This interview is from my book, STANLEY KUBRICK ON SCREEN, available on Amazon and other online stores including ebay...
Doug Milsome is a highly acclaimed cinematographer. He worked on a series of films with Stanley Kubrick, firstly as a camera operator on A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon and The Shining, then as cinematographer on Full Metal Jacket. He spoke to me about the difficulties of working with Stanley on these landmark productions, and the technicalities involved in achieving the closest thing possible to perfection.
The first time you worked with Stanley was on A Clockwork Orange. How did you meet him, and do you recall your first meeting?
My first meeting with Stanley Kubrick was on set. I was chosen by John Alcott to replace a fellow camera member to complete the remaining few weeks of shooting. So little intro, hitting the ground running. I was daunted of course, being in the presence of greatness, his reputation preceding. Alcott briefed me. "Ego management, answer any question Yes, No or I'll Check. Don't make excuses. He's a chess player; play the pawn, he's like a dog with a bone!" I'd had previous experience before Clockwork Orange, remember. Fifteen years in camera working with Antonioni on Blow-Up, Joe Losey on Modesty Blaise, Polanski's Macbeth, Milos Foreman on Ragtime, and David Lean's Ryan's Daughter. Anyway, I was asked back for three more with Kubrick.
Barry Lyndon is one of the most visually beautiful films ever made. Was it difficult for everyone involved in the visuals to attain that level of excellence?
Like all of Kubrick's ideas, it's being a part of his creation. It was his idea to film in natural candlelight to achieve a luminance - if not impossible at the time - with artificial lighting with Kodak, using super high speed lenses. Difficult for me in particular. These lenses were produced by Zeiss for NASA's Apollo moon landing, and deep space photography designed for use on stills cameras. Kubrick got four or six, all 50mm... The task then became the long journey for the lenses to adapt to work with Stanley's 35mm BNC Mitchell non reflex motion picture camera. Many weeks later then to collimate and scale them to the correct point of focus - all my job.
Working at max aperture with such shallow depth of field proved exacting, and difficult in keeping candle light live action images in sharp focus. Anyway, the result evoked a genuine 18th Century atmosphere of pastel renaissance paintings and the best collection of images ever assembled on a single strip celluloid. a delicious feast for each eye.
The Shining is my favourite Kubrick film, probably my favourite movie ever made actually. How can you describe the vibe of the set? What was Kubrick like to work for on that film?
The vibe on set was easier, and less difficult technically for me than the 18 months spent on Barry Lyndon. I enjoyed being closer to Stanley, more understanding of his hard discipline, the pedantic perfection to his mind's eye and communicating with him at a level of trust. I grew more to admire him, and sometimes felt privileged to privately enjoy his off guard moments of humour. There was, alas, a price you paid being dedicated to Stanley Kubrick 24/7 - very little personal family life .
Did you have an idea you were all the part of making a special film with The Shining?
Like any other of his past movies, The Shining was no exception. A masterpiece of Modern Horror riding on the back of a best seller. Playful as it is hair raising, with Kubrick directing. It felt something special alright.
What are some of your favourite memories of working on The Shining?
Some of my favourite moments on The Shining were shared with Garrett Brown. inventor of the then little known Steadicam. Stanley Kubrick called it his magic carpet. Garrett's brilliant use of its execution was a cinematic breakthrough, capturing the blunt symmetry of endless corridors, patterned carpets, empty halls and doors. He could run with a 28lb camera with his rig flat out, seamless to physical movement keeping the image rock steady.
A great guy. Happy memories. My other favourite moment was being chosen to complete the final principal photography for a further seven weeks after John Alcott left.. Also to shoot second unit photography in Oregon with Yan Harlan, his producer.
Full Metal Jacket is another film that looks stunning. Was it a challenging movie to film?
A tough shoot for all the crew, and for me as Cinematographer to please Kubrick into thinking he made the right choice in me.
What was you role in capturing the realism of combat on that film? Tom Savini, a war veteran told me it capture 'Nam better than any other film...
Vietnam's ruined city of Hue was shot in Dockland due for demolition. South East London was South East Asia; yet another idea of Stanley's, so we beat it up, adding palm trees for sub-tropical effect. We chose a look to shoot with low con fast film, heavily filtered, increased grain and colour. A study in grey/green back light smoke to evoke a mood of urban war. Stanley's plan was to mould his actors into a form he imagined; "born to kill" aggression on one hand, altruism on the other, creating confusion and a sense of hopelessness. And the actors not just knowing their scripted lines, but the interpretation and meaning behind the words. His iconic code - no heroes, no easy solutions, no happy endings.
What did you learn from working so closely with Kubrick on those seminal films that you could use in your career as a respected cinematographer?
What I learned? I suppose since Stanley died I have carried lots of memories of him. I continue to see a living memory of him in his films and their status as something special. As a cameraman, I tried to bring a reflection of his personal authorship, a perspective that becomes open to interpretation. Let the photography be true to the narrative, with camera movement not in the way of it.
How do you view his legacy?
Stanley's legacy, I feel, is style never replacing good ideas. Technique is no substitute for content, and the script. In my opinion, he made movies to get through a bad case of chronic anxiety disorder. He was never happier than being back behind the camera.
How does he compare to other directors you've worked with since? And do you see his influence a lot?
Actually I don't see his influence in other directors. There will never be another Stanley Kubrick! I'm 78 and I still miss him.
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