Creative Differences to resurrect Kubrick’s shelved Napoleon film

Decades after Stanley Kubrick abandoned his ambitious plan to make an historical epic about the life of Napoleon, Creative Differences has secured the rights from the late filmmaker's estate and MGM to resurrect the project in documentary form, to be directed by CD president Erik Nelson.
February 28, 2011

(Pictured: Director Stanley Kubrick. Photo: Warner Brothers)

Forty years after Stanley Kubrick abandoned his ambitious plan to make an historical epic about the life of Napoleon, U.S. production company Creative Differences has secured the rights from the late filmmaker’s estate and MGM to resurrect the project — in documentary form.

Produced in association with the Kubrick estate, Kubrick/Napoleon will examine why the legendary director of classic films like Lolita and A Clockwork Orange was compelled to spend three years exhaustively researching the French emperor’s life and will bring his annotated Napoleon script to life through CGI-commissioned storyboards.

An outline for the film promises “a multi-faceted look at the intertwined life of two tactical geniuses — Stanley Kubrick and Napoleon Bonaparte.”

The film will be executive produced by Jan Harlan, the producer of Kubrick films Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut; written by Alison Castle, editor of the 2009 Taschen book Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made, and directed by Creative Differences president Erik Nelson.

“This is an epic story of one of the most important world historical figures as interpreted by not just one of the greatest filmmakers, but one of the greatest minds of the 20th century,” says Nelson. “So this is not just for Kubrick fans; it’s for anybody who has any kind of interest in history, human emotion and the creative process.”

The Los Angeles-and-Washington, DC-based production company is known for its historical documentaries as well as scores of cable series including Discovery Channel’s Time Warp. The company counts the forthcoming Discovery Channel mini-series Reign of the Dinosaurs and four Werner Herzog documentaries, including Cave of Forgotten Dreams and an untitled doc feature due this fall (which Nelson cryptically describes as “Werner Herzog’s exploration of the darkness at the edge of death row à la Bruce Springsteen”) among its credits.

Creative Differences is in the midst of pre-production on Kubrick/Napoleon and has already completed key interviews with the Kubrick family. The producers are looking for additional financing and are aiming for a 2012 release.

Nelson says he became an avid Kubrick fan after seeing the director’s 1968 sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey at age 12. Like all hardcore Kubrick fans, he’s been aware of the ill-fated Napoleon project for some time and finally had a chance to read the original screenplay when it was posted online in 2000, a year after the director’s death.

“I realized when I read the script it was not just the greatest Kubrick film never made, it was also one of the greatest documentary scripts ever made,” he says. “Kubrick approached Napoleon’s life in a narrative fashion. He really approached it as an historical documentary.”

Napoleon was slated for production following the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey in April, 1968. When that film scored five Oscar nominations including one for best director, Kubrick convinced MGM Studios to provide development financing and hired Napoleon scholar and Oxford University professor Felix Markham to oversee research. Over the course of two years, Kubrick amassed approximately 15,000 location scouting photographs and 17,000 slides of Napoleonic imagery, according to the Taschen book.

“His life has been described as an epic poem of action,” Kubrick told author Joseph Gelmis in an interview for his 1969 book The Film Director as Superstar. “His sex life was worthy of [controversial Austrian author and dramatist] Arthur Schnitzler. He was one of those rare men who move history and mold the destiny of their own times and of generations to come — in a very concrete sense, our own world is the result of Napoleon, just as the political and geographic map of postwar Europe is the result of World War Two.”

He finished the script in September, 1969. The film would chart the Emperor’s prolific life on the battlefield and in the bedroom and require massive period sets, bankable movie stars and most ambitious of all, thousands of costumed extras for full-scale battle recreations in the original locations.

Although Kubrick came up with several creative solutions to his financial problems, the project fell apart in 1970 year when MGM, and later United Artists, pulled the plug. Moreover, three other Napoleon films had come out and tanked at the box office. His dream scuttled, Kubrick immediately threw himself into making A Clockwork Orange.

Four decades later, the studio might finally see a return on investment. Creative Differences spent more than a year negotiating with the Kubrick family, who in turn negotiated with MGM for the rights to use the pre-production materials that will form the basis of Kubrick/Napoleon.

“Because of the scale of Kubrick’s vision, the film exists. Napoleon exists,” says Nelson. “It existed in Kubrick’s mind when he was about to film it and we’re trying to come as close to that dream as we can, but in documentary form.”

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