Room 237 is in many ways the ultimate movie-geek movie, in which six superfans of Stanley Kubrick's Stephen King adaptation The Shining expand upon their theories as to what the subtext really is, and how there are little clues throughout which support their unusual interpretation. Is it about the genocide of Native Americans? An indirect way of dealing with the Holocaust? A secret confession by Kubrick that he was complicit in faking the moon landing? Whether you agree or not (and most will lean toward "not"), the details brought to the viewer's attention in these micro-analyses are fascinating in and of themselves, and could well inspire all-new theories above and beyond the surface tale of an alcoholic writer going crazy in a near-empty hotel.
I got to have an extensive conversation with director Rodney Ascher and producer Tim Kirk about their approach, what they do or don't believe and the difficulties of setting out to do a documentary that's entirely dependent on securing the rights to use footage from a cinematic classic. This is the lengthiest TR interview I've done to date, but if you've ever geeked out about The Shining - or any movie on an analytical level - I think you'll enjoy the read.
Luke Y. Thompson: Do you think The Shining is unique in the way people can come up with these theories? Could it have been done with any movie? Maybe just any Kubrick movies?
Rodney Ascher: Well, certainly any Kubrick movie, because Kubrick movies do have all sorts of signs and symbols and hidden little things in them, and we were just talking about Full Metal Jacket, and the fact that the hole that the sniper is shooting from looks like the state of Texas. There are all sorts of interesting allusions to Texas within that movie. If you go back to Fear and Desire, his first movie, he cast the same actors as the American squad behind enemy lines and the Nazis that they're trying to kill. I suppose it could have been a budgetary decision, but I'm led to believe that that's a choice because of some sort of symbolic effect that that will create. All of his films are made so carefully and so precisely, and he always leaves questions and mysteries inside of them, so Kubrick films are more suited to this than others, though there are a ton of others. The Shining, which is where we started, always seems to be the best of the bunch, not the least of which because of the similarities between The Shining and Room 237. On the most basic level, they're about small groups of people trapped in a maze! (laughs)
Tim Kirk: And about a boy who can see things that other people can't.
LYT: And also like The Shining, reflecting back what the people in the hotel are bringing to it. It seems like the theories here are people sort of seeing themselves in the mirror, like if they're obsessed with Nazis, they see Nazis.
RA: That's the question! That's great, the mirror thing. Are you seeing something, or are you seeing yourself? In this case, I think it's close to an unanswerable question. If somebody says something under their breath in French, because I happen to speak French, I'm able to understand that. So because Stanley Kubrick was kind of an obsessive - he didn't go to college, but he was a self-educated guy who read incredibly deeply, and he did read and discuss some of the books that people talk about as sort of keys to understanding the movie.
TK: The Magic Mountain.
RA: He read The Magic Mountain, he talked about that Freudian analysis of fairy tales by Bruno Bettelheim, that Holocaust book, The Destruction of the European Jews. So, if someone else had read that book, they're in a better situation to see a subtle reference to that thing. The same way that I would get throwaway Star Wars jokes, or The Shining jokes, that someone else in the audience who is not steeped in that kind of stuff might not get.
LYT: Did Kubrick, as far as you know, when he was alive ever comment on some of these theories?
TK: I think he studiously didn't. I've read that he got a kick out of people telling him what the end of 2001 meant, but he never commented, and so I'm absolutely sure that he never confirmed or denied.
RA: There was a quote where he said, "People hate being told anything flat out. They resent it. But they're attracted to puzzles, and allegories." So I think specifically in the case of 2001 - I'm getting all my Kubrick quotes...I think I have the idea right though I'll never get the wording correctly - I think he said something like, "If I told them exactly what the ending of 2001 was supposed to be about, I would be shackling them to some reality, not necessarily their own. People would resent that." I know David Lynch is the same way, wanting to allow people to bring what they have to a movie, and he would never want to shut anyone's idea down by saying "THAT wasn't what I meant!" Certainly if you've ever seen A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge, it's widely seen as the story of a high school kid who's struggling to come out of the closet. And in the director's commentary, dude's like "I had no idea....", and it's actually a little disappointing to hear him say that!
LYT: I just interviewed Sam Raimi about Oz the Great and Powerful, and I had this theory that Oz's journey is mirroring the history of cinema, much like Hugo, because he begins as a carnival sideshow, and in the end he's using cinema technology to motivate the masses and move them. When I brought that up, Raimi said "I wasn't really doing that, I was just giving him the tools in the first act to succeed in the third act."
RA: But that doesn't mean that your idea isn't an interesting and meaningful way to look at the movie. Also, Sam Raimi didn't write that script, did he?
LYT: No, he didn't.
RA: OK, then! (laughs) So he's not necessarily the last word!
TK: And, like with Room 237, there's something that happens to a film after it leaves the film maker. I don't think he has the final word on it.
RA: And he might not have been totally frank. He may have thought, "That sounds too pretentious. I want to be more down-to-earth." I try to be as frank as possible when I'm talking about 237, but sometimes I fail, and sometimes I talk myself into a corner, and I decide to just go for an answer that's somehow coherent, even if it's not fully accurate. I'll settle for coherent if I'm starting to break down into meaningless nonsense. Sometimes you want to keep the mystery alive. This is my first feature, and my first time doing a lot of interviews, so it's also my first window into realizing that what a filmmaker says about a movie is interesting, but it's not always going to be completely definitive. (laughs)
LYT: Do you find that the more interviews you do, the more it clarifies your thinking?
RA: I guess the short answer is "no." This movie has been on the festival circuit for over a year, so we've done a lot of interviews, and there's been some time between them, and I haven't gone back to look at some of the old ones, but I think either an opinion starts to make sense a couple months down the road, or I get sick of saying the same thing, so it might change a little bit. But most people, if they're investigating a crime, would say the witness' testimony as close to the period of the crime as possible would be the most accurate one! Although maybe now I've had more time to think about things...
TK: But also, the more you talk, the further you get away from those decisions that you made in the editing room.
RA: Certainly I've been influenced by things that people have said about the movie. "That makes a lot of sense!"
TK: "That's what I was going for!"
RA: I'm not sure that I can tell you subtly that everything I'm telling you now is a lie, but things start to break down the closer you look at them.
LYT: Is it a fact that there is no room 237 at the hotel?
TK: We have not verified this, and that kind of goes to the core of Rodney and my approach to the material...
RA: You mean the Timberline Hotel in particular?
TK: We didn't set out to prove or disprove any of the theories, and we chose not to talk to anyone who made The Shining. We wanted to present the ideas as forcefully as possible, and honestly. However, we could have called, but if we had, then that answers the whole question of perhaps they could have lied.
RA: They're sick of stupid Shining fans calling about that stupid room, so tell them no, there's no room 217 and you can't stay there, or the room number could have changed, and this person may not know the whole history.
TK: Right! Plus, as Rodney said before, he didn't just change it from 217 to anything, there's a LOT of possibilities! He chose 237.
RA: There's infinity minus 1 of other possible numbers that that room number could have been. If you look at it, there's a copy of the screenplay that was at the LACMA exhibit that's got his notes on it, and you see him trying to work it out. There's some number play between 217 and 237, and then there's some places where he's trying to work it into an address where they lived in, or other places...
TK: And there's dates, right?
RA: Right. So there's clearly number play at work. He had collaborated with Nabokov on Lolita, whose work is just riddled with number play and word play, the idea that these numbers have some intention to them becomes very, very plausible. Just think of that number, 237 - there's this weird, asymmetry to them. Is it a prime number, or a Fibonacci number? It very much feels like a number that's off - if it was music, it would be off-key. I think it's an exquisitely designed number.
TK: Even visually, it's like that 3...I don't know, it feels like that 3 should be bigger somehow, I don't know.
LYT: I notice there's a cast in the credits, so the people reading are not the people with the theories, is that right?
RA: No, that's not the case!
LYT: Then who are the cast?
RA: There's a handful of things that were shot originally for the movie, like there's a woman who you see putting a tape into a VCR, and there is someone playing Stanley Kubrick who puts the Calumet can up onto the shelf and it's a very stylized shot in this black void.
TK: We have a butler handing an invitation to the Overlook.
RA: So maybe there's a half-dozen people for these little insert things we shot, are credited as cast. No one has asked about this. Sometimes in reading peoples' summaries of the movie, sometimes it sounds like this is just a commentary track on The Shining. We tried to make it a little more complicated than that.
LYT: I thought it was real footage from the time.
RA: The woman with the VCR?
LYT: The Kubrick shot. I thought it was real behind-the-scenes stuff.
RA: I tried to make it as fake and stylized as I could, to not confuse it, but you never know how people are going to...as this movie shows, you never know how people are going to see these things.
LYT: When you set out to make this, obviously it seems like it would be a legal headache to get the rights. Was that ever a daunting part of the process?
RA: When we started out we had, I've got to tell you, a suite at the Standard hotel with a coordinated press day was such an absurd idea from our perspective of where this movie was going to go. We probably weren't as concerned as we should have been. Our ambitions were so much smaller than the path the movie wound up being able to take.
LYT: Was it a long process to get all of the rights?
TK: Yeah, it was. We worked with an amazing clearance team, and obviously we had to make some cuts and changes and tweaks and so forth to make the film releasable, but at the end of the day I feel like what Rodney initially cut, and what's going to be on the screen, or on your home screen, is very true to Rodney's vision, so I feel very proud of how that worked out.