STANLEY KUBRICK, BRIAN ALDISS AND A.I. (PART ONE)
With hundreds of Kubrick memorial articles floating around the Web, I decided that the ultimate retrospective on the man's life would be to focus on the history of the movie that we would unfortunately never get to see: Stanley Kubrick's A.I. . . .
In 1973, British author Brian Aldiss [… ] published Billion Year Spree, a history of science fiction co-written with David Wingrove. Aldiss says:
In that book I mentioned Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange and 2001, and in a footnote I remarked, not entirely seriously, that this made Stanley Kubrick the ‘great sf writer of the age.’ Kubrick picked up the paperback of Billion Year Spree on a railway bookstall and was impressed by this, because he could see it was just slipped in, and wasn’t meant to be sucking up to him. He rang me and said, ‘Let’s meet and have a meal.'
We had a wonderful meeting. In those days Stanley used to dress like Che Guevara: green battledress, a tam o’shanter, a floppy beard. We repeated the lunch a bit later. He said to me, ‘Why don’t you send me a book or two of yours? Maybe there’s something I could film.’ Extremely generous.
Aldiss sent Kubrick a collection of his short stories which contained ‘Super Toys Last all Summer Long’, written in 1969 for a special issue of Harpers and Queen magazine. Only two thousand words long, ‘Super Toys’ is set in a future where birth control is rigorously imposed. While waiting for permission to bear a real child, an executive in a company that produces androids – flesh and blood artificial humans – brings home an android boy, David, together with his android teddy bear, as companions for his wife. Neither the reader nor David, who frets to his teddy that his mother doesn’t love him, knows until the end that he’s artificial. Aldiss couldn’t imagine what Kubrick saw in the story or why he wanted to adapt it, though he surmises it was the theme of the failure of mother and child to communicate.
He said that what we really wanted was a whole set of archetypal situations: a poor boy who somehow had to make good, and had to fight some terrible evil in order to win the hand of the princess. Then we realized we were actually describing Star Wars.
But then he reverted to ‘Super Toys’. He made me an offer for it. He would buy the story outright, and I would work on the script. He made sign a contract which was actually very disadvantageous to me. Among other things, if I called in an agent to negotiate for me, the deal was immediately off. If, on the completed film, the credit read just ‘Script by Brian Aldiss and Stanley Kubrick,’ I would be paid $2 million. But if he called in another writer, I got zilch.
I could see this could create problems. He could just call in someone at the very end, get them to contribute a few lines of dialogue, and I would have nothing. But Stanley is very fascinating. And I wanted to have a go. The $2 million didn’t really interest me all that much. I was more concerned about how we might adapt the story.
I said, ‘This is a vignette. I don’t see how you can make it into a movie,’ but he reminded me that he had done almost the same thing with Arthur Clarke’s ‘The Sentinel’. And he said something that I think is axiomatic: that it’s easier to expand a small thing into a large one than vice versa. Maybe he was thinking of Barry Lyndon.
Kubrick agreed to make The Shining for Warners. This left his project with Brian Aldiss up in the air, but he found a characteristically cavalier method to escape from this. Among the more unusual clauses in their contract was one which specified that Aldiss could not leave Britain except with Kubrick’s agreement. Aldiss thought little of it when he signed, and when Kubrick suspended work on ‘Super Toys’ to prepare The Shining, he accepted an invitation to attend a conference in Florida. He sent Kubrick a postcard from there, and on his return was astonished to receive a terse call informing him that, in view of this breach of contract, he was fired.
‘But you weren’t working wither!’ Aldiss protested. ‘We were taking a break.’
Kubrick expressed indifference. A contract was a contract, and he regarded himself, he told Aldiss, as free of all obligations. The two men didn’t speak again for five years.
In 1989, Julia Phillips tried to interest Kubrick in filming Anne Rice’s fantasy novel Interview with the Vampire, with funding from record executive David Geffen. Phillips had pitched Rice’s story to Geffen as ‘the 2001 of vampire movies’. She explained, ‘If 2001 was really three separate movies, a little past, a little present, a little future, with the monoliths there as the linkage – the glue – then the vampire epic would be three separate movies – only instead of going forward, go back go; the monoliths are the blood-sucking vampires themselves . . .’ Geffen sent a copy of the novel to Kubrick for his consideration, though he wasn’t convinced it was Kubrick’s kind of project. Nor was Kubrick, but this approach and others like it revived his interest in fantasy, and in 1990 he rang Brian Aldiss again.
‘I believe we had a difference of opinion,’ he told Aldiss casually, ‘but that was many years ago.’ Over those years Kubrick’s reputation for eccentricity had not decreased, and Aldiss decided that he had to accept his oddities as part of the territory. He and his wife drove over from oxford to Chidwick Bury for lunch in the big kitchen/conservatory – ‘Steak and string beans, as I recall,’ says Aldiss, ‘which was his usual meal at the time.’
They talked about ‘Super Toys’ again. The reasons for Kubrick’s renewal of interest soon became clear. Seeing and admiring E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial had given him a new concept. He now saw ‘Super Toys’, to which he given the working title, not a million years from E.T., of ‘A.I.’ (for artificial intelligence’), as sentimental, dream-like fable.
Aldiss didn’t share Kubrick’s enthusiasm for Spielberg’s film. He thought it a kiddie picture: ‘It was smartly made, but it was not for me.’ But the two men started work again. Each day, Emilio would pick up Aldiss at his home in Oxford and drive him to Childwick Bury, then return him each night, often very late. From the start, it wasn’t a happy collaboration for Aldiss:
I couldn’t see how we could turn this vignette into a film. We stuck at it for a while, but it wasn’t working. Then, gradually, I realized; this time it wasn’t Star Wars, it wasn’t E.T. It was fucking Pinocchio! The Blue Fairy! I worked with him for about six weeks, and I couldn’t get rid of that Blue Fairy. [In Collodi’s story, a blue fairy intervenes at crucial times in the life of the puppet Pinocchio, helping him in his attempt to transcend his wooden nature and become human.]
At various times, he decided that the story might go in different directions. He thought about some sort of Utopian future, so I wrote about half a dozen of these. The other side of it, and more worthwhile one, I thought, was the Jewish side. Kubrick wanted the little boy, David, to be rejected and to be kicked out into what was referred to as Tin City; it was a sort of Skid Row for old robots and androids. They were going to be used until they were dead, in a kind of concentration camp.
It was an odd way for the plot to move, but at least we were getting somewhere. But then I came in one day, and he said, ‘Brian, this concentration camp stuff is all shit.’ And in flew the Blue fairy again.
Kubrick lectured Aldiss on his theory of screenwriting. ‘All you need,’ he told him, ‘is six non-submersible units. Forget about the connections for the moment. You just get six really good non-submersible units.’ Aldiss recalled, ‘We got two, and he was really excited. "Now be a genius, Brian," he said, "and do the next one."’ They never found the other four, though Kubrick knew roughly that they would involve elemental forces: ice, water, fire.
Aldiss was impressed by Kubrick’s willingness to use his prestige and his worldwide connections.
In the middle of a discussion, he’d call in one of his assistants and say, ‘Get Hans Moravec on the line.’ He’s the world’s leading expert on artificial intelligence. The guy would come back in half an hour and say, ‘Stanley, Moravec isn’t in the States right now. He’s in Japan on a lecture tour.’
Kubrick would say, ‘OK, get him in Japan.’
‘Uh, Stanley, how would I do that?’
‘Well, ring Warners in Tokyo. Tell them to get off their backsides and find Moravec.’
‘But Stanley, it’s midnight in Tokyo …’
An hour later, Moravec would be on the line. Stanley would ask, ‘Can we do so-and so? No? Then what about so-and-so? No? OK. Thanks, Hans.’ He was relentless in his pursuit of what he actually wanted.
At this point, Kubrick decided to try other writers.
Next: In the middle of the six weeks, I went to a science fiction convention in Vancouver. I was the guest of honour, and it had been publicised everywhere. When I arrived back I got a letter from Warner Bothers' solicitors telling me I'd done an unforgivable thing by leaving the country while under contract.
This article consists of excerpts from Stanley Kubrick - A Biography by John Baxter and is not meant as an infringement of copyright but rather as a recommendation of sorts. If you want to read a good biography of the man, then this is the book to buy. Well-written and very much up-to-date it is probably the book on the topic. Buy it today.
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