Jan Harlan: It is always the work of art itself that remains and reminds us of the artist


Jan Harlan joined Stanley Kubrick in 1969 for a film on Napoleon, which was abandoned. He later was Executive Producer on all Kubrick films from Barry Lyndon onwards and worked on other unrealised projects with Stanley Kubrick in-between. After Kubrick’s death in 1999 he worked with Steven Spielberg on “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” and made two documentary films for Warner Bros. and other independent projects. Jan is a guest-lecturer at many different film-schools and often serves in juries at film-competitions. He was instrumental in the formation of the Stanley Kubrick Archive at the University of the Arts London and creating a large exhibition on Stanley Kubrick, which tours the world, had 1.2 million visitors so far and is presently at its 18th station in Copenhagen.

Harlan visited Montenegro in 2014, at the invitation by the Montenegrin filmmaker Draško Đurović, whom he had met at Skopje Cinedays festival, and held a lecture entitled “Kubrick, Harlan, Cetinje” at FDU in Cetinje.

As he reveals in this interview, Harlan is proud to have helped creating the Kubrick archive and the large exhibition which is entertaining to those visitors who know Kubrick’s work or are about to discover it, and students who can appreciate how much work, love and care went into Kubrick’s films. He teaches “tools about filmmaking” at many film schools around the world and is very happy to be able to pass something on he learned from the greatest teacher one could have. He is 80 now, has seven grand-children and he “doesn’t take anything for granted”.

Camera Lucida: How and where did you meet Stanley Kubrick – did the first meeting take place through his wife and your sister Christiane - and when did you start working with him? What was the first working experience like?

Jan Harlan: I was still at school. It was only years later when I lived in New York that I met him properly in 1964. He and his family returned from England and I saw the family regularly. There were no plans to work together. I later returned to Germany and Switzerland while Stanley Kubrick moved back to England on his next project later called “2001: A Space Odyssey”. I stayed in touch but began working with him only in 1969 when he asked me to join him for one year to work in Romania on “Napoleon”. So I moved with my wife and son to England during pre-production, but the film was pulled by MGM and “Napoleon” never happened. I liked working with him and he liked me and asked me to stay with him for another project. After that a sound relationship began.

Camera Lucida: Kubrick is widely known as a genius, prolific, versatile and demanding author. There are numerous accounts on Kubrick’s methodical and perfectionist approach to filmmaking, meticulously preparing for each film, not rushing. What was it like to work with him on the set?

Jan Harlan: All this made him so interesting and challenging and is the reason why I loved working for him and continued for 30 years. It was necessary to identify with his aim and to support him fully to the extent possible. I loved my role.

Camera Lucida: Did his director’s approach change in different films during the filming process, given the wide variety of his film topics and genres?

Jan Harlan: No – it was always the same. He wanted to make a film that he himself liked and hoped for his films to last and not to disappear after a few weeks.

Camera Lucida: It has been pointed out that Kubrick had his own 35mm projection room at home. Did he watch many films? Did you often watch films together? What were his viewing preferences or dislikes?

Jan Harlan: Yes, he had a proper cinema with 2 projectors and he watched many films. We sometimes watched several films over the week-end together and with others of the family. He was a film-buff and he loved many other directors like Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Edgar Reitz, Carlos Saura, Jan Troell, Bille August, Denys Arcand - to name just a few at random.

Camera Lucida: As a film critic, I listed his “Dr Strangelove or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb” as one of the greatest comedies of all time in the recent BBC poll and consider “Eyes wide shut” as one of the greatest films. What would Kubrick’s top film list look like?

Jan Harlan: I am glad you liked these, he loved them as well and considered “Eyes Wide Shut” his greatest contribution to the ART of filmmaking. Kubrick’s top film list? That’s a challenging question. How about this?

  • Casablanca, Some like it Hot, Citizen Kane and other Hollywood Classics
  • Les Enfants du Paradis (Marcel Carné)
  • The Emigrants and The New Land (Jan Troell)
  • Heimat (Edgar Reitz), E.T. and Close Encounters (both Steven Spielberg)
  • Radio Days, Annie Hall (both Woody Allen)
  • Cria Cuervos, Blood Wedding (Carlos Saura)
  • The Battle of Algiers
  • Dekalog (Krzysztof Kieslowski)

Camera Lucida: What were his artistic preferences and influences, in general, as you remember them?

Jan Harlan: Novels, music and paintings

Camera Lucida: Kubrick was careful in his choices of music for his films. Did you have any influence and to what extent in the choice of music during your collaboration?

Jan Harlan: I merely recommended music, I never decided what was to be used. Music can be such an important element of a film and this had to be Kubrick’s choice alone.

Camera Lucida: Apart from the production side of film (planning and organising), can you describe the process of your artistic collaboration with Kubrick?

Jan Harlan: My role was to help getting what he needed and wanted: Permissions, rights and people. I would never call myself an artistic collaborator of Kubrick - he didn’t need one. He needed people who were able to identify with his aims, whether actors, designers or anyone else in the crew.

Camera Lucida: Did you find any difficulties in adapting, as an executive producer, to the advanced technology Kubrick used?

Jan Harlan: Not at all - and the term “executive producer” is almost useless - it depends with whom one works. Kubrick was the producer and filmmaker and my role was as I said it above. I selected and bought the masks for “Eyes Wide Shut” in Venice; is this the role of the “executive producer”? Yes, if you are working with Stanley Kubrick.

Camera Lucida: How would you describe the role of the producer compared to that of the artist?

Jan Harlan: There are producers, no doubt, who create a project and work with the writer and director and all credit to them. I was not one of those.

Camera Lucida: You directed, after Kubrick’s death, the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, which brought together friends and collaborators ranging from Martin Scorsese,Woody Allen to Steven Spielberg, Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall. How did you make your choice of people participating in the documentary? What were your criteria to achieve a balanced portrait work of art on such a complex and multifaceted figure as Kubrick? Obviously, it’s not possible to include everyone you would wish to participate in one film…

Jan Harlan: To make a documentary is something else. One doesn’t need to be an artist. A love for the subject matter and a sense of flow and working with a good editor suffice. I only wanted people who either knew Stanley well and had worked with him - or people Stanley liked very much, like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen. The one person I would have loved to have in my film, but could not get, was Ingmar Bergman.

Camera Lucida: Apart from working closely together, what hobbies or leisure activities did you and Kubrick share together as family members?

Jan Harlan: Watching films, talking about possible projects, playing table tennis, having parties and dinners at his house and always New Year’s Eve at mine.

Jan on Shining set

Camera Lucida: I tried to watch “Room 237”, but failed. What do you think of it, what is the logic behind this film?

Jan Harlan: There is no logic, only the opportunistic chance to come up with this after Kubrick’s death and lift a huge amount of footage from “The Shining”.

Camera Lucida: If Kubrick saw “Room 237’, what would he make of it, according to you? 

Jan Harlan: Too hypothetical, since this film would not have been made during Stanley’slife.

Camera Lucida: Will the figure of Kubrick, as is the case with other great authors, always remain thought-provoking, enigmatic or elusive?

Jan Halan: It is only his films that matter. It is always the work of art itself that remains and reminds us of the artist. No doubt a future generation will use Kubrick and other film-makers and writers to get an understanding of the second half of the 20th century in the Western World. It is always the artist first that gives us an understanding of the past. Without the architects, sculptors, writers, painters and composers we would be ignorant about past centuries.

Camera Lucida: You emigrated to the USA in 1962. What were your first impressions of the new continent, how easy/hard was it to adapt as a post-war European immigrant?

Jan Harlan: I loved it! New York was so new and exciting for me. I worked in my previous profession with data processing machines, met many people and soaked it all up.

Camera Lucida: It has been noted that Kubrick was fascinated by Veit Harlan, your (and Christiane’s) uncle, who made a notorious Nazi propaganda film “Jud Suss” under Joseph Goebbels in Nazi Germany. Kubrick wanted and tried to make a film about the Holocaust, but he didn’t manage to put it together. Why?

Jan Harlan: Yes, he wanted to make a film about the worst crime in history, but was not interested in a documentary. He wanted to make a “Shakespearean” drama. It was not easy and he was not able to develop a good script. He then found Louis Begley’s book WARTIME LIES and loved it. He bought the rights, had a deal with Warner Bros. and we spent over a year on pre-production in Eastern Europe in the early 90s. We were well advanced when Warner Bros. suggested to Stanley to postpone the project because Steven Spielberg was in the middle of making “Schindler’s List” in Krakow. Warner Bros. considered it a bad idea to follow Spielberg with a film around the same topic. So “Aryan Papers” (his title) was put on ice.

Camera Lucida: What other films/film ideas did Kubrick have and want to make but didn’t have time to complete?

Jan Harlan: A.I. Artificial Intelligence. He loved Brian Aldiss’ story “Supertoys last all Summer long”, had bought the rights and Warner Bros. was delighted to see this film made instead of “Aryan Papers”. We spent a year on preparing this and then Stanley thought that Steven Spielberg would be the better director for this film and offered it to him.

Camera Lucida: Looking back on your career, what influences might the family ties to your notorious uncle have had on your work: did it make it more difficult for you or was it peripheral to your film career?

Jan Harlan: It made no difference whatsoever. 

Camera Lucida: During your work, you have met various people, famous and less famous. What are you most memorable experiences? Have there been any moments you’d rather forget?

Jan Harlan: I had many good memories and experiences. Working with our camera man Doug Milsome in Oregon - just the two of us filming the establishing shots of the “empty” hotel in the snow. We had a great time. I remember wonderful people like Louis Blau and Bruce Stiglitz, our lawyers in Los Angeles, Terry Semel the former CEO of Warner Bros., and ongoing relationships with actors like Malcolm McDowell with whom I made a documentary about his life and career called “O Lucky Malcolm”. Moments I’d rather forget? Indeed! To forget the renewal date for an option and consequently being “taken to the cleaners” by the owners, for example.

Camera Lucida: There are terms such as Godardian, Fellinian, Bergmanesque etc. other authorial phrases to describe new films by emerging authors, reminiscent of the great masters. What do you think of the term Kubrickian? Can it be, even remotely, adequate to refer to a work of art made by someone else?

Jan Harlan: Yes, one can. Let me give you a very different example: Think of the fugue in Mozart’s “Magic Flute” sung by the two guardsmen - a bow taken to Bach. Or think of Beethoven’s variations for piano and cello of “Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen” - Beethoven’s bow to Mozart.

Camera Lucida: You were Kubrick’s closest collaborator for 30 years, you became his archivist, documentarist and, in a way, a ‘spokesperson’ responsible for his legacy. Do you get bored with the interviews repeating many similar questions about him? How do you feel when you are referred to as “Stanley’s brother in law” and his long-time confidante (in spite of the phrases’ truthfulness), rather than just executive producer, close collaborator?

Jan Harlan: None of this bothers me. I am proud to have helped creating a large exhibition about Stanley Kubrick and the archive at the University of the Arts in London. I am teaching “tools about filmmaking” at many film schools around the world and I am very happy to be able to pass something on I learned from the greatest teacher one could have. I am 80 now and I don’t take anything for granted. 

Camera Lucida: A highly demanding and beautiful project of yours, the “Kubrick Exhibition”, was successfully presented in many cities around the world (Los Angeles, Rome, Paris, Zurich, Toronto…). What were the highlights of the exhibition for you?

Jan Harlan: Indeed, we have 1.2 million visitors so far. At this time the exhibition is in Copenhagen after Mexico City, San Francisco, Sao Paulo before. The highlights for me - and this is very subjective - are the documented details, the notes and letters. I am glad that the exhibition is entertaining for those who just want to be reminded of the films they have seen - or are now going to see - as well as for students who want to have a good look at the details and appreciate how much work, love and care went into Kubrick’s films.

Camera Lucida: I’ve read somewhere that Kubrick would leave a film after 15-20 min if it doesn’t engage him. As a film critic and a festival jury member, I’ve done the same. What about you? Do you think there are too many mediocre films being made today?

Jan Harlan: I fully agree. If the first 15 minutes are boring, leave. It may be unfair, but I can’t help it. I do a seminar on “Short-Films as a Calling Card” and keep telling students (always supported by examples) that the first minute must grab the viewer or the film might be pushed aside. This may not be fair, but life isn’t fair and a young filmmaker needs to play by the rules and accept that there is competition. He or she must face the fact that a short film festival may get 2000 entries and then selects 50 titles.

Camera Lucida: Film is still a young art and, given this situation of rapidly ever-changing technology, how will new tech advances affect the new young filmmaker? Could we talk again of “new Kubricks, Godards, Fellinis, Antonionis, Bergmans, Pasolinis, Resnais” etc., the innovative, original, refreshing authorial minds of the image content, not solely reliant on the technological tools?

Jan Harlan: I am convinced that every generation has some great artists and I am so lucky to meet young people at various film schools and some with charisma and great talent. I am honoured to be able to point out a few things they may not be aware of – for example “music as a scripting tool” or “Music as a potential pillar in the structure of a film”. Have you seen IDA by Pawel Pawlikowski? A master-piece. Technology enables people now to make films with small budgets. The bottleneck are still great artists, writers and directors…and great audiences. I see a very positive development in the long TV series, now that Television is technically so superb. Now there is the possibility to bring big stories to the screen without compressing them to 2 ½ hours.

Camera Lucida: What, do you think, is the future of the European film?

Jan Harlan: I am very optimistic. I repeat: The shortfall is both artists and an audience that has learned how to distinguish. I believe film appreciation should be taught in school as we learn about literature and other arts - we live now in a visual age and young people watch more and read less.

I just saw a wonderful film form Iceland: RAMS - don’t miss it.

Camera Lucida: You visited Montenegro on the occasion of your lectures at FDU in Cetinje. What was your experience of the contact with the small, developing film industry and with film students?

Jan Harlan: It is a while ago. I remember beautiful landscapes and a small wooden white and very lovely theatre somewhere in the country - and Drasco Djurovic, who showed me around and is a very enthusiastic man and filmmaker.

Camera Lucida: Would you consider coming back to Montenegro and, possibly, bringing the amazing “Kubrick Exhibition” to one of Montenegrin cities?

Jan Harlan: I would be happy to come back to teach at a film school or university with a media department. To get the Kubrick Exhibition is easy if you have a venue used to changing exhibitions with staff and the necessary infrastructure and a space of 800 to 1200 square meters with reasonably high ceilings. If such a venue exists in Podgorica and if they want the exhibition, the finances need to be looked at. To get the exhibition including transport, our people for the adaptation to a given venue with the local crew costs around €250,000 before costs for advertising and publicity. (Some publicity is free since ALL newspapers in the country will write about it.) In larger cities the sale of tickets may cover the costs, but I have no idea about the situation in Podgorica. I believe any venue will need a sponsor.

Camera Lucida: What’s the next project?

Jan Harlan: Next week European Film College in Denmark. In November a special event around Barry Lyndon in Hamburg, then, a class within the International Short Film Festival in Berlin, then film-school in Vilnius, Lithuania. In December, I’ll be teaching at a university in the UK. Don’ forget: I also have seven grand-children.


JH Timberline 2


Previous-Page-Icon    09   Next-Page-Icon