Thursday, July 14, 2016

Michael Herr on Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick

Michael Herr ("Dispatches") sometimes worked with Stanley Kubrick on movie scripts. Below are a few snippets from the long piece Herr did In Vanity Fair after Kubrick died:

I’d arrived for work in the late afternoon. “Ready for some serious brainstorming, Michael? You want a drink first?” I reflexively checked my watch. “How come all you heavy drinkers always look at your watches when somebody offers you a drink?”

Jim Thompson, the toughest pulp novelist of them all, had made him nervous when they were working together on "The Killing," a big guy in a dirty old raincoat, a terrific writer but a little too hard-boiled for Stanley’s taste. He’d turn up for work carrying a bottle in a brown paper bag, but saying nothing about it—it was just there on the desk with no apology or comment—not at all interested in putting Stanley at ease except to offer him the bag, which Stanley declined, and making no gestures whatever to any part of the Hollywood process, except maybe toward the money...

...Once a year he’d get the latest issue of Maledicta, a journal of scatological invective and insult, unashamedly incorrect, willfully scurrilous, and pretty funny, and read me the highlights.

“Hey Michael, what’s the American Dream?”

“I give.”

“Ten million blacks swimming to Africa, with a Jew under each arm.”

To which he added, “Don’t worry, Michael. They don’t mean us.”

...Then he told me about a friend of his, a studio head who’d just bought an apartment in New York. He told me how much he’d paid for it, and said that he was the first Jew ever admitted to the building.

“Can you believe that? What is it, 1999? And they never let a Jew in there before?”

In Holland, he’d heard, there was a soccer team called Ajax that had once had a Jewish player, and ever since then Dutch skinheads would go to all the team’s matches and make a loud hissing noise, meant to represent the sound of gas escaping into the death chambers. “And that’s Holland, Michael. A civilized country.” Laughing...

...Stanley didn’t live in England because he disliked America. God knows, it’s all he ever talked about. It was always on his mind and in his blood. I’m not sure he even really knew he wasn’t living in America all along, although he hadn’t been there since 1968. In the days before satellite TV, he’d had relatives and friends send him tapes of American television—N.F.L. games, the Johnny Carson show, news broadcasts, and commercials, which he thought were, in their way, the most interesting films being made. (He’d tape his favorite commercials and recut them, just for the monkish exercise.)...It wasn’t America he couldn’t take. It was L.A.

He was walking into a Hollywood restaurant one night in 1955 as James Dean came out, stepped into the Porsche Spyder that had just been brought around by the parking valet, and drove off. Stanley remarked at the time how fast he was going...

...He didn’t exactly utter the word “actors” under his breath like a curse, but he definitely thought of them as wild cards, something to be overcome with difficulty. They were so lazy about learning their lines, were often otherwise “unprepared,” so capricious, so childlike, and the younger ones were completely spoiled. There was even something mysterious, and to him a little freakish, about anybody who could and would stand up in front of other people to assume and express emotions at will, sometimes to the point of tears.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I have to tell you, I really like actors.”

“That’s because you don’t have to pay them, Michael.”

...They’d come to him for direction, and he’d send them back to work to find out for themselves. On A Clockwork Orange, when Malcolm McDowell asked, he told him, “Malcolm, I’m not RADA[Royal Academy of Dramatic Art]. I hired you to do the acting.” He was preparing a scene for Spartacus in which Laurence Olivier and Nina Foch are sitting in their seats above the arena waiting for the gladiators to enter and fight to the death, and Nina Foch asked him for motivation. “What am I doing, Stanley?” she asked, and Stanley said, “You’re sitting here with Larry waiting for the gladiators to come out.”

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At 10:47 AM, Anonymous sfthen said...

Herr (("a nice middle-class Jewish boy") went over there for Esquire and they serialized some of the chapters which would become the book. Esquire introduced the final entry with something like, "it is with particular pride that we present here the last of his dispatches."

Hollywood kept trying to make something from the book, "Apocalypse Now" of course getting him to write the voice-over narration after-the-fact. At a preview of one version the audience was given a multiple choice test as the director tried to put together some semi-coherent narrative out of the jumble of scenes they'd filmed in the Philippines (Zoetrope was down on Pacific Ave back then, behind the Little Fox theater). And "Metal Jacket" copped one of the book's better lines, "How can you shoot women and children?" "It's easy, you just don't lead them as much."

At 2:53 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Yes, I read his stuff first in Esquire, which, like Hunter Thompson's original pieces in Rolling Stone, made a big impression. Pseudo-objectivity was out and close observation and originality was the thing, not that many writers can do it.

Good to see and hear Herr talking in the voice Kubrick heard in those long phone conversations.

Like to know what Herr thought of Kubrick's last movie, which I thought was awful. Kubrick died before it was released, so maybe it's unfair to put all the blame on him.


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