In the documentary film “Room 237,” director Rodney Ascher explores what some people think are bizarre metaphors (and at least one conspiracy theory) that filmmaker Stanley Kubrick included in his 1980 horror film “The Shining.” From hidden messages about the eradication of Native Americans to the idea Kubrick was hired by the U.S. government to fake the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, “Room 237” makes some compelling albeit often times outlandish claims about Kubrick’s intentions.
During an interview with Ascher back in March, we talked about the first time he saw “The Shining” when he was a teenager and the theory he came up with on his own while doing research that he says might link Kubrick’s film to a 1926 silent movie about Faust.
“Room 237” was recently released on DVD and Blu-ray Sept. 24.
You were a teenager when “The Shining” hit theaters in 1980. When did you first see the film and what were your initial thoughts about it?
I saw it when it first came out. Well, to be more precise, I saw the first 10 minutes and then snuck out the back door because it was more than I could take. I was maybe 13. I think it was largely because of the music. I can’t quite articulate what it was that weighed so heavily on me, but in [“Room 237”] [journalist] Bill Blakemore describe the music to have this metaphysical implication. But, yeah, [“The Shining”] took its toll on me. I barely made it to the interview scene. I just remember how the steady cam led Jack (Jack Nicholson) to the bowels of the hotel. I didn’t want to go any deeper.
I’m guessing you snuck into the movie since it was rated R.
Yeah, that’s the way we would check out horror movies back in those days. I probably bought a ticket to “The Empire Strikes Back” or something.
So, when did you build up enough courage to go back and revisit the film?
I think a couple of years later when it was on cable or maybe on VHS. The second time went a lot smoother. I thought some of Jack’s hijinks in the middle of the movie were funny at the time. It only got scary again when I became a father.
When were you made aware of the conspiracy theories associated with the film?
Well, I think the idea for the film came when my friend [producer] Tim Kirk emailed me this deep, hyper-focused analysis of “The Shining” he found online. Before I finished reading it, I knew it was a world that I wanted to explore. I was aware there was an idea “The Shining” was this dense, layered film and that it was working in a complicated way. “The Shining” has some bizarre, evil, black magic cooked into its DNA. It doesn’t work like a regular movie. Not being able to recognize that myself, I was very fascinated with the research other people had done. Tim and I made it our mission over the next year to learn about as much of it as we could. It was like a science experiment. We wanted to see what would happen. We were amazing when we started doing our own research that there is this whole world of stuff [about the conspiracies and symbolism in “The Shining”] that has into existence in the last couple of years. It was a phenomenon where people all over the world were pouring all over “The Shining” and decoding its symbolism.
As a documentary filmmaker, was it challenging for you to avoid making your own judgment and create your own theories about this phenomenon and director Stanley Kubrick’s intentions?
I was trying to stay as objective as I could, but some could say I’m the phantom sixth interviewee because there are times when I would make connections on my own. There’s a moment in the film where Bill Blakemore is talking about the helicopter shot [in the beginning of the “The Shining”] and he said it might be from the point of view of some supernatural force sweeping over the car. I thought I would try to find some evidence to support that. When I looked at [director F.W.] Murnau’s version of [the 1926 silent film] “Faust,” not only was there this great shot of these supernatural creatures flying through the clouds, there was also this sweeping shot that looked like a helicopter shot following [the demon] Mephisto, which seemed like it was possibly an inspiration for [the helicopter shot in “The Shining”]. I put that into context with the fact that at one point Jack says, “I’d sell my soul to the Devil for a drink.” He’s making a Faustian bargain. I think it’s completely plausible that [Kubrick] would’ve watched “Faust.”
Since this film includes at least one conspiracy theory, have there ever been any during your lifetime that you could step back and say, “You know, that is a crazy thought, but it just might be possible?”
I can’t think of one right off the top of my head, but I do remember seeing Oliver Stone’s “JFK.” At the time I found it very persuasive. Today, I can’t really remember what it was all about, but every conspiracy is persuasive when you have things backing it up. If you’re able to find more supporting points and evidence, it makes things more and more compelling.
In Entertainment Weekly’s review of the film, the review reads, “The film places you inside the logic of how an insane person thinks.” Why do you think conspiracy theorists are automatically deemed insane by some people for their beliefs?
(Laughs) Well, certainly, I would take exception to calling our interviewees insane. But I do like the way [the reviewer] is making a parallel between “The Shining” and “Room 237” because I do see similarities in the narrative. It makes me feel like “The Shining” was the right film to do this [documentary] on. They’re both movies about people traveling a maze.
What did you think of what Kubrick’s longtime assistant Leon Vitali said about “Room 237” in that recent New York Times article? He said Kubrick would not have listened to 70-80 percent of the film because it’s pure gibberish.
Everyone has their own opinion. (Laughs) If anyone is going to be a critic of “Room 237,” then Lord Bullingdon (Vitali’s character in Kubrick’s 1975 film “Barry Lyndon”)/Red Cloak (Vitali’s character in Kubrick’s 1999 film “Eyes Wide Shut”) is probably the best person to ask.
If Kubrick were alive today, what specific question you would like to ask him?
I think it would be more a question about process. He’s known for doing an incredibly large number of takes. I always wondered if the point of that was because each of those takes were falling short of his original vision and he doesn’t stop [shooting] until he sees it, or was he more interested in generating spontaneous, unpredictable things he couldn’t have imagined.