The Room 237 director and producer chat about symbolism, secret messages and their lifelong obsession with Stanley Kubrick.
Hands up if you’ve seen The Shining. Keep your hands raised if you think the film is actually an encoded message from Stanley Kubrick announcing to the world that he faked Apollo 11 Moon landing.
Director Rodney Ascher and producer Tim Kirk actually found someone who did – and then found four other people with equally bizarre theories about the seminal horror flick. They did what any rational person would upon unearthing a world of conspiring surrounding Kubrick’s work: they made a documentary about it. The result is Room 237.
A sprawling, sometimes-laugh-out-loud, mind-bender of a film, Room 237 is a surprising exploration of the meanings that audiences bring to art – and a fascinating deconstruction of the enigmatic world of The Overlook Hotel. LWLies spoke to Rodney and Tim about symbolism, secret messages and a lifelong obsession with Stanley Kubrick.
LWLies: When did you first see The Shining?
Rodney Ascher: In 1980, when it came out. I was in the habit of sneaking into R-rated films… We bought a ticket to Herbie Goes Bananas or something. I only lasted about 10 minutes!
Tim Kirk: I was very lucky to have an older friend who had a beard, so he was able to get us in. I saw it at Grauman’s Chinese in Hollywood at a matinée.
RA: It was a couple of years on that I saw it properly. I’d already reached my wise-ass stage of young teenagedom and it kind of only began to creep under my skin… One of the fascinating things about The Shining is that it changes as you age. When you first watch the film, maybe when you’re 18, your world’s falling apart, your dad’s trying to kill you, you’re young Danny. In your 20s, you’ve got less connection to the characters so it’s kind of a laugh, but now we’re dads, it’s a much different story!
TK: Watching again now as a dad, all I’m worried about is Danny! I’m like, 'Please don’t hurt him'.
RA: I look at Jack now and it’s just like, 'Get your act together! Let’s really write the book this time! Let’s make the most of this opportunity!' It’s a horrifying, self-destructive, nihilistic kind of thing, you know. He’s committing career suicide, but nobody notices. It’s really easy to see Jack as a cautionary tale of the worst version of yourself…
So when do you first 'see' The Shining for what it really is?
TK: Well, I read an article online of one of these theories and immediately sent it to Rodney – we share a similar fascination with this stuff and we’re Kubrick fans. And we both just started delving into the internet and finding more and more of it! We both had young children, so we would go to the park and talk about it all and spin way, way from earth, leaving our kids to run through traffic and so forth! It was one idea that led to another idea that led to this whole thing…
What was your initial reaction to these theories? Some are more far-fetched than others…
TK: Very early on, the decision was made not to judge because these are passionate, intelligent people.
RA: The question was what happens when you take five radically different views and start braiding them together… Would one theory rise up as the clear champion? Would they all sort of destroy one another and leave the floor of the documentary littered with corpses? Or would they start informing each other in weird little ways? And I think that’s the closest to what happens in the film.
There’s a lot of overlap by the end of the film.
RA: Yeah, they do overlap. And that’s what’s exciting. If one was the clear victor, that would’ve been interesting, but this is the happiest result we could have got.
It felt like watching the internet stacked up on top of each other.
RA: Yeah. I mean, this film couldn’t have been possible without digital culture. You need the internet for people to get these ideas out there without a publishing deal or being syndicated in a magazine. And then you need films to make it to DVD and YouTube or be ripped into QuickTime to be analysed frame by frame in such detail. The Shining plays at rep cinemas, but even then it’s only once a year. Now, you can watch it all day every day!
There’s a surprising lack of talking heads in the documentary. Was that an intentional move to create that feeling of being lost in The Overlook Hotel?
RA: Lost in the world is exactly what we wanted: it’s not looking at them, it’s looking at the film through their eyes, which is what happens when you’re just listening to these voiceovers. I hate talking heads! I’m much more comfortable working as a remix artist or a collage filmmaker than a straight documentarian.
TK: Plus it keeps it in the world of ideas, rather than you cutting to somebody sitting on a couch.
Once you see them, you’d make a judgement, which could undermine their theory.
Tim: Exactly. Even more so if they have a title with their name and occupation, you bring even more real world stuff in there. It’s nice when it’s all just floating out there in The Overlook.
Did you ever actually meet them?
TK: Yeah, but that was much later. We met Bill Blakemore and Jay Weidner at Sundance and they immediately became great friends!
RA: I mailed them all digital audio recorders and we did the interviews that way. Now, there’s still two I haven’t met…
Were there other theories that you left out of the film?
RA: Absolutely. You know, you have a nine-hour conversation with somebody that’s going to be one-fifth of a feature film, there’s a lot that’s not going to get in there! But there’s a depth thing too. This movie wanted to be a very deep dive into a very narrow hole, so there’s a ton of stuff that didn’t go in the film – or people with things to say that we haven’t even spoken to, like Rob Ager in Liverpool, who’s written some astonishing stuff online and is working on his own DVD, which is probably going to be amazing.
Do you have a favourite out of the theories? I’m quite fond of the Moon landing…
RA: There’s much more to that! Jay’s got two more DVDs all about that stuff! If Jack represents Stanley working the Apollo mission, the previous janitor, Grady, worked on the previous mission! And his daughters were twins, which is Gemini! It goes on and on…
TK: Irrefutable! [Laughs] I love them all, but Juli Kearns talking about the impossible geography of the hotel really helps to answer why you feel sort of trapped in The Overlook.
RA: I really like Ryan’s idea about the juxtapositions and the dissolves. In a way, that can work to strengthen everyone else’s ideas. Like the Hitler moustache you see at the end [during one cross-fade] can work to help Geoff’s reading. Then there’s the moment where Jack is wandering through the hotel and Danny and Wendy are wandering through the maze and there are cross-dissolves so that Jack is transported into the maze so it’s like he’s chasing them, like a Minotaur… There’s a lot to suggest that everything you see in a Kubrick film is more intentional than most other filmmakers.
It helps that it’s Kubrick, doesn’t it? Other filmmakers, like, say, Michael Bay, you wouldn’t believe could spend so much time on little details
RA: Yeah, Michael does some fantastic stuff, but also his schedule is probably a lot quicker. You know, Giant Robot Fight 1 from 11:15 to 11:35! Those days are packed! But Kubrick works at a much different pace.
One of the strangest theories involves watching The Shining forwards and backwards at the same time. Have you ever tried that?
RA: Yeah, it’s amazing! I hadn’t until Fantastic Fest a few weeks ago, but they showed Room 237 and then had a screening of The Shining forwards and backwards as an event. About 100 or so people decided to come and check it out…
That’s pretty good.
RA: Yeah, and there were even more juxtapositions that appeared than John described in his interview. When Grady says "My wife and daughters were naughty and I had to correct them", the dead bodies of the daughters overlap on the shot. The soundtrack played forwards, so the first half was a black comedy, with Jack saying: "You don’t have to worry about me, I won’t go crazy and murder my family!" But the second half is like a tragedy as everything falls apart. It’s heavy, man.
Would you ever trying watching Room 237 forwards and backwards at the same time?
RA: [Laughs] I’ll leave that for other, more intrepid, explorers!
Have your subjects seen Room 237 yet? What do they make of it?
TK: They’ve all liked it and have been really positive. At Sundance, Bill and Jake got up on stage and were asked about the laughter in the audience at some points. And it was interesting to see them think about it but they decided that a lot of the laughter comes from the formal juxtapositions in the film.
RA: I watched it with Bill again in New York and he said afterwards that it had changed the way he looks at The Shining, that he’s still finding new things in there. He was originally resistant to what the others had to say but each person is coming to The Shining from their own place, using their own toolkit and life experiences as a way to understand it. His was being a journalist who covered the war in the Middle East, for example.
There’s very much a Roland Barthes' Death of the Author vibe going on. What would you say if someone came along and found a different meaning in your film?
RA: I’d be thrilled! I’d be delighted! The Shining is a machine that has created lots of interesting coincidences. Certainly, I’ve learned from this process that different people see the same movie quite differently. This was never a dry, straightforward documentary. I like to think it lends itself to being understood – or despised – differently by other people! Actually, here’s something that did come up. A friend saw it and described a moment where John is saying that he learned about the way people 'see things and not see things'.
TK: [Laughs] Oh my god…
RA: I thought about it and people in our movie did not see The Shining! By seeing the Hitler moustache, you’re not seeing the movie. By discovering those WWII themes, that’s not seeing the movie. I had no idea what John Fell Ryan meant when he said it. I took it at face value that he meant 'not seeing'... But that’s still in there!