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The psychology of creative dictators: How Prince and Stanley Kubrick made masterpieces with iron fists


Harvey Keitel only lasted a few days filming Eyes Wide Shut with Stanley Kubrick. According to Gary Oldman, “He was playing Sydney [Pollack’s role]. He was doing the scene and they were just walking through a door and after the 68th take of this, just walking through a door, Harvey Keitel just said ‘I’m out of here, you’re fucking crazy’. He just said, ‘you’re fucking out of your mind’, and left.”

When Kubrick was asked what exactly he was actually looking for, he replied with the sort of pretentious quip that could even cause a Buddhist to break a vow of silence, suddenly grow hair, and then proceed to scream and pull it out. Apparently, Kubrick would tell beleaguered actors who pleaded to know what it is he was looking for, ‘I don’t know until I see it’.

While that might sound utterly infuriating, it was far from waffle from a fool who didn’t know what he was doing. Kubrick is, after all, one of the most revered and celebrated directors of all time. As Oldman added: “I mean I love Kubrick’s films, but I don’t know how I would’ve worked with that.” In other words, if you’re in the business of making masterpieces, then you can’t really argue with the Picasso behind the camera, even if his iron grip does prove suffocating. 

Prince was no different in his pursuits of perfection. “He always demanded the best,” Patrick Whalen, Prince’s former production manager, once told The Hollywood Reporter. Whalen was one of the fateful few who said ‘no’ to Prince once and learned very quickly never to say it again. He recalled the moment he told the little virtuoso that his lighting request was impossible: “He looked me in the eye and said: ‘So what you’re telling me is that in the one second it took for you to say ‘no,’ you left your body and exhausted every possibility?’”

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And that was the last time Whelan ever said no. However, Prince was only as demanding of Whelan as he was of himself. He chucked whole finished albums in the bin, dismissed his band to record every minuscule aspect all by himself, and “He’d play for two and a half hours, take a 45-minute break, then play at a club until 6 in the morning and do it all over again, day after day.”

It wasn’t just a spiritual perfectionism they shared either, both Kubrick and Prince knew how to relate their acumen in a business sense. Kubrick famously worked with smaller support crews than any other director so that every penny and effort went into what appeared on screen and not extraneous factors, like large catering crews or someone to hold his coffee.

Would he have liked extra catering? Sure, who wouldn’t but Prince and Kubrick were not going to allow themselves to get shackled by the fortunes they had afforded themselves if it precluded further artistry. As we can all imagine, that must take incredible restraint—not in an egotistical way, but things would’ve undoubtedly been easier for Prince if he had a band present, at the expense of the odd misplaced note, that’s a deal most of us would make.

According to his trusted sound engineer Susan Rogers, he even had a method behind his progressive move to work with so many female artists. “Obviously he was a heterosexual man and enjoyed having beautiful women around,” Rogers says, “But he also needed to be the alpha male to get done what he needed to get done.”

Nevertheless, the flipside for both Prince and Kubrick is that they weren’t tennis players or even acoustic solo acts, they needed others to bring their own perfectionist views to fruition. So, how did they do it? Well, for one, they weren’t just concerned with their own visions, they wanted to better other people’s too. As Rogers also commented: “The ‘Minneapolis Scene?’ This was a scene of one guy who created his own competition in order to be a scene. Who does that?”

Likewise, Kubrick also wanted to overcome the initial poor reviews he received for Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss. This need to compete meant that they couldn’t just be monomaniacal artists sitting down with a project for years on end until they were finally satisfied. Thus, they had to get busy, and they made everyone else aware that they had to join the charge, but in the end, they would be victors then they could bask in the bounty of their munificent harvest. 

However, the psychological truth of it is that most of this striving was merely for their own psyche. On the one hand, you might say, ‘If Kubrick couldn’t trust Keitel to go along with him when walking through a door then how could he trust him in a pivotal scene?’ But really, walking through that door was a pointless pursuit that would’ve had no bearing on the outcome of the film whatsoever. 

Psychologists are more now more commonly referring to the behaviours exhibited as “deep, dark and dysfunctional”. And yet it is also noted with the pair that what they were doing in the process was searching for or maintaining a state of creative flow. Prince didn’t necessarily want to perfect bass note and Kubrick didn’t necessarily want the perfect doorframe, but they wanted to feel ‘in the zone’. And boy oh boy when they achieved that did they ever manage to create some near-perfect works. 

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