Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a film that inspires strong reactions, and people have been trying to pin down what it’s really about almost since the day it was released. With Room 237, first-time feature director Rodney Ascher has gone deeper down the rabbit hole than anyone before him, bringing together five disparate and fascinating perspectives on Kubrick’s horror classic. From the genocide of the Native Americans to Kubrick’s secret confession of being part of the biggest hoax in history, Ascher illustrates the five theories with footage from The Shining, Kubrick’s other films and historical footage, setting it all to a dark, mesmerizing soundtrack to create a hypnagogic film that starts off unbelievably strange, only to become ever more plausible as it plays on.
We caught up with Ascher to ask about how the film got made, how he chose his cast of film theorists and the puzzle that is The Shining.
Room 237 is a pretty unusual project. Can you give us a quick overview of the film?
Rodney Ascher: Room 237 is a documentary/essay film that tries to get the audience to look at The Shining through the eyes of five radically different people. The sort of messages, signs, symbols, metaphors and allegories that…unpack from The Shining. Then possibly, they can expand to hinting at the way people make sense of art, music and the world of around them.
You mentioned the film addresses how we experience and process things like art and film, and I seemed to sense there was also another reading, about how people can become obsessed with things and are almost forced to go over and over it. Am I crazy, or was there some element of that in the movie?
[Laughs] No, absolutely. As genuinely fascinating and alluring as it is to try to unpack The Shining, I was hoping that this film would be about other things, too. You’re certainly hitting on one of them.
The rhythms and style of it are pretty unusual for a documentary. Is that just your style, or was it something particular you wanted to do for this particular project?
It is something I’ve done before, and I don’t come from a straight, or any sort of traditional, documentary background. I’m coming much more from an experimental form, short, collage, mash-up, music video sort of a background — so trying to make something that’s more atmospheric and visually driven than a journalistic style documentary is just kind of the way I work. I think if you looked at any of the hopelessly obscure short things I’d done before, the weird thing isn’t that this documentary isn’t traditional, the weird thing is that there’s a documentary element to the piece at all. And it seemed fitting to the subject matter, you know. Not the least of which because The Shining is a puzzle, so to some extent I wanted Room 237 to be a puzzle as well.
Can you elaborate on that puzzle element a bit?
Certainly The Shining is a puzzle, and one might argue it’s a puzzle missing a few pieces, so I very much tried for 237 to be a puzzle in some capacity. I don’t know that it’s nearly as complex as The Shining, but it goes back to trying to make this in the style that it’s not a straight-up journalistic documentary but is something that’s more atmospheric and working in a different way. Certainly there are connections and references that are being made on the visual track or in one place or another, above and beyond a literal description of what people are saying.
Given your acknowledged non-documentary approach, why did you choose to tackle a documentary as your first feature-length piece?
Well, it was material I was fascinated by and it was a world I really wanted to explore. Being able to interview these people and scan through The Shining a frame at a time sort of gave me an excuse to find out more than what I was able to read. It was also a film that was, while I made it, I was teaching part-time and raising a one-year-old. It wasn’t as if a $300 million comic book sci-fi blockbuster fell into my lap and I turned it down in order to make this. This was the kind of movie I could work on between 9 p.m. and 3 in the morning with no budget.
The critical and audience reception seems great so far, which has to be really gratifying, especially for such an unusual film.
I’ll say. It’s coo-coo bananas! I was amazed that anyone who didn’t have my record and DVD collection would be able to appreciate it [laughs]. The fact that it was able to break wide is an incredible reassurance that maybe I’m not totally crazy, and some of the things I find interesting, other human beings find interesting too.
You chose five interesting personalities to explore and unpack their theories for the film. I assume you must have talked to and considered many more that didn’t make the cut, right?
Yeah, well me and [producer] Tim Kirk researched it for about a year before I did my first interview. There are a ton of other people working on also analyzing The Shining and I think the phenomenon that The Shining has been subject to this kind of microscopic analysis has been, in some ways, a recent event as interesting to document as the substance of what people were saying. We wanted to get people and to spread out and dive at length into these things. So we narrowed it down to a smaller group of people and also wanted to make sure that the people we were talking to weren’t decoding The Shining in some sort of dispassionate, crossword puzzle sort of way.
They all seem to have this really dramatic, personal connection to the movie. It became more and more clear as the project went on, that all of them and me and Tim and so many of the people I’ve talked to after screenings of the movie have this really interesting two-way relationship with the movie. That thinking about the movie changes your point of view, and the movie changes as you change over the course of the years. The movie came out in 1980, so I’ve seen it both as a kid and as a father, and you better believe the movie looks differently from those two vantage points.
Were there specific criteria you used to select the people you did? Were you just trying to get a wide spread of opinion, or was it something else?
It was a combination of factors. It wasn’t like we had a manifesto or checklist of who we would use and who we wouldn’t. At the beginning, the first two people we really wanted to talk to were Bill Blakemore and Jay Weidner. Bill talks about the Native American themes and he wrote about the movie back in 1987 in an article that was syndicated pretty widely in a lot of newspapers. I think for a lot of people it’s been seen as kind of the symbolic reading of the film of record. And Jay Weidner’s ideas about the subliminal techniques in the film and the idea that the movie could be sort of a confession to something that Kubrick was a part of back in the day was not just an incredibly riveting read, but something that was beginning to get very widely discussed.
So with those two guys, it seemed like their absence would be conspicuous, and it was also nice that they came from such different backgrounds that they kind of map out the different poles of the film. From there we went to folks who were coming at The Shining from a different perspective or brought entirely different elements to it. One would kind of lead to another in an interesting way. There was one guy I wanted to talk to and I sent him a recorder and he stole it and stopped answering my calls [laughs]. There was another guy or two online who were just impossible to find. They wrote under aliases and had no contact information.
Tell me a little about your process. You mentioned that you sent out recorders to people to get your interviews. How did that work?
Yeah, I would mail digital audio recorders to folks and talk them through the process of recording themselves, then I would talk to them on Skype on my end so that I could record a lo-fi backup and have my own voice on a split track that I could synchronize later. I would have a QuickTime of The Shining opened up so that I could sort of scan through it as they were talking. I think for the most part, when they describe scenes from the movie, they’re just working from memory and sometimes it’s kind of amazing the amount of detail and specificity they’re able to describe the movie with.
That way of working was at least in part due to your budgetary issues, correct? Rather than flying out, setting up the camera and doing the typical doc talking-head shot?
It was, but I’d also done a short film a year and a half before with the same strategy and I was really excited by some of the results that happened when I wasn’t able to use a talking-head shot. When I didn’t have that shot to rely on, I had to use other visual images to describe what they were talking about, or sometimes that the visuals could be a subjective emotional state or a connection that I might be making on my end or even working in counterpoint in a weird way. It does something to turn it from a battle of individuals to a battle of ideas. There’s a lot of interesting implications of it, but like a lot of things the idea first happened based on practical considerations, then I just kind of liked the effect.
It worked really well, as odd as it seemed at first. It let the images take over and provide the context, rather than drawing focus on the speaker.
Thanks. I like to think that we’re not looking at them, but we’re maybe trying to look through their eyes in some way.