When researching his Napoleon screenplay, Stanley Kubrick took 25,000 index cards worth of notes

By herbertlui on February 2, 2020 — 2 mins read

Image: Design Museum on Twitter, GIF’ed by yours truly

“Here we see research flash cards mapping out the history of Napoleon and France month by month in 1807.”

The closest I’ve gotten to watching a Stanley Kubrick film is A.I.; the second closest is watching a trailer for Eyes Wide Shut, after Kanye West praised the filmmaker for his integrity and courage. But I saw a post on Reddit about Kubrick’s notes for Napoleon, and I wanted to learn more about it.

The wooden cabinet was first discovered at the Childwickbury Manor, which Kubrick bought in 1978. Author Jon Ronson describes the 18-bedroom house at The Guardian: “There are boxes everywhere – shelves of boxes in the stable block, rooms full of boxes in the main house. In the fields, where racehorses once stood and grazed, are half a dozen portable cabins, each packed with boxes. These are the boxes that contain the legendary Kubrick archive.” 

Image via: Indiewire

Sources vary on the timing of this research, but it likely happened before Kubrick bought the manor; it might have happened in as little as two years, sometime in the late 1960s (and possibly expanding into the 70s), Stanley Kubrick was doing research for a film on Napoleon. Part of this process involved Kubrick working with assistants (who also toured Europe) to produce a three-by-five inch index card for every day of Napoleon’s life, “with notes about his activities, even down to menu choices” or what Josephine was wearing at dinner.

(If Kubrick and his assistants could produce 35 cards per day on average, two years is not unfeasible. But given his other writing and directorial work for “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “A Clockwork Orange” during those years, I’d be surprised if it didn’t take longer.)

This cabinet is just one artifact from a much larger research process, for what some call the “greatest movie never made.” I’m sure this could be a genre of its own, I’ve heard of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune… And let’s not forget the Cruel Summer film.

The dedication that this process reveals is incredible. I’ve got a little commonplace book of my own; after a year, maybe I have around 500 cards in it. To assemble 25,000 index cards for a 3-hour epic feature film, before the Internet, and still make at least two other films during that process, is amazing. 

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