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2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1965–68; GB/United States). Stanley Kubrick on set during the filming. © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Features / Film

Stanley Kubrick’s obsessiveness and the meticulous films it produced

Bobby Fischer sat forward, his hand covering his mouth and his elbow resting on the table in front of him. His eyes firmly fixed down on the chequered surface below, the American leant forward out of his black leather chair and moved his Bishop from E6 to D7. Across the table from him sat Boris Spassky, a Soviet. They were engaged in the 21st game of their World Chess Championship match, in the Laugardalshöll arena, Reykjavík and with that move, Fischer emerged as the world’s 11th chess champion. It was a politically charged win, which humiliated the country that had gone undefeated for 24 years, and was dubbed “The Match of the Century”.

For all his glory (Fischer is still heralded as one of the greatest players of all time), his legacy is that of a troubled man. He grew into a recluse, disappearing for decades at a time, only emerging to take on old nemeses or to make anti-Semitic and pro-9/11 rants on radio shows. He moved to Iceland in 2005 as a fugitive from the US after spending nine months in Japanese detention while the US sought his extradition for tax evasion. He lived out his years in a paranoid state and, at the age of 64, died having spent as many years on Earth as there are squares on a chess board.

Many believe Fischer – who was known to make statements such as “Chess is life” and “All I want to do, ever, is play chess” – was a victim of his own obsessiveness. His pathological commitment to his beloved game, it’s argued, eventually proved too much to handle. So he stands as something of a cautionary tale about the perils of obsession.

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Stanley Kubrick and George C. Scott playing chess in the War Room, in a break during filming of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1963-64; GB/United States). Production photo. © Sony/Columbia Pictures Industries Inc.

In a piece for The New York Review of Books from 2010, writer Jeremy Bernstein recalls his meetings with Stanley Kubrick during the summer of 1972, when the pair played chess and watched Bobby Fischer being interviewed ahead of the iconic Spassky match. Kubrick was a skilled chess player himself and was fascinated by the game. In his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, he even inserted a short scene, in which Dr Frank Poole and a computer, HAL 9000, play a game of chess. By having the computer win, Kubrick effectively predicted the sensational victory of Deep Blue over Gary Kasparov in 1997.

In his early 20s, Kubrick earned a living (albeit a small one) playing chess for cash in New York’s Washington Square. At the time, he was living on 16th Street, off Sixth Avenue, and making films in his spare time. Sitting at one of the park’s concrete chess tables, and only taking a break for the occasional meal, he squeezed about three dollars a day out of his opponents, “which goes a long way if all you are buying with it is food,” he told Bernstein in a 1966 profile for The New Yorker. It’s a humble, somewhat romantic beginning for a man now recognised as one of the greatest filmmakers in history.

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Matthew Modine and Stanley Kubrick on the set of Full Metal Jacket, directed by Stanley Kubrick © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Obsession is often a hallmark of genius and it’s a quality that was often attributed to Kubrick over his lifetime. Unlike Bobby Fischer, however, it’s a quality associated with his rise to fame, not his demise. This rings true across the creative industries, as many practitioners utilise the benefits of obsession to home in on details or flesh out concepts to their fullest. For Kubrick, this meant building complete worlds, being involved in every aspect of the filmmaking process from the design of the promotional materials to the script to the casting.

“He was a real individual,” says Deyan Sudjic, director of The Design Museum in London, ahead of the opening of Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition, which Deyan curated and which opens on Friday (26 April). The show marks the 20th anniversary of Kubrick’s death and celebrates the work of “one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century”, as The Design Museum puts it.

Through a series of rooms, each focused on a different film, the exhibition details the absolute control that Kubrick had over his oeuvre. It features unseen material from some of his most iconic scenes and genre-defining films including The Shining, Barry Lyndon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Full Metal Jacket and A Clockwork Orange, and includes work from the likes of Don McCullin, Saul Bass and Diane Arbus.

“Each film was so different, each film was a complete world,” Deyan remarks. “He had complete control over every stage of the process from the script to the screenplay to the casting to the filmmaking to the editing to the music and publicity. Each project he embarked on involved an extraordinary amount of research.”

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Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1963-64; GB/United States). Final draft by production designer Ken Adam for the War Room. © Sir Kenneth Adam

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Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1963-64; GB/United States). The Conference table in the War Room. © Sony/Columbia Pictures Industries Inc.

As a creative, Kubrick didn’t cut corners; instead he explored concepts and wrung out ideas until there was nothing else left to discover. When shooting Eyes Wide Shut, a film largely set on the streets of 1990s New York, Kubrick “dispatched his brother-in-law’s son to photograph the whole of Commercial Road [in London] from end-to-end, head on, to see how they would adapt the shopfronts to look like they were in Manhattan,” Deyan tells us. Although impressive, the main reason Kubrick didn’t just travel to New York was a fear of flying, and he rarely left England during the final 40 years of his life, instead using his large country mansion as a studio as much as a home. As a result, he was forced to build entirely realistic worlds “in his backyard”. For example, turning Cambridgeshire, the Norfolk Broads, Beckton Gas Works, Newham and the Isle of Dogs into Vietnam to create an authentic backdrop for Full Metal Jacket.

The lead-up to Kubrick’s prolific career began before his 17th birthday and before he even finished school, when he sold his first photograph to Look magazine for $25. Born into an American Jewish family in July 1928, Kubrick’s father was a physician and amateur photographer. At the age of 13, his father gifted him a Graflex camera and he soon became the photographer for his school newspaper.

Upon graduation, Look’s picture editor Helen O’Brian offered him a position as an apprentice photographer and he remained at the publication for four years, gaining valuable professional experience at a young age. His work for Look is often described as the inception of the meticulous compositing Kubrick became known for. His work was different to other photojournalists; he would shoot several frames, very much akin to how a filmmaker does, in order to get the best shot, and would pack his images with narrative and meaning.

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2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

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2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1965–68;GB/United States). Screen photo.
© Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

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2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1965–68; GB/United States). Still image.
© Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

It was during this time that he made his foray into filmmaking. At Look, Kubrick had produced a story titled Prizefighter, documenting boxer Walter Cartier, in the hours up to entering the ring, a concept he then turned into a one-reel movie called Day of the Fight. Eventually, after much shopping around, he was able to sell the documentary to R.K.O Pathé for around $100 less than it had cost him to make it. When the same production company offered him the chance to create a second documentary (Flying Padre), Kubrick quit his job at Look, marking the beginning of his full-time, professional filmmaking career.

In 1975, Kubrick produced Barry Lyndon, a film which, although not often heralded in the same way 2001: A Space Odyssey is, typifies his obsession with hairline details. A British-American period drama, Barry Lyndon is based on the 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray. It tells the story of an Irishman who marries a rich widow to climb the social ladder and assume her late husband’s aristocratic position. In order to find the perfect locations, Kubrick, his daughter Katharina and production designer Ken Adam’s team spent six months location scouting and arranging shoots in castles in Germany, Ireland and much of England. This was a direct result of Kubrick’s insistence that the film only be shot in real castles.

In a 2013 interview, Adams told the BBC: “We’d have big arguments because I would say: ‘No that’s Victorian but the film is set in Georgian times’. Well, Stanley was so competitive that he bought almost every book available on Georgian architecture so he could argue with me. But none of this was getting the movie made because the buildings and peaceful locations he wanted just don’t exist anymore near London… It was nerve-destroying. But after five months I got Stanley to switch production to the Republic of Ireland – which I thought was my masterstroke.”

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Barry Lyndon, Directed by Stanley Kubrick © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

The costuming phase of the film, on the other hand, lasted 18 months and resulted in a haul of authentic 18th Century garments from various collections in England, many of which were replicated stitch-for-stitch. And in order to shoot the battle scenes, which included full-scale recreations of specific moments in the Seven Years’ War, Kubrick recruited 250 Irish soldiers. Adams and his team would then have to produce hundreds of sketches of groups of soldiers using various lenses, comparing the composition of a 50mm or a wide-angle lens.

All in all, the film cost $11 million to produce, well surpassing its budget of $2.5 million, but Kubrick’s thorough research prior to actually shooting the film is arguably what makes it so believable and such a visually striking film. As with all of his work, he was not content with leaving any stone unturned, and it’s perhaps the reason his oeuvre still resonates with so many today. If every concept or idea is stretched as far as it can be, are they better equipped to stand the test of time?

In an interview with Michel Ciment published in Kubrick: The Definitive Edition, the filmmaker said of the film: “[Barry Lyndon] offered the opportunity to do one of the things that movies can do better than any other art form and that is to present historical subject matter. Description is not one of the things that novels do best but it is something that movies do effortlessly, at least with respect to the effort required of the audience.”

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The Shining, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1980; GB/United States). Grady (Philip Stone) and Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson). Still image. © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

It’s interesting to consider whether the sole factor that allowed Kubrick to work in the scrupulous way he did was his obsessiveness. For many, creating an entire analogue version of Wikipedia to accompany your two years of research for a film on Napoleon (a film he never actually made) so that at any point you could find out what he was doing on a particular day, would seem a step too far.

“Obsessiveness can be counterproductive as it doesn’t play nicely with other constraining factors, namely time and money,” says Craig Oldham, a designer known for his astute attention to detail and his love of cult films (his recent book project, They Live: A Visual and Cultural Awakening, is a testament to both). “It’s no surprise to me, particularly when you assign the quality of obsessiveness to Kubrick, that almost all of his projects ran over schedule and budget. However, it can help quality, and sometimes, meaning. So again it’s no surprise his name is assigned to a body of work synonymous with greatness and flooded with stories and anecdotes of its making.”

Erica Dorn worked as the lead graphic designer on Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, a role which saw her producing thousands of graphics for miniature items – the smallest of which sat on a red telephone the size of a pound coin and was 1mm by 5mm. She agrees with Craig that obsessiveness can be a benefit. “I don’t think of [obsession] as a hindrance at all,” she says. “On the contrary, I think the detail is what makes the difference between whether you believe a story or not. The detail is what gives something authentic – whether you’re talking about cultural authenticity or about making a fake prop (or a tiny fake prop) look real.” While working on Isle of Dogs, she was encouraged – expected, even – to pay attention to minute details. “If I wasn’t obsessive before, I definitely was after,” she says.

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Stanley Kubrick during the filming of Killer’s Kiss (The Tiger of New York, USA 1955). © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Something the pair both describe is an almost compulsive approach to creating, an innate drive to make things the best they can be. “I can’t design in a manner where something, on a page or in any design, has no function or purpose. Every single element has to earn its right to be included, otherwise it feels indulgent and superfluous to me,” adds Craig. And Erica continues, “I also understand the feeling of seeing something, and noticing something that could make it better. Once you notice it, you can’t leave it alone… but then why would you, if you know that making a change will improve the work? So you go back and change it, as many times as it needs.”

Creativity, it seems, more than most disciplines, encourages this kind of behaviour, or perhaps it’s more that it attracts those who already have it in them. As to whether it’s a necessary personality trait, vital in order to work as a creative, Craig thinks not: “I don’t buy into the idea that you have to act or behave in a certain way, or deploy certain methods and approaches to be considered creative. The beautiful and yet agonising thing about creativity is that it’s individual and unique to each individual.

“I think the obsessiveness exhibited in [Kubrick’s] approach and his output is important to those who also obsess over the creative detail themselves,” he continues. “But in many ways he is a prime example of what happens when you give a certain personality unlimited resource, which isn’t always the best test conditions in which to understand creativity, and certainly not success. I actually think that is mirrored in his work. The later films, for me, suffer as a result of his situation – having ultimate control and being infinitely obsessive.”

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The Shining, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1980; GB/United States). Stanley Kubrick and Jack Nicholson on the set of The Shining. © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

It’s undeniable that Kubrick’s attention to detail is a major factor in what keeps audiences coming back to his films. They pore over every frame of every scene, looking for clues to decode his decisions – they even put on whole exhibitions 20 years after his death. He was, in every sense of the phrase, obsessively creative. His method, however, is not a blueprint; it’s not the only way. Obsessiveness is merely one tool, one approach to creativity, among a whole host of other tools and approaches. And if Bobby Fischer acts as a cautionary tale, it’s of the potential dangers of obsession. It’s a quality that can force you to focus on the arbitrary, becoming more of a hindrance than a help. For many, creativity is more spontaneous, less laborious or studied. It’s a malleable field which can be picked up, looked at, and used in myriad ways; it’s what makes it so ubiquitous and, ultimately, so compelling.

So if, when working on a recent project involving space, you failed to hire Nasa’s former chief of space information systems in order to make sure everything was as accurate as possible (as Kubrick did when working on 2001: A Space Odyssey), our advice is: Don’t worry about it, that probably would have been a bit OTT.