by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Aug. 2, 1999.
A few years ago, at about two in the morning, the phone rang, and a voice said, “Will you accept a collect call from Stanley Kubrick?” Stanley always was a cheap bastard. “No," I said, irritated at the lateness of the call. I soon regretted my refusal, however, and I dialed *69. I found myself on the line with the auteur of "2001" and "Full Metal Jacket." We often laughed afterwards at the fact that I had penetrated the defenses of so famously reclusive a man with so simple a device as *69. It was a loophole that his security specialists had somehow overlooked. The problem was quickly addressed, and the next person who tried to *69 him was electrocuted.
Stanley and I talked for thirty-six hours. We touched on every subject under the sun: St. Thomas Aquinas, suspension bridges, Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis,” chicken farming, “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Stanley was a big fan of “The Dukes of Hazzard,” it turned out, and he had seen a “Where Are They Now?” article I had written about the show for TV Guide. He wanted to know what I thought of John Schneider, who had portrayed Bo Duke. “I’m thinking of making a movie about Hitler,” Stanley told me, “and I think Bo Duke might be perfect for it.”
“The role of Hitler?” I asked, dubiously. “No-no-no,” he said, with that quick asperity he reserved for those slightly less brilliant than himself. "The role of Soldier No. 112, in the Battle of the Bulge.” “Is it a speaking role?” I asked. “No, he will be mostly hidden behind a snow embankment,” Stanley replied. I said I thought John Schneider would be perfect for the role, and I soon found myself on a plane to London.
When I arrived at Stanley’s mansion, a delightful dinner party was in progress. Stanley was thought to be a recluse, but he often had delightful dinner parties. Present at this one, if I remember rightly, were John Le Carré, Terrence Malick, J. D. Salinger, Kay Thompson, Syd Barrett, Doris Duke, Martin Bormann, and that man who jumped out of an airplane with lots of money in the seventies. Everyone had a wonderful time, and Stanley was at the center of it all. Stanley was widely considered a cold, geometrical tyrant of the cinema, but he was really a "people person,” and he nearly gave Doris Duke a seizure by slapping her heartily on the back. He told stories, cracked jokes, did card tricks, and, at one point, got up on the table and sang “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “We Shall Overcome.” When I went up to bed, he was still carrying on, trying to organize a midnight game of Kick the Can.
Stanley gave me some books to read on the way home: Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s "Der Turm"; Walter Scott’s "Count Robert of Paris"; the Earl of Stanhope’s four-volume biography of William Pitt the Younger; J. T. Scharf’s "History of Maryland from the Earliest Period to the Present Day"; "Eye on Cavett," by Dick Cavett; and John Grisham’s "The Firm." “There’s a movie in one of these books,” Stanley said to me. “Which one?” I asked. “I dunno, it’s not like I’m some all-seeing, all-knowing, cold, geometrical tyrant of the cinema,” Stanley shot back, with a knowing, ironical laugh. He paused, with the expert comic timing of a New York Jew, and then he said, “I believe you left an apple on your kitchen counter.” When I got home, I found out that I had done exactly that. I read all the books and called Stanley back. “I liked 'The Firm,' ” I said, “but I think they already made a movie out of it.” “I-know-I-know-I-know,” he said. “But I could do a better job. I will film it with IMAX cameras in natural light.”
I moved to London to begin work on the script for "Stanley Kubrick’s John Grisham’s The Firm," as we had to call it for legal reasons. Stanley always had trouble with actors, and he had the idea of casting this film entirely with his favorite cats and dogs. I struggled mightily with the limitations that this plan placed on my style. Each page of the script had to be submitted to his very favorite cat, Ophuls, who was only mildly amused by the material. The project gradually ran out of steam. Still, I treasure the memory of my collaboration with Stanley, especially the lighter moments: the time we recited pi to ten thousand places, for example. The matter of compensation, however, always caused me and my agent some distress. It turned out that in the end I was paying Stanley, at a rate of three dollars an hour. I protested to Stanley, and he said, “That’s below minimum wage.” So I paid him more.
The day Stanley died, my doorman said to me, “You know, a funny thing about that director who died today. A couple of years ago I got a call from someone claiming to be him, saying he’d pay me a thousand dollars if I went and put an apple on your kitchen counter. Of course I did it. Never did get the money. Cheap bastard. But a genius.” Amen.