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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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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