Smell of Popcorn

film reviews & musings by Max Lalanne


Read Stanley Kubrick’s production notes for Napoleon, the greatest movie never made

Posted by Max Lalanne on June 18, 2012


You may or may not know that Stanley Kubrick, the unparalleled auteur behind such magnificent pictures as 1964’s Dr. Stranglove and 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – which both belong somewhere in my top ten favorite movies – holds a dear place in my heart as my favorite director. I’m sort of a very big fan of the guy. You also may or may not know that I’m somewhat of a world history geek. I’m sort of a very big fan of that, also. My point is, you can imagine how terribly excited, for the lack of a better word, when I was perhaps the last movie buff on the planet to have caught wind earlier this year of Napoleon, Kubrick’s ultra-ambitious, huge-scale biopic centering on the life and travails of the one-time French Emperor. Which was, yeah, never made, very obviously and very disappointingly.

The would-be epic was scrapped by MGM after another Napoleon movie, 1970’s Waterloo flopped at the box office. Also, Kubrick, who was extremely dedicated and excited on making Napoleon, reportedly spent a hefty $420,000 extensively researching locations, costumes, and all that other fun R&D stuff in countries like Italy and France. Why am I bringing this up now? Well, I only just got to reading the official, 150-page screenplay draft, which is available almost everywhere on the web. It’s a solid, captivating script – Kubrick honestly wasn’t known for writing great scripts, but if and once you can visualize how he would’ve shot it, it does becomes a great script – but I was surprised in finding nearly four glorious pages worth of production notes at the end of the script, signed “S. Kubrick” at the end. Unless you already own the 2009 book Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made – which sounds fascinating, if you had $700 to spare – this is a wealth of information straight from the mind of Kubrick himself that worth poring over for quite a while.

I included excerpts from the notes below, but you should check out the script all the way to the bottom to read everything. It’s obvious that Kubrick was planning something wonderfully big. 15,000 extras? A man with a very clear vision, I would say, that would’ve been realized if history had taken a different route and Hollywood studios didn’t have such a tight hold on their wallets. (What Kubrick thought about “over-priced movie stars” is very funny, also.)

Fifteen sequences which will approximately average 12 minutes per sequence, giving 180 minutes finished length. The four principle categories of cost which represent the largest proportion of any spectacle film are: 1. 2. 3. 4. Large numbers of extras. Large numbers of military uniforms. Large numbers of expensive sets. Over-priced movie stars.

The daily cost of a costumed extra in England is $19.20, in Spain $14.28, in Italy $24.00, and France $24.30. We have recieved bids from Romania to provide up to a maximum of 30,000 troops at $2 a man, though it is unlikely that we will ever exceed 15,000 men on the largest days. We have also received a bid from Yugoslavia to provide up to the same numbers at $5 per man. Both prices also apply to lesser numbers. I have personally met with representatives of both countries and they are all extremely anxious to have an important film made largely in their country.

Both countries have offered to make military uniforms and costumes for us at a very reasonable rate, about $40 for a first-line military uniform, compared with about $200 for a normal European costumier. But, in this area, the most significant break-through has come through a New York firm, who can produce a printed uniform on a Dupont, fireproof, drip-dry, paper fabric, which has a 300-pound breaking strength, even when wet, for $1-$4 depending on the detailing. We have done film tests on the $4 uniform and, distance of 30 yards or further away, it looks marvelous. Naturally, in a large crowd scene, these cheap uniforms will be seen from a much further distance than 30 yards.I should point out that renting uniforms for this film is not a viable proposition, because the numbers available are totally inadequate, and for a long, rough usage, it is cheaper to make them.

Building and decorating a large number of Palatial sets for Emperors and Kings would be a formidable expense indeed, somewhere, I should say, between $3 – $6 million. Fortunately, this will not be necessary to do. A number of authentic Palaces and Villas of the period are available for shooting in France and Italy. There is even one in Sweden, built and decorated by Bernadotte and Desiree. These locations can be rented for a daily fee of between $350 – $750, and in most cases are completely furnished, requiring only the most minor work on our part before shooting. In addition to this, I intend to exploit, to the fullest, the Front Projection techniques [read about the effect here] I developed during the production of ‘2001.’ I have several new ideas for enhancing its usefulness and making operations even more economical.

I think sufficient proof must now exist that over-priced movie stars do little besides leaving an insufficient amount of money to make the film properly, or cause an unnecessarily high picture cost. A recent ‘Variety’ study, published during the past year, showed the domestic grosses of the last four films by a group of top stars were not sufficient to return even the star’s salary, computed at a recoupment rate of 2.5 to 1. On the other hand, films like ‘Dr. Zhivago’, ‘2001’, ‘The Graduate’ and many others show that people go to see good films that they enjoy, and that the main impetus of going to the movies is word-of-mouth recommendations from friends. As was discussed in our first meetings about ‘Napoleon’, my intention is to use great actors and new faces, and more sensibly put emphasis on the power of the story, the spectacle of the film, and my own ability to make a film of more than routine interest.

I want an actor between 30-35 who has the good looks of the younger Napoleon and who can be aged and made-up for the middle-aged Napoleon. He should be able to convey the restless energy, the ruthlessness, and the inflexible will of Bonaparte, but, at the same time, the tremendous charm which every contemporary memorist attributes to him.

Splendid, right? Again, I urge you to read the entire notes, as there are many more interesting stuff – including detailing of how exactly Kubrick was doing extensive research and preparation on Napoleon himself – than I can post here.


2 Responses to “Read Stanley Kubrick’s production notes for Napoleon, the greatest movie never made”

  1. It’s truly a shame this movie never got made…It’s fascinating to read about, though

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