Producer Jan Harlan’s 30-year collaboration with legendary director Stanley Kubrick includes Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut. Harlan has also co-edited the book Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made and made the 2001 documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures.
Shane Hennessy spoke to Harlan, who is in Dublin for the Jameson Dublin Film Festival to present a Masterclass in Producing and will attend a special screening of Barry Lyndon to mark its 40th anniversary.
Welcome to Ireland Mr. Harlan. Having Barry Lyndon screened at the Jameson Dublin Film Festival is bound to bring a unique energy to it having been so heavily shot in Ireland. Are you looking forward to it?
Yes, it’s nice to be here. I have seen Barry Lyndon a couple of times since but it’s very nice to return to the locations where we shot again. I’m very much looking forward to the screening.
You worked as Kubrick’s researcher on the never completed Napoleon film, which as a concept sounds incredible. You also wrote a book about it, do you think that completing a film on such monumental material would have had a significant effect on his legacy?
Well, he was ready to make Napoleon right after he finished 2001. Stanley was fascinated by Napoleon, the enigma surrounding his character, what drove him to be the historical figure that he now is. Stanley wanted to make a film to show how emotions, not politics, are the sole driving force behind any war. When Napoleon went to Waterloo it was his pride more-so than anything else which drove him forward rather than a love for his country. This is the story Stanley wanted to tell, because it’s such a timeless lesson that can be applied to so many different aspects of life, not just war. We are driven by our emotions, regardless of what other reasons we like to cover our actions up with. I suppose in many ways these were the same reasons that the film was never completed!
Kubrick is widely considered to be very provocative filmmaker, was there an element of mischief on his part surrounding the controversy of A Clockwork Orange, and it being banned from the UK upon release?
Well the controversy surrounding Clockwork Orange was only in England, it was made into this massive story but it was simply Stanley just interpreting what was some very strong and controversial source material in the best manner that he could. I suppose it didn’t help that he rarely, if ever talked to the press at this time. Stanley didn’t like being interviewed because he said they may misquote him or, even worse, quote him exactly! He found this incredibly frustrating so declined to speak to the press at all. I think this was a mistake on his part and I think that even he realized that later on. Perhaps, if he was more open with journalists, Clockwork Orange wouldn’t have generated the controversy which it did.
In today’s age with the likes of Twitter and social media taking over, do you think he would be just as successful today with that outlook?
Stanley was a very adaptable person so I imagine so. Although I would love to hear his thoughts about Twitter!
Kubrick was known to be incredibly meticulous with his sets. Did he always keep you in the loop as to what exactly he was setting out to do? For instance, there are some conspiracy theories that Kubrick left certain hints in The Shining that he actually produced the U.S moon landing…
Well the theories about moon landing are absolute nonsense, obviously. The timeline doesn’t even add up! (Laughs) A man of Stanley’s intelligence would never be so silly as to give clues in his films about that. It was always difficult to know exactly what he was thinking, but generally when we went about designing each set he would make it very clear exactly where he wanted each item and for what purpose. Occasionally he would walk around to amend certain things here and there for whatever reason, but he always placed tremendous trust in the team he assembled to carry out his instructions.
Full Metal Jacket is often considered to be his most commercially-friendly piece of work. Was there a feeling when making it that it was going to appeal more to the mainstream than the likes of Barry Lyndon?
Well we knew that war was such a pervasive topic that it was going to appeal to more people than his other films. It was obviously set in the backdrop to the Vietnam war but really it could have been about any war, like Napoleon. The abuse and death of young men in the name of their country is tragic and I think that is what Kubrick wanted to show. The complete pointlessness of war and its total lack of resolution. So in a sense yes, it was a slight shift for Stanley but it was the sort of film that I feel he always wanted to make.
When Joker kills the Vietnamese girl to put her out of her misery at the end of Full Metal Jacket, the recoil of the gunshot causes the peace symbol on his jacket to be covered over for that split second. Can you tell me whether this was intentional by Kubrick?
Well that peace sign is certainly a motif throughout the film. The girl is begging to be shot. ‘Kill me, kill me’. So Joker obliges. But this is an act of mercy in a film told entirely about the horrible and ruthless nature of war. This was Stanley’s main aim when he set out to make a war movie, to show the utter futility of war, its profound contradictions. Earlier in the film, Joker is asked what the peace symbol represents, he says it represents the duality of men. What does he say when he’s asked what side he’s on?
Precisely, he is a man conflicted. He isn’t sure that what he is doing is serving any purpose. So to answer your question, I don’t know whether the peace symbol disappearing was intentional, although Stanley did place a great deal of emphasis on Joker’s peace symbol in production, so I would not be surprised.
When A.I. was in production and Kubrick so sadly passed away, were you worried about how the film would turn out with Spielberg directing it?
No, not at all. Spielberg was the only director whom Stanley trusted to make A.I. and to do it in the way that Kubrick envisioned. I sat with him through all the meetings where we saw this stunning art-work as the film was taking shape. It was going to be an immense piece of work, but as Kubrick had to prioritize things he realised that he would be unable to make the film. It is a testament to Spielberg as a director that Kubrick gave him his blessing to complete it, but he would never have done so if he felt that Spielberg wouldn’t be able to do it justice. I personally think A.I. is wonderful piece of work. A masterpiece.
You made Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures. Despite your close relationship with him throughout the years, did the making of that documentary give you another insight into his work and character?
That’s a good question. Well I had the pleasure of speaking to the likes of Jack Nicholson and Woody Allen who had such love and respect for what Kubrick and what he had done in his career. So in that sense it did give me another perspective to our relationship as I got to see first hand how Stanley’s work had influenced such huge figures in the industry. However, one regret from the making of that film was that we never managed to speak to Ingmar Bergman, as Stanley was such a massive fan of his and it would have been amazing to get an idea as to what Bergman thought of his work. But to answer your question; upon completing the documentary, and giving myself the opportunity to look at Stanley’s immense body of work and how it affected such influential people, I was even more honored to have worked so closely with him than before.