Jocelyn Pook tells us how Stanley Kubrick gave the then-relatively unknown composer free reign to soundtrack a film starring Hollywood’s biggest couple
“He looked at me right in the eyes and said ‘Let’s make sex music!’ I thought to myself, what the hell is sex music? Is it Barry White?” laughs composer and pianist Jocelyn Pook, who worked with director Stanley Kubrick on the music for 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut. “Stanley didn’t really care to elaborate, he just trusted me to answer the question.”
The answer is some of the darkest, most experimental music to ever appear in a Kubrick film. Sure, Kubrick had used twisted music in his films before – see Wendy Carlos’s chilling theme for The Shining, for example – but nothing as textured or as sinister as the four central narrative musical pieces Pook would produce for Eyes Wide Shut. In one early scene, where Tom Cruise’s character Dr. Bill imagines his wife Alice (played by Nicole Kidman) sleeping with a sailor, Pook’s dreamlike score uses strings that move from serene to chaotic to heighten the character’s sense of paranoia. This music makes you feel like you’re transitioning from calming lucid dreaming into a full-blown existential crisis.
Most famously in the movie, Dr. Bill sneaks his way into a secret masked ball and observes a strange ritual unfold. A man in a red cloak wearing a demonic, Venetian-style mask summons a group of hooded figures, who each drop their outfits and start to kiss as the score’s nightmarish chanting stirs them into action. The group of naked women are voyeuristically observed by a room filled with society’s elite, each of them obscuring their identities by wearing garish masks. But as this bizarre scene unfolds, Pook’s warped score takes viewers to a truly bizarre place every bit as alien as Mica Levi’s Under The Skin soundtrack.
Built around a recording of Romanian priests singing Orthodox Liturgy – which is then played backwards – Pook’s score for the masked ball sequence is otherworldly, transporting viewers somewhere that sits between grandiose and hellish. It’s unforgettable. “Yeah, that music was menacing and unsettling,” she explains, “but I also wanted the strings to create this magic so that when the higher pitched voice of the priest comes in it transports you somewhere beautiful.”
A graduate of London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she studied the viola, 58-year-old Jocelyn Pook has had a varied career in music, flipping effortlessly between between classical and experimental pieces across three solo albums, countless film scores, and collaborations with the likes of Massive Attack, Laurie Anderson, and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Her music doesn’t fit neatly within any one genre, moving between orchestral, pop, and electronic. This perhaps made her the perfect match for Kubrick, another artist who didn’t like being placed in a box. Pook concurs: “Stanley used to ask me, ‘What is this music?’ I think he liked that it was experimental and he couldn’t put his finger on it.”
Pook says that “Masked Ball”, like a lot of her other music, is about processing pain, working your way through the darkness in order to make it into the light. The Masked Ball sequence was originally perceived as a musical statement about homophobia in the Catholic church, with Pook “working primitively” and going “reel-to-reel” through a cassette of singing priests and reversing their voices, turning something heavenly into a message about toxic masculinity. Appearing on Pook’s 1996 album Deluge under the title “Backwards Priests”, Kubrick was impressed by what he heard having been passed the tape by his assistant, Leon Vitali. But whereas Pook envisioned it as a dark social statement, Kubrick heard something sexual and primal, asking her to adapt it for Eyes Wide Shut.
“He looked at me right in the eyes and said ‘Let’s make sex music!’ I thought to myself, what the hell is sex music? Is it Barry White?” – Jocelyn Pook
“It came completely out of the blue,” she recalls. “I got a phone call from his assistant saying Stanley wanted to speak to me, and then he called me a few minutes later. I was already on the phone so I left him on hold (as I didn’t want to abruptly end my conversation). The person I was speaking to was like ‘You can’t leave Stanley Kubrick waiting, what are you doing!?’ We had a short chat on the phone and he asked me if I had any more music he could hear. Literally two hours later, a car showed up at my house. I handed the driver my cassette and it drove away. The same car came back the next day and drove me to Pinewood Studios for a meeting. I thought, ‘Stanley doesn’t hang around, does he?’”
During this meeting, Kubrick described his plans to film scenes of adultery as well as an orgy filled with mysterious masked figures. He said it was important that film’s music created an atmosphere of dread, while still sounding sensual. Pook, then still only at the start of her musical career, was “incredibly daunted” by this request – after all, here was one of the most revered directors of all time giving a relatively unknown pianist free reign to score a film starring Hollywood’s biggest couple, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.
“The work was emotionally draining as it was a very meticulous way of working, but Stanley was not this dictator (like the media said),” Pook claims. “He had so much confidence in me, he was very kind and fatherly. If I got something wrong, he was patient and supportive. I had this quartet that I played with in churches and he would speak to me for hours about them, asking me every little detail about the most trivial things.”
Loosely based on Arthur Schnitzler’s novella Traumnovelle (Dream Story), Eyes Wide Shut is about an upper-middle class doctor (Cruise) who finds out his wife (Kidman) once fantasied about cheating on her husband. This pushes Bill into a sexual odyssey, where he wanders through the night, spontaneously ending up at a secretive masked ball, where the elite engage in a murderous orgy. When it was released in 1999, critics didn’t really know how to take it. Marketed by Warner Brothers as a conventional erotic thriller, the film’s dark cinematography, slow pacing, and bleak sense of humour (there’s a strangely jovial scene where a shop owner pimps out his adolescent daughter to Chinese businessmen) was anything but conventional. It fell short of expectations, with the Washington Post describing it as “empty of ideas”. But like other Kubrick films, such as Barry Lyndon and The Shining, which were similarly panned on release, time has been kind to Eyes Wide Shut, with it now being re-evaluated by many, including Martin Scorsese, as a masterpiece.
“Stanley used to ask me, ‘What is this music?’ I think he liked that it was experimental and he couldn’t put his finger on it” – Jocelyn Pook
This re-evaluation has been driven by what many have interpreted as hidden messages within the film. Online conspiracy videos suggest Kubrick was trying to expose the so-called illuminati’s secret gatherings. They say the chair the red-cloaked orgy leader sits on contains two eagles, which was also the symbol for the billionaire Rothschild family, who were known to host strange masked balls (the fact the orgy scene was filmed at Mentmore Towers, a countryside estate built by the Rothschilds, is an interesting coincidence). A new documentary called SK13 aims to explore these kind of theories even deeper. Yet Pook is dismissive: “It wouldn’t surprise me if (Kubrick) was trying to say something about secret societies and the elite, but a lot of it – like Tom (Cruise) being a scientologist – is just coincidences, really. The film was more about the emotional undercurrents of marriage, how desire and paranoia can place a strain on that union.”
Stories from the Eyes Wide Shut shoot are legendary, with Kubrick conducting what was at the time the longest continuous shoot in cinema history. Kidman and Cruise filmed for an unbroken 46 weeks, turning down other roles until the film was finished. There are rumours that a dictatorial Kubrick made Cruise walk through the same door 80 times in order to get the perfect shot. He’s also rumoured to have placed a strain on the couple’s marriage by engineering an atmosphere of marital distrust on set in order to add more authenticity to their on-screen performances. Kubrick died six days after showing Cruise and Kidman the final cut of the film, and while the obvious signs point to his death being the result of old age and severe exhaustion after such a gruelling shoot, some, rather bizarrely, believe he was murdered for ‘knowing too much’.
“You did hear stories from the set about Stanley being obsessional with things,” Pook admits. “At the funeral, I asked Tom whether all those takes drove him crazy, but he was enamoured by Stanley. The dream sequence where Nicole has sex with the naval officer, I heard she filmed that a ridiculous amount of times too – during which Tom was barred from the set – but Stanley’s perfectionism was never undermining to their relationship. It was genuinely just Stanley searching for the best possible shot or way to make a movie. They both respected that and were proud to be in the film.”
Rather than get lost in gossip, Pook, who has gone onto score everything from Scorsese’s Gangs of New York to critically acclaimed plays such as the recent Memorial, which is about a woman who can speak to God, prefers to remember the creative lessons Kubrick taught her. “Stanley gave me huge insight into how important it is to somehow both emotionally and intellectually immerse yourself into the ideas of a piece you are working on,” she says. “Without that, it would be very superficial, as you can’t properly respond musically. He was a true artist.”