My secretary buzzed me to say that someone claiming to be Stanley Kubrick was on the line. I suspected it was one of my jokester friends, since they all knew what Kubrick and his films meant to me. But the voice was soft, direct, with an air of assurance that made me think twice. I played along. “What did you have in mind?”
“I’ve heard you work as hard as I do,” he said, “so I know you’re a little crazy. But I need someone to do the opening sequence for my film, The Shining. Can you come to London for a few days?”
By this time, I knew it was the real Stanley Kubrick and I’d gotten my jaw back in place well enough to accept gracefully and suggest the following week for a trip across the pond.
Here I was with this secretive, famous but facially anonymous, mystery of a genius—my favorite filmmaker—inside his den of creation, learning from my hero. Kubrick’s directorial style was known to be famously obsessive, with him calling for take after take.
One morning, Stanley casually asked me whether I wanted to watch the dailies with him. I considered this a great treat, as my favorite moment in the filmmaking process is seeing footage for the first time. However, this experience bordered on the terminally boring. We watched 28 takes of a close-up of Jack Nicholson’s hand removing a vacuum tube from the Overlook Hotel’s two-way radio. Any of the dozens of takes would have been good enough for most filmmakers, but not for Stanley Kubrick. His rationalization? “Film stock is cheap, but remarkable quality will pay dividends forever.”
I asked how he knew when to move on to his next shot. He thought about it for a minute before divulging what must have been Kubrick’s number-one trade secret: “Don’t walk away until it’s perfect.”
Just days later, our “family” crew descended on Montana’s Glacier National Park for the shoot. What a place: a series of glacier-carved valleys, towering granite peaks, and breathtaking lakes snaking down the middle.
While I would direct, produce, and shoot the ground shots, I was supported by Barbara, my girlfriend, as production manager and double for Nicholson as driver of the yellow VW; Cindy Huston as my long-standing camera assistant; Duane Williams as our helicopter pilot; Jeff Blyth as aerial cameraman and production manager; and Bruce McGregor as assistant cameraman. Kathy Blyth drove the van back and forth over the mountain passes to replenish our stock of jet fuel.
We had great luck in Glacier, but because the weather changed every other minute, I wanted to extend my stay to get shots that matched each other better. I made Kubrick an offer he couldn’t refuse: We would not charge him for waiting-for-weather days, only for filming days. After a month of waiting, we awoke to beautiful conditions and got to work.
Back in London, I spent a day going through the Glacier footage. I was elated, particularly because of one shot we’d gotten near the end of our shoot. The helicopter’s belly-mounted camera is flying low, skimming the mirror-smooth water of Saint Mary Lake, when it picks up and tracks with the yellow VW Beetle. We had rehearsed this shot every day for four mornings at daybreak, waiting for the perfect sunrise, the tree leaves to hit peak yellow, and glassy lake conditions. The shot lasted two minutes and was flawless from start to finish. Don’t walk away until it’s perfect? Indeed.
I knew Kubrick wouldn’t begin editing for another six months, so I wrote him a note and posted it on the emulsion of the shot. I wrote another on the box of film the shot was stored in, and a third directly to Kubrick. Each one implored him to use the entire shot, saying, “It’s the best helicopter shot anyone has ever seen. Use it as the background for your opening credits.” I knew he’d pay attention, because he sought input from others, especially from those he knew really cared about films. I may have overstated by a bit, but in the end, Kubrick was as excited about the shot as I was.
Excerpted from Five Hundred Summer Stories: A Life in IMAX. Edited for The Surfer’s Journal. Click here to purchase a copy.
[Feature Image: Five Summer Stories director Greg MacGillivray, running point on the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror masterpiece, The Shining. Note MacGillivray’s shirt—adorned with Rick Griffin’s poster art from his 1972 surf film—as he pans the Torrance family’s yellow Bug en route to their fateful stay at the Overlook Hotel]