Monday, 23 March 2015

Ian Watson on Stanley Kubrick (an interview)

The following is an interview conducted in 2009 with Ian Watson about Stanley Kubrick.  It was published in the souvenir booklet of an Italian film festival in Pescara and this is the first time it's been published in English.

Emilio d’Alessandro, Christiane Kubrick, and Ian at the Festival Internazionale della Fantascienza in Trieste, September 2001

1) How was working with Stanley Kubrick on the script of A.I.?

A bit like navigating a 4-dimensional maze designed by Escher, because Stanley would switch topics suddenly every ten minutes or so, including topics that had nothing at all to do with the movie.   I don’t know whether this was a conscious or unconscious technique, but it served to keep your thinking in top gear all the time.  So the process could be a bit exhausting – for Stanley, also.

2) Why was he attracted by that subject and by science fiction in general?

In general, a new frontier for the creative imagination.  But without repeating himself, so he himself never made a sequel to 2001.  I see a magical fairytale mirror-image of 2001, a way of learning to love the artficial beings we create, rather than distrust them as in the case of HAL.

3) How much did he rely on the writers of his films as far as your experience with him can tell?

Considerably.  Stanley had a vision and an instinct, but he needed these embodied in narrative events, which is the writer’s job.

4) How did the making of a movie and, in your case, the writing of one intertwine with his real life?

Stanley most certainly had a real life, upon which he lavished a lot of care and attention and love.  But this did not happen in public, particularly after the crazy newspaper publicity following A Clockwork Orange.   While I was working with Stanley he talked about his family, and about mine.  We didn’t just work.  Partly this was because Stanley wanted to know the person he was working with, on his dream project.  I call it a dream project because he wanted to make a modern scientific fairytale which should be magical – as well as having a dark side, as magic and indeed fairytales do.  But I never assumed I had become a close friend, as I understand Malcolm McDowell came to believe, mistakenly.  Stanley had too much to do to become best friends with the world, no matter how closely he focused upon individuals while he was working with them.  But at the same time Stanley was in constant contact with the outside world.  He was no recluse.

5) Was he a control freak? And why?

I can hardly call Stanley a control freak when he wished me to write whatever I chose to write, within the general framework of the idea of A.I.   Stanley might receive what I wrote with joy or disdain, but he was always open to any new possibility, such as when I invented Gigolo Joe who became a mainstay of the film.  On that occasion I remember Stanley saying, “Well, we’ve lost the kiddy audience now – but what the hell!”   He would recognize what he wanted when he read it, but up until then he wouldn’t know, so he couldn’t dictate what I did with the story, just give general guidelines – or hopes -- based on the brainstorming which we did for hours.  It’s true that Stanley would tend to try to consume your life, but if you stood up for yourself he was reasonable enough.  The problem with some writers is that fundamentally they were scared of him, or scared of losing potential money or potential “fame,” but this didn’t bother me at all.  
If only a lot of other directors were “control freaks” in the sense of meticulous attention to every detail, not least (from my point of view) the Story – which in Hollywood is often skimped on, butchered, or thrown together at the last moment even in the midst of shooting.

6) What were his true obsessions in his life and in his work?

Death and love.  This is what came to me immediately.  But maybe you could also say: Beauty and Truth, in the sense of the perfect integration of all aspects of cinema including costume, music, lighting, whatever.  Perhaps he is the Wagner of Cinema.  Beauty and Truth, in the sense that mathematicians recognize Truth because of the Beauty of an equation.  To ordinary mortals an equation might seem a bit formal and cool, but to a mathematician it is passionately exciting.

7) How do you remember your working daily schedule with him?

Since I work best early on, in the morning I wrote scenes we’d discussed previously and faxed them before lunch.  Stanley would phone for maybe an hour, and encourage me to carry on or write different scenes entirely, or rebuke me.  I visited him on average twice a week, for lunch followed by three or four hours’ brainstorming.  I never wrote scenes in the afternoons or at weekends because I told him I had to have a life or else I would just burn out; and by this I survived.  My brains only turned into scrambled egg a couple of times during 9 months.

8) Which was the best part and which the worst?

The best part was when I came up with Gigolo Joe and we saw a whole new way forward, because up until then little David and Teddy weren’t going to have much chance on their own.  There wasn’t really a worst.  Despite his impatience to get the Best Right Now, Stanley was also very patient – able to wait for years, for example.  So occasional impatience with me also contained patience.  And when we agreed to part company (because he thought that we’d failed, even though he changed his mind 3 months later) he did so in a civilised and friendly way.

9) Could we say that he was always an American author notwithstanding his long stay in UK?

Auteur, you mean.  Often I felt he was more European than American.  Deeply admiring the Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski for example.   I never felt that he was particularly an American.  Though he certainly wasn’t remotely English.  He belonged to a separate country called Kubrickland, which in a sense spanned the whole world, certainly as regards his interests.

For more on Ian's dealings with Stanley Kubrick, he wrote an essay which appears on his website and can be accessed here

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