When Rodney Ascher set out to make his documentary Room 237, which breaks down the many obsessive fan theories about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Ascher wasn’t sure there was much of an audience for it. “I hoped we would play a festival or two and then show it in a small room for fifteen people sitting in folded metal chairs,” he says. But now, many festivals later, it’s finally hitting theaters, and Room 237 has even more people obsessed with, or re-obsessed with, Kubrick’s bewildering horror classic. Ascher sat down with Vulture to discuss the documentary and whether there might be similarly odd theories about Kubrick’s other films.
How did you decide on this subject, and where did you find these people?
Tim Kirk, who produced the film and who has been my partner from the beginning, e-mailed me this long online analysis that Jay Weidner had written about The Shining. A year or two before, I had shot The S from Hell — prodding people’s bizarre frightening reactions as kids when they saw the old Screen Gems logo on TV. Immediately, while I was reading this analysis, I realized that the secret meaning of The Shining was going to be the next project. Then the two of us went on a scavenger hunt to find as much stuff as we could. At the beginning, we thought that something of a comprehensive guide to all the allegorical readings of The Shining might be possible, but pretty soon we realized that this was a landscape that extended in every direction up to the horizon. So we concentrated on people whose theories had gotten the most traction or who would be conspicuous by their absence.
When we were actually talking to these guys, I got excited that it wasn’t just “The photograph means this, and the carpet means this … ” They had this personal, passionate engagement with the material. They — all five of them — used their personal experiences as a lens to look at The Shining. Also, what was a surprise, and which made me think this could be longer and more satisfying, was that toward the end they started to describe how watching The Shining and thinking about The Shining had changed their lives.
Do you think there is something about The Shining specifically that feeds this type of obsession?
The Shining seems to be the film that has created the greatest body of this sort of work. It’s also very convenient, because I love it. I mean, I was going to spend a year and a half analyzing the carpet patterns and looking at every shot a hundred times; there are a lot of movies that I wouldn’t have wanted to spend that much time in. But The Shining is also the work of a deeply admired artist with a reputation for being meticulous, for making things exactly his own way, coming from a singular point of view, doing more research than any other filmmaker. With a reputation, leading up to this, of masterpiece after masterpiece after masterpiece — so you’re getting to the place where … maybe infallible is overstating it, but he is an artist with an amazing reputation.
Did you find any similar “cults” around other Kubrick films?
2001 was the one that I expected to find, but I didn’t find that much new stuff about it. Actually, I was teaching an editing class as I was working on this film, and was very discouraged to find out that a lot of my students, who were really into The Shining, said things like, “2001 is so slow; those monkeys look fake.” But 2001 really demands a big screen; maybe as TVs get bigger and sound systems get more immersive, they’ll be able to appreciate it. But there also seems to be a rising tide around Eyes Wide Shut, which is interesting. People see a lot of the ceremonies and things in that film as rituals of the Illuminati, and they’re saying that Kubrick might have been walking into a dangerous space by revealing those secrets in his film. [Laughs.] There is also a lot of analysis of the geography of the city, and they compare it to the Overlook Hotel: If you map the exterior New York sets that he built in Eyes Wide Shut, there are these very bizarre relationships between where everything is, their relationship to each other. Tom Cruise actually takes a cab ride across the street at one point!
I’m curious about how you decided on your approach for Room 237. When I read the description in the Sundance catalogue, I immediately thought I knew what it was going to be like: Here’s the guy talking to the camera, here’s his friend talking to the camera about how weird he is, and then a shot of the guy’s bedroom, covered with Shining posters and whatnot. And there’s Philip Glass music playing or whatever. So when I saw the film, I was stunned by how you very much allowed these individuals to basically take over the narrative of the film. It’s like we’re stuck inside their heads.
That’s very much what we were trying to do: to make you see The Shining through these people’s eyes. Not to have a lot of extra distance. We wanted to present all these ideas as the most important thing — make it as important to the audience as it is to me and to the people that we are talking to.
In some ways, that puts the film more in the realm of experimental cinema and maybe makes it less commercial, so to speak, even though you’re obviously getting distribution.
It wasn’t as if this movie was financed by anybody, like, you know, “Showtime is planning on showing this in this slot, and we’re going to check in and make sure that what we are doing is appropriate.” It was just something that Tim and I were making in our free time, because we were really into it, and it was the style that I had worked on in The S from Hell, the short. I wanted to take that style further.
Did you have any contact with the Kubrick estate or any of his collaborators?
No, by design. When we were developing it, we asked ourselves, “What are the parameters of this project? What are we trying to do?” We wanted to make this very deep dive into a pretty narrow hole. This is not “The Making of The Shining.” This is not a biography of Stanley Kubrick. This is: After the film has left the filmmaker’s hands, how does the audience grapple with it and make sense of it? So we didn’t talk to production designers, we didn’t talk to [co-screenwriter] Diane Johnson or the Steadicam operator. I would love to see a five-hour-long movie about the making of The Shining with all those people. But I tried to do a documentary a few years ago about collectors, and the movie fell apart because the subject matter was so broad. I was paralyzed by choice. “How about a museum curator?” I was like “Oh … ” I kind of lost the thread. So restricting our focus really helped us get our heads around what we were trying to do.
Are there any other Shining theories you wish you could’ve included in the film?
Well, there are other people who have written some amazing things about The Shining that I would’ve loved to have included. I did include flashes that suggested that there was a ton of other stuff. Like when we are looking at Juli’s maps, I tried to pen over details that might send people off on their own little hunts. Stuff we did not have time to talk about. If you look at her map of the Gold Room, there’s a table that says, “Woman from Room 237.” Because she’s found the old woman sitting at one of the tables in the party scene! There were some amazing things that we didn’t put in the movie, but I am at peace with that.