A Movie Odyssey: Three decades of conversation with Stanley Kubrick, part 2

Ioan Allen, senior VP at Dolby Laboratories, continues his reminiscences of his 28-year association with the renowned film director Stanley Kubrick; the first installment, covering the 1970s, appeared in our December edition.

Stanley being generous:
Over the years, Stanley was generous with Christmas presents. But shortly before Christmas, towards the end of Barry Lyndon’s post-production, Stanley’s secretary Margaret Adams calls my home and asks my partner Carol what I might like for a Christmas present. Carol says, “A Nikon camera,” and then instantly regrets it, thinking she’s gone too far. But no, on Christmas Eve the doorbell rings, and here’s Emilio, Stanley’s driver, with a bag containing an F2 Nikon and three lenses. Next time I see Stanley, he gives me a long talk about why 105mm is the right focal length for portrait photography.

I’m invited to give a Dolby Stereo demonstration in Moscow at a film convention, shortly after the main mix of Barry Lyndon is completed. While I have other bits and pieces of demonstration material, I ask Stanley whether we could remix a ten-minute section of Barry Lyndon into wide-range stereo. Somewhat to my surprise, he agrees, and Bill Rowe, Ray Merrin and I do a reel in stereo. Again to my surprise, not only does Stanley not attend the mix, but when I ask him to come to the studio to check and approve what we have done, he says no, trusts me, and off I go to Moscow with film in hand. Years later, Andros Epaminandos, who at the time had been Stanley’s assistant, tells me that one evening he and Stanley went down to the studio and listened to the stereo mix. Stanley just didn’t want me there in case he didn’t like what we had done.

A final note on Barry Lyndon—the aspect ratio is 1.66:1.

The Shining—1980
We moved the Dolby head office from London to San Francisco in the spring of 1976. So even though I still spent a fair amount of time in the U.K., much of my contact with Stanley was now by phone. Stanley: “Get a copy of Stephen King’s The Shining—let me know what you think.” I read it on my ferry commute from Tiburon to San Francisco. It’s a pretty freaky book—I have to look up every so often to see other commuters and bring me back to reality. I could imagine a pretty intense movie. I realize that Stanley wants approval or at least his views reinforced by some kind of committee—his correspondents. I suppose we all said the right thing!

Pretty rare for me to be on a soundstage, but I’m in the U.K. and Stanley asks me out to Elstree to attend a couple of hours at the shoot. I’m there for the scene when Jack Nicholson starts out at the top of the stairs as a pretty nice guy, and finishes up at the bottom of the stairs not a very nice person at all. Pretty amazing to see the change, but perhaps even more so to see him wheel back to nice guy for each new take.

But equally amazing is the set. The huge lobby of the Overlook Hotel is complete—four walls. This is a real place, doesn’t feel like a set. And a possibly apocryphal story is that all the hotel bedrooms were decorated with fin-de-siècle French wallpaper, even though only one or two rooms were used for the shoot. And an even more certainly apocryphal story is that the grand piano in the lobby was tuned on a regular basis. And in the ballroom lobby, the authentic pay-phones, even though they never show in the movie.

The whole place seems real, in complete contrast to the kind of set which seems two-dimensional, and which might even fall over if you pushed it. No wonder Stanley wanted to be a long, long way away from L.A. and Warner Bros.!

Stanley: “Hi, Ioan… Is this a good time? How about a computer program that would sort according to multiple parameters? Like come up with all the scenes with Jack Nicholson and night and exterior?”

Stanley could drive people crazy:
This anecdote told me by Max Bell, Dolby sound consultant, who was sitting in Margaret Adams’ office at Elstree. She and Stanley both have walkie-talkies so he can talk with her from the stage. After dictating a letter for typing, he calls in several times making changes and then further changes. In a gesture of frustration, Margaret throws the walkie-talkie into a wastepaper basket. Max claims that for half-an-hour plaintive cries could be heard coming from the basket: “Margaret? Where are you, Margaret? Margaret? Where are you, Margaret?”

Select one:
Comparing three or four different takes on a row of flatbed 35mm editing machines served for Barry Lyndon. But for The Shining, the editing room was equipped with a row of video monitors. (Do I remember perhaps eight?) Each monitor had its own VHS player. Stanley would want to see multiple takes simultaneously, so each tape was parked at the slate. A somewhat Heath Robinson (or Rube Goldberg in the U.S.!) arrangement then would start all the machines together. I remember seeing a row of multiple Scatman Crothers.

Taking in Modern Romance—1981
“Is this a good time?” I’m in the office, and frankly it’s not a good time, but I’m not going to say so. “Have you seen any recent movies that really explore today’s relationships?” I probably said, “What?” “Well, have you seen Albert Brooks’ film, Modern Romance?” No. “Well, call Columbia, if you can [cute, that] and get a print. Let me know what you think.” I think: Is Stanley doing a people movie? I call Tom McCarthy, VP of post at Columbia, my best contact there—sure, he’ll send me a print, but he asks me why I want to see it, as the movie sank without much of a trace a couple of months previously. Because “Stanley said…” OK, the print arrives, and I screen it at the old Dolby screening room on Sansome Street in San Francisco. The film doesn’t do much to discuss the kind of relationships I know, but is hysterically funny about film production in Hollywood in the early ’80s. I call Stanley to discuss, but the conversation drifts into: “Have you thought about a computer program which could…”

Full Metal Jacket—1987
“Is this a good time? “Ioan, get a book called The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford. If you can’t find a copy, let me know and I’ll mail you one.”

Stanley: “How about a computer program that would compare currency exchange rates and detect looped anomalies and buy and sell accordingly?”
“Sure, Stanley…”

For a brief moment it looked like Stanley was going to try a Dolby Stereo release, but he pulled the plug, claiming a lack of time. And the shortage of time was triggered by problems with a stereo music pre-mix. Vivian Kubrick (Stanley’s daughter) was writing and performing the score (credited under the name Abigail Mead), and cross-talk problems with the organ had brought things to a standstill shortly after the session had begun.

Eyes Wide Shut—1999
Vivian was also commissioned to do the music for Eyes Wide Shut—though in fact in the end it was created by Jocelyn Pook. During pre-production, Vivian visited the Dolby office in San Francisco at Stanley’s request, for a one-day crash course in the vicissitudes of stereo mixing. But as we mentioned at the beginning of this account, Stanley died before the stereo mix started.

Timing 2001:
“Is this a good time?” Small talk—usual stuff, World War III, bad movies, then: “Ioan, they’re screening 2001 on TV, the first U.S. network screening, can you time it?” “Why?” “Well, I approved all the break points and ads, and I want to be sure they don’t change anything.” “You mean you screened a video with the ads inserted?” Continuity break. “Can you time it?” “How long is it, Stanley, three hours?” Pregnant pause. I should know the length of 2001. “Well, its two hours and 19 minutes, 139 minutes, and with the ads it reaches XXX minutes.” (I can’t remember the actual number.) I time it—of course, it’s XXX minutes. Phone in the answer, but have this vision of numerous “correspondents” around the U.S. sitting in front of TVs, watching a film that should only be seen in a cinema, projected from film, and preferably 70mm film. All leaning towards their TVs holding stopwatches, poised to call Stanley the next day.

Asking why, how, why and what

I think critics who claim there is a lack of individual character strength in Kubrick’s works miss the point. Frailty and insecurity may be an individual trait, but Stanley believed that a group could provide an answer to a question, and more often than not took it upon himself to find that answer, by creating a group, not just for some issue relating to his current movie, but because there just was need. And with a name like his, more people jumped to answer the phone.

A Warner Bros. executive in London had a son with a serious hearing impairment. I am one of many people Stanley called, trying to assimilate, coordinate information about current hearing-aid technology. And when Andros Epaminandos had a heart attack, many a cardiologist was surprised to receive a phone call from Stanley Kubrick. “Information please” and “Why is that?”

And the thirst for information merged with the need for thoroughness in the making of a movie. It was common practice in the ’70s (still is) to have a stable repertory company of actors doing foreign-language dubs, selected as much for their ability to loop dialogue as for the nature of the voice. But Stanley would audition each foreign-language voiceover artist by bringing in a native speaker not in the business, and have them describe the nature of the person reading each line. “Does he sound rich, poor, upper-class, working-class, any trace of a regional accent?” etc. etc.

So, why did he never do a Dolby Stereo mix?
Well, at the time of A Clockwork Orange, the technology was at best embryonic. And for Barry Lyndon, Stanley would have been on the cutting edge of the new technology. But by the time of The Shining and Full Metal Jacket, hundreds, indeed thousands, of films had been released in the wide-range Dolby Stereo format. Stanley would say he didn’t have time, but I think that’s short of the answer. He didn’t have time to do it right. A perfectionist in picture, I think he would have wanted to be an equivalent perfectionist on a stereo soundtrack. For instance, issues like the balance between screen level and surround ambiences would have to be researched—until he knew as much about it as there was to know. So, a mono soundtrack, a format with which he was fully conversant, was all that he was prepared to handle. In fact, I think it possible that it was only pressure from Warner Bros. that led to the commitment on Eyes Wide Shut.

What I learnt
Ask why. Get it right. How to handle the studios. Oh, and yes, a lot of other stuff, like: When you receive a reel from the lab which has a printing error (say, bad density), get a screwdriver and scratch it from head to tail while rewinding. Otherwise, when you return it, the lab will just send it on to someone else not so discriminatory…

Is this a good time?
Heaven’s Gate was released by United Artists in 1980, and instantly withdrawn—bad reviews, and a financial disaster that was in large part responsible for the demise of UA. A few years later, Heaven’s Gate was shown at the London Film Festival, this time to masterpiece reviews.

Stanley: “Ioan, don’t you think this is a scandal—now they’re giving rave reviews for Heaven’s Gate?”

“Come on, Stanley, you’ll recall that when 2001 came out, Pauline Kael gave it a terrible review. Only a year later, she was saying, ‘the best film I’ve seen since 2001.’”

“Ioan, you’re missing the point, 2001 is a masterpiece.”

I think all of Stanley’s “correspondents” must have benefited from his constant enquiry. I did. I suppose he won’t call again. But if he does, I’ll say, “Yes, Stanley, this is a good time.”

Ioan Allen joined Dolby Laboratories in 1969, and was in large part responsible for the origination and development of the Dolby Stereo film program. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television, and has an honorary doctorate from the University of Nottingham in the U.K. In 2009 he received the Silver Medal Award from the Audio Engineering Society for services to cinema sound. Mr. Allen has received five Scientific and Engineering Awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, including an Oscar.

Our readers in Southern California may want to check out the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s major exhibition of Kubrick’s work, running now through June 30, 2013.