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Stanley Kubrick: A Clockwork Utopia

As Stanley Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ celebrates its 50th anniversary, revisit an archival chat with its director ahead of the film’s release.

American film director Stanley Kubrick looking through a movie camera.

Evening Standard/Getty

London — “I think,” says Stanley Kubrick, eyeing the red warning light blinking on the control panel, “that I’d better report back to ground control.” He picks up the radio telephone handset and switches himself into the network. “This is 285 calling. Hello, this is 285. Please connect me with 783 … Andros? This is Stanley … I have a problem.”

In Kubrick’s world problems are things to be relished as they are chewed over before being decisively digested. The malfunction indicated by the light is an irritating intrusion in Kubrick’s schedule for today. A Clockwork Orange, his latest film, is due to open in a week’s time. Yesterday he heard that a few frames on the master negative had been scratched. Also, there are problems with the color quality of the print that has to be rushed out for press screenings. Most people would curse or at least bang the steering wheel in frustration. But Kubrick just settles his solid frame back into the driving seat of his four-year-old Mercedes, tweaks his safety belt a little tighter and glances at the speedometer in a fair imitation of Robert Mitchum, ice-cool and inscrutable.

“Andros, listen carefully. I’m going to describe the situation to you. OK, now I’m accelerating … the warning light is on. I’m leveling off at 50 and it’s gone off. Dropping down … I’m at 30 and I’m going to put the brakes on. OK, now the light is back on.

“I tell you what I want you to do. Call up the service department at the Mercedes headquarters and check with an engineer. Tell him the symptoms and get a diagnosis. Call me back as soon as possible.”

As Kubrick cruises the car along the main shopping street of North London’s Golder’s Green area, looking for a parking space, Andros, ten miles away at Kubrick’s headquarters in the suburban countryside, starts the ball rolling. Later, Andros — one of Kubrick’s personal staff of eight — will pick up a memo pad and say, “You see this piece of paper. It measures six inches by four because Stanley thinks that six by four is the best size for a memo. The thing is that he’s right. Sure, it can be frustrating working for Stanley, not because he cuts out personal initiative but because he’s always right. Actually, it’s very rewarding working for him. I reckon on devoting some of my life to Stanley. I know it’ll be worth it.”

Stanley Kubrick pays attention to detail, he does. Alexei Leonov, the Russian cosmonaut, remarked after seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey, “Now I feel I’ve been in space twice.” Arthur C. Clarke, co-author of 2001, wryly observed, “2001 didn’t win the Academy Award for makeup because the judges may not have realized that the apes were actors.” One scene in Paths of Glory, Kubrick’s second major film, was a problem for the stickler. “Timothy Carey,” recalls Kubrick, “who played some sort of bearded lunatic, just couldn’t do the same thing twice, either deliberately or unconsciously. He had to eat this meal in a prison cell and every take required an untouched duck. I think we used up 68 or so ducks before we got it right.”

A scene in Clockwork Orange called for Alex (Malcolm McDowell) to have his eyelids propped open. “We used a piece of standard surgical equipment called a lidlock,” says Kubrick. “It took courage and a local anaesthetic for him to wear them. I can assure you he didn’t like it at all and we never really got it finished the first time. He had to go back and face it again at the end. He had to do it. The scene wouldn’t have been credible otherwise. One of the worst fantasies you can imagine is being in a straightjacket, strapped to a chair, and unable to even blink your eyes.”

* * *

For the first time in over a year Kubrick has found time to buy a pair of shoes. He inspects a couple of shops from the outside and doesn’t see anything he fancies. Ideally he’d like a pair of work boots, but his wife Christianne has him under instructions to get something snappier. She’s said in the past that he’d be happiest with “one pair of pants and eight tape recorders.” She has a point. In all the photos of Kubrick taken on the locations of Clockwork Orange he is wearing the same gear — crumpled gray trousers, a blue single-breasted blazer going shiny at the elbows and a bulky, olive-drab anorak. He’s a continuity girl’s dream.

As Kubrick walks into the third shoe shop a remarkable thing happens. A sales assistant wanders up to him and asks if he’s from America. Apparently somebody is on the phone saying that any minute now a bearded American may walk in, and if so he can come to the phone. It’s Andros, of course, reporting back about the Mercedes. He’d calculated which shop Kubrick was most likely to go into. Possibly a leak in the brake fluid system, they said. Kubrick decides to return home at half-pace and pick up a Landrover before going on to the labs where he’ll be shown the first print of the titles for Clockwork Orange.

A Clockwork Orange is Kubrick’s ninth film, not counting two shorts he made for RKO when he was 22. He made his first non-documentary film while still working as a photographer for Look magazine, a job he’d landed at the age of 17. He’d tried to get into college, but a combination of low grades and the shortage of places during the rush of degree-hungry GIs put paid to his chances. For four years he roamed America sharpening his visual taste and being just plain curious.

Kubrick had picked up his interest in photography from his father, a doctor in the Bronx. Chess, another of Kubrick’s passions, was also passed along from his father. Kubrick is fond of drawing the parallels between filmmaking and chess. He told his biographer Alex Walker that chess “helps you develop patience and discipline at a time when an impulsive decision seems very attractive. Otherwise it’s very necessary to have perfect intuition — and that’s something very dangerous for an artist to rely on.”

Actors often get to meet Kubrick properly for the first time over a chessboard. Other times he “confronts” them over a game of table tennis in the marquee pitched outside his house, the exact location of which, Kubrick insists, mustn’t be mentioned: “Otherwise I’ll have more weird visitors at four in the morning.” After 2001, it seems, there were more than a few heads with fixations about Kubrick. Kubrick remembers being approached by a scientist who had just seen the film. “Hey, you guys really are clever,” he said. “Such a great idea calling the computer HAL, you know, which is IBM one letter displaced in the alphabet.” Actually, HAL’s name was derived from heuristic and algorithmic — the two basic learning processes.

* * *

Right from the start Kubrick appreciated the power of owning a film project as well as directing it. His first feature, Fear and Desire, made in 1953, was financed by $10,000 raised from relatives, as was the $40,000 which financed Killer’s Kiss in 1958. In 1958 his budget rating took a leap up to $320,000 and Kubrick made The Killing, which he now regards as the first film he can be proud about. Paths of Glory, which came next, cost $900,000, over a third of which went to the star, Kirk Douglas. The film was initially banned from US overseas military bases and is still not being shown in France, presumably because it depicts some dubious behavior of high ranking French officers under battle conditions. The French soldiers were in fact played by German policemen, and Kubrick ruefully recalls how difficult it was to persuade them to stop playing at heroics and act scared.

Only once has Kubrick directed in conditions less than autonomous. That was for Spartacus (1960), when he was hired by Kirk Douglas after the star had fallen out with the original director, the late Anthony Mann. “It was a professional end produce,” says Kubrick, “but that’s all I want to say about it.”

* * *

Kubrick doesn’t really like talking in a retrospective, analytic way. Driving back with him to his home base it soon becomes obvious that he isn’t going to be interviewed in the passive sense. He likes to freewheel from one topic to another — from the printing costs of newspapers to the defensive style of English soccer.

Kubrick has built around him an organization of machines and people that both protects him (“If somebody from Hollywood wants to see Stanley,” says one of his staff, “then the mountain comes to Mohammed”) and gives him nearly total freedom within his immediate environment. In short, he sees who he wants to see, when he wants to see them, but it’s all done so politely and diplomatically that you don’t really mind. He’s something like a magnet, the power being hidden behind a rather bland and precise manner. People around him tend to align themselves in his force field.

He can’t understand directors who feel the need for holidays after completing a film, even if it took two years to make. “Making films is fun, let’s get that straight. Right now I want to start making another one.”

Kubrick notices the tape recorder being switched on as he explains his attitude towards the business side of filmmaking. “I can’t think of a better way of killing anybody,” he says, “than by printing exactly what they say — unless of course they are a naturally colorful character, and I’m certainly not that.

“There’s an enormous difference between being chief engineer and architect. Obviously, there are at least two ways of losing what might be loosely described as artistic integrity — one way is imposed on you by others, and the others by yourself. No one can prevent you from losing it yourself, but on the other hand you can handle the ‘inner’ job only to lose it by not having actual legal authority over your film. The message came across loud and clear, of how important legal authority was. Under those conditions people who oppose you can be unhelpful, difficult, unpleasant, uncooperative but they can’t make you do anything you don’t want.

“Unless a distributor treats a film with utmost contempt, they do at least know how to distribute films. And I can’t really see cassettes radically altering the situation. There will almost certainly have to be standardization and I should imagine the cassette mustn’t cost more than a few dollars — much less than the prices mentioned in the trade press. Something which is liable to have much more of an impact might be color television with the same resolution and sharpness as we now have on film, possibly even three-dimensional holographic presentations distributed via satellites. This fairly simple technological advance would substitute for the vast international organization, part of whose purpose is to deliver prints to the theater and collect them again and also, of course to collect the money from the exhibitors. With the satellite system collection of the money would be as simple as preparing and paying a telephone bill. This type of technology would change the financing and distribution function to one which could be accomplished by smaller companies with much less funding. It would certainly be in the interest of filmmakers to have a greater number of sources of financing and distribution.”

One of Kubrick’s undoubted touches of wizardry is the timing of his films. Dr. Strangelove, perhaps most powerfully of all, resonated with the feeling of the times. How much does Kubrick think in terms of packaging a product for a particular market?

“Really I don’t think of my films in that way at all. I make the assumption that anything I’m interested in will find a sufficient number of people who are also interested. In any event, the classical mistake made by those whose sole aim is to analyze the market and make profits as predictably as they can, is to believe that subject matter is of itself a significant commercial consideration. Nothing is of itself interesting or uninteresting to the movie public. It is the particular film that counts.

“It is, of course, not surprising that the financiers of films have always looked for safety in their investments. This is not an unreasonable objective. The paradox is, of course, that what is generally thought to be safety is almost a guarantee of mediocrity and failure. The best way to optimize a film’s commerciality — from a producer’s point of view, and this is obvious but seemingly little understood — is to use a director who has had previous commercial success.

“I suppose the instinct that you need is like the problem of what you do in an airplane when you stall. Before you learn to be a pilot the instinct is to pull back on the stick, trying to pull the airplane up. But you later realize that no matter how close you are to the ground the only way to recover is to dive the plane faster and pick up flying speed. Trends have always been something associated with safety in film investment. Very often it is as pathetic a delusion as what happens when the witch doctor waves his hand and a total eclipse of the sun happens to occur at the same moment.

“There will of course never be an entirely safe bet because a film must prove to be something that excites the imagination of the audience and makes them go out and tell their friends to see it. I think the thing that stopped 2001 from sparking off a trend was that no one else would have been able to accomplish the technical parts of the film without the know-how and the budget, and neither element seems to be readily available. Clockwork Orange cost less than $2,000,000, which I think is rather small for something which is considered as a major film. Actually, the whole of Clockwork Orange was shot on location.”

According to Kubrick, 2001 has never been out of release in the US since it opened. And now MGM has put it together with Dr. Zhivago and Gone With the Wind to form an everlasting repertory package called The Fabulous Three. Kubrick remembers when it was different.

“The film premiered at the Capital Theater in New York on a hard-ticket basis. There had been almost no advance sale, yet it broke the opening day record. I was present at an MGM meeting when a verbal report was presented by someone whose job it was to stand in the lobby and note what people were saying about the film. When they asked him what types had seen the film, he told them ‘mostly Negroes and people with beads.’ This greatly puzzled the sales department.

“Although I keep reassuring myself that I’ll never again be surprised by the reactions to my films I must confess that I was very surprised by some of the critics who hated and misunderstood 2001, though many of them recanted within the following weeks and months. The only explanation I can find for it now is that however slightly original the film was, there was too much originality there to allow easy classification by the critics. Seeing a film once and writing a review within the hour is one of the more questionable practices of film criticism. On the other hand the audience weren’t burdened down with the responsibility of explaining the film. They reacted emotionally, which is of course the level upon which any good film fundamentally operates. The test of a work of art is, in the end, our affection for it, not our ability to explain why it is good.

“It takes a number of years after you’ve finished a film to be able to look at it with anything faintly resembling a response similar to that the audience receives. First of all, the audience is unaware of the narrative structure and therefore sees the film in a completely different frame of mind, and — a crucially important factor — for the first time. The problem is knowing what it’s going to be like seeing it for the first time after several months of editing and innumerable screenings. That’s one of the professional skills that a filmmaker has to develop.

“Yes, I’ve been questioned many times about the ‘mystical’ aspects of 2001. I’ll put it this way. As soon as you deal with an idea which has at its heart God-like entities in the universe you are obviously getting in a metaphysical area. On the deepest psychological level, the film’s plot symbolizes the search for God, and it finally postulates what is little less than a scientific definition of God. The film revolves around this metaphysical conception, and the realistic hardware and the documentary feeling about everything were necessary in order to undermine your built-in resistance to the poetical concept.

“About the ‘trip’ sequence, I have to say that it was never meant to represent an acid trip. On the other hand a connection does exist. An acid trip is probably similar to the kind of mind-boggling experience that might occur at the moment of encountering extra-terrestrial intelligence. I’ve been put off experimenting with LSD because I don’t like what seems to happen to people who try it. They seem to develop what I can only describe as an illusion of understanding and oneness with the universe. This is a phenomenon which they can’t articulate in any logical way, but which they express emotionally. They seem very happy, very content and very pleased with the state of mind, but at the same time they seem to be totally unaware of the fact that it deprives them of any kind of self-criticism which is, of course, absolutely essential for an artist to have. It’s very dangerous to be zonked out by everything that you see and think of, and to believe all of your ideas are of cosmic proportions. I should think that if one had no interest in being an artist, this illusion of understanding would be delightful but for myself I think it is a pleasure which I’ll forego for as long as I’m interested in making films.”

* * *

“Do you like hifi?” Kubrick asks, nodding in the direction of two monster speaker units placed at one end of the room in his house that he uses as an office, or more accurately as a communications center. He selects an album from an industrial shelving unit and holds up the cover: “This will amaze you.” It’s a free-form Polish jazz ensemble, a little scratched in an affectionate way.” After half a track Kubrick takes it off and picks up an electronic calculating machine lying on his desk. He stabs out a calculation, messing up the sequence somewhere along the line, and spends the next couple of minutes proving to himself that the mistake was human. On another desk is a professional looking radio set. Kubrick uses it to keep in touch with the world, particularly America. Every day he has the New York Times flown in. He doesn’t think of himself as being an expatriate in any other sense than geographical.

These days Kubrick rarely flies anywhere, not since he learned to fly himself and then took time out to monitor the air traffic signals coming out of London airport. He decided they compromise safety regulations too often.

Within arm’s reach of his desk is a filing cabinet to end all filing cabinets. Maybe 200 little drawers, all neatly labeled. Kubrick is a stationery nut. He has catalogues of the latest Times brought over from America. He even gives a credit in Clockwork Orange to Ryman Conran, makers of pop-art office equipment.

It’s now time for Kubrick to pick up the Landrover 12-seater and visit National Screenings labs, where a small group of technicians are waiting drythroated for his arrival. After a couple of rounds of handshaking, Kubrick settles into the middle seat of the front row in the private cinema.

The opening titles’ message is simple. Stanley Kubrick directs a Stanley Kubrick film from a Stanley Kubrick screenplay. Written in plain letters over monochrome backgrounds.

“It’s no good,” says Kubrick, rising out of his seat as the lights go up. “Let’s run them again and this time perhaps we could have them focused. Also I think you’ll notice that the blue eats into the white and there’s a hairline shadow on the red background that isn’t on the other.”

“Stanley,” says the man in charge, after a noticeable pause. “That’s not really possible. I mean it can’t eat into the background. Just from the way it was done.”

He might have known then he was going to have to make them again. That night. Impossible. Well, he’ll see what he can do but the boys in the workshop already worked all last night, you know, and there’s a backlog of other work but maybe if he has a special word with them … OK, Stanley, tomorrow morning we’ll give you a run-through. Yes, it was good to have seen you again. Till tomorrow.

“I first came across Clockwork Orange,” says Kubrick, half shouting to be heard above the Landrover’s chugging engine, “while I was making 2001. Terry Southern gave me a copy. But I didn’t have time to read it then and it lay on a shelf two and a half years. It was expensive to buy because it wasn’t owned any more by Anthony Burgess, the author. I bought it off the two gentlemen who get their names on the credits as executive producers. I’ve never even met them. I suppose they must be credited with having thought it was a good enough book to invest money in — though no one is sure how much they paid.

“And prior to completing the film I’d only spoken to Burgess once, more or less just to say hello. This wasn’t because I had no interest in his ideas about the story but because his ideas were already there in the book. Did you know that there is a strange last chapter which only appears in one English edition of the book? In it Alex settles down to a suburban sort of life. Apparently it represents some sort of compromise between Burgess and his publisher. I think it’s completely out of tone with the rest of the book. I wasn’t even aware of this chapter until I’d been working on the screenplay for four months. I found it difficult to believe.

“Rather than try to explain why I decided to do the book, one can almost say that it’s the kind of book that you’d have to look hard to find a reason not to do. It has everything: great ideas, a great plot, external action, interesting side characters, and one of the most unique leading characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction — Alex. The only character comparable to Alex is Richard III, and I think they both work on your imagination in much the same way. They both take the audience into their confidence, they are both completely honest, witty, intelligent and unhypocritical.

“I don’t know why somebody else didn’t make the film first, although one thing I have noticed is that all the books I’ve made into films, with the exception of Lolita, were long ignored. Paths of Glory was published about 30 years before it was filmed. Red Alert, on which Strangelove was based, had been out for ten years. In that case, though, while I started off to make a truly factual film, I realized that the realism of the situation was so ridiculous that the only way to do it was as a comedy.

“I’d say that my intention with Clockwork Orange was to be faithful to the novel and to try and see the violence from Alex’s point of view, to show that it was great fun for him, the happiest part of his life, that it was like some great action ballet. It was necessary to find a way of stylizing the violence, just as Burgess does by his writing style. The ironic counterpoint of the music was certainly one of the ways of achieving this. All the scenes of violence are very different without the music.

“When you ask is it right for violence to be fun, you must realize that people aren’t used to challenging whether certain types of violence are fun. You see it when your Western hero finally shoots all the villains. Heroic violence, in the Hollywood sense, is a great deal like the motivational researchers’ problem in selling candy. The problem with candy is not to convince people that it’s good candy, but to free them from the guilt of eating it. We have seen so many times that the body of a film serves merely as an excuse for motivating a final blood-crazed slaughter by the hero of his enemies, and at the same time to relieve the audience’s guilt of enjoying this mayhem.

“Really Clockwork Orange operates on two levels. One is the sociological argument — the question of the evil committed by the government in trying to change Alex’s nature. It’s an interesting level, it serves to provide the structure of the plot, but I don’t think that it’s actually from this aspect that the story derives its uniqueness or its power. More importantly, Alex represents natural man in the state in which he is born, unlimited, unrepressed. When Alex is given the Ludovico treatment, you can say this symbolizes the neurosis created by the conflict between the strictures imposed by society and our own natures. This is why we feel exhilarated when Alex is ‘cured’ in the final scene. If you accept the idea that one views a film in a state of ‘daydream,’ then this symbolic dream-like content becomes a powerful factor in influencing your feelings about the film. Since your dreams can take you into areas which can never be part of your conscious mind, I think a work of art can ‘operate’ on you in much the same way as a dream does.

“The psychological conditioning technique shown in the film is based on negative conditioning, and that is based on the classical Pavlov experiments. The Russians, for instance, trained dogs to run under Nazi tanks with 20 to 30 pounds of high explosives strapped to their bodies, and connected to proximity fuses. They always fed the dogs under tanks, and eventually the dog built up the conditioned reflex of running under a tank when he was hungry.

“You know the authority on all this is Skinner and his latest works state the premise that human freedom and dignity have become inconsistent with the survival of our civilization. It’s a very startling and sinister and not totally refutable contention, and Clockwork Orange is very concerned with this sort of idea. I like to believe that Skinner is wrong, and that what is sinister is that this philosophy may serve as the intellectual basis for some sort of scientifically oriented repressive government. On the other hand that is partly relevant to the problems we are facing today.

“We are, after all, confronted with a very paradoxical situation in which we have a highly complex civilization which requires an equally complex social structure and political authority for it to function at all. This set against the ever widening sense that legal and political activity has become a waste of time, and that the goal should be to destroy all authority so that man in all his natural goodness may emerge.

“This Utopian view is a dangerous fallacy. The history of all such efforts shows they eventually fall into the hands of thugs. In addition to this I don’t share the view that the weakness we find in human nature primarily stems from an improperly structured society. I find the fault is the very imperfect nature of man himself, who has been described as the missing link between primitive ape and a civilized human being.

“Another area where Skinner should be attacked is in his attempt to formulate a total philosophy of the human personality solely in terms of conditioning. This is a dreary conception. I like to believe that there are certain aspects of the human personality which are essentially unique and mysterious.”

Some of the actors used by Kubrick may be surprised by his almost traditional religious view of mankind. When it comes to the business of filmmaking Kubrick adopts a far more scientific stance. For instance, a computer (“one of man’s most beautiful inventions”) is sometimes used to work out the most efficient order for scenes to be shot.

“An actor,” says Kubrick, “is essentially an emotion-producing machine. His job is to produce authentic emotions. The director’s job is to make sure that this emotion is appropriate, meaningful and interesting. It’s equivalent to the novelist deciding which adjectives to use. The greatest mistake a director can make is to think of himself as an acting teacher. By the time you get in front of a camera it’s too late. The director is the only feedback an actor gets in trying to relate his performance to the eventual audience, therefore the director’s views are crucial to the actor. The only important thing in the relationship is that the actor must know you respect him and his work. There isn’t a great deal of magic to this side of it.”

* * *

Almost every afternoon for the past few weeks the lights dim at 2:30 in Theatre Seven at Pinewood Studios. At the controls, fiddling with the volume control and fussing with the focus is the bulky shadow of Stanley Kubrick. Some afternoons the audience consists of a couple of foreign distributors, who sit straightbacked and motionless, occasionally letting a cloud of cigar smoke cut across the beam of light that Kubrick is personally projecting.

(from the screen play)

SCENE 1. Int. Korova Milkbar — Night Tables chairs made of nude fibre glass figures

Hypnotic atmosphere

Alex Pete Georgie and Dim

Teenagers stoned on their milk-plus

Their feet resting on

Faces crotches lips of the sculptured furniture

Alex (voice over): There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Georgie, Pete and Dim, and we sat in the Korova milkbar trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening.

The Korova milkbar sold milk-plus, milk plus vellocet or synthemesc or drencom, which is what we were drinking. This would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence. Our pockets were full of money so there was no need on that score, but, as they say, money isn’t everything.

At one of the preview screenings was a mild-looking man of about 55, dressed in a loosely hung tweed sports jacket. At the end of the film, when the lights went up, he stayed in his seat for a few minutes, looking at the empty screen, before approaching Kubrick. “Well, Stanley,” Arthur C. Clarke finally said, “you’ve done it again.”

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in January 1972.

From Rolling Stone US