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  • Wick Fields

The Project

Updated: Apr 14, 2018

by Wick Fields


In 1958, after seeing Stanley Kubrick's "The Killing", Marlon Brando was so impressed with the young director that he hired him to develop a western. The pair rented a modest apartment in Hollywood where they were to grind out the script. The following is an imagination of that event.


Marlon Brando laid asleep on the couch, a copy of “Leaves of Grass” splayed across his chest until the phone rang. He finally rose on the third ring, passed a desk and a typewriter, crossed the den and picked up the receiver.

“Hello...?” he said tiredly into it.

“Hey Marlon, it’s Sam.”

“Yea, yea, Sam, thanks for calling me back. Listen, I just, um... I just called before to let you know that... well we’ve decided to go another way with the script.”

“What the hell does that mean?” asked Sam, his voice beginning to quake.

“Well you see, Stanley, he's got a very clear vision of this thing and he’s --”

“Not happy with my work.”

“Look, when I told you we were hiring Kubrick you knew this was a possibility. It's his project now,” decreed Brando, “and he wants to go in a different direction with it, that’s all.”

“Away from me.”

“... Like I said, he's got a --”

“Very clear vision, right, yea.”

“It’s by no means a reflection of your talent, Sam. You can’t take it personally."

“Mm...”

“Honestly,” stressed Brando.

“Yea well, thanks for letting me know,” said Sam dryly.

“It’s the least I could do.”

“Mm...” repeated Sam before hanging up. Brando released a sigh and walked back to the couch. Sitting, he regarded the chess board on the coffee table. “I’ve got you now, you grubby little savant,” he said seconds before Stanley Kubrick walked through the door.

“Ah, Stan! You’re timing is perfect. You're four moves from checkmate.”

Kubrick walked over and assessed the board. “You’re three.”

“Shit,” said Brando, realizing his error as Kubrick walked to the desk and picked up a piece of paper atop a stack of the same.

“We should open with a hanging,” announced Kubrick.

“A hanging? In the very first scene? What would that achieve?”

“Well for one, it draws the audience in immediately -- and you need that. You need to claim authority over them. If you don’t you risk --”

“Look, why don’t we just sit down, finish this game and look at it later with fresh eyes," appealed Brando.

“Later?” asked an annoyed Kubrick.

“You’re going to have to trust me on this.”

“Trust is a terrifyingly strong word.”

“Oh doubting, distrustful, dubious, Stan. Will you ever learn? I’m the one open eye in the land of the blind.”

“Christ we’re fucked.”

“Oh ye of little faith.“

“Indeed,” confirmed Kubrick.

Brando just grinned wryly. “I spoke to Sam, by the way.”

Kubrick looked up from the paper. “And...?”

“Well, he wasn’t exactly thrilled with the news, as you can imagine,” said Brando, his eyes fixed on the board.

“I’m familiar with the feeling.”

“You don’t feel, Stan. I’ve seen your movie, remember?”

“Just because I don’t parade my feelings up and down Sunset Boulevard like some drunken poet does not therefore conclude I don’t feel.”

“No, it’s just that your feelings are composed of tiny metal coils,” jested Brando.

“Let’s just say I can empathize with spending six months on a project only to see it crucified with the arch of an eyebrow.”

“How did I not see that?” pondered Brando, leaning closer to the board. “Double or nothing?” he asked, moving the pieces back.

“We didn’t bet.”

“Didn’t we?”

“No, we didn’t,” reiterated Kubrick.

“Really? I could have sworn --”

“There was no bet.” Kubrick waved the paper in the air. “Now can we please...? This thing isn’t going to rise up and write itself.”

“It would be better for me if it did.”

“Look, if we open with a hanging we establish a --”

“A fog that’s going to drift through every frame thereafter,” insisted Brando.

“And what’s wrong with that precisely?”

“Because we have to build to that, the plot has to continually up the stakes. It can’t just be a drifting fog.”

“Is that not what life is?”

“People go to pictures to escape the fog,” claimed Brando.

“I’d argue that people go to pictures to see others become lost in it,” countered Kubrick.

“Yes, but the audiences themselves don’t want to become lost. They want someone twenty feet high to do the footwork for them.”

“Sounds familiar,” said Kubrick, again waving the paper. “Minus fourteen and a half feet, of course.”

“Ah, nicely played, my friend, nicely played. Now I must concede to your demands. What be they?”

“My sole demand be that we work on this script.”

“This is excruciating, you know that?”

“You should try directing,” asserted Kubrick.

“I’m not a big enough asshole.”

“Don’t sell yourself short.”

“Touche,” commended Brando.

“You know, we could also open it wide in the desert. It’s more neutral than a hanging, but you still have that... arid desperation. Think about it, we begin with a sweeping shot that stops and holds on a lone figure, staggering in the far off, waves of heat undulating in the foreground. I mean I know it’s been done before but --”

“If you tie yourself to that stone you’ll sink straightaway. Everything’s been done before.”

“So you like the idea?” inquired Kubrick.

“I’m willing to negotiate.”

“I can work with that.”

“Just not right now. My faculties aren’t primed yet.”

“Of course not.”

“Do you think Shakespeare just sat down and slugged through if he wasn’t moved?” posed Brando.

“First of all, neither of us is Shakespeare. And yes, I think he just sat down and slugged through.”

An idea struck Brando. “We should get drunk -- writers get drunk.”

“Brilliant idea,” mocked Kubrick.

“You and I are constructed differently, Stan. I need time to... arrive.”

“And a drink would expedite this arrival?”

“Perhaps.”

“Who around here delivers?” inquired Kubrick.

“Greenblatz,” replied Brando.

“Do you know their number?”

“It should be in the book.”

Kubrick crossed to the receiver, pulled the phone book from beneath it.

“What are you in the mood for?” asked Kubrick after finding the number.

“Martini, extra olives.”

“Gin or vodka?”

“Vodka. Gin will have us on our knees.”

Kubrick picked up the receiver and dialed the number.

“Greenblatz. How may I help you?” said the pleasant voice through the phone.

“Yes, hi, hello. I’d like to place a delivery order please,” answered Kubrick.

“Certainly. What’s your address?”

“514 Gower, off Melrose.”

“Sure... what can I get you?”

“Yes, I’d like a quart of vodka, vermouth, olives -- extra olives actually.”

“Glasses and a shaker,” chimed in Brando.

“And two glasses and a shaker,” echoed Kubrick. “And some ice -- we need some ice.”

“And an egg salad sandwich on rye,” interjected Brando.

“And an egg salad sandwich on rye,” relayed Kubrick.

“Will there be anything else, sir?” asked the pleasant voice.

“No, that’s it.”

“Your total is going to be $17.25. It should be about half an hour.”

“Thank you,” concluded Kubrick before hanging up.

“Have a seat, Stan. Relax. We’re in no rush.”

You’re in no rush.”

“What does that mean?”

“You know full well what that means,” alleged Kubrick.

“I do?”

“You’re... who you are and I’m slugging through, as it were.”

“We all slug through, Stan.”

“Yes well, some of us have to slug a touch harder,” responded Kubrick as he noticed the book Brando had fallen asleep reading.

"Whitman?” asked Kubrick, seizing the book from the couch.

“The American Shakespeare.”

“’Leaves of Grass’... this is the one he kept adding to throughout his life, yea?” asked Kubrick, flipping through its pages.

“It is.”

“Is it any good?”

“It’s... instructive,” responded Brando. “Not that any of it amounted to a hill of mouse shit in the end.”

“His ashes would beg to differ.”

“Well do his ashes know how many people actually read it?”

“They’re unavailable for comment at present.”

“And you know this how?”

“Ashes can’t talk. They don’t have mouths.”

“That they do not,” Brando admitted. “Hell, if I’d had any courage whatsoever I’d have turned that into a movie. Not some godforsaken western,” he confessed, lapsing into some kind of reverie. “I had the whole planet’s gaze and I...”

Had?”

“I could have played Hamlet. I didn’t.”

“There’s still time.”

“No, there really isn’t,” said Brando flatly.

“What are you talking about? Olivier was nearly forty when he made his film version.”

“Olivier cared about such things.”

“You care,” said Kubrick.

“I do?”

“Enormously.”

“No Stan,” said Brando, snapping from his trance. “The only thing I truly care about is mating. Mating as frequently and with as many women as possible. Have you ever tried imagining your own death while coming?”

“No Marlon, I can safely say I haven’t.”

“You should try it. All the doom just melts away. Maybe I’ll build a temple to human ejaculations.”

“I’d like to see those schematics.”

“Of course you would,” said Brando, grinning again. “No, the only reason it may seem that I do in fact give a shit is because I grew accustom to a certain lifestyle, and I

lacked the moral courage to turn down money. This of course presented a conundrum, for one has to maintain an appearance of caring to receive said monies.”

“I wouldn’t know, I’ve never been offered that kind of money.”

“Oh come now. You directed a Kirk Douglas picture. He’s a big star and all that.”

“I directed a Kirk Douglas picture that didn’t earn a cent is what I did.”

“Well don’t worry, Stan, you’re going to make more money than you can count. Hey, I have an idea. Let’s play dominoes.”

“You realize drinking martinis and playing dominos would get you fired from every job in the known universe.”

“That’s why we don’t hold down jobs in the known universe.”

Kubrick laid the book aside. “What do you think of Calder Willingham?”

“I know that name.”

“He wrote ‘End As a Man’.”

“Was that the novel about the excessively cruel headmaster at the military school?”

“Yes,” confirmed Kubrick.

“I did like that one. Why?”

“Well, I was thinking maybe we could bring him on board, pick his brain.”

“We don’t need another party to pay. We can handle it.”

“What if I convince him to defer his salary until the film is in the black?”

“We’d still be paying him,” pointed out Brando.

“The script could greatly benefit from him. His dialogue is sharp. He’s --”

“Let me think about it.”

“It would make my job easier,” claimed Kubrick.

“I’ll strike a deal with you, if we find ourselves wondering in a literary wasteland in a month’s time, we’ll bring him on.”

“We’re not writers, Marlon.”

“Not by trade, no. But that doesn’t mean we’re incapable of it. I’ve read Shakespeare's entire body of work, I must have absorbed something.”

“Read being the operative word.”

“Speaking of -- have I ever told you the story behind ‘Hamlet’?” asked Brando.

“Not yet.”

“So Shakespeare was, by all accounts, a moderate success in his twenties. He’d had a few plays produced, things were going pretty well. But he hadn’t punched through yet. He wasn’t Shakespeare yet. Then when he was around the age of thirty, his son contracted the plague and died. Shakespeare was decimated, his suffering was ineffable. It was in everything he saw, tasted, touched, fucked. It was inescapable. So years pass -- three, maybe four -- and the grief is now in him -- in his skin and lungs and hair. But like all good organisms, he's adapted. He’s resumed writing by now, nothing of which he considers worth a damn. And then... then he comes across this story -- maybe he hears it in some pub, maybe he reads of it, who knows? It's the story of an aggrieved prince in Denmark, Halmet -- which is odd because his own son was named Hamnet... Shakespeare put the sorrow of his dead son in the son of a dead man.”

“Masterful,” said Kubrick, now genuinely rapt.

“And with that, he punched through.”

“Are you suggesting the universe isn’t simply chaos?”

“That we all don’t bellyflop into the abyss? That what you mean?” asked Brando.

“Sure.”

“That, Stan, is none of our business. How long’s it been, by the way?”

“How long has what been?”

“Since we ordered the alcohol.”

“It shouldn’t be too much longer,” said Kubrick stretching.

“You know your slovenly appearance belies your uncommonly organized mind. You’d have made a wonderful scientist.”

“I abhorred chemistry and physics equally in high school.”

“So did I. Truth be told, I hated school. That’s the real reason I became an actor.”

“I graduated 419 out of a class of 509.”

“Well done,” commended Brando. “I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of high school. The day I graduated, I took off for New York quicker than you can cross your fingers. I

often wonder what would have happened if I’d been more scholarly.”

“You’d have a lot less money,” noted Kubrick.

“Yes, but I’d have anonymity.”

“Would you trade it?”

“Whattaya got?”

“I don’t know... a normal life. Wife, kids, job with the city.”

“How much would this gig with the city pay?” queried Brando.

“How much did you make on your last picture?”

“Oh, half a million or so.”

“About 1/200 of that,” calculated Kubrick.

“See my quandary?”

“There are worse fates.”

“Money is a mirage, Stan. But we already knew that, didn’t we?”

“I suppose.”

“Yes, we knew,” affirmed Brando as he leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, and moaned. “Bearing the broad cross of time, I am.”

“That’s a gas. You’re what? Thirty-five?”

Brando simply grinned.

“Listen, why don’t we invite Calder over for martinis. We can pick his brain, it won’t cost a --”

“I’d rather not. I don’t think I can stomach a writer just now.”

“Stomach a writer?”

“You know how they are, they think they’ve got their fingers wrapped around the Grail. They don’t.”

“You’re fond of Tennessee Williams,” asserted Kubrick.

“I was, that’s true.”

Was? What happened? Was there a falling out?”

“He... went,” said Brando.

Kubrick’s brow furrowed. “Are you being deliberately vague or am I --”

“How old are you, Stan?” interrupted Brando. “Right now, at this precise moment.”

“Thirty-two.”

“Isn’t it grand being young?”

“I really think we should get to work, Marlon.”

“It’s a moot point.”

“... I’m sorry?”

“You don’t direct this one, I do.”

“... Am I being fired?”

“It’s not quite that easy,” said Brando as he opened his eyes and stared up. “I find it amusing I came here. You’d think I’d be on my island, a tender breeze rolling over my bones.”

“I don’t... an island?”

“You should have seen it. It was Heaven’s envy.”

Kubrick just stared at him, mystified.

“This falls through, Stan. But don’t fear, you go on to make a picture about a beautiful young girl, then one about the bomb.”

“The bomb?”

“And then... then you made the most wondrous film about outer space and I... I got lost on a boat.”

“A boat? I don’t...”

“You went in your sleep, Stan, just after you finished a picture about fucking. It was merciful.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Before the planes struck... before the flames,” continued Brando. “God the flames.”

Kubrick watched Brando’s breathing become labored.

“I wanted so badly to be at home,” said Brando, clearing his throat. “Instead I’m in some... impossibly white room.”

“Room?”

“There are people here... thin and whispering people.”

“What are they saying?”

“I can’t seem to... to make it out,” answered Brando, his breathing now strained. “We were here once, Stan... in this apartment. Do you remember?”

“Should I call someone?”

“I’d rather you just... read to me.”

“Read? Read what?”

“There’s a page... dog eared in the book... I’d like to hear that,” petitioned Brando.

Kubrick picked up the book from the couch, opened to the dog eared page. Brando drew in as much air as he could.

“’To a Historian’, by Walt Whitman,” read Kubrick.

“Yes, that’s the one.”

“You who celebrate bygones...!” continued Kubrick.

“To be or not to be: that is the question...” recited Brando with perfect feeling.

“Who have explored the outward, the surfaces of the races -- the life that exhibited itself...!” followed Kubrick.

“Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune...”

“Who have treated of man as the creature of politics, aggregates, rulers and priests...”

“Or to take up arms against a sea of troubles.”

“I, habitan of the Alleghanies, treating of him as he is in himself, in his own rights...” read Kubrick, his tone acquiring a sense of theatre.

“And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep. No more...” recited Brando, his frame shrinking.

“Pressing the pulse of the life that has seldom exhibited itself, (the great pride of man in himself)...”

“And by a sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation...”

“Chanter of Personality, outlining what is yet to be...”

“Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep; to sleep: perchance to dream...”

“I project the future!” roared Kubrick.

“Ay, there’s the rub,” mumbled Brando as he sank into his chair and perished.

“Marlon...?” Kubrick inched closer to the chair. “Did you come...? Marlon...? Marlon...?”


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