Regarding Stanley

Rachel Abramowitz is a Times staff writer

When Steven Spielberg first heard Stanley Kubrick mention his idea for the film “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” back in 1985, he wasn’t just intrigued to hear Kubrick’s fantasy of the future--of a world divided between “mecha” (mechanical creatures, or robots) and “orga” (organic or human), where the “mecha” are treated like African slaves back in the 19th century. He wasn’t merely fascinated by a world Spielberg likens to “Mary Shelley creating a billion Frankensteins, some of whom are kind and creative and necessary and others who are malevolent.”

He was mostly amazed that Kubrick was confiding in him at all.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 9, 2001 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 9, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Song lyrics--A lyric from the song “When You Wish Upon a Star” was misquoted in a Sunday Calendar story on the movie “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” The correct line is “Like a bolt out of the blue, fate steps in and sees you through.”
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 13, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Page 2 Calendar Desk 3 inches; 82 words Type of Material: Correction
Summer Sneaks--In the May 6 Sunday Calendar movie preview, a lyric from the song “When You Wish Upon a Star” was misquoted in a story about “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” The correct line is “Like a bolt out of the blue, fate steps in and sees you through.” Also, the name of artist Toulouse-Lautrec was misspelled in a story on “Moulin Rouge.” In the preview list, the name of screenwriter Ken Daurio was misspelled in the credits for “Bubble Boy,” and two writers were omitted from the credits for the film “Tortilla Soup”--Ramon Menendez & Tom Musca and Vera Blasi received final credit.

It was the first time that Kubrick, the eccentric, reclusive auteur of “A Clockwork Orange” and “Dr. Strangelove,” trusted Spielberg.

“I felt that was a breakthrough in our relationship,” says the director. “The story wasn’t as important to me as was the fact that for the first time since we had met in 1979, he was actually telling me a story he was considering for himself as a filmmaker.”


Sixteen years later, Kubrick is dead, and the future he described in his landmark work “2001: A Space Odyssey” is upon us, looking nothing like what he envisioned. Yet “A.I,” a different fairy tale of the future, arrives in theaters in June courtesy of Spielberg, a filmmaker whose visceral, uplifting aesthetic is the polar opposite of Kubrick’s chilly, magisterial vision of mankind as an unrepentant animalistic beast.

The $90-million film is based on Brian Aldiss’ short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long,” with an elaborate treatment and storyboards supervised by Kubrick in the early ‘90s, and a script written by Spielberg himself. The short story takes place in the future, where obesity and malnutrition have been banished, and the rich can change the view from their windows at whim. Because of tight population controls, a proper corporate wife (whose husband not incidentally manufactures robots) has not been permitted to bear a child and must make do with an android boy, who is constantly asking his teddy bear--also an android--if he’s real.

The tag line circulating through cyberspace--which keys off something Kubrick told Aldiss--is “Pinocchio,” although Spielberg cautions that “‘Pinocchio’ is a catalyst for the beginning of an odyssey, a journey into the future. But it’s not the movie.”

Indeed, forget any happy Disney-esque images of a singing, dancing Jiminy Cricket. David, the android played in the film by Haley Joel Osment (the star of “The Sixth Sense”) meets up with another “mecha” Spielberg calls “his scoutmaster.” This is Joe Gigolo, played by rising British star Jude Law.

‘I’m a love mecha,” explains Law, who certainly seems well cast. “He’s a gigolo. He has various clients, some he just talks to, some he massages. Some he presumably takes a bit further. They are able to change the way in which he seduces.” Law, who studied mime and peacock movements to prepare, says his character does actually sing and dance in the film “as part of entertainment. He’s a full-service mecha.”

It’s hard to imagine a gigolo in a Spielberg film--even a robotic one. One of the great mysteries of “A.I.” is how the two disparate sensibilities mesh.


“It’s Steven’s film,” says Law, “but Stanley was talked about every day.” He catches himself, “I can’t say ‘Stanley,’ because I never met him. There was very much the underbelly of Kubrick around, which I quite liked.”

“It’s Steven’s interpretation of what Stanley was trying to do,” says producer Bonnie Curtis. “My joke is that it’s Stevely Kuberg. It’s a complete meld of both of them. Every word, every thing you see has both of them in it.”

The production has been shrouded in secrecy. This is the first extensive interview Spielberg has given. He has apparently not only inherited the auteur’s treatment, but also co-opted his neurosis. “It’s my insurance policy that he doesn’t haunt me afterward,” he says with a laugh.

“Stanley was fastidious about this kind of security. It’s to honor his wishes that I tightened this particular production down.” But, he adds, “It was a kind of lonely experience. Not to have visitors come to the set.” During his lunch break from shooting “Minority Report,” a futuristic thriller with Tom Cruise, the 54-year old director admits he’s relieved not to have the pressure of Kubrick’s ghost watching over him. “I’m having so much fun. When I did ‘A.I.,’ I had Stanley with me every day, and I felt very inhibited to honor him and at the same time to really entertain a lot of people. With ‘Minority Report,’ I feel very liberated just to do anything.”

Spielberg is sitting at a picnic table under an awning that stretches between his trailer and Cruise’s much larger gray bus, his on-set home. Cruise’s kids zip by on scooters.

It’s been said that Spielberg is a simple man with the brain of a genius. The Spielbergian universe appears to run with the preternatural efficiency of a Swiss clock, and the benign patriarch displays none of the drama-junkie tendencies of Jim Cameron or Francis Ford Coppola. He wears a red plaid shirt over baggy brown pants, and has just removed the hard hat he wore on set--a hat fittingly emblazoned with the word “Dad.”


He also bears a fat cigar. Spielberg started smoking little Davidoffs on “Saving Private Ryan,” because his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, was smoking, and “Tom Sizemore and Tom Hanks were smoking and I’m [thinking] “I want to be one of the boys!”’ After wrapping the film, he didn’t smoke for three years, but then started to have a regular Friday afternoon stogie on “A.I,” and now smokes one cigar a day on “Minority Report.”

“It’s becoming a bit of a nervous habit,” he admits, although while discussing “A.I.,” the cigar remains unlit on the table.

Although Spielberg knew Kubrick for almost 20 years, they’d met a scant dozen times. Kubrick was afraid of flying, and scarcely left his home in the English countryside. Their friendship, initiated by Spielberg when he was in England making “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in 1979, evolved through marathon transatlantic phone calls. It wasn’t initially “a two-way street,” Spielberg says. “It was sort of a one-way street. I’d tell Stanley everything I was doing and Stanley would never tell me anything he was doing. Stanley was a benevolent inquisitor. He’d absolutely pump you dry of any knowledge you might have that he might find compelling.”

Kubrick picked his brains about all aspects of the movie business, from distribution to lenses. (He constantly chastised Spielberg’s choices in the latter department.) Mostly he was mesmerized by Spielberg’s irrepressible commerciality, an instinct that alternately entrances and dismays other filmmakers. “Every time I had a movie that made a lot of money, or somebody else had a movie that made a lot of money, Stanley would call and say ‘Gee, did you see the grosses of that--wow!’ He would ask you questions about why I thought a nerve might have been hit in America. I would say, ‘Darn if I know.’ And I don’t,” says the director, although he later admits he superstitiously avoids trying to know. “That’s the witchcraft of movies. You have to not ask those questions.”

For Spielberg, who can look at any shot in any movie and know instinctively how it was done, Kubrick possessed artistic integrity. As a kid, he’d been deeply taken with “Dr. Strangelove,” which he first saw during his last year of high school. In fact, he was waiting in line at the theater in San Jose, Calif. when his father drove up and handed him his draft notice for Vietnam. “I walked into the theater obsessed with dying overseas, and 20 minutes into ‘Dr. Strangelove,’ I became swept away in the world of Stanley. Stanley made me forget for two hours that I was possibly going over to Southeast Asia.”

He saw “A Clockwork Orange” in college. “It was the first movie I ever saw where the character you were supposed to journey with gets away with murder. I thought it was one of the most dangerous things I had ever seen.” Spielberg religiously sent Kubrick all his films before release, and Kubrick was unfailingly complimentary, to the point that Spielberg “kept pushing him to be more critical and he never would be. “He was saying, ‘Gee, how did you get that kid to cry that way? Did you have to threaten to kill his dog?’ He’d talk that way and I would become self-critical and say, ‘I think you’re wrong.”’


Spielberg was desperate to know what made Kubrick tick creatively--a subject on which the director was distinctly unforthcoming.

“I asked him a lot of questions about why he did that, and sometimes his answers were, ‘You know why, because you make pictures.’ And I would say, ‘But I’d love to talk about the choices you make.’ And then, he’d sort of change the subject.”

The first time Kubrick broached the subject of “A.I.” was one instance when he didn’t change the subject. He told Spielberg, “Gee, this is sort of like some of the stuff you’ve made, huh?” Kubrick waxed on about the special effects it would need, effects that he wasn’t sure were even possible, (although he was sure Spielberg could help). He worried about the probable price tag of $65 million, which, in 1985, would have made it one of the most expensive movies ever made.

After four hours of conversation, Kubrick suggested they each fix themselves a sandwich and continue talking. “We’re eating, and I hear him choking,” recalls Spielberg, who loves this part of the story. “He gets his breath back and he starts to cough again and he said, ‘Steven, write this number down.’ He gives me a very long number and he also puts the dialing prefix, what is it, 011-44-1 and then the number in England. I said, ‘What is this for?’ He said, ‘Well, I’m choking on my sandwich, and if the line suddenly goes dead, that’s [his wife] Christiane’s line, and she’s downstairs. Call her and tell her I’ve blacked out in my office.”’

If the tale of an entertainer who yearns to be an artist sounds a bit like the story of a puppet--or an android--who yearns to be a boy, it’s not surprising that “Pinocchio” is one of Spielberg’s favorite fairy tales. Jiminy Cricket’s song “When You Wish Upon a Star” is “my favorite song in the universe! I even a had a little kind of Pinocchio music box,” he says, adding that at one point he put the song under the end-credits of “Close Encounters,” as the spaceship bearing Richard Dreyfuss ascends to the sky. (It was excised reluctantly after preview audiences found it too cornball.)

For Spielberg, the appeal of the story lies in the lyric, which he quotes--’like a boat out of the blue, fate steps in and sees you through.”


Yet, what was the appeal for Kubrick, none of whose films ever evinced such buoyancy or optimism? Cerebral, and glacial, Kubrick allotted emotions into his oeuvre with an eyedropper, while Spielberg charges for the heartstrings. In “Full Metal Jacket,” the Army systematically destroys its young recruits, turning them into killers. In “Saving Private Ryan,” the seasoned soldier turns out to be a sentimental schoolteacher. In the most famous shot in “2001,” after a caveman learns to use a bone as a weapon, he throws it up in the air and the audience sees it become a spaceship. Yet, in “E.T.,” E.T. explains where he comes from by levitating ordinary objects into a fantastical spaceship-like orbit. Nevertheless, “Pinocchio” was “one of Stanley’s favorite fairy tales, too.

“This shows a side of Stanley that people haven’t seen before, which was a very deeply emotional and lonely side,” says Spielberg.

The movie shows “a different romanticism that hasn’t been shown on the screen,” adds Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s brother-in-law and the executive producer of several of his films, who worked with the late director on the project. “The whole idea of an artificial being feeling genuine love and a human genuinely loving an artificial being. This is quite new territory.”

Kubrick bought the story in 1983, developed it off and on for years, with the original author, Aldiss, as well as sci-fi writer Ian Watson (who has story credit on the film), and novelist Sarah Maitland. Obsessed with comic-book art, he hired illustrator Chris Baker (whose comic book nom-de-plum is Fangorn) to draw over a thousand elaborate black-and-white storyboards. He hired a helicopter to shoot test footage of oil rigs in the North Sea. He planned to digitally erase the oil rigs, replacing them with the skyline of New York City, in order to show a world in which the polar ice caps had melted and the cities lay underwater.

He thought about hiring a child actor, but despaired that “the way we worked, the boy would be a teenager!” says Harlan, with a laugh, noting Kubrick’s penchant to take years to make a movie.

They tried to actually build a robot child. “It was a disaster!” says Harlan. “Stanley realized this was not the way to do it. We thought we might to do it with computer graphics. He said, ‘Why don’t we wait a few years?”’ Indeed, Kubrick always appeared to be waiting for the technology to improve so he could actually realize his complicated world of “mechas.”


Spielberg had played an unwitting role in Kubrick’s choice of projects. One of the other films Kubrick had been nursing was a rendition of Louis Begley’s Holocaust novel, “Wartime Lies.” For weeks, Kubrick called every day to pressure Spielberg into sending him a rough cut of “Schindler’s List,” finally explaining that he’d been considering his own Holocaust movie. Spielberg eventually flew a work print on to England. The next day, Kubrick called and complimented him highly. Spielberg never learned how the picture affected Kubrick’s project until “I read in the trades that he had abandoned ‘Wartime Lies.”’

Kubrick had also called Spielberg after seeing the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park.” He was seemingly thrilled that Spielberg had pioneered technology which could now be used for “A.I.” A year later, the reclusive master filmmaker called again, and told Spielberg that he had something to tell him, but would only tell him in person. Two days later, Spielberg had flown from New York, and was sitting at Kubrick’s kitchen table at St. Albans, when Kubrick announced, “Why don’t you direct ‘A.I.,’ and I’ll produce it for you?”’ recalls Spielberg. “He said, ‘The card will read great. It’ll say, “A Stanley Kubrick production of a Steven Spielberg film.” Don’t you think people will come to see that?”’

Spielberg demurred. “Stanley, this is a great story for you!” he insisted. Yet Kubrick set about “seducing me,” he says, bringing the younger director into his creative lair, and showing him the thousands of Baker storyboards. Kubrick gave him copies of the drawings and the 90-page treatment, and asked him to think about it. Spielberg didn’t tell him at the time that he thought it would be impossible to capture that world on film. It was at this point that what Spielberg calls Kubrick’s “mischievous paranoia” set in.

“It was not unlike ‘Mission: Impossible,’ with the tape recorder going, ‘This tape will self-destruct in 12 seconds,’ because I had a series of instructions,” says Spielberg, with a laugh.

Kubrick made Spielberg take an oath of secrecy “under penalty of excommunication from [his] life” and asked him to install a secure fax line in his home, going so far as to make Spielberg detail the layout of his house. “You’ve got the most public house of anybody I’ve ever spoken to. Your house is just big rooms without walls. Don’t you have any small spaces with locks on the doors?” Kubrick said. “What people don’t realize about Stanley, is that a lot of this was cut with humor,” adds Spielberg. “He’s serious, but he makes you laugh.”

Perhaps in an unconscious Freudian moment, Kubrick demanded that Spielberg put the secret fax in his bedroom. Kubrick then proceeded to fax him ideas day and night After the second night of hearing the fax machine go off at 3:30 in the morning, “Kate [Capshaw, Spielberg’s wife] kicked Stanley out of the bedroom, and banished him to the study downstairs,” says Spielberg. “I never told Stanley.”


As the pair were finalizing the deal with Warners for the movie, Spielberg “chickened out,” and sent Kubrick a long, contrite fax.

“I thought this was one of the most commercial stories that Stanley had ever developed for him to direct, and I didn’t want Stanley to be robbed. Stanley wanted a hit! But he wasn’t willing to compromise his art for one ... He would always say, ‘I don’t know how to make those kind of movies you make.’ And maybe one of the reasons he tapped me was he was hoping that it would be commercial.

“I felt like I was taking something away from him. I was sort of a safety net, and if I took the net away, he would do it himself, and that’s exactly what happened.”

Their relationship survived Spielberg’s backing out. Kubrick continued planning to direct the film, never progressing to an actual screenplay, but opted to do “Eyes Wide Shut” first.

The two directors were both so consumed with their own projects that they never even saw each other during the four months Spielberg was in England shooting “Saving Private Ryan.” Kubrick died suddenly of a heart attack in 1999, and Spielberg attended the funeral in England, where they buried the master director in the backyard of his St. Albans home.

A couple of months later, Harlan and Kubrick’s wife, Christiane, approached Terry Semel, then the chairman of Warner Bros., with the idea of reviving “A.I.” with Spielberg. “It simply would have disappeared into the archives if Steven Spielberg had not taken it,” says Harlan.


Spielberg and Kubrick had once tried--unsuccessfully--to convince Spielberg’s sister, Anne, the co-writer of “Big,” to write the screenplay with Kubrick, but she didn’t want to move to England for what could be years. Now, Spielberg decided to write it himself, although he hadn’t penned a script since “Close Encounters” 20 years earlier.

“It was like getting my wisdom teeth pulled all over again, because Stanley was sitting on the seat back behind me saying, ‘No, don’t do that!’ I felt like I was being coached by a ghost! I finally just had to kind of be disrespectful to the extent that I needed to be able to write this, not from Stanley’s heart, but from mine. I was like an archeologist, picking up the pieces of a civilization, putting Stanley’s picture back together again.”

Kubrick had left a brilliant first, and third act, but the middle section had “pieces of a dream, but was scattered.” Working from notes that Harlan sent on to him, Spielberg “assembled these fragments into a living organism.” In shooting the actual film, he wound up using, he estimates, some 600 of Baker’s original storyboards.

“I did a lot of Stanley’s shots. I wanted to get as much of what Stanley wanted upon the screen as I possibly could,” he says, although he does not normally shoot from storyboards. In fact, Spielberg works in a diametrically opposite fashion than Kubrick. While Kubrick liked shooting in continuity, with a skeletal crew, at the pace of slowly drying paint, Spielberg loves speed, moving almost three times as fast as most directors.

For all the director’s dutifulness, there is a sense that at the end of the day, the film will be Spielberg’s. It can’t be anyone’s but Spielberg’s.

“I can’t know what Stanley knew. I can’t be who Stanley was, and I’ll never be who Stanley might have been,” he says, speaking in a sense to the Kubrick devotees. “But I can tell a really great story, and it’s too good a story to let it collect dust in Stanley’s archive.”


In summing up Kubrick as a benign but distant (and now dead) paterfamilias, Spielberg, perhaps unconsciously, evokes one of the themes that runs through so many of his films: The search for the absent father. Indeed, if you ask the director, a child of divorce, why he’s so obsessed with WWII (he’s planning a movie on Iwo Jima), he explains simply, “My father fought in the war and it was always talked about. We are much closer now than we were when I was a kid, but it was our big connection, his wartime stories. Whenever he’d say, ‘Hey, Steve, you wanna hear about my World War II experience?’ I was there!”

It’s that child’s loneliness that summons up the friendly alien E.T., in Spielberg’s most popular movie. There seems to be a mass tendency--perhaps a wish--to assume that “A.I.” is simply a version of “E.T.” As longtime Spielberg cohort Kathy Kennedy notes, “People see the image of a little boy and think this is like ‘E.T.’ It’s not ‘E.T.’ It’s a totally different story.”

It is a return to that territory however, a province that one might assume that Spielberg--the father of seven, the owner of a major studio, DreamWorks, a killer businessman--has outgrown. He insists he hasn’t. “The feelings have always lasted with me. It’s not something you grow out of. I’m the same person today who made ‘E.T.’ Those passions grow in me with the seven children I’m raising with Kate. When I made ‘E.T.,’ I was a wanna-be father. Now that I have a lot of kids, those emotions are actually in my own stories, what I tell my kids when I put them to bed at night.”

One of the first discussions he had with Kubrick was over the name of the android’s teddy bear, which is called “Teddy” in the short story. Spielberg wanted to give the bear a new name, and Stanley said, “Well, what was your bear’s name?” recalls the director. “And I said, ‘My bear’s name was Jingle Bells.’ And he said, ‘You call that a good name?’ Stanley was very insistent the bear be called Teddy.”

Science fiction has often been called pop culture’s answer to metaphysics, a secular way to explore the myth of transcendence. Spielberg believes this, and it is probably why “E.T.” is his most popular film. “Science fiction does not have to go very far to connect with the spiritual,” he says. “Science fiction is about pure imagination, about dreaming. And imagination and dreaming are as close to basic beliefs as anything we can cherish.”

They’re also the building blocks of art, although Spielberg does not consider himself an artist. “I feel like I continue to aspire to be one, but Stanley always was one, so Stanley doesn’t have to talk about it, whereas perhaps I have to talk about it just a little bit more. I have to always hold some aspirations out to myself,” he says as he prepares to return to the set of “Minority Report,” unsmoked cigar in hand. “For me, art is something where you make decisions beyond your own understanding and you can’t justify them, you can’t rationalize them and you can’t explain them even to your wife, and I’m not there yet.


“I’m still working my way there, but it keeps me wanting to make movies forever.”