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Jan Harlan: The Man Behind Stanley Kubrick

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Stanley Kubrick wasn't a film director; he was an architect of worlds, building structures out of stories and creating immersive habitats that shift from satirical and humorous to horrifying and salacious. His films mine the depths of emotion and reflect a human experience paradoxically interwoven with moments of beauty and despair. Kubrick's worlds are complex and challenging, but irresistibly hypnotizing. These films are unforgettable, populated by characters that are forever etched to the memory: an impotent general with his finger on Armageddon button; a tortured young Private ground down by the machinery of militarization; an aspiring writer driven mad in an empty hotel; a husband and wife intoxicated by a web of jealousy.

Few directors have earned the cultural capital of Stanley Kubrick whose films synthesize the greatest art, literature, and music into one streamline production. They singularly become tidal shifts in culture, both in realms popular and critical.

"Essentially the film is a mythological statement," Kubrick said "Its meaning has to be found on a sort of visceral, psychological level rather than in a specific literal explanation."

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences debut the first U.S. retrospective of Kubrick's work on November 1, displaying a wide variety of artifacts from the auteur's works, including marked-up script pages of "The Shining," the star child, baby figurine from "2001: A Space Odyssey," and a newspaper clipping from the 1953 New York Post declaring "Kubrick Another Boy Film Producer."

Artbound recently caught up with Jan Harlan, Kubrick's producer of all his films after "Barry Lyndon" (1975), and discussed Kubrick's "obsessive" creative process, the surprise shooting locations of "Full Metal Jacket," his addiction to a certain sporting event, and why the documentary "Room 237" is all wrong.

Why did it take so long to get such a big exhibit on Stanley Kubrick?

Jan Harlan: Well, I would put it the other way around, how fantastic that it exists at all because without the film institute in Frankfurt it may not. They helped us, they pushed. The federal government in Germany just supported it and made financial guarantees because their attitude was that Kubrick was a world artist, and not just an American who happens to live in London. So they pushed hard. They sent us a professional archivist to go through this enormous amount of stuff.

It's interesting that this exhibit got its start in Europe. Is there a different way that Kubrick's work is appreciated in Europe as opposed to the U.S.?

Jan Harlan: I don't know how it is received in America. I'm expecting it will be received extremely well. I mean, he was one of the most important American artists and filmmakers of his generation. It was very well received in Rome and in Paris and in Amsterdam and in Zurich and in Ghent and in Melbourne and in Frankfurt and in Berlin. So why not in Los Angeles? Particularly in Los Angeles, one of the hearts of the film industry. And he was an American filmmaker, he made American movies, although he made them in Europe. But there is no question "Eyes Wide Shut" is an American film. By the way, he considered "Eyes Wide Shut" his greatest contribution to the art of filmmaking. And I was so pleased this is so, because the film was not well received in the Anglo-Saxon world. It was very well received in Japan and the Latin world. But not in America and not in England. Now on the other hand, this is going to change. And I can see this now. Many people who see that film again realize what a masterpiece it is. But it's a problem that you have to see it twice.

Why do you think that is?

Jan Harlan: I couldn't tell you. That is very difficult to answer. A roman journalist told me it has to do with how the Catholic world deals with lust and sex, while Anglo-Saxons laugh about it and pretend it doesn't exist. But I don't know whether that is too glib and just not correct. I'm not an expert in this. All I know is that it is.

Could you talk about the very first time you met Stanley Kubrick? What struck you about him?

Jan Harlan: My first beginning with him was when he invited me to work with him on [the film] "Napoleon." That was in 1969. I met him before when I lived in New York myself. I had a green card, and I really was an immigrant. In '69 he invited me and I came to London and we prepared it, and I enjoyed it very much. We were going to go to Bucharest and Konstanz to film some exterior stuff with the Romanian cavalry but then MGM pulled out, "Napoleon" never happened. I, however, liked very much to work with him and he liked me and invited me to stay.

One of the next things was "Traumnovelle" by Arthur Schnitzler, which never happened. That turned out to be "Eyes Wide Shut" 30 years later. It took that long for him to actually get it together. But I really started with him then. During "2001," I visited with him during the making and my only contribution, by coincidence, was music. We talked about that. That was the only area where I was on the same kind of level field with him because he was so far superior intellectually and in knowledge and in every respect. But music was the only area where I was quite well informed. That was one element that brought us together and we got along extremely well.

Could you talk about music, too, because music is almost a character in a lot of his films?

Jan Harlan: Very much so. He knew. He was very musical. He didn't need me for that for sure, but I happened to know, for example, the Strauss Zarathustra. He already loved the title: "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" and he loved this fanfare that comes to an end, and he used it in 2001. And it became very, very popular. And when I made this film about Stanley Kubrick called "Stanley Kubrick: A Life and in Pictures," I went to Peter's edition because I also needed that music of course and couldn't pay a lot of money for it - it was still under copyright then - and the boss of Peter said , "Look, the fact that Stanley Kubrick had chosen this for 2001 made us so much money because we sold it for commercials, so you can have it for one pound." So it's not all cutthroat in this business.

I heard a rumor that Kubrick was originally thinking of putting Pink Floyd as the soundtrack?

Jan Harlan: Before my time. I don't think it is true. I've never heard about it. It may have been true later, or no. I don't remember, if I ever knew, I would have forgot.

What were the different pieces of artwork and artists that really influenced Stanley Kubrick?

Jan Harlan: He was influenced by all great painters, writers, and filmmakers. He was a buff. He was searching for quality. If he was afraid of anything, it was of mediocrity. I am so glad that he succeeded because the mark of a great artist is that his work remains and doesn't disappear. And that's not only true for filmmakers, it's true for writers and composers and painters and sculptors and architects. If their work becomes a reference point for the next generation, that's the greatest thing that an artist can achieve. And I'm absolutely convinced that 50 or 100 years from now, if you survive, for young people, Kubrick will be one of the windows to look into the culture of the second half of the 20th century. There are others. There is Ingmar Bergman and there are others, no doubt about it. There's Woody Allen, there's Martin Scorcese, there are other great artists, but he will be one of them. We now know about previous centuries, in the first instance, through artists, through writers, through painters, through architects, there is no question. The art is always the first thing that comes to mind if you go back. Go back 2000 years to Babylon. What do you know? It's architecture. It's always architecture and paintings and finally if you look at old Greece, the plays and the writing. So I find this very important to know that the artist in any time of any nation are people who are of tremendous importance for the next generation. They are the icons. And there may be 50, 60, 70 people at any given moment around the globe. They don't come to you by numbers.

"Barry Lyndon" seemed to be influenced by Gainsborough, right?

Jan Harlan: Sure, that was because he wanted to catch the late 18th century, so obviously the reference points are the painters, the architects and the furniture and the carpets and whatever they had. And that is relatively easy, the designer just has to go to the museum.

What was the most difficult film to make with Kubrick?

Jan Harlan: Well the most difficult film for me was "Full Metal Jacket" because it was in a filthy location. I mean absolutely disgusting. It was East London, it was in a former gas works that had closed down after the First World War. It was a revolting place, but ideally suited for us because we were allowed to topple the buildings, to do whatever we wanted. Of course, Stanley didn't like to travel and he did Full Metal Jacket, a Vietnam film without ever not sleeping in his own bed at home. And that was quite an achievement. That was very important to him. To go to the Phillipines or something was completely out of the question, he wouldn't have made the film. And we succeeded in creating Vietnam with smoke and palm trees and plastic plants and signage, and we put French shutters on this ex-gas works buildings. It's called filmmaking. The essence of "Full Metal Jacket" is something else. The essence is not the decor, it is how we treat young men. And we don't treat them very well.

What are some aspects of Stanley Kubrick that the public doesn't know that you would want people to know about him.

Jan Halran: I was just thinking he loved tennis. I mean the second week of Wimbledon, our office was very quiet because he loved tennis. I watched a match with him McEnroe against Boris Becker, and I remember afterwards he said, "Awww, no film can ever be so exciting!" He loved sports and he loved watching dogs and cats, and he was a homebody. I got along with him extremely well and he was very, very imaginative, full of humor, very bright and he was a political beast. You look at his films: "Paths of Glory," "Dr. Strangelove," "Full Metal Jacket." And that's why he was interested in Napoleon. Not to give a history lesson -- there is nothing new to say about Napoleon, everybody knows everything. If you are interested there are thousands of books written about him. What interested him was the relevance of Napoleon for us today because we are making the same mistakes. We are not governed by our intellect or knowledge or education but in the end, when it matters, by our emotions. And Napoleon had no one to blame but himself for his failure, for the colossal amount of people being killed, for the French great army to be destroyed, for France to be put into absolute misery. No one was to blame but himself because his number one task as a statesman, which he was not, was to make peace with England, and he failed.

Being a filmmaker must be a little like being a general or maybe like Napoleon: You are in charge of hundreds of people, and you are charged with a monumental -- if not near impossible -- task. Was Kubrick interested in military and Napoleon because he was interested in how one person could influence many? Did he feel like Napoleon at all?

Jan Harlan: No. I don't think so at all. He was fascinated by this huge talent of Napoleon, he was general at age 20, he came from nowhere, he came from Corsica. There's no question his charisma must have been amazing. There are a lot of documents that objectively describe this man. Still he wasted this huge capital because he failed in the end. Right, he was very successful, he made France very rich, he crowned himself emperor in 1804 and all of this was like cotton, like foam, it all disappeared because he couldn't hold it. That's very sad. I think great statesmen are very rare. We have politicians, we have smart people, we have all that. Great statesmen, who have long sight and don't think in the short term, that's a very rare element.

I interviewed Nicole Kidman a couple of years ago and we were talking about Kubrick and she described him as an obsessive director. What do you think that means?

Jan Harlan: Obsessive is right. He wanted to get it right. He didn't want to make any compromise. He was also in love with his subject matter. And I would also say it is a necessity to make anything great, that you are in love with it. You have to be a passionate lover of what you want to do, then you can write a great book, or make a great painting, or make a great film. To make a film is easy, to make a good film is a problem. And to make a great film - that's almost my mantra - to make a great film is almost a miracle, like any great work of art. And that's why great works of art are rare.

There is a new documentary that has come out about "The Shining," called "Room 237" and it's looking at the different inspirations behind the movie. Part of it puts forth two theories of what Kubrick is trying to say with the film: 1. That it was an allegory of the genocide of Native Americans in America or 2. That it was an allegory for the Holocaust. Is there any truth behind either of these theories?

Jan Harlan: I think it is absolutely silly. I mean to assume that Stanley Kubrick, who for 25 years was trying to make a film about the Holocaust, would put a meaningless, lightweight reference into a what was really a ghost film, an entertainment, is not only an insult to him, but also an insult to the victims of the greatest crime of humanity.

What do you miss about Stanley Kubrick?

Jan Harlan: Everything! Because now I keep serving him, as I served him for 30 years, and I try to keep his name in the public eye, and I come to this exhibition and I work at film schools, and I do retrospectives, and I miss him. There is nothing I can do. He's gone. And who knows, maybe I'll meet him one day on the other side of the fence.

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