It’s hard to imagine two more influential figures than film director Stanley Kubrick and designer Saul Bass. Kubrick, who would have turned 87 next Sunday, set the standard for several genres: biting political satire (Dr. Strangelove), science fiction (2001: A Space Odyssey), sweeping epics (Barry Lyndon), unsentimental war films (Full Metal Jacket), and horror (The Shining), among others. His auteur approach to filmmaking—the triple threat of directing, writing, and cinematography—has left its mark on generations to come. Likewise designer Saul Bass, whose film posters and movie titles set a new standard, most notably those he made for directors Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo, Psycho) and Otto Preminger (Anatomy of a Murder). One might expect a Bass x Kubrick collaboration to be equally epic, but in this case it was the behind-the-scenes drama that took center stage.
It’s surprising that they didn’t get along better, since they had much in common. Both were Jewish boys born in the Bronx around the same time, Bass in 1920 and Kubrick in 1928. Both were masters of their disciplines and recognized as such.
The two first collaborated in 1960 on the film Spartacus. Working with his soon-to-be-wife Elaine, Bass created both the film’s titles and storyboarded key scenes. But it would be almost another 20 before they worked together again, when Kubrick hired Bass to create the poster for his adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Shining. As evidenced in his letter from September, 1978, Bass cheerily submitted five designs, all done in an uncharacteristic stipple technique. “I am excited about all of them, and I give you many reasons why I think they would be strong identifiers for the film.” Signing it with a humorous self-portrait as a bass fish, one can only guess Bass assumed this was a done deal.
Kubrick, however, wasn’t amused. On the sketches themselves (which were later discovered in his personal affects) he wrote “Looks like science fiction,” and “Hand and bike are too irrelevant. Title looks small, looks like the ink didn’t take on the part that goes light,” and “Maze too abstract and too much emphasis on maze,” and, the most scathing of all, “Don’t like artwork.” Ouch. Let’s see that last one again for full effect:
“Don’t like artwork.”
In his response letter Kubrick wrote, “Dear Saul… my reactions to the ones you sent is that they are beautifully done but I don’t think any of them are right.”
More discussion followed, and when Bass sent his correspondence the next month they had agreed upon an illustrative approach of a large head peering through the title, perhaps a nod to the iconic “Here’s Johnny” scene. Bass’ stipple technique remained in place. As Kubrick instructed, the final two-color poster evokes both “terror” and the “supernatural.”
Kubrick seemingly had an easier time with illustrator Philip Castle who created posters for Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket. Ironically, when Kubrick contacted Castle regarding Full Metal Jacket he asked if he “knew anyone who could do a painting like Saul Bass.”