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12 Stanley Kubrick Strategies for Perfecting a Film

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Director Stanley Kubrick died in 1999, but he still remains an integral part of our culture today. The recent documentary Room 237 explored various conspiracy theories about The Shining. An extensive Kubrick exhibition is touring the world. And Kubrick’s work is continually noted as influential on contemporary directors of huge blockbusters such as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. Here are 12 things Stanley Kubrick would do in order to perfect a shot, performance, or film.

1. Adapt any source material.

Kubrick left no stone unturned when it came to genre or source material. He sometimes worked with non-fiction elements and other times adapted novels into films. He used shorter stories as basis for 2001: A Space Odyssey and Eyes Wide Shut, one a science fiction epic and the other a character-driven drama.

Stephen King has been vocal about his hatred for Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, and Kubrick’s attempt to include author Gustav Hasford in the process of making Full Metal Jacket was a failure. Despite his reputation, Kubrick actually accepted a lot of help with his screenplays, including assistance from Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote the screenplay for the 1962 film.

2. Don’t succumb to traditional film structure.

As Martin Scorsese explained, “[Kubrick] doesn’t deal with traditional, dramatic structure. He was experimenting.” The obvious example of Kubrick’s break from structure is 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its three independent sections, “The Dawn of Man,” “Jupiter Mission,” and “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.” The segments are very different in terms of both action and theme, but that does not stop Kubrick from making a coherent film.

Kubrick showed an interest in experimenting with structure long before 2001; in his 1956 film The Killing, chronology does not limit the plot.

3. Build elaborate, expensive sets.

Anyone who has seen The Shining knows that the Overlook Hotel is a main character, and the set itself reflected that. Kubrick used his budget to create elaborate interiors, including a two-story-tall lobby. And he insisted on having an actual wheel with a 38-foot diameter to represent the spacecraft in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Built by engineers, the wheel cost a total of $750,000. Later in his career, Kubrick became more averse to flying, so he sent staff to Manhattan, where Eyes Wide Shut was set, in order to get the exact measurements of streets and locations for set pieces like newspaper racks.

But the most famous set designs of Kubrick films don’t even scratch the surface. Steven Spielberg once told the Dr. Strangelove set designer, “That War Room set for Strangelove is the best set you ever designed. No, it’s the best set that’s ever been designed.”

4. Shoot as much as he wanted for as long as he wanted.

Kubrick was known for taking his time with each project. Eyes Wide Shut even holds a Guinness World Record for the longest constant movie shoot with 400 days. The film was released in 1999, yet no production schedule since has come close to surpassing the record. Kubrick used three weeks of the shoot to film a 13-minute scene with Tom Cruise and Sydney Pollack. The Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey  also had shoots that are still famous for their extensiveness.

5. Let the actors take charge.

Kubrick empowered his actors to try scenes over and over again in different ways. For example, Malcolm McDowell came up with the idea for the infamous use of “Singin’ in the Rain" in A Clockwork Orange. Actor Peter Sellers once explained how involved he was allowed to be, claiming, “If a scene didn’t seem quite right, we’d sit round a table with a tape recorder and ad-lib on the lines of the passages we’d chosen; in that way we’d get perfectly natural dialogue which could then be scripted and used.”

Kubrick asked Jack Nicholson to interpret what the script for The Shining might mean by the direction, “Jack is not working.” Nicholson suggested he be throwing a tennis ball against the walls of the hotel, which became a prominent part of the final film.

6. Freak out his actors.  

Though Kubrick empowered his actors, they still tended to treat him like the legend he was, which made for an intimidating set at times. Tom Cruise developed an ulcer on the set of Eyes Wide Shut, but he did not talk about it publicly because he was worried about Kubrick’s reputation. Kubrick was notoriously hard on Shelley Duvall during the filming of The Shining and she has been very vocal about their tense relationship. She eventually acknowledged, “I might have hated him at the time, but I now see him as a really important filmmaker who gave me that role of my life and made me the sort of actress I never dared think I’d become.”

7. Go way over budget... 

2001: A Space Odyssey was supposed to cost $6 million to make, but Kubrick used $10.5 million. Barry Lyndon cost $11 million, which, it’s hard to believe, was shockingly high in 1975.

8. ...With anyone’s money.

Kubrick reached out to his family and friends for money to make his first two films, Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss. His father even gave up his life insurance for cash to help finance Fear and Desire.

9. Argue with experts in the field.

After his two family-funded films, a 28-year-old Kubrick made The Killing with a Hollywood budget. And a Hollywood budget meant Hollywood big shots, who were shocked to learn how confident and capable Kubrick actually was. One infamous on-set story describes an argument between Kubrick and famous cinematographer Lucien Ballard. As later described by the film’s associate producer, Alexander Singer:

"Stanley was, needless to say, very specific about this particular setup, as he was with all setups...So it’s all been pre-planned. Then he gives the finder to Lucien Ballard, and Lucien has watched him and says, ‘I see, it’s going to be a very nice shot.’ Lucien gets to work, Stanley walks off the set to do some piece of business. He comes back a few minutes later and Lucien has indeed set up the dolly track but he set it up at a considerable distance from where Stanley’s position had to be - in terms of the proximity to the set. Now Stanley said, ‘Wait a minute, Lucien, what are you doing, Lucien?’ ‘Well, I took your dolly shot and instead of the 25mm, I’m just going for the 50mm, but I’m at a distance where you would get the same image size...it won’t make any difference.’ Well, it’s all the difference in the world. As soon as you back up, you can hold the same image size, but the entire perspective changes...Stanley looked up at Lucien Ballard and said, ‘Lucien, either you move that camera and put it where it has to be to use a 25mm or get off this set and never come back!’”

10. Turn serious subject matter into comedy.

He created the hilarious 1964 satire Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb out of the serious novel Red Alert. Making light of nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction was particularly outrageous during the Cold War, but that did not stop Kubrick. The film is often compared to Fail Safe, which was also released in 1964. That film took on the subject matter with a much more serious tone, but it would be hard to find anyone who'd argue Fail Safe is more notable in the world of film than Dr. Strangelove is.

11. Make himself legally vulnerable.

On the subject of Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick knew that his film might get the attention of the government. Production designer Ken Adam remembers when a serviceman visited the set one day and was taken aback by how accurate the film was. Adam claimed, “I got a memo from Stanley saying, ‘You better make sure that you know where all your references came from because otherwise we might be investigated by the FBI.’”

That serviceman was not the only one who couldn’t believe the film’s accuracy. Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who released the Pentagon papers, said of the comedy, “That was a documentary!”

12. Invent his own technology.

Long before James Cameron was inventing new filmmaking technologies to complete Titanic and Avatar, Kubrick was a technical innovator. During the making of Barry Lyndon, Kubrick decided he wanted to light portions of the film with only candles. He bought three of the ten lenses that NASA used to take pictures of the moon in the 1960s. He then attached the lenses to his own cameras so that he could get the shots with the lighting he wanted.

The Shining is often cited as one of the first films to make good use of the Steadicam. It was especially noteworthy because the camera was often following around a young boy on a tricycle, which was much more low to the ground than Steadicams had previously been. The crew used a wheelchair specially designed to assist with many of the shots.

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17 Electric Facts About MTV Unplugged
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Michael Stipe of R.E.M. goes Unplugged.
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Making its debut in 1989, MTV Unplugged—in which famous musicians perform stripped-down arrangements of their biggest hits—was a hit for both the cable network and the music industry, particularly in the early- to mid-'90s. Though it lost its regular time slot in 1999, in the near-20 years since, a handful of artists have popped in for brief revivals. But now it looks as if Unplugged is ready for a reboot; MTV has announced that the series will be back beginning on September 8, 2017, with Shawn Mendes as its first guest. In the meantime, here's a look behind the scenes of the music series that became a phenomenon.

1. OPINIONS VARY ON WHO CAME UP WITH THE IDEA.

Singer/songwriter Jules Shear has said that he came up with the concept for MTV Unplugged to promote his acoustic album, The Third Party. In 1992, The New York Times wrote that Shear was inspired by Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora's two-song acoustic set at the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards.

That's all well and good, but producers Jim Burns and Bob Small claim they got the idea for MTV Unplugged after Bruce Springsteen treated the two—and the thousands of other fans at one of his concerts—to a final encore featuring just himself and his acoustic guitar. (Springsteen would find his way onto Unplugged in 1992.)

Executive producer Joel Gallen has referred to Unplugged as his "baby" as well and, like Shear, was inspired by Bon Jovi and Sambora's VMA set, which he called a "jumping off point." In I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, Small said: “Please do not credit Bon Jovi for creating Unplugged. Jon Bon Jovi thinks he was the inspiration for it. He wouldn’t even do the f***ing show until almost 20 years later.”

2. BOTH HBO AND PBS SAID NO.

HBO passed on Unplugged when Shear proposed the concept to the pay channel. Burns and Small pitched the series to PBS after MTV initially said no. PBS simply echoed MTV and HBO. It was only when Burns and Small ally Judy McGrath got a promotion at MTV that a pilot got a greenlight.

3. IT WAS A CHEAP PILOT TO SHOOT.

Bob Small said he had just four hours to set up for the Unplugged pilot, with another four hours to film it—and all on a budget of $18,000. "I couldn't get money to hire a director," Small said. "They said, 'You direct it.'"

4. THERE WAS A HOST FOR THE FIRST 13 EPISODES.

None other than Jules Shear was the undisputed master of ceremonies for the first season. He also joined in on some songs.

5. THE FIRST GUESTS DIDN'T QUITE GRASP THE CONCEPT OF UNPLUGGED.

Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford from Squeeze were the stars of the first episode, which aired on November 26, 1989. But they were unprepared. "Chris and Glenn showed up for rehearsal with electric guitars," Alex Coletti, who would end up producing the show through 2001, recalled. "I said: 'Very funny, guys. Where are the acoustics? It’s Unplugged.' They looked at each other and went, 'Riiight… Make a phone call, quick!'"

6. PRODUCERS SCRAMBLED TO GIVE JOE WALSH ACTUAL FRIENDS.

"The fifth episode was billed as Joe Walsh and Friends, and Joe showed up with only one friend—Ricky, his bass player," Coletti remembered. "We thought it meant his famous friends, but apparently that got lost in translation." Walsh had been a member of The Eagles, who had an infamous falling-out, but Walsh's claim of buddies gave MTV employees false hope. Producer Bruce Leddy found Dr. John recording at a neighboring studio and convinced him to come on and be Walsh's "friend."

7. DON HENLEY WAS NOT HAPPY THAT WALSH PLAYED "DESPERADO."

Walsh's former Eagles bandmate wrote "Desperado," as well as a three-page fax explaining to MTV that he didn't want Walsh to play it and he was refusing permission to air the performance. It was after the fax that the network invited Henley to come on the show himself to perform it. Henley was the first artist to get an entire half-hour on his own as the only artist, which quickly became the status quo for Unplugged. In 1994, when The Eagles reunited, they appeared on an MTV Unplugged special.

8. LL COOL J HAD NEVER WORKED WITH A LIVE BAND BEFORE.

The first Unplugged featuring rap artists took place in 1991. Pop's Cool Love backed LL Cool J, MC Lyte, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest. “[It’s like] you drink milk for 10 years and then [you have to] drink fruit punch,” Quest's Q-Tip said about performing with the band. “It’s not that the fruit is bad, but you have to get used to it.”

But LL seemed able to adapt. "We rehearsed the night before and LL Cool J had never worked with a live band," Coletti said. "Before long, he was calling the shots like he'd been doing it his whole life."

9. LL COOL J KNOWS YOU SAW HIS DEODORANT.

"People have teased me about the deodorant for years, but I love it," he said. "It was raw! It was nasty! At least you know I wasn’t stinking.”

10. PAUL MCCARTNEY WAS THE FIRST ARTIST TO OFFICIALLY RELEASE HIS UNPLUGGED SET.

Before Paul McCartney, no other Unplugged artist body had thought to release their acoustic set as an album. But after he performed in 1991, the former Beatle was worried about it getting out to the masses illegally. “I figured that as Unplugged would be screened around the world there was every chance that some bright spark would tape the show and turn it into a bootleg, so we decided to bootleg the show ourselves," he admitted. "We heard the tapes in the car driving back. By the time we got home, we’d decided we’d got an album—albeit one of the fastest I’ve ever made.” He even titled the live performance collection Unplugged (The Official Bootleg).

11. ERIC CLAPTON WAS HESITANT TO RELEASE HIS SHOW AS AN ALBUM.

"Slowhand" performed to acclaim in 1992, but he initially didn't think it was good enough to be released officially as a CD. So naturally, his live album Unplugged won the Grammy for Album of the Year. His "Tears in Heaven" performance in particular won Song and Record of the Year. Two years later, Tony Bennett followed suit, winning the 1994 Album of the Year prize for his time on the show.

12. NEIL YOUNG WALKED OUT ON HIMSELF.

Neil Young's Unplugged was supposed to have been taped at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York on December 12, 1992. Instead, on that night—at that venue—the audience saw something they would probably never forget: Neil Young walking out the door after numerous mistakes. The "stunned" crew members managed to get him to come back to try again that night. Young opted to junk the performance entirely, and tried again two months later—this time with a band, and with much more success.

13. TORI AMOS WALKED OUT, TOO.

Amos was thrown off and "couldn't harness the energy." But unlike Young, she was able to walk back onstage, perform, and not have to try again with another set on a different night. As the singer/songwriter remembered it, she and her manager paced "beneath the MTV thing" backstage thinking about the problem. "Then my [lighting director] came down and said, 'Something just doesn't feel right. I can’t put my finger on it,'" Amos told Worstgig.com. "For 700 shows over the five years (prior to that), I'd played with the lights down. So all the lights were up to catch the audience and I felt like somebody was watching me take a shower. So they dimmed the lights, I felt better. By that point because I'd made the choice to stop it and make some changes, I felt like I began again. And I turned the whole show around."

14. ALEX COLETTI FOUGHT TO CUT "THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD" FROM NIRVANA'S EPISODE.

"Maybe I shouldn't give this secret away, but I built a fake box out in front of the amp to make it look like a monitor wedge," Coletti admitted to Guitar World in 1995. "It's an acoustic guitar, but he's obviously going through an amp," he added, talking about the now iconic David Bowie cover. "I actually fought pretty hard to leave that song out [of the final edit of the show], because I felt it wasn't as genuine as the rest of the songs. But I'm a huge Bowie fan, so I couldn't fight too hard against the song."

15. DAVE GROHL WAS ALMOST UNINVITED TO NIRVANA'S SHOW.

The Nirvana drummer remembered that it was a minor miracle that the band's Unplugged performance went so well. “That show was supposed to be a disaster,” Grohl said. “We hadn’t rehearsed. We weren’t used to playing acoustic. We did a few rehearsals and they were terrible. Everyone thought it was horrible. Even the people from MTV thought it was horrible. Then we sat down and the cameras started rolling and something clicked. It became one of the band’s most memorable performances.”

As Coletti told it, Kurt Cobain was thinking of just replacing Grohl behind the kit, or maybe not using a drummer at all. “What I didn’t know was up until the day [of the Unplugged performance], there was talk of Dave [Grohl] not playing at all in the show,” the producer revealed in 2014. “Kurt wasn’t happy with the way rehearsals were going; he didn’t like the way Dave sounded playing drums with sticks."

But Grohl turned up the day of filming, and Coletti gifted him some brushes and sizzle sticks to give his drumming a softer sound. "I was afraid Dave would just roll his eyes, like, 'Oh great, the a**hole from MTV is trying to be my friend,'" the producer remembered thinking. "But instead he opened the package and said, 'Cool, I've never had brushes before. I've never even tried using them.'" The album Unplugged in New York won the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album in 1996. It was the band's lone Grammy win.

16. YES, THEY TRIED TO GET ROBERT PLANT AND JIMMY PAGE TO PLAY "STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN."

The Led Zeppelin bandmates reunited in 1994 for the Unplugged special: No Quarter: Robert Plant and Jimmy Page Unledded, which at the time was the highest-rated episode of the series ever. MTV suggested they film it in Queens, New York. Plant suggested Morocco and Wales because it was where he wrote "Kashmir" and "Down by the Seaside," respectively. Network executives explicitly requested "Stairway" but were shot down. "I think we're in a disposable world and 'Stairway to Heaven' is one of the things that hasn't quite been thrown away yet," Plant said in 1994. "I think radio stations should be asked not to play it for 10 years, just to leave it alone for a bit so we can tell whether it's any good or not."

17. LIAM GALLAGHER HECKLED HIS BROTHER.

Oasis lead vocalist Liam Gallagher backed out of the Royal Festival Hall gig in London at the last minute due to a "sore throat," so songwriter/guitarist/brother Noel took over the vocal duties. Noel would later disclose that Liam in fact appeared an hour before showtime "sh*tfaced," and when he tried to sing it sounded "f**king dreadful." Liam watched the performance from the balcony and at times jeered the band. Noel told him to shut up. Coletti thought it was all for the best. "There's something when the songwriter himself sings it. Maybe he's a little more connected to the song."

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