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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge