by Eve Pomerance
There is a particular state of vertigo that attacks the un-produced
screenwriter when walking around a sound stage of such renown. First,
you are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of film history that leaks out
of the walls. Then there is the awareness that the magic that created
such films as "2001" and "Star Wars" is housed within these walls. As
you walk along, you begin to realize that behind every fake wall is a
Outside the model-making department, I see what appears to be a
beautiful sculpture of Saint Sebastian, only to be informed that this
was a model created for "Event Horizon." Then we walk across a yard
surrounded by large bunkers and I find myself facing the rooftop of
Saint Paul's Cathedral, (the set for "The Avengers"). All of a
sudden, there's an explosion in the background and my whole body swings
round to face the James Bond set. But all I can see is another large
concrete bunker, with no people visible, just a single red light
illuminated over one of the doorways.
As I passed through these styrofoam worlds two years ago with my
friend Bill Harrison, then the manager of Pinewood Studios, I spoke about the
estrangement that I felt living in London. Although London is the place
where I have been educated and found employment, I felt separated from my
heart, which was in New York. While I had been living in the
West Village of New York for the past three years, I had written a
British period piece, which I optioned to a British production company.
Bill always listened to my rambling and provided the voice of reason.
This time he just looked at me with sad eyes and said, "It is time that
you decided where you want to be." We walked along for a while in
Then I did something that I knew was off limits. I asked Bill to take me
to Stanley Kubrick's set. In response to which, Bill stood up straight,
his whole six feet and three inches, looked down at me and laughed.
Bill explained that it was a closed set and that even he, the Studio
manager, had not been there. When I proceeded to tease him, saying that
surely it was impossible to ban the Studio Manager from entering any
film set at Pinewood, Bill just looked at me and shook his head. Unable
to restrain myself, I pushed him further. Surely there was someone who
could get us onto the set. I saw Bill's eyes drift upwards, as if he
were trying to remember something of great importance. Then he turned to
me and said, "There is one person who could get us onto the set; Charles
Staffell. But I doubt that he's here today."
As we walked around the studio, Bill told me about Charles Staffell.
Stanley Kubrick was known to call his friend Charlie up at all hours of
the day and night to ask, "How do you do this, Charlie?" According to
Bill, Charles Staffell was the only person that Stanley Kubrick would
allow to project his rushes. Just like the rest of Kubrick's films, the
rushes for "Eyes Wide Shut" were projected at night. Even during the
shoot, Charles Staffell and Stanley Kubrick would sit up all night
discussing the day's rushes. Bill also told me that the day that Tom
Cruise and Nicole Kidman were due to see the rough-cut of the film,
Charles Staffell was not available, so another projectionist had to be
brought in. The stand-in projectionist was instructed to turn his back
while the film was being projected.
Charles had been in the film business for over sixty years. He is
credited with inventing front and rear projection, for which he received
an Oscar in 1968 for his work on "2001: A Space Odyssey." It was the
first technical Oscar ever to be given outside of the United States.
'Front and rear' projection made it possible to photograph actors in a
studio environment and then substitute a different background. During
that period he worked on films such as "Dr. Strangelove," "2001," "A
Clockwork Orange," "The Shining," "Full Metal Jacket" and "Eyes Wide
Shut." Charles Staffell retired from Rank Film laboratories in 1980 and
set up his own special effects company called CS Enterprises.
Unable to locate Charles Staffell, I suggested that we head back to the
Oak room to have lunch. Then a miracle happened. Just as we were making
our way towards the Oak room, who should cross our path, but Roy Walker,
Stanley Kubrick's production designer. The next thing I knew, we were
being escorted towards Kubrick's set. When I asked where the film was
set, Walker just turned to me and said, "Wait and see."
As we entered the set, I saw what appeared to be a parking lot filled
with yellow checker cabs. Startled by the number of cabs, I asked what
they were doing there. Walker explained that these were Stanley's
personal collection. Stanley kept them as souvenirs from different
shoots. Then we passed an armored guard with a ferocious looking guard
dog. All of a sudden we were there and Bill turned to me with
glittering eyes and said, "Welcome home."
Shock does not fully describe how I felt at the time. It was as if I had
clicked my heals together and suddenly found myself in the heart of my
neighborhood in the West Village of New York City. There were the green
newsstands, the Korean shops, the graffitied phone boxes, the little red
and gold baubles hanging along the front of the local Thai restaurant. I
commented on how much I liked the "small touches" -- like the shop
windows, book shops, coffee shops, cafes, hairdressers, bakeries,
galleries, etc. When you looked up, every window was decorated. Just
like real life, the variety was astounding, you could see cats, bird
cages, televisions, paintings, different kinds of curtains and Christmas
trees. Roy explained that Kubrick wanted to be able to shoot out of
every window on the set.
Then I noticed something peculiar. All of the street names had been
changed. At that moment, I was unable to maintain a normal discourse
with Roy or Bill. All I could think about was finding my way home. We
must have walked at least ten blocks, before we turned the corner of
what I believed to be Charles Street. I instinctively reached for my
As we walked along, my anticipation grew, knowing that any moment I
might see my apartment building. Still there was no sign of it. My
impatience grew. Perhaps they had felt my building was not photogenic
enough. I was disappointed. I suddenly felt compelled to ask, "So have
you ever been to New York?" Registering Bill's reaction of total
disbelief, I realized that I had made a terrible blunder. Wanting to
correct my mistake, I turned to Roy Walker to apologize. Then I saw
Roy's eyes light up and he turned to me and said, "That is a very good
question. No, I've never been. But I thought if I can build the future,
I can build New York City."
Roy then went on to explain how they had worked from photographs and
that the key to New York architecture was the size of the bricks.
Apparently New York bricks are longer than the standard London brick.
Roy said that the day that he knew that they had succeeded, was when Tom
Cruise went for his first jog around the set. By all accounts Cruise
came back and told Roy that even he could not tell it apart from the
Today, my life is very different than it was two years ago, although
some things remain the same. I have moved back to my beloved New York
City and am still making films, William Harrison no longer manages
Pinewood Studios, the Master Stanley Kubrick has passed on, Roy Walker
continues to production design (his next is Anthony Minghella's "The
Talented Mr. Ripley"), and Charles Staffell, who is now in his eighties,
still goes to work every day at Pinewood.
[Eve Pomerance is a screenwriter who lives in the West Village. Her first
screenplay, "The Secret Trials of Effie Gray" is now in development with
Erica Spellman Silverman. She is presently engaged in adapting Sally
Belfrage's autobiography "Un-American Activities."]