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revealing Kubrick’s colossal capacity for research…
The journey to the Kubrick house starts normally. You drive through rural Hertfordshire, passing ordinary-sized postwar houses and opticians and vets. Then you turn right at an electric gate with a “Do Not Trespass” sign. Drive through that, and through some woods, and past a long, white fence with the paint peeling off, and then another electric gate, and then another electric gate, and then another electric gate, and you’re in the middle of an estate full of boxes.
There are boxes everywhere – shelves of boxes in the stable block, rooms full of boxes in the main house. In the fields, where racehorses once stood and grazed, are half a dozen portable cabins, each packed with boxes. These are the boxes that contain the legendary Kubrick archive. I notice that many of the boxes are sealed. Some have, in fact, remained unopened for decades.
Tony Frewin started working as an office boy for Kubrick in 1965, when he was 17. One day, apropos of nothing, Kubrick said to him, “You have that office outside my office if I need you.” That was 36 years ago and Tony is still here, two years after Kubrick died and was buried in the grounds behind the house. There may be no more Kubrick movies to make, but there are DVDs to remaster and reissue in special editions. There are box sets and retrospective books to oversee. There is paperwork.
Tony gives me a guided tour of the house. We walk past boxes and more boxes and filing cabinets and past a grand staircase. Childwick was once home to a family of horse-breeders called the Joels. Back then there were, presumably, busts or floral displays on either side at the bottom of this staircase. Here, instead, is a photocopier on one side and another photocopier on the other.
Tony takes me into a large room painted blue and filled with books. “This used to be the cinema,” he says. “Is it the library now?” I ask. “Look closer at the books,” says Tony. I do. “Bloody hell,” I say. “Every book in this room is about Napoleon!” “Look in the drawers,” says Tony. I do. “It’s all about Napoleon, too!” I say. “Everything in here is about Napoleon!”
This room full of Napoleon stuff seems to bear out that comparison. “Somewhere else in this house,” Tony says, “is a cabinet full of 25,000 library cards, three inches by five inches. If you want to know what Napoleon, or Josephine, or anyone within Napoleon’s inner circle was doing on the afternoon of July 23 17-whatever, you go to that card and it’ll tell you.” “Who made up the cards?” I ask. “Stanley,” says Tony. “With some assistants.” “How long did it take?” I ask. “Years,” says Tony. “The late 1960s.”
Kubrick never made his film about Napoleon. During the years it took him to compile this research, a Rod Steiger movie called Waterloo was written, produced and released. It was a box-office failure, so MGM abandoned Napoleon and Kubrick made A Clockwork Orange instead.
“Did you do this kind of massive research for all the movies?” I ask Tony. “More or less,” he says. “OK,” I say. “I understand how you might do this for Napoleon, but what about, say, The Shining?” “Somewhere here,” says Tony, “is just about every ghost book ever written, and there’ll be a box containing photographs of the exteriors of maybe every mountain hotel in the world.” There is a silence. “Tony,” I say, “can I look through the boxes?”
I’ve been coming to the Kubrick house a couple of times a month ever since.
I start, chronologically, in a portable cabin behind the stable block, with a box marked Lolita. I open it, noting the ease with which the lid comes off. “These are excellent, well-designed boxes,” I think to myself. I flick through the paperwork inside, pausing randomly at a letter that reads as if it has come straight from a Jane Austen novel:
Dear Mr Kubrick,
Just a line to express to you and to Mrs Kubrick my husband’s and my own deep appreciation of your kindness in arranging for Dimitri’s introduction to your uncle, Mr Günther Rennert.
Sincerely, Mrs Vladimir Nabokov
I later learn that Dimitri was a budding opera singer and Rennert was a famous opera director, in charge of the Munich Opera House. This letter was written in 1962, back in the days when Kubrick was still producing a film every year or so. This box is full of fascinating correspondence between Kubrick and the Nabokovs but – unlike the fabulously otherworldly Napoleon room, which was accrued six years later – it is the kind of stuff you would probably find in any director’s archive.
The unusual stuff – the stuff that elucidates the ever-lengthening gaps between productions – can be found in the boxes that were compiled from 1968 onwards. In a box next to the Lolita box in the cabin, I find an unusually terse letter, written by Kubrick to someone called Pat, on January 10 1968: “Dear Pat, Although you are apparently too busy to personally return my phone calls, perhaps you will find time in the near future to reply to this letter?”
(Later, when I show Tony this letter, he says he’s surprised by the brusqueness. Kubrick must have been at the end of his tether, he says, because on a number of occasions he said to Tony, “Before you send an angry letter, imagine how it would look if it got into the hands of Time Out.”) The reason for Kubrick’s annoyance in this particular letter was because he’d heard that the Beatles were going to use a landscape shot from Dr Strangelove in one of their movies: “The Beatle film will be very widely seen,” Kubrick writes, “and it will make it appear that the material in Dr Strangelove is stock footage. I feel this harms the film.”
There is a similar batch of telexes from 1975: “It would appear,” Kubrick writes in one, “that Space 1999 may very well become a long-running and important television series. There seems nothing left now but to seek the highest possible damages … The deliberate choice of a date only two years away from 2001 is not accidental and harms us.” This telex was written seven years after the release of 2001.
But you can see why Kubrick sometimes felt compelled to wage war to protect the honor of his work. A 1975 telex, from a picture publicity man at Warner Bros called Mark Kauffman, regards publicity stills for Kubrick’s sombre reworking of Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon. It reads: “Received additional material. Is there any material with humor or zaniness that you could send?”
Kubrick replies, clearly through gritted teeth: “The style of the picture is reflected by the stills you have already received. The film is based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel which, though it has irony and wit, could not be well described as zany.”
I take a break from the boxes to wander over to Tony’s office. As I walk in, I notice something pinned to his letterbox. “POSTMAN,” it reads. “Please put all mail in the white box under the colonnade across the courtyard to your right.”
It is not a remarkable note except for one thing. The typeface Tony used to print it is exactly the same typeface Kubrick used for the posters and title sequences of Eyes Wide Shut and 2001. “It’s Futura Extra Bold,” explains Tony. “It was Stanley’s favourite typeface. It’s sans serif. He liked Helvetica and Univers, too. Clean and elegant.” “Is this the kind of thing you and Kubrick used to discuss?” I ask. “God, yes,” says Tony. “Sometimes late into the night. I was always trying to persuade him to turn away from them. But he was wedded to his sans serifs.”
Tony goes to his bookshelf and brings down a number of volumes full of examples of typefaces, the kind of volumes he and Kubrick used to study, and he shows them to me. “I did once get him to admit the beauty of Bembo,” he adds, “a serif.” “So is that note to the postman a sort of private tribute from you to Kubrick?” I ask. “Yeah,” says Tony. He smiles to himself. “Yeah, yeah.”
But this attention to detail becomes so amazingly evident and seemingly all-consuming in the later boxes, I begin to wonder whether it was worth it. In one portable cabin, for example, there are hundreds and hundreds of boxes related to Eyes Wide Shut, marked EWS – Portman Square, EWS – Kensington & Chelsea, etc, etc. I choose the one marked EWS – Islington because that’s where I live. Inside are hundreds of photographs of doorways. The doorway of my local video shop, Century Video, is here, as is the doorway of my dry cleaner’s, Spots Suede Services on Upper Street. Then, as I continue to flick through the photographs, I find, to my astonishment, pictures of the doorways of the houses in my own street. Handwritten at the top of these photographs are the words, “Hooker doorway?”
“Huh,” I think. So somebody within the Kubrick organization (it was, in fact, his nephew) once walked up my street, on Kubrick’s orders, hoping to find a suitable doorway for a hooker in Eyes Wide Shut. It is both an extremely interesting find and a bit of a kick in the teeth.
It is not, though, as incredible a coincidence as it may at first seem. Judging by the writing on the boxes, probably just about every doorway in London has been captured and placed inside this cabin. This solves one mystery for me – the one about why Kubrick, a native of the Bronx, chose the St Albans countryside, of all places, for his home. I realize now that it didn’t matter. It could have been anywhere. It is as if the whole world is to be found somewhere within this estate.
“STANLEY KUBRICK’S BOXES” 2008 directed by Jon Ronson
watch the trailer here…