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From Kubrick to Spielberg: The Story of ‘A.I.’

Twenty years ago, Steven Spielberg released his dystopian sci-fi film about a humanoid robot searching for humanity—but its inception began long before that, in the mind of a different Hollywood legend

Amy Matsushita-Beal

In 2001, a year Stanley Kubrick made famous with his sci-fi masterpiece of the same name, Steven Spielberg went on an odyssey of his own—one both deeply personal and deeply committed to someone else’s vision. “He tried to direct a Kubrick film,” says producer Bonnie Curtis. “I would jokingly call him ‘Steveley Kuberg’ during it, because the material itself is just a crash of the two of them. I mean, it’s a twisted Spielberg movie, or it’s a loving Kubrick film.”

When A.I. Artificial Intelligence came out on June 29, 2001, that strange creative “crash” baffled audiences and divided critics. Expecting something like E.T. II, Spielberg fans were instead met by sex robots, an android holocaust, and the bleakest boyhood story line in the director’s career, in which the “boy” is abandoned by his “mother” and cursed to roam the earth for 2,000 years, trying desperately to win her love. The film earned $236 million worldwide, which sounds respectable until you realize it’s the 19th-highest-grossing film that Spielberg’s directed.

In one of the positive reviews, The New York Times’ A.O. Scott called it “the best fairy tale—the most disturbing, complex, and intellectually challenging boy’s adventure story—Mr. Spielberg has made. ... [He] seems to be attempting the improbable feat of melding Kubrick’s chilly, analytical style with his own warmer, needier sensibility.” On the flip side, Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote thatA.I. exhibits all its creators’ bad traits and none of the good. So we end up with the structureless, meandering, slow-motion endlessness of Kubrick combined with the fuzzy, cuddly mindlessness of Spielberg. It’s a coupling from hell.”

Spielberg’s eyes were wide open to the fact that a film originally conceptualized by Kubrick but completed by him would confuse people, Curtis says. But she also remembers him saying, “I don’t care what anyone ever says: I just made a good movie.” Twenty years of hindsight have proved the director right, and fans of both directors have come to appreciate just how deeply devoted Spielberg was to his friend’s long-gestating, obsessive vision for the film.

“I remember [Spielberg] described the movie as mostly being about your responsibility to intelligence,” says Haley Joel Osment, who carried the film as the robot boy David. “Steven and Stanley, when they brought love into the equation—it’s not really a sentimental thing. It’s this really important philosophical thing: What’s your responsibility to that?”

The story behind A.I. actually goes back 50 years—a Kubrickian labyrinth of endless deliberation, false starts and creative casualties, and ultimately the posthumous lovechild of this very unusual marriage. When you cut A.I. open, you find cold Kubrick machinery underneath warm Spielberg skin ... but it was never as “warm” as you might remember.

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Kubrick had a habit of chewing on a possible movie for years and years before committing. He also had a habit of driving writers up a wall. No less than five writers entered his orbit to try to come up with a workable screenplay for A.I. The original seed was Brian Aldiss’s short story, “Supertoys Last All Summer Long,” published the year after Kubrick made 2001: A Space Odyssey. The story’s futuristic world is overpopulated, and a woman named Monica fills her childless void with an advanced robot boy named David and his talking teddy bear. “It meant a great deal to him,” Aldiss told The New York Times in 1999. “There was something in there about the little boy’s inability to please his mother that touched Stanley’s heart.”

“The idea that AI could be developed to such an extent was total fairy tale 30 years ago, as it is today,” says Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s brother-in-law and longtime producer, in an email. I asked Harlan why he thought Kubrick became so obsessed with this story. “‘Obsessed’ is the wrong word,” he says. “‘In loving search for a story worth telling on the screen’ is better.”

Kubrick began discussing various movie ideas with Aldiss, but the notion of adapting “Supertoys” was truly kindled in 1977 after Kubrick saw Star Wars—which he didn’t like, but through which he recognized the commercial value of the genre. “What sort of [sci-fi] movie could I make that would make as much money as Star Wars yet allow me to retain my reputation for social integrity?” he asked Aldiss. But then came The Shining. Then Full Metal Jacket. More and more time elapsed between Kubrick projects as he perseverated on various what-if films, including a Napoleon epic and an adaptation of the novel Wartime Lies about a Jewish boy who narrowly escapes the Holocaust.

A.I. never stopped haunting him, though. When E.T. came out in 1982, Kubrick dusted the story off and told Aldiss he wanted his prospective adaptation to be “sentimental, dreamlike—a fable.” He struck up his unlikely friendship with Spielberg around this time, too, in part because he felt A.I. was in Spielberg’s wheelhouse. He first shared his basic narrative for “Supertoys” with Spielberg in 1984, and Spielberg (according to his interview in the 2001 documentary feature on the A.I. DVD) told him: “This is the best story you’ve ever had to tell.”

Aldiss was the first of many writers who went through hell trying to navigate Kubrick’s enigmatic personality and realize his slippery, mercurial vision for the film. He was the first of many to be routinely summoned by chauffeur to the director’s country estate in Hertfordshire, England, for hours-long conversations. Already Kubrick was describing the story as a Pinocchio allegory, even including a Blue Fairy. Their discussions eventually fizzled, but in 1988 Kubrick read Mind Children—a book by robotics professor Hans Moravec about artificial intelligence—and he enlisted Aldiss once again, wanting to lean into the latest theories on A.I. with a story set in a post–global warming future. (Kubrick even convinced Moravec to send him advance chapters of his follow-up book.) “Kubrick wanted David to be kicked out into what we referred to as Tin City,” Aldiss said, “describing a sort of skid row for old robots where they were worked as slaves until they fell apart. But Kubrick abruptly dropped the idea one day, and that was that.”

That was that for Aldiss, too—the first of many writers to be suddenly, inexplicably discarded. Around 1990, Kubrick hired Northern Irish author Bob Shaw as well as Ian Watson—though he never told any of the writers about each other. Watson, who ended up with the “screen story” credit on the final film, was told that the plotline had gotten bogged down, that Aldiss was fired for faxing “banal crap,” and that Shaw survived only six weeks. “Stanley did not wish me to see any of my predecessors’ material apart from the seed-story,” Watson recounted in his entertaining postmortem essay for The New York Review of Science Fiction in 2000. “Instead he wanted me to write an original 12,000-word story, doing whatever I liked with the Aldiss tale and the main ideas to date.” After submitting a lengthy draft that Kubrick instantly trashed, Watson was put on a weekly retainer, and “for eight more months from May 1990 till January 1991 I was to be Stanley Kubrick’s mind-slave, writing scenes in the morning to fax around noon for lengthy discussion by phone in the evening, or being collected ... to arrive in time for lunch and an afternoon of mental gymnastics with Stanley.”

Among other elements, Watson came up with the male pleasure robot companion on David’s odyssey—“I guess we lost the kiddie market,” Kubrick responded, “but what the hell”—as a rough outline was taking shape of a boy robot who’s been programmed to love, is abandoned by his “parents” after their biological child recovers from a coma, and goes on a journey to a submerged New York City where he prays to the Blue Fairy and then wakes up 2,000 years later. But after countless conversations and abandoned drafts, Kubrick also cut Watson loose.

“Stanley did tend to use people and drain them in the process, and this could ruffle egos after the initial flush of excitement,” Watson wrote. “As a supreme and obsessive auteur, why shouldn’t he?”

Kubrick even asked Arthur C. Clarke, screenwriter of 2001: A Space Odyssey, to take a stab. Clarke wrote a treatment in 1992, which was “rejected instantly!” as he told The New York Times. Kubrick “hated it and asked me to tear it up.” But the director was also seemingly getting more serious about actually making it. In November 1993, Warner Bros. officially announced A.I. as his next film. He had seen the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, and felt the technology had finally caught up to his story. All throughout this time he was talking to Spielberg on a regular basis—which Bonnie Curtis had a front-row seat to, having started out as Spielberg’s assistant during the days of Hook.

“Stanley was unique in every way,” Curtis says over Zoom, “but in his phone etiquette he was very unique. Because he would call, and he wouldn’t want Steven to call him back—he would just want to hold until Steven was available. I never thought of him as being obnoxious or anything. It would just be: ‘Well, how long do you think he’ll be in that meeting?’ ‘You know, Stanley, I don’t know—probably another 20 minutes?’ ‘OK, I’ll just wait.’ Steven adored Stanley, and Steven would often say, ‘Why don’t you let Stanley and me schedule a time to talk this weekend?’ Because they never had a short conversation.”

Curtis says the two filmmakers spoke once every few weeks, and “I suspect a lot of those lengthy conversations they were having were about A.I.” Eventually they installed a fax machine inside a closet in Spielberg’s house, because “Stanley didn’t want it to go through the office,” says Curtis. It was a constant back-and-forth about who would direct this movie, but “Stanley never really had a huge commercial success, and he saw this movie as that possibility for him. And I think he thought, who better to help him do that than Steven?” It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the verdict came in, but Harlan insists that Kubrick “truly believed Steven would be the better director for this film—and I think he was right.”

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On one of his visits to England around 1994, Spielberg left a short story collection by Sara Maitland, a novelist who specializes in myth and religion, on his bedside table. Kubrick read it and tracked down the reclusive author. “I answered the phone and somebody said, ‘This is Stanley Kubrick. Do you want to write a film for me?’” Maitland says. “I said, ‘This is Marilyn Monroe, and I’ve been dead for 25 years.’ I just thought it was some friend of mine being an idiot. And that’s how we started. He didn’t mind.”

Maitland’s arduous adventure over the following year echoed the experiences of the writers before her. Kubrick enlisted her, she says, because he wanted this story to be mythic and cosmic. “It wasn’t really fairy stories that interested him, but mythic stories,” she says, explaining that “proper myth has to have a higher end. It has to be explanatory of something.” So what was the A.I. myth going to be about? “I don’t think he knew the answer to that question,” Maitland says. “But he wanted that flavor to it.”

Maitland had never seen any of Kubrick’s films, and admits she doesn’t think in cinematic terms. Their working relationship was tense, to put it lightly. “The best way of describing it is, he got very angry and said I wasn’t bringing what he wanted to his story. And I said, ‘That is because you never leave me alone! If you want me to write the sort of stories that you seem to like, you have to let me write it. Let’s not talk for a month.’ And he said, ‘I couldn’t.’” In the end, the two agreed to leave each other alone for a week. By the time Maitland got back to her home two hours later, there were three messages from Kubrick waiting for her.

Kubrick showed Maitland images of an underwater Manhattan and other drawings by local artist Chris Baker, a.k.a. Fangorn, who created reams of concept art that would greatly inform Spielberg’s film. (He also hired British effects artist Chris Cunningham to design David. “I spent the entire year just developing this one robot head,” Cunningham said in 1999.) “One of the things that was difficult between us was that I thought he did not understand the mother-child narrative,” Maitland says. “He absolutely adored small children. There was something about the being of childness that completely intrigued him.”

In the Maitland-Kubrick story, Monica was an alcoholic and David made her Bloody Marys (as opposed to Spielberg’s coffee motif). When David is awakened from the two-millennium slumber and the advanced robots recreate his old home from his stored memories, Maitland’s ending had David mixing a Bloody Mary for Monica. “He hears her voice, and that’s it. We don’t see him turn to see her,” she recounted in 1999. But Kubrick insisted the robots could resurrect Monica for only one day, and the film would end with David watching her slowly disappear. “It must have been a very strong visual thing for him,” said Maitland, who hated the idea, “because he wasn’t usually stupid about story. He hired me because I knew about fairy stories, but would not listen when I told him, ‘You can have a failed quest, but you can’t have an achieved quest and no reward.’”

In 1995, as with all of the others, Maitland’s time came to an abrupt end. When I ask what she felt her unique contributions to A.I. were, she replies, “A timeless story-ness that’s located in a very particular time. That’s what he wanted.” Whatever other details she added to this forever fermenting “mother” story, we’ll never know—Kubrick made her wipe every remnant of A.I. from her computer when they stopped working together. “There was something about him that was both irresistible and infuriating,” she says.

Kubrick set A.I. aside again in 1995. “He realized that ‘this is too much,’” says Harlan—“too much special effects, too many crews involved, too much hassle to hurry since the boy will change.” Eyes Wide Shut became another all-consuming obsession for Kubrick, a seemingly endless shoot in a backlot-Manhattan hellscape illuminated by Christmas lights. And then, on March 7, 1999, just after completing the film, Kubrick died of a heart attack.

At the time, Spielberg was prepping another dystopian future story, Minority Report, when its star Tom Cruise—who was also the lead of Kubrick’s final film—suddenly told Spielberg he needed to push the movie back because Mission: Impossible 2 was going overschedule. “It was right around then that Kubrick died,” says Curtis. “And Steven just knew. He just believed the signs.” Spielberg had spoken at Kubrick’s funeral. Now, he decided, he would take up the mantle of A.I.

Amid the prolific piles of research, artwork, and discarded drafts that Kubrick had accumulated was a 90-page treatment for the movie. Spielberg felt that, rather than hiring yet another screenwriter to take a swing at A.I., he could preserve his friend’s “ideals” by just writing it himself—making it the first screenplay he wrote solo since Close Encounters. But it also “was all about the clock,” says Curtis. “He knew that if we were going to get this thing made in the window between now and Minority Report when Tom Cruise was available, that he was just going to cut through it. ... Steven locked himself in a room for a couple of weeks and wrote the script.”

The late Stan Winston made the pitch that he could build a realistic robot/puppet version of David. Spielberg was game to pursue it, Curtis says, because “Stan Winston, who pulled off dinosaurs for you, comes and sits down and says, ‘Let’s try’? So we tried.” But it didn’t go any further than sketches, because Spielberg was simultaneously looking at actors—namely Haley Joel Osment. Osment had just given a stunning, Oscar-nominated performance in The Sixth Sense, displaying an unusual naturalism and remarkable range as a boy haunted by ghosts. Spielberg hired the 11-year-old actor in late 1999. “I remember reading the script for the first time,” Osment says, “thinking for the first time ever in my life about the death of humanity.”

Spielberg found several organic ways to make David more mechanical, especially in the film’s first act: choreographing slightly unnatural, repetitive movements, airbrushing Osment with a very slight sheen in makeup, and shaving any fuzz off his skin. (“I luckily wasn’t at the age where waxing would have been necessary,” Osment says with a laugh.) It was the actor and his father, Eugene, who came up with the idea of David never blinking. “When we did the underwater stuff, it was important to make sure that that was maintained,” Osment says. “I don’t think they had to cheat with editing, except for a couple times, to maintain that little bit of unreality.”

Winston’s company did create a bunch of robots—the most advanced also being the smallest. “Teddy had more moving parts in him than the T-rex from Jurassic Park,” says Lindsay MacGowan, the effects supervisor who oversaw the teddy bear that serves as David’s Jiminy Cricket. “I remember hearing that he was a million-dollar puppet,” says Osment. “He weighed like 30 pounds.”

There were many Teddys, in fact: the puppet had at least six heads and various rigs that were all interchangeable. (For certain action shots, the character was done in CGI.) Teddy’s design was intentionally “something that looked kind of old, and you had a good feeling as soon as you saw him,” says MacGowan, “but yet you still had the sort of curmudgeonly voice.” The only direction veteran voice actor Jack Angel received for Teddy was: “We want a voice like Eeyore, but not stupid.” Angel recorded his lines before production, but Spielberg also paid to have him on set for the entire shoot so he could ad-lib with Osment. “Voice-over, you go into a studio and record your lines and go away. And whatever happens to them happens,” says Angel. “But in this instance I was part of the company.”

Spielberg wanted to populate the film with multiple generations of mecha (the film’s term for robots), in various states of decay and maintenance. “I remember Steven actually mentioning that, if you were to go to any place in the world, you would see different cars from different time periods on the road,” says MacGowan, “so the mecha should be the same thing.” David was the newest, most lifelike model—right off the showroom floor. Gigolo Joe, David’s pleasure-bot companion, was conceived as being a prior model, so Jude Law employed more finely controlled, balletic movement and required more elaborate makeup, including an appliance that gave him a plasticky, pronounced jawline. The robots they encounter at the Flesh Fair range from the most rusty and primitive to newer mecha with severe damage. Several actors who were amputees got fitted with robot prosthetics, “so that when they’re destroyed, à la monster truck rally, they could actually tear limbs off on camera,” says J. Alan Scott, who managed all things Mecha and has a small role as the worker who carries Teddy through the Flesh Fair in a long tracking shot. “Because so many of the gags are like magic tricks, a lot of the puppeteers would become Flesh Fair operators,” Scott says, “and they’d be secretly puppeteering things right in front of camera.”

Spielberg referenced a lot of the art Baker created for Kubrick, including the erotic architecture of Rouge City, where Joe takes David to ask “Dr. Know” (a hologram voiced by Robin Williams) how to find the Blue Fairy. The floor level was built on soundstages at Warner Bros., and the rest of the busy, neon skyline was created by VFX artist Dennis Muren and a team at Industrial Light & Magic. At one point, Spielberg considered shooting a full musical number when David and Joe arrive at Rouge City (“Steven is always trying to figure out how to do a musical number,” says Curtis). To aid him in that, Muren devised a pre-visualization system—well before that became the norm on FX-heavy films—which allowed Spielberg to see a crude layout of Rouge City in his monitor as the actors would sing and dance through the stage.

That was one of several scenes dropped for the sake of cost or time. Scott remembers discussing an elaborate sequence of David and Joe hitchhiking and encountering another robot animal, with the city glowing behind them. But Spielberg the producer had an innate sense of what they could and couldn’t afford, and he went back into the screenplay to change the scene so that it was just the two mecha walking alone in a forest. Spielberg also shot several Flesh Fair scenes with Kathryn Morris playing an orange-haired rock singer, Teenage Honey. “I worked my butt off,” Morris told New York magazine in 2002. “I took guitar lessons and singing lessons.” Spielberg was cutting the movie while shooting Minority Report—which starred Morris as Cruise’s wife—and sheepishly had to break it to her that she’d basically been cut out of A.I. (Morris can still briefly be seen waving a flag and shouting.)

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It was a long, life-changing shoot for Osment, who started in late 1999 with underwater training, turned 12 in the middle of filming, and was doing reshoots in early 2001. By the end of the film David is disheveled and dejected, much like Christian Bale’s character over the course of Empire of the Sun. “One great thing about working on something with Steven,” Osment says, “is that he, for the most part, did it in order—which is very helpful for that character.” The heart-wrenching scene in which Monica abandons David was shot outside of Portland, Oregon. “That one was emotionally taxing, but not too difficult to get where we needed to go, because kids getting abandoned by their parents, and particularly by their mother—and particularly willingly to their face—is a pretty active emotional scenario,” says Osment, who remembers the forest location being freezing cold. “It’s a trying scene, and you just are gutted,” says Curtis. “But they just brought it. To me, that scene is the heart of the Kubrick/Spielberg mix.”

Certainly one major difference in Spielberg’s approach to A.I. was the emotion he pulled out of his young actor. From Henry Thomas in E.T. to Bale in Empire of the Sun (those two films forming an “abandoned boy trilogy” with A.I.), Spielberg has always had an uncanny ability to cast and direct young actors in unaffected, heartbreaking performances. Jake Thomas, who plays David’s “brother” Martin, learned that Spielberg doesn’t audition kids by having them rehearse lines—“he just gets to know who they are,” Thomas says, “I guess to try to draw on who they are inherently for a performance.” On set, Spielberg would throw new lines at Thomas mid-take, just “to avoid anything that would be remotely rehearsed sounding.” The director never condescends to children, Osment says, and never uses manipulative tricks to “direct emotion.” “It was all about where you’re coming from, where you are in the story,” he says. “The way he manages his set—there’s hundreds of people there, but when you’re doing certain scenes it feels very intimate.” (Osment remembers Spielberg quipping: “Normally I do two takes, but in honor of Stanley I’ll do up to seven takes this time.”) “It just feels so in the moment,” says Osment, “and you feel that on set, too. … That helps you as a kid, when your imagination is particularly alive, to just feel like you’re in it.”

How different Kubrick’s A.I. would have been is entirely speculative. “Stanley would have applauded the film,” Harlan insists. “A Steven Spielberg film—that’s what he wanted.” Spielberg was clearly intimately familiar with Kubrick’s narrative and philosophical ideas for the film, he used most of the designs that Kubrick commissioned (including the super mecha at the end of the film, which audiences confused for aliens), and even used his eye in deliberately Kubrickian ways. “The camera is in places that Steven Spielberg would never put the camera,” says Curtis. “There’s a tone of eeriness that I really respect.” The film is full of homages to Kubrick’s other work, from the ice-covered David recalling Jack Torrance in The Shining, to the Manhattan skyscrapers which Muren designed to resemble the Monolith from 2001. The film also deftly mingles Kubrick’s obsessions—sentient technology, men driven mad, the mystery of the cosmos—with Spielberg’s of abandoned boys, humanity’s relationship to its maker and the great beyond, and love.

The real X factor between the two filmmakers has to be love and emotion. Muren believes that Kubrick “was taking the positive emotion out of it, to make it a real knife-in-the-belly sort of Stanley movie—the way you would have felt about the kid, him not being able to deal with what’s going on.” (Referring to her earlier comment, Maitland says: “You can love small children and not be sentimental!”) But A.I. is still pretty knifelike for a Steven Spielberg film, and even the “happy” ending—in which the super mecha of the future bring Monica back to life for one day, she finally tells David that she loves him, and then she dies permanently—is severely tragic. “God, I think I cried so many times as a kid watching that movie,” says Thomas. “It is sad, because it’s essentially a child who never got a childhood, a child who never really got to be happy but for a few moments.” When Jack Angel watched the film, “by that time I was really Teddy. Now the whole world is dead, and Teddy is sitting at the end of the bed, alone. And I thought: Oh no, poor little Teddy!”

The ending is “very happy,” counters Harlan. “Since David is woken up by future A.I. who are astonished to find one of the originals ‘who had seen man’ and treasure him, they want to give him the best treatment they have to offer.” Sam Robards, who played Henry Swinton, offers a more cynical take: “I didn’t find it particularly heartbreaking—because he was a robot. Whether or not she pushed the button on the back of his head, it didn’t matter. He still was a piece of machinery.”

Where you really feel the Spielberg touch is in the score. John Williams, Spielberg’s musical wingman since The Sugarland Express, did score parts of the film with more subdued minimalism than their earlier blockbusters, and he paid homage to Kubrick with a drop of the Richard Strauss opera Der Rosenkavalier (something Kubrick explicitly cited in one of his notes) and some wild 2001/Ligeti-style choral music when David is confronted with his many clones. But Williams also gave this modern Pinocchio an emotional, fairy-tale quality, with a haunting female vocal melody for the Blue Fairy and an achingly beautiful piano lullaby for the finale. The recurring theme in Spielberg’s entire body of work is a belief in redemption, and Williams offers at least musical resolution to David’s story.

It’s the end of the movie when this cinematic marriage is consummated, and when there’s both harmony and friction. The 2,000-year epilogue and Monica’s temporary return were what Kubrick wanted, not (as some critics supposed) Spielberg’s feel-good addition. Spielberg is not known for ambiguous endings, and this one is ambiguous: Does David die? Was it all for naught? Is it beautiful that a Monica clone gave him the affirmation he needed and then disappeared—or is it macabre? “For me, A.I. can be tragic, but also not soul-crushing,” says Osment, “because there’s a sense of possibility, and you don’t give a definitive answer to something like that. I really like that. That’s what 2001 did so well. That’s something that Kubrick and Spielberg share.” Robards agrees: “It was different, and chewy, and dense. It did have that Kubrick feel to it, right? Dispassionate. At the end, it was great they got together, but also it wasn’t wholly emotional. I think Steven nailed that.”

One thing both filmmakers clearly agree on: Death comes for us all.

Tim Greiving is a film music journalist in Los Angeles and a regular contributor to NPR, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. Find him at timgreiving.com.

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