Gilbey on Film: Interview with Stephen King, 1978

Two years before its release, Stephen King discusses The Shining, Jack Nicholson and Stanley Kubrick

I got a pleasant chill, entirely unconnected with the air conditioning, as I left the auditorium of the Cineworld Haymarket earlier this week. Descending the staircase, I found myself confronted with a poster advertising a coming attraction: Stanley Kubrick’s film of The Shining, Stephen King’s novel about a hotel caretaker, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), holed up with his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), their son Danny (Danny Lloyd) and assorted demons in the secluded Overlook Hotel.
My conscious mind knew full well that Kubrick’s picture was about to be reissued, or rather released for the first time in the UK in the 144-minute version previously seen only by US audiences. (That’s 24 additional minutes, fellow Shiners.) But for the briefest of moments it seemed I had strolled through a time-hole—the major cinema chains are notoriously slapdash about clearing those up—and stumbled into 1980. Though I have seen the UK version on the big screen, the last time I saw the poster displayed in a cinema was as a nine-year old for whom the advertising materials were as close it was possible to get to actually watching that X-rated film. Both he and I are very much looking forward to the film opening next month.
I’ll be reviewing The Shining in the NS when it’s released (there are also previews of the movie in cinemas across the country on Halloween). And it’ll be illuminating to sift through the various theories surrounding the film and its meanings collected together in the documentary Room 237 which gets a cinema release a week before The Shining. (There’s a fun interview here with Lee Unkrich, the Pixar filmmaker and Shining obsessive who helped finance Room 237.) It was also announced recently that King will publish next year a Shining sequel, Doctor Sleep, focusing on Danny as an adult.

For now, though, I want to share with you a fascinating piece I found in a 1978 issue of the science-fiction/horror movie magazine Cinefantastique. The feature reports partly on news of the film’s then-ongoing production at EMI Elstree Studios, where it had been shooting for six months: the journalist, Jim Albertson, informs readers that Kubrick “is adding a shock sequence involving Danny in the resort’s computer game room, as the machines come alive, threateningly, on their own. Kubrick has selected and gathered at EMI Elstree some two dozen of the most sophisticated electronic games by the world’s leading manufacturers for the scene.” If it was shot at all, that sequence never made it into the finished film.

“It is undecided at this point,” Albertson continues, “whether the Overlook will, or will not, explode (as it does in the book) at the film’s conclusion. One ending under consideration has Jack freeze to death in the hedge maze…Kubrick has abandoned the concept of the hedge animals, which come to life in the King book, in favour of a hedge maze…  The make-up for the ghost of the dead woman in room 217—which may be changed to room 237 for legal reasons—promises to be incredibly grisly… The Shining could prove to be the most viscerally powerful horror film experience an audience was ever subjected to. It will be Kubrick’s challenge to make it a great film as well.”

Let me say, Jim, that I think he did okay.
The feature on The Shining also contains an interview with King, who expressed some ambivalence about the project even at that early stage. (It’s well known that he was not enamoured of Kubrick’s version, and even wrote his own television adaptation which aired in 1997.) He begins by casting aspersions on directors as a species:

“As a movie-goer, I don’t give a tin whistle what a director thinks; I want to know what he sees. Most directors have good visual and dramatic instincts (most good directors, anyway), but in intellectual terms they are pinheads, by and large. Nothing wrong in that; who wants a film director who’s a utility infielder? Let them do their job, enjoy their work, but for Christ’s sake, let’s not see Freudianisms in the work of any film director. The only director who seems to have any psychological point of view at all is Ingmar Bergman, and his is Jungian, which is the next thing to saying ‘intellectual.’ Can you imagine Bergman doing The Shining? That would be interesting.”

He then moves on to discuss Kubrick’s take on The Shining:

“From the beginning, when I first talked to Kubrick some months ago, he wanted to change the ending. He asked me for my opinion on Halloran [the hotel cook played in Kubrick’s film by Scatman Crothers] becoming possessed, and then finishing the job that Torrance started, killing Danny, Wendy and lastly himself. Then, the scene would shift to the spring, with a new caretaker and his family arriving. However, the audience would see Jack, Wendy and Danny in an idyllic family scene—as ghosts—sitting together, laughing and talking. And I saw a parallel between this peaceful setting at the end of the picture and the end of 2001 where the astronaut is transported to the Louis XIV bedroom. To me, the two endings seemed to tie together.

“The impression I got from our conversation is that Kubrick does not believe in life after death. Yet, he thought that any vein of the supernatural story (whether it is horrifying, or whether it is pleasant) is inherently optimistic because it points towards the possible survival of the spirit. And I told him that’s all very good as a philosophy, but when an audience is brought face to face with the slaughter of characters that they care about, then they cry for your head once they go out of the theatre. But Kubrick has modified his original ideas extensively, so I don’t expect to see this ending in the final film.

On the omission in the film of the topiary animals springing to life:

“I never really thought that the topiary animals would make it to the film, anyway. The director would face a dual risk, the first being that the effect would not look real. The second risk is that even if the effect does look real, the audience might laugh. These are problems facing the filmmaker, problems I didn’t have to contend with writing the novel.”

On violence:

“It’s a dangerous package to handle. It is all to easy to let violence dominate. A lot of good directors have floundered on that particular rock. And that’s one of the reasons I like Don Siegel, because he handles violence well. I would have preferred Siegel to direct The Shining…”

On the casting of The Shining:

“I’m a little afraid of Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in that context because he is not an ordinary man. So far as I know, he’s never played an ordinary man and I’m not sure he can. I would have rather seen Michael Moriarty or Martin Sheen portray Torrance. But these actors are not supposed to be ‘bankable’—Hollywood loves that word. [Shelley Duvall as Wendy] is an example of absolutely grotesque casting.”

On Brian De Palma’s film of King’s novel Carrie:

“I liked De Palma’s film of Carrie quite a bit. The attitude of the film was different from my book; I tended to view the events straight-on, humourlessly, in a straight point-to-point progression (you have to remember that the genesis of Carrie was no more than a short story idea), while I think De Palma saw a chance to make a movie that was a satirical view of high-school life in general and high-school peer groups in particular. A perfectly viable point of view. Sissy Spacek was excellent, but right behind her—in a smaller part than it should have been—was John Travolta. He played the part of Billy Nolan the way I wish I’d written it, half-funny and half-crazy.

On Kubrick:

“He is one of the three or four greatest directors of our day, maybe of all time. However, I think he is indulgent, terribly indulgent. A Clockwork Orange just doesn’t hold up today. Some of his other films do… I think Dr Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey do. And Barry Lyndon will. But even if his film of The Shining is an artistic failure it will probably be a commercial success… And even if it’s a failure, it will be an interesting failure… Anyway, you have to realise I’m only talking as an interested observer. I’m not a participant.

The extended version of The Shining is released in the UK on 2 November, with previews on 31 October. Room 237 opens on 26 October.

Stephen King in the 1970s. Photo: Reuters

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The filmmaker forcing the British Board of Film Classification to watch Paint Drying for hours on end

The film does what it says on the tin.

Would you watch paint dry for several hours? If you work for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), you might not have much choice in the matter. As a protest against problems he sees within the organisation, British filmmaker and journalist Charlie Lyne has launched a Kickstarter to send the BBFC a film he’s made called Paint Drying. It does what it says on the tin: the film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the board are obliged to watch it.

“I’ve been fascinated by the BBFC – and censorship in general – for ages, but it was only when I went to a BBFC open day earlier this year that I felt properly frustrated by the whole thing,” Lyne told me. “There was a lot of discussion that day about individual decisions the board had made, and whether they were correct, but no discussions whatsoever about whether the BBFC should have the kind of power it has in the first place.”

The 2003 Licencing Act imposes the following rules on cinemas in the UK: cinemas need licenses to screen films, which are granted by local authorities to the cinemas in their area. These licences include a condition requiring the admission of children to any film to normally be restricted in accordance with BBFC age ratings. This means that in order to be shown easily in cinemas across the country, films need an age rating certificate from the BBFC. This is where, for Lyne, problems begin: a certificate costs around £1,000 for a feature film of average length, which, he says, “can prove prohibitively expensive” for many independent filmmakers.

It’s a tricky point, because even Lyne acknowledges on his blog that “this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered”. The BBFC pointed out to me that its income is “derived solely from the fees it charges for its services”. So is the main issue the cost, or the role he feels the BBFC play in censorship? The Kickstarter page points out that the BBFC's origins are hardly liberal on that front:

The British Board of Film Classification (previously known as the British Board of Film Censors) was established in 1912 to ensure films remained free of 'indecorous dancing', 'references to controversial politics' and 'men and women in bed together', amongst other perceived indiscretions. 

Today, it continues to censor and in some cases ban films, while UK law ensures that, in effect, a film cannot be released in British cinemas without a BBFC certificate.

It might be true “in effect”, but this is not a legal fact. The 2003 Licensing Act states, “in particular circumstances, the local authority can place their own restrictions on a film. Film distributors can always ask a local authority for a certificate for a film banned by the BBFC, or a local category for a film that the BBFC has not classified.” The BBFC point out that “film makers wishing to show their films at cinemas in the UK without a BBFC certificate may do so with permission from the local authority for the area in which the cinema is located.” There you have it – the BBFC does not have the absolute final word on what can be shown at your local Odeon.

While the BBFC cannot officially stop cinemas from showing films, they can refuse to categorise them in any category: something Lyne says mostly happens with “quite extreme horror films and pornography, especially feminist pornography made by people like Petra Joy and Pandora Blake, but it could just as easily be your favourite movie, or mine.” This makes large-scale release particularly difficult, as each individiual local authority would have to take the time and resources to overrule the decision. This means that, to get screened easily in cinemas, a film essentially needs a BBFC-approved rating. Lyne adds, “I think films should also be allowed to be released unrated, as they are in the US, so that independent filmmakers with no money and producers of niche, extreme content aren’t at the mercy of such an expensive, censorial system.”

Does he think Paint Drying can make that a possibility? “I realise this one small project isn’t going to completely revolutionise British film censorship or anything, but I hope it at least gets people debating the issue. The BBFC has been going for a hundred years, so it’s got tradition on its side, but I think it's important to remember how outraged we’d all be if an organisation came along tomorrow and wanted to censor literature, or music. There's no reason film should be any different.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.