5 Filmmaking Tips From Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick has appeared in the credits for at least 17 films since his death in 1999. How is that possible? There’s a ton of people thanking him and making movies about him. His influence stretches even beyond his impressive body of work. The infamous control freak has taken us to the Overlook Hotel, to a War Room where there’s no fighting, on an odyssey in space and beyond.

He’s an indelible part of the film conversation who had a rare gift for challenging conventions while embracing components of traditional commercial filmmaking. Last Friday’s Short Film of the Day was a hint at which director this column would take on next, so here it is: a free bit of film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a chaotic mind with a gorgeous eye.

Or, as Kirk Douglas put it, “a talented shit.”

Try to See Everything

“I try to see every movie, I have projectors at home, so it’s a little easier for me now; those pictures that I can borrow prints of I run at home, and those that I cannot, I go and see, but I try to see everything.”

So many directors lament openly that their schedules make it near impossible to see movies. They’re barred from keeping up with the art that they’re obsessed with. Of course, there’s also the famous maxim of writing that there are only two jobs involved in it: reading and writing. One is inhaling, the other inhaling.

It must be the same with filmmaking ‐ keeping up on what others are doing, finding challenges and new techniques through a community striving for perfection and a sense of truth. No matter how difficult it becomes, watching movies should be the first job of filmmakers.

Face the Fear of Getting Out of the Car

In his acceptance of the D.W. Griffith award, he quoted Steven Spielberg where the director said the most difficult and challenging thing about directing a film was “getting out of the car.”

He immediately followed the statement by remarking that “although [making a movie] can be like trying to write ‘War and Peace’ in a bumper car in an amusement park, when you finally get it right, there are not many joys in life that can equal the feeling.”

Showing up, choosing not to drive by the opportunity, is most of the battle. And the rewards of that battle can be incredibly sweet.

Everything Can be Filmed

“If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed.”

There are no boundaries placed on the art form. Of course, Kubrick also noted that great works of literature had a shared element about them that made them all difficult or impossible to translate into film, but what would a great mind be without a little bit of contradiction?

This seemingly simple advice explains an idea that can be lost in the process: there are no limits in film. Want to see a man fly? Want to see a young thug sipping milk plus? Want to see a bear curiously kneeling before a man in a hotel room? All things are possible.

You Only Need Three Things

“When I made my first film, I think the thing was probably helped me the most was that it was such an unusual thing to do in the early 50s for someone who actually go and make a film. People thought it was impossible. It really is terribly easy. All anybody needs is a camera, a tape recorder, and some imagination.”

That’s from a 1968 interview with Charles Kohler of the East Village Eye. It seems clear that Kubrick was a big proponent of making things happen. His father gave him a camera at an early age, and his first sale as a photographer came because he skipped school and headed to the “Look Magazine” offices. It goes hand in hand with this:

“Perhaps it sounds ridiculous, but the best thing that young filmmakers should do is to get hold of a camera and some film and make a movie of any kind at all.”

So put that on your shopping list. Camera. Tape Recorder. Imagination.

Make Your Own Meaning

“The very meaninglessness of life forces a man to create his own meaning. Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre (a keen enjoyment of living), their idealism ‐ and their assumption of immortality.

As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in the ultimate goodness of man. But if he’s reasonably strong ‐ and lucky ‐ he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s élan (enthusiastic and assured vigor and liveliness).

Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh sense of purpose and affirmation. He may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring and sustaining.

The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death ‐ however mutable man may be able to make them ‐ our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

Advice for filmmaking. Advice for life.

What Have We Learned

Kubrick is thought of as a complicated artist, but his philosophy seems simple enough. He directed a dozen feature length films but nearly all of them are masterpieces of contain ideas that have confounded and inspired future directors. And actors. And gaffers. And everyone.

The general lesson here seems to be: absorb as much as possible, to remember the vastness of creativity, and to call “Action!” even if you’re scared to.

The other general lesson seems to be: grow a beard

More to Read:

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.