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Flixclusive Interview: Rodney Ascher (Room 237)

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[This interview was originally posted as part of our 2012 New York Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the wider theatrical release of Room 237.]

It’s always interesting when you meet a filmmaker. Unless the film is abysmal, I tend to like the movie a little more after meeting the person who made it. It’s probably because I feel more in tune with what they were going for and how the things they cared about made it into a movie. That’s the case with Room 237 after I sat down with director Rodney Ascher. I can’t say I love it since I still have issues with its construction, but it remains a fascinating wander through the conspiracy and symbolism of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Ascher is a movie geek, one of us, gooble-gobble — no pretense, just an abundant love for film. When I asked him how he was doing on his press day, he said he was hanging in there and didn’t mind. He could talk about The Shining all day.

During the interview, I learned that Ascher and I are connected through The Shining in a bizarre way. It’s just one of the many uncanny things about that film. Not only is it about NASA, Nazis, Native Americans, impossible architecture, and stunning superimpositions, it’s also a machine that connects people through fine dining in the Bay Area.

In the press notes to Room 237 you mention that the first time you saw The Shining you were floored by it. Could you talk about that first experience.

Well I was a little kid and I snuck in with my friends. I was 10 years old or so, but actually I was kind of a young, ambitious horror movie fan who had seen Halloween and Alien— I don’t know if I saw Friday the 13th [at that time]… Did Friday the 13th come out before or after The Shining?

You know, I can’t remember. I had to be…

It’s the same year, and I think they made about as much money. [laughs] But those horror movies, to me, played as more intense action movies, you know, as suspense thrillers. But The Shining was very different kind of experience [laughs]. So I barely made it into the interview scene. I think it was the Wendy Carlos music, which sounds like judgment from God.

BAA DAA BAAM BWAA! ♫

Yeah! And I don’t know if I could have articulated it at the time, but Bill Blakemore [in Room 237] sort of expresses what was going through my mind as a little kid when he says that the opening helicopter shot feels like it’s the point of view of some evil spirits. He doesn’t quite say it, but how I saw it was that we were these spirits that were racing to get to the hotel before them. [laughs]

[laughs]

And to meet them there! So I was just in this state of intense anxiety — just physical, goosebumps and sweat — from the moment the music started. I was out of there before the family even moved into the hotel. Like a lot of things that injure you as a child, they leave a mark that you keep picking at.

That scab, you just gotta keep going.

You keep scratching it. [laughs]

Were there any other horror movies that you got this obsessed with, or was it something about The Shining that keeps you coming back to it?

Before Room 237, people didn’t really accuse me of being obsessed with The Shining. I was just a Kubrick fan, and I liked The Shining like I liked 2001. As a teenager and in college, I was really into A Clockwork Orange, you know, and I had the t-shirt and the poster and the soundtrack album.

As you do. That’s age appropriate.

Yeah, you know, I wanted to be like Alex: dangerous, but articulate and smart. [laughs]

[laughs]

I want to be scary in a way, but actually above it. I want to be a juvenile delinquent who’s slumming in the role of a juvenile delinquent. [laughs]

[laughs] Like juvenile delinquent tourism or something.

Yeah! [laughs] The most stylish juvenile delinquent. You know, I was just a suburban kid with a terrible haircut and a dorky t-shirt collection. There’s a ton of other movies that I watch and rewatch and rewatch. And again, I wasn’t accused of being a Shining fanatic before now. [laughs] I know me and my wife watched it on an anniversary dinner. There’s this fancy restaurant in San Francisco called Foreign Cinema.

My brother actually works as a cook at that restaurant! There’s another crazy Shining connection!

Oh well that’s weird… Very early I discovered The Shining was a machine for spontaneously creating synchronicities and coincidences, but Room 237 is proving to be one as well. [laughs]

[laughs]

My wife and I watched The Shining. Maybe it was Halloween, which happens to be our anniversary, and it’s a coincidence not because we’re incredibly creepy people but on October 30th we said, “Let’s get in the car and drive to Vegas!” And we weren’t able to make it in one drive, so we stayed in a motel and then got in on Halloween. [laughs]

[laughs]

And then we’re like, oh, it is Halloween. Well, what are you gonna do? [laughs] I guess that’s kind of cool. So when we saw it at Foreign Cinema, she had never seen it before. She’s a really good person to watch a movie with because if it’s a horror movie and she likes it, it’s a solid movie. I think horror fans are accustomed to watching all sorts of crap to find the jewels. She doesn’t have the patience to watch that crap. [laughs] She had a similar experience– Let’s talk about my wife’s movie-going habits for a while.

[laughs]

She had a similar experience with Total Recall, I think she saw it in school. [Editor’s note: The Paul Verhoeven version.] And she said, “Wait a minute, are science fiction movies secretly awesome and I had no idea only going to Pedro Almodovar movies?! Are they all this good?!” And then she realized that they weren’t. [laughs]

[laughs] Only if they involve Paul Verhoeven just being Paul Verhoeven.

Right, right, and she’s leaned that. And she loves RoboCop and Starship Troopers, which are among the greatest movies ever made.

For true.

[laughs, then a beat] So I’m trying to remember what the question was. [laughs]

I’m trying to remember too. It was… Oh yeah, were there any other movies that you had similar relationships as The Shining?

Well, I keep returning to Paul Verhoeven movies. [laughs] I’m due for a return to Orson Welles’s The Trial.

I still haven’t seen that. [Editor’s note: A problem since rectified.]

Oh, it’s amazing! It feels like a movie that was shot on location in someone’s subconscious; like not even on planet Earth. It’s like in Eastern Europe in these bizarre locations. He’s working in this office, and there’s like a landscape of people at desks that goes out to the horizon. It’s the kind of dream logic that I think Michel Gondry gets into a little bit, where his lawyer’s office is just a door in the place that he works in, and there’s another door that leads to his apartment. Just talking about it is kind of creeping me out. [laughs]

[laughs]

And it’s also very funny. It’s black and white, and there’s this kind of Beat/noir style to it. It’s amazing. I’m also overdue to revisit Brazil, which when I saw it for the first time when it came out I was like, “I’ve always been a fan of this movie.” This is a movie that I’m programed for.

Like destiny brought it to you.

Like I’m watching it for the first time and I’m already nostalgic for seeing it again. I might include Paul Schrader’s Patty Hearst. [a beat] They’re probably all 80s movies. Night of the Hunter. Return of the Living Dead.

With the–

The punk rockers in the graveyard one. So funny, and so smart, even if it is unfortunately responsible for running zombies. [laughs]

That’s sort of the unforgivable sin of that movie.

Well, they’re fine in that context, but for what they have wrought… [laughs]

[laughs] Let’s talk about the interviewees in Room 237. Was it always going to be five people?

No, we knew that we only wanted to do a couple. I didn’t want this to be a movie of a hundred little soundbites, but for us to really take some time to explore these ideas in depth. I had a partner on this movie, Tim Kirk, who was the guy who got me going on this by emailing me Jay Weidner’s article on The Shining when that was popular on the internet.

I was going to ask if it was the Jay Weidner article that got you started.

Yeah, and it struck a cord, because I like The Shining. But also, like John Fell Ryan says, you start looking for clues, and then you keep finding them. And it’s like, if I go back in my history, there are Shining things that lead up to Room 237. I did a project years and years ago where I did a bunch of slides that were sort of a parody of those trivia slides that play at a multiplex.

Yeah.

So they were full of really dense, academic film theory or feminist critiques of cinema, or trivia about what happened on my student film, that nobody would possibly know. “What was the name of the script I abandoned in 1986?” [laughs]

[laughs]

And [on the slide] there’s like some Coke and the polar bear with a Coke, smiling, with question marks. And one of the slides was on The Shining. There was a book I had read about Kubrick — Inside a Film Artist’s Maze by Thomas Allen Nelson — and in the chapter on The Shining, he has a footnote on the numerology in The Shining. It’s like three paragraphs long: 2 + 3 + 7 = 12; 12 reversed with two 0’s inserted is 2001. The Shining, in many ways, is a reversal of 2001. And John Fell Ryan talks about this in the forwards-backwards thing: 2001 is the evolution of man, and The Shining is the fall of man. And there are more and more numbers involved. So I had a trivia card that said “Did You Know?” [laughs]

[laughs]

Or maybe it was “FYI” and the F has a little mortarboard hat on it. And there’s the blood coming out of the elevators and in like five-point type, bffffzzzt all this numerology about The Shining. In some ways that was like a foreshadowing of what this film was going to be. So, from the Jay thing to remembering that Thomas Allen Nelson thing, the two of us went of that and went, “I wonder what else is there. Could we find a third?” And finding a third proved very easy.

And how’d you get in contact with others?

Well, I mean, Thomas Allen Nelson doesn’t actually appear in the film, but we were like, “Is there a third branch of Shining interpretation.” I think Tim found Bill Blakemore, whose Native American thing kind of got the ball rolling. He wrote this article in 1987. And actually Bill and Jay seemed to be the two that were obligatory to be in this movie. Like if they weren’t in this movie, their absence would be conspicuous. Those are two ideas that a lot of people knew about and discussed. And then from there we were looking for who has has something very different to offer, who has an artifact they’ve created, like Juli [Kearns]’s maps.

Which are brilliant.

Which are beautiful. Or John Fell Ryan’s forwards-backwards thing.

Which is ultimately just fascinating. It is remarkable how things sync up in that.

Yeah, and they just did a screening of it at Fantastic Fest in Austin, and it got a good review from Badass Digest!

Have you seen it all the way through?

I watched it in Austin, but for Room 237, I just kind of found the moments that he was talking about, for the most part. But I regret not having seen it because that sequence would be much longer. [laughs]

[laughs]

To open it up and have more space with some of the sound, some juxtapositions are just really startling. Like Lloyd, the bartender, says, “Women — can’t live with them, can’t live without them.” And the nude woman from room 237 kind of appears. [Editor’s note: At this point I went bug-eyed.] Right, right!? [laughs]

That’s crazy!

So Geoffrey Cocks’s World War II thing was especially interesting because there’s a lot to argue for it with all the research that Kubrick had been doing for Aryan Papers. [Cocks] also has a numerological approach, so even if we wound up not doing Thomas Allen Nelson’s number work, what was great was [Cocks’s] number work was an aid for his bigger thoughts about the World War II theory. So we wanted to get a smallish group of people who had an awful lot to say so it wouldn’t be a quick-cutty, soundbitey thing, but more of a longer conversation. Sort of let our audience watch The Shining through each of their eyes. They were people who came from different walks of life, and used different strategies to unlock the secrets to The Shining. They each had their own keys; they actually kind of described their keys in the first act, like the Calumet can, or the window, or the typewriter, or the dissolve, which in a way is very much like the forwards-backwards thing.

Yeah, because there’s that superimposition.

So it’s a double superimposition. And he’s also talking about working at the archive and learning to be skeptical of the relationship between what you see and what you hear. Which also opened up a window for me to be more expressive with some of the visuals I would accompany the dialogue with, and not always be strictly literal.

I was going to ask about the style of the movie. You completely do away with talking heads and embed things in a sort of movie world. Could you talk about that approach and why you felt it was necessary?

Well part of that was logistical. I mean, I made this movie barely leaving my house. [laughs]

[laughs]

I think I left the house once to shoot one reenactment shot. The other ones with those black backgrounds I just shot in my garage. And for the scene in the Brooklyn theater, I called up a friend who lived in Brooklyn and said, “Hey man, they’re showing The Shining forwards and backwards. They say it’s cool if you shoot there. Will you go over there and shoot?” And I found a guy in Chicago who could shoot the L train. [laughs] And when Bill Blakemore is talking about his vacation to Costa Rica where he met someone who was familiar with his ideas, I was like, “Well, I could shoot this in Malibu. I think I’d want to shoot it in Super 8.” You know, to try to make it feel like a vacation in the past. And then I was like, “Well, what does Costa Rica look like?” I went on YouTube and searched “Costa Rica,” and I think before I hit search I said, “I’m feelin’ lucky.” And I added “Super 8.” [laughs]

[laughs] And?

And I found this guy’s beautiful footage of a beach in Costa Rica. And Tim emailed him and said, “Hey, we’re doing this weird, experimental documentary project and we’d love to use your footage. Can we use it for a hundred dollars?” And the guy said okay.

Brilliant.

So now I have this beautiful Costa Rica footage. The guy turned out to be a fashion photographer, which explains that although it’s shot in a very loose, handheld style, there’s an elegance and grace to it. So it’s a perfect romantic memory of this amazing trip that Bill took to Costa Rica, and this conversation he had with this guy. [laughs] So when I did my interviews, I just mailed them digital audio recorders and talked to them on the phone. I’d give them instruction for how to operate them — is the red light blinking, is the counter moving, can you see the level going up and down okay? All right, we’re good to go! Although at one point I considered flying out and shooting some actual video with them, but at that point, very quickly, I started working without it and I just liked it so much. It seemed to put the movie in the landscape of the imagination.

Yeah.

It’s more like, “I’m not looking at this guy, I am this guy, in a way.”

Because the movie’s kind of forcing you to live in these series of connections.

Yeah, so I just kind of liked it. I’m never a big fan of talking head shots. And I was like, “If I do shoot them, would I shoot them on a green screen and superimpose them in the Overlook Hotel.” [laughs] Or just a black backdrop, try to do an Errol Morris thing where they’re–

Looking right at the camera.

Yeah. Ehhh. I just kind of liked the essay-film style. And I had success with that format in a short I did.

S From Hell.

S From Hell. I really liked the format. Usually in essay films or even the 90-minute Star Wars reviews — which I love and are something we absolutely talked about and considered when doing this — this is the voice of the film, this is a voice of authority. And I’m like, what happens when we have five of these voices that are coming from different perspectives and don’t necessarily agree? That’s interesting. What happens? Let’s see. [laughs]

Were there any movie clips that you wanted to use but couldn’t? Because I recognized An American Werewolf in London, and The Legend of Hell House, which I haven’t seen since I was 17.

An amazing movie.

Yeah!

Well, there were a lot of avenues that we had explored. Certainly the structure’s loose and stream of consciousness, though it is something me and Tim worked on pretty actively. You know, we had post-it notes with different colors and codings for all the different scenes, and we’re finding the relationships and grouping them into segments based on a handful of different things. Just for flow or time or emphasis, we didn’t want this want this one character to have nine beats while another one only has two, there were avenues we didn’t explore. I created like 30 or 35 self-contained five-minute segments, and then sort of braided together, so there were a couple that didn’t get in. Not so much footage from particular movies, but more ideas these folks explored.

I noticed this wasn’t in Room 237, but were there weird set of theories about the bear suit scene. Because that is one of those moments in The Shining where I just think, “Wow, what the?”

Yeah, that’s a great scene, and one that sticks with you. Again, that kind of falls into the fact this movie could have been nine hours long. I fished for one, and kind of the problem was when I just let people talk and would ask them more general questions and shut my mouth, sometimes they’d go off in really interesting directions that would be very emotional and passionate and personal. I always had sort of a cheat sheet next to me saying, “Geoffrey has something very interesting to say about the typewriter. Make sure he talks about the typewriter.” And that would just kind of come up, but when I tried to hit them on those points, I didn’t have as much luck with their responses coming out in an interesting way. I think Jay talks about that scene in his essay, and he’s made his own DVDs.

There’s the, what — The Alchemical Kubrick

There’s Kubrick: The Alchemist, Kubrick: The Magician, and Kubrick’s Odyssey. I think there’s going to be three and two of them, are out. He says that bear suit is about the Russian bear and the Cold War, because the moon landing is America’s winning the Cold War. So that’s kind of a way of putting Russia into its place.

We’ve dominated you, and this is what you must do for me.

Which is awesome… I don’t think I was able to get that out [in the film]. He also talks about Grady’s daughters. If Jack is the Apollo mission, then Grady’s the previous mission, and his daughters are twins. In other words, twins means Gemini. That’s amazing!

[laughs]

But the extended Jay thing would be Jay’s own film, and I felt the sequence was working good enough without having to hit every one of his discoveries. There’s an interesting thing with the forwards-backwards with that suit. When Danny is at the bathroom mirror at the beginning of the movie and he sees the blood in the elevator, in the forwards-backwards stuff you see Wendy coming up the stairs surrounded by blood and then she turns and sees the guy in the dog suit and the guy — you can argue whether it’s a dog suit or a bear suit; it’s some furry, some brony, or a 1980 furry — and the guy in the tuxedo.

[laughs]

So Danny is seeing that as one of his visions in the bathroom. Then he wakes up and he’s actually on a pillow that’s the shape of a bear. So it’s come out of his dream and into [real life].

[laughs] That’s remarkable!

It’s remarkable! I don’t know what the other folks [said]. There’s plenty there, it didn’t come out naturally in what we were doing. At a certain point we had to make peace with the fact that we weren’t going to be able to get everything in, although that is one of the more conspicuous deletions [laughs]. One of my personal ideas about what makes The Shining really interesting… One of the things that Kubrick did a lot in his career was very surgically deleting things.

Sort of excising…

Excising excessive material. Excising redundancies. In 2001, [in the movie] we know that the bone turns into a spaceship, [but in the book] that’s actually not just a spaceship, it’s a nuclear-bomb-launching missile platform. It changes the meaning of that bone shot. It isn’t just one tool leads mankind up the ladder to making a space tool; it’s that this bone can break one monkey’s head open, this [futuristic] bone can break every monkey’s head open. [laughs]

[laughs]

But he would delete those references, and he deleted voice over from 2001, making it more efficient and making it more open ended. And in The Shining, people talk about things that were changed from the book, and that’s interesting, but what I like is what’s been deleted from the book, like the story of the woman in the bathtub — who she is, how she got there. The story of the guy [in the bear suit] — according to the book it’s a dog suit — and the guy in the tuxedo, who’s actually the owner of the hotel in 1921.

Interesting.

And this is a guy who has a long, complicated relationship with him. I think that by deleting the backstory of those things that existed in the book, Kubrick created a more authentic supernatural experience. Because if you come and you see a ghost and he’s got a a coat hanger through his eyeball and he’s holding on to a Raggedy Ann, you don’t know what the hell that is, but it’s horrifying! [laughs] So Kubrick used the scenarios in the book in order to generate that kind of uncanny image, but then by deleting the reference makes it more bizarre and uncanny.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.