Terry Southern and Stanley Kubrick had a star-crossed relationship -- like two planets dancing in orbit with each other, achieving perfect alignment, then veering off into remote areas of the universe. They met in 1962, when they needed each other most: Stanley was preparing to make a movie about the annihilation of the planet, Dr. Strangelove, and needed a miracle to make it funny. Terry -- who published his first novel, Candy, in 1958, though it would be years before it was released in this country -- needed a break from the 'Quality-Lit' scene he was getting bored of teasing. They found each other through Peter Sellers, who, at Christmastime, bought 100 copies of his favorite novel, Terry's 1959 book The Magic Christian, and gave them to friends -- friends like Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick saw in the novel a talent that could be orchestrated -- a writer of dialogue who could be cut loose like Charlie Parker.
Before Stanley read The Magic Christian, Esquire sent the Dallas-raised Terry to do an interview with the relatively unknown director who had just finished filming his adaptation of Lolita. Upon meeting the Bronx-born Kubrick in England, Terry's New Journalism investigations were bursting out across the pond in Esquire, including "Twirling at Ole Miss," which Tom Wolfe cites as the story that birthed New Journalism and Gonzo. Upon Strangelove's release, with Terry so popular and with the previously contraband Candy making its debut as a controversial best seller in the U.S., the press turned Terry into the "author" of the film. It was a trespass Kubrick never completely forgave.
The following interview, which was never published, was conducted in the New York offices of Harris-Kubrick Productions. At the time, Kubrick was only 33 years old and had made six features (including 1957's Paths of Glory, a World War I drama starring Kirk Douglas, and Spartacus in 1960) and two documentaries. It's appropriate that this interview surfaces after all these years. After all, some of it deals with Kubrick's views on eroticism in film -- timely then, with the release of Lolita, and timely now, with Eyes Wide Shut out this week.
But just as important is the fact that Southern was on the Strangelove set the day someone came by with some porn footage. As Terry recounted myriad times before his death on October 29, 1995, Stanley watched the film unspool and said, "Wouldn't it be interesting if one day someone who was an artist would do that -- using really beautiful actors and good equipment."
Shortly after that, Terry wrote a book about just such a thing: 1970's Blue Movie (which is dedicated to "the great Stanley K.") told the story of an Oscar-winning director who sets out to make the most extravagant X-rated movie of all time, The Faces of Love. Kubrick later referred to a scene from the novel as "the definitive blowjob." Perhaps one day, people will say the same of Kubrick's own Eyes Wide Shut.
Terry Southern: What was it mainly that appealed to you in the novel Lolita?
Stanley Kubrick: Well, it's certainly one of the great love stories, isn't it? I think Lionel Trilling's piece in Encounter is very much to the point when he speaks of it as "the first great love story of the 20th century." And he uses as his criteria the total shock and estrangement which the lovers in all the great love stories of the past have produced on the people around them. If you consider Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, The Red and the Black, they all had this one thing in common -- this element of the illicit, or at least what was considered illicit at the time, and in each case it caused their complete alienation from society.
But then in the 20th century, with the disintegration of moral and spiritual values, it became increasingly difficult, and finally impossible, for an author to credibly create that kind of situation, to conceive of a relationship which would produce his shock and estrangement -- so that what was resorted to to achieve the shock value was erotic description. Whereas Trilling felt that Lolita somehow did succeed, in the classic tradition, having all the stormy passion and tenderness of the great love story as well as this element of the lovers being estranged from everyone around them. And, of course, Nabokov was brilliant in withholding any indication of the author's approval of the relationship.
TS: I want to ask you some questions more about the actual filming of Lolita, but first I'd like to go back for a moment -- to the time when you were 21, working as a Look photographer -- and ask you how you got started as a filmmaker.
SK: I just rented a camera and made a movie -- a 28-minute documentary. Day of the Fight was the name of it, a day in the life of a boxer, from the time he wakes in the morning until he steps in the ring that night.
TS: Your first feature was [1953's] Fear and Desire?
SK: Yes, a pretentious, inept and boring film -- a youthful mistake costing about $50,000 -- but it was distributed...in the art houses and caused a little ripple of publicity and attention. I mean, there were people around who found some good things in it, and on the strength of that I was able to raise private financing to make a second feature-length film, Killer's Kiss [in 1955]. And that was a silly story too, but my concern was still in getting experience and simply functioning in the medium, so the content of a story seemed secondary to me. I just took the line of least resistance, whatever story came to hand.
And, for another thing, I had no money to live on at the time, much less to buy good story material with -- nor did I have the time to work it into shape -- and I didn't want to take a job and get off the track, so I had to keep moving. Fortunately too, I wasn't offered any jobs during this period. I mean, perhaps if I had been offered some half-assed TV job or something, I wouldn't have had the sense to turn it down and would have been thrown off the track of what I really wanted to do, but it didn't happen that way. In any case, I made that picture Killer's Kiss, and United Artists saw it and bought it.
TS: It was about that time, wasn't it, that you met James Harris and formed your own company?
SK: That's right. He was running a television distribution company at the time. Together, we made The Killing [in 1956]. That's the first film I made with decent actors, a professional crew, and under the proper circumstances. It was the first really good film I made, and it got a certain amount of attention. Then we bought the rights to Paths of Glory. That was a book I had read when I was about 14, and one day I suddenly remembered it.
TS: I understand there was some controversy over the ending of the film -- where the French soldiers are executed for desertion -- and that you were asked to change it so that the men would not be shot at the end of the film.
SK: It wasn't a controversy -- I mean, there were some people who said, 'You've got to save the men,' but, of course, it was out of the question. That would have been like making a film about capital punishment in which the executed man was innocent -- it would just be pointless. And also, of course, it actually happened -- the French Army mutinies of 1917 were fairly extensive, whole regiments marched out of the trenches, and men were executed, by lot.
TS: From there you went on to direct Spartacus. This is the only picture you've done, isn't it, where you weren't pretty much your own boss?
SK: Yes, it's the only picture I've worked on where I was employed. And in a situation like that, the director has no real rights, except the rights of persuasion...and I've found that's the wrong end of the lever to be on. First of all, you very often fail to persuade, and secondly, even when you do persuade, you waste so much time doing it that it gets to be ridiculous.
TS: Now that brings us to your chef d'oeuvre, Lolita. After the script was finished you began casting -- and I imagine you must have looked at quite a few young girls. Did you actually look for a girl who was between 12 and 13?
SK: Well, she had to be between 12 and 13 at the beginning, but between 16 and 17 at the end -- I mean, one girl who could play both parts -- and we did look at quite a few young girls, some of them very young indeed. It was amazing how many parents would write in, you know, from Montana and so on, saying: "My daughter really is Lolita!" That sort of thing.
But we looked at them all, and of course, Sue Lyon was just one of them -- but the moment we saw her, we thought, 'My God, if this girl can act,' because she had this wonderful, enigmatic, but alive quality of mystery, but was still very expressive. Everything she did -- commonplace things, like handling objects or crossing a room or just talking -- were all done in a very engaging way...and, incidentally, this is a quality which most great actors have.
It's a strange sort of personal, unique style that goes into everything they do -- like when Albert Finney sits down in a chair and drinks a bottle of beer, and, well, it's just great, and you think, 'God, I wish I could drink a bottle of beer like that.' Or the way Marlon [Brando], you know, pushes his sunglasses on his forehead and just leaves them there instead of putting them in his pocket...and, well, they all have ways of doing everyday things that are interesting to watch. And she had this, Sue Lyon -- but, of course, we still didn't know whether she could act. Then we did some scenes, and finally shot a test with [James] Mason, and that was it -- she was great.
TS: And Mason -- did he occur to you right away as the choice for Humbert?
SK: Yes, I always thought he had just the right qualities for Humbert -- you know, handsome but vulnerable...sort of easy to hurt and also a romantic. Because that was true of Humbert, of course, that beneath that veneer of sophistication and cynicism and that sort of affected sneer, he was terribly romantic and sentimental.
TS: One of his big scenes, of course, is at the end, when Humbert finds Lolita again and breaks down when he fails to persuade her to go away with him. This is a long and very complex scene. How long did it take to shoot it?
SK: We shot that for 12 days. One of the things I wanted to get there, as completely as possible, was this element of disparity, which you see in life but practically never in film, where two people meet after a long time and one of them is still emotionally involved and the other one is simply embarrassed -- and yet she wants to be nice, but the words just sort of plunk down, dead, and nothing happens...just sort of total embarrassment and incongruity.
TS: Now, this is an erotic film -- I mean, in the sense that sexual love is necessarily treated, and is sometimes in the foreground of a dramatic scene. Do you have any particular theories about the erotic?
SK: Only that I think the erotic viewpoint of a story is best used as a sort of energizing force of a scene, a motivational factor, rather than being, you know, explicitly portrayed. I thought, for instance, in [Louis Malle's 1958 film] Les Amants, when the guy's head slides down out of the frame, it was, well, just sort of funny -- though it shouldn't have been. When you're watching it with an audience, it just becomes laughable. I think it's interesting to know how one person makes it known to another person that they want to make love, and it's interesting to know what they do after they make love. But while they're doing it, well, that's something else...it's such a subjective thing, and so incongruous to the audience that the effect is either one of vague embarrassment or just the feeling of mischief on the part of the filmmaker.
TS: You have some interesting double-entendre things in there, like this "Camp Climax" for girls, and lines like, "Your uncle is going to fill my daughter's cavity on Thursday afternoon." Were there any objections to those?
SK: No. And, of course, the general public is a good deal more sophisticated than most censors imagine -- and certainly more so than these groups who get up petitions and so on can believe. After all, if a film is really obscene, it simply doesn't play in a theater, because the police of that city close it down -- so that if a movie is playing, it's obviously not obscene. Prevailing law-enforcement takes care of that, so there's really no point in those petitions. It's a matter for the courts.
TS: How do you account for this increased sophistication on the part of film audiences?
SK: Well, for the past few years, they've been getting used to better and better movies...Television was the best thing that ever happened to American movies, because it knocked out this middle-of-the-road mediocrity type picture which had so long dominated the field.
TS: In making Lolita, do you feel you encountered any problems or considerations which were categorically different from those you've dealt with in other films?
SK: Yes; I think the thing of gradually penetrating the surface of comedy which overlies the story into the, well, the ultimate tragic romance of it puts it in a category apart. And then, too, treatments of mood, subtleties and range of mood...I mean, Lolita is really like a piece of music, a series of attitudes and emotions that sort of sweep you through the story.
TS: I'd like to ask you now about your general attitude toward filmmaking, other than what you've already indicated. First, what particular advantages do you feel that films have over other media of expression and communication?
SK: Well, for one thing I think it is fairly obvious that the events and situations that are most meaningful to people are those in which they are actually involved. And I'm convinced that this sense of personal involvement derives in large part from visual perception. I once saw a woman hit by a car, for example, or right after she had been hit, and she was lying in the middle of the road. I knew that at that moment I would have risked my life if necessary to help her, whereas if I had merely read about the accident or heard about it, it could not have meant too much.
Of all the creative media, I think that film is most nearly able to convey this sense of meaningfulness: to create an emotional involvement and a feeling of participation in the person seeing it.
TS: Do you feel you have some specific goal or direction as an artist?
SK: In making a film, I start with an emotion, a feeling, a sense of a subject or a person or a situation. The theme and technique come as a result of the material passing, as it were, through myself and coming out of the projector lens. It seems to me that simply striving for a genuinely personal approach, whatever it may be, is the goal. Bergman and Fellini, for example, although perhaps as different in their outlook as possible, have achieved this. And I'm sure it is what gives their films an emotional involvement lacking in most work.
TS: I understand that you cut and edit your own pictures. Don't you feel there are experienced editors who could do this?
SK: I feel that the director -- or the filmmaker, as I prefer to think of him -- is wholly responsible for the film in its completed form. Making a film starts with the germ of an idea, continues through script, rehearsing, shooting, cutting music projection, and tax accountants. The old-fashioned major-studio concept of a director made him just another color on the producer's palette, which also contained all the above "colors." Formerly, it was the producer who dipped into all the colors and blended the "masterpiece." I don't think it so surprising that it should now fall to the director.
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TS: Do you think that a young director with new ideas can get ahead in Hollywood -- making films the way he wants to -- without creating enemies?
SK: I don't think you make enemies by doing films the way you want to do them; I think you make enemies by being rude, tactless, and nasty to people.
TS: You have won unreserved critical praise for a least three of your pictures. At 33, you have already directed one of the biggest pictures ever made. Will success spoil Stanley Kubrick?
SK: Fifth Amendment.