Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Cold War comedy masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, will have a UK theatrical re-release this month. It plays at the BFI Southbank as part of a Kubrick season alongside the new short, Stanley Kubrick Considers the Bomb, directed by Matt Wells, who speaks to ASFF about both films.
ASFF: What was the motivation behind the short and re-releasing this classic Cold War comedy?
MW: One of the starting points was working with the Kubrick estate. It’s the second film that I’ve been involved in. The last film we did was about The Shining, and it was a similar format in that it plays before the movie on a re-release. That worked well enough for me to look at what else we might do together.
Dr. Strangelove felt timely. The nuclear threat was in the news again, conversations between the States and North Korea were very much in the headlines, and I think we wanted to put it out and see what people would make of it today.
When the film came out it was very divisive, which Kubrick’s films always are. When Strangelove came out it was shocking. It delighted a lot of people, but it also appalled a lot of people as well. My hope with the short film was to try to get a closer understanding of how it might have felt to the audience receiving that film when it was first released – when you had been through the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Berlin crisis, and when the idea that the world could end because of nuclear bombs was very much a live issue. I was interested in how close you can get to that audience’s mindset.
ASFF: How does the film resonate with contemporary viewers?
MW: It doesn’t feel dated when you watch it. It is a film of its time, but it’s also completely relevant creatively, politically and editorially. I think that has a lot to do with the thoroughness with which it is made, which is maybe unusual for the genre. Whilst it takes the form of a comedy, its intent is absolutely serious.
ASFF: What is unique about Kubrick’s process when making Strangelove?
MW: It was impeccably well researched. There were things declassified in the 1990s which appear in Dr. Strangelove, but were not public knowledge, and were denied by the Pentagon and The White House at the time. Kubrick was someone who knew the subject so well. He knew the people and had understood the thinking and logic of those involved.
ASFF: Alongside Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket, Strangelove reveals the filmmaker’s interest and awareness in world events. How does Kubrick respond to global issues?
MW: Speaking to those who knew him, he was very politically and socially engaged. As I understand it, even later in his life –when he had a reputation for being an out of touch recluse – he was still very clued up on what was going on in the world. What you see in the films is not an history lesson, it’s much more human than that. It’s not a polemic, it has a point of view. A film like Strangelove almost has an agenda – people felt it was backing up their political cause. What you are watching is a story about people, and they are as flawed as all of us. There’s cognitive dissonance going on, a lot of self-deception and short sightedness, and there’s also of confusion and uncertainty.
It poses the question: what do you do when you find yourself in a situation? It doesn’t have to be as life and death as Strangelove, but when faced with a scenario where you don’t know what to do, it’s completely relatable. You don’t have to be the president to feel like that, and I think that’s why the films work, and why people keep watching them. There’s a keen social awareness that is translated into people and stories.
ASFF: To what extent Kubrick is present in his films?
MW: I don’t want to speculate, and it’s sometimes hard to know what Kubrick was like because he was publicity shy. With Clockwork Orange he sent Anthony Burgess to give all the interviews because he didn’t want to do it. And that’s fair enough. But that’s where it gets quite confusing. When you’re talking about Kubrick people fill in the blanks and the speculations grow. They take on a life of their own and become myths.
ASFF: How can we learn more about the real Kubrick?
MW: There are people out there who worked with him, who knew him, and who remember it. There’s a fantastically rich archive of his stuff because he put everything into storage rather than throwing it out. So you can trace the process of making and releasing each movie, going back, I’m not quite sure how far back, but certainly for Dr. Strangelove there is a lot in there.
I am trying to search to find out who this guy is. The end point is interesting and there is not an interview where Stanley Kubrick sits down with a chat show host and gives his take on why he made the film. There are bits and scraps out there, but you’ve got to do the work to try to get a decent picture of who he was.
Stanley Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB newly restored in 4K will be re-released in UK cinemas & at the BFI from 17 May. It is accompanied by an exclusive new short film ‘Stanley Kubrick Considers the Bomb’ Directed by Matt Wells. Find out more here.