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Visit biografmuseet.dk about Danish cinemas


It's All in the Writing
A conversation with Film Producer Jan Harlan during a visit in Denmark

The 70mm Newsletter
Interviewed and photographed by: Thomas Hauerslev. Retyped from audio files by Margaret Weedon, London. Edited for in70mm.com by Mark Lyndon, London Date: 30.04.2016
Jan Harlan during a visit at the "Bio Mors" in Nykřbing Mors, Denmark 23. January 2016 to give a 2-day Producer Work Shop / lecture for young Danish film students.

Thomas Hauerslev: I would like to ask you how you came into the business, a little bit about Stanley Kubrick, a little bit about what efforts went into film presentation, and about your professional background which led you to the motion picture industry and ultimately to become Stanley Kubrick’s executive producer.

Jan Harlan: Until 1969 I worked in business organisation in Zurich, Vienna and in New York. While I was in New York working for a data processing company I got to know Stanley very well – he was already married to my sister since 1957. This was in 1963/64. After that I continued with my work in Germany and Switzerland.

Stanley worked with Arthur C. Clarke in New York while I was there to prepare
"2OO1" but the family later moved to England to film “2OO1” at the MGM studios in Borehamwood. I lived in Zurich then doing my job but visited Stanley and the family from time to time in England.

We talked a lot. Music was the one area where we were on an even keel. Later in 1969 he asked me whether I wanted to join him for a year and go to Romania for “Napoleon”. My company said it was a very good idea "you should do that, get more experience". My role would have been the same as always; talking to people, getting rights, negotiating, organizing things. Film production itself is a manufacturing process. It has, as such, nothing to do with art. The art comes through an artist, the filmmaker. But other members of the crew are needed for rather mundane jobs – in my case things to get, permissions, location research, police protection, etc.

So we moved to England, believing it would be for a short time since the plan was to go to Romania very soon. Then MGM pulled out of "Napoleon", and Stanley was very sad for two weeks. I was ready to go back to Zurich but he suggested I should stay with him; he liked me and I liked him, my wife had fallen in love with England and so we decided “to give this a shot”. One of the first things I did was to get the rights to “Traumnovelle”, a novel by Arthur Schnitzler. In fact, this would have been our first film for Warner Bros. We had a signed agreement with budget and schedule but then Stanley decided to pull out. Instead he made “A Clockwork Orange” which was much easier as far as the script is concerned since the book is written in the first person. It was not difficult to turn this into a screenplay – it was basically a scissor job - today you would say “cut and paste” - and so this film was my first practical experience as an assistant. “Napoleon” did not happen. “Traumnovelle” did not happen either - and what I did was learning, suggesting music, getting rights, (for the performance of Beethoven’s “Ninth” for example) and things like this.

My role has nothing to do with the art of filmmaking. It is purely organizing – getting stuff. I did not question what was wanted, my job was to try to get it. If you cannot get what is needed, an alternative must be found, this might be another person or permission to close another street for filming, or arranging for a specific location the director wanted for a day or two, whatever it might be. Then there was a big gap and Stanley decided to do "Barry Lyndon". First filming was supposed to be in England but the idea was soon abandoned and the decision was made to move to Ireland. Stanley did not like to travel, but he had to in this case. Barry Lyndon was my first film as an Executive Producer – a title that means absolutely nothing - it depends with whom you work. There were executive producers on "Clockwork" we never met. I enjoyed very much working with Stanley. I loved the man, he was so demanding on himself – he was always questioning his own decisions and ready to change his mind.

On “Barry Lyndon” I suggested music, but that was a side job – we had Leonard Rosenman to write the arrangements. And so it went on and I did the same for other films. We also prepared many projects, which were never made. “Aryan Papers” was a massive job. Then there was “A.I. Artificial Intelligence”, a film Stanley offered to Stephen Spielberg, but this was years later. Before that Stanley made “The Shining” and “Full Metal Jacket”. Finally, after abandoning “Aryan Papers” and offering “A.I.” to Steven Spielberg he focused on Traumnovelle again, a story he never forgot and this became his last film “Eyes Wide Shut” 30 years after his first battle with this complex story.

Then after his death I was asked by Warner Brothers to make a documentary about Stanley. This was a very good experience for me and very therapeutic after this terrible loss. I was astonished that everybody I asked was very happy to join in. I asked Tom Cruise to do the narration – of course, who would be better? He agreed. Even people who are normally difficult like Woody Allen or Jack Nicolson agreed to be part of this film. This pleased me very much and it showed how much Stanley was respected. Even people who had a hard time like his trusted focus puller who sometimes had a very hard job. Doug refused to talk about the hardship and said he would look like a fool if he did. He knew that Stanley furthered his career considerably. He also was our DOP on “Full Metal Jacket”.

I later made a documentary about brilliant Malcolm McDowell, also for Warner Brothers: “O Lucky Malcolm”.

And then a film about the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the International Youth Orchestra with the brilliant cellist Alexander Baillie and the conductor Andreas Mildner. I made two films with students at the EFC in Ćbeltoft [The European Film College, Denmark]– and of course parallel to that, I was lucky to work a bit with Stephen Spielberg on the preparation to “A.I.” Working and teaching at different film-schools I developed a new profession and I am now regularly working as a guest teacher at film-schools all over the world.
More in 70mm reading:

Gallery: Jan Harlan, Producer Work Shop, Bio Mors, Denmark

2012 Gallery: Stanley Kubrick Exhibition Tour

Stanley Kubrick's "2OO1: A Space Odyssey" in Super Panavision 70

There Were Giants in the Land: Stanley Kubrick

Restoration of "Spartacus"

A Visit to Mors: Producer workshop med Jan Harlan

Internet link:

Stanley Kubrick Exhibition Tour



"You need to learn how to separate with open lenses, to be a painter with light – and you need to know how to make a ‘calling card’". Jan Harlan and the students at the "Bio Mors", 23. January 2016

TH: Coming from the Executive Producer back ground, you now teach and lecture. Tell me about that.

Jan: Well it was a fluke – it just happened; I was asked by film-schools to talk about Kubrick. So I did and this was widening; at the beginning I was not particularly good at it; I am not shy, I can tell stories, that was fine, but to be systematic and pass on what students need to hear I had to learn myself. It took a few years to get really secure and I now know what is needed – after all, I learned from a great teacher. The most important part is to be self-critical.

Today, with modern equipment, everything is sharp; it is easy, it is automatic and could become boring, dull – so you need to do something special. You need to learn how to separate with open lenses, to be a painter with light – and you need to know how to make a ‘calling card’. In today’s world, which is a visual world, you have to present a portfolio, you need to present a short film, whether as a filmmaker, or actor, cinematographer, designer or make-up artist. You have to say "Look here, I can do it. I am a cinematographer, this is what I did". You saw this film “The Light and the Little Girl”. This is a perfect “calling card”. It has no other purpose; as a film it means little, as a proof that the filmmaker is an excellent cinematographer, it means a lot. Or the film I showed you from Israel: This woman made another film after that, and now she makes a big budget film in America. Well, that is what you need to get across. Never tell students it is easy – since it is not. It is terribly difficult to do something really well so that your “calling card” will be watched and has the desired effect. If it is not good instantly it will be stopped after a minute. That is the brutal truth. Get accepted at film-festivals or impress an executive at a TV station or agency for TV advertising etc – not easy.

The good side is that good people are needed. So much “product” is produced, so many commercials are made, so many films and documentaries. We have many more television stations than ever before and much talent is needed to feed them - but the competition has become global and is great. So if you want to get into this business, you have to convince somebody “I am good” – be it the director of a film festival you need to convince or an agent or TV boss – whoever it is, you have to convince and prove your talent by handing in your CV in form of a DVD.

It’s a fair chance. I meet a lot of brilliant young people, men and women far more talented than I am. They show what they have done in the form of short films, and the best will succeed. I showed you a Slovakian film as an example – it was shot in three days. The filmmaker directed 20 people, directed and choreographed brilliantly; he used great music and he got it for free. All this is a sign of determination and focus. It is amazing what you can get for free, if you have the right personality asking for it!

Something else I am much involved with is a travelling exhibition on Stanley Kubrick. Have you seen it?

TH: – I have seen it in
Amsterdam a few years ago. I want to ask you how much you are travelling now – how busy are you?

JH: I always go for the first week where the Exhibition opens. I was in Korea last, but at the moment we are preparing for San Francisco where we’ll open on 30th June 2016. Next stop will be Mexico City on 1st December 2016. And so it goes on. We will come to Denmark next year and I look forward to meeting you again in Copenhagen. We also have plans for Hong Kong and possibly Japan. We have been in Melbourne, Sao Paulo, Los Angeles, Toronto, Rome and Paris and other places. This will go on for some time. We had well over one million visitors so far.

TH: Well I think it is extraordinary to make an Exhibition this size about a filmmaker. I have never seen anything like that before.

JH: You are right it is quite unique. Stanley threw nothing away and he kept his professional material for a purpose. He had, for example, three big trunks labelled “Dr. Strangelove”. They had not been opened for forty years or longer. And his wife concluded quite correctly that the purpose of keeping all this was not so that she should throw it all away. With her authority she approved the plan for the exhibition.

JH: He was not particularly orderly, but he kept the development material for the films. We have no indiscretions or private stuff in the Exhibition; but we have lots of correspondence with colleagues, actors, also budgets, schedules, photographs, designs and script drafts, models and equipment – all this to show a visitor how much effort goes into making a good film. It is not easy. It is very, very difficult to make a work of art that others want to see or read or listen to. To make a GREAT film is almost a miracle, like any great novel, painting, symphony or any truly great work of art.

TH: Is it the same Exhibition from city to city, or is it tailor made for each place?

JH: Yes, but it has to be tailor made for each place because we have to take the local venues into account . In Amsterdam, for example, we used big screens; it was all screens and clips. In other cities less was shown on large screens and the emphasis as been on showing documents and other material; but in all cases there would be large monitors where clips are screened. It was very different at the Cinematheque in Paris where we used three floors. In Sao Paulo, it was again very, very different since we had less room; it was a museum for sound and image: Truly creative artists came up with new ideas. They did for example something which impressed me no end – for “Eyes Wide Shut”: The visitor put his face into a masque and saw through the masque into the room and what was going on. It was lovely. Or they had built for “Paths of Glory” trenches with sandbags left and right as you walked through the claustrophobic space you felt almost uncomfortable. It was very real. In Los Angeles the display was huge, gigantic, but they had more space and we had 240,000 visitors at LACMA in Los Angeles.

TH: What was the duration of these Exhibitions?

JH: Typically three or four months.

TH: When do you expect it to be in Denmark?

JH: At the earliest, it will be 2017. I cannot tell you the exact date, but I will let you know in good time once we have that date. I love Copenhagen.
Film is the latest art form that will allow us, and a future generation, to look into the past. Jan Harlan at the "Bio Mors", 23. January 2016

TH: Tell me about what you said this morning, about films, movies being the youngest of the arts. What did you mean by that?

JH: Film, moving pictures, is a form barely a hundred years old; as an “art” it is very new and it is always the art that gives us the first entry into the past. It is not the wars and battles, the kings and conquerors that come to mind first – that comes a bit later – first, it is the art. It is the plays, the music, the fashion, the buildings. “What do you know of old Egypt?” – the first thing you think of are the pyramids, with the hieroglyphics on the walls – and Babylon – you think of the fantastic architecture; and of Baroque you think of Bach and Handel and Vivaldi or the beautiful Baroque churches; it is always the art first. The Paintings, of course. I would not know much about the 18th Century, if it were not for the painters, architects and novelists. It is banal what I am saying, because it is so obvious; anybody who thinks about it for two minutes comes to the same conclusion.

Film is the latest art form that will allow us, and a future generation, to look into the past. There is no doubt that looking at American films of the forties you get a real impression of America at that time. And there is no doubt that future generations will watch films by Ingmar Bergman or Kubrick and many others to learn about the twentieth century. If you want to know specifically about Sweden in that period around 1900 see “Fanny and Alexander”. Again, what I am saying is so obvious.

TH: It is a long process making movies and in Stanley Kubrick’s case, how did he decide which films to make? You talked about projects that never came and how was this process decided.

JH: I always use the term, which everybody understands – he had to fall in love with the book or with an idea. He absolutely fell in love with making “Napoleon”. He was terribly disappointed that it did not happen – not because he was just fascinated by the topic, it was this mixture of brilliant talent and utter vanity and foolishness that captivated him. This everlasting plague is what makes this man so relevant for us today. Look around the world: Vanity no end. Jealousy no end. That interested Kubrick. Yes, he admired Napoleon and his huge charisma and talent, which is so clearly documented by so many witnesses of that period. And at the same time he feared the foolishness and vanity of power.

When Tsar Alexander broke the contract, the so called “continental blockade” to which he had agreed in a treaty in 1807 – a wise statesman would have looked away, but a wise statesman Napoleon was not. He wanted to force Russia not to deal with England, as he already had forced Austria and Prussia. But Russia needed to deal with England; it was a commercial necessity. Napoleon’s revenge was war and the Russian campaign of 1812 then turned out to be the beginning of Napoleon’s end.

It may be a big jump to say that America’s reaction to the attack by a few madmen on “9/11” and the disaster that followed might be a fair comparison.

Much more important, I have seven grandchildren, talking about first things first, three sons who are doing very well and great daughters-in-law. We now have three girls amongst the grand children – a new experience for us.

TH: I think “A Clockwork Orange” was the first Kubrick film I saw before I knew who he was. I think I gave it six stars when I recorded my cinema visits as a teenager in the seventies. Why do you think Kubrick’s films are still so fresh? They are like brand new films; they are not dated in any way.

JH: Because they are carefully made by an artist. Because you can see a Vermeer, a Rembrandt and a Picasso or a Van Gogh, for the same reason. These paintings were done by artists. Carefully done, clearly conceived, that’s the reason. The fact that most buildings disappear does not matter, some of the great buildings are artistic “stars” – look at the American architect Lloyd Wright, for example, or Le Corbusier or Hundertwasser, these are some of the famous artists; 95 per cent of all buildings mean nothing, they fall apart after 100 years and they are replaced, but great architects set a trend, like the great painters, the great composer, playwrights or novelists – even if you do not like them: interesting example is Richard Wagner. Many people do not like him but all other composers after him had to take note - they changed. Whether Mahler, Bruckner or Strauss, to name just a few - they were influenced.

It is interesting that even if you do not like Picasso, he changed the scene, he was like a switch – you know like a switch on a railway track – the train goes in another direction whether you like it or not, that’s the mark of a great artist. And Kubrick changed with “2OO1” once and for all the genre of science fiction - it is a philosophical film - Kubrick takes a bow to the unknowable creator of the Universe. And the more intelligent a person the clearer it is that there is so much more that we don’t understand.

Kubrick expressed great respect in “2OO1” and what is so interesting is that when the film came out, people over forty could not deal with it, generally speaking. Whilst young men made the film into a success. Pauline Kale – famous film critic for the New Yorker said it was the most boring film she had ever seen. There is nothing an artist can do about this. Nothing against Pauline Kale, she is brilliant, I have her books, she is really an intelligent writer – but what does that mean?

TH: I remember Jack Nicholson in your documentary. He was smiling and saying "Well I think there was 187 walk outs, and I am sure Stanley counted them"; that was at the first screening.

JH: Well yes, that was a disaster. It was an invited audience – it was a charity performance or something like that – the tickets were expensive. It was the wrong audience; MGM should have invited teenagers. They would have gone crazy. I always respect the reaction of young people – they are so important.
"It's all in the writing". Jan Harlan at the "Bio Mors", 23. January 2016

TH: Have other Kubrick films experienced another audience than expected?

JH: "Barry Lyndon" was a total flop in America and England and very, very successful in the Latin countries, and in Japan. “Eyes Wide Shut” was very successful in Portugal, Spain and France, Italy and Japan. Why is that? Well I am not totally sure but a journalist in Rome thought it has to do with Catholicism. Catholicism? But there is nothing in that film about Catholicism and neither Schnitzler nor Kubrick intended such a reference. He explained that catholics were educated to deal with sex and lust and that this topic was on the table; “you make dirty jokes about it”, he said. Now this may be an over simplification. Probably very, very over simplified but maybe there is also a grain of truth there. I don’t know, I cannot judge this – I am not an expert or a psychoanalyst. But one thing is quite clear: The film was a huge hit in Italy and not in England.

TH: I like the film [EWS] a lot. I saw it with my wife when it came out; she found it boring. Orla and I have talked about it and we agreed, it was like some sort of a dream – you really do not know what was going on; you tried to figure out the plot – I am still lost, which is why I still see it with great enjoyment to figure out; is there a plot? Is it a dream? – because suddenly there is a Venetian mask on the pillow. Where did it come from? That is what I find refreshing.

JH. I still think it is a brilliant film – Kubrick himself considered it his greatest contribution to the art of filmmaking. But is he objective? Objectivity belongs into a science laboratory not into art or anything based on love and passion. I would love to know which piece of music Mozart considers his greatest. I would not know – and maybe it does not matter really. But it is certainly good to know that different territories react differently.

We had a fax from the Tokyo office of Warner Bros. after the premier of “Eyes Wide Shut” saying that the film is just doing colossally well and “that couples are leaving the cinema holding hands.” This obviously means a lot in Japan. I cannot judge it, but these different reactions are so very interesting.

TH: When you see his films it is often the same actors who appear in different roles. Can you elaborate on this?

JH: Philip Stone – he was a wonderful actor – he was the father in “Clockwork Orange”; he was Grady in “The Shining”; he was the lawyer or the accountant in “Barry Lyndon”. Joe Turkel was in “Paths of Glory” and "The Shining". Not just actors: He also used repeatedly certain composers like Ligeti – he had his music in “2OO1”, again in “The Shining” and once more in “Eyes Wide Shut”.

Kubrick’s films can easily be watched a few times and in fact the biggest problem with “Eyes Wide Shut” is that you have to see it twice, but if you do not like it the first time as a member of the audience, you are not likely to see it a second time, which is a great shame.

TH: “The Shining” as a ghost story is very confusing. Can you explain a bit about Kubrick’s idea to make it like it was?

JH: Well, as far as it goes, nothing makes very much sense, so it is all right. It’s a ghost film! Remember Kubrick knew that the inside rooms would never match the hotel we see outside - but it’s a ghost story. Nothing needs “to fit”. Did you see a film called “Room 237”? The maker elaborates and proves that these windows, this architecture, could never…… well spotted, I’d say. So what? There is no maze either as we see the hotel in the beginning from above - it is a ghost movie!

Stanley was wonderful! He was incredibly pedantic and very exacting when he wanted to be, but very generous otherwise. In “Barry Lyndon” the Schubert Trio was composed 30 years to late. It is not “correct” for the Seven Years War period. But Stanley loved it and felt that the romanticism in this piece was just right and better than some Haydn or Mozart.
"I hope the European Union will not fall apart; it was and still is the greatest project of my generation." Jan Harlan & Thomas Hauerslev. "Eyes Wide Shut" mask by "La Bottega Dei Mascareri", Venice, Italy. Image by Orla Nielsen.

All the actors in “Full Metal Jacket” are all too old. We could not get 19 year olds – we could have had one, but we needed seven good actors, so what do you do? Where do you make the compromise? We needed really good actors. But the Marines want them at age 19. Once 25 or older the Marines don’t want them – probably because they are too smart by then. They want boys. Take Sparta 2000 years ago, they had 16 year olds in the Spartan army. It is an old story.

TH: How did Stanley Kubrick reflect on how his films were presented in the cinema?

JH: He was very concerned because they had to be presented properly. He checked out premiere cinemas in the 70s and 80s. Today the standard is much higher; today with digital projection the picture is sharp and the light is even. The audience today is spoiled by wonderful TV sets and a brilliant image. A cinema could not get away with what it was often like twenty-five years ago, sloppy all over with hot spots in the middle, bad sound etc. and we were fighting this for first runs in premiere houses on first runs.

TH: How did you address it?

JH: We went and checked out the big cinemas in the big cities where the film opened. That was all you could do – you cannot do it on the next level.

TH: Was it something that you did?

JH: In many cases, I checked cinemas in many cities in Germany, France and England. And colleagues did he same. I spent maybe four weeks doing that before "Barry Lyndon" opened.

TH: This was a high priority?

JH: Perhaps high priority is not quite the right word but if it was possible to do and when you know your film comes out in Manchester – go to Manchester, talk to the projectionist. It can be difficult, because they may feel patronised- like “who are you tell me how to project a movie – of course it is perfect”. And you say "Well, but look! The centre is so much brighter than the edges, and the sound crackles; may be the mirror on the carbon lamp should be replaced", and similar. It is very tricky; you have to be very careful. Because the cinema is an independent enterprise, you cannot tell them what to do.

TH: Tell me about your favourite movie moment in your career.

JH: I think it was when we got stuck for not having the correct Vietnam period tanks for “Full Metal Jacket”. I talked to this officer in Antwerp [Belgium] and pleaded with him to give me these three tanks he had - these Vietnamese period tanks that were useless to him – they were useless to anybody and completely outdated and he was in full agreement - but he said that he can’t hire out tanks. It is just not done. And he finally said, "Look, just bring them back!" It did not cost anything! We had to pay for transport, of course, but that’s nothing; that is just organising it. That was a very good moment.

TH: What is your favourite film? Not particularly a Stanley Kubrick film – but do you have a favourite film?

JH: Indeed, I have many favourites. “Les Infants du Paradis” do you know it? "Fanny and Alexander", it is beautiful. I also absolutely adore “Dr Strangelove” I must say; “Casablanca” who doesn’t? “Eyes Wide Shut”, I think is a brilliant film, but I am not objective. I am too close.

TH: You told us that there is no such thing as objectivity –

JH: Absolutely. Of course not. You love your children more than you love mine! So, this just shows how subjective you are, since - objectively speaking - my children are the best! [laugh]

TH: Finally, is there anything that you want to add – anything at all?

JH: Not really – although – I hope that we overcome the current mess in politics and the world at large. I hope for greater statesmen in the world and I hope the European Union will not fall apart; it was and still is the greatest project of my generation and I hope it will grow out of its infancy and mature - I hope the people of the Middle East finally get their act together since they and we all may be dancing closer and closer at the edge of a cliff. I am very concerned about my grand children. For me it doesn't make much difference, I have only a few years left, and then "That's it. Goodbye". But I have seven grand children. I want them to be happy, and it is my generation that screwed up this world, they haven’t.
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Updated 21-01-24