Response to screenwriter John August

by Rob Ager (1st Aug 2011)


Update 20th Oct 2012

Two days ago Jan Harlan (Kubrick's brother-in-law and exec-producer on The Shining) confirmed in an interview for The Guardian that "The set was very deliberately built to be offbeat and off the track, so that the huge ballroom would never actually fit inside. The audience is deliberately made to not know where they're going. People say The Shining doesn't make sense. Well spotted! It's a ghost movie. It's not supposed to make sense." So there you have it. Kubrick did intentionally play with spatial defects in the set designs of the film.

Below is my original response to John August


In John August’s critique of my recent video Spatial Anomalies and Set Design in The Shining the author starts with the assumption that it is not even possible for Kubrick, or any other film maker, to thematically use spatial discontinuity. In his opinion spatial discontinuity in sets can only be down to error.

Though August glosses over some of the set details described in my video, he doesn’t mention the mismatching table top maze layouts – a continuity “error” of vast proportions that was completely unnecessary. He also doesn’t mention my quote of Kubrick’s verbal announcement regarding thematic set layout.

“We wanted the hotel to look authentic rather than like a traditionally spooky movie hotel. The hotel's labyrinthine layout and huge rooms, I believed, would alone provide an eerie enough atmosphere.” – Kubrick interviewed by Michael Ciment

I shall here address each point in John's article (note: John's article is quoted chronologically in blue text).

August starts by citing an apparent piece of misinterpretation of his own work, as if it represents proof that film analysis on the whole is a pointless endeavour.

A few weeks ago, Shay from Jerusalem wrote in:

I’m researching about Big Fish’s textual references to other auteurs or to the film canon in general. At first, I noticed the 8½ style ending, then the freeze scene reminded me of Scolla’s “We loved each other so much” exposition. Further more I thought Calloway’s character interestingly resembles a crossbreed between Dr Caligari and the Tramp.

Also lots of visual cues of circles which it think refer to Chaplin’s “The Circus”, that do not appear in the final script.
Have I overestimated your script/Burton’s directing? Blindly missed?

I don’t know if “overestimating” is a polite way to put it, but no, none of those references were in my head for Big Fish. And while I never spoke with Tim about the specifics on how he chose to shoot things, I’d be very surprised if those other films were conscious aspects of his process.

Films are often severely misinterpreted, as everything else is, but that doesn’t mean film analysis is to be completely distrusted in all its forms. There are examples of film interpretations that turn out to be accurate. Would John refuse to accept that several of George Orwell’s works were detailed allegories about the dangers of communism? Would he refuse to accept that many stories in the bible are allegorical morality messages, as are many children’s stories? Art is metaphor and metaphors, by their double meaning nature, can be understood or misread without an open verbal declaration from the artist. In fact an open verbal declaration defeats the point of communication through art – hence many artist’s, including kubrick, refuse to explain their work.

Academia teaches us to ask questions like Shay’s — and generally, to answer them ourselves. So we find parallels and influences that make sense on paper without worrying too much about whether they’re actually true.

I’m not an academic. Neither was Kubrick.

To his credit, Shay tracked me down and asked his questions. I probably ruined the thesis of his research paper by answering honestly.

I was reminded of my email exchange with Shay by a video Daring Fireball linked to this morning:

The Shining — spatial awareness and set design.
(The video continues in part two.)

Rob Ager’s analysis of spatial impossibilities in The Shining is entertaining but naive, the video equivalent of Shay’s unwritten paper:

August here makes an unfounded link between Shay and my work, based on nothing more than the supposed fact Shay was attempting to write a film study. In that case John may perhaps not be offended if I attribute his contribution to the script for the Charlie’s Angels movies, and his contributions to the scripts of Tim Burton’s lesser works, as being somewhat representative of his limited artistic sensibilities (though I did like the Corpse Bride).

Now John provides his only quote from my video.

"These blatant design anomalies would not have occurred by accident. Set designers would have noticed them and brought them to Stanley’s attention at the blueprint stage. The only way they could occur is if Stanley wanted them there."

I’m sure there is a more official name, but let’s call this situation the genius fallacy. We start with a god-like figure such as Stanley Kubrick, well-known for his exacting attention to detail.

John creates a “genius fallacy” diagnosis, which bears no more relevance than my calling his assertions a “co-incidence fallacy”.

Ager’s thesis seem to be: Since Kubrick was a perfectionist, anything that seems like an error in Kubrick’s work must not be an error, but must instead be a deliberate choice.

That's a Straw Man argument. August distorts my logic by paraphrasing. I’ve never claimed that Kubrick’s films have no errors. Many people have emailed me asking about the helicopter shadow at the start of The Shining and the additional missing door panel in the “Here’s Johnny” door chopping scene. To my knowledge those are simply errors, though if someone was offering an explanation of possible thematic use I would be open-minded.

Yes, that sounds like fundamentalism.

August first distorts my logic through paraphrasing then criticizes his own statement as if he’d quoted me. That sounds more like fundamentalism on his part.

Ager does have logic to support his narrative. After all, the Overlook Hotel is meant to be vast and confusing. The movie features a hedge maze as a major component. Kubrick is clearly playing with themes of disorientation, both physically and mentally. So it makes sense his choices would emphasize these aspects.

If August is so certain Kubrick is playing with themes of disorientation then why is he so swiftly determined to dismiss the notion of set discontinuity as part of the process?

But –

The windows are there for light.

The sets could easily have been laid out so as to have windows that did not create jarring layout anomalies. I succeeded in doing this with my short film The Sex Game, using two different house locations, plus miniature sets and on a tiny budget.

The walls are placed to best frame the scenes.

Again, they could easily have been arranged to suitably frame the scenes without creating overall discontinuity of the hotel structure.

The big hedge map was moved because he didn ’t want it in the shot. (Or, more likely, it was moved into the shot when he wanted it.)

That’s as much an assumption as any claim made in my video. The map appears in two different positions. When Ullman is present, it is right up against the edge of the maze. When Danny and Wendy enter it has moved right up close to the camera. And in the final shots of Danny entering the maze it has disappeared from both positions completely. My interpretation, based upon cross referencing with other set design elements, Kubrick’s “labrynthine layout” quote, and the mismatching table top maze, is that it is part of the spatial disorientation of getting lost in a maze without a map.

In his analysis of cinematic geography, Ager is ignoring a tremendous amount of silent evidence. Namely, every movie ever made. Any film subjected to the kind of scrutiny applied here will reveal moments of spatial impossibility.

August is ignoring film history himself. Psycho and The Exorcist don’t have spatially impossible sets even though the film makers were more confined in terms of the space they were portraying. I invite August to demonstrate his point by finding blatant layout errors in Psycho and The Exorcist that are as severe as those in The Shining.

However, several horror films do use locations and sets that are psychologically imposing in terms of scale and lighting (including Psycho, Amityville Horror, The Haunting, Legend of Hell House).

There are also many films and TV shows that have used impossible space motifs – Labyrinth, Time Bandits, the Hellraiser films, Dr Who, Poltergeist, Twilight Zone The Movie (3rd Episode), and my own recent feature film Turn In Your Grave. Several of those films also feature mazes.

Here are just three reasons why:

Cinematic geography is largely transient. The audience pays attention to where things are within a scene, which is why we worry about camera direction and crossing the line. But the minute you cut to another scene, our brains safely discard the perceived geography.

Film makers can get away with this in terms of small errors, but not large ones. Viewers are visually jarred by severe errors, which can (and sometimes are) thematically used by horror and fantasy film makers. Kubrick also very blatantly, and famously, crosses the line in the Delbert Grady / bathroom scene of The Shining ... a scene in which Jack is basically talking to himself in a mirror.

Sets are designed to do things real locations can’t. Walls move, giving the director the choice (and decision) how much to bend reality in order to position a camera where it couldn’t physically be.

August has overlooked that I’m a film maker myself (I've written, produced, directed and edited three extended shorts and one feature as well as being co-producer, editor and cinematographer for several other directors) and am familiar with these set techniques. In The Sex Game I redressed a single wall four times to represent the four walls of a full room and I did it in a way that is not visually jarring like The Shining’s sets. In most built sets removable fourth walls don’t interfere with spatial continuity.

Even when movies use real locations, they are often assembled from various pieces. The exterior of the Overlook Hotel is actually The Timberline Lodge in Oregon. And yes: the rooflines and windows don’t match closely with Kubrick’s sets.

The exterior of the Overlook wasn’t “actually The Timberline lodge”. It was a set construction in England loosely based upon the Timberline Lodge exterior. There is a video on my youtube channel showing the original hotels that were used as a guideline for the Overlook hotel aesthetics.

But what would Ager have Kubrick do? Should an infallible genius director build a new exterior to match his vision of the interior, or should he alter his vision of the interior to match the realities of the exterior?

Kubrick did build a new exterior. Has John even read about The Shining's production history?

And I’ve never called Kubrick infallible. That’s distortive paraphrasing. Being that the Timberline exterior was rebuilt in England (though not to exact specifications) its angles could have been conveniently altered so as to conceptually match the interior sets more closely. The Torrance apartment could have been placed on a corner of the structure (as is suggested by its windows in the interior scenes).

The fact is, Kubrick doesn’t have to do either. Audiences easily accept that the two locations are the same, not because Kubrick has perfected some form of cinematic spatial disorientation, but because that’s how movies work.

That’s not how movies work. Film makers and set designers will work to at least provide a casually convincing layout for a location that features interiors and exteriors of the same structure  – just as they will take continuity polaroids of arbitrary props to ensure continuity, even when those props are incidental. For a high budget production, the level of mismatching between sets in The Shining is unusual to an extreme.

When Shelley Duvall is crawling out the window, what matters that we believe it’s the same window inside and outside — not whether it’s a corner apartment. Kubrick isn’t performing some amazing psychological trick here.

August is still disregarding Kubrick’s quote about the thematic use of a “labyrinthine layout”, a quote which demonstrates Kubrick’s ongoing awareness of space in his direction.

He’s getting away with cheating a location. That’s what directors do.

Directors work to communicate themes effectively. If the film is intended to be convincing in a reality sense then sets will be designed to a minimum standard of authenticity. If the film is a horror or fantasy then jarring discontinuities of space and design can be used thematically (Labyrinth, Time Bandits, Hellraiser, Dr Who, Poltergeist etc).

Filmmaking is essentially the art of sustaining the suspension of disbelief: from shot to shot, scene to scene.

Fiction film making is the art of communicating ideas and emotions, which can involve suspending or engaging disbelief.

August now provides a fictional example of a director working with set limitations.

On location scouts, we talk about “selling” and “buying” and “reading.”
I’m not buying this as an upscale Miami restaurant. It’s reading very Dennys-in-Topeka.
It fits on the schedule. We can’t change the schedule.
Bring in some white tablecloths, some palm trees to sell Florida. Done.
Maybe a flamingo could walk through the shot.
We can’t afford animals.
I was being sarcastic.
We can’t afford that either.

The Shining wasn’t shot on location. It was done on expensive, constructed sets. Does August also believe the visually jarring carpet patterns near room 237 were chosen because they happened to be on sale at the nearest Carpet Warehouse?

Are we, based upon John's fictional example, supposed to visualize Kubrick operating in the same way on his sets. Neither the Making of The Shining documentary, nor biographes or cast and crew interviews support that thesis.

The Shining is a great movie. Kubrick was a great director. At the end of the second video, Ager focuses on a few points well worth highlighting, because they are very deliberate and very effective demonstrations of Kubrick’s skills.

Notice how the camera tracks Danny as his tricycle loops around the hallways — and how that ties into the final set piece in the maze.
Observe how Kubrick isolates his characters by placing them in vast sets and landscapes.

Are we expected to believe these themes were deliberate, as opposed to others, because John says so?

But don’t obsess about which way the freezer door swings. By making too much of too little, you miss out the bigger picture.

Pointing out a very blatant visual mismatch isn’t obsessing, especially when it’s coming from one film maker studying the work of another. It could equally be said that August is obsessing in his refusal to acknowledge even the possibility of deliberate spatial defects in Kubrick’s The Shining – when I see a youtube video I disagree with I simply leave a thumbs down rating, and maybe one or two comments, then go watch something I do like.

As for the bigger picture, my full study of The Shining includes dozens of quotes from Kubrick biographies and cast / crew interviews, information gathered from visits to the Stanley Kubrick archive in London, carefully cross referenced drawings of set layouts and a variety of other sources, combined with my own experience of writing, producing, directing and editing. The self-indulgent academic film dissections August dismisses overwhelmingly lack such detailed sources. Ironically, there is a chapter in my full analysis called The Bigger Picture.