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Katharina Kubrick on the real Stanley: 'Daddy used to walk around in a green toga...'

Katharina Kubrick
Katharina Kubrick is the oldest daughter of director Stanley Kubrick

The director's daughter on making friends with Lolita, throwing cream pies in the Dr Strangelove war room – and her father's 'hideous' hounding by the press

Stanley Kubrick had three daughters, the oldest of whom, Katharina, joined the family at age 4, when Stanley married Christiane Harlan in 1958. Katharina was initially brought up in the USA, while Stanley’s career flourished with the likes of Spartacus (1960), but soon found herself travelling to and from the UK on a regular basis, in and out of 13 different schools. In time, the Kubricks moved here permanently, settling eventually in Childwickbury Manor, near St Albans, which became Kubrick’s refuge and main production base – a hive of ideas and often bustling homemade art department – until his death in 1999.

Traces of this Transatlantic childhood survive in Katharina’s speaking voice. As Stanley’s oldest child she was privy from an early age to his working environment, and soon developed a creative itch herself. After an uncredited appearance inside a record shop in A Clockwork Orange (1971), she was heavily involved helping Ken Adam and Roy Walker on the art direction of Barry Lyndon (1975), quitting her degree to do so.

A career beckoned working on sets and props for the likes of Midnight Express (1978) and The Dark Crystal (1982), with an iconic claim to fame arriving in 1977, when she was delegated on the set of The Spy Who Loved Me to come up with the dental prosthetics for Richard Kiel’s character, Jaws, who then made a return in Moonraker (1979).

After having the first of her own three boys, Katharina phased out her film career, though remained involved on Stanley’s projects, helping as a location photographer and props buyer, and providing a number of her own paintings to decorate the apartment owned by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut (1999). She continues to work as an artist and jewellery maker, exhibiting her work annually alongside Christiane at the Childwickbury Arts Fair.

A new 4K restoration of Kubrick’s immortal war satire Dr Strangelove (1964) arrives in cinemas this week,  accompanied by a new short documentary. It coincides with the London run of Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition at the Design Museum. Amidst all this reappraisal of Kubrick’s legacy, 20 years after his death, Katharina had much to say about childhood memories of her father at work, the long-time hostility of the British press, and more.

Different versions of the Design Museum’s current Kubrick exhibition have been touring the world since it was first put together in Frankfurt in 2004. What’s new in this London one?

"In this case, they've put it together differently, emphasising his use of locations in the UK and in Ireland, and also thematically: two films which would maybe have caused controversy are grouped, and then you've got the war films together, and so on. And they've added different elements, like real Vietnam War photographs. And in this particular show, [curator] Adriënne Groen has brilliantly sourced the two sculptures from A Clockwork Orange, the Jesus chorus line and the rocking phallus. We've never had those before, so that's brilliant. Each show offers something slightly different."

The phallus used in A Clockwork Orange appears in the new exhibition

What are your first memories of Stanley at work?

"Daddy used to walk around in those green toga things everyone was wearing in Spartacus, because he thought they were incredibly comfortable. My earliest memory of all, though, was when we were living in California, and Sue Lyon used to come round – she was the young actress in Lolita. I was very small, and I just remember her being incredibly sweet.

"I think if [Stanley] knew how heavy the censors were going to be with him, he might not have tackled that book, because really they stopped him from doing just about everything. There are letters in the exhibition from religious conservatives. And the Vatican were also very miffed. But at the same time, they wound up showing 2001 at the Vatican. So they obviously forgave him!

"By Dr Strangelove (1964), we were already in the UK. That was made at Shepperton Studios, and we used to go and visit after school. I went into the war room, and we had to wear felt overshoes so we didn't scratch the floor.

"Because of the nature of my father's work, the house was full of actors quite a lot, so Peter Sellers and James Mason and all these people were regulars. Basically, whoever was in the movie he was making were the people that we saw all the time. But we always visited the sets and got to hang out, because Stanley was very family-orientated, and he wanted us to see what he was doing."

Then came 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – a mammoth production that took four years to put together. Did you get to mess around on that?

"It was such a cool set! It was just down the road from where we lived – I could practically walk there. So I used to go all the time. Just walk around, hang out, walk on the centrifuge, and visit the art department, which was like a glorious art college, with all these creatives just letting rip, and doing their absolute best, and thinking outside the box or whatever cliché you want to use. They were all just trying to create a film, and a world, that no one had ever seen before. Because if you think about it, 2001 was the first time anyone had ever made a serious science fiction film, with no bug-eyed monsters, pointy rocket ships, or that sort of thing. It was a huge art department, and for me, being that way inclined in any event, it was just impossibly interesting.

"The MGM backlot was awesome, too, because there were loads of old sets where you could kind of mooch around. Do you know, I think one of them was the Oliver (1968) set? With a lot of sets on large studio lots, if they were really sumptuous, they wouldn't always strike them after the shoot – and then they would adapt them for other movies, or use bits of them. Because obviously it seemed a huge waste, otherwise. They didn't turn it into a theme park, the way they do in LA. But there's nothing more wonderful for a child than walking down something that looks like a proper street, and going round the corner and seeing all the wooden supports. It’s just magic."

Katharina played on the famous centifruge set of 2001: A Space Odyssey Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment

After a brief background role as a bystander in A Clockwork Orange (1971), you were much more heavily involved assisting production on Barry Lyndon, is that right?

"I was in the middle of my art school degree course. I was sent to work looking for locations, in the UK and Ireland, for over a year. I did everything from muddy tracks to stately homes, and everything in between. It was that film, working with Ken Adam, that made me decide I wanted to work in the art department."

By the time of Eyes Wide Shut (1999), we see evidence of your work all over the screen.

"Yes, most of the stuff in the apartment is from the house! Literally, I watch that movie, and I'm like, there's the candlestick, and there are my dining chairs, and there's mummy's vase, and all her paintings, and there's my painting. So there was practically nothing to sit on. There’s also my painting of dad's cat, Polly – they were each other's favourite. I did that for his 60th birthday."

What do you remember about all the tabloid outrage surrounding A Clockwork Orange after its release, and Stanley’s decision to remove the film from circulation?

"I was 16, at school in Hampstead, when dad was working on A Clockwork Orange, and then the film came out, and it was incredibly successful, and had over a year's run, for instance, at the Warner West End in Leicester Square. But you had Mary Whitehouse and Lord Longford, and they were campaigners, very uptight, and blaming all the ills of society on the various films, including Straw Dogs, that were out there. And they were landing copycat crimes at the feet of the films.

"So it got very unpleasant, with people sitting outside our door, and reporters writing terrible things. 'Stanley's guilty of causing death', and so on. So it became very uncomfortable for him, and he just asked Warner Brothers, ‘Look, I can't live here if the film stays on screens in the UK’. And I think it is a measure of their respect for him that a major film studio like Warners would say, ‘OK, we'll take it off the screens in the UK’, especially as it was already doing so well. So it wasn't banned. He withdrew it the UK, which meant of course that everybody was now going and getting pirate videos, or going over to Paris to see it, which was hilarious.

"But it wasn't roundly banned. And come on: otherwise angelic people were driven by seeing it to put on white clothes and beat people up?!"

Katharina Kubrick: 'After Stanley's death, the deluge of nonsense only increased'

From here onwards, his relationship with the British press seemed testy, to say the least.

"I think the British press didn't like him because he didn't give interviews. He wasn't to be seen at Langan's Brasserie, hanging out. He didn't do TV chat shows. He just said, ‘I can't do it, I'm not David Niven, what I have to say is on the screen, this is not about me, it's about my work.’ And we said, ‘Well, they're writing all this crap about you?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, what am I gonna do? Just protest that I’m really a nice guy?’

"It was his own fault, in a lot of ways, because the papers were obviously told, well, write something about Stanley, and then they didn't know what to write, so they just sort of made stuff up.

"There's another reason that Stanley was always very strict about the interviews he gave. He didn’t know how they were going to use his words. Years and years ago, A Clockwork Orange came out, and the Evening Standard came to my mum, and said they wanted to do a two-page, centre colour spread of her paintings. And she's an artist, so she thought, that's very cool, even if she’s not an idiot and she knows she’s riding on Stanley’s coattails.

"Anyway, so the woman comes, takes photographs of her and the paintings. All the red-top stuff was just coming out – all the crap about A Clockwork Orange. And the strapline inside the paper was, 'My husband is not a monster'. She was spitting feathers. Because you can imagine, you're having a chat, and mummy's incredibly generous with her time – here's some tea, and some cake, and blah di blah, showing you around, and playing with the dogs. And you get to chatting. And then she says something in passing, and they take that sentence, and blow it up out of all proportion. What the hell!

"While you're alive, you have every right to ignore the stupid things that people say about you. But since his death, the deluge of nonsense, most of it incredibly hurtful and totally mistaken, only increased."

Stanley Kubrick on the set of his film Killer's Kiss (1955), a photo featured in the Design Museum exhibition Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

So it actually got worse at that point?

"Oh my god, it was horrible. So, we're all there crying. And I had to get out of the house. So I went in the local, I think it was Forbuoys in Harpenden. There were all these people lining up there for newspapers and cigarettes. And there was headline after headline after headline of, you know, ‘ecogentric, megalomaniac, misogynistic, bats--t crazy director’. And I was just crying, not only because he'd just died, but because of all of this. And it was so upsetting. Because not only are we all incredibly sad, but now it's like they're pushing pins in. Like whoever was writing these stories – because he died quite suddenly – didn't know anything about him, so it’s straight to the top layer of the cuttings library.

"We had a big family pow-wow, and we buried dad. And that was hideous as well, because all the press came and were hanging outside the driveway and left all their crap behind, and paper cups and film cans and goodness knows what else, and trying to get their cameras over the hedge. Oh my goodness. You don't know how bad it is until you're in the middle of it!

"So we had a big meeting and said we have to do something about this. We, a very private family, keeping ourselves to ourselves, which was a great way to grow up, because it was as normal as it could possibly have been, given the circumstances. We thought, OK, we are now not going to let people say this stuff. And we're going to try and redress the balance. So that's what we've been doing for the last 20 years."

As you became an artist in your own right, has your view of Stanley’s films evolved at all, in terms of a hierarchy of preference, or is it still hard to step outside them and be at all objective?

"All of the above. Each one of those films represents part of my growing up, and I worked on Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket, I did a bit on Eyes Wide Shut. And I also had my own career in films, until I had a family. The films do change. And as I get older, I view them differently, and memories of being on the film and what happened that particular day aren't as powerful. I'm viewing the films more in terms of how they're relevant to the world today. Especially Dr Strangelove, obviously, which is more relevant than ever. In talking to other fans, and reading stuff online, on all the fan sites, you find that films which maybe were misunderstood are having a resurgence. People's views change, and my views change, and I swing backwards and forwards about, you know, which one is my favourite."

'More relevant than ever': Peter Sellers in a scene from Dr Strangelove

Would you like to pick one that’s grown in your estimation and another one that’s maybe dwindled?

"I'm not madly fond of Spartacus, if I were honest. It’s not really my cup of tea anyway – you know, swords and sandals doesn't really do it for me. I can see Stanley's eye on that movie, and the battle scenes were an extraordinary feat. I know a lot of people absolutely love it. But it hasn't aged well, I don't think.

"I think Barry Lyndon at the moment is my kind of go-to. Although Stanley felt that Eyes Wide Shut was his best contribution to the art of film, I think that Barry Lyndon showed how assiduously he did his research. Any writer, writing a historical novel, does years of research to get the facts straight. And Stanley treated films, not like popcorn culture, to be viewed once and then discarded. I would equate Stanley's films to film art, along with a lot of the other great auteurs out there, and a lot of the other outstanding filmmakers that he admired.

"With Barry Lyndon, you can just lose yourself in it. I mean, I watched The Favourite the other night. And it wasn't the film I was expecting it to be, actually. But you could so see the influence of how Barry Lyndon was shot in that, with all the candles, and the incredible costumes.

Ryan O'Neal and Marisa Berenson in a scene from Barry Lyndon Credit: Warner Bros

"I didn't like Ryan O’Neal’s casting at first, which a lot of people tend to complain about. Of course, the studio wanted him because he was the biggest star of his day. The more I watch it, though, the more I think he does a perfect job. He’s playing this guy who's incredibly fortunate, and then unfortunate, and makes a series of horrendous decisions. He teeters from disaster to disaster, trading on his good looks."

The Shining often brings out the most obsessive fan worship in Kubrick devotees, almost as if the madness within the film transmits itself to them.

"Jack is going crazy. But Shelley [Duvall] is the absolute hero of that movie. Not only is she in an abusive relationship, with an emotionally abusive husband, who obviously had or has a drinking problem. He's not exactly sunlight and laughter. So first of all she's in a s----y marriage. So he takes on this job. And we see her doing all the jobs that he is supposed to be doing. While he's slowly, unbeknownst to her, being sucked in by... whatever it is, evil spirits in the hotel. And so she's being emotionally and physically abused. If it was a standard horror movie, she would have killed him when she had the chance, but she doesn't. And then she goes on to not only save her child but herself, and get away. She's a complete hero."

Because it’s getting an extended reissue, let’s return to your childhood visit to the War Room in Dr Strangelove...

"I even got to throw a shaving cream pie. I'm so glad it was cut out! [This was the pie fight originally intended as the film’s ending.] I was 9, and mummy and I were there. There are photographs in the exhibition, with mum wearing impossibly dark Sixties glasses and a big pie in her hand, about to throw it. They were actually real flan cases, but they were filled with shaving cream.

"That was totally the wrong ending, because it is a really really dark, serious, scary subject. I don't think that we as human beings are any more safe than we were back then. The reason he made it is because everybody was absolutely terrified. You see documentaries about children at the time in America wearing tinfoil hats and climbing under desks – well, that was me!"

Dr. Strangelove, newly restored in 4K, will be re-released in UK cinemas and at the BFI from May 17 accompanied by an exclusive new short film, Stanley Kubrick Considers the Bomb