‘Weegee and Kubrick’

‘Weegee: Autopsie du Spectacle, TEXTUEL (France), 2024

‘Weegee and Kubrick’ is an essay commissioned for the book accompanying the exhibition Weegee: Autopsie du Spectacle (Weegee: Autopsy of the Spectacle) curated by Clément Cheroux, presented at Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris, and Fundación MAPFRE, Madrid. French edition published by Textuel; Spanish edition by Fundació MAPFRE.  The essay considers the photographer Weegee’s time making photographs on the set of Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove.

 

Weegee and Kubrick

 by David Campany

Perhaps the last great body of work made by the photographer Weegee, and certainly one of his most intriguing, is the group of photographs he produced during the production of the movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb 1964, Stanley Kubrick’s nightmarish black comedy of Cold War paranoia and nuclear threat. ‘Weegee and Kubrick’ might seem an unlikely pairing but in many ways their collaboration was an inevitable and joyous outcome of their intertwined lives in photography and cinema.

The two men had crossed paths much earlier, in late 1940s New York. Weegee was still just about active in the city, while the precociously talented teenage Kubrick was devising and shooting ambitious photo stories, primarily for Lookmagazine. At that time, they both belonged – aesthetically and temperamentally, at least – to the common streets. Photography was prized for its immediacy and the possibility it offered to conjure striking and dramatic pictures from the tensions of the everyday. When Kubrick turned from photography to movie making, it was the low-life themes of film noir that first appealed to him. This was a genre that Weegee’s photography had already anticipated and in some instances, had influenced directly.

Always interested in new equipment and technical developments, Weegee had begun his own experiments with 16mm filmmaking as early as 1941. He moved to Hollywood in 1947, picking up acting and consulting work over the next decade or so, while continuing to shoot film and stills for his ‘Distortions’ series, which often featured well-known actors. In 1948 the title of Weegee’s hit photobook Naked City was acquired by producer Mark Hellinger for a film noir to be directed by Jules Dassin. Shot almost entirely on the streets of New York, this detective story of a murdered model could have come straight from the lurid pages of Weegee’s book.

The following year, 1949, Weegee made an on-screen appearance ringing the bell between rounds in The Set-Up, Robert Wise’s movie about a rigged boxing match. By coincidence, Kubrick has just published his last photo-story, ‘Prizefighter’, about the boxer Walter Cartier preparing for a match.[i] Cartier then became the subject of Kubrick’s first film, the short documentary The Day of the Fight, 1951.

In 1953 Weegee published his book Naked Hollywood, his comic take on the rougher aspects of the town and its industry, but opportunities soon dried up for him there. He came to Europe, taking small parts in movies in the early 1960s, before playing a comically exaggerated version himself in the low-budget pseudo-documentary The Imp-Probable Mr. Weegee(shot in 1962, released in 1966). In this bizarrely disjointed and truly awful slapstick film, Mr. Weegee falls in love with a shop window dummy, and chases other women around Paris. Luckily, salvation came in the last weeks of filming, when he received the invitation to join Kubrick in preproduction at Shepperton Studios, on the outskirts of southwest London. Weegee sold his trademark hat and coat to Sherman Price, director of The Imp-Probable Mr. Weegee, so that filming could continue with a stand-in. He then headed to England. The switch from working on one of the worst movies ever to one of the very best is itself pure Weegee. He was a man whose whole life seemed to depend not just upon chance but upon the friction between low culture and high art.

But what exactly did Kubrick want from Weegee?  Nothing exact, it seems. Weegee was not required to be one of the official production photographers. Two of these had been hired already, Dimitri Kasterine and Bob Penn, with additional images to be taken by Nicolas Tikhomiroff. In general, their brief was to replicate in stills the crisply elegant black and white vision established for Dr. Strangelove by Kubrick with the cinematographer, Gilbert Taylor. Instead, Weegee was free to shoot what he wanted, roaming the sets at Shepperton, and on location. Kubrick loved the stark flash light in Weegee’s celebrated photographs and requested he shoot that way when possible. In other words, he wanted ‘Weegee’ photographs of this ‘Kubrick’ movie. Weegee was initially hired for a month but stayed for seven weeks as filming stretched out, as it tended to do on Kubrick productions. Weegee would receive £750 for his services as a ‘technical advisor’.

In the complexity of a film shoot, Weegee’s wandering, autonomous presence was a reminder not just of his and Kubrick’s shared roots in photography but of the singular determination an artist must have in the midst of creative collaboration. Moreover, Weegee, like Kubrick, was a self-made maverick, a pioneer who had done extraordinary work on his own terms. Kubrick seemed to enjoy the idea that this energetic but elderly man of 64 years, who he admired deeply, had been invited to be so free. So, it is significant that among the photos Weegee made there are several of Kubrick seen hunched over or laying down as he struggles alone to find the exact angle from which to shoot a scene. Weegee made far fewer images of Kubrick ‘directing’ or even interacting with others. Perhaps he still saw in Kubrick not the consummate director of big budget films but the kid photographer he had first met in the 1940s.

Weegee, ‘Stanley Kubrick directing his film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’, 1963.  © International Center of Photography, Bequest of Wilma Wilcox, 1993. ICP Accession No. 7489.1993

Weegee’s most striking photographs were made on the War Room set, where much of the drama of Dr. Strangelove takes place. Visionary production designer Ken Adam’s expressionist, windowless interior was all dark gloss surfaces and angled walls, with a huge circular table illuminated from above, like a poker room. Since there were no public images of the US government’s real Pentagon War Room, Ken Adam was free to imagine it (just as he imagined the unseen interior of Fort Knox for the James Bond Goldfinger, also released in 1964).  Pre-eminently a photographer of the night, Weegee was perfectly at home in the darkened space. He could use his flash or the production’s bright lights to pick out his subjects just as he had done in the treacly midnights of 1930s and 40s New York.  His portrait of Peter Bull, playing Russian Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky, looks as if it could have been taken in the crowd at a Manhattan theatre première.

Weegee, ‘Peter Bull as Russian Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky on the set of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’, 1963. © International Center of Photography, Bequest of Wilma Wilcox, 1993. ICP Accession No. 7553.1993

The British actor Peter Sellers was tasked with playing three key roles in the film: US President Merkin Muffley, Captain Lionel Mandrake of the British Royal Air Force, and the eerie Dr. Strangelove – a former Nazi who has become the President’s chief scientific advisor. Sellers was also a keen amateur filmmaker, shooting many home movies as well as photographs. He and Weegee struck up an endearing friendship on set. Sellers had an extraordinary ability to absorb and mimic accents, and became fascinated with Weegee’s way of talking, which was a gruff but sweet cocktail of eastern European consonants and streetwise New York vowels. Sellers needed very distinct accents for each of his parts. His impression of Weegee became the basis of his voicing for Dr. Strangelove. On a TV chat show shortly after filming, Sellers recalled:

I was stuck, you see, because I didn’t want to do sort of a normal English broken German accent thing, so on the set was a little photographer from New York, a very cute little fellow called Weegee. You must have heard of him. And he had a little voice […] And I got an idea […] I put a German accent on top of that, and I suddenly got […] him into Dr. Strangelove. So really, it’s Weegee. I don’t know if he knows it.[ii]

Weegee and Sellers were even recorded in conversation by the BBC. This is an extract:

Sellers: Tell me, there’s something I wanted to ask. What is your purpose on this visit to the studios of Shepperton on Dr. Strangelove? I noticed you’re taking photographs on the set.

Weegee: This is very interesting. Kubrick, I knew about twenty years ago. He was a boy. He was a kid photographer. Very good […] And Stanley says to me, “Look, all the photographers nowadays, they’re using available light and so forth.” He doesn’t quite like it. He’s a nut on sharp pictures. He says, “Weegee, when you made pictures for Naked City, they were very crude. You had the flash bulb right on the camera. [. . .] If you took pictures like this nowadays they’d laugh at you. But I want it like that.” So you’ll notice I’m the only one that makes flash pictures. I don’t have to actually. But I do it to make Stanley happy (laughs).

Sellers: He seems very happy with your work.

Weegee: As long as he pays for the bulbs (laughs).

Sellers: No, he’s very happy with it. Tell me, what do you think of Kubrick as a director?

Weegee: Very good. As a matter of fact, one of the real great pictures he made was Paths of Glory.

Sellers: That’s right.

Weegee: I mean this, have you seen it? I think it’s wonderful.

Sellers: It’s one of the first I ever saw.

Weegee: Then he did Lolita, of course.

Sellers: And The Killing was a great film.

Weegee: Yeah, I saw it. So, I think he will be the most talked about director. He’s the easiest going guy, he knows what he wants.[iii]

For Kubrick, Weegee and his work were an honest and important reminder that photography, whether still or moving, becomes stale and lifeless if it is denied the spontaneity that it is so well suited to capturing. Kubrick was at a place in his career where he was being granted complete control of his filmmaking, but he understood that a completely controlled film can be tedious both to make and to watch. While he was becoming known for his supreme mastery of framing, timing, camera movement, vantage point, cinematography and so forth, he knew that human behaviour, with its unpredictable beauty and wild energy, is vital. Kubrick always left plenty of space of improvisation and the unexpected. Think of Jack Nicholson’s volatile behaviour as the haunted writer Jack Torrance in The Shining 1980; or R. Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman with his impromptu foul-mothed berating of the new army recruits in Full Metal Jacket 1987; or the sudden switches to a shaky handheld camera in the otherwise stately Barry Lyndon 1975. There are always moments in Kubrick’s films that feel like verité documentary, with the camera ready to record whatever happens. Sometimes what happened would prompt swift rewrites of the script and even changes in narrative direction. If an artist is not alive to chance, their art will die. Weegee’s best photography had always been reactive, capturing scenes and gestures over which he had little control. His only planning came from experience, and his uncanny ability to be ready when things suddenly got interesting. This is what Weegee embodied for Kubrick.

Unidentified Photographer, Weegee getting hit in the face with a cream pie on the set of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1963. Collection International Center of Photography. Bequest of Wilma Wilcox, 1993. ICP Accession No. 7536.1993
Weegee, Cream pie fight in the War Room on the set of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1963 © International Center of Photography. Bequest of Wilma Wilcox, 1993. ICP Accession No. 7520.1993

 

Unidentified Photographer, Weegee and Peter Sellers after the famous pie scene on the set of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1963. Bequest of Wilma Wilcox, 1993. ICP Accession No. 2216.1993

 

The most celebrated photographs Weegee made on set are of Dr. Strangelove’s most spontaneous scene. Kubrick had intended his film to end with an epic custard pie fight in the War Room. As tensions increase, the imminent and terrifying threat of planetary nuclear annihilation panics the politicians and military men into childish antics. The fight is not with the Russian ambassador, who sneakily tries to photograph the US plans on the War Room’s huge screens, but between the different branches of the American military. Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force.

With over three thousand custard pies, it was a spectacular eleven-minute sequence. Trashing the pristine War Room set, it could be performed only once, without clean-ups. The white of the pies splatters over the men’s dark suits and the slick black interior, until everyone and the whole floor is all but covered in the sticky mess.  Characters go wild, climbing on the furniture and swinging from the lights. The circular table is piled up with pie cream. Dr. Strangelove pulls out a pistol and gestures to shoot himself but fires it in the air. The gunshot brings the room to a silent tableau… “Ve must stop zis childish game! Zere is werk to do!” he shouts. Sitting on the floor, men begin to mound up the cream like sandcastles. Strangelove declares: “I zink zeir minds must have snapped from ze strain.”

The movie was edited in November 1963, around the time President Kennedy was assassinated. When Peter Sellers’s President receives a pie full in the face, a character shouts: “The President has been struck down in his prime!” The line was too close to reality. Kubrick also felt the tone of the actors had been overly comic. Many were in fact smiling and laughing in the fun of it all. The whole scene was cut from the final film. Instead, Dr. Stangelove concludes with the equally iconic shot of the actor Slim Pickens hollering while riding a nuclear warhead like a rodeo cowboy as it is dropped from a military airplane, followed by a war room conversation about post-nuclear survival. It then cuts to archive footage of atomic bomb explosions. The custard pie scene does exist, but it has been screened in public just once, at the British Film Institute in London during a posthumous Kubrick retrospective. While it might be disappointing that the scene did not make it into the film, this has made Weegee’s photographs all the more compelling and significant.

Fulfilling his contract, Weegee delivered around one hundred prints, which are now in the Stanley Kubrick Archive in London.[iv] A further seventy-one prints that he made for himself are part of the substantial Weegee Archive in the collection of the International Center of Photography, New York. Although these images are valuable documents of the genesis of Kubrick’s film, they are also supremely ‘Weegee’ photographs, full of crazy incident, unexpected tenderness, black humour and strange beauty.

[i] Stanley Kubrick, ‘Prizefighter’ Look magazine, January 18, 1949.

[ii] Peter Sellers, The Steve Allen Show, Los Angeles, April 1964 (week unknown). www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yWn_8SUWtg. Accessed July 20, 2023.

[iii] ‘Conversation between Weegee and Peter Sellers on the Set of Dr. Strangelove’, excerpt from BBC recording at Shepperton Studios, England, Spring 1963, as published in John O’Brian, ed., Strangelove’s Weegee (exhibition catalogue), Presentation House Gallery, Vancouver, Canada, 2013

[iv] Stanley Kubrick Archive, University Archives and Special Collections Centre, University of the Arts, London, SK/11/10/1/5, Box 9.

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