March 4, 2013

Stanley Kubrick and I weren’t the only people who were sorry that he died. Stephen Spielberg has felt the loss keenly. A.I. was originally a Kubrick project, and after the legendary director gave up on the film, Spielberg worked closely with him to complete it. Now, more than a decade after Kubrick’s death, the two will be working together again.

Kubrick spent the late ’60s and early ’70s researching, writing, and trying his damnedest to film a sprawling biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte, and now Spielberg is planning to turn his icon’s unfinished work into a miniseries. But this project has languished for a long time, and even the man who made Lincoln may not be able to bring it back from the dead.

Rare among visionaries for actually making his epic dreams come true—consider 2001Spartacus and Barry Lyndon—with Napoleon, Kubrick reached higher than ever before. Over two years of intensive research, he employed dozens of assistants, eventually producing thousands of pages of notes and tens of thousand location stills—a treasure trove that was recently assembled in a very expensive, very pretty book. In a typically modest letter to his producers, he made the famous claim that, “It’s impossible to tell you what I’m going to do except to say that I expect to make the best movie ever made.”

To defray the cost of his cast of thousands, Kubrick planned to film his interiors in France and his battle sequences in Romania, breaking production up into thirds to allow for added planning time. His plan was to “shoot with available light” and “exploit the fully dressed interiors of the period which are readily available in France,” suggesting the movie might have had the dreamy look he later used to bring Barry Lyndon’s eighteenth century alive. His proposed budget was $4 million—impossibly low, considering that the comparatively simple 2001 cost over $10 million. Sensing madness, Hollywood finally pulled the plug.

It’s also possible that they read the script. Kubrick’s 1968 version of the script, which he later discarded, is available online for your reading pleasure. Its opening pages are heavy with clunky narration. I was forced to stop after this gem, a bit of voice over read from young Napoleon’s diary:

Life is a burden for me. Nothing gives me any pleasure; I find only sadness in everything around me. It is very difficult because the ways of those with whom I live, and probably always shall live, are as different from mine as moonlight is from sunlight.

This is not the script Spielberg will be working from, and I’m sure whatever we finally see of Napoleon—if it makes it through production at all—will feel more Spielbergy than Kubrickian. Knowing that historical accuracy can hamstring the creative process, Spielberg will probably have the good sense to set aside most of Kubrick’s thousands of pages of research. He won’t shoot with natural light, he won’t employ a cast of thousands, and the film will probably look more like Lincoln than Barry Lyndon. Spielberg will make it his own.

After more than four decades in production, Napoleon may finally start shooting. It probably won’t be the best movie ever made, but at least it will be a movie.

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