Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon:’ It puts a spell on people’

The directors 18 th-century epic is legendary for the adversities imposed upon its cast, with 150 takes for a single shooting not uncommon. But, four decades on, the cinemas superstars remain united in kudo of this beautiful, slow-burning masterpiece

In between the stark futurism of A Clockwork Orange and the floodlit horror of The Shining, Stanley Kubrick made an 18 th-century picaresque costume drama that was much less widely loved than either of those cinemas but endlessly more devastating. Barry Lyndon follows the adventures of an opportunistic Irish nitwit, Redmond Barry( Ryan ONeal ), as he clambers inelegantly up the social ladder in search of a title and a fortune. Those who disliked the picture on its release in 1975 quoth the pace, which even a snail is now considering a tad slacken. Defenders, such as Alexander Walker of the Evening Standard( cinema to marvel at) and Nigel Andrews of the Financial Times( a near-masterpiece) were outnumbered by doubters: Margaret Hinxman in the Sunday Telegraph discovered it stupefyingly dulls, while Derek Malcolm in the Guardian pages accused the director of tickling us to sleep. Even Steven Spielberg, who later brought Kubricks unmade project AI: Artificial Intelligence to the screen, likened the experience of watching Barry Lyndon to going through the Prado without lunch.

What is now apparent is that the slow-burn approach allows emotion to reach us in acidic drops-off rather than obliterating waves. A doleful narrator, Michael Hordern, pre-empts everything that occurs on screen, even disclosing, 45 minutes before the end of the film, what the outcome is likely to be. What is important is not what is going to happen, Kubrick insisted, but how it will happen. Painterly wide-shots keep the action at arms length, while the dominant camera move is a slow backwards zoom that leaves the characters dwarfed by the landscape. They are playthings and puppets, jerked around cruelly by fate for reasons that remain obscure to them. The casting had good reason to feel the same way, though at least they knew who was pulling the strings.

Watch the trailer for the 2016 rerelease of Barry Lyndon

That was Kubrick, whose relationship to his actors has long been a source of fascination. His casting was always devilishly inspired. This, dont forget, was “the mens” who chose Tom Cruise for Eyes Wide Shut merely after first crossing Steve Martin and Woody Allen off the listing. Barry Lyndon is full of typically oddball selections: the Rising Damp star Leonard Rossiter, who had appeared briefly in 2001: A Space Odyssey, plays a priggish army captain, while Patrick Magee, the terrorised writer in A Clockwork Orange, resurfaces here as a card-sharp in eye-patch and face-powder. Magee was familiar with the directors exacting methods. The catchwords on situated are: Do it faster, Do it slower, Do it again, he told at the time. Mostly, Do it again.

ONeal merely survived the year-long shoot because of a strong suspicion that I was involved in something great. This strangely docile performer was a natural fit for Redmond Barry, who is too namby-pamby to retrieve a ribbon from a womans cleavage even when expressly invited, too witless to understand that you dont negotiate with highwaymen. God,[ Stanley] works you hard, the actor he wrote in his shooting diary. He moves you, moves you, helps you, gets cross with you but, above all, he teaches you the value of a good director.

Kubricks unusual directing methods began with the auditions, which werent truly auditions at all. The veteran British performer Murray Melvin was summoned to Dublin for a costume fitting for the part of Reverend Runt, companion to Barrys wife, Lady Lyndon. My agent told: Dont get carried away. People are coming and running. They get the portion, he fires them. I arrived early in the morning and they did the costume. After a few hours there was still no sign of Stanley. Hes on situated, “theyre saying”. Have some lunch. At about six oclock in the evening, I hear someone say: Hes going! The build-up was fit for a Roman emperor. I insured the entourage first, then he appeared. Oh Stanley, youre alive! Everyone gasped. He told: Hello, Murray. He had a look at the costume. Asked me to turn around. Then he told, Thank you, Murray, and strolled off. Two weeks later, I was told I got the part.

Kubrick
Kubrick( centre, right) on the situated, with Ryan ONeal on left. Photo: Warner Bros

Melvin was contracted initially for four scenes over three weeks. I stayed for 24 weeks. Most of my scenes he made up as we ran along. Listen, Murray, were doing this scene and I think you should be in it The model-turned-actor Marisa Berenson, who was 26 when Kubrick asked her to play the neglected Lady Lyndon, was on defined for the entire year-long shoot. Stanley was a very visual person so he needed to always watch things in front of him to decide if he liked them or not, she tells me. For that reason, the casting were not allowed stand-ins while shots were being set up: everyone had to be available, in garb, at all times. He never let you to go anywhere. For three months, I was just sat there in garb , not working. He maintained saying: I may need you tomorrow.

Each morning brought fresh challenges. The toughest part of Stanleys day was procuring the right first shooting, told ONeal in 1975. Once he did that, other shots fell down place. But he agonised over that first one. Once, when he was really stymied, he began to search through a book of 18th-century reproductions. He discovered a paint I dont remember which one and posed Marisa and me precisely as if we were in that painting.

Watch Murray Melvin and Dominic Savage in a scene from Barry Lyndon

The production was complicated by the use in some scenes of a highly sensitive lens developed specially for Nasa, which Kubrick used to capture authentically the texture of candlelight. One scene with thousands of candles took a week to set up, Melvin recalls. Then it was scrapped. The second AD[ deputy director] told me: Stanley had a look and he doesnt like it. That was when I fell in love with Stanley. I thought: Thats power! A week to set up and he doesnt like it!

Berenson also became fond of Kubrick, despite procuring his lack of direction disconcerting. He gave us tremendous freedom and let us do exactly what we wanted. Once hes choose you, he has total confidence. But he never directed me. I like to be directed, I like feedback, but there was never any notion of what he was looking for. He was a man of few words.

Few words but many takes. Melvin is forecast that for his climactic scene, a showdown with Barrys mother( Marie Kean ), Kubrick called Action! no fewer than 150 hours. Having finished it, the cinematographer John Alcott was heard to tell, I bet he uses the first one. To me, Stanley wasnt difficult. He was demanding. You had to rise to the occasion if you didnt, you sank. But you got nothing from him. Only Do it again. I was punch-drunk by the end of it. I was destroyed. I couldnt even speak English any more. Id say to Marie between takes, What am I doing wrong? Ive no notion, shed say. But keep going. Ive a restaurant booked for tonight. Well have a nice bottle of wine.

Dominic Savage was 11 years old when he played the younger incarnation of Lady Lyndons son, Lord Bullingdon. I remember Stanley with some affection, he told me in 2009. He was very tactile. His route of directing was unbelievably subtle and low-key. He was so interested in me, and that constructed “i m feeling” interesting. Savage went on to become a director himself. I try to be as un-director-like as is practicable, and Stanley was like that. He was an experimenter. One scene we shot was rewritten three or four times in the working day leading up to filming. I discovered it more amusing than disorienting. It was nice to see someone not necessarily sure of something. But he knew filming was a route of was found that sureness.

Another scene took ONeal several days to nail to Kubricks satisfaction. Once it was finally in the can, the director moved on to the next set-up. He discovered a route to stroll past me, giving instructions to the crew Lets move on to 32, move those lightings into the foreground and so on but as he passed me, he grabbed my hand and squeezed it. It was the most beautiful and appreciated gesture in my life. It was the greatest moment in my career. Berenson tells she feels blessed to have appeared in the film. Not a day goes by without someone talking to me about Barry Lyndon. It puts a spell on people. I think its going to live forever.

Barry Lyndon is on release nationwide from 29 July .

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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