Stanley Kubrick Used A Less-Than-Honest Contract Trick To Free His Schedule For The Shining

Stanley Kubrick is remembered in many ways. He was a visionary genius — a pioneering auteur whose filmography stands as one of the finest in the history of filmmaking. He was also a bit weird. Very weird, at times. The notoriously eccentric director would often be the target of rumors, such as when the press claimed he wore a football helmet on his drive to the set of "Full Metal Jacket" and wouldn't let his driver go over 30mph. In response, he told Rolling Stone "I cannot dispel the myths that have somehow accumulated over the years. Somebody writes something, it's completely off the wall, but it gets filed and repeated until everyone believes it."

At the time, the director clarified that he didn't have a driver and in fact drove a "Porsche 928 S." But while many of the stories surrounding Kubrick were exaggerated or often complete fabrications, that doesn't mean his reputation as an idiosyncratic and complicated man was completely untrue.

There are numerous stories from actors and other Kubrick collaborators which attest to this. Shooting more than 60, and in one case 127, takes for a single scene? Totally true. Going into bookstores and closing his eyes before taking things off the shelf? Verified by the man himself. Often his outlandish behavior tipped over into what can only be described as emotional abuse, especially in the case of his treatment of Shelley Duvall on the set of "The Shining." In that example, his awful conduct is on full display in his daughter, Vivian's making-of documentary. But on other occasions, his questionable behavior has taken a more surreptitious, clandestine form. As was the case when he needed to free himself up in the late-'70s to shoot "The Shining."

The Kubrick contract

Before Kubrick and his team descended upon EMI-Elstree Studios where the bulk of "The Shining" was shot in 1978, the director had to tie up some loose ends. And by loose ends I mean other films that he had committed to making before promptly getting distracted.

Enter, British author Brian Aldiss. The novelist had met with Kubrick after he'd (shockingly) taken a liking to his Aldiss' tongue-in-cheek assertion that the director was the "great sf writer of the age." As Aldiss recounts in John Baxter's Stanley Kubrick biography, in around 1973 he had a "wonderful meeting" with Kubrick which led to the director asking whether he could adapt any of Aldiss' books — an opportunity which the novelist leaped at.

The pair eventually decided that Kubrick would adapt Aldiss' short story "Supertoys Last All Summer Long" — a futuristic tale of an adopted android boy who doesn't realize he's an android until the end of the story. So taken with the story was Kubrick that he offered Aldiss $2 million for the rights and asked the author to work on the script. But Kubrick being Kubrick, the contract he drew up wasn't exactly your traditional legal agreement.

First of all, Aldiss recalled he "would be paid $2 million. But if he called in another writer, I got zilch." That meant Kubrick could get Aldiss to write the script, then call in another author to contribute a few lines and pay his original writer nothing. And the unorthodox caveats didn't end there. Once Kubrick signed on to direct "The Shining," he used another questionable clause in the contract that stated Aldiss was unable to leave the UK without Kubrick's permission. With work on "Supertoys" stalled, Aldiss jetted off to a Florida conference, believing the contract to be on hold.

'Free of all obligations'

Of course, Kubrick didn't see it the same way. Having finally secured Jack Nicholson, who was previously set to be his Napoleon before that project got shelved, the director wasn't going to let a little sci-fi adaptation get in the way of "The Shining." Thus, he instantly invoked the sneaky travel clause he'd written into the contract with Aldiss and put a stop to the whole "Supertoys" project — or at least Aldiss' involvement in it. Upon hearing of his firing via a "terse phone call," the novelist said, "But you weren't working either! [...] We were taking a break."

Kubrick, demonstrating an android-like indifference himself, remained immovable on the whole thing, reportedly telling Aldiss that he regarded himself as "free of all obligations." He then set about adapting Stephen King's novel instead, with an apparently clean conscience and an invigorated drive to start making Shelley Duvall's life a nightmare. He and Aldiss wouldn't speak for five years following the whole debacle, which likely had something to do with Kubrick's characteristic obsession with whatever project he was working on at the time as much as it did with any animosity between the two.

Ultimately, Kubrick would never get around to adapting "Supertoys," and would instead pass the rights to Stephen Spielberg, who used its subject matter to form part of his 2001 project "A.I. Artificial Intelligence." Not quite the Kubrickian masterpiece Aldiss had likely envisioned, but a movie that has certainly improved with time, "A.I." paid homage to its erstwhile director throughout, with certain shots being borrowed directly from Kubrick's previous films.

Kubrick's dark genius

Kubrick had an interest in machine intelligence from early in his career, as evidenced by HAL, the AI antagonist of 1968's "2001: A Space Odyssey." In 1971 the director spoke about how computers are capable of gaining "access to much more information than any number of human geniuses might possess," and how "the first thing that happens is that you don't really understand it anymore, and you don't know what it's doing or thinking about." Ultimately the director was interested in the point at which machine intelligence becomes as "sacrosanct [as] biological intelligence." But his vaguely reverent vision of AI as gaining access to more information than "any number of human geniuses" sounds as if he almost saw a part of himself somewhere in the nebulous subject of machine intelligence.

The whole saga with Aldiss is the perfect example. The novelist recalled in a 1997 Wired interview how he and the director had worked on the "Supertoys" adaptation well into the '90s, having mended their earlier dispute. Evidently, Kubrick had never really given up on the project and was turning to everyone from Arthur C. Clarke to James Cameron to help bring his vision of an AI future to fruition.

All of this makes his poor treatment of Aldiss and his shady maneuvers in the '70s all the more inexcusable. Sure, you could chalk it up to the eccentricities of a genius who "has access to much more information than any number of human geniuses." But there's obviously a line where this stuff becomes truly toxic, as was the case with Shelley Duvall. The questionable contract Kubrick drew up is at this point an amusing anecdote, but there's clearly a darkness operating behind the auteur's behavior that is at once fascinating and deeply disturbing.