Kubrick's unfinished return to the future

A scriptwriter endured a stress odyssey collaborating on the driven director's re-entry into the sci-fi realm


August 08, 1999|By John Coffren | John Coffren,Special to the Sun

When the call came in March 1995, Sara Maitland thought it was a prank. The voice on the other end of the line introduced himself as film director Stanley Kubrick, and asked, "Would you like to write a film script for me?"

"He rang me, no warning," the British author recalls. "I called up my agent and said, 'What do you mean giving up my private phone?' "

But the call and offer were both genuine. The next day a contract arrived, beginning Maitland's yearlong adventure as the screenwriter for "A.I." (Artificial Intelligence), the legendary film director's planned return to science fiction.

It was an intense, sometimes frustrating experience that would end abruptly when Kubrick died this spring while "A.I." was still in pre-production. But Maitland's recollections of her work with Kubrick offer an intimate glimpse of the iconoclastic filmmaker near the end of his career.

Every two weeks she would drive an hour from her home in Kettering, England, to Childwickbury Manor, Kubrick's palatial 172-acre estate near St. Albans in Hertfordshire.

She would pass through a series of electronic gates before Kubrick would receive her, always dressed in a blue "boiler suit," (workman's coveralls) and ratty running shoes.

The pair would retire to a billiards room where they would brainstorm. He would show her video footage of his films and other people's films and yell at her about the script.

"He was just driven," says Maitland, 49, speaking on the telephone from Kettering. "He wanted it now, he wanted it yesterday."

But she also describes Kubrick as a great conversationalist, an energetic man, physically and intellectually, with a very clear wit. "He was interested in what you knew and curious in everything. He could be very charming, very funny in an ironic way."

Two weeks into their project, Kubrick handed her a paperback copy of "Pinocchio," an English translation of "Avventure di Pinocchio" (1883) by Italian Carlo Collodi, and a script with the same title. Kubrick told her to build on that foundation.

The script read like a futuristic version of the old fairy tale. The hero was a robot named David who yearns to be a little boy, goes on a quest to win the affections of a parent -- his mother -- and enlists the aid of other robots to this end.

The script, Maitland recalls, was "ragged, [a shambles], emotionally uncertain and peopled with no characters." There was no indication of the author. Four British science fiction writers hired by Kubrick had worked on the screenplay before Maitland's involvement, the last being Ian Watson.

Kubrick had worked on "A.I.," at least in an exploratory sense, since the late 1970s or early '80s. In 1991, he set it aside, citing the visuals as "beyond the then-state-of-the art in special effects." Two years later, advances made in computer animation, like those in Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" (1993), convinced him that special effects had finally caught up to his vision.

Although the subjects of Kubrick's films ranged from pulp fiction ("The Killing," 1956) to social satire ("Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," 1964), it was his science fiction movie, "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968), that was perhaps his most notable -- and for many his signature -- work.

"2001" was Kubrick's expansion of the Arthur C. Clarke short story, "The Sentinel" (1951). Clarke's "cosmic burglar alarm" story was distilled into a single scene in the motion picture. Similarly, "A.I." was Kubrick's expansion of another short science fiction story, Brian Aldiss' "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" (1969).

Kubrick felt "A.I." needed a fairy-tale quality, and wanted a storyteller to help him create a new myth. He called Maitland after reading a couple of her short stories, "The Eighth Planet" and "True North." At the time, Maitland, 49, had published more than 30 books concerning theology and fables.

Kubrick told her that "True North" was the kind of self-contained, magical world where nothing is explained that he wanted instilled into the "A.I." script. "True North" involves three characters, named simply "old woman," "young woman" and "man." The two women enjoy an isolated, idyllic, mutually dependent lifestyle in the barren North until the appearance of "man" upsets the balance and drives the women to passionate extremes of love and violence.

The real Kubrick

Maitland had heard rumors that Kubrick was a recluse, an obsessive-compulsive paranoid, but he never appeared "mad" to her. "If I were rich," she said, "I might live that way as well."

She found him professional and humane. He would always greet her with a hello but never a handshake. Lunch always consisted of tuna sandwiches served in the kitchen around a giant, central island where each of Kubrick's six dogs had a recessed bed.

He doted on his dogs and grandchildren, the only personal history that he would discuss, she said.

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