Matt Wells has just made his second short film about Stanley Kubrick: Stanley Kubrick Considers The Bomb. You can see it in cinemas with the new 4k restoration of Dr Strangelove or: How I learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, which is out this month.
Matt had access to the Kubrick archives and family members, resulting in a fascinating take on Kubrick’s attitudes to nuclear weapons, and what life was like then – as the threat of nuclear annihilation, what President Kennedy calls the “Sword of Damocles”, hung over Americans.
I spoke to Matt about making his Kubrick films, how Dr Strangelove became a comedy, and introducing this classic end-of-the-world movie to a new audience.
Sarah: You’ve made two short films about Kubrick now. What started your fascination with him?
Matt Wells: So I was nine when his last movie came out, Eyes Wide Shut.
I hope you didn’t watch that at nine…
No I never came to any of them at first release! I was very familiar with them. For me, it was mostly from The Simpsons but from other things as well – they’re so ingrained in public culture, they’re so visible.
By the time you come to watch them, you’re seeing the movie but you’re also seeing this kind of totem of pop culture, that I’m interested in trying to understand. Why do they resonate?
There was an opportunity to meet some of the people who were involved in The Shining, and to film with them, which is the first short that I did. [Matt made Work & Play: A Short Film About The Shining, which was released with The Shining for Halloween in 2017]
That was really trying to understand the iconography of the movie. Trying to dissect the iconic moments were really interesting.
Camera work is a very big part of how the movie acts on you when you’re watching, how it gets in your head in that very insistent way. Or talking to the twins [Lisa and Louise Burns, who played the ghostly Grady twins in the film].
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Yes! That was incredible, they don’t seem to have been affected at all!
No! But they’ve got a really interesting point of view on it, in that they were kids when they made the film. And then they went away and had nothing more to do with the movie business, so the memories they’re recalling are those of nine year olds.
Other child stars might then go on and have a career in it. So they become professional interviewees to a degree, but they also become very used to the sort of things that might have seemed magical to them when when they were children.
It’s hard to remember your first reactions, isn’t it?
The twins talk about walking behind the front of the hotel and seeing the A-frames holding it up, and how amazing this all was. The snow isn’t cold! You know, the points of view of people who aren’t so used to filmmaking are often the most interesting ones.
Because it’s a crazy world, isn’t it, movies? There’s a point where everything seems so odd, and then even if you only slightly become part of it, on the periphery, you do lose those first feelings of what a set is like, even.
Yes, and, you know, there’s a lot that’s been written about Kubrick, there’s a lot of like ‘making of’ stuff, there have been conferences, there are books, there are essays, there are articles, there’s a lot that’s been said; but I think that the stuff I’m trying to do is for audiences who might not be immersed in it already.
So a point of view like the twins’ is brilliantly helpful because they don’t come out as seasoned film people, they come out as these outsiders, who saw it being made first-hand and they can offer a point of view that a non-film person might share. What might I have felt if I had been a nine year old coming on set?
So I’d been making documentaries and music videos for a few years. I started making films at university, finding I could get academic research budgets and it didn’t really matter what came back at the end, so I could spend the money on filmmaking.
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Probably a good way to finance a film! I’d never thought of that.
Yes it was fantastic! The films, I’d dread to watch them now, but you know, you learn. So I’d been making films in some form or another, then started working at Park Circus, who are a classic film distributor.
They’re looking for reasons to get people into cinemas again, even though the movies are available on Amazon or on Netflix or whatever. The films look incredible up on big screens – it’s a different experience, and these are something extra to help shift tickets.
But for me, part of it is five or ten minutes of big screen time with great access and fascinating stories and all these interesting people that I can talk to. I’m London-based and it’s helpful with the Kubrick ones in that so many of his films were made here.
Starting out, budgets are always a challenge and you’re always trying to get as much as you can for as little as possible. So the fact that there are crew members living all over Hertfordshire who were involved in this stuff, there’s the Kubrick archive down in South London, it’s all here.
The Kubrick estate have been very supportive, and they’ve opened doors. Warner Brothers and Sony have been involved: Warner Brothers with The Shining short, Sony with the Dr. Strangelove one. They’ve been very supportive and opened up this kind of Kubrick universe.
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You’ve had amazing access.
The access was brilliant, yes.
Was that already sorted for you?
No, this is all part of it. Park Circus has a long-standing relationship with the studios. The first one, The Shining, is a Warners’ film. They helped arrange for us to start filming with the family, and as we started to film, the trust built up.
Gradually, it came together in Work & Play, but we were really working out what the project was going to be and how it was going to be released as we were going along. And it worked. It worked well enough for me to do another one!
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I watched both your short films again yesterday, and l liked the fact that the first one [Work & Play] is really about Kubrick as a family man. Of course, The Shining is about a family. I’ve been reading a book about the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s very much about his attention to detail, his perfectionism, and how that affected things. So this idea of him as being a really warm family person, even as he’s making the films, is really fascinating.
Yes, he got to an amazing position in his career quite early on when he could work on his own terms, and he was his own producer from Dr Strangelove onwards. He leveraged the successes he had very, very cleverly.
He set things up the way he wanted in all parts of his life. There are things you’d expect from a successful film director that were completely absent from his life. Like, the Hollywood social circles, he just didn’t do it, he wasn’t interested.
People speculate as to why he moved to London. There’s tax breaks that helped with film financing there, things like that. But you also get the sense that his priorities were making his films and being with his family.
And the set-up that he was able to get here was incredible. He’s on Hollywood-size budgets which are big! But he’s got the independence to work completely on his own terms.
When we filmed with Jan [Harlan, Kubrick’s brother-in-law and executive producer] and Katharina [Kubrick, Stanley’s daughter] for these documentaries, we filmed them at their family house which is just outside London, it’s still in the Kubrick family.
It was the centre of operations for all his filmmaking. Cast or crew or collaborators would go there, that’s where the films were cut, that’s where the writing happened. Writers would come, spend time with him there, then go off and then do another draft. It was this hub that he was running out of his home.
So, the impression you get from family members is that he was able to to put a lot of time into family life as well as a lot of time into filmmaking, in a kind of cyclical way.
I think it’s in one of the biographies, there’s an anecdote that when Stanley Kubrick was making a film, his wife Christiane Kubrick would run the household, and then he’d get out of production again and take over and she would spend more of her time on her paintings. I don’t know how accurate it is. But you get the sense that it was quite a modern set-up.
But he had an amazing amount of freedom. And he earned that by having outrageous successes early in his career, making a lot of money for the studios. Everyone I talked to who worked with him will say that he was very careful with studio money. He spent it well.
He was conscious that he had to make a return on it, he was responsible with it. He made them a lot of money and because of that he was able to work in a way that few other people do.
It’s one of the reasons I’m interested in him. He’s making very personal movies on a huge scale, that most directors don’t ever get to work at. But not only is he working at that scale, but he’s doing it in a way that’s very him, and it’s his interests that are being worked out on the screen. He’s doing it on his own terms.
He’s not working in Hollywood, he’s not making the films that people want him to make, he’s making the films that he wants to make.
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One of the things I liked about Stanley Kubrick Considers The Bomb is that it really sets up, particularly for younger people, what the mood was like from the 1950s probably until the 1980s. If you grew up during those decades it was not just a fear, it was almost an acceptance that this was maybe how things were going to finish.
Like Eric Schlosser says in your film, it’s the absurdity which is so frightening because that’s real life. And hearing about the lack of safeguards…
I know, it’s terrifying.
…and how relatively junior people had control. There’s a scene in Dr Strangelove, where Group Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers) is trying to get loose change to put into the pay phone to ring the American President to stop a war and actually, it’s crazy but is it that crazy? And now there’s more technology but all technology is built by humans, so, you’re building in…
Fallibility, yes. And hubris.
Completely. You know, this project came about, The Shining thing had worked quite nicely and we knew we wanted to do something similar again. And there was a new 4k restoration of Dr Strangelove which Park Circus was going to put out. And I was thinking, do we focus on different films? Do we do Dr. Strangelove? One of the things that got me really interested in it was, starting to get into where the film comes from.
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And was that new to you? Or did you have an inkling?
I had an inkling but I’m not a historian. And it’s a very specific bit of history, a bit I find really quite interesting. The process for me was starting to research it, so, talking to people of different generations about their memories of it, and you end up with different points of view.
So, for example Katharina Kubrick was a kid while her dad was working on the film. She’s remembering it from a child’s point of view whereas Jan Harlan, he wasn’t working yet with Kubrick, but he was his brother-in-law and spent a lot of time with him. So he’s looking at it from the point of view of a grown man with a completely different relationship to the threat of a nuclear war.
But also, two different points of view on Stanley Kubrick’s relationship with nuclear war.
I was watching a lot of the material produced by the US government at the time, quite a bit of which we included in the film because it’s so telling. Throughout history they produce film, and it’s always a really interesting reflection of current concerns, usually with a doublethink going on. It’s what America is telling itself.
So, we included some civil defence videos which are basically instructional videos for what to do in the event of a nuclear strike. We include a clip from one of the famous ones called Duck and Cover where this family are picnicking and they all dive under the picnic blanket. And you’re like, what is a picnic blanket ever going to do for you in case of a nuclear strike?
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People want to know they can do something. In the 80s in the UK it was Protect & Survive. Take a door off its hinges to make a shelter and sit under that for two weeks. And whitewash your windows.
I know. It’s the comfort, it’s a kind of self-reassurance.
It’s the thinking that your government is taking care of you but also that you can do something and have some agency, when actually, you’re going to be burnt to a frazzle.
But it’s absurd. That’s the logical thing for the government to be doing: putting out this material that comforts people, lets them know their government has got their back and is looking after them, telling them what to do and if it comes to the worst, there are things you can do.
Obviously that’s nonsense but it’s the sensible thing to do. But the whole thing’s ludicrous.
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I always got the impression that the Americans, although they were coming up with ridiculous ways to protect yourself, seemed to be telling their population more. I first visited Manhattan in the 90s, and back then lots of buildings still had old fallout shelter signs on them. In the UK, it felt like they’d dug out half of South East England for the bigwigs, and we’d be huddling under our door.
When you first saw Dr. Strangelove all the way through, what was your first reaction?
I think I was a student, and I rented it from the university library and watched it on a laptop at home. I’ve seen it a few times over the years and I dependably find it funny, so my hesitation with the project was: it works, what more is there to say about it?
But – getting an appreciation of how bold making it funny was. When Dr Strangelove came out, as Jan Harlan says in the film, it was very divisive. Some people loved it and some people thought it was appalling. And the reaction was, how dare you joke about something so serious.
Kubrick’s releasing this film to an audience who’d just come through the Berlin Crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis. You can see interviews years later with Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, saying we were that close. It was “I’ll do this, it’ll lead to that, it’ll lead to that, it’ll lead to that, it’ll lead to nuclear war”.
It really could have happened, and people knew it. It was on the news, it was on television, it was public knowledge.
A couple of years later, out comes a comedy. About the end of the world!
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A comedy of the time as opposed to now, because the nuclear threat is different but it’s probably just as bad isn’t it? There’s the Doomsday Clock, which, every now and again they move forward and now we’re two minutes to midnight or something. But of course, nowadays, the danger is more fragmented. Terrorists, different flashpoints, proxy conflicts. Maybe we can only cope with one big fear, like climate change?
Even climate change, it all seems so distant. I mean Kubrick says it in the film, it’s an abstraction and people don’t process it. How do you deal with the idea that the world could end?
When they were developing Dr Strangelove the plan was always to make it a serious drama. And halfway through, Kubrick goes, that’s not it. The accounts of it, of that decision he made, are that in script sessions; they would find themselves laughing. There are memories in the archive of Kubrick explaining the decision, there’s a sense that they were cutting out scenes that really got to the heart of the matter because they were too funny.
And he’s trying to make a serious film and it’s like no, hang on, make it funny, lean in to that. And this also has the effect of discomfort.
If you watch a straight drama about something that you can’t comprehend, do you get as close to that issue as you would if you’re laughing at a joke about the end of the world, and feeling discomfort about laughing? Do you get closer to the discomfort than you would to the incomprehensible reality?
But it’s an incredibly bold thing to do. I don’t think audiences were used to that kind of comedy when it came out.
For me when I’ve watched it over the years, we are used to it. I think people hadn’t gone as far in their comedy as we’re used to now. Like I said, I came across this movie first in The Simpsons. These jokes are everywhere.
But in 1964, they weren’t. So when it came out, the reaction was a lot more visceral, people felt it. When people liked it, they felt he was championing a cause that had to be championed. He wouldn’t necessarily say that, but that’s how people received it. Or if they didn’t like it, they were outraged, it wasn’t only a movie, it was like how dare you?
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If you were going to recommend a Kubrick film to someone who hasn’t seen anything, what would you suggest?
Good question. It depends who they are. They’re such different movies aren’t they? I tend to think, I always recommend going to see 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen.
Because it’s just doing something that only cinema can do, but cinema very rarely does. It’s so experiential; there are some 70mm prints going around and there was the new restoration last year. Something like that it looks incredible.
I wouldn’t for a lot of other movies, but I’ll always tell people don’t watch it at home. Just save it and go and see it in the cinema. Make that your first.
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Watch the trailer for Dr Strangelove and Matt’s film Stanley Kubrick Considers The Bomb:
Still worrying? Check out these stills from the movie
Peter Sellers as British RAF Group Captain Mandrake
Dr Strangelove himself (Peter Sellers)
Tracy Reed as Miss Scott (Turgidson's secretary and mistress) and George C Scott as General Turgidson
Peter Sellers as US president Merkin Muffley, on the phone to the Russians
Peter Sellers as US President Merkin Muffley
Peter Sellers as Dr Strangelove
Tracy Reed as Miss Scott
Peter Sellers as RAF officer, Group Captain Mandrake
George C Scott as General Turgidson, US Air Force Chief of Staff
Dr Strangelove poster
Dr Strangelove poster