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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser