02  November  2017

Stanley Kubrick's executive producer visits European Film College: You have to be obsessed

Jan Harlan, one of the longtime visiting lecturers at European Film College, worked as Stanley Kubrick's producer for over 30 years. He is responsible for helming - as executive producer - such classics as Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut. There was a palpable sense of anticipation at the film school before Harlan's arrival that quickly grew to motivation as Harlan spoke eloquently about multiple facets of the filmmaking process

By Toby Jones, student at European Film College, 2017-18

Harlan, who has been returning to European Film College for 15 years, touched on a broad range of topics related not only to Kubrick’s approach to filmmaking, but to a wider sensibility in filmmakers - for example, to approach film through not only the mind, but the heart: ‘A film is like a crush. You have to love it - you have to be obsessed’.

This notion of obsession perhaps relates to Kubrick more directly than any other major filmmaker, and I asked Harlan about Kubrick’s notorious attention to detail - ‘Research was everything’, said Harlan, who first started working for Kubrick as a researcher on his infamously unmade Napoleon project. I asked if there were any examples of how certain elements of research would change a film significantly, and Harlan gave the example of R. Lee Ermey, who first came on board Full Metal Jacket as a technical advisor, but ended up playing the role of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, one of the great roles in all Kubrick films.

It’s reality, not realism
But Harlan is keen to point out that this attention to real world details does not exclude the possibility of using artificial means to enrich a feeling of reality, rather than reality itself - ‘It’s not realism’ he says, rather, it is important to replicate a feeling embedded in real emotions. If that feeling is found through artificial means, such as faking East London for Vietnam, as in Full Metal Jacket, then that is okay, as long as the feeling is there. ‘We weren’t making a film about Vietnam’, he says, ‘we were making a film about the abuse of young boys’.

This led Harlan to speak about a specific worldview Kubrick had - that despite a societal belief in intellect and civility as the guiding force, instead primitive emotions dictate. Human error, Harlan says, is present in each of Kubrick’s films, and this error grows from the predominance of impulsive emotion in everyday life.

Music as a pillar in sound structure
On the second day of Harlan’s visit, he focused more specifically on the use of sound as a pillar of storytelling. Harlan spoke about his friendship with Kubrick and their bond over classical music and told me that whilst he doesn’t take credit for any work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, he did suggest the use of ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ to Kubrick for the opening scene. To me this strikes at the very core of what good producing is about - to whisper an idea in a director’s head and to step back again and let the director take those reins. Harlan is a director’s producer, someone who worked continually to facilitate Kubrick’s vision, to be an invisible hand in the construction of the classics.

Harlan clearly has a love for looking back over those years with Kubrick, and it is a great joy for us all that he can share stories about the construction of some of the greatest films of all time whilst also being eminently approachable. Harlan will return in January and as a student body we cannot wait to hear more stories, ask more questions and be invigorated once more.

Kubrick-producer Jan Harlan visiting the European Film College