“When you hold a mirror to society it rebels”: Katharina Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut

Katharina Kubrick talks about her early poster designs for the film – and why her father thought it was his greatest work.

Frederic Raphael looks back at Eyes With Shut
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Isabel Stevens
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Unused poster designs for Eyes Wide Shut (1999) by Christiane and Katharina Kubrick

Unused poster designs for Eyes Wide Shut (1999) by Christiane and Katharina Kubrick
Credit: Courtesy: Stanley Kubrick Film Archives LLC, Warner Bros. and University of the Arts London

The first film of her father’s that Katharina Kubrick worked on behind the scenes was Barry Lyndon (1975), when she was 19, after the whole Kubrick family moved to Ireland and she had to leave art school. “He had already taught me how to take photographs,” she recalls, “and so he said, ‘Right, you’re not doing anything, so you might as well be busy. You’re going to go and look for locations.’”

She would go on to work on a number of his films (including sourcing the Overlook Hotel’s carpets for 1980’s The Shining). In Eyes Wide Shut she can be seen briefly in the scene where Dr Bill is examining a young boy (played by her son), but her own paintings get more screentime, filling the Harfords’ apartment.

Among them is a picture of a cat in the hallway, seen at the film’s start as the couple are leaving for the party. It’s a painting of Kubrick’s favourite cat, Polly, that Katharina had made for his 60th birthday. She was delighted when it had such a prominent position in the film and sees it as “a sort of a thank you from him”. After Kubrick died, Katharina and her mother Christiane – whose paintings can also be seen on the Harfords’ walls – both designed posters for the film’s release.

How did you end up designing these posters?

After Stanley died my mother and I received artwork for the Eyes Wide Shut posters from the studio, but we really wanted to design them ourselves as a last gift to him. My mother in particular felt we could design a poster that he would have loved.

As you may know, Stanley was always very involved in his poster campaigns. It was important to him that his posters were elegant and stylish and immediately visible across the tube station or when you opened the newspaper. They had to be iconic. If you think of the ‘A’ that Philip Castle designed for A Clockwork Orange [1971], or the helmet that he did for Full Metal Jacket [1987], or the foot on the rose for Barry Lyndon… They were very strong images and they told you something, but not everything, about the film.

It was a very intense period. He died in March and the film came out in July, so we had very little time to do it. We were grieving, but it was important for us to come up with a design that we felt Stanley would have loved.

My mother and I are both artists, and because masks are very heavily featured in the film – we started with the premise of turning Tom and Nicole’s faces into masks. We got a photographer who shot them for us full-face. Then using Photoshop we made Nicole and Tom look as mask-like as possible.

Why did you select red as the background?

Red was one of dad’s favourite colours, and it’s also a very emotional colour. People respond to it in very different ways. Some people find it a scary colour. Red is the colour of prostitutes, isn’t it? And whenever you see somebody in sleazy underwear, it’s always got to be red.

Why weren’t they used?

The feedback from the studio was: “You’ve got two of the most beautiful movie stars in the film industry – why are you using masks?” So we thought, OK, let’s start again.

The mirror that was in the Harfords’ apartment was ours. So we had it photographed, and then we took that photograph of them in front of the mirror and made, again, what we thought was an elegant poster. It’s a shame the originals weren’t used because if you look at them now, 20 years later, I think they really hold up and they are definitely Tom and Nicole.

Did your father have to fight for more artistic posters to be used for his films, or was he given quite a lot of creative freedom with them?

Katharina Kubrick

Katharina Kubrick

Everybody knew that Stanley wanted to look after his babies once they were out there. And he was very involved in the poster campaign, talking to the designers with lots of sketches coming back and forth. Because Stanley always said, “I don’t know what I want until I see it. I know what I don’t want.” It was a long process, but all power to Warner Brothers. They completely trusted him to sell his own films the way he wanted.

Why do you feel his film failed to connect with audiences like his others did?

I think a lot of people, especially in America and England, were expecting something more salacious, and not the serious film that it turned out to be. When you hold a mirror to society, frequently society rebels and says, “No, that can’t possibly be the way we behave.” The film did well in Japan and I know that Warner Brothers had people standing outside cinemas there, and couples were coming out of the movie hand in hand. But think about the conversations those couples were going to have after seeing this film…

I don’t think it’s a film for younger people. I think you have to have lived a bit and know what it’s like to feel jealous and upset and have fantasies. That’s why it also took him forever to make it. It was one of the first contracts he made with Warner Brothers in 1970 and then he sat on it. He and my mother said, “We really need to live a bit longer and have more life experience before we deal with this enormous subject.” In the end he was very proud of it. He said he thought it was his greatest film.

Would he have been upset about the film’s reception?

I think he would have been incredibly upset because he really gave it his all. It was one of the joys for Tom and Nicole that it was probably the first time in their careers that they had a director who allowed them to explore their own art, and gave them the time to develop their characters. Stanley’s view was: “I’ve got expensive actors. I’ve got expensive sets. The other most precious commodity is time. The cheapest part of all of this is the film running through the camera.”

He said, “Why not film the rehearsals?” Because sometimes, when actors think they’re just rehearsing, they’re trying things out. They would go off and they would have long meetings and talk. “Should we try this? Should we try that?”

He was very willing to explore. He said to all his actors, “What have you got? What are your ideas? Show me what you’re going to do and let’s go from there.” He was very inclusive.

Because he often didn’t know. If you have an actor like, say, Jack Nicholson or Peter Sellers, who have incredible talent, they are going to bring something to the scene that he might not have thought of. He wasn’t dictatorial and frequently at night he would be rewriting lines of dialogue because something during the day had sparked his imagination.

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