After we first saw Rodney Ascher's documentary Room 237 during its world premiere at Sundance back in January, two thoughts ran through our heads: 1) This movie is terrific; and 2) There's no way anyone else will be able to see it, right? A thoughtful, innovative and hugely entertaining dissertation about Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, narrated by a quintet of individuals with very particular (and peculiar) theories about this horror classic, Room 237 is made up entirely of clips from the original movie, which posed a variety of potential copyright and licensing issues. Fortunately, since its Sundance debut, Ascher has toured the world with his film, showing it a variety of prestigious festivals (including Cannes and Toronto) and even scored a distribution deal with IFC Films, which will release it in theaters in March of next year. Before then, Room 237 can still be seen at a few festivals, including the New York Film Festival this week and Chicago's film festival the week after. While in town for the movie's NYFF premiere, Ascher spoke with us about his own love for The Shining, why he considers himself a walking, talking Rotten Tomatoes and what Stephen King might make of Room 237.
TWoP: What was your own relationship to The Shining before you started making Room 237? Were you also an obsessive or was it just a film you enjoyed?
Rodney Ascher: I wasn't obsessed with it, but I liked it a lot and had probably seen it around 12 times. Kubrick's always been one of my favorite filmmakers and The Shining is an uncanny piece of work that sucks you in if you're just walking past a TV. If I didn't like the film so much, this project would probably not have come together, because it necessitated spending a year and a half trapped in The Shining. At the time I started, my ambitions were very modest, because I didn't know how many people I'd have to talk to about the film. But because I love The Shining, I'm still very happy to talk about it, even now that the film has been done for a while.
TWoP: The movie does feel somewhat like one of those short video essays that are increasingly popular online through sites like Press Play. Was that how it was conceived before you decided to turn it into a feature?
Ascher: I'm a big fan of a lot of online video essays, especially those 90-minute Star Wars reviews, which absolutely blew my mind. So I'm totally aware of and love those formats and know of precedents for what I was doing here, movies like Los Angeles Plays Itself and Rock Hudson's Home Movies. And I've worked on a number of short projects that are stylistically similar. I did a ten-minute documentary called The S From Hell about people who had childhood phobias of the Screen Gems [movie studio] logo. With that movie, I wanted to put the audience into the mind of a kid who has a phobia of the Screen Gems logo and treat that as a normal idea for a movie, taking it for granted that the logo is very scary and seeing if we couldn't get the audience to feel anxious and frightened every time that thing came up. So that was a running start for Room 237, in a way.
TWoP: Room 237 plays like the nexus between filmmaking and film criticism. Was making this movie your attempt to "write" your review of The Shining?
Ascher: In a way, I'm more like Rotten Tomatoes -- I'm aggregating different peoples' criticism. It was my job to be each person's advocate, to try and lobby on their behalf as best I could. I wanted to invite the viewer in, make it seem like you're in each person's head when you're watching the movie. The experiment of the movie is what happens when we see The Shining through different people's visions that aren't necessarily the same. Is one going to rise to the surface or is it going to be mutually assured destruction? Are we going to have a divided audience, with some people believing one vision and not the others?
TWoP: How did you conduct the interviews with the five subjects? Did you go in with specific, targeted questions or did you allow for a more free-form conversational approach?
Ascher: It was a little bit of both, but the open-ended general questions yielded the best responses. I had read up on these people and their thoughts about The Shining, so I did have a cheat sheet. More often than not though, when I would try to solicit a particular thought it would be a break in their stream of consciousness. Their response to direct questions wasn't as passionate and as personal as when they just kind of went off. The conversational quality of the interviews was much more interesting to me than if they were just delivering a dissertation they had written. Originally, I asked everyone to introduce themselves, so they'd say what their credentials were, but I just cut all that stuff out. There's an interesting effect that, when you're not constantly reminded of who these people are, the ideas have to stand on their own and fight with each other on the basis of their strengths, not necessarily what sources they come from.
Ascher: It was my mission to lobby for each person as strongly as possible, but I did want this movie to have humor in it. If we're going into an-hour-and-45-minute long exercise in semiotics from five different points of view -- some of which the audience might find unreliable -- it seemed important to have humor in there to let it go down. So some of the humor comes from the visual juxtapositions that we make, but there were also times where I'd lay down a scene to illustrate what someone was saying and something would line up in a way where it seemed to be commenting on the scene itself. And I would struggle with that, because I didn't want it to seem like I was making fun of these people but I also wanted to honor the synchronicity of the process. Because The Shining is filled with synchronicity and anyone who has ever edited a film knows that if you lay a random piece of music down over a sequence, things are going to line up in interesting ways. And you take advantage of that even if you didn't plan it out. I've reconciled myself to saying if the movie is being critical of these people at certain points, the voice that it's speaking through is the voice of a skeptic. But that doesn't mean that I'm the skeptic.
TWoP: It's also appropriate somehow that Room 237 is being released in an election year, since one compelling aspect of it is the way it shows how people twist narratives two suit their own visions of reality.
Ascher: Those are issues we considered and the movie made us think about. The political thing is interesting; I remember back when the Internet was first getting popular, I said "Politicians will be unable to lie again. Because someone will lie and a journalist will be able to say here's the fact -- you, sir, are a liar." But what's happening now is that there are too many facts! There are fact-checking organizations that work on behalf of different points of view. There's a great phrase that Alan Moore, the comic book writer, mentioned someplace: "Finding a needle in a haystack is hard, but what's much harder is finding a needle in a needle stack."
TWoP: Has the Kubrick estate seen the film and shared their thoughts about it with you?
Ascher: I can't talk a ton about that.
TWoP: Well, if not Kubrick, do you think you might be able to get Stephen King to weigh in on your movie? He's notoriously not a fan of the original film -- maybe Room 237 could change his mind?
Ascher: God only knows what Stephen King would make of this. [Laughs] But he is one of the people I'd be most interested to hear from, because you can kind of see this as a game of telephone that he started. So to get his two cents at this late stage would be kind of closing the circle. And certainly he's been thinking a lot about The Shining because he's working on a sequel. There's just one more piece of synchronicity surrounding The Shining and even Room 237.
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