Brian Cook, Color Me Kubrick
Color Me Kubrick: A True…ish Story is the fascinating story of English conman Alan Conway (flamboyantly portrayed by John Malkovich) who made his career out of impersonating Stanley Kubrick. Conway found out that hardly anyone actually knew what Kubrick looked like, a discovery which led him to take his deception to extravagant, and often ridiculous, extremes. He used his borrowed identity to obtain huge amounts of money and seduce the young and impressionable, and got so immersed in the activities of his affluent alter ego that he began almost believing he was Kubrick.
The film is the directorial debut of Brian Cook, a veteran of the movie industry who is known as one of the best assistant directors in the business. The Brit cut his teeth on cult classics like Alfie (1966) and The Wicker Man (1973), and has since worked with everybody from Brian De Palma to Mel Brooks. Cook was such an ideal choice to helm Color Me Kubrick because he himself was a long-time collaborator of Kubrick’s. The real Kubrick, that is.
Filmmaker talked to Cook about Kubrick, working with John Malkovich, and his memories of over forty years in films.
Filmmaker: Tell me about what it was like working with Stanley Kubrick?
Cook: It was always a long journey with Stanley, because the films always took a long time prepare and then to shoot. So it was always an endurance test as much as anything. On most movies you know when you’re going to start and finish, but with Stanley you were always going off at a tangent so you could never see the light at the end of the tunnel. I worked two and a half years on Eyes Wide Shut, probably a year and three quarters on The Shining, and a year and a bit on Barry Lyndon. I didn’t do Full Metal Jacket because I’d just bought a house in Australia, and my kids were very young and had just started school. So I ducked out of a year at Beckton gasworks!
Filmmaker: What’s your favorite Kubrick story?
Cook: I reserve those more for after two or three bottles of wine about two o’clock in the morning! There are so many stories with Stanley, and I’ll save most of them for my memoirs if I get around to writing them, but Stanley was a lot of fun. He was terrific, and the only times he was difficult was when he was shooting. Stanley was much more fun and relaxed in the preparation and the editing, and at weekends when you weren’t actually shooting but talking about the picture. I remember on The Shining he used to say to me, “What we should really have is some guy that we could send out to direct this during the week. And we can sit up here, look at the rushes, and send him back to do it again.”
Filmmaker: How aware was Kubrick that Alan Conway was impersonating him?
Cook: When we were doing Eyes Wide Shut, it really came to the fore. Tony Frewin, who was Stanley’s personal assistant and was always on his payroll, was inundated with these odd calls from people saying, “Stanley owes me money,” or “Stanley’s promised me a part in a film,” or some bullshit. Tony would take their names, go and see Stanley, who he would say, “I’ve never heard of this bloke. Find out who he is.” Then Tony checked him out with the police, but the problem was that you could never bring him to court because none of the people he had conned would come forward and admit that they’d been fooled. It got difficult when he signed Stanley’s name on a bank loan for a gay club in Soho… Tony kept a file on all these incidents, and he’d written novels and screenplays before, so he wrote a screenplay. I liked it a lot, and said, “We should make this.”
Filmmaker: How close to the facts is the film?
Cook: It’s all true, basically. The only reason we couldn’t call it a true story was for legal reasons – so that’s why we called it a ‘true-ish’ story. It’s amazing how many people didn’t know what he looked like, especially when I first worked with Stanley in the early 70s. He was a very private person. He wasn’t a social person, and he hardly ever went out. It was very rare for him to get forced into going to a restaurant by his wife.
Filmmaker: Was it a daunting prospect directing your first film?
Cook: I found it very easy. I’ve directed loads of second unit stuff, and carried a lot of bad directors through the years. One or two supposedly good ones as well! I could never afford to be a director, because once you become a top-class technician and you’ve got financial responsibilities, you need to work 53 weeks a year to break even. So you can’t afford to take two or three years out to make a movie.
Filmmaker: What was it like directing John Malkovich’s performance? Did he already have a fully-formed idea of the character?
Cook: We talked about it beforehand, and I wanted to make it very over-the-top to try and make it a bit more fun. John’s fabulous, the perfect professional. I’d worked with him before, and I wanted to use an actor I knew – he was the only actor I sent the script to. I also sent the script to my old friend David Hemmings for his opinion, and also I wanted him to play one of the supporting roles, but he unfortunately died before we started shooting.
Filmmaker: There are nice musical nods to Kubrick in the movie, but did you ever consider directing it in a Kubrickian style?
Cook: Not really – I didn’t really think about Stanley too much. I always wanted to use his music, because one of the things about Stanley was his superb choice of music, because he listened to so much. I thought it would be ridiculous not to use some of that stuff, and I also thought it would be amusing. I’ve obviously learned a lot from the good directors – whether I’ve learned how to sort out a script is another story.
Filmmaker: What was your dream job as a kid?
Cook: I only ever thought I would go into the film industry, because my father [sound technician John Cook] was in the film industry. When I was a kid, I used to be around when my father was making films like Moby Dick, and watched all of that stuff going on. I didn’t know what exactly I was going to do in the industry, because it’s very difficult to work out which area interests you most of all. What my father said to me was, “Listen, you don’t want to be a technician because you might not be good enough for that, so if you’re going to come into the film industry join the production department, because even a moron makes a living there!”
Filmmaker: When was the last time you wished you had a different job?
Cook: Oh, never. I’ve had a fantastic life in the film industry and I’ve been very, very lucky to work with some fantastic directors, technicians and actors. I’ve traveled the world and I’m so used to never having paid the hotel bill, that when I go on holiday I’m astonished how expensive it is!
Filmmaker: What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen during your time in the film industry?
Cook: I think it was probably on Barry Lyndon , when we had to leave Ireland and Warner Bros didn’t know, or anybody else, and I had to call Stanley’s lawyer to tell him. That was a strange moment, I must say. We’d had a scare – there was a phone call made to one of the hairdressers on the set where we were shooting in Dublin Castle – and we moved very quickly. In fact, Stanley was out of town that night. It was supposedly to do with the IRA, but it was never proven.