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Steven Spielberg explains the impact and influence of Stanley Kubrick

Four months following Stanley Kubrick’s sudden demise, in his 1999 interview with Paul Joyce, Steven Spielberg had a lot of insightful comments regarding the wide impact and influence of the legendary auteur Stanley Kubrick. In the very heartfelt interview, Spielberg spilt details regarding how Kubrickian filmography affected him deeply as a young man with a knack for black comedy. He also had a lot to offer on the kind of friendship he shared with Kubrick after gaining fame and likened Kubrick to the modernist James Joyce due to his incredible ability to create something new every time he ventured into filmmaking. According to Spielberg, Kubrick was like a “chameleon” who “never made the same picture twice. Every single picture is a different genre, a different story, a different risk. The only thing that bonded all of his films was the incredible virtuoso that he was with craft.” 

Stanley Kubrick, an auteur in his truest sense, has been the serious subject of study for more than five decades where cinephiles and film buffs still go gaga over his sheer cinematographic brilliance. The Kubrickian oeuvre is rich, complex and reeks of perfectionism. Laden with heavy political commentaries and unsettling, layered characters, as well as an element of unimaginable horror, this recluse and idiosyncratic filmmaker’s films, are terrifying yet visually pleasing. Having had an immense influence on the likes of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron, Terry Gillman, Woody Allen, Ridley Scott, Paul Thomas Anderson, Coen Brothers and more, Kubrick continues to be the pioneering figure in cinema years after his death as every director aims to achieve his level of excellence in craftsmanship and his courage to create something new, challenging the stereotypical norms.

Spielberg began by talking about the kind of experience he had when he went to watch Dr Strangelove which was his introduction to Kubrickian filmmaking. The film made immense sense to him and set the gears in his brain to think deeply about his own predicament. In his last year of high school, he waited in line for the film, he was faced with the option of enrolling himself in selective service. It was then that the young Spielberg “became aware of the power of Stanley Kubrick” as he was “completely haunted by the juxtaposition of the threat of the end of the world and the threat of the end of [his] life”. Caught by the “ethos” of the film, Spielberg soon found himself brimming with cynicism, questioning the conflicts surrounding him.   

Spielberg also spoke about his experience of watching 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time as a student of California State Long Beach where he waited in line for three hours to catch the film. There were rumours in his school about the film being a “drug movie” and Spielberg, who had never experimented with drugs and was “as clean as a whistle”, came out of the film “altered”. He said that no other film had made him feel the sheer rush of “fear” or the desperate need to be a part of the “great mystery”.

According to Spielberg, that was “his most realistic movie”, closely followed by the revered A Clockwork Orange which is not only celebrated for its “grotesque violence” but also for providing the flipside where it holds nothing but “utter contempt for violence”. Spielberg, like most of us, was drawn by the dichotomy and the dystopic setting of the film which intrigues fear and chaos, especially the “devilish wink” which led Spielberg to declare it as “Stanley’s most defeatist movie” as the auteur seems to “totally give up on society”.  

Spielberg also spoke about his first meeting with Stanley Kubrick on the sets of The Shining which is inarguably one of the most celebrated horror films of all time. Spielberg was caught off-guard when Kubrick wanted to know how the former liked his film as he admittedly did not, the first time he watched it. “I have since seen The Shining 25 times, one of my favourite pictures,” Spielberg said, before adding: “Kubrick films tend to grow on you, you have to see them more than once. but the wild thing is I defy you to name one Kubrick film that you can turn off once you started. It’s impossible, he’s got the fail-safe button or something, it is impossible to turn off a Kubrick film.” Spielberg, who did not want to annoy the senior director, listed out the things he liked about the film but was caught in a lie. Spielberg allegedly thought Jack Nicholson went over the top and compared his performance to “kabuki theatre”.  

Stanley Kubrick has heavily shaped modern cinema. (Credit: Alamy)

The two actors had a debate over their list of favourite actors and soon Kubrick explained to him why Jack Nicholson, according to him, was a great actor. It showed the sheer confidence and persuasiveness that nestled within the auteur. What fascinated Spielberg about The Shining, however, was how deftly Kubrick had the power to haunt, shock and traumatise audience “slowly but surely with these images [‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’] and this dread just waiting for you around the corner when you are dollying behind a child on a tricycle that [one] would be shocked by that”. Spielberg compared this “sudden reveal” to that done by Alfred Hitchcock in Psycho. Kubrick was also notorious for calling other directors and writers in the middle of the night to seek their opinion on various topics. His phone call to Stephen King was the simple yet complicated question “Do you believe in God” and as soon as King answered in the affirmative, in a true Kubrickian dismissive fashion, the auteur hung up. According to Spielberg, that was possibly the exact moment when the director had “decoded which direction he was going to take the movie”. Although Kubrick denied having done that, the myth behind it solidifies the approach Kubrick usually adopted towards his films. 

Stanley Kubrick, with his sheer love for cinema, would often call various directors in the middle of the night according to Spielberg. He would call them to complement their films and congratulate them. The auteur, despite his trailblazing success, never lost his fanboy streak towards appreciating cinema. Whenever Spielberg discussed films with Kubrick, he was posed with “tough questions” regarding what the former found “interesting about the story” or “why do you want to make that picture”. By saying “gee that sounds kind of boring to me, how can you make that interesting”, the foundation of Kubrick and Spielberg’s dynamic friendship lay in Kubrick constantly “challenging” Spielberg to improve himself.

Spielberg identified Kubrick’s perseverance, perfectionism and desire to never stop wanting to make films. “I think Stanely was always waiting for that one take that would be the breakthrough take where the actors would surprise him and blow him away with things that he couldn’t even think of and maybe that’s one of the reasons he kept pushing them for more takes,” he said.

Although Spielberg wanted to watch the auteur in action while the latter worked on Eyes Wide Shut, he was too afraid to ask him for permission to visit him on set. Kubrick had a certain gravity and an unchallenged authority which made him a looming and influential figure in the lives of various directors, including Spielberg himself. Spielberg, who is in awe of Kubrick since his “craft was impeccable” and “nobody could make a film like Stanley Kubrick”. Yet, Kuncrickian storytelling was different and “antithetical to the way we are accustomed to receiving stories” and Kubrick probably did it to stand out from the rest as he did not quite comprehend why everything had to be done in one single way. Kubrick had reportedly told Spielberg, “I want to change the form, I want to make a movie that changes the form.”      

Spielberg ended the interview by talking about how he found out about Kubrick’s death online. The profound irony regarding this, as admitted by Spielberg, was “how I would discover that Stanley had moved on was going to come from the technology that Stanley sort of, both with giddiness and excitement and also with profound caution, told me was going to be the next generation that might change the form of cinema”. Stanley Kubrick, who cannot be pigeonholed into a particular genre, was constantly competing against himself to create something new that would transcend the traditional art of cinematography and filmmaking. Using frames and other inanimate objects to heighten the tension in his films, Kubrick is aware of the power of manifesting the sheer terror within the spiritual and physical realm of his films which makes them stand out from the rest. His films are often absurd and claustrophobic, revelling in the filmmaker’s masterful narration and direction. With an illustrious career spanning over 45 years, Stanley Kubrick remains one of the most influential figures in cinema who challenged the rubric of filmmaking and forged the path for a fresh plethora of ideas that were disruptive and would revolutionise filmmaking in general.  

Watch the interview below to see Spielberg share heartfelt anecdotes about the legendary auteur and his brilliant, incomparable contribution to the world of cinema.