Arts: My year with Stanley
Sara Maitland had never seen a film script when Stanley Kubrick asked her to write for him. Though their difficult collaboration ended in failure and frustration she would gladly do it again
Friday 12 March 1999
This slightly surreal episode was the beginning of one of the most exciting, frustrating, confusing and educational periods of my professional life. For a brief time I was Stanley Kubrick's scriptwriter.
Why you? I am asked with unflattering amazement. Without undue arrogance, I was rather a sound choice. He wanted me to work on the long-promised "Kubrick's AI film," although he always called it "Pinocchio". He was fascinated by Artificial Intelligence. He wanted to effect a cultural change. If robots are made by us and act like us, why are they not our children? He complained about Blade Runner, that if it was that difficult to determine who was a replicant - why did it matter? Why do they have to be hunted down? He believed computers will become truly intelligent, including emotionally, and are potentially a more environmentally adaptable form of human being: they are our future. The film was intended to make us love them.
By the time I came to the project it had become enormous, unwieldy, unfocused. Kubrick needed some through-line of fairy tale, of story beneath plot. He was creating a new myth and needed someone who was at home with myth and how it works. At the same time, the technology and the scale - which spanned at least three millennia - were overwhelming the story. It needed a writer who dealt with the little, the nuances of interrelationship, of the minute movements of human hearts and especially, since maternity was an important theme, of women's hearts. Kubrick had encountered my short stories and recognised that that is what I do. I write about the underbelly of human emotions in the framework of myth and fairy story.
He did not want an experienced scriptwriter. He wanted a storyteller. When I told him I had never seen a film script, he was delighted. He wanted a running text, not a script: filming it was his job. He boasted that there was no sentence in the English language which he could not make into film. We played a game in which I had to come up with unfilmable sentences. "She perfectly repressed her anger" was one that gave him pause.
He wanted sentences to film. Sadly I could not deliver for him. He wanted to make this film, really wanted to; I wanted to write it. So why didn't it work? I am not sure now that it was makeable: he had played with it too long so that it had to be perfect and at that scale nothing is going to be perfect. Perhaps he could turn anything into film, but this presupposed an infinity of time and resources... and even then it may not be possible to invent a myth in that individualistic way.
It didn't work between him and me because I was not the right sort of writer. I have to write out ideas to be confident of them; he had to be persuaded by ideas very quickly, before he wanted time spent on them. I need space and silence and time; he wanted engagement and immediacy (and obedience). I had the wrong size of ego: too large to hand my creative skills over to him passively, too small to believe I could sometimes know better than him.
But it also did not work because he was impossible to work for. This is part of the Kubrick myth. It was also true. He had more energy than anyone I have ever met. He dedicated himself to the project and he expected everyone around him to do so too. While his energy was directed at our work he would ring up repeatedly at ridiculous hours, wanting total attention, now. He was completely involved and did not understand that anyone might work in a different way. Once, when we were stuck, I managed to say that I and the story needed some space. How long? he asked. A month, I suggested. He looked at me and said, "I couldn't." Then he laughed and, in an unusual moment, told me everyone who had ever written for him had asked for the same thing, but he had come to realise he just could not leave his project with someone else for that long. We finally negotiated 10 days. We parted and I drove home, barely an hour away. By the time I got there there were three messages from him on my answer machine: all of them demanding an immediate response. There was no apology, no mention of our recent agreement.
He was famously arrogant. I asked him once how he imagined "active" robots would look in a few thousand years. "However I make them look in this film," he said. I felt envious, not aggrieved, by this. I admired his sense of his own power. Because he was arrogant, he got the films made.
He was also supposed to be paranoid, and sometimes I did wonder. Small, compact, bearded, often wearing a boiler suit, he did not look like someone who abhorred physical contact, but at our first meeting he conspicuously avoided even the customary handshake; I never saw him touch another person. He loathed journalists, especially British journalists. In a conversation I mentioned a friend of mine was a journalist. "Do you know many journalists?" he demanded. "Yes." "If I'd known that," he said calmly, "I'd have had a non-contact clause in your contract."
He was profoundly secretive. There was a silencing clause in my contract - I could not talk about the film. I now suspect that lots of other writers worked on this project: but he would never say who or what or why they had stopped, or even if they had stopped. I would like to meet other people who tried to write this story with him; and discuss what film we all thought we were working towards. The idea of our getting together would have appalled him. Once I left a message about the script with his PA and got a tremendous ticking off: about work I could talk only to him.
But does this constitute paranoia in any clinical sense? He was busy and he was reclusive; he protected his privacy. Inside his protective cordon he was warm and friendly and his large household was relaxed and friendly. He lived, rather unromantically, between Luton and St Albans, in the house originally built for the founder of Maples furniture store: an Edwardian pomposity, set in large grounds. His "office" was the old billiards room, rather charmingly unaltered with the scoreboard still on the wall and replicas of the original heavy velvet curtains. Only the billiard table itself had been removed, replaced at one end of the room by a desk and at the other by an awe-inspiring and, to me, mysterious, bank of film-stuff: TV screens, videos, and electronic wizardry.
On a couple of occasions we went from there through a warren of ex-servant quarters to the enormous kitchen-cum-sitting-and-dining-room. Under the central kitchen-island each of the half-dozen dogs had a recessed bed. It was very like my kitchen would be if I was rich and famous. The whole household, including the staff, seemed to drift through these informal lunchtimes. It was chatty, fun, normal.
He was one of the best talkers I have ever met, flamboyant with his ideas, interested in yours, widely read, fiercely intelligent and demanding; and seriously funny on a good day. But in the end he was interested in the film, not in me. He was savagely impatient. He could be rude when thwarted, even in minor matters. Eventually it became clear that I wasn't giving him what he wanted. I began to feel bullied instead of excited, less and less able to wheel as he wanted, less and less eager to do so. I started to grumble to my friends, while feeling a failure.
One day he handed me a book called Viennese Novelettes by Schnitzler. I must read "Rhapsody", it was a wonderful story, it would make a wonderful film. So I read it and it didn't grab me. That was the end. It had grabbed him. (I now know it had grabbed him 20 years ago, but he spoke as though he had only read it the night before.) It is the basis of Eyes Wide Shut. "Pinocchio" was on hold. The cheque for completion of my contract arrived and I never heard from him again.
That sort of thing makes people angry. This week someone said that Kubrick was a great director but a "failed human being". I recognise the feeling, but know for me that is a defensive reflex: it means he failed to love me or, rather, my work. Kubrick made some great films, marked as his, in an almost old-fashioned way. He had a long-lasting marriage and his numerous dogs liked him. He adored his grandchildren; they were perhaps the only personal topic he ever mentioned. I wouldn't mind being that sort of failure.
I thought I was angry, until I heard he had died. Then I realised that I hadn't really quite given up hope that when he had finished this little film, he would come back to the big one; he would ring up again one day and let me work with him - and even though it would be horrible and frustrating again, I would say yes.
I am proud that I worked for him. He made me interested in film writing - I know I want to do so again. And I am sad; I think we have lost someone magnificent.
Sara Maitland's novel, `Brittle Joys', will be published in May by Little, Brown
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