, although the electorate no longer avails itself of this opportunity to chuck rotten eggs.) Stanley greeted my political views with incredulity. “If the Labourites ever get in,” he vowed, “I’ll leave the country.” He feared being ruined by tax-the-rich policies – though he never did quit Britain, doubtless because New Labour, finally elected in 1997, no longer bore much resemblance to a socialist party.
So, in March 1990, I was hired for $20,000 to write 12,000 words. Three weeks later I mailed the result, and Stanley wished to meet me again. Illusions that I had devised a usable story-line evaporated a few minutes after I arrived at the manor house to partake of another Chinese take-out. My story was no use for the project – bye-bye story, then and there, never to see the light of day – but Stanley did like the way I had gone about writing it. Would I work with him on story development on a week-by-week basis? Warner Brothers would phone to make me an offer.
Warner Brothers duly phoned next morning, but instead of proposing a fee as I’d been led to expect, unexpectedly asked how much I wanted to be paid per week. “We don’t know how to rate you. Are you low? Are you high? Are you in the middle?” (Actually, I’m five foot six.) “I’ll have to think about that,” said I, and hastened to phone Bob Shaw. Bob was an old friend from many encounters over pints of beer at British science fiction conventions where Bob was much in demand for his spoof “Serious Scientific Talks” which always had audiences rolling in the aisles. Big and beefy but more shy than he seemed, Bob was sacked half way through his brief tenure with Stanley for presuming to pop off to an SF convention without asking permission. People working for Stanley must devote body and soul, full-time. Reinstated, Bob only remained for three more weeks. He told me that he simply could not cope with the constant mind-shifts and wished me better luck. Warner’s offer to him had been $600 per week, sweetened by a bonus of $40,000 if what Bob wrote substantially resulted in a movie, which his literary agent had promptly accepted without quibble since Bob needed cash. In view of the $20,000 I received for my story, $600 a week sounded a bit meagre, so I phoned Warner back and said I would need to consider how much I might earn if I spent one week writing a story of my own and sold it to, say, Omni magazine which would pay around $1500; then there would be future reprint and translation income, none of which obviously could materialise in the case of anything written for Stanley’s eyes only. An hour later Warner phoned back: Stanley had ordered them to offer me $3000 a week right away because he wanted me to start as soon as possible; and the bonus carrot would be $100,000.
For eight more months from May 1990 till January 1991 I was to be Stanley Kubrick’s mind-slave, writing scenes in the morning to fax around noon for lengthy discussion by phone in the evening, or being collected from home by Emilio to arrive in time for lunch and an afternoon of mental gymnastics with Stanley.
Because Bob Shaw lived further away from Stanley than me, he had needed to use trains to get to story conferences. Bob confided that he always took a train an hour earlier than the one he claimed to be on, so that he could fortify himself with a few stiff whiskies in the bar at St Albans train station before Emilio met him (until one day, his curiosity piqued as to how Bob could exit from a platform so speedily, Emilio arrived early and the ruse was rumbled). I was more upfront about wanting some preliminary alcohol in the sub-title control room to set me up. This room was where shaven-headed Leon Vitali presided. Leon played the role of Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon, then he went off to Sweden hoping to become a Bergman, before returning to work for Stanley. As the ultimate perfectionist, Stanley oversaw the presentation of all of his movies in all countries on Earth. If a movie was to be screened in Hungary with Hungarian subtitles, all the subtitles must be vetted by a hired expert to ensure that they were faithful. The dilemma of the most suitable Korean title for Full Metal Jacket occupied weeks on end.
A notice pinned up in the same room announced, “Here we snatch catastrophe from the jaws of mishap” – for perfection sometimes broke down. Stanley had initially asked whether alcohol would leave me in a coherent state, but I assured him that beer was necessary to my thought processes. When my presence was announced thereafter, a hospitable crackle might come over the short-wave radio, “Bucket of beer for Ian!” Since the manor house was large, communications with Stanley were often by radio. I had been sitting nattering with Tony and Leon and drinking Grolsch lager for almost an hour one day when Stanley walked in and glared. “You’re supposed to tell me when Ian gets here.” “Your radio isn’t switched on, Stanley…”
Stanley would lead me through to the kitchen to fix lunch. Or, in his case, breakfast. After over twenty years residence in Britain Stanley still slept American time except when the exigencies of making a movie interfered with his preferred schedule, and he liked the same menu each and every day until it palled on him. After a few weeks of Chinese take-outs served from foil containers came the era of the hired specialist vegetarian cooks, until the realisation that they couldn’t cook very well, were not personally vegetarian, and were stealing from the freezers. After that: big salmon steaks all the way, poached in milk by Stanley in the microwave oven, a skill of which he was proud.
While we ate, the television in the kitchen was invariably tuned to CNN, a background and stimulus to conversation. Large floral arrangements decorated the light airy long room, subjects for the paintings of his wife Christiane, some of which hung there and in the adjoining salon. These were truly beautiful, quite comparable to Bonnard in their vivacity, colour sense, and luminosity. When Christiane dropped by one lunchtime, the matter of A Clockwork Orange did crop up. One reason why the Kubricks had moved to Britain was that Britain seemed a lot safer than New York City. (Nevertheless, while a local policeman was paying a visit to the manor house one day, Stanley tried to find out how fast an armed response unit could turn up if necessary, although the policeman avoided giving a precise answer.) Following the British release in 1971 of A Clockwork Orange with its ultraviolence some copycat incidents ensued, perpetrated by hooligans dressed as droogs, resulting in much hoo-ha in the press accusing the movie of inspiring thuggery. An exhibition of Christiane’s work to raise money for charity went ahead on condition that reporters focussed only on art and charity and asked nothing about the movie. Of course, a reporter did ask, and seized on the only comment she would make to come up with the headline, MY MAN IS NOT A BEAST, SAYS CLOCKWORK ORANGE SPOUSE. All very upsetting. Stanley banned further showings of the movie in Britain and any sale of videos in the country forever after. Forewarned by Tony, I refrained from mentioning to Stanley that pirated Dutch-subitled videos of the notorious movie were reportedly on regular sale in London outside Camden Town tube station.
Next stop: the billiard room. Even ordinary conversations with Stanley were a bit disconcerting since he would suddenly shift to an entirely different topic, as if he had forgotten or lost interest in what was of consuming interest a moment earlier. When we were discussing the story line itself, these veerings became not merely ninety-degrees but three-dimensional — we weren’t just into lateral thinking; this was Escher mind-space. One moment: what if our teddy bear has a kangaroo pouch to keep things in? Next moment: so will the Labourites introduce currency controls immediately they gain power? After a few minutes of politics: forget Teddy, how about a café where other robots hang out? Eventually I decided that Stanley’s intention, whether deliberate or purely instinctive, was to maintain mental intensity hour after hour, never mind how exhausting this might prove – a way of sustaining and heightening my performance, and his own too perhaps, which has left people who worked with him feeling drained dry. If as a consequence your brain turned into scrambled egg, as did mine on a few occasions, Stanley would seem genuinely surprised. What he wanted, he did not really know, and it was up to me as soothsayer and dream-interpreter to guess — though he could be remoselessly logical in finding loopholes in lovely proposed scenes, little hair-cracks which could rapidly widen into uncrossable chasms.
Story conferences were akin to building a precarious castle of wooden blocks or a house of cards, often doomed to collapse towards the end of the afternoon when I was hoping to make my departure with definite scenes to write up the next morning from my pages of scribbled notes. Jerome Bixby once wrote a story entitled “It’s a Good Life” about a child of paranormal powers whose wishes become reality and who compels adults to carry out any whim. Sometimes I felt that I was trapped in that child’s nursery, although Stanley was far friendlier than that dreadful little boy. Cuddly, even – like a shaggy teddy bear himself, though with claws in those paws; and the claws could hook and squeeze till you might turn into a limp rag. True, this was only because he wanted the best, and more and more of it, and believed that plugging away remorselessly at something about which he had an instinct would eventually bear fruit. Was it 58 times that Stanley reshot Jack Nicholson crossing a street in The Shining in the hope, as he told me, that something interesting would happen? In face of this I resolutely needed to sustain my own identity — if that eroded, there wouldn’t be many bright new ideas — and to establish a cordon I had made it clear from the start that I would only work weekdays, leading to subsequent sallies from Stanley about trades unions and productivity agreements. Stick and carrot still lurked in the background (although bothering about either of these could have been fatal to creativity). Once, when a plot mishap escalated into a catastrophe, Stanley eyed me gravely. “There’s a lot of money in this for you, Ian” – referring to the pie-in-the-sky bonus. Distraught at the latest débâcle and a suggestion that maybe I should work all through the weekend or not go to bed, I retorted, “There’s no point in threatening me with money. I’m not mainly motivated by it.” (Ah, the Labourite fights back!) Stanley gaped at me in bewilderment. Mind you, by five in the afternoon, we could both be fairly wiped out. We shambled towards the sub-title control room, where Stanley stared blankly at Leon. “Do you know where Leon is?” he asked. “I am Leon,” said Leon.
Even when the story-line had not crashed, converting my notes into a scene next morning could be problematic. Sometimes my notes, whilst perfectly accurate, consisted of lines such as “She says, `Blah-blah,’ so he says, “Blah-blah,’” because neither Stanley nor I had the foggiest notion what the characters could say in the circumstances, though we knew they had to say something.
To maintain pathos, dialogue between robots needed to be particularly literal-minded and simple. The movie might be about machine-intelligence but here there were no fast-track cybernetic intellects out-thinking the human race. I must watch Peter Sellers as the retarded childlike gardener in Being There.
Heigh-ho: “You are beautiful. I have a clean dick.” (“That’s more like it,” Stanley told me over the phone.)
“You are a goddess. May I sit in your car?” (“Stop writing dialogue! Just describe it!”) (“No, write it all in dialogue!”) I was beginning to feel like a deranged robot myself. A Robo-Scribe, with contradictory programs running. Would I go the way of HAL, losing control of my language and my mind?
Sometimes, what I faxed to Stanley positively pleased him. “You’re on a roll, Ian. Carry on. God bless you.” This was after I introduced a male sex-robot to accompany David and Teddy around on their travels and travails. By themselves the artificial boy and robo-bear were fairly naïve and incompetent, even if David was obsessive about becoming a real boy. “What we need,” Stanley had informed me, “is some GI Joe character to help him out.” “How about a gigolo-robot,” I had suggested, and duly wrote scenes. Stanley’s response: “I guess we lost the kiddie market – but what the hell.”
On other occasions he would chastise me over the phone. “It’s like you’re writing a B-movie for a moron,” was one of his pithier castigations. This meant that we needed another story conference the very next day. After a run of scenes which seemed fine to me but which were savaged by Stanley, he called and conceded, “It happens to read well today.” “Maybe it isn’t an accident that it reads well,” I suggested. “I know you’re trying to befuddle me,” came the reply. Ah, he had seen through me! If what I was writing was fine, that was because I was being particularly sneaky, deliberately writing trash then startling him with pages of splendour, my own version of stick and carrot presumably.
Of course, writing which found favour would just as easily result in another conference since I had sewn that aspect up, consequently we needed to attack the story from a new angle.
Often it was as if each morning I began writing an entirely new short story which I was obliged to abandon the same evening, only to start another one next day. This could be irksome to an author, though as Stanley said to me when I attempted to defend a scene, “The trouble with you writers is you think your words are immortal.” Well, on the inside of the manor house door was a notice: DO NOT LET DOGS OUT. (Those were the three or four clone-like Golden Retrievers which each had its own cushion under the main kitchen table.) As I prepared to depart that afternoon, Stanley paused by the notice and growled, “It should say writers too.” Fortunately Tony had already told me the movie director’s favourite joke. A dumb European starlet arrives in Hollywood. To further her career, who does she sleep with? “The studio doorman?” I suggested. Tony had grinned. “No, worse! She sleeps with the writer!”
Irrespective of the status of writers, Stanley was in his own unique way much preoccupied with the welfare of dumb animals. I might have deemed it a raw deal for the computer room cats never to venture into the garden, but Stanley was worried that the Golden Retrievers would tear the cats to pieces, not knowing who they were, and at least the cats drank the best Evian water. When we were passing through the computer room Stanley noticed that the cats’ water bowl was empty and proceeded to replenish from a nearby bottle, though since he did not bother to bend down the cascade proved messy. Emilio told me that arguments had raged in the past about Stanley himself feeding the pets and using the Spode china as foods bowls. “You do not use the Spode, Stanley!” “But I only want the best for the animals,” Stanley had protested. To avert such contretemps it had become Emilio’s job to feed the dogs every morning including even Christmas Day, a bit of a chore when Emilio lived in North London miles from the manor house, though the alternative could be a catastrophe. A third cat lived permanently upstairs at a climate-controlled temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit or so, and each day Emilio dutifully cut a trayful of fresh grass from the garden for that cat to roll in; then he would vacuum up the grass.
When Stanley became convinced that the birds in the manor house grounds were starving, said Emilio, he took to throwing whole loaves of bread out of the windows. Before long the birds were becoming so stout that they could hardly take off. Inevitably one of the obese starlings fell down a chimney. The fireplace in question had been boarded up. Behind the board the bird fluttered frantically. Soon a mishap was heading towards an expensive catastrophe as Stanley phoned animal welfare and rescue organizations in Britain and America.
“Look,” said Emilio, “all I need is a saw and a clear plastic bag. I cut through the board, I hold the bag over the hole, the bird sees the daylight and jumps into the bag.” “I don’t know,” said Stanley, “you might harm it.” “But,” exclaimed Emilio, “it will die of exhaustion while you phone all these organizations!” Despite deep reservations, Stanley allowed Emilio to proceed. Rapidly, the bird was in the bag – which Emilio held aloft. “Now, Stanley, do you want to phone Harley Street for a bird psychiatrist?” “Well maybe,” began Stanley, “we ought to — ” Hastily Emilio opened the bag out of the nearest window, and the bird flapped down to the lawn to gorge on more loaves.
The project was derailed for days on end when Warner Brothers phoned to inform me that the upstairs cat had died. Extreme grief for a dead cat is entirely understandable to me, yet it did rather seem as if Warner Brothers itself had ground to halt. I recall Emilio revealing that he had built a Retriever-size coffin to keep out of sight on the premises as a contingency.
Long-suffering Emilio, whose dearest wish was to retire to his vineyard south of Monte Cassino! A deserter from the Italian army after 5 days service, he had headed for London and via garage work became a racing car test driver in the same team as Emerson Fittipaldi and James Hunt. Squeezed out of this job, he spent an unenjoyable interval in the ice cream trade in Wales for a while before signing up back in London with a mini-cab firm, which contracted him out to Stanley who was then shooting A Clockwork Orange. Stanley noticed how this new driver was willing to work all hours day and night, so he sacked his own ageing chauffeur, and presently Emilio became much more than merely a driver. Short, dark, and wiry, he had kept practical matters ticking over at the manor house for many years, playing a major role in trying to steer catastrophes back into mere mishaps.
When you’re invaluable to Stanley it’s difficult to escape or to have a life.
Although Emilio lived in North London, he was never out of touch. A special dedicated phone line was installed – Emilio’s English wife would not allow Stanley to call their ordinary home number any more because Stanley could become too demanding.
One day Emilio was driving me down the M1 motorway in the charcoal-coloured Mercedes en route to the manor house. “Ian,” he said, “Stanley phoned me on Sunday afternoon, even though he promised I could have Sunday afternoon to myself. `I need some string, Emilio,’ he told me. Stanley likes to tie things up with string. Ah but Ian,” continued Emilio, “I know about these things by now. So I said, `Stanley, where are you?’ `I’m in the computer room.’ `All right, Stanley, do you see the wall with the shelves? On the middle shelf in the middle there is a ball of string.’ `I can see it!’ `Wait! Go directly to the shelf, and come back here with the string, and tell me you have it!’ `Ian,’ said Emilio triumphantly, `I have string in every room for situations like this. And I also have extra balls of string hidden in each room as well!”
So there were ways of coping.
This particular Mercedes was not the original one with a sunshine roof. During the filming of The Shining Stanley’s favourite food for several weeks on end had been Big Macs. Finishing one of these in the car while Emilio was chauffeuring him, Stanley crumpled up the rubbish, spied the open sunshine roof, and threw the wrappings out. The wind promptly tossed them back in, all over him. “Fuck,” said Stanley, “this car isn’t much good.” A joke, or a genuine grouse?
Could it be that Stanley had become slightly detached from reality? When Emilio was driving him to a computer fair in London, Stanley became puzzled. “Why are all there all these cars on the road?” “Because people go to work, Stanley.” “Why don’t they work at home?” “Why are you in a car, Stanley?”
Stanley’s white Porsche, on the other hand, had stood almost unused for three years because Emilio refused to drive it. When Stanley moved to the manor house from a residence nearer Pinewood Studios, he took Emilio aside. “Look, I don’t want any removal men touching my things. Take two weeks over it, Emilio. Borrow someone from the set. But shift all my own stuff yourself, will you?” Because of little obstacles such as union regulations Emilio could not of course borrow anyone, so he shifted tons of Stanley’s paraphernalia personally – and hurt his back.
Being a low-slung car to climb into, the Porsche was not used by Emilio for a very long time, although once a week he dutifully switched on the engine to charge the battery and check that everything was in working order. Eventually a letter arrived from Porsche UK: Dear Mr Kubrick, We are distressed that you are abusing our fine engineering product by not having it serviced regularly… Brandishing this letter, Stanley confronted Emilio. “Why are you abusing the Porsche, Emilio?” “What do you mean, Stanley?” “It says here you are abusing the Porsche.” “But no one uses it! I am trying to save you money, Stanley! Save you £400 minimum service fee when the car needs no service!” “Well, I don’t know. It says here…” Seizing the letter, Emilio rushed to phone the head of Porsche UK. “Do you know my name?” he demanded. “I was Emerson Fittipaldi’s driving partner!” Emilio was duly recognized. “And do you know how many miles are on the clock of our Porsche after three years? Three thousand miles! Does that tell you something?” “You aren’t using it.” The head of Porsche UK needed to write a personal letter to Stanley before the catastrophe relapsed into a mere mishap.
Just as well that Emilio had a sense of humour, or of the absurd! When Barry Lyndon was being filmed in the Irish Republic in 1973, members of the large film crew began consorting with the local maidens. Since contraception was banned in Ireland it became essential to fly in a large amount of protection. Being an Italian Catholic himself, Emilio told me that he knew naught about such matters. Without Emilio being told what he was to act as courier for, he was sent over to England to bring back a big wrapped box. As soon as he went through the electronic security gate at Heathrow Airport bound for Ireland carrying thousands of aluminum-wrapped condoms, the gate and the security staff went crazy. “Put that down! What have you got in that box! “I don’t know,” said Emilio. He was hustled to a distance, the area was cleared, the bomb disposal robot trundled in. Delicately the robot snipped a hole in the box. Carefully it reached in and lifted out… a condom.
Everyone burst out laughing, except Emilio. “What is it, please?”
“You’re flying to Ireland and you don’t know what those are?” “But I don’t,” protested Emilio. “What are they?”
Emilio and I got on so well together during our regular trips that he reactivated the Porsche for me, and I even started learning Italian from him. “Stanley è nostro zio,” we would chorus: Stanley is our uncle. It was Emilio who resolved my puzzlement as to how Stanley could always be wearing exactly the same clothes, which whilst rumpled had not yet become filthy. When Stanley found something he liked, it transpired, he bought many spares. He was not in fact dressed in the selfsame jacket and trousers but in identical replicas all in much the same used state. His scruffy trainers, however, were the one and only pair to which he was deeply attached. Christiane had tried to smarten up his image by buying him a new pair, which he dutifully wore for a few days before begging Emilio, “Look, lose these you, will you?”
Stanley did adore acquiring things (and people too, you might say).
“Do you know what the essence of movie-making is?” Stanley asked me. “It’s buying lots of things.” The Labour Party was responsible for the fact that nothing bought in Britain worked properly, so he preferred to buy from a distance such as Düsseldorf or California. When Full Metal Jacket was being filmed in England a whole plastic replica Vietnamese jungle was air-freighted in from California, so I was assured. Next morning Stanley walked on set, took one look at it, and said, “I don’t like it. Get rid of it.” The technicians shared out the trees, giving a new look to gardens in North London, and a real jungle was delivered instead, palm trees uprooted from Spain.
Maybe because a Porsche turned up so often at our house, we were burgled. No big trauma; the intruders needed to tidy the house a bit in order to steal anything. But one essential thing they took away, in which to haul our video recorders, was the canvas bag I used to transport my increasing mass of mutually contradictory printouts whenever I went to see Stanley. The intruders obligingly stacked the printouts on the floor; but I was bagless. Fortunately I discovered in Boots the Chemists a highly suitable bag, a free gift with each purchase of a £15 bottle of French Caractère aftershave. Personally I disdain aftershave, but the bottle would serve as a present for someone. When next I visited Stanley he admired the bag, since he has an affection for bags as well as string. The time after, he admired it even more. “That is a very good bag, Ian.” “Well, you can’t have it,” I told him, “unless you buy a bottle of French aftershave.” Promptly he picked up a phone. “Tony, call Boots the Chemists in St Albans…” This was done. Two bottles of aftershave and two bags remained in stock. “Buy them both, Tony. Drive into St Albans and get them now.” Half an hour later Tony delivered two bottles of aftershave and two bags to our story conference in the ex-billiard room. Happily Stanley ripped the cellophane off one bag, and patted it. Two months later bottles and bags still rested in the same place on the carpet.
Although I was a “Labourite,” I did adore the general air of caprice. One day, apropos flooded New York, I mused what you might see by way of statues or such from the window of Macy’s. Within moments Tony had the Public Relations Manager of Macy’s on the phone for Stanley.
“This is Stanley Kubrick. I’d like you to go to the window and tell me what you can see.”
The man’s description wasn’t too good. “That’s the trouble with this positive discrimination,” Stanley grumbled. “They employ retards.”
So Stanley phoned the New York office of Warner Brothers to tell them to send a photographer right away to take pictures all around Macy’s, these to be sent to us immediately by air-express. On my very next visit those photographs were waiting, and I suppose we looked through them for at least thirty seconds. Two months later, they still lay fanned out in the same position.
What a magpie Stanley was, seizing on whatever I might mention. A book I owned about The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals: he must borrow it. Papal Indulgences; and I was faxing him information. I had written a novel entitled Inquisitor set in the wacky far-future world of Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000; he wanted a pre-publication printout right away. “Who knows, Ian?” he mused. “Maybe this is my next movie?” I arranged for Games Workshop to send him samples of their games and artwork and obtained for him from fantasy artist Ian Miller a portfolio of drawings of monsters. Anything could be grist to the mill, now or at some future date.
What seemed to me caprice was perhaps perfectionism, the exploring of every possible avenue that cropped up. “We need some sort of weird landscape.” “Surreal, like Max Ernst?” Immediately Tony was despatched in the Merc to London’s Charing Cross Road to buy every single volume about Max Ernst in stock at Zwemmer’s art bookshop. Taking the pile home, I wrote surrealistically and faxed for a couple of days. “It’s just a woman in a flowerpot,” sighed Stanley. “Forget it.”
After a couple of months of working on the project I bought a new car, which I drove to the manor house because after that particular Friday’s story conference I would be heading directly for Cambridge to be guest at a science fiction convention (with Stanley’s knowledge). He asked me to open the car door so that he could sniff inside; he loved the smell of new cars. “The Merc’s getting old,” he announced to Tony and Leon. “We’re going to have to make a new movie soon, guys.”
Then Tony went astray. Warner Books was producing a handsome volume of Christiane’s flower paintings, but Stanley took a dislike to the binding, sumptuous though it appeared to me. Accordingly Tony was despatched the 350 miles to Edinburgh in the Mercedes to supervise total rebinding. Late at night he phoned in, distressed – half way through the wilds of Northumberland he had run out of petrol; what should he do? It was too far to send Emilio to rescue him. Catastrophe had struck again.
And yet again: I was writing my scenes on an Amstrad PCW which copied to 3-inch diskettes. Stanley’s grown-up computer only accepted 3½-inch disks. We were electronically incompatible. I bought a full-blooded PC, but Stanley forbade me to use the new machine in case I lost precious text due to unfamiliarity. Since he could not keep track of the accumulating faxes and since we seemed to be getting somewhere, by July it became vital to have all my files on hard disk in his own computer. At this juncture my mind turned to my good old friend Dave Langford, award-winning editor of a science fiction news-sheet named Ansible famous for its wit, and presiding cyber-guru of a software service for writers based in Reading, the town midway between London and Oxford where Oscar Wilde served his gaol sentence of hard labour.
Yes, of course, twittered Dave, he could convert files from a PCW diskette on to IBM-clone disks and forward those to Stanley.
Time rolled onward to August. On the 2nd of August Iraq invaded Kuwait and five days later America began deploying Desert Shield in Saudi Arabia. Stanley became much preoccupied by the psychology of Saddam Hussein and global strategy, as the director of Dr. Strangelove well might. “Caught between Iraq and a hard place,” he predicted over the remains of our salmon.
The end of August saw the World Science Fiction Convention in The Hague, where I was arranging the hospitality suite for Science Fiction Writers of America Inc., me being the European Editor of their Bulletin and their officer closest to Holland. I took care to book a week’s unpaid leave from the project, and Stanley was graciously supportive. Afterwards the Sunday Times reported that Aldiss had played a robot teddy bear on stage at the convention. Stanley fumed. “He must have gone insane.” Leon phoned to tell me that Stanley wouldn’t be calling about my daily fax. Instead he had gone to his gun club “to shoot targets to pieces.” Did he take a model of me along? “No,” came the comforting answer, “just of two previous collaborators.”
October arrived: mellow fruitfulness and chilly nights. We were sitting in the kitchen over salmon remains, door open on to the sunlit patio, when I spied a bee on the floor. “There’s a bee on the floor,” I pointed out. “Will it sting me?” Stanley asked immediately. Mortality worried him, which is why he would never fly in a plane, although he once qualified for a pilot’s licence, an experience which convinced him how dangerous flying is. I rose to inspect the bee more clearly – it looked worn out. “Don’t kill it, Ian! Sit down!” He must have thought that any left-wing Labourite would stamp remorselessly on bees. Bravely he said, “I’ll put it outside.” So he found a crystal dome and a sheet of card and manouevered the bee under the glass. “You stay here,” he ordered, in case I might sneak after him, intent on doom for the bee. Presently he returned proudly from the herb garden. “I found a place for it.”
A mischievous imp prompted me. “You know,” I said, “the nights are frosty.” “Do you mean you think the bee might die?” “It might, Stanley, outside.” “Now you’ve made me guilty.” Back into the garden he headed, clutching glass dome and card while I got on watching CNN. Many minutes passed till he reappeared, bee under glass once more. “I found where I put it. What do suppose bees eat?” “I think maybe honey,” I suggested. So we raided the larder for a big pot of honey, and he spooned out a volcano-like mound to sprawl next to the bee. Then we needed to explore the unused rooms of the house to find a place for the bee to sit upon the card with its honey throughout the coming winter. Only once this was sorted out could we tackle the problems of the little lost robot-boy and teddy bear.
Saddam continued to cause concern. If he nerve-gases Israel, will the Israelis nuke Baghdad?
It was Emilio who held my hand (figuratively speaking – he was a very safe driver) when escalating demands for story conferences interfered with my own domestic equilibrium. Twice a week, fine. Three times, well okay. Four times a week was definitely disruptive and mental turmoil finally caught up with me. Given free rein, Stanley would progressively become more demanding until he could turn you into a drained husk. At this rate I would be visiting every day of the week. “You have to tell him, Ian,” said Emilio. “Be firm.” So I refused a story conference. When next I turned up, Stanley said plaintively, “I thought you liked coming down here.” “I do,” I said, “I just need to get my confidence back.” “Ian, you are very confident,” responded Stanley, though I didn’t feel so at the time. And we resumed.
I faxed, I disked. Disks went from me to Dave to be converted, and onward to Stanley. But a Bermuda Triangle was beginning to emerge, linking St Albans, my home to the north, and Reading to the east – a zone in which disks and secret text could go astray, otherwise known as Stanley losing things. Catastrophe struck in early November. One morning I was at my desk conjuring up enough words to fax when Tony phoned to report that Stanley had lost another of Dave’s disks. Wishing to carry on working, unthinkingly I told Dave’s phone number to Tony, which was a foolish error since this was Dave’s unlisted friends-only number, the reason being that Dave is deaf. My own high-pitched voice comes over clearly through Dave’s phone amplifier, whereas Tony talks in a more laid-back fashion, with long enigmatic silences between sentences – while, for his part, Dave has a distinctly whimsical tone to his utterances. Tony concluded that Dave was insane and phoned me again, concerned that I was employing a lunatic as a go-between. Shortly after, Dave phoned to complain about releasing his number to this peculiar person whom he couldn’t understand. I phoned Tony to tell him never to use Dave’s phone number again. If anything needed communicating, the message must go through me, because Dave could only understand me.
Stanley became intrigued and concerned about this bizarre computer wizard with the ear trumpet, through whose hands the sacred disks were passing.
“Who is this Dave Ansible?” he demanded.
“An ansible,” I explained, “is an imaginary instantaneous interstellar communication device invented by Ursula le Guin. It’s an anagram of lesbian.”
“Really?” retorted Stanley. “Do you trust this Ansible Dave? Sounds like a cowboy’s name.”
“I trust him with my life,” I avowed.
“And with our discs,” he muttered.
Paranoia deepened. Stanley insisted I tell Dave that as soon as he had copied disks he must erase all our text from his equipment. Dave groaned compliance.
A week or so later, Stanley phoned to say he had lost another disk. Would I ask Dave to send him a copy?
Dave obliged – and Stanley pounced. “How can Ansible Dave send a copy if he deleted the files?”
Slightly grumpy by now, Dave explained that so as to avoid delay he had unerased the files on his hard disk by a laborious and tricky process; he wouldn’t make the mistake of being spontaneously helpful again.
“What if,” demanded Stanley, “he’s selling all our material to East European science fiction writers?”
Could anyone but myself and Stanley conceivably understand the Library of Babel that was being faxed and disked? No matter. “Ian, tell Ansible Dave he must get rid of the stuff off his hard disk by compressing it.”
Only permitted to work on a PCW at the time, I scarcely understood what this meant. Stanley began to talk semi-jocularly of a dawn raid on Reading by Mercedes to compress Dave’s hard disk. Dave took mild umbrage at the whirlpool of paranoia now sucking him in, and dug in his heels. Why should he suffer? Did I work inside a locked bank vault and send my disks by security courier? Did Stanley really lie awake at night worrying about a few deleted files?
Oh yes he did. “Of course he can compress his hard disk,” Stanley informed me. “He’s bull-shitting you! Ask him if he’s ever heard of… Norton Utilities!”
More and more of my writing time was taken up in arcane negotiations and invoking computer deities of which I knew little at the time.
To avoid Norton Utilities being targeted on Reading, Dave wrote some software of his own and compressed the ghosts of erased files out of existence. Catastrophe diminished back towards mishap.
Eventually, at the end of the year, Stanley told me to write the whole story up in ninety pages, omitting, on his orders, some of what I thought were the best bits. “I hope there’s some emotion in it, Ian,” he confided. “Put some vaginal jelly on the words,” an invaluable tip not often entrusted to writers. At times during the project I couldn’t help but feel that the unfolding story was ridiculous, and that maybe the long delay since Full Metal Jacket, and the endless permutations of Supertoys, were because Stanley was leery of tossing his cap back into a ring now dominated by the likes of Steven Spielberg. Blessedly, the resulting ninety page story seemed to read pretty well; and at least it made sense at last.
Alas, Stanley became despondent; and parting was such sweet sorrow, conducted in a melancholy though civilised way over the phone. Weeks later Stanley remembered the fax machine, which he had bought to lend to me in the first place, and Emilio was sent to collect it. I got on with my own writing.
Three months later, just when I thought it was safe to answer the phone, Stanley called. “Ian, you know that story you wrote for me?” How could I have forgotten it? “Well,” he went on, “I lost it.”
“You lost it,” I repeated numbly. I thought desperately. “It’s on disk too.”
“I, um, wrote over that disk.”
“You wrote over the disk,” I muttered. “It was you who told me always to write to clean disk.” And no, it wasn’t on his hard drive.
I supplied a replacement printout and disk.
“This,” declared Stanley, “is one of the world’s great stories. Would you write a short synopsis of it I can show to people? And don’t forget the vaginal jelly.” I was rehired for a week to write twenty pages. Emilio came to return the fax machine. I faxed, I disked.
“It’s great,” said Stanley, before uttering the fatal words: “I might just tinker with it a little…”
A year went silently by. Ring-ring: Stanley had suddenly remembered about the project and discovered that he had lost all the material again. Up the motorway came Emilio.
“What’s Stanley been doing for the past year?” I asked.
“Mainly, Ian, he has been sitting in a room watching a dog die.”
If his dog could die, so might Stanley too some day. Special pills were flown in from California to keep the dog alive. “I had to sit in that room too,” said Emilio. “The dog stank. For ten days it could not eat. It could not shit. Stanley kept feeding it the miracle pills.”
When the crisis occured, at eight one morning, Emilio hastened to waken Stanley. “Stanley, you must get up.” “What’s it dying now for?” Stanley complained.
Obviously Stanley couldn’t only have been nursing a dog all that time. He kept so many balls in the air, generally out of sight of one another, like a dark star with numerous satellites hidden from one another but sustained in orbit by his powerful gravity. Preliminary work on Eyes Wide Shut, based on Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle – in which Stanley had been interested since the late 1960s – was also ongoing, Warner Brothers funding both it and AI.
Emilio announced: “Ian, I have given notice to Stanley at last. I am quitting.”
“What?” I cried.
“Yes… I have given him three years notice.”
Three years, hmm?
Another year passed and the phone rang again. Stanley was really anxious to get on with the project. Unfortunately (all together now), he had Lost The Material.
Stanley ignored Emilio’s countdown. One year to go, Stanley. Six months. Three months. “You must pay attention, Stanley – you must make other arrangements.” Stanley would not listen. Zero hour arrived; Emilio had already sold his house. Stanley refused to let him go and rented a house for Emilio to live in for another six months. At last, at long last, Emilio escaped to his vineyard.
In early 1994 British fantasy artist Fangorn, who work had illustrated the cover of my Games Workshop novel Inquisitor, was hired for two-and-a-half years to fax to Stanley futuristic images he wanted to see regarding AI. Since Fangorn (in real life, Chris Baker) would be at another World Science Fiction Convention, this time in Glasgow in August 1995, Stanley warned him that he might meet a certain sf writer there, and if so he must not speak to me. Paranoia, forever! Or could it be compartmentalization? Assemble the jigsaw in the dark, with only Stanley possessing the night-vision glasses. When a certain sf writer did discreetly waylay dapper young Fangorn, Fangorn was the soul of good-natured discretion.
In 1994 too, Scottish-born Sara Maitland, whose stories give a sharp dark slant to such fables as “Hansel and Gretel,” was brought in until the second half of 1995 to provide a feminist fairy-tale focus. Although she asked Stanley who else had worked on the saga, he refused to tell her, and she only found out after his death. With her, he always referred to the project as “Pinocchio.”
At that same convention in Glasgow Bob Shaw became engaged to a wealthy widowed American woman, Nancy Tucker, a friend of long standing, in a poignantly romantic sunset scene (both metaphorically and literally) slightly reminiscent of Cocoon. Bob’s wife Sadie had died suddenly in 1991; Bob had tried to drink the world dry, then suffered cancer and a year’s sickly aftermath. Damnably, scarcely had the gates of happiness re-opened than Bob himself died in February 1996. Meanwhile, Fangorn very nearly took up full-time residence with Stanley; but then came the end of the course for him too because Eyes Wide Shut was under way and Stanley could not keep both balls in the air at once.
Throughout the 1990s disinformation (or wishful thinking) appeared in the press or on the Internet. Stanley was about to start filming the life of Coco Chanel. He was probably about to start filming in Bratislava a movie set in the aftermath of communism featuring a boy and a young woman – this came as a considerable surprise to the director of media liaison for Slovakia whom I happened to bump into at a convention in neighbouring Moravia, unless the chap had signed an oath of secrecy or was lying. Special effects wizards in Hollywood had built a robot boy for Stanley, who was about to begin filming AI in Ireland. (And maybe a robot boy is indeed palely loitering to this day in the billiard room, having proved to Stanley that computer animation was the real key to filming AI.)
Setting AI aside temporarily, Stanley filmed – rather protractedly – the parallel project, Eyes Wide Shut. Rumour on the Internet was that he agreed to do this for Warner so that they would release vast sums of money for AI, to realize his true dream.
And then Stanley died.
In retrospect maybe the artificial intelligence — perhaps one should say limited intelligence — movie is potentially one of the great tales of the world, having been nursed and goaded by Stanley far from its origin. Warner Brothers soon began trying to salvage the accumulated material, and the hot tip emerged that Steven Spielberg would be the director. “Stanley Kubrick’s AI directed by Steven Spielberg” will inevitably be a different movie from what Stanley would himself have made, but posthumously Stanley may still cast his sway. A Clockwork Orange is being re-released in March 2000 to coincide with the first anniversary of Stanley’s death. To coincide with the second or third anniversary, aha…
Looking back, I feel a great affection for Stanley – or am I as bemused as the little lost robot boy about what is real and what is not? Shortly after Stanley’s death I was a guest at the Eurocon held in Dortmund, Germany, and I did a TV interview about Stanley in the street outside of the convention centre. A chalk mark was made on the very edge of the kerb for me to stand on, very erect (a bit difficult after all the liquid hospitality) otherwise any passing Mercedes would slice off my rump. A brisk wind was lancing across my eyes, another cunning piece of positioning by my interrogators. By the time I came to sum up my feelings about Stanley my eyes were watering, so that I seemed to be weeping for him on TV. How real was this? It certainly felt real.
In the wake of secretive Stanley’s death a spate of memoirs appeared in newspapers and magazines – to the extent of being satirised in an amusing piece in The New Yorker by Alex Ross entitled “Stanley Kubrick was My Friend, Too” (August 2nd 1999). So many people suddenly seemed to have known “the real Stanley,” and blew their own trumpets noisily — and quite sourly in the case of Frederic Raphael, who was brought in to script Eyes Wide Shut. Stanley did tend to use people and drain them in the process, and this could ruffle egos after the initial flush of excitement. As a supreme and obsessive auteur, why shouldn’t he? To pursue the drainage analogy, defining Stanley’s modus operandi for me especially apropos Frederic Raphael, Stanley’s brother-in-law remarked, “What do you do if you want something fixed? You call the Plumber!” (He was quite annoyed by Raphael in his diary-book Eyes Wide Open mis-describing the twin toilets as a row of urinals, as if the house incorporated a public lavatory.) Various egos did not like being treated as so many plumbers. Still, everyone had kept mum until Stanley died because there was always the hope of more money.
I myself never signed any confidentiality clauses, as did other hired plumbers. I think Stanley simply forgot about this in his eagerness to get on with AI. With Eyes Wide Shut in protracted production, and with media interest quickening, I decided to write the first version of this memoir and approached The New Yorker in the Autumn prior to Stanley’s death. The New Yorker made it an assigned piece, I delivered a revision, the release date for Eyes Wide Shut was postponed yet again, and time rolled by at a stately pace. Suddenly Stanley died, and The New Yorker e-mailed me that they couldn’t use my piece because Stanley’s death happened “too suddenly” for them — peculiar reasoning, I thought, since I would have regarded having a memoir in house right then as a bit of a scoop. However, they asked if they could use a few bits and pieces in their “Talk of the Town” section. These bits and pieces speedily appeared, much edited in-house — why on earth change “starlings” to “sparrows”? Are there no starlings in America? And they paid for these pieces plus a kill fee for axing the complete memoir. After a flurry of e-mails I sold the reverted memoir to Playboy, which published about half of it. Soon after The New Yorker had axed my piece, they rushed into print part of Frederic Raphael’s Eyes Wide Open, “fruity musings beyond the scope of parody,” to quote a review in The Daily Telegraph, and based upon meeting Stanley in the flesh less than a handful of times. Obviously Eyes Wide Shut was a sexier topic than AI – but gosh, Raphael and his agent did get on the job quickly; and how naughty of The New Yorker, I feel. Though how decent of Playboy.
So here at long last is the entire memoir, along with a few afterthoughts. Having read numerous other memoirs in the meanwhile, it’s evident to me that I regarded the episode of working with Stanley as a surreal comedy – for which I surely had the very best director. And obviously I did not know the whole of Stanley, even after months on end. Now that his aversion to publicity is no more, his family have at last become free through exclusive privileged interviews on TV and in the pages of Sight and Sound to present the loveable, normal, caring side of Stanley, a brighter and lighter vision of life at Childwickbury. In one interview I read that Christiane was annoyed at people comparing Stanley to a teddy bear. Oops!
I remain sad that he’s gone.
Postscript (2012). When I finally saw the film, a decade after I last saw Stanley, I believed that Spielberg himself had added the Flesh Fair scenes, the carnival of destruction of the robots, thus to provide more action. But then in 2007 or 2008 Jane Struthers, Head of Publications at the University of the Arts, London, where the Stanley Kubrick Archive had been deposited, got in touch for an interview. Along with Jan Harlan she was preparing a volume that would turn out to be sumptuous indeed when Thames & Hudson published it 2009 as A.I. Artificial Intelligence: From Stanley Kubrick to Steven Spielberg: The Vision Behind the Film, with many concept illustrations by Chris Baker. Lo and behold, Jane revealed what I had completely forgotten: that among the many scenes I´d written for Stanley, but which Stanley had rejected as part of the story which I would finally write up — scenes which Spielberg had nevertheless gone through — were multiple versions of the Flesh Fair. When I burrowed among my own little mountain of printouts there it all was in essence, the moon-balloon, any old iron, and so on.
A shorter version of this memoir originally appeared in Playboy magazine. This full version (minus the Postcript) appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction. Copyright © Ian Watson, 2000.