Inspiring Stanley Kubrick Quotes About Filmmaking

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Meticulous, obsessive, and tireless, legendary director Stanley Kubrick has seen a career renaissance in recent years with a major retrospective at LACMA, a fascinating documentary about the conspiracy theories behind The Shining, and more. Today would have been Kubrick’s 86th birthday. In celebration of his astonishing 48-year career in cinema, we’re looking back on some of the director’s greatest quotes about filmmaking. These excerpts offer an intimate look at the frequently interview-shy icon, revealing insight into his films, moviemaking process, and views on cinema.

“A director can’t get anything out of an actor that he doesn’t already have. You can’t start an acting school in the middle of making a film.”

“The great thing about underground films … is their great disrespect for the technical problems of making a film. It’s about the healthiest thing that has ever happened in movies.”

“The best education in film is to make one. I would advise any neophyte director to try to make a film by himself. A three-minute short will teach him a lot. I know that all the things I did at the beginning were, in microcosm, the things I’m doing now as a director and producer. There are a lot of noncreative aspects to filmmaking which have to be overcome, and you will experience them all when you make even the simplest film: business, organization, taxes, etc., etc. It is rare to be able to have uncluttered artistic environment when you make a film, and being able to accept this is essential. The point to stress is that anyone seriously interested in making a film should find as much money as he can as quickly as he can and go out and do it. And this is no longer as difficult as it once was. When I began making movies as an independent in the early 1950s I received a fair amount of publicity because I was something of a freak in an industry dominated by a handful of huge studios. Everyone was amazed that it could be done at all. But anyone can make a movie who has a little knowledge of cameras and tape recorders, a lot of ambition and — hopefully — talent. It’s gotten down to the pencil and paper level. We’re really on the threshold of a revolutionary new era in film.”

“The first really important book I read about filmmaking was The Film Technique by Pudovkin. This was some time before I had ever touched a movie camera and it opened my eyes to cutting and montage.”

“A director’s style is partly the result of the manner in which he imposes his mind on the semicontrollable conditions that exist on any given day — the responsiveness and talent of actors, the realism of the set, time factors, even weather.”

“I would say that there are elements in any good film that would increase the viewer’s interest and appreciation on a second viewing; the momentum of a movie often prevents every stimulating detail or nuance from having a full impact the first time it’s seen. The whole idea that a movie should be seen only once is an extension of our traditional conception of the film as an ephemeral entertainment rather than as a visual work of art. We don’t believe that we should hear a great piece of music only once, or see a great painting once, or even read a great book just once. But the film has until recent years been exempted from the category of art — a situation I’m glad is finally changing.”

“I learned far more by seeing films than from reading heavy tomes on film aesthetics.”

“Anyone who has ever been privileged to direct a film also knows that, although it can be like trying to write War and Peace in a bumper car at an amusement park, when you finally get it right, there are not many joys in life that can equal the feeling.”

“I have always enjoyed dealing with a slightly surrealistic situation and presenting it in a realistic manner. I’ve always liked fairy tales and myths, magical stories. I think they are somehow closer to the sense of reality one feels today than the equally stylized ‘realistic’ story in which a great deal of selectivity and omission has to occur in order to preserve its “realist” style.”

“Include utter banalities.”

“A film is — or should be — more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.”

“I would not think of quarreling with your interpretation nor offering any other, as I have found it always the best policy to allow the film to speak for itself.”

“One of the things that gave me the most confidence in trying to make a film was seeing all the lousy films that I saw. Because I sat there and thought, Well, I don’t know a goddamn thing about movies, but I know I can make a film better than that.”

“There are very few directors, about whom you’d say you automatically have to see everything they do. I’d put Fellini, Bergman and David Lean at the head of my first list, and Truffaut at the head of the next level.”

“I think there is virtually no point putting camera instructions into a screenplay, and only if some really important camera idea occurs to me, do I write it down. When you rehearse a scene, it is usually best not to think about the camera at all. If you do, I have found that it invariably interferes with the fullest exploration of the ideas of the scene. When, at last, something happens which you know is worth filming, that is the time to decide how to shoot it. It is almost but not quite true to say that when something really exciting and worthwhile is happening, it doesn’t matter how you shoot it. In any event, it never takes me long to decide on set-ups, lighting or camera movements. The visual part of filmmaking has always come easiest to me, and that is why I am careful to subordinate it to the story and the performances.”

“To make a film entirely by yourself, which initially I did, you may not have to know very much about anything else, but you must know about photography.”

“I don’t mistrust sentiment and emotion, no. The question becomes, are you giving them something to make them a little happier, or are you putting in something that is inherently true to the material? Are people behaving the way we all really behave, or are they behaving the way we would like them to behave? I mean, the world is not as it’s presented in Frank Capra films. People love those films — which are beautifully made — but I wouldn’t describe them as a true picture of life. The questions are always, is it true? Is it interesting? To worry about those mandatory scenes that some people think make a picture is often just pandering to some conception of an audience. Some films try to outguess an audience. They try to ingratiate themselves, and it’s not something you really have to do. Certainly audiences have flocked to see films that are not essentially true, but I don’t think this prevents them from responding to the truth.”

“Observancy is a dying art. The essence of dramatic form is to let an idea come over people without it being plainly stated.”

“I enjoy working with someone I find stimulating. One of the most fruitful and enjoyable collaborations I have had was with Arthur C. Clarke in writing the story of 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of the paradoxes of movie writing is that, with a few notable exceptions, writers who can really write are not interested in working on film scripts. They quite correctly regard their important work as being done for publication. I wrote the screenplay for Barry Lyndon alone. The first draft took three or four months but, as with all my films, the subsequent writing process never really stopped. What you have written and is yet unfilmed is inevitably affected by what has been filmed. New problems of content or dramatic weight reveal themselves. Rehearsing a scene can also cause script changes. However carefully you think about a scene, and however clearly you believe you have visualized it, it’s never the same when you finally see it played. Sometimes a totally new idea comes up out of the blue, during a rehearsal, or even during actual shooting, which is simply too good to ignore. This can necessitate the new scene being worked out with the actors right then and there. As long as the actors know the objectives of the scene, and understand their characters, this is less difficult and much quicker to do than you might imagine.”

“Sanitized violence in movies has been accepted for years. What seems to upset everybody now is the showing of the consequences of violence.”

“The perfect novel from which to make a movie is the novel which is mainly concerned with the inner life of its characters. It will give the adaptor an absolute compass bearing on what a character is thinking or feeling at any given moment from this he can invent actions which will be an objective correlative of the books psychological content, and will accurately dramatize this.”

“A filmmaker has almost the same freedom as a novelist has when he buys himself some paper.”

“I haven’t come across any recent new ideas in films that strike me as being particularly important and that have to do with form. I think that a preoccupation with originality of form is more or less a fruitless thing. A truly original person with a truly original mind will not be able to function in the old form and will simply do something different. Others had much better think of the form as being some sort of classical tradition and try to work within it.”

“If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed.”

On why Kubrick prefers natural lighting:

Because it’s the way we see things. I have always tried to light my films to simulate natural light; in the daytime using the windows actually to light the set, and in night scenes the practical lights you see in the set. This approach has its problems when you can use bright electric light sources, but when candelabras and oil lamps are the brightest light sources which can be in the set, the difficulties are vastly increased. Prior to Barry Lyndon, the problem has never been properly solved. Even if the director and cameraman had the desire to light with practical light sources, the film and the lenses were not fast enough to get an exposure. A 35mm movie camera shutter exposes at about 1/50 of a second, and a useable exposure was only possible with a lens at least 100% faster than any which had ever been used on a movie camera. Fortunately, I found just such a lens, one of a group of ten which Zeiss had specially manufactured for NASA satellite photography. The lens had a speed of fO.7, and it was 100% faster than the fastest movie lens. A lot of work still had to be done to it and to the camera to make it useable. For one thing, the rear element of the lens had to be 2.5mm away from the film plane, requiring special modification to the rotating camera shutter. But with this lens it was now possible to shoot in light conditions so dim that it was difficult to read. For the day interior scenes, we used either the real daylight from the windows, or simulated daylight by banking lights outside the windows and diffusing them with tracing paper taped on the glass. In addition to the very beautiful lighting you can achieve this way, it is also a very practical way to work. You don’t have to worry about shooting into your lighting equipment. All your lighting is outside the window behind tracing paper, and if you shoot towards the window you get a very beautiful and realistic flare effect.

“I do not always know what I want, but I do know what I don’t want.”

On how Kubrick chooses his material: “I read. I order books from the States. I literally go into bookstores, close my eyes and take things off the shelf. If I don’t like the book after a bit, I don’t finish it. But I like to be surprised.”

“What I like about not writing original material — which I’m not even certain I could do — is that you have this tremendous advantage of reading something for the first time. You never have this experience again with the story. You have a reaction to it: it’s a kind of falling-in-love reaction.”

“I think that much too much has been made of making films on location. It does help when the atmosphere circumstances and locale are the chief thing supposed to come across in a scene. For a psychological story, where the characters and their inner emotions and feelings are the key thing, I think that a studio is the best place. Working on a set provides the actor with much better concentration and ability to use his full resources.”

“I don’t think that writers or painters or filmmakers function because they have something they particularly want to say. They have something that they feel. And they like the art form: they like words, or the smell of paint, or celluloid and photographic images and working with actors. I don’t think that any genuine artist has ever been oriented by some didactic point of view, even if he thought he was.”

“When you make a movie, it takes a few days just to get used to the crew, because it is like getting undressed in front of 50 people. Once you’re accustomed to them, the presence of even one other person on the set is discordant and tends to produce self-consciousness in the actors and certainly in myself.”

“The important thing in films is not so much to make successes as not to make failures, because each failure limits your future opportunities to make the films you want to make.”

“Maybe the reason why people seem to find it harder to take unhappy endings in movies than in plays or novels is that a good movie engages you so heavily that you find an unhappy ending almost unbearable. But it depends on the story, because there are ways for the director to trick the audience into expecting a happy ending and there are ways of very subtly letting the audience be aware of the fact that the character is hopelessly doomed and there is not going to be a happy ending.”

“It is sometimes supposed that the way to make pictures entirely as one wants to, without having to think about the box-office, is to dispense with stars in order to make them on a low budget. In fact, the cost of a picture usually has little to do with how much the actors get paid. It has to do with the number of days you take to shoot it, and you can’t make a film as well as it can be made without having a sufficient length of time to make it.”

“Heroic violence in the Hollywood sense is a great deal like the motivational researchers’ problem in selling candy. The problem with candy is not to convince people that it’s good … but to free them from the guilt of eating it. We have seen so many times that the body of a film serves merely as an excuse for motivating a final blood-crazed slaughter by the heroes of his enemies, and at the same time to relieve the audience’s guilt of enjoying this mayhem.”

“I think that the best plot is no apparent plot. I like a slow start, that gets under the audience’s skin and involves them so they can appreciate grace notes and soft tones and don’t have to be pounded over the head with plot points and suspense hooks.”

“The lasting and ultimately most important reputation of a film is not based on reviews, but on what, if anything, people say about it over the years, and on how much affection for it they have.”

“One of the things that amazes me about some directors who have had financial successes, is that they seem eager to give up directing to become film moguls. If you care about films, I don’t see how you could want someone else to direct for you.”

“I’ve got a peculiar weakness for criminals and artists. Neither takes life as it is. Any tragic story has to be in conflict with things as they are.”

“The screen is a magic medium. It has such power that it can retain interest as it conveys emotions and moods that no other art form can hope to tackle.”