Stanley Kubrick is regarded as one of the greatest film director's in history and one of the most complicated minds in any artistic medium. Like a combination of Renaissance painter, puzzle maker, playwright, sociologist, National Lampoon satirist, and conceptual futurist, every frame of a Kubrick movie is cluttered with cultural meaning. His subjects and interests were all across the spectrum, but the throughline was his dedication to details — everything we see on screen is a choice, driven by some aspect of the man's personality.
Much has been written on the impact of Kubrick's films over the years, but many still don't know the man behind the camera, the idiosyncratic New Yorker who rode a wave of ambition from his teenagers years to the end of his life. Below are five facts that shade the director beyond his literal achievements:
Before Moving Pictures, He Shot Still Ones
Before Kubrick rolled motion picture cameras on some of the most riveting images in film history, he took to the streets of New York City to do the same for photojournalism. The director was only 16 years old when he sold his first snapshot to Look, the magazine he’d shoot over 27,000 photos for, from 1945 to 1950. Depicting a newspaper salesman surrounded by "FDR is dead!" headlines, the photo defined his style: Though he stumbled upon the image in the wild, Kubrick "directed" the composition, working with the subject until he nailed the facial expression. The future director would do this again and again, most noticeably in a series on New York’s subway system. While many of the photos would catch the hustle and bustle of daily life, Kubrick sprinkled in calculated moments of intimacy, often between friends he recruited for the job.
This blend of fact and fiction would segue naturally to filmmaking. His first film was the documentary short "Day at the Fight," an extension of his Look series "Prizefighter." When Kubrick passed away in 1999, his continued photographic efforts and obsessions came into full light when an abundance of prints and research relics were found packed away in his Hertfordshire manor. According to Jon Ronson’s documentary Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes, the director took nearly 30,000 research photographs for his final film, the New York-set Eyes Wide Shut.
The Kubrick Films of Our Dreams
For all the classics that Kubrick bestowed upon filmdom, there were a number of inspired projects that the director worked tirelessly to realize, only to see them run out of steam. Adaptations of Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum and Stefan Zweig's The Burning Secret are part of the unproduced oeuvre. A fictional account of 1930s bank robber Willie Sutton called I Stole 16 Million Dollars exists in script form, but was reportedly rejected by Kirk Douglas for being poorly written. There were also rumors that The Beatles pursued Kubrick to direct a version of The Lord of the Rings when United Artists bought the rights in the 1960s.
Then there are the projects covered in Kubrick's blood, sweat, and tears. For nearly 30 years, Kubrick worked on the story for Aryan Papers, a Holocaust drama he eventually abandoned after seeing Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, feeling there was little point in following up that expert account. After 2001, Kubrick set out to shoot an epic drama based on the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. The film would include handmade costumes, lavish sets, and giant battle scenes involving 40,000 extras provided by the Romanian army (the art for which makes up Stanley Kubrick's Napoleon, a 1,112 page coffee table tome). Costs kept the project from coming to life, but fans lost their minds in 2013 when Spielberg announced that he intended to adapt Napoleon into a mini-series.
A Techie at Heart
For someone who defined Hollywood's artful mode of filmmaking, becoming a pillar of the past for today's directors, Kubrick was a forward-thinker and technology obsessive. The passion started with cameras — along with his rabid photo taking, he collected still and motion pictures cameras, which he amassed in his Upper East Side apartment during the 1960s. Kubrick's films were always pushing the envelope for invisible nuance. For Barry Lyndon, Kubrick was so dedicated to the idea of shooting his 18th century drama with natural candlelight that he modified NASA Zeiss lenses — the same ones used in the Hubble telescope — so they'd run with his film cameras.
Recently surfaced letters reveal that Kubrick had mixed feelings about tech giants like IBM, who are revealed to be “behind” much of the space tech seen in 2001 (a production design decision that plays into the theory that “HAL” is really a one-letter-off disguise for IBM). Kubrick's imagination for technology was one of the driving forces for A.I., the film Steven Spielberg made in his honor after the director passed away. His vision for the film: All the characters would be actual robots. That didn't happen — unless there's something we don't know about Haley Joel Osment — but it doesn't seem far-fetched with Kubrick behind it.
Faking the Moon Landings
There are sublayers to the surprisingly pervasive theory that the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing was a hoax. One of them: That the man behind 2001: A Space Odyssey orchestrated the televised event with his eye for verisimilitude. Why would Kubrick attach himself to such a devious experiment in fakery?Astronomical budgets and ties to NASA insiders, say many a conspiracy theorist. Kubrick had connections to NASA: Frederick Ordway and Harry Lange, aerospace contractors who worked on the Apollo program, worked on 2001 as science consultants.
Adamant truthers believe that photos from the Neil Armstrong-led mission reveal the use of front-screen projectors, the same technique Kubrick used to create backdrops in Dr. Strangelove's B-52 bomber sequence and the opening of 2001. Some say Kubrick even dropped hints in The Shining that he was behind the Apollo 11 footage, everything from the appearance of Tang to the room number selection (a reference to the distance between Earth and the moon: 237,000 miles) to one of Danny's sweaters, featuring a knitted Apollo 11 emblem.
Watch an exclusive clip featuring Christiane Kubrick, the director’s wife, from Kubrick Remembered, a newly-produced documentary included in the Stanley Kubrick: The Masterpiece Collection release.
If you visit a New York City park, there’s a high probability of encountering intense chess matches conducted by the world’s best "amateurs." This was Stanley Kubrick in the early '40s, floating from Washington Square to Central Park, hustling challengers for cash. He was in deep enough that he had a favorite opening move: 1.b4 – "The Orangutan." As he mounted a film career, his extracurricular passion continued on in his personal life — he eventually befriended International Grandmaster and four-time U.S. Open Chess Champion Larry Evans — and burrowed into his filmmaking references that appeared in 2001 and the checkered floor in Paths of Glory.
A 1966 New Yorker profile titled, "How About a Little Game?" reveals even more chess-related tidbits. During the making of Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick "all but hypnotized George C. Scott by continually beating him at chess while simultaneously attending to the direction of the movie." There are unconfirmed rumors that Kubrick went so far as to cancel an entire’s day shooting on The Shining because he was deeply invested in a match.
Speaking to French film critic Michel Ciment for his 1980 book, Kubrick said of chess: "Among a great many other things that chess teaches you is to control the initial excitement you feel when you see something that looks good. It trains you to think before grabbing, and to think just as objectively when you're in trouble. When you're making a film you have to make most of your decisions on the run, and there is a tendency to always shoot from the hip. It takes more discipline than you might imagine to think, even for thirty seconds, in the noisy, confusing, high-pressure atmosphere of a film set. But a few seconds' thought can often prevent a serious mistake being made about something that looks good at first glance. With respect to films, chess is more useful preventing you from making mistakes than giving you ideas. Ideas come spontaneously and the discipline required to evaluate and put them to use tends to be the real work."