One thing that’s certain beyond death and taxes is that cinephiles will argue over Stanley Kubrick movies until the Star Child returns to Earth. Rodney Ascher’s mind-bending documentary Room 237 puts a feature-length frame around five such Kubrick-philes who are eager to offer their thoughts on the master’s skin-crawling, cerebrum-stoking horror classic, The Shining (1980). Eschewing talking heads for a more atmospheric mix of impassioned voices, eerie sound effects and perfectly curated film clips, the movie is a playful, profound investigation into the ways cinema infects the collective consciousness and inspires so many varied interpretations. TONY spoke with Ascher, 45, in a downtown office.
Time Out New York: Let’s begin with the lead-off question you pose to your subjects: When did you first see The Shining?
Rodney Ascher: I snuck in with a friend of mine during its original release in 1980. I already had a taste for horror films, but The Shining was a whole different kind of experience from Halloween (1978) or Alien (1979). I probably made it about ten or 15 minutes in before leaving. I was terrified from the opening credits with that Wendy Carlos rendition of “Dies Irae,” which sounds—as Bill Blakemore says in my movie—like some sort of judgment on mankind. It just put this shadow of doom over everything I saw. So before anything really bad happened, I was already in a state of panic.
Time Out New York: When did you finally see the whole film?
Rodney Ascher: A couple of years later, either on VHS or on cable. And I was really quite proud of the fact that I was able to last through the entire thing.
Time Out New York: Perhaps because you were seeing it on TV as opposed to being overwhelmed in a theater?
Rodney Ascher: I was not conscious of that, but I think that’s an excellent guess.
Time Out New York: Because one of the threads in Room 237 is the different modes of viewing The Shining—in the theater, on VHS, on Blu-ray.
Rodney Ascher: Absolutely that’s a subplot. And that was important to get across—the transformation of the way we watch and how we discuss what we watch, to the point that we’re now sharing our thoughts on blogs and comment threads.
Time Out New York: Was that theme part of what made you want to make a movie around The Shining?
Rodney Ascher: It was actually my friend Tim Kirk, the producer on the film, who sent me this really mind-blowing analysis of The Shining by one of our interviewees, Jay Weidner, the guy who talks about all the allusions to the space program. He’d written this pretty popular online essay and immediately after I read it, I thought it would make an interesting video. Then the idea evolved very quickly to juxtaposing Weidner’s reading with others. And we knew there were at least a couple: Bill Blakemore’s article about the Native American themes was written in the ’80s, and I think for a lot of people was the most accepted metaphorical reading. I also read Thomas Allen Nelson’s Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze (2000), and there’s an amazing passage in there where he unpacks some of the numerology in the film, as well as describing it as 2001 in reverse. Nelson didn’t wind up being someone that we could talk to. But just the existence of his and Weidner’s ideas made me think we could juxtapose these different interpretations and see how they mix and match.
Time Out New York: How did you narrow it down to the final five subjects?
Rodney Ascher: We didn’t narrow it down at the beginning. As we did research, we were kind of astonished that this was a bottomless pit. The people we wound up talking to are just a small sample of what can be found. There’s something about The Shining; everybody’s analyzing it under a microscope now. So both the phenomenon that people were looking at it this closely was interesting, as well as the meat of what they all had to say. I’d be reading their theories at two or three in the morning and the hair on the back of my neck would stand up. It’s funny that somebody’s analysis of an older horror movie had that kind of effect on me. I wondered if it would have that effect on other people.
Time Out New York: What were the interview processes like?
Rodney Ascher: I was never there. I mailed people digital audio recorders not unlike the one we’re talking with now. Then I would call them up via Skype, so that I could record my end. And then I talked them through the process of using the recorder and they would mail it back to me.
Time Out New York: You recorded a lot of people?
Rodney Ascher: There was only one other person beyond the final five who we did a recording of, and who didn’t make it into the film. And there were other people on the list who declined: There’s this amazing guy in the U.K., Rob Ager, who has a website called Collative Learning that has amazing, in-depth analyses of The Shining and other Kubrick films. I think he either has or is about to release a DVD of his work on The Shining. Pretty early on we had realized that we were not going to be able to get every idea associated with the hidden meanings of the movie into Room 237. So the solution was to try to find ways to suggest that what we’re seeing and hearing here is just the tip of the iceberg.
Time Out New York:The Shining is discussed by interviewee Juli Kearns as a “labyrinth.” Was the work of author Jorge Luis Borges—whose themes parallel some of those in Room 237 and who authored a collection titled Labyrinths—an inspiration?
Rodney Ascher: I read a couple of his short stories years ago. But I wasn’t directly drawing from him. There was a book that Tim and I talked about, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, where first you have the poem and then you have the commentary on the poem and then it becomes this whole other thing. And of course there’s the Nabokov connection with Kubrick via Lolita. If you look at Kubrick’s film of Lolita, there are clearly incidents of wordplay and other hidden things that are clues to what’s happening in the narrative. It doesn’t seem like a huge leap to think that Kubrick’s work on Lolita could have inspired him to put more of that kind of stuff into The Shining.
Time Out New York: Some of the theories in Room 237, like the moon-landing idea, got a lot of laughs from the audience I saw the film with. But the movie never seems to be condescending to its subjects. How did you walk that fine line?
Rodney Ascher: I was trying to sell each idea as best I could—to try to put the viewer of our film into the mind of each of these people watching The Shining. So it’s a way for them to watch The Shining through each of these people’s eyes. Or maybe it’s that the audience is watching me watch these people watch The Shining. The laughter thing is kind of weird. When we showed the film at Sundance, two of our interviewees—Bill Blakemore and Geoffrey Cocks—were onstage. Somebody raised their hand and said, “There was a lot of laughter in this theater. Do you take that personally?” And they said they didn’t feel as if the film was making fun of what they were saying. Instead, they found the humor in the clips I used to illustrate their perspective, and how that then connected to other movies and ideas—which was what I was going for. The fact that some people think Room 237 is very funny and others find it kind of eerie is gratifying to me. Different people watch the same movie very differently.
Time Out New York: There’s been a rise online of video-essay criticism, a genre Room 237 in some ways fits into. Did you always see the project as a feature film, or did you consider the Web and other distribution options?
Rodney Ascher: There wasn’t necessarily an end form in sight. If it’d been a 45-minute movie that was cut into three pieces on YouTube, that would have been fine. In the course of making the film, I became aware of video essays and the ones that kind of stuck out and blew my mind were Red Letter Media’s feature-length Star Wars prequel reviews. I think those are a real reinvention of criticism. They didn’t need to fit into a 22-minute slot on TV, so they made them as long as they wanted and went really in-depth. Then they’re doing it through the voice of this fictitious character, Mr. Plinkett, who has his own story that stretches out over the course of the three videos. We watched and talked about those constantly during production.
Time Out New York: Was the choice to use only the subjects’ voices dictated by budget or aesthetic?
Rodney Ascher: In the short “The S from Hell” that I did prior to Room 237, that was the only way it could happen. But I discovered that not being able to return to talking heads made me think harder about what the images would be. That was something that I wanted to take further. We had a little doubt at the very beginning whether that method would be too severe for a feature-length project, so we always reserved the right to go back and reinterview for a couple of key moments or do something stagey and stupid, like shoot people in front of a green screen and superimpose them into the middle of the Overlook Hotel. But I found that the more severe I went, the more I’d like it. Sometimes there’s no choice but to literally describe what people are saying. But things got really interesting when I’d try to subjectively capture the mood of what people were saying, or even work in counterpoint. There’d be a compare and contrast—what the subjects say isn’t exactly what we see.
Time Out New York: You’ve been to lot of festivals with the film. How has audience response been overall?
Rodney Ascher: It’s so far above and beyond my expectations. I thought we’d play a festival, maybe two, and then go straight to VOD or YouTube. So it’s been very surprising that we were able to take the movie to these major festivals, where for the most part it’s played really well. People have written a lot about it, which is great because they’ve seen things in the movie that I never thought of. I was expecting viewers would come up to me afterward and explain The Shining in new ways. But I’ve been more surprised, and kind of happier, to have them explain Room 237 to me.
Room 237 opens Mar 29.
Follow Keith Uhlich on Twitter: @keithuhlich