Stanley Kubrick: A director who didn’t care how many takes it took

The key to working with Stanley Kubrick, who died this week, was not to be frightened of him, says actor Philip Stone

Jon Gee
Sunday 14 March 1999 01:00 GMT
'The Shining' - Jack Nicholson, Philip Stone, 1980
'The Shining' - Jack Nicholson, Philip Stone, 1980

The Shining was my third film with Stanley Kubrick. Back in the 1960s he'd seen me on the London stage, in a David Storey play called The Contractor. He told me I acted like an American actor, in that I didn't really do much acting as such. He liked the way I listened.

So I turned up at Brunel University in Uxbridge, west London, where he was on location, and was given a part in A Clockwork Orange, not knowing it would turn into this cult movie. He told me, "We could do some great work together." He worked you incredibly hard. I'd be on the set from 6 in the morning until 6 in the evening, and then it was back into London to go on stage.

A few years later I was in a production of An Inspector Calls in the West End, and Stanley's people contacted me again. He wanted me to go out to Ireland for Barry Lyndon. I couldn't just walk out on the production I was in, so I had to decline. Months later, he was still working on Barry Lyndon, and he tried me again. So I went off on location in Wiltshire. "It's good see you again, Phil," he said. "Stick around." I was supposed to be there for six weeks. It took 18. Once I spent a week in my caravan, made up and in costume, and he never used me.

Stanley simply went on and on. There seemed to be no limit on how much time he could spend on anything. He was rather quiet, with an utter dedication. He spent a lot of time looking at scenes through his spyglass. He was such a perfectionist, and so on the ball, though he never seemed to say very much. He had this tremendous authority, and a slightly wicked sense of humour

You didn't mess with Stanley. I saw him get upset and swear, and at least one famous actor fell foul of him. The thing was not be frightened of him. I was never frightened of him, which was why we got on so well. For The Shining I spent two weeks on the set in Elstree. My scene with Jack Nicholson lasted about eight minutes. We shot it 50 or 60 times, I should think - always in one take. Then Jack Nicholson, Stanley and I would sit down and look at each take on a video. Jack would say, 'That was pretty good, wasn't it, Stanley?' And Stanley would say, 'Yes it was. Now let's do it again'.

It took a long time to get the confidence to do it right. Stanley wanted the sense of me as a ghost. "Don't go too quickly," he told me. "Slow it down, slow it down." I never minded how long anything took with Stanley. I was an actor. It was my job to do it if that was what was wanted. I remember Jack Nicholson turning to me and saying, "I'm told you've been in three Stanley Kubrick films. That must be some kind of a record."

In the book the encounter takes place in the ballroom, surrounded by people. Stanley felt that wouldn't work. He wanted somewhere quieter. So it was his idea that Delbert accidentally spills his drink on to Jack Torrance, to give him an excuse to take him to the gentlemen's room to clean him up. One time I somehow managed to get the drink to lodge in the crook of Jack Nicholson's arm without it spilling. Stanley said, "I bet you can't do that again, Phil." And of course I did.

Stanley was only really interested in whether you could do a job well. In that sense it was as if one was just a plumber. He wasn't like, say, Lindsay Anderson, with whom I'd worked on O Lucky Man! But then Lindsay had a background in theatre, he had sympathy with actors. You couldn't expect Stanley, who'd only ever worked in film, to understand what strange people actors were.

Still, you had to have a tremendous amount of patience. If you did a film with Stanley, you were married to him. There was nothing else in your life.

Philip Stone was talking to Jon Gee

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