Comparing their distinctly different bodies of work (even taking into account overlapping themes) is, at best, an apples-and-oranges exercise.
However, an examination of Allen and Kubrick’s antithetical directing styles can be instructive for emerging filmmakers and videophiles. Allen, who has directed 43 feature films and written nearly twice as many titles in a 48-year career, doesn’t believe in rehearsals, works bankers’ hours, and shoots very little coverage. Meanwhile, Kubrick, the intense artist and perfectionist of a gazillion takes, worked across all genres without ever repeating himself. The difference in their approaches to movie creation makes for an absorbing study of contrasts, reminding us that while universal filmmaking conventions do exist, there really are no limits to how directors can bring their vision to the screen.
Kubrick and Allen both came of age in New York during the 1940s and ‘50s—Kubrick in the Bronx and Allen in Brooklyn. Both often skipped school to spend long hours in grand neighborhood movie houses soaking up cinema history: Citizen Kane, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Third Man, Bicycle Thieves, The Seventh Seal, and Rome, Open City.
Both were still in high school when they carved out their professional niches in popular entertainment. Kubrick converted his schoolboy hobby and natural ability with a still camera into a paying gig, selling lifestyle photos to Look magazine. Allen started his career selling jokes and one-liners to New York newspapers.
Kubrick haunted New York motion picture production houses picking the brains of camera people, lighting technicians and editors about their jobs and about the equipment they were using. Without formal instruction, Kubrick did the cinematography, lighting and sound recording, as well as the directing, on his early films. He started with short documentaries financed by family members before he partnered with a producer and made two low-budget, independent fiction films. His first full-length feature with professional actors, The Killing (1956), was a smartly made film noir about a heist gone wrong. The Killing secured the twenty-something director prodigy status in the industry and Hollywood soon came calling.
Allen’s entry into the film business came about when Hollywood producer, Charles K. Feldman (A Streetcar Named Desire), saw one of the popular comic’s stand-up performances. After the show, the powerful Hollywood dealmaker offered Allen, by now a household name, $20,000 to write the script for What’s New Pussycat? In the screenplay of this 1965 comedy about a womanizer trying to change his ways, Allen included a small part for himself, and so launched his movie career as writer/performer.
Masters of Cinematic Destiny
“I always put a higher value on the tragic muse than on the comic one.” Woody Allen: A Documentary (2011) by Robert Weide.
What’s New Pussycat?, starring Peter O’Toole and Peter Sellers, was a commercial success, but Allen’s script was mangled beyond recognition by studio producers. Allen quipped at the time, that had he directed, “I would have made it twice as funny and half as successful.” He vowed never to work in movies again unless he directed and had complete creative control.
Kubrick’s early directing experience had brought him to the same conclusion. Hired by Kirk Douglas and Universal Studios to direct what would become the Hollywood blockbuster Spartacus (1960), Kubrick felt reduced to hired hand status on the set under a heavy studio thumb. The sweeping historical epic went on to win four academy awards, but Spartacus would be the first and last Kubrick film in which the director did not have autonomy over every facet of production.
Even as a neophyte director, Woody Allen was a very independent filmmaker, writing, directing and starring in Take the Money and Run. The mockumentary comedy about an inept bank robber introduced audiences to Allen’s trademark of strung-together comedy sketches, gags and one-liners, with little plot and even less character development. But even during early days, Allen – who claimed Ingmar Bergman and Groucho Marx as influences – saw comedy as a springboard to making more serious films.
After Spartacus, Kubrick took on his next project as a fully-formed filmmaker in breathtaking command of his craft. Lolita (1962) was a black comedy about an older man’s obsession with a teenaged girl. Vladimir Nabokov adapted his own novel for the screen, but claimed, “only ragged odds and ends” were used after Kubrick’s many additions and revisions to the screenplay. Kubrick, who had once said, “A filmmaker has almost the same freedom as a novelist has when he buys himself some paper,” would soon cement his reputation as an art-cinema filmmaker operating in a commercial world. Kubrick’s cinematic artistry was rivaled only by his command of the business in film business. He crossed the T’s and dotted the I’s on the fine print of all marketing, distribution and exhibition deals for his films.
Finding the Story
“The actual script is a necessity for casting and budgeting, but the end product often doesn’t bear much resemblance to the script – at least in my case.” Woody Allen, Conversations with Woody Allen by Eric Lax.
During the 1960s, Allen wrote for weekly television, variety and comedy shows, an intense deadline-driven environment. A prodigious writing machine, Allen knows what it takes to stay in the seat.
In Weide’s, Woody Allen: A Documentary, Allen takes the documentary maker on a tour of the writing corner wedged between the fireplace and window in the bedroom of his Manhattan apartment. The quarters are tidy, almost Spartan. A portable Olympia typewriter resides over an uncluttered wooden desk. Everything Allen ever published and produced since he was 16, he typed on the ancient machine. He shows us his process, how he converts his illegible hand-written notes into a screenplay, and how he literally cuts and pastes using scissors and stapler to re-order story elements in the script.
Much of Allen’s film writing comes out of thought-provoking observations and what-if musings about relationships, desire, repression, anxiety and sexuality. Legend has it that the release print of his last film is still wet when he’s already clicking and clacking away on his trusted Olympia to shape the next one. But sometimes it’s a struggle of drafts and re-writes and even re-shoots over months, as it was on Annie Hall (1977). The romantic comedy was a departure for Allen, away from serial-gags movie making. The screenplay won an Oscar and the film is high on many critics’ favorite movie lists. Annie Hall signaled Allen’s graduation from talented apprentice filmmaker to accomplished and celebrated director.
Kubrick looked for cinematic inspiration in novels and short stories. He read far and wide, with no particular themes in mind, until he found a book that interested him. Quality of plot, characters, ideas and storytelling told him that the book was going to be his next film. Kubrick was a visual thinker, but preferred to work with authors on his screenplays rather than with professional screenwriters who he thought were “too involved in the well-worn pathways of convention.”
Kubrick often started a screenplay by dictating a rough first draft of the dialogue into a recorder which he found gave a more natural flow to the spoken words. Often he continued writing and re-writing during the actual shooting of a film, having a private space set up near the set as he did on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s 1968 science fiction classic was first a gleam in the director’s eye after he read Arthur C. Clarke’s extra-terrestrially themed short story, The Sentinel. Kubrick engaged the world-famous sci-fi writer to pen a novel that elaborated on his initial idea. For devoted 2001: A Space Odyssey followers, the novel is a useful companion to the movie as it fills in many of the thematic holes Kubrick did not want explained through narration or dialog for fear that exposition would diminish the audience’s visual and emotional experience. Kubrick and Clarke pored over space technology research for months to write the realism of the director’s vision into the screenplay.
On the Set
“I never plan anything. I don’t rehearse anybody. I don’t do a lot of coverage.” Woody Allen.
Allen says he reads very little about filmmaking and has no technical background. Covering the main action of a scene with over-the-shoulder shots, reverses, and answering closeups is how directors achieve classic Hollywood-style editing. But, Allen has mostly abandoned the convention of shooting coverage for a master shot. In many of his films, scenes unfold without coverage, with little or no intercutting, but rather in a series of master shots – complete long takes – of an entire action. Allen knows what he wants when the camera turns over. His economic and efficient directing makes for fewer technical setups and relatively stress-free, on-budget, shooting days. He runs such a relaxed set that cinematographer Gordon Willis (The Godfather, Manhattan) once remarked, “It’s like working with your hands in your pocket.”
Whereas Allen trusts his actors to bring their best performance to the set and doesn’t demand a lot of takes, Kubrick’s high-take ratio is legendary. Some critics considered it the unreasonable indulgence of a perfectionist auteur. But Nicole Kidman, who worked with Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut, sees it differently. She explains that the large number of takes Kubrick demanded would stop actors from consciously thinking about technique and helped them enter a relaxed awareness about a production set.
In one of a series of interviews with Michael Ciment, Kubrick called himself an “aesthetic opportunist,” and argued that, “with very few exceptions, it’s important to save your cinematic ideas until you have rehearsed the scene in the actual place you’re going to film it.” As a seasoned director of photography, Kubrick never took long to decide on setups, lighting or camera movements. “The visual part of filmmaking has always come easiest to me,” he said “and that is why I am careful to subordinate it to the story and performance.”
In the Cutting Room
“If I wanted to be frivolous, I might say that everything that precedes editing is merely a way of producing film to edit.” Stanley Kubrick Directs, Alexander Walker.
“The editing becomes the floundering of a drowning man.” Woody Allen Talks About Editing Film [posted by Dorri Olds].
Kubrick and Allen address the cinematic canvas with a very different brush, but in editing, their differences are less apparent.
Both are known for working closely and intensely with their editor collaborators, spending long hours in small dark rooms with flickering screens, shaping, dismantling and reconstructing their films.
“I always go for a fine cut my first time. It doesn’t do me any good to make a rough cut. I don’t learn anything,” says Allen, who has no attachment to his material. If he can’t make a scene work, he’ll cut it.
For both Allen and Kubrick, editing represents writing the final draft of the screenplay. Picture Allen snipping shots to length so that the laughs land where they’re supposed to, and Kubrick using the many recorded takes to “create” an actor’s performance in the cutting room.
Kubrick agrees with Allen about using long takes without intercutting. “I think there should always be a reason for making a cut. If a scene plays well in one camera setup and there is no reason to cut, then I don’t cut. I try to avoid a mechanical cutting rhythm which dissipates much of the effect of editing.”
That’s a Wrap
Between them, Allen and Kubrick explored many movie genres including horror, love story, film noir, war picture, science-fiction, period drama and satire. Their popular and critical acclaim across a monumental range of cinematic output confirms that the most crucial ingredients in filmmaking are the director’s taste and imagination. In the end, what these two directing giants have to teach us about the day-to-day of filmmaking is just as important as their art.
“Is it meaningful? Is it believable? Is it interesting?” These, suggests Kubrick, are the ultimate questions that have to be answered several hundred times a day when making a film.
Peter Biesterfeld is a video production college professor.