Interview with Jan Harlan

Last month saw the release of the US Version of The Shining throughout UK cinemas for the first time. We caught up with Jan Harlan, Stanley Kubrick’s friend, brother in law and Executive Producer for 30 years for a discussion about his involvement over the years and all things Kubrick.

[FRR] It is very well documented how you came to work with Kubrick, but what exactly did your role as Executive Producer involve?

[JH] To make deals, to organize things. To make sure things are cleared and we have the rights and permissions. I made the deals – I had nothing to do with what you see on the screen. Only how you get the material at the right time, at the right price.

That must have been a real challenge considering the length of some of the projects?

Well yes, but it was also an advantage because you have time to plan. We compensated by having very few people. As a typical formula with Eyes Wide Shut, we spent in a week as much money as comparable films would spend in a day.

Which film was the most challenging from a production perspective?

For me, probably Full Metal Jacket because it was so difficult – it was all on location, in a most unfriendly environment in East London at a former gasworks. It was not used I think since the First World War so it was now just filthy. For us it was perfect, we basically had permission to do whatever we wanted. We could topple down buildings and anything we liked because they were going to get rid of it anyway.

Beckton Gas Works, East London

But for Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut was the most difficult. We bought the rights in 1970, so it was almost 30 years till he finally did this film. He had a few plans in between. I remember before we did The Shining, he wanted to do it with Woody Allen in the lead, as a black & white art house movie, shot in London and Dublin but still being set in New York. Woody Allen would have been a New York Jewish Doctor playing a straight role. But then he wasn’t happy with the script and postponed it again.

So finally, he did it and I am very glad that he himself considered Eyes Wide Shut his greatest contribution – to the art of filmmaking. Not many people would agree with him, but that is neither here nor there.

What was it about Eyes Wide Shut that Kubrick personally found so fascinating?

It is so difficult to make a film about such an internal process – like jealousy and sexual fantasy. Not only is it generally difficult to put that on the screen but the additional difficulty is that everyone in the audience is an expert.

And each of those experts all have very personalised opinions on the subject too.

Very personal. It is quite interesting, I spoke to an Italian journalist and we discussed the phenomena that Eyes Wide Shut was so hugely successful in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and this whole Mediterranean belt. Japan also – and not at all in the Anglo Saxon World. In America and in the UK, it really didn’t work at all.

And he said to me, “oh, it’s quite clear to me why”. And I said, oh why?, I’m very curious, why do you think that is? He said, “ah, it has to do with Catholicism. Catholics put that topic on the table, it is discussed and taken very seriously. While the Brits make jokes – they keep it away by laughing about it, pretending it doesn’t concern them”. Anyway I’m not a psychologist so I cannot say if that is actually true or valid but I thought that was quite interesting.

Do you think that some people just haven’t watched it enough to fully understand it?

One thing that I have observed is that people who watch it a second time, after a while they see a very different film. It is like seeing it for the first time and they understand that this so called orgy – is not an orgy at all – it’s a look into a modern hell.

That’s what Kubrick wanted to portray, it was totally stylised, completely un-erotic. It was disgusting and very wealthy, incredibly opulent – artificial to the hilt. Oh, that was very deliberate obviously. Some people get it and others don’t – any artist has to live with that. He always split the audience, he always split the critics, but what can you do?

It is the same for any true artist really

Yeah well, all the great painters and composers – they always did the same. Whoever goes into new territory is bound to split the audience and the critics, nothing you can do about it.

There is a lot more use of colour, and artificial lighting than in the other Kubrick films.

It is a brilliant film. Very carefully made. And of course he took advantage of Christmas by using the Christmas lighting as practical lights, so everywhere he had enough light to shoot with a steadicam, with open lenses and very little depth of field and giving this strange look.

For example in the ballroom at the beginning when you have this big dance there were these fairly big ugly stars on the wall, which normally you would have outside a department store with 100W bulbs but totally out of focus and with artificial smoke in the room, so you see the mist. Which looks gorgeous yeah, it looks beautiful. That’s what he wanted, he was a brilliant photographer and cinematographer and was very concerned with getting the right atmosphere, and lighting and he certainly succeeded.

It’s a real shame that Kubrick passed away before it was widely released.

There was a screening organized by Nigel Galt, the editor who went to New York and showed the film, still on separate sound and picture reels to the Warner Brothers executives and to Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. They absolutely loved it and then a week later he died. But we didn’t change the film at all. For America we had to because of censorship reasons, we had to superimpose more voyeurs digitally. But we never, never touched his cut.

Will the full un-edited version ever be released?

Yes, yes. It is now available on the new Kubrick DVD and Blu-Ray collections. There you have the original version. In the UK it was available in any case.

The new Blu-Ray collection also includes your Life in Pictures film and a newer additional documentary about Malcolm McDowell.

I made the film about Kubrick about 10 years ago and then I made another film about Malcolm McDowell. Both were quite successful and very good for me to do that. Life goes on you know. O Lucky Malcolm is good fun. He is a wonderful character, wonderful artist and good fun to be with.

Life in Pictures is very insightful if you don’t know much about Kubrick other than what has been portrayed by the media. You must be happy with the result and at the same time dispelling a few myths about his eccentric reclusive nature.

The media of course was very limited, I have to say to their defense. They were very limited and had to speculate because he never talked to them. He gave 2 or 3 interviews after each film, always to the same people. In the UK, it was Alexander Walker, in France it was Michel Ciment and that really was it. He never talked on the telephone about his films… or on television… or radio – nothing.

Looking at the films you have directed – Dvorak Who? is the only title that is unrelated to Kubrick.

Dvorak Who? Ha. That was good fun. I was asked to do a documentary round the Dvorak Cello Concerto with an international youth orchestra and that was a wonderful task. Fist of all I love this Concerto. I mean music has always been a big part of my life, so I knew it very well. A good friend of mine, a very famous British Cellist Alexander Bailey, he was the soloist and the orchestra where kids. Well not kids really – aged between 15 and 25, ha ha, something like that. Young people from all over Europe. It was fabulous.

Do you have any more plans to do your own work or are you being kept busy as the public face of Kubrick’s legacy?

Well, I made short film. I’m very pleased with that. It was a short film about Eve. Eve, 20 years after being thrown out of paradise, meeting up with a snake. Ha ha ha, and they have a chat about it. I do things like this but my main work is to work at film schools now.

And of course, work on the Kubrick front.

Well yes, that’s one thing. One thing is the Exhibition, which is very, very successful. It is right now at LACMA in Los Angeles.

Are there any plans to bring it to the UK?

Yeah, well, if somebody wants it.

Do you mean if somebody wants to pay for it?

Well, it’s not expensive. The money is not the issue. You have to get a venue that really wants the exhibition, then it’s no problem at all. The Southbank could do it, the Barbican could do it, the V&A could do it and Somerset House would be perfect. But you know, they have to come and get a sponsor to do it, it’s not very expensive really. But it is always going. It was a huge success in Paris, in Rome, in Melbourne, in Berlin, in Zurich, in Amsterdam, now it is in Los Angeles and after that to Sao Paulo and right now I’m talking to Warsaw, Copenhagen and Tokyo. So there are plenty of people that want it.

In London, we have the Stanley Kubrick Archives to keep us busy for now.

Yes, that is at the University of the Arts in London yes. They did a fantastic job. It’s a huge University. I think it is the biggest university in the World dedicated to the subject of art alone. I was there about 10 days ago doing a lecture on Music in Film.

You clearly have a passion for Classical music, did you have any influence in arranging the Beethoven music for Clockwork Orange?

My influence was to get a deal from Deutsche Grammophon. I remember it cost 3000 Marks per minute, which was a very, very good deal. It was a recording made by Fritz Reiner, a French conductor with the Berlin Philharmonics. It was in Mono and was no longer in the catalogue, that’s why I could get a very good deal. We didn’t care because Clockwork Orange was a Mono film – it was not a Stereo mix, so that was great. The choice itself was Kubrick’s. He liked this particular performance and the work itself is in the novel, so it had to be in. We were very lucky to get this performance.

From Dr. Strangelove onwards, music became an increasingly important part of all the films. Wendy Carlos’ music is central in Clockwork Orange and even more so in The Shining, how did she become involved?

Music was always important, yeah. Wendy did such a fantastic job with Clockwork Orange that Stanley again wanted this electronic sound. Particularly at the beginning. The track is beautiful anyway but Stanley wanted it distorted, so Wendy Carlos did it electronically on the synthesiser and I think it works extremely well. The opening of the film is so beautiful, beautifully shot, but you needed that sound in order to signal instantly that there is something wrong. Otherwise you would be thinking it’s a film made for National Geographic.

I remember reading an article from Alexander Walker, the long time film critic for London’s Evening Standard. He described how he had recreated an entire scrap book for a flashback scene in The Shining, matching it in style to local Colorado newspapers of that early 1920’s era, researching typical news stories, writing all the articles in full and even matching the printed fonts – only for it to be quickly glossed over in a 5 second shot.

Ha ha yes, I remember that – and it never actually made it into the film. I believe that is on show now as part of the archives now at the University of the Arts. Many, many things like that happened, where you cover yourself as a Director and you do this and that in case you need it and then you don’t, you know, that is film making.

Was Vivian, Kubrick’s daughter ever tempted to continue with film making after a solid job with the Making the Shining Documentary?

No, she wasn’t interested. She wanted to make music and she did the music for Full Metal Jacket. She did that very well.

What would be your most memorable moment from working on The Shining?

Going with Doug Milsome, the cameraman to Oregon – just the two of us and shooting all the Second Unit stuff in the Winter of the Timberline Lodge Hotel. It was wonderful.

We were there waiting for snow and when there was new snow, we had to get up very early in the morning, go around and place the camera, get ready for enough light – just the very first light of the day to get an exposure at F2. Our bedrooms were chosen so that we could have 1000W lamps in our bedrooms and then tracing paper on the window. Then you see this little hotel, with the two lights on, ha, early in the morning. This was great fun for me personally, it was like a holiday. It was film making in the raw, just two people, an Arriflex 2C and a tripod, that was it. That was all done before we started principle photography. All the second unit stuff was finished and done.

Then later on we built this huge set at Elstree, and of course these big, big rooms that you see in the hotel could never, never have fitted inside the hotel you see from the outside. You know, Kubrick knew that as well. His argument was – “look, it’s a ghost film, forget it, it doesn’t matter, nothing makes any sense”. The only requirement was – it mustn’t be boring. And I think the film works extremely well, it isn’t boring.

Mind you, in the beginning, it has disappointed people who are used to having a clear cut story with an explanation and at the end there is a baddie with a steak through the heart – well Kubrick didn’t go that way. In fact, he had the right to change Stephen King’s story as he saw fit. And yeah, he did. He made it so ambiguous. On the other hand you have to say that the film survived. It is more popular now than when it came out.

For any fan of the film, its great to see the extra scenes in the US version, but i don’t think they really add much to the story itself. I would say if anything the shorter UK version feels more balanced, even more ambiguous and better for it.

No, you are quite right, I agree with you on this.

Silly question, what did you all make of the TV version of The Shining when it was released?

Oh, well it was totally superfluous. I’m not knocking it, it was just unnecessary because it was no improvement at all.

I’m surprised it ever got made.

Well, you never know, Stephen King is a big writer, a hugely successful man and he wanted it made. Nobody minded, so go ahead. It was much more faithful to the book – but it was not an improvement.

Like the second Lolita film was no improvement on the Sue Lyon and James Mason version.

We are now starting to see Remixes and new interpretations of Kubrick’s work. There was a brilliant short animation shown on Channel 4 a couple of years ago that was based on iconic Kubrick imagery – do you think he would have approved of the younger generations using his work in this way to create new works of art?

Yeah, I suppose so. He never looked back. He always looked very much in the present – for today and tomorrow. What was done was done and it was over. He always liked the fact that 2001 instills tremendous fantasy and inspiration – particularly in young boys. It was teenagers and young men who really rescued 2001. At the time many older people didn’t like the film. They thought it was boring, they didn’t get anything. As he would say, “it’s the longing of the agnostic” that is expressed in this film.

I was lucky enough to see the performance of 2001 with Live Orchestra and Choir at The Southbank Centre. It was incredible. Are there any plans for more?

Oh, that was good wasn’t it? I’m glad you saw that. It was repeated in Amsterdam, now it comes in January or February 2013 to Cologne.

The sounds created by the Live Choir during the moon landing sequence were like nothing else i’ve ever heard.

No, no – it was very, very impressive. I agree with you.

There is not much talking throughout 2001 and the music obviously lends itself perfectly to a live orchestra. A very good choice of film for this sort of environment.

Absolutely right.

Will it ever be coming to London again?

I have no idea. It is totally in the hands of The Southbank, BFI and Warner Brothers. This cannot be profitable, so you need a sponsor. Even if you fill the Royal Festival Hall, which you can do, with 2500 people or whatever it is. You would need one or two performances to rehearse the orchestra, get the choir, do all the technical apparatus which is all necessary but can be very expensive. But if there is a sponsor, it can be done.

To round off, is there anything you would like to add?

I am often being asked – What is so special about Stanley Kubrick? And the answer has to be – none of his films disappear. They are all around. Paths of Glory, Dr Stangelove, 2001, Lolita, whatever it is – they are all around, they are all available, they play on television, sold on DVD’s. He doesn’t go away. And I think that is the true mark of an Artist. I’m quite sure that in 50 or 60 years from now, people will look at them still, amongst others of course. Ingmar Bergman would fall into the same league and a dozen others. They will look at Kubrick films to get a look into our society at the second half of the 20th Century. I’ve no doubt about it.


Stanley Kubrick Exhibition
Stanley Kubrick Archives
BFI – 2001: A Space Odyssey Event
Producing The Shining: Jan Harlan
Stanley Kubrick – Official Site

About The Author

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Pete graduated from University in 2003 with a degree in Digital Art. With a real interest in all the creative arts, he then went on to set up his own digital design agency, Elastic Eye - specialising in all forms of graphic design, web design, photography and MoreEyes VJ collective - specialising in VJ'ing, projection mapping and audio-visual performance.

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