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Kubrick in Ireland: the making of Barry Lyndon

Paul Whitington ·

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Ryan O'Neal and Marissa Berenson in Barry Lyndon

Stanley Kubrick was born in The Bronx on July 26, 1928: his parents were Jewish, and his father, Jack, was a doctor. As a child, he was bookish, and though his intelligence was obvious, he did not excel in school. When he was 13, his father bought him a Graflex camera. Stanley quickly become obsessed with still photography, and was just 16 when he had his first photo published in Look magazine. By the end of the 1940s, he was making his name as a talented freelance photographer, but was already becoming distracted by film-making.

He'd loved movies since his childhood, and after experimenting with short films, made his first feature, Fear and Desire, in 1953. Kubrick would later be embarrassed by its amateurism, but he learnt fast. His taut 1956 crime drama The Killing is considered one of the great films noir, and in 1957, his potential was gloriously realised in the brilliant WW1 saga, Paths of Glory. After that, Stanley had the pick of scripts, and was hired by Kirk Douglas to direct Spartacus. But that experience put him off Hollywood for good, and in 1962, he fled to England and stayed there.

In the spring of 1973, a movie circus arrived in Ireland - the like of which had surely never been seen before. The great Stanley Kubrick, maker of such instant 1960s classics as Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey, had come here to shoot a typically ambitious period drama based on a story by William Makepeace Thackeray.

He would spend almost a year touring the great houses and castles of south-eastern Ireland creating Barry Lyndon, and though the ensuing film underwhelmed most critics and was ignored by the movie-going public, at least in the English-speaking world, it's now regarded as a technically magnificent masterpiece, and one of Kubrick's greatest films.

It's 40 years old this year, and in celebration, several events will take place today and tomorrow at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. This morning, at the Light House in Smithfield, cinematographers, including Doug Milsome and Larry Smith, will discuss the huge technical challenges involved in making the film. Tomorrow, again at the Light House, Stanley Kubrick's friend, brother-in-law and frequent collaborator, Jan Harlan, will give a talk on his career as a producer, and his work on Barry Lyndon. This will be followed by a special screening of the film at the Savoy, and for information and tickets you can visit www.jdiff.com.

In advance of the events, I spoke to Jan Harlan about his memories of both Kubrick himself and the Barry Lyndon production, an extraordinary shoot that lasted over 300 days and involved technical nightmares, endless retakes, tricky location shoots and even a death threat.

The early 1970s were a difficult time for Stanley Kubrick. Following the huge commercial and critical success of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, he had failed to get his long-planned film about Napoleon Bonaparte off the ground after his producers pulled the plug on the eve of production. Kubrick had spent more than a year researching the project, had visited Elba, Waterloo and Austerlitz and taken thousands of still photographs. He was devastated.

And while he did manage to finish A Clockwork Orange, in 1971, Kubrick was not prepared for the controversy and backlash that greeted its release. Based on a controversial novel by Anthony Burgess and intended as a dystopian satire, its graphic violence and infamous rape scene outraged the moral majority, and Kubrick became a focus of public anger after the film was blamed for a string of apparent copycat attacks. He subsequently withdrew the movie from distribution in Britain, and removed himself even further from the public gaze.

As a result of all that furore, Stanley made sure to keep the details of his next project under raps to avoid the attentions of the loathed tabloid press. But with Barry Lyndon, he returned to the dream of evoking 18th-century painting on camera that had first occurred to him during the planning of his Napoleon film.

"The two films would have had little in common, if Napoleon had gotten made," Jan Harlan told me. "But with Napoleon, he did want to find a new way of photographing the look of the time, and he did plan to use a very fast lens in order to achieve that painterly look on the screen." Those plans would reach their magnificent fruition on Barry Lyndon, though at great cost to cast, cameramen and crew.

The screenplay was based on an obscure novel by William Makepeace Thackeray called The Luck of Barry Lyndon, which was itself inspired by the true story of Anglo-Irish adventurer Andrew Robinson Stoney, a soldier, gambler, dueller and social climber whose attempts to mount the greasy pole of English society ended in ignominious failure.

Telling this story would require pristine countryside as well as a series of grand 18th-century buildings and interiors: Ireland was quickly settled on as an ideal and convenient location.

The making of Barry Lyndon would also require a lot of money - Kubrick's budget started big and eventually swelled to a (for the time) whopping $11million. And Warners would only agree to finance his decidedly un-commercial project if he cast a major box-office star.

Robert Redford and Ryan O'Neal were the two obvious candidates: both were the right age to play Lyndon, and both had strong Irish heritage. Kubrick asked Redford, but he said no, so O'Neal got the part.

Stanley, his cast and crew arrived in Dublin in May, 1973, and though they did shoot one scene in Bray's Ardmore Studios, they spent almost all their time on location. "Our base was Waterford," remembers Jan Harlan, "and then we went to Thomastown, Carrick-on-Suir, Ballynatray, that whole area, they were beautiful locations and landscapes. We had a wonderful time in Ireland. Hard work, though!"

The Barry Lyndon crew gained access to some pretty special locations, and filmed in both Dublin Castle and the old Powerscourt House, which would be destroyed by a fire just months after they filmed there. As always, Stanley insisted on retakes until he got the shot he wanted, and one scene where Barry Lyndon approaches his unfortunate bride-to-be Lady Honoria for the first time took over 100 takes. "Well, he would be very slow, that's very true," says Harlan. "He was incredibly careful, he shot for a long time and shot an enormous amount of footage. But you know, so what! He wanted to get it right."

On Barry Lyndon, his perfectionism was exacerbated by the challenges of filming lavish period interiors using only candlelight. Kubrick and his cinematographer, John Alcott, solved the problems of focus and definition in very low lighting by adapting a special Zeiss lens that had originally been developed by NASA for satellite photography, and rebuilding a movie camera to house it.

The Zeiss lens had a huge aperture and was very fast, and when used in Kubrick's candlelit 18th-century interiors, created a beautiful and almost two-dimensional painterly effect, designed to mirror the work of Thomas Gainsborough and others.

It looked great, but radically reduced the depth of field, posing big problems for Kubrick's technicians and actors. "You couldn't move around, you could barely stand up, you know," Jan Harlan explains. "It all had to be carefully rehearsed. If you moved your head forward five inches you're totally out of focus. That's why they sometimes look a little bit stiff!

"The background almost didn't matter, it just had to have good colours, but we knew it was all totally out of focus. It didn't matter, because the paintings of the time were also a little bit not sharp. But you had to get the lips and the eyes sharp, because that's where people look. And that sometimes left you with a depth of field of only two to three inches. The candlelight photography was a real pain, but on the other hand it looked gorgeous. It would be a walk in the park today with all the new technology, but it wouldn't look the same."

If Kubrick pushed himself hard, he expected similar levels of commitment from his actors. When former model Marisa Berenson was hired to play Lady Honoria, she was ordered to stay out of the sun for three months in order to look sufficiently pale. She was on screen for almost 15 minutes before she got to say anything, and was only given 13 lines of dialogue. Ryan O'Neal later commented that Kubrick "shoots a lot of takes, and you don't get a stand-in. We shot for something like 350 days, and afterwards, they had to carry me away."

Harlan says that Kubrick "loved his time in Ireland - he rented a lovely house west of Dublin, he loved the scenery and the culture and the people". But unfortunately, the great man's time here ended on a sour note when he received an IRA death threat. Apparently, someone was not impressed with the fact that he was making a film, which featured English soldiers, in Ireland.

"Whether the threat was a hoax or it was real, almost doesn't matter," says Jan Harlan. "Stanley was not willing to take the risk. He was threatened, and he packed his bag and went home. And the whole crew went with him. Within 48 hours, we were all back in the southwest of England. Luckily we had really what we needed: one or two shots we would have done in Dublin Castle, we then transferred to a stately home in England. But the bulk of the film was made in Ireland."

After a lengthy and loving editing process, Barry Lyndon was eventually released in December of 1975, and if Kubrick had been hoping for a warmer reception than he'd got with Clockwork Orange, he was greeted instead by bemusement, and indifference. Some critics admired the film's technical prowess, but many more complained about its length, fussiness and funereal slow pace. More importantly, it bombed at the box office in America, and in Britain, though it did do well in France, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

"Stanley loved the film," says Harlan, "was very proud of Barry Lyndon, and he was very disappointed that it didn't click with the Anglo-Saxon audience." Afterwards, he moved on other projects, plans and dreams, some of which would never be fulfilled. And in fact, after Barry Lyndon, he would only complete three more films before his death, at 70, in 1999.

''Sure," says Harlan, "after Lyndon, there's only The Shining and Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut. But he prepared several films which he didn't ultimately do. He worked for over a year on a film about the Holocaust, he worked for over a year on A.I. Artificial Intelligence and he looked at other problems, he read a lot and planned.

"He wanted to make a film that lasts. And I must say that in this regard, he was totally successful. None of his films disappear. That's the mark of an artist, that his work remains, as a reference point for future generations. It doesn't matter how many films you make, there are people who've made 50 films and no one has ever heard of them."

"Sometimes," Harlan concludes, "people say he was such a perfectionist as if it was a criticism. Of course he was - would it be better if he was a slob and didn't care?"

Indo Review

1 / 4
Ryan O'Neal and Marissa Berenson in Barry Lyndon
2 / 4
A scene from Barry Lyndon
3 / 4
Stanley Kubrick
4 / 4
Stanley Kubrick