Last year's Fantastic Fest, held at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX, left us positively reeling from its succession of out-there horror, inventive sci-fi, and other independent cinematic oddities. Yet, after all the screams died down, it was the quietest film that stuck with us the most (read our review here).
In a non-traditional approach to the documentary format, filmmaker Rodney Ascher's Room 237 deftly utilizes found footage and slickly edited scenes from director Stanley Kubrick's superlative filmography to illustrate nine gonzo theories on the hidden secrets obsessed fans have discovered within the set, structure, and behind-the-scenes stories of Kubrick's chilling 1980 masterpiece The Shining.
Complex sat down with Ascher during Fantastic Fest to discuss conspiracy theories, Kubrick's meticulous obsessions, and the madness of the process.
Interview by Jonathan Lees (@jonNothin)
What sparked the initial interest in making Room 237?
Room 237 was not inspired from a deep metaphoric analysis. This is very much just a survey of what other people have found. I've always been a gigantic Stanley Kubrick fan and The Shining has stuck with me forever. Danny [the character played by Danny Lloyd] was always my surrogate, the character I identified with. As I moved through my life and had my own son, Jack is the window that I watch this movie through.
When [Room 237 producer] Tim [Kirk] posted this article that Jay Weidner has written about The Shining, I was instantly fascinated and absorbed by it. I was reading it late at night and the hairs on the back of my neck started standing up as I got more persuaded that he was discovering the hidden secrets of the movie. Years ago I had a book, Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze, by Thomas Allen Nelson, where there’s this gigantic footnote that’s three paragraphs long that analyzes the numerology "237" that he puts together forwards and backwards and finds a lot of 12’s, which is "2001" reverse. That kind of keys into what John Fell Ryan has set up with The Shining projected simultaneously forward and backwards.
There’s a weird symmetry about the structure of it and its very easy to see The Shining as a reversal of 2001. 2001 is mankind's evolution; this is our fall from grace. I'd done a short documentary [The S From Hell] a little before where people talked about their childhood phobias over a TV logo and it seemed it might be interesting to extend that approach to people’s passionate reactions to The Shining.
How many people did you sift through to get these five subjects?
Not a ton, maybe 10 or 12. Some of them are impossible to find. There's one guy in particular, Johnny53, who's got this amazing website where, point by point, he explains all of these symbols in the film and what [Kubrick's] really getting at. We just could not find anyways to make contact with this guy. It kind of was a dead end. If we worked with the FBI we could have subpoenaed the ISPs numbers for him. [Laughs.]
We were maybe halfway through the film and somebody told me that this guy in Brooklyn [John Fell Ryan] is projecting The Shining forwards and backwards. That’s very interesting. In the course of this project it seemed like the number of people trying to figure out The Shining continued to increase. So I tracked him down and he had this Tumblr where he found all these amazing things in the movie, and he really opened up a lot of ideas and possibilities.
He talked about how, as he worked the film archive, he started to doubt the relationship between what he was hearing and what he was seeing. That kind of gave me permission in editing the film to play with the relationship of the picture and sound and to sometimes to illustrate very literally what people are saying and to sometimes be a little more subjective.
One interesting aspect of the film is the fact that you chose not to show these people. You allow the subjects to tell their stories but then you’ve taken the insane approach of cobbling together all these images from Kubrick's films and also some news reel footage.
There's all kind of things in there. It's collaged.
When did it strike you that you didn’t want to show these people faces, that you just wanted to hear their stories and work with the imagery from all of Kubrick’s films?
It was a voice-only approach and that was mostly for logistical reasons. The budget was somewhere around zero dollars, so I just recorded Skype conversations. But I’ve done a voice-over-based project before and I really like it. This started with voice-over interviews, and then we upgraded and actually mailed people digital audio recorders that I bought on Amazon and had them mail them back to me.
God forbid, you had to trust them to mail it back.
One guy stole it. I made them simplified instructions, like, “Hit the button. Now, hit it again. Is the counter moving? Can you see a level moving up and down?” They all got it right the first try. But in the initial stages we weren't sure if it would be explicitly voice-over only or if, after the rough cut, we'd go and shoot some more interviews or maybe shoot something with them that was kind of stylized. The more I experimented with how the voice-over worked, the more I liked it.
Often, especially when you're a filmmaker editing the piece, it’s sometimes hard to separate the image and the sound. You'll turn off the image track and listen to get your audio cut complete, and that's why Room 237 is so successful. We often don't listen to people because we're picking apart some part of their image or their surrounding. This was a brilliant way of exposing their stories because we just had to listen. Most of us are so familiar with Kubrick’s images, especially fans of The Shining who are going to see this film. What did you learn from them and how did you distinguish if you would include it in the film?
For me, it was, how passionate are they for this idea? How articulate are they and are they able to make me see this film through their eyes? Initially, I didn’t know if this would be a full-length film, or 40 minutes, or where it was going to go. Where it seemed to be a more satisfying kind of experience was, they started to get more personal and talk about The Shining was kind of affecting their lives.
In telling their stories, did you go back to The Shining and say, “You know what, I never thought about this." Did you have any of your own personal theories on strange coincidences within The Shining?
My personal take on it is, for one, I don’t think its nearly as visionary as any one of these folks have found. I just see it as sort of a story about juggling the responsibilities of your career and family and as cautionary tale of what may happen if you make the wrong choice. And even maybe looking at the ghosts as these figures that represent fortune or prestige or things that you might be chasing at the expense of paying proper attention to your family.
Talking to Tim [Kirk], the producer of the film, we spent nearly eight months just talking about The Shining and these analyses before we started making it. He's in a similar stage in his life he got a younger daughter and son and as we aged with the film we were no longer “Danny"—we were “Jack." Hopefully, knock on wood, anti-Jacks.
So much of this movie is made in front of a keyboard, so, we wondered, is it just repetitive nonsense that nobody in their right mind would have any interest in? Or is this something that people would want to watch?
That's the madness of the process, right? Pure frustration.
Oh, God, yeah. I think it’s profoundly frightening that you don't know what you’re writing is, “All work and no play...” In so many projects that I've worked on, I could never tell if it's any good or made any sense for the longest time. How many hours of your life, years of your life, being flushed down that toilet? I found that profoundly scary.
I was really impressed with the way this film can be presented to people and open up their ideas to cinema. Also, how we look at directors and how they approach things from much deeper level than our perception when we just see a film once. As kids, we watched The Goonies or Gremlins a million times and it became the films we’re passionate about. Rarely do we look inside a film this deeply. Do you think it's mostly because Kubrick was known to be a such a meticulous artist that we are allowed to go into a film so deeply? Or do you think we can apply this to any film?
I think that's a great question and its certainly one that I hope the film may ask but not answer. If we were doing this exercise with something that was more a rushed film, that didn't have so much time put into it, you would be less likely to ascribe these things to be intentionally meaningful.
There’s a point near the end [of Room 237] where Geoffrey Cocks says, “An artist's intent is only part of the picture.” There's a lot to suggest that Kubrick was up to doing something more complicated than a story of a family trapped in a haunted hotel. There’s all sorts of ideas about synchronicity and working subconsciously and allowing consequences to happen that would make these kinds of symbolic readings interesting and significant. In this case, it's a Kubrick film, especially a later one, where he spent more time researching than shooting. There's more to the idea of creator intent than there might be in another film.
As a filmmaker, you use an approach many of us wouldn't consider as feasible on an independent level and that's to actually source out and utilize Kubrick’s footage from all of his films. Was that a big problem for you?
I guess if I was responsible person, but I started this without any expectations that this would get out to the real world. I never made a feature and most of my shorts have been mostly seen on the Internet and a couple vegetable screenings.
Although I got word the film had potential to get out, I was prepared for it not to because we were doing it inexpensively with these digital voice-overs. But one of the amazing happy things that happen in the course of the film, as we were getting close, was we started to attract interest. We were able to raise money to get it properly cleared as we were in the home stretch.
Is there any personal favorite film of yours that you would love to approach with this kind of deconstruction again?
Certainly I'm not ready to deconstruct a movie like this right away. I would love to see somebody else do it.
You've certainly given people the inspiration to do this.
People have been doing it already. A lot of people have been doing it with The Shining. There are a lot of alternate versions of this, mostly in first-person, or there are those amazing 90-minute Star Wars prequel reviews. I think it's the beginning of an entire new genre. I'd love to see someone do one on RoboCop.
Interview by Jonathan Lees (@jonNothin)