As well as working with Stanley Kubrick for over 30 years, Jan Harlan also directed Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures, which is considered to be one of the most in-depth documentaries about the life and times of the acclaimed director.
As part of JDIFF '15, Jan Harlan will be attending a special screening of Barry Lyndon along with star Ryan O'Neal at Savoy Cinema on Saturday, March 21st at the Savoy.
We sat down with Harlan and discussed his working life with Stanley Kubrick, Barry Lyndon's bumpy production in Ireland what Kubrick would have made of films today.
A significant portion of Barry Lyndon was filmed in Ireland. Why was that? Was it about authenticity or tax breaks?
No, not at all. Stanley wasn't a man who travelled easily. We shot in Ireland because we couldn't get that look and those locations. Look at Thomastown, Carrick-on-Suir. You get big stately homes, but you don't get the kind of look we wanted in Ireland. It's an Irish story. Stanley hated, HATED travelling. He hated hotels, he hated being away. I mean, we shot Full Metal Jacket - a Vietnam War movie - in England!
There's an urban legend about Barry Lyndon, that the production was targeted by the IRA. Can you tell us about that a bit?
That only happened later in the production. It happened in, I think, the last 10% of the production. We'd got most of our filming done, we still had some scenes left to finish. But yeah, it was real. At least, we thought it was. It might have been a hoax, but we definitely didn't want to test it. He was directly threatened and he didn't want to test whether it was real or not. And, y'know, within 24 hours, he was gone. We had most of the film done so it wasn't a huge disaster for us. The story's true.
Why did he want to make Barry Lyndon?
I asked him that question once, and this is what he said to me. "You may as well ask me why I married my wife!" He was in love with the novel, he was in love with the era and he wanted to make that film. That's it. There's no reason to it, there's no logic for it, he simply wanted to adapt Thackery's novel. It didn't do well for him. For whatever reason, it was a total flop in the Anglo-Saxon world. It flopped in the United States, but in Spain, Portugal and countries like that, it did very, very well. At the time, the US audience accounted for something like 50% of the box-office earnings.
Why do you think his films have such longevity?
They have enough of an audience that people will love them. Barry Lyndon, for example, wasn't a box-office hit. But it will remain. I promise you, in 100 years, people will still be talking about it. Dr. Strangelove has yet to be surpassed. It's still, unfortunately, still modern. 2001 is still modern. The vanity of the military in Paths of Glory is still relevant. It's still there. His films are an icon for the next generation. It's the mark of an artist. The French impressionists, like Picasso, will never go away. You don't have to like them, but I promise you, they will never disappear. And Kubrick's films will be around for a long time.
Kubrick's films are so well researched and he himself was so particular, he must have been a demanding director to work with.
Of course he was demanding! But there's nothing wrong with that! If you can satisfying a demanding person, it's much more satisfying to work for him. I wasn't always able to, it wasn't always a walk in the park. But it was great fun. Otherwise, I wouldn't have been working for him for 30 years.
His casting choices were so on-point, you really couldn't imagine anyone else in these roles. How did he go about casting? Did he have someone particular in mind, did he write for a specific actor?
He'd look at a lot of films, he'd scratch his head. For Eyes Wide Shut, he was totally determined to have Tom Cruise. He wanted this macho guy, to play a loser. Tom himself said that he was so happy to do it, to do a role that he wouldn't normally do. He didn't, however, want Nicole Kidman. He didn't want a married couple, he was adamant about that. But then he saw Nicole in a film called To Die For and she was so good at holding a long take. He asked Tom if he minded, he said not at all. And that was it.
Did he allow himself to take in pride in what he did?
Oh, very much so. He was very depressed that Barry Lyndon didn't do well. The fact that it did so well in Brazil, France and Japan - but it was a total flop in the United States. That was very disappointing for him, but he loved it. Eyes Wide Shut, he felt, was his greatest contribution to the art of filmmaking. The fact that few people would agree with that is neither here nor there.
What's your favourite Stanley Kubrick film?
I'm the last person to answer that. I'm too close to it. I love to be in Ireland, but that's not a good reason to like Barry Lyndon. I love the incredible, intense work on Eyes Wide Shut. In that respect I like it very much. To work in the Gasworks for Full Metal Jacket was most unpleasant, and I didn't like it all, but I don't like it any less because it was so unpleasant. I love 2001, I'd nothing to do with it. I love Dr. Strangelove, I'd nothing to do with it. I look good movies, I like good films.
Is there any film that you've watched recently that you think Stanley would have loved that or would have loved to make?
I think he would have loved Boyhood. It's such an original idea. He would have liked Ida. It's a completely, beautiful, black-and-white film. It's all about Communism, the holocaust and so on. It's a complex film. He was a film buff. I can't say I've seen a film that he would have done better. I'd have to think about it very carefully.