Director Rodney Ascher and 'Room 237' - How He Broke Down 'The Shining'
(IFC Midnight | Getty Images)For film freaks, Room 237 is the ultimate catnip. Director Rodney Ascher's investigative probe of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining stands as one of the best movies ever made about movies. It's that good, that enthralling. The documentary, composed of nine chapters and featuring interviews with different Kubrick enthusiasts, delves into several fascinating theories about the film and about the iconic director himself. It's a fantastic lesson in film criticism that remains remarkably accessible, which is a tribute to Ascher.
The Shining, so says Room 237, is about the genocide of the American Indian, the Holocaust, the Apollo moon landing, but most of all: It's about everything. We spoke with Ascher about how he structured the documentary, what theories didn't end up in the movie, his plans for the DVD release, and what other films are worthy of this kind of investigation.
What was it about The Shining that made you want to make a movie and investigate it so thoroughly?
This investigation started when Tim Kirk, who produced the film, posted one of those long Shining analyses on my Facebook wall. I knew there were some symbolic layers to The Shining, but what was kind of amazing to both of us was, in the last few years, person after person after person have really gone to work putting this movie under the microscope. Almost immediately it seemed like a good idea for a documentary, whether it was going to be feature-length or a half hour long, or something. But, again, as we were looking around, it was just such an amazing phenomenon that, early in the 21st century, person after person were lured into this trap, this maze of a movie and went to extreme lengths trying to figure it out. Part of our question was: Why The Shining? Why now?
What theories didn't make the cut?
There was a ton of little ideas and stuff our folks said that we just didn't have time for. Things like: If you trace the path the characters walk throughout the hotel it maps the shape of the big dipper, and the big dipper has all sorts of connotations when you put it into perspective with the movie. In the Underground Railroad, escaped slaves would use it as a guide. They called it "The Drinking Gourd" which, you know, there's an awful lot of drinking of liquids (in the movie) both blood and alcohol.
There's also lots to talk about with bears as sort of a guardian animal for Danny, but also a kind of heightened Cold War element that's important when talking about the importance of the moon landing footage. There's talk about Old Testament references in the film that comes from, among other things, the names of the music used in the film. There's a lot more you can do looking at the movie through a Freudian lens. Whether we're talking about Danny's relationship to his parents or Freud's idea about the uncanny and why people are always freaked out by twins and recurring numbers, mirrors and things. It goes on and on and on. There're little points in the film where I try to make it clear that, although some people might find a hour and 42 minute exploration into the symbols of The Shining excessive (laughs), what we've got here is just the tip of the iceberg.
The Nazis' obsession with twins was something that jumped out at me, was that a theory anyone put forth?
If they did, I forgot it, but hearing it again I'm newly excited. I would also mention that Hitler designed Volkswagens and that yellow (the color of Jack's VW Beetle) is the color of the Star of David that the Jews in Nazi Europe had to wear.
It's amazing how deep you can go into it.
Yeah it's endless. It's a bottomless pit.
So for the DVD, are you going to do a crazy director's cut or include anything more?
Well, it's still coming together, but I don't think I'm going to change the cut. The sacrifices we made, or ideas that didn't get in, weren't necessarily for time or other reasons so much as the structure seemed to be something manageable to sit down and watch at once. I think we'll have some deleted scenes, maybe those will play as audio-only extras. Other stuff in development, I don't know (laughs). It goes and goes. There'll be some cool extras on the DVD but don't hope for a three and a half hour super director's cut. I don't think I'm going to pull that off.
Well, the more the better so hopefully you can put in lots of stuff (laughs).
The structure was something I wanted to ask you about. How did you decide how to put the nine parts together? You start with the Native American theory and the Nazi theory and end up with Room 237. How did you decide which to choose first?
After I did the interviews, I broke them all up into self-contained segments based on one, or a couple, related ideas. So before Room 237 was a single 104 minute film, it was 30 movies that were one to eight minutes depending. And then me and Tim spent some time, and we had this gigantic wall with 1000 Post-It notes representing each scene and we tried to search for connections between the two. There was a point where we were wondering, "Does this movie start at the beginning of The Shining and end at the end of The Shining? And, as we get to a scene with each person, do we talk about it in turn or do we let one person go and then another and another?"
But what got exciting was actually building it into acts and, in very broad strokes, we start with people's first viewings of the film and their first reaction to it and then end with where they are today. Then, bridging between the two, we get into the meat of what they think about the movie as well as finding connections from one idea to another so that I see (laughs), I don't know if everyone sees it, but I see a base three-act structure divided into nine pieces where things kind of roll into each other based on literal or sometimes softer connections. Whether or not that makes any sense in theory or in practice is up to you to decide (laughs).
So is there a connection between the number nine (Kubrick made nine films) and The Shining?
Well, I mean, there are no accidents.
Okay, that answers that question... This is the
kind of structure that can be and, I hope, will be applied to more films in the future. I was hoping you could list off a few films you think deserve this kind of attention.
Certainly Mulholland Drive. I've seen this guy Rob Ager, who has done amazing work on The Shining in the UK, has started to pick apart John Carpenter's The Thing. I would certainly add They Live. I should probably have more ready to go off the top of my head...(laughs) maybe Point Blank or Body Double.
(Poster and images from The Shining courtesy of Warner Brothers | Mulholland Drive poster courtesy of Studio Canal)