Saturday, October 17, 2015

Why I Never Talked to Stanley Kubrick Again

This is a story I made up to amuse myself last week, in a mildly expanded form.

The movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" recently appeared on Netflix. I never saw it when it appeared in theaters, and ignored all the media hype about it, with one exception: I did read the MAD magazine spoof, called '201 Minutes of a Space Idiocy.' That might seem to you to be a particularly ignorant decision regarding a ground-breaking sci-fi epic, but I have an excuse: I actually worked on the film.
My name doesn't appear anywhere in the credits, which is a demand I made when I stormed into the Shepperton Studio offices after my last day on set. They were disturbingly untroubled by my little tantrum, which I recognize now as being due to the fact that under no circumstances would my name have appeared anyway, since I was just an unpaid production intern. In my defense, I had just turned 23 in 1966, and I suppose I had that old I-am-the-center-of-the-universe thing going. It took years to be free of that particular delusion; perhaps my decision to finally watch the film denotes final liberation.
But I get ahead of the story.
In case you don't remember, the movie starts out with animals. Specifically, the initial scene involves hominids, portrayed by people in make-up, with a few chimps mixed in for variety. The make-up for the hominids took four hours each, and involved lots of glue and hair, and the results looked good, but smelled AWFUL because of the glue. My first task was to cut yards and yards of long black hair (probably harvested from hundreds of young Asian women), into variously sized bundles for use by the make-up artists. It wasn't a particularly intellectually challenging job, but it did require intense concentration and attention to detail. Human hair is amazingly resilient to being cut in large bunches, as I suppose any barber could verify. I had to stop and sharpen my scissors about every fifteen minutes or so, or I'd get things into a terrible mess.
Everything was filmed in the studio, except for the last shot, and the lights made the stage almost intolerably hot for the actors in the suits. Kubrick said it brought realism to the set, because the actual environment would have been around 90 degrees F in the shade, but I think he just didn't want to front the money for the air conditioning. Even the people behind the lights had to work at it to stay hydrated, and the suited actors couldn't stay in the suits for more than 20 minutes max or they would pass out from the heat.  Between the hot human smell and the hot glue smell, it was like working in a rendering factory in a tropical rain forest. In fairness to him, Kubrick DID suffer under the same conditions as the rest of the crew. except that he wasn't in a suit, and he had a personal assistant to spritz him with water and keep a fan on him.
The script called for warthogs in the initial scenes. They were first to be shown as competitors with the hominids for the scant mountain vegetation, and then as a new food source after the monolith taught the hominids how to use a bone as a club. It's an essential concept, but we had severe problems from the beginning. In the first place, warthogs are mean as hell, and bit anything within range of their beady little eyes. That meant we couldn't get insured unless we provided protection for the actors in the hominid suits, and the humane societies were refusing us any aversive controls on the little crap-toads (and I mean the wart-hogs; not even Kubrick suggested using cattle prods on actors.).
So Kubrick says, get tapirs; tapirs are gentle. Right. I don't know what arcane BBC nature documentary he got his info from, but tapirs are NOT gentle. They would knock the hominid actors down to get to the freshly planted vegetation we'd put out as a supposed food source, just shoulder them right out of the way. Then they developed some sort of fascination with the hominid costumes. They've got these little prehensile noses they use to dig in the dirt, and they started pulling out the damn monkey hair that took so long to glue. None of the wranglers could figure that out; was it a tapir vs. hominid thing, or did the scent from the stinky glue combined with people sweat trigger it? We never knew what went wrong. All we knew was that in sixteen days of trying to get 15 seconds of film of tapirs and hominids interacting, we got nothing except tapirs pulling out monkey hair.
Fortunately, we lucked into a pretty smart veterinarian who pointed out that while warthogs are mean and tapirs are stupid, pigs are both smart and trainable. So, that's what we went with. We took his advice and went with French Pinks, because we had to paint them purple/grey to match the few seconds of usable film we had already shot, and they all had to be fitted with prosthetic noses to resemble the never-to-be-adequately-disdained tapirs.
With pigs on set, we did great. They were naturals, and took what little direction Kubrick needed to give them very well indeed. Shot after shot, even with the multiple retakes Kubrick was known for, those pigs handled it like professionals. All Kubrick had to do was make some rudimentary gestures with his hands, and the pigs came through like champs. I can't begin to tell you how much we appreciated that, because up until that point, we thought we might have to rely on "artist concept" imagery or stop-action to get the footage we needed.
It all came to a screaming halt with the money shot, the scene where the hominid hits the pig on the head with a bone and it falls over. The BSPCA was absolute death on the idea of us actually whacking a pig on camera, even if it was done by the most humane methods. Kubrick and the veterinarian and the pig farmer spent hours together, trying to come up with a solution, but there was simply nothing that would make a pig fall over like it was conked on the skull, except for conking it on the skull.
Fortunately, Kubrick put an amazing amount of time with the pigs. He had always liked talking with actors during filming, and as far as he was concerned, the pigs were no less actors just because they had twice as many legs. He had a small curtained-off area built just off set where he and the pigs could hang out together between scenes. It was all a part of his directorial style, the way he immersed himself in the movie. And that's how he discovered the solution.
Music defines how Kubrick's films are remembered. The obscure 'Also Sprach Zarathustra,' which became an icon at high school football games due to the pounding drum mix and easily taught horn intro, wasn't even considered as theme music until post-production began in 1967. At the time of filming, Kubrick was leaning toward a folk-pop mix to contrast with the images of the primitive hominids, and had selected Donovan's hit "Sunshine Superman" as the perfect complement to the revelation of the monolith. Donovan was recording nearby during the filming, and was a frequent guest on stage and would often join Kubrick and his wife Christiane as their diner guest. When Donovan was arrested for pot possession, it was Kubrick who put up his bail and arranged for his lawyer, as Donovan's record agency tried to disassociate themselves from the scandal.
That's how we discovered that pigs react to cannabis much in the way that humans do. After filming had stopped for the day, Donovan, who was deeply disturbed by his arrest, would join Kubrick and the pigs for some conversation and food, and at one point, a particularly inquisitive porcine ate the greatest part of Donovan's marijuana stash and became intoxicated. It was such a tension reliever, that Kubrick asked me to provide the pigs with pot each day, and they developed a real affinity for it. Thus we discovered, quite by accident, that past a certain point of intoxication, pigs tend to fall over quite frequently without any outside assistance. In fact, we soon discovered that left to their own devices, the pigs would become falling-down stoned very early in the day, and my primary task was to regulate their intake. None of that is evident in the final cut, however. At least, after a gap of fifty years, I couldn't spot anything.
Being a procurer for pigs wasn't what I'd spent four years at Oxford for, but I could accept it as a necessary evil in my advancing my career. What I found unacceptable, however, was Kubrick's surprise decision not to provide any after-care for the pigs following the completion of the shoot. At the time, it was widely accepted that marijuana was highly addictive, and I feared that I might have created a pack of hogs doomed to a life of degeneracy. (As it happened, there was no negative fall-out. In fact, the pig farmer commented that his pigs were fattening up very nicely on whatever it was that I was feeding them. I did not have the courage to discuss the munchies with him.
But I never worked with Stanley Kubrick again. He simply knew too much about making films, but almost nothing about drug education.

No comments:

Post a Comment