Listen to a 76-Minute Interview with Stanley Kubrick, Legendary Director and Chess Hustler
In early 1965, the New Yorker sent physicist and author Jeremy Bernstein to interview a then 37-year-old Stanley Kubrick at his New York apartment. The piece went so well that in November, Bernstein was dispatched to Oxford, where Kubrick was in production on 2001: A Space Odyssey (then known as Journey Beyond the Stars). Kubrick and Bernstein bonded over chess, and the master director opened up in one of his most wide-ranging interviews. Now, the entire 76-minute Q&A is available online. From a man who gave precious few interviews, this is quite a treat for the Kubrick fan, and covers a wide range of topics, from chess, to nuclear war, and space travel. Continue on to check it out!
When physicist and author Jeremy Bernstein wrote an appreciative piece for the New Yorker about screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction, he was surprised to receive a call from the man himself. Clarke said he was coming to New York from Sri Lanka and wanted Bernstein to meet Stanley Kubrick, whose Dr. Strangelove had thoroughly impressed Bernstein.
“I am working on the son of Dr. Strangelove,” said Clarke, and that was all it took to get Bernstein over to Kubrick’s apartment on Central Park West. (Later that year, Kubrick would decamp to England to make 2001, and, except for brief visits to the States, would remain in England until his death, in 1999.) “Stanley,” said Clarke, “is a remarkable man. You should meet him.”
According to Bernstein, when he called on Kubrick, he wasn’t sure what to expect, but when the door opened:
He looked and acted like every obsessive theoretical physicist I have ever known. His obsession at that moment was whether or not anything could go faster than the speed of light.
When Bernstein regretfully informed Kubrick that he had to cut their conversation short, Kubrick asked why, and Bernstein told him that he had an appointment to play chess in Washington Square Park for money, something Kubrick himself did as a young man. Kubrick asked Bernstein whom he was playing, and when Bernstein told him, Kubrick dismissively referred to the man as a “patzer,” slang for a poor chess player. Needless to say, Bernstein found this unnerving, since he considered himself and this so-called patzer, one Fred Duval, pretty evenly matched.
Kubrick liked the Talk of the Town piece (you can read an abstract for free, but the whole article is available for purchase, or free to New Yorker subscribers) and invited Bernstein to England, where production on 2001 was underway. Their relationship was based on chess and a shared love of science, which might be one reason why he opened up to Bernstein; that said, Kubrick was the consummate anti-patzer, so speculating on his motives is ultimately pointless.
The director bested Bernstein in their first four out of five, and when they reached their 25th and final game, Bernstein was sure he had Kubrick beat: the director made a loser of a move and clutched at this stomach to show how pained he was. The move, though, was a trap, and Bernstein was defeated. “You didn’t know I could act, too,” said Kubrick.
And so, over the course of these chess games and the production of 2001, they would talk, and the result is this 76-minute interview, which was used by Bernstein for his New Yorker profile of Kubrick (again, the paywall). The interview is wide-ranging and fascinating, with a good deal of time spent on Kubrick’s fascination with nuclear war:
People react primarily to direct experience and not to abstractions; it is very rare to find anyone who can become emotionally involved with an abstraction. The longer the bomb is around without anything happening, the better the job that people do in psychologically denying its existence. It has become as abstract as the fact that we are all going to die someday, which we usually do an excellent job of denying.
For any Kubrick fan, this is a real treat, as the director’s voice has been rarely heard over the years, except in brief speeches, or in his daughter Vivian’s documentary, Making the Shining. Sometimes it seems as if some disembodied intelligence was behind his films, and not a chess-hustling kid from the Bronx with a D average in high school.
What do you think? Are you a Kubrick-ophile? Are you a fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey? Are you really good at chess? Let us know in the comments!