/Film Interview: 'Room 237' Director Rodney Ascher

There's no denying that Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is a film begging for discussion. A story that seems straightforward on the surface is littered with curious scenes and subliminal suggestions, and wraps up with a final shot that is curiously awesome. Even knowing that, though, you may have no idea how deep the discussions about The Shining can possibly go.

Rodney Ascher's brilliant documentary, Room 237, does a fantastic job delving into some of the most fascinating, crazy, and perhaps even true interpretations of the 1980 film. It entertains theories about the relationship of The Shining to Native Americans, the moon landing, super imposition, and oedipal readings. Since premiering at Sundance in 2012, the film has been riding a wave of good buzz and controversy on its way to release on VOD today.

We spoke to the Ascher about that controversy. In addition, our conversation with the director touched on the method of piecing together a the film entirely composted of archival footage, backlash from the Kubrick or Stephen King camps, whether he could do a sequel and much more.

Congratulations on the movie. I saw it at Sundance last year. It blew me away and I haven't been able to shut up about it since. I am so glad it's finally coming out.

Well thanks so much. You were there from the beginning.

The beginning was crazy, because nobody thought anybody else would get to see the movie, because of the way you guys chose to shoot and assemble it. That's where I wanted to start. Why make it this way, knowing there was a possibility it wouldn't be released because of rights issues?

Well I mean the first reason to do it that way, is it was the way that creatively made sense. If we are talking a lot about The Shining, we want to see The Shining and with some of the other stuff and the way we used some of the footage, it just evolved organically. This wasn't a project that anybody commissioned us to make. Tim and I were developing it and we actually pitched it to a couple of producers. Although people thought it was kind of neat, nobody broke out a checkbook. So I don't know that... I can say straight out, the idea that this sort of international theatrical release that we've stumbled on, was never anything we seriously thought ever had a chance of happening.

Basically I set out at the beginning in making it the way I thought it made sense to make. I was aware of precedence that other people had done similar stuff and managed to get things out. So we just clenched ahead and there was a point during the rough cut when it seemed it was coming together pretty good and there was little bit of excitement from testimonials and things where a couple of executive producers came on. Pete David Epersalt and Todd Hughes came on through a complicated clearance process with their film Hit So Hard. They came on board to help us navigate those waters and after meeting with some lawyers and clearance people it became clear that there was a way to get this thing releasable and that was incredibly exciting.

But the early stages, had this played at Sundance then went straight to a Youtube release or DVD, that would have been fine. That would have been a success if people were into it. So I guess the real answer is we didn't expect anything like that with this film to really have a serious case for theatrical release, so we didn't sweat it too much at the beginning.

When you decided to do this, did you just pop "The Shining theories" into Google and start there? Did you find the subjects first before you pieced the footage together over their thoughts?

Yeah, well I mean it started when Tim, the producer, heard one of these long analyses that he discovered and that immediately fascinated the two of us. We thought looking up these things would be interesting for a film, and we spent eight months to a year researching it.

With the structure of it, certainly the interviews came first and then finding the way to tell that story came after. Clearly this is a... It's a little more complicated than a commentary track on a DVD the way that things [work].

So you had the interviews, and you knew how you wanted to put it together, so you say "Well I'll start with this Eyes Wide Shut shot" or "I want to pop in All the President's Men here"? Where did some of those ideas come from, besides the obvious stuff in The Shining?

Those were puzzles until they came together. I would sometimes have to work harder to figure out the imagery that would illustrate what people were saying. The Shining stuff is usually, although not always, pretty literal. Some of the other stuff would be subjective observations that we would make in researching. Sometimes the connections are kind of clear and sometimes they're a little looser. A lot of times there'd be an exciting discovery where one shot would line up with one piece of dialog and as I let it roll, it would just synchronize with other elements further downstream. We ended up using more archival stuff than we expected.

In the early stages we were thinking of renting out a movie theater and shooting [the scenes of people watching The Shining in a theater]. As I started to explore the world, there was this perfect, ready-made [scene from the movie Demons] where not only are the people perfectly dressed for seeing a horror movie in the eighties, but I was able to find surrogates for the people that are in the movie and what they are feeling. Also, if you're familiar with Demons, it's the story about the line between movies and reality really blurring. So, for the audience who gets that, it might be able to resonate even deeper than something that I would have shot myself.

Was there any theory that was too crazy or too obvious to put in the movie?

Well, at the beginning, we might have hoped to have gotten everything, but very quickly that proved to be an impossible task. Not only does not everyone have something interesting to say about The Shining, but we can only reflect a small percentage of what our people have to say. There are parts of The Shining that we don't get to talk about. The Shining is two hours and forty-something minutes. To have five points of few about everything that happened in The Shining, it would be over twelve hours.

So yeah, the yardstick we would use are people who were different from one another who brought something new to the table. Bill Blangmore was the first person I interviewed, and what I got so excited about in talking with him was that there was this personal connection to the film which was beyond the themes we saw that were coming out of it. So that certainly became something I wanted to highlight, that two-way street, the two-way relationship that people have in this movie. So I would have been less interested in someone who might have done an interesting job exploring things, but didn't feel a personal connection to the movie.

What do you find as the most plausible and least plausible parts of your movie?

(Laughs) I think "plausible" is a tricky word. I guess what you're asking is "which elements in the movie The Shining were intended and intended only for the reasons these people are seeing and not for anything else?"

Yeah, which is obviously subjective. If you were watching your movie, what would you think were the least and most plausible?

If I were watching Room 237 as a fan... [Long pause]

Do you want to come back to that one?

Yeah. You know, of course besides whatever my honest answer might be, I can't help but feel loyalty to the folks that I talked to and I don't think I want to call anything out as implausible. Everything that the people said kind of resonated with me. There are ideas that, like when you hear the generic version, you might not get, but then the supporting points start to add up. Time and time again it would be three in the morning and I would be reading something and if I was... This is a story about death and love, all right, I don't see that except for the maze, but then you read deeper and it gets more and more persuasive as you go.

No matter what Kubrick intended it or not, it's all up to somebody's interpretation. When I first saw Room 237, I thought "Stanley Kubrick would love this movie," because even if he didn't intend any of it, he would have laughed his ass off and loved every second of that.

I would hope that would be his reaction. I heard that he loved hearing people explain to him the ending of 2001 without ever confirming that they were right or wrong.

Speaking of which, did you ever hear from either Stephen King or the Kubrick camp about this movie and their reaction to it?

Nothing from Stephen King, although in a way I think he's the person I'd be most interested to hear from, since he's the guy who got this ball rolling and like us is revisiting it thirty something years later while working on the sequel with Dr. Sleep. Certainly I haven't heard anything from him, though at a certain point he won't be able to say that there's something about this movie.

And nothing directly from the Kubrick camp, though there was an interview with Geoff Carlind, his brother-in-law and his producer, who actually confirms some of the stuff with the impossible layout of that hotel. Though it wasn't clear if he was talking about the movie or he was just talking about that as it was being bounced around a little bit.

In the time since Sundance, have more people with theories on The Shining reached out to you to say "hey, you didn't cover this"?

A couple, but I would say maybe a half dozen or so. So I'm still bracing myself for that.

With this and Trailers From Hell, you positioned yourself as a guy who loves to make movies about movies. Is that something that just sort of happened or is that something you were actively interested in doing?

It's certainly an interest. I'm chipping away at a couple of projects simultaneously now and one of them is about another filmmaker, but the other one isn't necessarily about movies at all. You know, I think maybe with both of these projects I guess I like to have my cake and eat it too. Clearly this is something I'm obsessed with myself. I love genre movies, especially from a certain vintage, and this allows me to explore that while also doing something that in a weird way is more personal.

Can you say anything about what you're working on now?

It's not like I've signed a non-disclosure agreement, but I would hate to say something out loud then it never comes and I look like a pathetic failure who doesn't have his act together. I'd like to wait for them to be a little further down the road before I talk too much about them.

I can understand, having studied Kubrick, why he and The Shining are such a perfect topic for a movie like this. But when I try to explain this movie, a lot of people say, "It just picks pieces out of the mise en scene and breaks down his minutia. Couldn't you do that with any movie?"

Well I might argue with the word "just." (Laughs) I'm totally interested in seeing people do it to other movies. If you know someone who can talk to me for three hours about themes and allegories within An American Werewolf in London or The Blues Brothers, I'm ready to listen to it tomorrow.

Totally. And the last thing, like you said, you only dive into parts of this and there's so much more to be explored, not only with your subjects, but with other people. If there is a demand for it, would you do or could you do a follow up with The Shining?

I could. I certainly wouldn't do it right away, but there's a part of me that thinks that although The Shining is the subject of reference here, hopefully this is in some bigger way an exploration of the idea of interpretation and the study of symbols in general, even if it's not The Shining in particular. So it might well be the case to do a part two, or do it with another film, unless somehow some of the bigger picture elements are wildly different... I guess it's possible. I mean I don't know, you'll be surprised to hear...

Who knows what's going to come out once more people see this movie. You never know what major revelations could hit.

Well stuff is coming out all of the time. There have been things posted this week, big ideas about what's going on in The Shining, just because we hit certain points where we thought "This will be enough for now and we will call it quits," but that didn't mean that people had stopped investigating The Shining. The flashes of other people's work that doesn't occur in this movie are... If you stop and look at Julie's maps, there's all sorts of things in there that are pretty eye opening that we don't have a chance to talk about. For instance, she's found both the old and the young woman from 237 seated at the party in the gold room. There are elements of 237 where I try to suggest that what we are seeing here is just the tip of the iceberg.