Sunday, July 24, 2016

Stanley Kubrick and Me: An Interview with Filippo Ulivieri

David Davidson: What were some of the rarest things that you’ve found for ArchivioKubrick prior to meeting Emilio D’Alessandro? How is the film culture in Italy and what is Stanley Kubrick’s place within it?
Filippo Ulivieri: I started my website purely for fun during my university years. I had this rather impractical idea of building an archive of all things Kubrickian, which is of course doomed for failure from the start. But it was indeed fun, and actually it was thanks to ArchivioKubrick that I got the chance of writing Emilio's biography, because a friend of his contacted me at that email address. My website must have given him the impression I could be the right person for the job, and that's how it all started.
Of all the material I gathered for ArchivioKubrick, what I treasure most are the letters that Kubrick wrote to Mario Maldesi, the dubbing director who took care of the Italian versions of Kubrick's films. I met Mario in 2002, and at that time nobody had seen Kubrick's production material such as letters, scripts, audio recordings from the dubbing sessions... It was really exciting to take a peek at the creative process.
Kubrick is very highly regarded in Italy. His films have always been very favorably reviewed here, and Kubrick himself often premiered his films in Europe at the Venice Film Festival. After he died, the attention hasn't diminished for a bit. The traveling Stanley Kubrick Exhibition went to Rome in 2007, and it was a huge success. The exhibition of the photos that Kubrick took for Look magazine also toured Italy for two years. Basically, in Italy as everywhere, you just can't stop talking about Kubrick.

DD: What was it like spending time with D’Alessandro and first discovering his amazing stories while you were doing the interviews?
It was incredibly exciting. It was every film buff's dream. I had the opportunity to ask Emilio everything I wanted about the production of the films, how Kubrick spent his days when he was shooting and when he wasn't shooting, which was something I was particularly interested in, because nobody really knew what Kubrick did when he was not making films. With his stories, Emilio made me feel the incredible amount of work that went into these films: I really had no idea. I mean, everybody knows Kubrick was a perfectionist and a taskmaster, but these are just words. Emilio made me understand the reality of such perfection.
What I found revelatory is to see Kubrick as a producer: how he conducted the meetings with his screenwriters, how he dealt with the actors, why he wanted to own his cameras and lenses while other directors just rent their equipment, how he managed the long shooting schedules, the brilliant ideas he had to save money, and so on. I really learned a lot about Kubrick thanks to Emilio.
In fact, before embarking on the project, I wondered if writing the nth book about Kubrick was worthwhile. After all, Kubrick is one of the most written about film directors. But Emilio's account truly is unique.

DD: What was the original writing process of the book like? How long did it take? Were there any other interesting stories that didn’t make it into the final edition?
FU: I went to Emilio's place during weekends, and I recorded our conversations. I talked with him and his wife Janette for around twenty weekends over approximately two years. I then wrote a first draft, which basically was a polished, chronologically ordered version of our very colloquial transcriptions. Emilio and Janette read this draft and they corrected some details, such as names, dates, etc. Then they left me alone, they trusted me completely and didn't want to interfere with my work.
I wanted the book to have a strong narrative quality: Emilio led an adventurous life – an emigrant who becomes a racing car driver who reinvents himself as a chauffeur who then is picked up by the greatest film director and spends thirty years with him – so much so that you almost can't believe it. I wanted the reader to be as surprised as I was when I listened to Emilio's memories. I wanted the book to be read as much as a novel as possible.
The easy part was the plot, so to speak: I didn't need to invent anything or to play with the timeline of the events, because Emilio's life had a wonderful shape in itself: everything that happened to him, in the exact order it happened, makes for a compelling narrative. It's almost as if his life was scripted by a very good screenwriter. I just had to dig up what was buried under thirty years of life.
I selected what I felt was interesting, and I tried to give the material a captivating quality. This was the difficult part, because I thought it wasn't just a matter of selecting, but also of connecting the episodes to build a momentum. For the book to work as I wished, I had to turn real people into characters too: I had to give each person a distinct voice, and I was wary of the risk of being unfaithful to their own personality, because I do not know these people personally.
I rewrote the book eight times. It was my first book and I couldn't rely on experience. I also didn't have any connection in the publishing business, so it took me three years to find a worthy publisher. All in all, from when I was first contacted to when the book came out in Italy, seven years had passed.

DD: Why originally first publish the book in Italian? How was the translation of the book in English? And how was it finding an English publisher?
I had to write it in Italian because my knowledge of the English language is limited. I can write grammatically correct English sentences, but this wasn't enough for what I intended to do. I knew that being written in Italian would have been a handicap for a story that is naturally of international interest, but I had no choice.
Despite our Italian publisher is extremely well established and the book was very well received, again it took us three more years to find an American publisher.
Simon Marsh, the English writer who translated Stanley Kubrick and Me, did an excellent job, by the way. He also writes poetry and music, and he has an excellent sense of the rhythm of language. I am immensely happy with his work.

DD: How have you found it to be already generally received? I feel like this book will definitively only become more popular with more word of mouth attention.
The reviews are very, very positive. The New York Times called it "a weird, revealing delight." Online all I read is "this is the best book on Stanley Kubrick", and I receive lots of emails and messages from people who want to congratulate Emilio for what he did for Kubrick. I've recently been told that the first printing has sold out already. But yes, if you liked the book please be as vocal as you can: word of mouth is essential for the success of such an unheard of story.
I am very pleased by the fact that readers are responding to the book in a strongly emotional way. They seem to enjoy not only the plethora of information about Kubrick the filmmaker, but also the very unusual story of kinship between these two apparently incompatible men who were in fact weirdly similar.

DD: What was the most surprising thing about Kubrick you’ve learned putting this book? How has this changed your perception of him?
FU: The most surprising thing is the story itself: before Emilio decided to talk, nobody had the slightest idea of who he was, or that someone had been so close to Stanley Kubrick for such a long time, apart from his family. When I was first contacted I had no idea what to expect. I knew vaguely Emilio had been Kubrick's driver. I even thought there wasn't much of a story in it. It was really a revelation. After listening to his thirty years of life with Stanley, what surprised me the most is how much Kubrick trusted Emilio. He was the only one allowed to enter his offices and private rooms, to the point that when he left for Italy for two years nobody could access those rooms, not even to clean them.
With Emilio's memoir, I believe you get a truer and more balanced picture of Stanley Kubrick: Emilio worked for him from 1971 to 1999, a time span unmatched by any of Kubrick's collaborators. Moreover, since Emilio didn’t even know who Stanley Kubrick was when he first met him, he experienced his job and Kubrick himself without any preconceptions or expectations, nor the will to prove or disprove anything. His alien nature to the movie business led Kubrick to open up to him, as if Kubrick felt safe around Emilio. The result is both a confirmation of the literature, and a complete revolution of Kubrick’s image.

DD: Do you see any of Kubrick’s own biography reflected in his films? Re-watching the films after reading the book, I notice new little details that make the films more personal...
FU: It's impossible to look at Kubrick's films in the same way after listening to Emilio's recollections. Every scene now has a hidden gem: the most obvious are the tributes that Kubrick put in Eyes Wide Shut to honor Emilio when he went back to work after the two-year hiatus; Emilio is the newspaper vendor in the scene with Tom Cruise, Janette is one of the extras in several scenes, even Marisa, their daughter, is in the picture. And of course the Caffè da Emilio in the Greenwich Village set. But again, when I now watch the training sequences in Full Metal Jacket I notice the English street signs because I know Emilio asked Stanley about this supposed error, and Stanley simply shrugged his shoulders – he was not that pedant. Or I know how freezing it was when they were on location at Beckton Gas Works. Or when Kubrick was finally satisfied over a particularly difficult scene. I see the Volkswagen minibuses out of Barry Lyndon's frames... But I have to say all this hasn't spoiled the pleasure of seeing his films. They are so powerful that even if you know how they were made, they still captivate you.

DD: What has D’Alessandro thought of the book now that it has been published? Do you know what the Kubrick-Harlan family think about it?
FU: We were all very anxious for the book to be published, and then to be translated into English. It really took a lot, and we were dying to see how people would react. Emilio and Janette were also eager to let their life known to their friends and relatives: they had been so faithful to Kubrick's request of secrecy that even their closest friends didn't know what Emilio's job was.
Emilio told Christiane Kubrick he has started to work on a memoir, and she understandably had mixed feelings at first. In the end, they consented to the publication of photographs and letters by Kubrick, something they very rarely – if not ever – did for a book that was not originated by them. I think this shows their appreciation for Emilio and Janette. I don't know if anyone in the Kubrick family has yet read the book or not, though.

DD: Were there more pictures or memorabilia of D’Alessandro that didn’t make it into the final edition?
FU: Emilio has around 200 letters and memos by Kubrick, and many more photographs than the ones that are in the book. I would have liked to have more pictures in it, but then the book would have been a very different object: more expensive, and less immersive as a story. But the photos are so good I managed to squeeze in a few more for the English version!

DD: What is the documentary by Alex Infascelli S is for Stanley? Where would people be able to see it?
Alex Infascelli was so moved by the book that he wanted to meet Emilio and then he bought its adaptation rights. I was particularly pleased by his idea of doing a documentary film. Emilio has a strong presence, and Alex thought it would have been interesting to show his rough hands to suggest his hard working life, his teary eyes when he speaks about Stanley's death... And in a documentary you can use Kubrick's letters, memos, production documents and movie props to convey a sense of reality and build a lively atmosphere. 
The film premiered in Italian theaters last May and it has been shown around in European festivals. Distribution rights for the international market have been acquired, but I don't know at the moment if the film will have a theatrical distribution or if it will be broadcasted, or streamed. Anyway, it is shot in English so this should speed things up.

DD: Are you still in touch with D’Alessandro? How is he doing these days?
FU: We speak regularly on the phone and we meet pretty often because, even if the book was published in Italy in 2012, we're still invited by bookshops, film clubs and even universities to talk about it. Emilio is doing very well: at first he was surprised to get all this attention, but now that he has seen how heartfelt the reaction has been, he enjoys talking to people about his take on Stanley Kubrick. I think the book has helped him cope with the void left by Kubrick's death. He says Stanley talks to him again now.