Emilio d’Alessandro, Christiane Kubrick, and Ian
at the Festival Internazionale della Fantascienza in Trieste, September 2001
Early in 1990, the phone rang. Stanley Kubrick’s assistant asked me to visit the film-maker at his home near St Albans. Why could not be disclosed. A chauffeur would come. I must read material sent by motorbike courier.
I’d heard rumours of a project for a film about a robot boy. Due to the secrecy, and a sense of entering a lion’s den, I opted to drive my own car.
Stanley lived in enigmatic seclusion for years near St Albans, nowhere near Hollywood. Actually, he wasn’t at all the misanthropic hermit portrayed by journalists peeved at being unable to report much about him. He was a devoted husband and father, and constantly companionable by phone with people worldwide. But he was very focused on his art.
My memory of that first meeting with Stanley fades into umpteen subsequent meetings, but the impression which abides (since Stanley’s 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 trainers – along with a quirky amiable dry humour and an intensity of focus which could jump disconcertingly from one topic to another far remote.
I never mastered the lay-out of the manor house, but its labyrinth included a mini-movie theatre where Stanley could study the latest screen releases, a sepulchral computer room where two cats who never saw the light of day glided like wraiths, a billiard room where Stanley and I were to sit brainstorming for untold hours -- and a huge cheery kitchen where I would share lunches with Stanley. Gorgeous floral paintings by Stanley’s wife Christiana brightened walls.
Lunches remained exactly the same for weeks, since if Stanley liked something he persisted with it until he tired. First, were Chinese take-aways ferried in by Stanley’s chauffeur Emilio. Next, vegetarian cooks were hired, till they proved not to be true vegetarians. Finally, Stanley would poach salmon in the microwave, a skill of which he was proud.
Stanley gave me a book about artificial intelligence and a copy of Pinocchio, the tale of the puppet who yearned to be a real boy. The movie he planned was to be a futuristic fairy-tale robot version, spinning off from a vignette by Brian Aldiss, but the plot-line had bogged down. Would I write a 12,000 word story, doing whatever I wished with the material?
Three weeks later I mailed the result, and Stanley wanted to meet me again. Any illusion that I’d created a usable story-line evaporated fast. My story was no use for the project – bye-bye story, never to see the light of day – but Stanley liked the way I’d gone about writing it. Would I work with him on a week-by-week basis?
For almost a year I was to be Stanley’s mind-slave, writing scenes in the morning to fax around noon for long discussion by phone in the evening, or being collected by Emilio to arrive for lunch and an afternoon of mental gymnastics. A sign on a wall nearby said: Here we snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Stanley initially asked whether alcohol would hamper my performance, but I assured him that beer was necessary to my thought processes. So a hospitable crackle would come over the short-wave radio: “Bucket of beer for Ian!” In the big manor house, communications with Stanley were often by radio. One day I’d been nattering to Stanley’s assistants Tony and Leon for almost an hour when Stanley walked in and glared. “You’re supposed to tell me when Ian gets here.” “Your radio isn’t switched on, Stanley…” they replied. Perfect organisation could sometimes break down.
Even ordinary conversations with Stanley could be disconcerting since he would suddenly shift to an entirely different theme, as if he’d lost interest in what was of consuming interest a moment earlier. When we were discussing the story line, these veerings became extreme. What if our robot boy`s teddy bear has a kangaroo pouch to keep things in? Next moment: will the next government introduce currency controls immediately they gain power? After a spot of politics, back to our story: how about a café where robots hang out, pretending to drink?
I decided that Stanley’s intention, whether deliberate or instinctive, was to maintain mental intensity hour after hour, never mind how exhausting this might be – a way of sustaining and heightening my performance, and his own too perhaps, which has left some people who worked with him feeling drained dry. What he wanted, he didn’t exactly know. It was up to me as soothsayer to guess. Yet he was remoselessly logical in finding loopholes in lovely proposed scenes, little hair-cracks which could rapidly widen into uncrossable chasms.
Story conferences were like building houses of cards, often doomed to collapse just when I was hoping to leave with scribbled notes to turn into scenes. Stanley Kubrick only wanted the absolute best – for the story, or for the resident cats and dogs; and plugging away at something about which he had an instinct must eventually bear fruit. Was it 58 times that Stanley reshot Jack Nicholson crossing a street in The Shining in the hope, as Stanley told me, that something interesting would happen?
Early on I’d established a protective cordon by telling Stanley that I would only work weekdays. When one 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 suggestion that I might work all weekend or not go to bed, I retorted, “There’s no point in threatening me with money. I’m not mainly motivated by it.” Stanley gaped at me in bewilderment. By five in the afternoon, we could both be fairly wiped out. We shambled towards an editing suite, where Stanley stared blankly at his aide, Leon. “Do you know where Leon is?” he asked. “I am Leon,” said Leon.
As a model for how robots should talk, I must watch Peter Sellers as the retarded gardener in Being There. I faxed: “You are beautiful. I have a clean dick.” (“That’s more like it,” Stanley told me.) “You are a goddess. May I sit in your car?” Stanley would instruct me to “Stop writing dialogue! Just describe it!” Then change his mind: “No, write it all in dialogue!” I was beginning to feel like a deranged robot myself. A Robo-Scribe, with contradictory programs.
It was as if each morning I started writing an entirely new short story which I was soon forced to abandon, only to begin another story next day. This could be irksome for an author, though as Stanley said to me when I tried to defend a scene, “The trouble with you writers is you think your words are immortal.” On the inside of the manor house door was a notice: DO NOT LET DOGS OUT. As I prepared to depart one day, Stanley paused by the notice and growled, “It should say writers too.”
While filming Eyes Wide Shut, after the umpteenth take of a scene, Stanley said deadpan to a frazzled Tom Cruise at the height of his career, “Don’t worry, I’ll make a star of you yet.” In a similar way, Stanley seemed determined to make a writer of me yet! Stanley adopted the role of mentor with Tom Cruise – whose marriage broke up not long after Stanley filmed him repeatedly simulating sex with his wife Nicole Kidman – although we should not speak of cause and effect! What was happening to me was a prolonged master class in the construction of a story.
Stanley Kubrick hated coincidences in a story. In fact, real life is full of bizarre coincidences. Spanish friends were once driving me to Málaga. The motorway was very foggy. “You can go a bit faster,” I encouraged. “Nothing can come in this direction. Unless,” I added merrily, “there’s an elephant on the road.” “No elephants in Spain since Hannibal!” said the driver. Nearer to Málaga suddenly the fog cleared, and in a field beside the motorway stood… an elephant. Did it belong to a circus…? You can’t put such things into a story because they’d be unbelievable. Fiction needs to be more logical than real life.
Kubrick`s long-suffering, loyal chauffeur Emilio’s dearest wish was to retire to his vineyard south of Monte Cassino. He’d kept practical matters ticking over at the manor house for ages. When you’re invaluable to Stanley it’s difficult to escape or to have a life. Emilio did give notice. Three years’ notice, so Stanley could replace him. Of course Stanley completely ignored this.
Emilio and I got on well together so I started learning Italian. “Stanley è nostro zio,” we would chorus: Stanley is our uncle. It was Emilio who explained how Stanley could always be wearing exactly the same clothes, which whilst rumpled had not become filthy. When Stanley found something he liked, he bought many spares. He wasn’t dressed in the same jacket and trousers but in duplicates all in much the same state.
Originally Emilio drove Stanley in a Mercedes 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 – but 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 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 loved acquiring things. “Do you know what the essence of movie-making is?” Stanley asked me. “It’s buying lots of things.” One day I arrived with a canvas bag, essential to transport the increasing bulk of mutually contradictory printouts. Stanley admired the bag, which came free with a bottle of French aftershave which I hadn’t wanted. “That is a very good bag, Ian.” “Well, you can’t have it,” I told him, “unless you buy a bottle of aftershave.” Promptly he picked up a phone. “Tony, call Boots in St Albans…” Two bottles of aftershave and two bags remained in stock. “Tony, drive into St Albans and get both now.” Not long after, Tony delivered the goods to our story conference. Happily Stanley ripped the cellophane off one bag, and patted it. Two months later bottles and bags were still in the same place on the carpet.
When Full Metal Jacket was being filmed in England a whole plastic replica Vietnamese jungle was air-freighted in from California. 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.
What seemed to me caprice was perhaps perfectionism, the exploring of every possible avenue. “We need some sort of weird landscape for this story.” “How about surreal, like Max Ernst?” I asked. Immediately Tony was sent to Charing Cross Road to buy every available volume about Max Ernst. Taking the pile home with me, I wrote surrealistically and faxed off the result. “It’s just a woman in a flowerpot,” sighed Stanley. “Forget it.”
October arrived. We were sitting in the kitchen, door open 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 had qualified for a pilot’s licence, which convinced him how dangerous flying is. I rose to inspect the bee – it looked worn out. “Don’t kill it, Ian! Sit down!” I’d no intention of killing the poor bee. Bravely Stanley said, “I’ll put it outside.” So he found a crystal dome and some stiff card and manouevered the bee under the glass. “You stay here,” he ordered, in case I might sneak after him, intent on assassinating 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, while I got on watching CNN. Many minutes passed till he reappeared, bee under glass once more. “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 next to the bee. Then we explored unused rooms of the house for a safe place throughout the coming winter. Only once this was sorted out could we tackle the problems of the little lost robot-boy and his teddy bear companion.
Demands for story conferences escalated. Twice a week, fine. Three times, well okay. Four times a week was definitely disruptive and mental turmoil caught up with me. Given free rein, Stanley would be ever more demanding till you could become a drained husk. I would be completed Kubricked, and that wouldn’t help the story. I would become like the writer in The Shining, dementedly typing All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy over and over, only in my case the words would be teddy bear and robot boy.
“Ian,” said Emilio, “you have to 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.
At the end of the year, Stanley told me to write the whole story up in ninety pages. “I hope there’s some emotion in it, Ian,” he confided. “Put some vaginal jelly on the words,” a tip not often entrusted to writers. Blessedly, the resulting pages made sense.
Alas, Stanley became despondent; but he did me the kindness of phoning to say so, unlike his brusque dismissals of previous failed collaborators. I couldn’t have worked with him for so long if I hadn’t liked him, and I did feel there was a special relationship, of avuncular mentor and wayward apprentice.
Three months later, Stanley recovered heart and phoned: “This is one of the world’s great stories. Will you write a short synopsis I can show to people?” Maybe his earlier doldrums were because he had Kubricked himself, rather than me.
The quest continued…
After Stanley died of overwork on Eyes Wide Shut, Steven Spielberg made the robot Pinocchio, entitled A.I. Artificial Intelligence, in the same way Stanley himself would have made it, as a homage, and using my screen story and variant scenes I’d written. A.I. was the fourth-highest earner worldwide in 2001, partly because Japanese housewives went several times to watch my sex robot Gigolo Joe. But we aren’t interested in money – it’s getting the story right that counts. Stanley showed me how.
How effective was Stanley’s mentoring? In 2003 an American publisher brought out a new novel by me, to which I’d devoted much care and effort. At one point a character asks another, “How will I recognize your brother?” The correct answer would be: “You saw him in the previous chapter, idiot.” Whoops! I hadn’t noticed, nor did the editor, nor reviewers nor readers. I think- I know- Stanley would have spotted this. Nevertheless I do continue to strive for a watertight story, and in this task Stanley Kubrick is rarely far from my mind.
The full version of this article can be found at Ian's site here.
This version was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 2010
(c) Ian Watson 2010, all rights reserved