It's always interesting hearing directly from filmmakers. We don't often get direct addresses, but when Stanley Kubrick won the DGA's D.W. Griffith Award in 1998 and was unable to attend because he was making Eyes Wide Shut in London, he gave us a three-minute speech that was full of interesting ideas.
Editor's Note: D.W. Griffith may have been an early pioneer and changed cinema forever, but it's important that we also do not ignore the vile and racist nature of movies like Birth of a Nation. While Griffith's legacy is touched on in the video, his responsibility for violence and hate is not. Any advice or conversation about him needs this context.
Check out the video of Kubrick below.
I was enthralled watching Kubrick speak directly to us about the joys and struggles of directing.
Kubrick said Spielberg told him the most difficult thing about directing was getting out of the car when it arrived at set. Sure, it takes immense bravery to put yourself out there, but directing is a great privilege.
Of course, it's tough too. As Kubrick says, it's "like writing War and Peace in a bumper car at an amusement park." Yet there is no joy equal to making something you're proud of and want to show the world.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the speech came in Kubrick's explanation of D.W. Griffith and his legacy. In Kubrick's words:
"I think there’s an intriguing irony in naming the lifetime achievement award after D.W. Griffith because his career was both an inspiration and a cautionary tale. His best films were always ranked among the most important films ever made. And some of them made him a great deal of money. He was instrumental in transforming movies from the nickelodeon novelty to an art form. And he originated and formalized much of the syntax of movie-making now taken for granted. He became an international celebrity and his patronage included many of the world’s leading artists and statesmen of the time. But Griffith was always ready to take tremendous risks in his films and in his business affairs. He was always ready to fly too high. And in the end, the wings of fortune proved for him, like those of Icarus, to be made of nothing more substantial than wax and feathers, and like Icarus, when he flew too close to the sun, they melted. And the man whose fame exceeded the most illustrious filmmakers of today spent the last 17 years of his life shunned by the film industry he had created. I’ve compared Griffith’s career to the Icarus myth, but at the same time I’ve never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, 'Don’t try to fly too high,' or whether it might also be thought of as, 'Forget the wax and feathers and do a better job on the wings.' One thing, however, is certain. D.W. Griffith left us with an inspiring and intriguing legacy, and the award in his name is one of the greatest honors a film director can receive, something for which I humbly thank all of you, very much."
I thought this was a powerful reflection on cinema and how it captivates and alienates us. Kubrick was known to be obsessive, but if you can say one thing about him, it's that if he was planning on flying close to the sun making movies, you better believe he would spend a lot of time on making the wings. And he did.
Kubick's legacy is that of a master filmmaker who spent inordinate amounts of time putting himself in every frame of his films.
As we endeavor on our own projects, we should stop for a beat and listen to what Kubrick has to say here. Having great vision is nothing if you don't have the resources to enact it. Make a plan, prepare to soar, and always know where the ground is for a landing.
Let us know what you think in the comments.