In Part 1 of our write-up on the DVD commentary on Stanley Kubrick‘s horror film The Shining, we heard from Steadicam inventor/operator Garrett Brown and film historian John Baxter about Kubrick’s general approach to Stephen King‘s source novel, and the motivation behind his shot composition in The Shining. Brown starts off the second half of the commentary with some filmmaking tips that might be useful to low-/no-budget filmmakers working today.
(Spoiler alert! Although I doubt people would read a review of the commentary before seeing the movie itself, but just in case….)
Brown says that photographer John Alcott and Kubrick “worked out a way for [Brown] to look almost 360-degrees around a set…[using] very clever dimmer cues for these practical lights so that the lights I was facing were always dimmed up to be the brightest lights and the lights behind me were dimmed down as I spun around and looked in different directions, mainly so that the shadows that they would have caused were diminished and washed out by the…practical lights that were in the foreground as I turned around and around” (01:17:40).
At one point Brown even gives some explicit advice: “For you would-be filmers and videographers out there, if you’re using ultra-wide lenses, keep the camera a bit low, and keep it level fore and aft, and it keeps the sets looking much much better and much more impressive” (00:28:40). This is the only explicit piece of advice in the two-and-a-half hour commentary, but it’s still more than you get in the majority of commentary tracks. Kudos to John Baxter for understanding that audio commentaries can be more than just a trip down memory lane for the filmmakers.
The effect of this camera technique can be seen in Danny’s extended big-wheel rides through the hotel and the famous finale in the hedge maze, a feature of the hotel which doesn’t exist in King’s book. Baxter suggests that Kubrick made this change because he felt it deepened the film’s significance. “Of course Kubrick would’ve been aware of the Freudian significance of the maze,” he says. “And probably even of Alfred Hitchcock’s remark that the convolutions of the human brain resemble those of a maze also, and we increasingly see the hotel as a reflection of Jack’s disturbed state of mind” (00:38:30). Baxter follows up on this idea when he says, “The family was a maze. The idea of psychology is a maze. The intricacies of the human mind are a maze. And in the end of course it’s in a maze that Jack reaches his apotheosis and dies” (02:12:15). Well, isn’t that amazingly insightful.
The Shining wasn’t Kubrick’s first genre film, and Baxter notes some interesting connections with Kubrick’s sci-fi classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Baxter compares Lloyd, the bartender (played by Joe Turkel), with HAL, the eerily monotone computer in 2001, both of whom are “the voice of reason who supplies everything the man needs but never really becomes human himself and increasingly becomes an image of the sinister and the malevolent” (01:04:40). Likewise, he says, “There’s an interesting parallel between what happens…to Jack [when Wendy locks him in the pantry] and what happens with HAL at the end of 2001. In both cases…the evil person is incapacitated, and then sort of deteriorates into another mode, tries to appear more amiable, becomes more innocent, appeals to the person who is attacking them, tries to use all its guile to stop its destruction” (01:49:29).
Baxter also offers his explanation for Kubrick’s interest in the project. “Kubrick by nature wasn’t a maker of horror films,” he says. “He’d turned down the chance to make The Exorcist and Exorcist II which he’d thought banal but in this he obviously felt there was more to be said, that the Stephen King story could be a vehicle for his own disturbed feelings about childhood, about family, about the relationship between fathers and sons. In the research he read books by people like Bruno Bettelheim on what exactly it is that terrifies us…the sort of things that address the basic human fears and he and Diane Johnson wove this into the story making it much more of a psychological portrait and less of a horror movie” (02:18:04).
To me, that statement has subtle undertones of an intellectual’s disdain for the horror genre, a complex bouquet that includes hints of elitism, snobbery, and unnecessarily fancy cheeses. Although there is a psychological aspect to The Shining that elevates it above so many other films, that doesn’t make it any less of a horror film. It’s just one factor that secures its place on the list of damn good horror films – a list that also includes The Exorcist, a story that’s just as haunting even if director William Friedkin’s approach to the material was somewhat more straightforward. These films show that genre pieces can reach new heights when approached with the respect they deserve.
What do you think? Have you discovered any other filmmaking tips that could be helpful to people just starting out? Do you prefer the ending of the book or the film? Can you recommend any other films that take a genre to new heights? Leave some comments below and let us know!
The Shining (1980) | Directed by Stanley Kubrick | Written by Stanley Kubrick & Diane Johnson | Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, and Danny Lloyd | Commentary by Garrett Brown (Steadicam inventor/operator) and John Baxter (film historian) | DVD release date: 2007