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by Casey Cipriani
March 31, 2014 10:51 AM
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Stanley Kubrick's Longtime Producer Trashes 'Room 237' and Lists 'Eyes Wide Shut' As His Favorite Kubrick Film

Jan Harlan at BIFF Casey Cipriani

Jan Harlan acted as a researcher and producer for director Stanley Kubrick for over thirty years, contributing to such iconic films as "A Clockwork Orange," "Barry Lyndon," "The Shining," "Full Metal Jacket" and "Eyes Wide Shut." Harlan is one of three jury members on the docket of this year's Bermuda International Film Festival, which began on March 21. Last week, BIFF hosted a panel discussion featuring Harlan as the main subject where he discussed the art of filmmaking for festival attendees, filmmakers and students.

Before the panel, Harlan sat down with Indiewire to discuss his work with Kubrick, including the in-depth exhibit that he's helped put together, and to offer some advice to young filmmakers. Check out the accompanying video of the panel after the text Q&A for more insights from Harlan. 

Tell me about how you first started working with Stanley Kubrick.

I have known Kubrick since I was at school. He was married to my sister when I was very young. So I came to know him very well. It was after "Dr. Strangelove" that he came back from England to New York. It was much later in '69 when he invited me to join him to go to Romania on "Napoleon," that was his big project and his great project. So my wife and I and our baby we came to England, and thought OK we'll stay there for 6 months and then go to Romania. But then MGM pulled out of the project. But we got along very well. I liked him and he liked me and he asked me to stay.

One of the first things we did together was get the rights to "Eyes Wide Shut." It's called "Traumnovelle" and he was very much in love with that story, but it proved to be just too difficult, so he dropped it. He had already a contract with Warner Brothers ready to go and he pulled out. He chewed over it for thirty years. When he finally made it he really considered it his greatest contribution to the art of filmmaking. Many people wouldn't agree with him but that doesn't really matter. Then came "A Clockwork Orange." That was my first job as an assistant. I learned the basics of the business, but my responsibility was never what you see on the screen.

'Eyes Wide Shut'

So were you a film fan before you started working with him?

Always. I was absolutely. I knew many, many movies. Anyway from "Barry Lyndon" onward I did what I always do, negotiating and trying to get things. But since every film is different it's a very exciting life. Because you can't compare "Barry Lyndon" with "The Shining" or "Full Metal Jacket" or "Eyes Wide Shut" there all totally different requirements. "Eyes Wide Shut" was a great last experience to work with this man who was so enormously critical of himself. It took forever to do.

I know that he didn't want to be just another "mediocre" filmmaker. He wanted them to last.

He had to be happy with it. Lasting or not lasting was not on his mind. Also will the critics or the audience like it? There's nothing you can do about that. He had to like it. Once he liked it that's all he could do. And you just have to hope that many people go with you and generally speaking enough people did. So his films were a success.

Do you have a particular favorite?

I think it's "Eyes Wide Shut' but I'm not objective because it may very well be because it was the last time I worked with him, it was the last experience that's imprinted on my mind. And we talked also about "Traumnovelle" for over thirty years, you know on and off. There was one point when he though of doing it as a black and white, very cheap art house movie with Woody Allen in the lead. With Woody Allen playing a straight, Jewish, American doctor in New York. What he liked is universal; it's a universal truth about the total destruction of jealousy and sexual fantasy where everybody in the audience is an expert. So it's a tricky one. But anyway he wanted it in New York and he wasn't happy with the script and so he abandoned it and then "The Shining" was a walk in the park in comparison, because it's easy, you can do whatever you like. Nothing has to make sense, it doesn't matter you can do what you like.

Did you see "Room 237"?

Ah, so idiotic. Of course I did. There's nothing to like. It's just dumb. I mean [the filmmaker] obviously waited until Kubrick died. This happened to him in many cases, also this whole story about him doing a fake moon landing. This was only possible after he was dead. People come like worms; they creep out and take advantage of a guy who can't sue from the grave. At any rate, I don't worry about things like that.

13 Comments

  • T. Reed | April 1, 2014 7:10 PMReply

    It's funny and surprising sometimes to hear what people who work on films actually think about them. Never saw Room 237, but you know what WAS idiotic was "Eyes Wide Shut" - 3 hours of my life I can't get back. Felt like someone else came along and decided how the movie should end after he died. I was expecting to hear the credits roll with bad comedic trope music. For me, Kubrick did not go out on a high note with that film. And I don't think the extreme "method" Kubrick put Cruise through worked at all for this film...ironically (as if a delayed reaction) Cruise seemed to get something out of it that he applied in his next film (and best performance of his life IMHO) in Magnolia.

  • Charles | April 1, 2014 8:02 AMReply

    Harlan's own documentary on Kubrik 'A Life in Pictures' is very stylish and informative once you get past the fact that it's narrated by Tom Cruise.

  • Charles | April 1, 2014 8:00 AMReply

    'Room 237' isn't really about Kubrik. It's about projection of the Self onto a luminous canvas. The only thing it has to do with Kubrik is that 'The Shining' turned out to be such a magnet for slightly obsessive personalities. In that sense, it's about religion.

    It could have been any film: I imagine you could have found many more people with similar ideas about a more overtly profound film like '2001' but there are probably those who have had strange revelations about 'Fantasia'.

  • jim emerson | March 31, 2014 9:31 PMReply

    What makes the obsessive fantasies of "Room 237" patently "idiotic" is simply their indisputable illogic. It's one thing to trace the Apollo 11 references, for example, but quite another to twist them into Kubrick's personal apology for "faking" moon landing footage, and dragging Kubrick's wife into the conspiracy plot as well. That "theory" bases its premise on its unsupported conclusion, and there's not only no evidence that Kubrick did, in fact, fake moon landing video, but also no actual indication that "The Shining" had anything to do with it. The Native American stuff is right there on the surface of the movie -- not even buried as deeply as the sacred Indian burial ground in
    "Poltergeist" a year later (and that was a horror movie cliche long before). It's a shame people don't know what "critical thinking" is. But is that the subject of "Room 237"? Maybe. Where's the evidence in the film itself?

  • mark | March 31, 2014 6:28 PMReply

    I think everyone defending "Room 237" on this page are the same one person, quite honestly.

  • Todd Ford | March 31, 2014 3:58 PMReply

    I think his reaction to Room 237 is dumb. Seriously. The director waited until Kubrick was dead to make it? WTF? He must not have seen it. It's about how far people with VCRs and too much free time are capable of crawling into their navels. It's hardly about The Shining at all and certainly nothing Kubrick would've even considered suing over.

  • az | March 31, 2014 2:37 PMReply

    Clearly Room 237 was woefully misguided to believe Kubrick was anything deeper than a charlatan. Harlan says "The Shining" was a walk in the park in comparison, because it's easy, you can do whatever you like. Nothing has to make sense, it doesn't matter you can do what you like." And so Harlan exposes himself and Kubrick, the only reason folk have conjured up such dense, impossible, wonderful themes around the movie is because Kubrick was held in (and exploited) a near mythological esteem, consequently all of his films had to be about something hugely important. Wizard of Oz time, the guy was an over feted, style obsessed phony with nothing to say other than his own need for stylistic indulgence. The irony is that it seems to be the fans of The Shining who have turned out to be the imaginative conjurers of dreams, not Kubrick.

  • Casey Cipriani | March 31, 2014 3:40 PM

    Ironically enough, Kubrick always hated The Wizard of Oz :)

  • Jonathan Rosenbaum | March 31, 2014 2:37 PMReply

    The film would be worth defending if it bothered to distinguish between legitimate/serious and crazy/frivolous interpretations. By refusing to discriminate between the two, it implicitly trashes criticism as a rational pursuit. So Jan Harlan is right.

  • Clark Gerardo | March 31, 2014 1:45 PMReply

    I think Room 237 is an incredible documentary about film fanaticism and our individual interpretations of art. It isn't about the truths or Kubrick's work... It's showing some REALLY hardcore fans and how they try to find things that might not be there. So they can feel connected.
    I wasn't a huge Kubrick fan before Room 237. Now I find him to be absolutely fascinating. So it's a win-win!

  • Glory | March 31, 2014 11:06 AMReply

    What does it say that Harlan's annoyed aside about Room 237 is given first billing in the title? His opinion adds or detracts nothing from Room 237 (which most people already have an opinion on, and would be crazy to take anything from the "Kubrick Estate" as the defining answer on the subject) and only discredits what is otherwise a fascinating interview with one of the few intimate friends of The Man.

  • Mark | March 31, 2014 11:02 AMReply

    Glad to hear Harlan trashing 'Room 237'. It was garbage.

  • Glory | March 31, 2014 11:17 AM

    Ye shall know them by their obtuse expostulations.