Stanley Kubrick, the director of such beloved films as Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Shining, a man whose name remains, more than fifteen years after his death, almost a byword for the cinematic auteur, got into filmmaking because of a misunderstanding. While working as a photojournalist in his early twenties, he befriended an even younger fellow named Alex Singer, who would go on to become a well-known director of film and television himself, but back then he held a lowly position in the office of The March of Time newsreels. Singer happened to mention that each newsreel cost the company something like $40,000 to produce, which got Kubrick researching the price of film and camera rentals, then thinking: couldn’t I make a documentary of my own for less?
Indeed; he and Singer put together $1,500 and collaborated on the boxing short-subject Day of the Fight, which played in theaters in 1951. But it didn’t turn a profit, since no distribution company offered the $40,000 he expected — nor had they ever offered The March of Time, whose newsreel business went under before long, enough to cover their own exorbitant costs. So Kubrick didn’t make money on his first film, but he did make a career, going on to do two more documentaries, then the low-budget features Fear and Desire, Killer’s Kiss, and The Killing. Then came the critically acclaimed Paths of Glory starring Kirk Douglas, which eventually brought about an offer to Kubrick from the iconic actor to take the directorial reins on Spartacus. Next came Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, and the rest is cinema history.
Of course, Kubrick didn’t know the full extent of the cinema history he would make back in 1966, on the set of 2001, when he sat down with physicist-writer Jeremy Bernstein, doing research for a New Yorker profile. The filmmaker brought out one of his tape recorders (devices he adopted early and used to write scripts) and recorded 77 minutes of his and Bernstein’s conversations, almost a half hour of which Jim Casey uses as the narration of the short documentary Stanley Kubrick: The Lost Tapes. Only recently rediscovered, these recordings feature Kubrick’s first-hand stories of growing up indifferent to all things academic and literary, honing his “general problem-solving method” as a photographer, getting into movies as a result of the aforementioned misconception, and building the career that film fans and scholars scrutinize to this day. It does make you wonder: what glorious work have we missed the chance to create because we ran the numbers a little too rigorously?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.