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Hypotheticals: Kubrick’s ‘Napoleon’

Here at Flavorwire, we love to engage in what Marcellus Wallace called “contemplating the ifs” — imagining a pop culture landscape filled with movies that never happened, adaptations that never came to pass, and performances that were not to be. In “Hypotheticals,” our new, semi-regular feature, we’ll hone in on a single project that never was (a film, a television show, an album, a book, anything really) and explain why it went away, and what we might’ve missed. First up: Stanley Kubrick’s long-gestating, never-realized film version of the life of Napoleon.

Stanley Kubrick became interested in making a film biography of Napoleon while in post-production for 2001: A Space Odyssey, having a long-held fascination with the French Emperor, whom he felt had not been properly immortalized on film. (Of Abel Gance’s famed 1927 version, he said this in 1968: “I found it to be really terrible. As far as story and performance goes it’s a very crude picture.”) When 2001 was a critical and popular success, Kubrick found himself in a power position, where he could make anything he wanted — so he chose to push forward on his Napoleon film, with 2001 distributor MGM financing a research period that would last for two full years.

It should come as no surprise to anyone with even a passing knowledge of Mr. Kubrick’s career and working methods that said research was, to say the least, extensive. He first hired Napoleon scholar and biographer Felix Markham as overseeing historical director, and bought the rights to Markham’s book, which he used as a rough basis for his screenplay. While the filmmaker devoured hundreds of other biographies, Markham, an Oxford University professor, provided Kubrick with twenty of his graduate students. They compiled an exhaustively detailed master biographical file, cataloging the 50 major characters in Napoleon’s life in chronological order, coded by colored index cards, so Kubrick could easily ascertain who was where at any given point while writing his script.

Kubrick’s visual research was no less extensive. He sent an assistant to literally follow Napoleon’s footsteps around the world, and to not only take pictures of everything (the location scouting file ultimately totaled 15,000 photos), but to bring back samples of the dirt from Waterloo, so he could match the look and consistency of the ground beneath the emperor’s feet when shooting that sequence (budgetary restrictions and changes in geography would prevent Kubrick from shooting at the actual locations, as he’d originally hoped). He also had his team assemble 17,000 slides of period imagery: clothing, buildings, art, etc.

His production notes, submitted in November 1968 (and included as an addendum to this PDF version of his Napoleon screenplay) envision a three-hour epic, with a 150-day shooting schedule to accommodate the many battle sequences Kubrick hoped to recreate. These notes are mostly of interest because of their heavy emphasis on cost-cutting measures; Kubrick had initially proposed a budget in the neighborhood of $5 million, a shocking amount for late-’60s Hollywood, and one hefty enough to cause panicked studio execs to envision another Cleopatra (the out-of-control boondoggle that had nearly sunk Fox earlier in the decade). With this in mind, Kubrick wrote that he had worked out cost-cutting measures for “the four principle categories of cost which represent the largest proportion of any spectacle film,” and would thus “result in substantial savings to the budget, allowing the film to be produced for a much lower cost than I had first envisaged, without any loss of quality, size or substance.”

1. “Large numbers of extras.” Kubrick planned to shoot his battle scenes, which would require something like 50,000 men (remember, this was before you could just CG in thousands of people), in Romania — where he could get a “maximum of 30,000 troops at $2 per man” — and Yugoslavia, which could “provide up to the same numbers at $5 per man.”

2. “Large numbers of military uniforms.” All those men would need to be clothed, of course, but Kubrick had found a shortcut there as well: a New York form that could make what amounted to a paper uniform, “which has a 300-pound breaking strength, even when wet,” for one to four bucks per costume. “We have done film tests on the $4 uniform,” Kubrick wrote, “and, from a distance of 30 yards or further away, it looks marvelous.”

3. “Large numbers of expensive sets.” Kubrick planned to shoot his palace interiors in France and Italy, where “authentic Palaces and Villas of the period” could be rented for $350-750 per day, “and in most cases are completely furnished, requiring only the most minor work on our part before shooting.” In addition, Kubrick promised, “I intend to exploit, to the fullest, the Front Projection techniques I developed during the production of 2001.”

4. “Over-priced movie stars.” Kubrick pointed to the recent success of not only 2001 but The Graduate and Dr. Zhivago as proof that “over-priced movie stars do little besides leaving an insufficient amount of money to make the film properly.” He intended to use “great actors and new faces,” with Ian Holm, Alec Guiness, and Laurence Olivier mentioned as the great actors, and David Hemmings and Jack Nicholson among the “new faces” considered possible for the leading role. For Josephine, though, he hoped to lure Audrey Hepburn out of semi-retirement.

Kubrick also mentioned one other time and money-saving innovation in his notes: “Fast lenses,” which would not only allow “shooting to continue on exterior locations beyond the normal hour where the light becomes photographically inadequate,” but would allow him to shoot in interiors “with only the natural daylight coming from the windows… and should even allow interiors to be shot by candlelight.” (He would later famously shoot Barry Lyndon in this fashion.)

The director projected a start date of July 1, 1969, with production wrapping on September 1, but his obsessive research and struggle with the screenplay (it was reportedly his first solo script) meant that the writing process took far longer than anticipated, and he didn’t deliver the screenplay to MGM until late September of 1969. By then, ownership at MGM had changed hands, and the new suits were less interested in financing epics than on television production. Kubrick shopped the project to United Artists, but with word of Kubrick’s film in the Hollywood air, three competing Napoleon projects had hurried into production — chief among them producer Dino De Laurentis’ Waterloo. UA ultimately passed, and the competing Napoleon films bombed.

Kubrick ended up signing a lucrative new deal with Warner Brothers, where he spent the rest of his career. He could have pitched Napoleon there, but may well have known that it would be a hard sell in the wake of the other Napoleon projects, so he instead made A Clockwork Orange as his first film there. He planned to return to Napoleon after Orange, and intended to rewrite his screenplay, since “in the two years since the first one was written I have had new ideas.” But in the meantime, another big-budgeted biography — the British television production Napeoleon and Love — had failed to find an audience. “Whether Kubrick was dismayed by such a lack of interest in his prime subject,” wrote Daryl Mason in Salon, shortly after the director’s death, “or whether he felt he never truly nailed the script is not known. But according to Kubrick’s longtime friend at Warner Bros., publicist Julian Senior, the director never officially submitted a finished screenplay to the studio.”

The filmmaker’s thoughts would occasionally return to the passion project — he is even said to have contemplated a Napoleon mini-series during that format’s period of post-Roots respectability — but it sadly never came to pass. However, after his death, a copy of his 1969 screenplay was discovered in a Hutchinson, Kansas salt mine (where countless negatives, prints, and studio papers are stored), and made its way both to eBay and the Internet. Then, in 2009, the Taschen press (publishers of The Stanley Kubrick Archives) put out the ten-book collection Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made, which assembled all of Kubrick’s copious notes, photos, and research materials, along with his screenplay. The limited edition — only one thousand copies — was priced at a hefty $3,000. (And yes, it’s sold out.)

After the discovery of the screenplay, there was new talk of it being made, with everyone from Ridley Scott, Ang Lee, and Steven Spielberg mentioned as possible directors. But it will most likely make its way to screens as nonfiction: Last year, Creative Differences (the production company behind Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into the Abyss) announced Kubrick/Napoleon, a documentary film about the aborted project. “Because of the scale of Kubrick’s vision, the film exists. Napoleon exists,” says director Erik Nelson. “It existed in Kubrick’s mind when he was about to film it and we’re trying to come as close to that dream as we can, but in documentary form.”

Thanks to the aforementioned Salon piece for background. Poster by Fernando Reza. To watch Kubrick’s widow Christiane and brother-in-law Jan Harlan discuss the project, go here.

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