Room 237 is in many ways the ultimate movie-geek movie, in which six superfans of Stanley Kubrick’s Stephen King adaptation The Shining expand upon their theories as to what the subtext really is, and how there are little clues throughout which support their unusual interpretation. Is it about the genocide of Native Americans? An indirect way of dealing with the Holocaust? A secret confession by Kubrick that he was complicit in faking the moon landing? Whether you agree or not (and most will lean toward “not”), the details brought to the viewer’s attention in these micro-analyses are fascinating in and of themselves, and could well inspire all-new theories above and beyond the surface tale of an alcoholic writer going crazy in a near-empty hotel.
I got to have an extensive conversation with director Rodney Ascher and producer Tim Kirk about their approach, what they do or don’t believe and the difficulties of setting out to do a documentary that’s entirely dependent on securing the rights to use footage from a cinematic classic. This is the lengthiest TR interview I’ve done to date, but if you’ve ever geeked out about The Shining – or any movie on an analytical level – I think you’ll enjoy the read.
Luke Y. Thompson: Do you think The Shining is unique in the way people can come up with these theories? Could it have been done with any movie? Maybe just any Kubrick movies?
Rodney Ascher: Well, certainly any Kubrick movie, because Kubrick movies do have all sorts of signs and symbols and hidden little things in them, and we were just talking about Full Metal Jacket, and the fact that the hole that the sniper is shooting from looks like the state of Texas. There are all sorts of interesting allusions to Texas within that movie. If you go back to Fear and Desire, his first movie, he cast the same actors as the American squad behind enemy lines and the Nazis that they’re trying to kill. I suppose it could have been a budgetary decision, but I’m led to believe that that’s a choice because of some sort of symbolic effect that that will create. All of his films are made so carefully and so precisely, and he always leaves questions and mysteries inside of them, so Kubrick films are more suited to this than others, though there are a ton of others. The Shining, which is where we started, always seems to be the best of the bunch, not the least of which because of the similarities between The Shining and Room 237. On the most basic level, they’re about small groups of people trapped in a maze! (laughs)
Tim Kirk: And about a boy who can see things that other people can’t.
LYT: And also like The Shining, reflecting back what the people in the hotel are bringing to it. It seems like the theories here are people sort of seeing themselves in the mirror, like if they’re obsessed with Nazis, they see Nazis.
RA: That’s the question! That’s great, the mirror thing. Are you seeing something, or are you seeing yourself? In this case, I think it’s close to an unanswerable question. If somebody says something under their breath in French, because I happen to speak French, I’m able to understand that. So because Stanley Kubrick was kind of an obsessive – he didn’t go to college, but he was a self-educated guy who read incredibly deeply, and he did read and discuss some of the books that people talk about as sort of keys to understanding the movie.
TK: The Magic Mountain.
RA: He read The Magic Mountain, he talked about that Freudian analysis of fairy tales by Bruno Bettelheim, that Holocaust book, The Destruction of the European Jews. So, if someone else had read that book, they’re in a better situation to see a subtle reference to that thing. The same way that I would get throwaway Star Wars jokes, or The Shining jokes, that someone else in the audience who is not steeped in that kind of stuff might not get.
LYT: Did Kubrick, as far as you know, when he was alive ever comment on some of these theories?
TK: I think he studiously didn’t. I’ve read that he got a kick out of people telling him what the end of 2001 meant, but he never commented, and so I’m absolutely sure that he never confirmed or denied.
RA: There was a quote where he said, “People hate being told anything flat out. They resent it. But they’re attracted to puzzles, and allegories.” So I think specifically in the case of 2001 – I’m getting all my Kubrick quotes…I think I have the idea right though I’ll never get the wording correctly – I think he said something like, “If I told them exactly what the ending of 2001 was supposed to be about, I would be shackling them to some reality, not necessarily their own. People would resent that.” I know David Lynch is the same way, wanting to allow people to bring what they have to a movie, and he would never want to shut anyone’s idea down by saying “THAT wasn’t what I meant!” Certainly if you’ve ever seen A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge, it’s widely seen as the story of a high school kid who’s struggling to come out of the closet. And in the director’s commentary, dude’s like “I had no idea….”, and it’s actually a little disappointing to hear him say that!
LYT: I just interviewed Sam Raimi about Oz the Great and Powerful, and I had this theory that Oz’s journey is mirroring the history of cinema, much like Hugo, because he begins as a carnival sideshow, and in the end he’s using cinema technology to motivate the masses and move them. When I brought that up, Raimi said “I wasn’t really doing that, I was just giving him the tools in the first act to succeed in the third act.”
RA: But that doesn’t mean that your idea isn’t an interesting and meaningful way to look at the movie. Also, Sam Raimi didn’t write that script, did he?
LYT: No, he didn’t.
RA: OK, then! (laughs) So he’s not necessarily the last word!
TK: And, like with Room 237, there’s something that happens to a film after it leaves the film maker. I don’t think he has the final word on it.
RA: And he might not have been totally frank. He may have thought, “That sounds too pretentious. I want to be more down-to-earth.” I try to be as frank as possible when I’m talking about 237, but sometimes I fail, and sometimes I talk myself into a corner, and I decide to just go for an answer that’s somehow coherent, even if it’s not fully accurate. I’ll settle for coherent if I’m starting to break down into meaningless nonsense. Sometimes you want to keep the mystery alive. This is my first feature, and my first time doing a lot of interviews, so it’s also my first window into realizing that what a filmmaker says about a movie is interesting, but it’s not always going to be completely definitive. (laughs)
LYT: Do you find that the more interviews you do, the more it clarifies your thinking?
RA: I guess the short answer is “no.” This movie has been on the festival circuit for over a year, so we’ve done a lot of interviews, and there’s been some time between them, and I haven’t gone back to look at some of the old ones, but I think either an opinion starts to make sense a couple months down the road, or I get sick of saying the same thing, so it might change a little bit. But most people, if they’re investigating a crime, would say the witness’ testimony as close to the period of the crime as possible would be the most accurate one! Although maybe now I’ve had more time to think about things…
TK: But also, the more you talk, the further you get away from those decisions that you made in the editing room.
RA: Certainly I’ve been influenced by things that people have said about the movie. “That makes a lot of sense!”
TK: “That’s what I was going for!”
RA: I’m not sure that I can tell you subtly that everything I’m telling you now is a lie, but things start to break down the closer you look at them.
LYT: Is it a fact that there is no room 237 at the hotel?
TK: We have not verified this, and that kind of goes to the core of Rodney and my approach to the material…
RA: You mean the Timberline Hotel in particular?
TK: We didn’t set out to prove or disprove any of the theories, and we chose not to talk to anyone who made The Shining. We wanted to present the ideas as forcefully as possible, and honestly. However, we could have called, but if we had, then that answers the whole question of perhaps they could have lied.
RA: They’re sick of stupid Shining fans calling about that stupid room, so tell them no, there’s no room 217 and you can’t stay there, or the room number could have changed, and this person may not know the whole history.
TK: Right! Plus, as Rodney said before, he didn’t just change it from 217 to anything, there’s a LOT of possibilities! He chose 237.
RA: There’s infinity minus 1 of other possible numbers that that room number could have been. If you look at it, there’s a copy of the screenplay that was at the LACMA exhibit that’s got his notes on it, and you see him trying to work it out. There’s some number play between 217 and 237, and then there’s some places where he’s trying to work it into an address where they lived in, or other places…
TK: And there’s dates, right?
RA: Right. So there’s clearly number play at work. He had collaborated with Nabokov on Lolita, whose work is just riddled with number play and word play, the idea that these numbers have some intention to them becomes very, very plausible. Just think of that number, 237 – there’s this weird, asymmetry to them. Is it a prime number, or a Fibonacci number? It very much feels like a number that’s off – if it was music, it would be off-key. I think it’s an exquisitely designed number.
TK: Even visually, it’s like that 3…I don’t know, it feels like that 3 should be bigger somehow, I don’t know.
LYT: I notice there’s a cast in the credits, so the people reading are not the people with the theories, is that right?
RA: No, that’s not the case!
LYT: Then who are the cast?
RA: There’s a handful of things that were shot originally for the movie, like there’s a woman who you see putting a tape into a VCR, and there is someone playing Stanley Kubrick who puts the Calumet can up onto the shelf and it’s a very stylized shot in this black void.
TK: We have a butler handing an invitation to the Overlook.
RA: So maybe there’s a half-dozen people for these little insert things we shot, are credited as cast. No one has asked about this. Sometimes in reading peoples’ summaries of the movie, sometimes it sounds like this is just a commentary track on The Shining. We tried to make it a little more complicated than that.
LYT: I thought it was real footage from the time.
RA: The woman with the VCR?
LYT: The Kubrick shot. I thought it was real behind-the-scenes stuff.
RA: I tried to make it as fake and stylized as I could, to not confuse it, but you never know how people are going to…as this movie shows, you never know how people are going to see these things.
LYT: When you set out to make this, obviously it seems like it would be a legal headache to get the rights. Was that ever a daunting part of the process?
RA: When we started out we had, I’ve got to tell you, a suite at the Standard hotel with a coordinated press day was such an absurd idea from our perspective of where this movie was going to go. We probably weren’t as concerned as we should have been. Our ambitions were so much smaller than the path the movie wound up being able to take.
LYT: Was it a long process to get all of the rights?
TK: Yeah, it was. We worked with an amazing clearance team, and obviously we had to make some cuts and changes and tweaks and so forth to make the film releasable, but at the end of the day I feel like what Rodney initially cut, and what’s going to be on the screen, or on your home screen, is very true to Rodney’s vision, so I feel very proud of how that worked out.
LYT: What was the recording process like? It’s obviously conspicuous on one of them that there’s a kid in the background.
RA: I mailed these people an inexpensive audio recorder, one that was inexpensive enough that I wouldn’t have been too broken up if it had gotten broken up in shipment, a digital audio recorder that I mailed to them. I included little instructions for how to operate them and I called them up via Skype so I could have a low-res back-up of the conversation in my own voice. They recorded themselves at their homes or offices, put it back on a self-addressed stamped envelope, then they mailed it back to me, and I took out the card. So I was never in the same room with these people when I was doing the interviews.
LYT: Have you ever met them in person?
RA: I haven’t met all of them. I’ve met Bill Blakemore and Geoffrey Cocks, who came up for our premiere at Sundance, and that was great fun, and John Fell Ryan, who now lives here in Los Angeles, but I still haven’t met in person Juli Kearns or Jay Weidner.
LYT: Has the movie given them any newfound sense of celebrity that they didn’t have before?
RA: I don’t know – have you heard?
TK: I don’t know. I know that Bill was pretty pleased when there was an article in Arts & Leisure in the New York Times – I know he was pretty pleased about that. I don’t know. You know, Jay Weidner has made…
RA: He is already a celebrity.
TK: Yes he is, and he’s made two films about Kubrick and he has a third that is coming out in April. I hope this is helping with his sales, and his work getting out there, because it’s fascinating stuff.
RA: If you’re into the Jay Weidner stuff in 237, go to JayWeidner.com and you can explore that world much, much deeper. I think I saw on Twitter some former students of Geoffrey Cocks were saying “My former history professor is in this movie; that’s great!” So I think they’ve gotten a little bit of it. And John Fell Ryan is a musician, so I’ve seen fans of his band talking about it a little bit.
LYT: Did you have any of your own crazy theories, or maybe not-so-crazy theories about The Shining before setting out on this?
RA: Not before, but in the midst of it, new ideas would come. I have an idea that some of the scenes in the movie are cut together in the wrong order, out of sequence, kind of like he did with The Killing, or the whole structure of Pulp Fiction. I think when Jack wakes up from that dream, down in the Colorado lounge, that that’s actually after his visit to room 237, which is actually happening within a dream. That’s one. I know there’s a couple more. Do you have any?
TK: I’m just starting working on a new one, actually.
RA: Oh, yeah? Where does it come from?
RA: Well, Geoffrey Cocks called out the Carl Yastrzemski bat.
TK: Right. Of course, 42 is Jackie Robinson, [Kubrick] grew up in the Bronx, he would have been – apparently he was very close to the stadium there, and I know he was a big sports fan, so like I said, I’m just starting. I feel like it’s a rich field.
LYT: Have you guys sat all the way through the movie running backwards and forwards at the same time [as one of the fans in the movie suggests should be done]?
RA: Yes, I did it at Fantastic Fest, and it was amazing! I had known from scanning through it and pulling these images and talking to John Fell Ryan that it was really cool, moment to moment, but what surprised me was how well it played at full length. And I think it even surprised him, because in my interview with him, he said that he walked out half-way through because once you get to the middle, all of the juxtapositions repeat themselves. But what we found out with a big audience was that in the long game, it plays really different. Like what’s really interesting is the first half plays as more of a comedy, that it’s like as they’re trying to keep it together and they’re exploring what’s going on, you’re seeing everything terrible that’s going to happen. It’s like “best laid plans of mice and men,” good luck, guys! But in the second half, as everything is falling apart, you see reminders of when, these guys (as close as they could come), when they were a family and they were all together, and it’s kind of tragic. So it plays in a way like Irreversible or something.
The middle point is when Halloran gets that message from Danny, so he’s lying in the bed, and it highlights that as the most significant scene in the movie, and when you see a whole feedback loop disappear into his head, the implication is because Halloran is quite psychic. He knows everything that happened, and everything that’s going to happen. So when he sets out that mission, he knows it’s a suicide mission, and he does it nonetheless, which makes that much heavier.
LYT: There’s a brief shot in the movie of the TV version of The Shining. What’s your opinion of that movie? Is there anything deep in that one?
RA: Well, I recommend watching it with the Stephen King commentary track, because what’s really interesting about it is that Stephen King talks a lot about how autobiographical that story was to him, and throughout the movie he returns to that, which I think might partly explain some of his reaction, at least his initial reaction, to the Kubrick movie. If it’s a book you wrote, and you’re proud of, and someone changes it, that’s one thing. But if it’s a book that’s a very personal, autobiographical book, it’s a bigger deal to see it get changed. I found all of that stuff really fascinating.
LYT: What’s your next project after this? Do you have anything lined up?
RA: We’re developing stuff. Nothing’s ready to go, or announce yet. We started two documentaries that are very different from each other. Hopefully the long bomb plan is some messed up version of a narrative film.
LYT: Your press kit said you never set out to be a documentarian. Now that you’ve done it, do you feel like a documentarian?
RA: I don’t know. At Sundance, I was talking to a guy who made a movie about Somali pirates, he lived in a ditch for six weeks, and was arrested and went to prison in Somalia for a month working on his film. I did this one sitting in my studio at home, eating ice cream at 2 in the morning, so I feel pretty presumptuous saying that I’m the same kind of guy as he is! (laughs)
So what we’re doing is related to documentary, and ultimately it’s based on real-life interviews. I’m certainly not a “pure” documentarian, but it’s kind of an exciting time for documentaries, because they’re changing so dramatically. If you read about Leviathan, and the process they went through to make that film, and in some ways it’s the opposite of 237, but in other ways, they’re very similar. There’s no talking heads, and there’s no long introduction to set things up, it just throws you into this environment. So the format is changing all the time, which is really kind of exciting and cool.
LYT: I just noticed how large the disclaimer is on the poster. Was there a rule that it had to be that size?
TK: We thought it was ominous.
RA: We just wanted to make it really clear that this is not an authorized, behind-the-scenes production. That seems to make it pretty clear where we’re coming from.
LYT: Why the keyhole? What’s the significance of the keyhole?
RA: Now you’re getting into Sam Raimi explaining The Wizard of Oz. We did not design that poster.
TK: We like it. We approved it.
RA: I understand, I have an idea of what’s going on there, but since I am not the designer, my insight into it isn’t any more definitive than yours.
LYT: It’s the first time I’ve seen that image for this movie. All the other ones I’ve seen have been sort of using some sort of Shining imagery…
TK: We did play dozens and dozens of film festivals, and those four have been carefully selected to deliver a coded message. (laughs) I’m kidding.
LYT: When you said that I was trying to see if there was an anagram.
RA: For the Fantastic Fest poster, there were all sorts of great hidden things buried in it, of which I got about half before I saw that YouTube video the artist made explaining them all.
LYT: That’s cool! You guys didn’t even know everything that was in your own poster.
TK: No, no. We were like “Oh, so that’s what that is!”
RA: In Room 237, Bill Blakemore talks about how Stanley Kubrick had everything to say about the poster, and if you go to LACMA, you see all his rejection notes on all the Saul Bass posters, so even though he did not design the poster, he sort of designed it by rejecting 999 other posters before finally approving that one. He designed it by rejecting every other possibility.
LYT: Can you say, or would you rather not, if there any of these theories in the movie that you think are closer to the truth than others?
RA: The short answer is no, and almost every word in that question could be parsed into branching trees of “What’s closer?” and “What’s the truth?” Is the only yardstick to measure it by did Kubrick put this element into the movie for this point and only this particular point? Not the least of which because he’s dead, that stuff is unknowable. I know I find everything that these folks say meaningful and plausible and persuasive.
LYT: The image of Kubrick that we have is that he was the sort of meticulous perfectionist who would have never made a continuity error. Do you think any of them are simply continuity errors?
RA: Certainly not all of them!
TK: There are too many in the film.
RA: And things like that carpet, where Jay Weidner is talking about the toys on the carpet moving from one side to the other – that’s harder to get wrong than to get right, because that stuff has to be picked up, moved and rebuilt in another place, and I’ve seen Polaroids, continuity photos from the set, like on all normal movies, and they’ve got them mounted at LACMA, and you can see them online. Before they said that for whatever reason, we’ve got to redo this shot over here, so someone snapped a picture and documented it. So someone made a decision to do it differently in set-up two instead of set-up one.
LYT: That one seems very deliberate, but things like the chair that disappears in the background…
RA: Well, you know, it’s another infinite branching possibilities thing that, on the set, it may just be that at a certain point he decided he needed to add the chair, or take away the chair, but clearly in the edit he would have recognized that things would have moved, because I’m sure in the continuity notes, if you imagine the kind of paperwork that these movies generate, that a script supervisor would have said “OK, from tape 30 to tape 60, the chair has been added,” or “The chair has been deleted”. So if he chooses parts of the shot from either end of that, he would have totally been aware, but for whatever reason, either it’s not that big of a deal, no one will notice, or this is kind of cool, because it’s like in haunted house movies where chairs move, or it was a plan all along. I suppose that might be knowable, to talk to a script supervisor or editor, but I think that’s a path for someone else to travel.
LYT: It makes me think that with the ability to digitally erase continuity errors, there will be less and less stuff to chew on.
RA: As budgets are getting tighter, someone’s going to say “Are they really going to see that chair? It’s going to cost us $3,000.”
TK: George Lucas would put it back with a little gremlin sitting on it, waving at the camera. (laughs)
RA: I hear that in Eyes Wide Shut, they erased a shot where in the mirror you can see the camera passing. I hear that got digitally erased. I think the big question for The Shining would be, do you erase the helicopter shadow? Although that would only be for the 4 x 3 version, which is not necessarily one that’s going to get a super high-end restoration, but people debate the intentionality of that helicopter shot.
TK: It would have been really interesting if Stanley had lived a little longer to see what decisions he would have made in some of the remastering of these films, would he just leave it alone? That’s the question.
RA: But if you read Walter Murch’s book In the Blink of an Eye, which is a fantastic book – it’s only about a hundred pages, it’s a book about editing, though it’s nothing about the technology – he talks about editing as a visual language, and he has a list of what makes a good edit, and at the top – there’s a hierarchy of things that are important – and at the top are things like story, character, emotion, and at the bottom it’s things like 2-dimensional or 3-dimensional continuity; i.e., the chair being there or not being there, or people’s arms being in the same position, that sort of thing.
When I was teaching an editing class and talking about this, and after a semester or two of trying to get people to learn the tools of continuity and not make those mistakes, they were very surprised to hear that (according to this guru of editing) those kinds of things are not important. Although I guess the idea is that you should know those things backwards and forwards by this point, but yeah, ultimately, if the take that has the best performance and is the most important for the story has a continuity error, let it go. So I may be talking us out of the importance of the chair, but like any of these points, you can just go and go and go on either side of the argument, and you never know when it’s time to stop and just move on, and realize that it’s a puzzle that you’re just not going to be able to solve.
LYT: I’m sure you know the Cassavetes quote about continuity.
RA: No, how does it go?
LYT: “Continuity is for pussies.”
RA: That’s great. Or as Herschell Gordon Lewis said, “No one ever walked out of a movie because of a shaky pan.” But that doesn’t seem like a Kubrick thing. Well…it is and it isn’t. His heart is in the right place about making the movie interesting. Herschell Gordon’s idea of interesting might be different from Kubrick’s, although The Shining may not be the movie where that difference is clearest.
Room 237 opens in theaters tomorrow.