A Life with Kubrick

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Stanley Kubrick is widely considered to be one of the greatest directors of all time. His attention to detail and mastery of cinematic subtlety is the stuff of legend, evident in his most famous films including “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Shining,” and “Full Metal Jacket,” among many more.

Like most great artists, there were integral luminaries behind the scenes that helped turned Kubrick’s visions into reality. Perhaps no one was more important or closer to the legendary filmmaker than Emilio D’Alessandro, Kubrick’s personal assistant and close friend for more than 30 years. D’Alessandro chronicled many of his experiences in his recently published memoir “Stanley Kubrick and Me: Thirty Years by His Side.”

BTRtoday had the chance to speak with D’Alessandro about some of his fondest memories of Kubrick and the relationship they shared.

BTRtoday (BTR): Can you tell us a little bit about what led you to work with Kubrick?

Emilio D’Alessandro (ED): I lived with my parents for 17 years in Italy and I went to England and found this job for Stanley Kubrick, or it found me. I didn’t know who I was working for. Someone asked me and I said yes, for a company called Hawk Films. She said no, no, the one in charge of it is Stanley Kubrick. I said who is he? I haven’t got a clue who Stanley Kubrick is. She said well, he wants to meet you tomorrow when you can spare some time because he’ll only give you so much work and want you dealing with it at your best. I said okay, fine, maybe tomorrow.

The day after, in the lobby, we met each other, and I don’t know how to describe it. All the other producers I had met before, they were all very well dressed and spoke in such a fanatical way, but this person did not.

When we confronted each other he said, “Good morning, I’m Stanley Kubrick.” And I just looked at him and introduced myself, and he took a newspaper clipping from his pocket and he said, “are you this person?” That was regarding my career in motor racing. He asked me a few questions about it, which I answered, and he said “very good, I’ll see you tomorrow.” Then we said goodbye, and I thought to myself, this producer–he doesn’t look like all the others, but to me that’s very good. The way he spoke… nice, quiet, and gentle.

BTR: What sort of responsibilities did he entrust you with?

ED: He gave me tiny jobs, even electrical and things like that, and everything I touched, it worked. I said I was only qualified to drive a car. I don’t know anything about cinema, I don’t know anything about electrical. If something works which I touch, it’s just by luck. I said the only thing I know is about cars, and he said he understood, but he said, “do your best.”

BTR: I’ve also read that Kubrick is well known for his fascination with chess.

ED: He loved it, but the problem was that he used to leave that chessboard in the open where the beautiful cats used to love to play with it. They peed on it as well, so when I would turn up in the morning I said, “What is all this? It’s not beer, it’s not wine, it’s not whiskey, it’s cat pee.” He asked “Who moved it?” and I said the person you were playing with and yourself. The rest of it the cats did.

So he would go back to the person he was playing with and ask where he left the pieces. It was quite interesting, but he didn’t want to get cross about it. So we just laughed.

BTR: Kubrick had a few close relationships with actors and filmmakers like Jack Nicholson, Steven Spielberg, and Tom Cruise, among others. Can you tell us about what some of those relationships were like, and if you got to know any of those people in the process?

ED: When I first started with him, which was on “Barry Lyndon,” he mentioned names of actors like Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Benson, and so forth. I said yes, I know Ryan from the soap opera which he used to do, “Peyton’s Place.” I said I like him very much, he seems very nice, very good. Marisa Berenson I don’t know, but she must be equally the same. Each of them were, and the film was very nice.

He asked me what I thought about Jack Nicholson to do this part [in “The Shining”] and I said I don’t know, I think many people would’ve chosen Charles Bronson. Stanley looked at me in a way that said mind your own business.’ I said Jack Nicholson, I saw him in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and so forth, he seems to be a bit crazy.

That was in my mind, but I said “you choose the actors, I’ll do the rest of it and my driving. The filming, it’s all yours.” But when I saw Jack Nicholson, how good he was, I said to Stanley, “that’s why you choose the actors, because you know what you’re looking for, because Jack is absolutely 100 percent what you need for this film.” He was wonderful, perfect everyday. The way I view life was different than the way Stanley viewed his. He had his own ideas, and I had my own views and ideas in a different way.

When it came to “Eyes Wide Shut,” he told me he had the actors Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. He asked me what I thought, and I remembered what I said about Jack Nicholson. I didn’t want to interfere with this choice of the actors.

I did all my duties of driving, but never did any gossiping with actors. They did ask what kind of person Stanley Kubrick was and so forth, and I told them I only do certain jobs for this company. I wasn’t supposed to reveal who I was working for to actors or actresses so I could keep to the basics.

BTR: Is it true that you didn’t watch any of his movies while you worked with him? Why was that?

ED: Quite right, because the films were two-and-a-half hours, and I could not take that time off to watch the films. Not only films, but anything. I didn’t have time to stay at home with my family. I told him one day I will watch your films when our time is up, and that time was when he died.

In 1999. I started to watch his films, and then I realized what he was doing, and what I was doing. He worked, I worked, and that is the truth between the two of us; because we kept on and on and on.

BTR: What would you say your favorite one of his films is, and why?

ED: I’m happy to say it was “Barry Lyndon,” because there was no swearing, and it is beautiful to look at. The way the actors speak and react is very nice, and the music is absolutely marvelous. That’s the one I most appreciate. The rest of them, they’re all nice, but they’re something to digest when there’s a lot of swearing. I accept when there is a lot of swearing, because they’ll say it the way it needs to be said, but it takes some time to digest that.

BTR: I’ve read that you were able to be on set with Kubrick’s parents during the filming of the labyrinth scene from “The Shining,” with Nicholson wielding an axe. What was that experience like?

ED: [Kubrick] was worried what his parents and what people would think because it’s so violent. But it’s very good. I told him that parents are perfectly okay, they’re very happy about what he did. He was worried, but they were not.

BTR: Would you say in your experience working with him that Stanley Kubrick was a perfectionist?

ED: I would say more than that. I don’t know how to say it. He was so generous with everybody, for everybody. I don’t know how else I can describe him to people.

BTR: You return to a lot of those memories in your memoir, “Stanley Kubrick and Me.” Was it difficult to remember everything, given all the time you spent with him?

ED: It wasn’t difficult, but the thing was, if it gives me something to do or go to, I’ve got to do it. At the end of the day, I want his thanks to me, and the satisfaction. It worked that way. I didn’t find that it was disturbing or upsetting, because I went away from Italy and ended up in England. I wanted to find a job, and fortunately, after so many years, I ended up with Stanley Kubrick.

Before him, I had an offer with John Wayne, but that job was only for six months. It was well-paid, but I thought about what I would do after just six months. So I chose the job from Stanley Kubrick and Hawk Films.

He’s gone and I’m still alive, but if he was alive we would still be together, working together. I miss him a lot, and I wish he could hear me.

BTRtoday (BTR): As you look back, what are your thoughts on all those years you spent working with Stanley Kubrick?

ED: Those years were very very hard in a way, but interesting, because of the work and everything I did for him. The work was hard, but at the end of the day or the end of the week, because we didn’t meet each other everyday, when he thanked me for it, it was that wonderful smile and the way he liked to say, “thank you very much for what you’ve done for me.” And I said oh God, I have done something good for somebody. And I was thinking of my father, and that I never did that for my father–for him to say thank you the way Stanley thanked me.

BTR: What were some of the most important lessons Stanley taught you during your time as his friend?

ED: To be patient, to be friends with our family, his family, and so forth. He was like a father to me, more than my father. He always said if I needed anything, tell me, and he’ll do what he had to do.

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