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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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

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.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump