Screenwriter Andrew Birkin (The Name Of The Rose, Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer) talks with TV STORE ONLINE about his start working with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, NAPOLEON as well as with The Beatles.
TV STORE ONLINE: I know that we'll get into great depths talking about your experiences working on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) eventually, but I wanted to start this by talking with you about working with Stanley on NAPOLEON, but also about working with The Beatles on their telefilm MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR (1967). A rumor has been floating around for years that the 'Flying' sequence in MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR was created out of outtakes from the Stargate sequence from 2001...
BIRKIN: Oh, that is certainly not true. The method that was used to create the Stargate wasn't by then a secret by any means. It wasn't like MGM could've copyrighted the process. MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR...Half of that film-believe it or not-was shot on 16mm reversal film. When we would look at rushes in the hotel in the evening I would load up the 16mm projector. One evening, I noticed that the film that they gave me was the actual negative! I said, "This isn't a print?" We shot the film with a very amateur crew. Ringo [Starr] said, "No, that is the film that went through the camera. Why? Does it matter?" I said, "Ringo, if we put this through the projector it will scratch it." That footage that was shot for 'Flying' wasn't even done in the same process that was used in 2001. I'm in MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR by the way...I did the stunt driving in George Harrison's car!
TV STORE ONLINE: Were you around on MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR when they shot that fantasy sequence where John Lennon is shoveling the spaghetti on the table in the restaurant?
BIRKIN: I was! I was around for the entire shoot. The only reason why I was working on the film was because it was only supposed to be a home movie. Paul [McCartney] had the idea that they could shoot it and then put it on the BBC. In those days, if you had something that aired on national television it had to be shot by a union crew. But, they didn't want to spend the money to bring in an actual professional crew. So they found people like me, and by that time I had just gotten my union ticket and I was rather laughably given the title of Assistant Director. I, myself, along with the others that worked on the film were more or less paid amateurs. And my name is spelled wrong in the credits of MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR! (Laughing)
I say that I was rather laughably the Assistant Director because there were four directors on MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR. You couldn't get anything decided on because you'd have to confer with Paul, and in turn, he'd defer to John. To talk to John you'd have to get in a car and drive across an airfield where he was in his psychedelic Rolls Royce. You'd open the door and you'd be knocked backward by the smoke that would come bellowing out. You'd get in the car and he's say, "Let's have a toke." I'd say, "We'd like to know what you'd like to do next. We have people waiting." He said, "Oh, I don't know. What do you think? What does Paul think? What does George think?" So then you'd go out to find George and he'd be off somewhere in deep meditation. It was actually Ringo who took the most interest in the project. He had, by that time developed an interest in 16mm film and he was shooting his own home movies of it all, and when it came down to it, you'd have to confer with him.
TV STORE ONLINE: So did you finish work on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and then go directly onto work with Stanley on NAPOLEON?
BIRKIN: No, there was a bit of a gap in between. After I had finished working on 2001 I went off to Almeria, Spain to do a picture with Michael Caine. When I got back was about the time that 2001 had hit theaters. Just shortly after that Stanley called me and he said, "Can you come out to the studio? I'd like to speak with you about working on my next project." I said, "What's the next project Stanley?" He said, "Well, I'd rather not say over the telephone." Stanley liked the idea of having bugs on people and so he thought that if he could bug people then they could certainly bug him, so he insisted that I come out to see him at the studio. So there I was, in my car and driving a road that I had driven so many times prior. He was in the same old building and in the same old office at MGM that I had left him at many months prior. It was a Saturday afternoon, I remember going up to his office and he was all alone there. I went in and he was sitting there reading all of these letters that children had written him about 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. These were his favorite letters too. Stanley felt that children had a better handle on the movie than most adults did.
The greatest cut in cinema history is in 2001. It's where the bone goes up in the air and then there is a cut to a bomb. So many adults didn't get that about the film. There was a narration that was recorded that was intended to open the film originally but it was cut before the film was released. It explained a great many things and one of which was how all of these different countries had bombs up in orbit at the same time.
Stanley told me that children had picked up on this, and that many of adults hadn't actually.
I had told Stanley about how I had just come back from Almeria, and that I had gone to see 2001 and he said, "Oh, you saw it? Let me apologize to you for not having a credit for you in the film..." He then went on to tell me about how he was only allowed to give a credit for those that had it in their contracts. I truthfully had never expected a credit on the film in the first place because I had been a sort of jack of all trades during the production. He then borrowed one of my cigarettes and said, "You want to know what my next project is? What do you know about Napoleon?"
I knew a bit about the French Revolution. I knew a bit about Napoleon. He said, "I think this is my one chance to make this. I've always been fascinated by him. I don't have a script or anything yet, but I want to make this film." I said, "Okay, what do you want me to do?" He said, "Well, the front projection system that we used on 2001 worked really well so I'd like to do pretty much the same thing for NAPOLEON. " He wanted to build foreground sets and he wanted me to go to every place where Napoleon had gone and photograph it just as I had done for him in Africa for the Dawn Of Man sequence in 2001. He wanted me to visit all of the palaces and battlefields of Napoleon and that would be the beginning of it. He said, "If you come across anything interesting or if you come across any manuscripts or rare books on him-buy them up on MGM's account and send them to me."
|May of 1968 in Paris, France.|
That's what I did. I took a brief two week holiday and at the end of May 1968 I went to Paris. I landed right in the middle of the student uprisings that were occurring. At night, I was not marching with the students, but I would position myself halfway between the police and the students. I became a sort of war correspondent. I told Stanley about the uprising in Paris and he sent me a memo back that said: "Don't forget, you're there to take photographs of things from two-hundred years ago, not of things that are happening today." (Laughing)
TV STORE ONLINE: What were some of the palaces that you took photographs of?
BIRKIN: Well, I had to make a rubber MGM stamp first. Because I was trying to get into places like Versailles and Fontainebleau when they weren't open to the public. There I was this twenty-two year old kid, who was asking to photograph these places and I'd get the door shut in my face. So I designed a rubber stamp that read "MGM NAPOLEON" while I was in Paris. No one was taking any of my requests seriously, but these were pretty audacious inquires after all. I had to go into these palaces and roll back the carpets and take down the signs there to try to make it look like it had when Napoleon had been there years before. The French are suckers for rubber stamps, so I made that and it really helped me to get my foot into the door to get the photographs that Stanley had wanted.
|Napoleon's throne room at Versailles today|
Another job I did for Stanley while I was in Paris was to organize the Paris premiere of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. The film had come out in America by that time of course, and in England, but it hadn't yet made its way to other European countries. I was tasked to invite the right people to the premiere. I had to make sure the print was alright. I had to check over the projector at the theater.
When I went to do that, I discovered that the projector wasn't working correctly. It was shuddering a bit, there was something wrong with the gate. So I fired off a note to Stanley and he had a Cinerama expert come to Paris to correct it. The local MGM representative in Paris was outraged. He said, "No one will ever notice it!" I said, "Stanley would notice, and I'm here as his eyes and ears." I was so fuckin' precocious back then...(Laughing)
I've estimated that I saw 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY almost a hundred times theatrically in that year. I saw it as an admirer of the film. I took friends to it. I saw it at the test screenings at MGM. I saw it at the Paris premiere. I saw it on LSD and mushrooms even...(Laughing) I haven't even seen the films that I've made myself as a director that many times! (Laughing) The first time I saw 2001 when it was released, I was in tears. I was aware of how the film was to end on paper when we were working on it, but I had no idea that it would turn out the way it did. When I was working on the film I had a notion that 2001 was going to be the greatest film ever made, and it turned out that I was right about that.
TV STORE ONLINE: Did you photograph the bathrooms of the palaces for Stanley?
BIRKIN: (Laughing) After I finished at Fontainebleau and sent all of the photographs aoff to Stanley he sent me a note that read: where's the bathroom? So I went back to Fontainebleu to take some more photographs and when I arrived I asked the curator where the bath was and he said, "I don't know. I supposed it was taken out in Napoleon III's day?" I said, "Well, where is the pipe-work?" He went on to show me some of the pipe-work out in a tool shed. We followed the pipes from the tool shed back into the house and it seemed to lead into the flooring and you could see that something was underneath. The curator said, "Leave it with me. I have to get permission." About a week later, they pulled up some of the floorboards and underneath was a bathroom which had apparently sunken down. No one would know where that was today had it not been for Stanley's inquisitiveness.
I was smoking back then and when I would take a photograph of something I would use a cigarette pack and hold it up as a comparison to show Stanley the size of whatever I was photographing. I did that often, and when I photographed Napoleon's wedding ring I was allowed to put it on my own finger to photograph it.
TV STORE ONLINE: What type of cameras did you take with you to shoot the photos for Stanley?
BIRKIN: I was sent off with three Pentax cameras, a typewriter, a compass, some maps, and Stanley's own copy of Felix Markham's biography of Napoleon which he lent me and it contained all of his personal notes in it.
TV STORE ONLINE: Markham's book on Napoleon was THE book for him wasn't it concerning Napoleon?
BIRKIN: Well, he bought the rights to it. When one is doing a historical drama you need to have the rights to at least one book on your subject even if you don't use it. He had written notes all throughout the margin of his copy. I gave him his copy back later on, but I remember there was a scene in the book with Napoleon and Josephine. It was to take place the night before Napoleon's coronation-where he crowned himself Emperor? It was a sham. Napoleon didn't want to crown himself Emperor. But he was advised to do such because if he had not, no one would have taken him as seriously. With that in mind, they were asked to be left with the orb and scepter on the night before. In the margin, Stanley wrote: "great scene." I got the general idea from this because you couldn't help but to imagine a nude Napoleon and Josephine cavorting around with the crown jewels...(laughing)
When Stanley first asked me about Napoleon he had also asked, "Do you know about Betsy Balcombe?" I said, "No, I do not." He gave me this entire back story about how Napoleon had first come to stay with her and how she had fallen in love with him, and their relationship. The way that he told it almost brought tears to my eyes. He was greatly interested in that relationship that she had with Napoleon, but it's not in the script for the film as we know it today.
TV STORE ONLINE: Taschen Books put out a book about NAPOLEON a few years ago...
BIRKIN: Right, yes, I have both copies of it.
TV STORE ONLINE: So, do you think that Stanley's NAPOLEON is truly the greatest movie never made?
BIRKIN: No, I do not. I think that the scope of Napoleon would have been impossible even for Stanley. I think that his script for NAPOLEON is wonderful, but there are certain elements in the life of Napoleon that one finds in relationship to themselves. What Stanley's script essentially is is a microcosm of a macrocosm. Napoleon was so multifaceted and charismatic and you see things in him that you see in yourself. I think his script for Napoleon is every bit as much about Napoleon as it is about Stanley Kubrick himself.
TV STORE ONLINE: Did you visit Italy for research for NAPOLEON?
BIRKIN: I did. I spent a lot of time in France then I went off to Italy. I went basically everywhere he had gone and in particular I was instructed to go to places where everything was still in tact from the First Empire. Meaning, that the furniture that Napoleon may have sat on would still be where it had been two-hundred years prior. I went to Austria. I went briefly to Romania, because Stanley had thought about going there to shoot the military stuff there. When I was in Venice, I got a message to return back to England. I decided to drive it and on the way back I drove through Belgium. I did that so I could stop and get some photos of the battlefield at Waterloo. Plus Stanley liked for me to get him soil samples from the battlefields. I had gotten him a sample of the soil at the battlefields in Italy.
Stanley had thousands of books on Napoleon. I know, because I bought many of them for him. I took about 16,000 photographs for Stanley during the research for Napoleon. Almost all of the photographs in the Taschen book on NAPOLEON were taken by me except for those with the actors in costume.
The night that I was in Waterloo...I went to an inn, a tavern, near the battlefield to stay the night. I fell into talking with someone there at the bar. He said, "Would you be interested in buying a copy of Napoleon's death mask?" I said, "Do you really have one?" He said, "Yes. It's a copy, but it's a very old one. It was made in the 1880's." I bought it from him with my living allowance. When I got back to England, I drove over to the studio. I grabbed up everything and went inside and put everything down in a conference room. Stanley came in and I said to him,"I've brought you a Christmas present." I handed him a box with the death mask in it. He opened it and the blood drained from his face. He turned white. He looked at me and said, "How did you know?" I said, "What?" He looked at me and said, "MGM has pulled the plug on NAPOLEON." I hadn't known! I knew that something was up because I had been asked to return to England, but I had no clue that that was the reason why! Not long after, WATERLOO (1970) came, and that was pretty much that.
Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung