Unlocking Room 237
Director Rodney Ascher and producer Tim Kirk discuss their documentary Room 237, part of the Cult strand at the BFI London Film Festival.
Room 237 is an elegant, enigmatic essay film about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). This experimental documentary weaves together the voices of five narrators, each of whom passionately believes that Kubrick deliberately buried hidden messages in his 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. The theories are wildly contrasting – one contributor argues that The Shining was constructed as a meditation on the genocide of the American Indians, while another cites the film as evidence that Kubrick was commissioned by the US government to fake the Apollo moon landings for television.
A surprise breakout hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Room 237 has subsequently screened to great acclaim at numerous international festivals, and will be released in UK cinemas on 26 October.
The film has a striking, mysterious tone. Did you set out with specific ideas about the kind of atmosphere you wanted to create?
Rodney Ascher: The Shining is a weird head-trip of a film, so it made sense that Room 237 should be one as well. I like the idea that working in non-fiction, there’s much more that you can do than a straightforward talking head documentary.
Tim Kirk: Also The Shining is very narratively sparse – as a viewer you’re left to wander round the Overlook Hotel and discover things for yourself. Rodney made a decision very early on to give the audience space to think about the ideas that are being presented.
At what point did you decide to interweave the different narrative threads, and how did you go about ensuring that the film remained structurally coherent?
RA: We spent around eight months talking about the film before we spoke to the first contributor. We then cut each interview down into a series of freestanding five-minute segments. At a very early stage we decided to braid them together, moving freely between each theory over the course of the film. When I showed some of interviews to my wife, after listening to one person speak for 20 minutes solid she’d say ‘I really need to take a break from this!’
It was interesting finding links between the different theories. John Fell Ryan, who talks a lot about dissolves cuts in the film, finds what appears to be a Hitler moustache between two shots of Jack Nicholson. That leads very nicely into Geoffrey Cocks talking about his belief that the film is all about the Holocaust. Each of the contributors remembers exactly where they where when they first saw The Shining, so it felt natural to open the film with those recollections.
How did you find your contributors, and did you speak to anyone who you subsequently decided to leave out of the film?
RA: The people we ending up using were clearly the best choices, because they had written the most, and were willing to bring their own personal lives to the project. A lot of them wrote extensively online, so they were easy to find and contact. But a little detective work was required. Tim tracked down Bill Blakemore, who came up with the American Indian theory.
TK: Bill wrote an article about his theory in 1987, and he’s continued to think about Kubrick ever since, although he wasn’t contributing anything online. But people were referencing him in a lot of the material we read, and the article itself was really amazing. So I had to send blind queries to ABC, where he works as a reporter. As it happened it turns out that if Bill sees the word ‘Kubrick’ in an email, he responds! He was very eager to get involved.
RA: There was also a writer I was talking to who’d written a lot of interesting things about Kubrick, but nothing specifically about The Shining. He didn’t wind up doing an interview, but he came from Brooklyn and mentioned that at an experimental theatre they were screening The Shining forwards while projecting it backwards on the same screen at the same time. I eventually got to see this presentation of the film at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. Amazingly, it offers much more than just a handful of visual juxtapositions – it completely works thematically. The Shining is the story of a family who is haunted by the past but can see the future, so it works in countless ways. One critic wrote something like ‘forget Looper, The Shining Forwards and Backwards is the time travel movie of the year!’
Did you make the film with an imagined audience in mind? And have you been surprised by the widespread acclaim you’ve received?
TK: There were glimmers along the way where we thought that people might dig it. But most of the time it felt like Rodney was Jack manically typing away, while I was the ghost Grady pouring his drinks and urging him to carry on.
Did you ever think that, in making a film that’s all about responses to another film, you were creating something that would play particularly well to critics?
RA: As we were planning the film, we talked about bigger issues. Beyond film interpretation, we talked about Bible interpretation, and people making sense of history in different ways. We’re of course gearing up for a presidential election in the US, where every fact is challenged in the media. We decided not to include that stuff directly, although we hoped the film would trigger discussion. But we certainly weren’t calculated or smart enough to design a movie that would be of special interest to film critics!