Dateline: 1988-1990, New York City – My Stanley Kubrick Years
“Wait a minute—you want what?”
The voice on the other end of the phone was pure exasperation. I knew I had only moments to get him on board, to reel him back in before he got away. It had taken me numerous attempts and four transfers—all morning, really—to finally reach who I needed to talk to, so I had to act fast. Calling NASA, it turned out, wasn’t as easy as dialling a 1-800 number.
“What I need is any schematic or technical drawings that you could release for the Space Shuttle.”
“The Space Shuttle?”
“Yes, sir. The Space Shuttle.”
“Yeah… that’s what I thought you said.” Silence. Some muffled muttering. Then, finally, “And you’re calling for who?”
“Warner Bros. Pictures. From New York City. The Warner Bros. Story Department,” I said and, usually, that’s where I would leave it. But I knew I had to bring out the big gun for this one; I was asking for a lot and knew that, without it, I was going to be hanging up the phone with nothing but feathers in my hand. I put the bullet in the chamber, cocked that sucker, pulled the trigger:
“On the behalf of Stanley Kubrick.”
“Kubrick? Stanley Kubrick? You mean, 2001: A Space Odyssey? That Kubrick?”
“The very same, sir.”
And so it went. Another voice came on the line, then another. I was presumably working my way up the NASA ladder with each bewildered response. Finally, I got to whoever was in charge.
“You have to understand that this is a highly unusual request.”
I told him that I completely understood and thought to myself how not unusual this request, this task, was for me. Tracking down odd or, for that matter, completely normal, entirely banal things for the obsessive Stanley Kubrick was just what I did. For me, this was just another Wednesday.
Finally, I asked that he call me back through the main Warners switchboard so that he could, after the myriad transfers for my office, confirm my identity. Beyond that, I couldn’t verify or explain my boss’s motivations. This was 1988—a time before email, cell phones, caller-ID—I mean, ‘tracing’ phone calls was still a convention in crime dramas. (After minutes of furious, brow sweating tracing they would always just miss the trace; the bad guy would always hang up too soon, the techno-wiz tracer would just return the phone to its cradle, shaking his head in disappointment, wearing an expression that said, I failed you—I’m sorry! Remember that?)
“So is Kubrick making another space movie?” the final voice said when he called back.
“I honestly couldn’t tell you that, sir,” I said.
“Oh, I understand,” he said, almost apologetically. “It’s a secret. A movie secret, then?”
“Yes,” I said. “Something like that.”
It was true; I couldn’t tell him. No one could. None of us, including my bosses, ever had any idea of what Kubrick was up to—or if, indeed, he was up to anything at all. And, ironically, it was me who would be the closest to the information than anyone; I was the one that took his requests, that tracked down the bounty.
A popular theory in the office—and one that I felt that I was actually a part of, that I was living out—was that Kubrick was just playing a long con of subterfuge-laden misdirection to draw off the fact that he was sitting around in his large estate in Hertfordshire, England working on… well, nothing. The list of items that I had to send him were baffling and bewildering; they seemed to point to no actual project at all. He either was burying what he was really working on amongst a whole bunch of other intellectual ‘noise’ or he was just toying with us—me in particular.
Here’s just a sample from one week’s requests:
- All National Lampoon magazine back issues between the years of 1975-1988
- All and any research articles on death and dying, with particular emphasis on work by renowned researcher Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
- Countless articles on The Holocaust, with a particular focus on Polish populations
- Every single copy of any book that renowned crime author Jim Thompson that I could find (keep reading to learn how this still affects me to this day)
- A mixture of pulp science fiction novels from the 1950s—my choice
- A box of pencils, specifically Dixon-Ticonderoga, #2
Could you figure out what he was working on? A satirical Holocaust movie involving a hardboiled detective? Set in space? And then everyone dies in the end?
“Where were you?” It was the first thing my girlfriend said to me when I walked in the door.
“Working,” I said and threw my coat on the chair in the microscopic area that passed for a kitchen. Yeah, it was a ‘loft’, in midtown New York City, but spacious digs befitting Mad Men’s Don Draper this was not.
“You were at work until now?” She said it like she had me right where she wanted me. “You weren’t at fucking work; I called—you weren’t there.”
Shit. Here we go…
“I was in Brooklyn, at a library branch out by the arboretum. The Leonard Branch.”
“What the fuck were you out in fucking Brooklyn for? We have about a million branches here in Manhattan.”
“I was in fucking Brooklyn getting books for fucking Kubrick—they’re right fucking there,” I said, pointing at the bag full of books. “Jeezuz, do you kiss your mother with that mouth?”
“FUCK YOU, ASSHOLE!” she barked at me. “I’m going out. I’ll be back later. Have fun with your boyfriend Kubrick.” And with that, she took her coat and went out. She stumbled through the door somewhere around 4:30 a.m.. My girlfriend kept her promises. Mostly.
Look, it was, pretty much, common knowledge that my girlfriend was having an affair. It was kind of like a dripping faucet or a running toilet—we both heard it, we both knew it was there, but if we threw enough noise at it—the TV, fights about anything but the faucet and the toilet, sex—well, it was like it didn’t exist.
She had started to take classes at Hunter College and had, almost immediately, found herself at odds with my New York University education, my job, my ambitions to be a writer—probably because she wanted to be a writer too. Her first job in the city was at the Ford Modelling Agency. While I encouraged her and tried to help however I could, she was desperate to be taken seriously. Anyway, she immediately made “connections” with a few people at Hunter. Men, naturally. They were, invariably, described as being fans of her work, of her writing.
All I know is that they would show up to pick her up for class and, each and every time, they would be visibly surprised to see me at our door. What can I say? I was in my early twenties, lived in New York City, and worked for a major film studio as an assistant to a director whose movies I had grown up with. What did I know? I just thought this was the kind of shit that happened on the regular when you were growing up, becoming an adult. What actually bothered me more than anything was the low hanging fruit nature of it all, the lack of discernment on her part—I just felt that if she were going to be with someone else, it should be with someone better. Obviously, we had our problems.
I went down the street, ordered Chinese take-away, came back. I sat with my cold sesame noodle and black bean chicken and popped in a Star Trek episode on VHS and thought about it all: this apartment here in midtown, smack in the middle of Park and Madison Avenues, the Empire State Building towering above us; the way we were riding out our year’s lease, that lease the only thing keeping me and my girlfriend together at this point. Well, that, and maybe spite. I thought about this and watched Star Trek, ate Chinese food out of the containers. It was the one with Kirk going toe-to-toe with the Gorn, that giant lizard/man thing on that asteroid. I loved that episode.
Later, after equilibrium was reinstated to a chaotic universe by a righteous Captain Kirk, I went to the kitchen and looked at the books. They sat there, lifeless, ignorant of the trouble they had caused me. Old 1950s science fiction books from authors like Alfred Bester surrounded by as much Jim Thompson crime writing as I could get my hands on in the past few days and at six different library branches. I held those pulp novels, crime and science fiction of a different era, in my hands. I wondered about the trip those books would take—on a plane, across the Atlantic finally to an estate in the English countryside. Kubrick would receive my package—just like he had all the other packages—and he would look at what I gathered for him. He wouldn’t know (or care) about my girlfriend’s affair or the fact that I was late and the fact that I was out of communication for the afternoon would be evidence enough for my girlfriend that I was, in fact, not gathering books, but somewhere knocking boots with a less lovely on the outside but more lovely on the inside woman, maybe one of my NYU pals, some girl who I stole nervous and forbidden glances with across screening rooms or editing tables. What, I wondered, were Kubrick’s troubles, there in England. What conversations echoed off of his, surely, cavernous kitchen? More than anything, at that moment, I wanted to be one of those books.
I worked for Kubrick for another year. And my girlfriend and I spent that year in a low hum of agreement—to keep it together enough to keep our lease. We both needed to be in the city, she needed to learn to write, I needed to send things to Kubrick, we both needed a place to live.
And so I kept on sending Kubrick packages. Books, magazines, stationary, articles, research items—you name it. And, while I am here, I should note that I never—not once—even entertained the thought of sending Kubrick anything of mine, anything I wrote. Here I was, an aspiring writer—a screenwriter, no less—with a direct line to one of cinema’s most influential director/producers and a legendary writer himself. But I never sent him anything. It never occurred to me. This ability to keep completely on my side of the velvet rope probably led to him, finally, offering me a job with him and his assistant Tony Frewin there in England. As luck would have it, however, I was simultaneously offered a job to work for Warner Bros. in Burbank—they paid to finish my NYU thesis film and set me up with the opportunity to go to Hollywood. I weighed the options and, probably because I was twenty-something and full of misguided ideas that young twenty-something hotshots that had some idea of where to put a camera and how to write a scene or two would be on their way to being household names—and some were. Just not me.
I’ll cut to the chase: I was an idiot; I turned down Kubrick’s offer and took Warner Bros.’ instead. Soon, I was moving to Burbank.
My girlfriend and me? She actually beat me to L.A., moving there months before me and immersing herself in the dodgy and shaky world of musicians, writers, the strip, a number of people perpetually on the brink of their big break… in other words, she lived like a character in a budget Tarantino movie. We continued our Sid and Nancy dynamic for a while until, finally, I lost her to the parties in the Hollywood hills, drug abuse and, worst of all, for me, terrible writing. Let’s just say she found herself relying on her Ford Modelling experience more than any skills she might have picked up in her writing workshops at Hunter College.
Kubrick, by the way, never returned anything to me—even the things that were mine, that were sent with the clear understanding that they were for loan. He just kept every single thing I sent him. So, consequently, he never returned all of those pulp books I had gathered that week, for example—those books that I had checked out, under my name, from the New York Public Library. Consequently, I have been—and remain—banned from their system. I ended up owing a comically large amount of money for both the late fees and then, finally, the books themselves. (I never paid them a cent. Not so much on principal but due to the fact that this was a lot of money.) I’m pretty sure I would set off an alarm the moment I set foot in any of their branches to this day. (Recently, I screened a documentary about Kubrick’s collection of ‘stuff’—MY stuff, partly—called Boxes. It was brilliant—and enlightening. I could have sworn that I saw some of my things in that collection. Click Here to watch it.)
Later, as the years spooled out, Kubrick made two movies that I recognized my handiwork in—well, let’s say a movie and half: Eyes Wide Shut, directed by Kubrick himself, and AI which he couldn’t complete due to his passing. Also his work on The Aryan Papers is something I recognize from my parcels.
For example, I remember sending an enormous amount of research materials on the Nazi regime and The Holocaust, volumes of relationship research, the effects of infidelity on marriages, and all sorts of cutting edge research on burgeoning technologies in robotics and artificial intelligence. Many of these were in the same parcels, so it was impossible to make any connection. But now I know.
Stanley Kubrick is, of course, not with us anymore, but he still is with me. Because I learned more from those parcels I packed for him than he could ever know. With every box came a week’s worth of work, of sleuthing, and then of examining those items, finally, holding them in my hands. How are these things going to come together to make a story? I would wonder as I laid out the items in front of me, preparing them for their journey across an ocean. I knew from watching Kubrick’s movies that it was all in the details—the world building. In between the lines of those research articles I gathered, those books long forgotten by most, the details in the photographs—all of these things that I would soon send away—were meant to build worlds, worlds for living breathing characters to inhabit. It was those deep-focus worlds that he would present to us that would frame, would cradle the living breathing stories that played out before us. It was those perfectly, geometrically composed worlds that gave those characters living, breathing, life.
How do these things come together to make a story?
It’s something I wonder every single day.
Thank you, Stanley, for the lessons. It was scary as hell. And it was a blast.
Don’t worry about the books.