40 years ago, director Stanley Kubrick was riding high following the back-to-back Oscar-nominated films Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it would be his next movie that would really define the filmmaker’s career.
A Clockwork Orange was Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel, a film that introduced many people to Malcolm McDowell as Alex, a gregarious street thug who leads his three “Droogs” on a rampage of sex and violence that shocked the world when it was first released. Alex eventually makes a mistake that gets himself arrested and he takes part in an experimental process that turns the tables on him, as he’s no longer able to experience violent or sexual thoughts. Even forty years later, the film says as much or more about our society as it did back then, and the film clearly has had a huge cultural impact on youth culture as each new generation discovers it.
On Tuesday, May 31, Warner Home Video will be releasing a 40th Anniversary Edition of the film on Blu-ray which includes a number of new bonus features including a doc called “Malcolm McDowell Looks Back” and other docs, including Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures and O Lucky Malcolm!. The same day, they will release Mike Kaplan’s documentary “Never Apologize,” in which McDowell celebrates the life of his long-time director and friend Lindsay Anderson, who directed the actor in IF and O Lucky Man!, the movies that preceded and followed A Clockwork Orange. If that wasn’t enough, McDowell also appears on the new TNT law show Franklin and Bash, which is set to air on Wednesday, June 1.
Clearly, McDowell hasn’t been resting on his laurels since playing the iconic role of Alex, and to help commemorate all this activity, ComingSoon.net sat down with the actor to talk to him briefly about making the movie.
ComingSoon.net: Have you enjoyed spending the day revisiting 40 years in your past?
Malcolm McDowell: Well, it’s kind of wild. 40 years ago, of course, it’s a long way now, but I remember it pretty well. I mean, it’s not the kind of thing you forget, you know?
CS: One of the questions I’m sure you get asked is that when you made this movie, did you have any idea what kind of an impact it would have? Obviously there was a lot of controversial material in it.
McDowell: Right, I didn’t even think it was that controversial, the material, because we’d seen Sam Peckinpah’s “Wild Bunch” and then he did another one which was very disturbing. “Straw Dogs,” I think it was a year earlier maybe or maybe the same year, and so that was very disturbing, but this was such a great book and of course when you’re making it, you’re not really thinking that it’s very violent. I wasn’t anyway. People say, “Well, when you were kicking the tramp ” Well, it was actually a stuntman and I’m just making sure I hit the pad, so you’re just thinking of the technical side of it, you’re not really thinking of the emotional side. But it does pack a big punch. The first 20 minutes are just relentless. It’s like they leave that Korova thing, they go to this disused casino with Billy boy and the fight, it never lets up. Then they’re in the car, then they’re into “Singing in the Rain,” so it’s relentless. Then starts, of course, when he’s caught, the retribution and all that which is actually most of the movie. Most people think it’s this… or they thought that it was so futuristic, but it isn’t really at all.
CS: It’s funny watching it again. I can’t remember the first time I watched it, but I know that it was fairly shocking and now I’ve watched it 15 or 16 times and it becomes more about the craft when you see it that many times. What was your first meeting with Stanley like when you got the role? Did you have to do a lot of auditions?
McDowell: No, I didn’t do one audition. He saw me in this movie “IF…,” which was my first movie, and I was told by Christiane Kubrick that Stanley had showings at his house of the movies. He had a projectionist on call. He was interested to see this film “IF…” which had made quite a splash in England. I made my first entrance, played the first scene and he hit the intercom and said, “Relace it. Start again.” He did it five times, then he turns to Christiane and said, “We’ve found our Alex.” So I had no idea, but I was already cast from that moment.
CS: Stanley had just done “2001” and it was nominated for Oscars–I believe it won for FX–so there must have been a lot of pressure going into this movie.
McDowell: Well, there was no pressure on me because I was a total unknown basically. I mean, especially in the international market, I was known in my own country because of “IF…” which was huge in England, but I don’t think that he really felt that much pressure. I think that he felt he wanted to make a movie that had a very small budget because he’d been accused of breaking MGM because “2001” had cost overruns because it’s a special effects movie. You had to make models then. There was no CGI stuff or computer stuff. So he wanted to make a small movie for less than three million dollars and that’s what he did.
CS: I imagine that these days you’ve been acting long enough that you’re free to contribute and help develop the chracters you play, but were you able to do any of that back then while playing Alex?
McDowell: I think that I have never come to a project and given so much of my own stuff as I did with “Clockwork Orange.” That was the most… I mean, Stanley was waiting every minute for me to come up with something. I mean, I said, “No wonder you like working with Peter Sellers.” I mean, he would come into characters like this, so you were always trying to think and trying to get inspiration to do something to make it more magical. There’s lots of stuff that were improvs that he used.
CS: What about “Singing in the Rain”?
McDowell: That’s one of them.
CS: That’s one of the classic moments in the film because it seems to come from out of the blue, this thug singing a song from the musical while committing horrible violence. Some people might even know your version more than Gene Kelly’s.
McDowell: That’s probably why Gene Kelly was so pissed with me, but that came out of an improv when we were sitting around for days trying to figure this out and he just said in the end, “Can you dance?” I went, “Can I dance?” I went into “Singing in the Rain” immediately. He drove back to his house, bought the rights and we went back and deconstructed it and it took a week to shoot.
CS: I never met Kubrick but I got the impression that he had a sense of humor
McDowell: Very black. I mean, wonderful company. If you went for dinner, he’s the most charming man. You’d have a stimulating conversation about whatever it was. He could pretty much converse on anything. He knew something about everything under the sun. He was curious. He was always pumping you for questions and it’s not like he was a big know it all. He wasn’t that way at all. He was a very humble man, actually, and he was a child prodigy, something frightening. I don’t know what his IQ was; I can bet it was right off the charts.
CS: One thing I realized while watching the movie again is that you get it almost as bad or worse than some of Alex’s victims, like when your friends are holding your head underwater. I watched that and that was definitely you and your head is underwater for a long period of time since there are no cuts. Do you remember shooting that scene? What was that like?
McDowell: Yeah, that was a bitch because it was cold, so they couldn’t heat the water. I said, “Stanley, I can’t keep my head under like that. I mean, it’s too cold and I could drown, and then you’re being pummeled by a blackjack. Even though it’s only rubber, it hurts. I don’t think I can do that.” So Stanley actually put an oxygen tank in the thing with a (tube), but I don’t know how many takes before I was able to grab hold of it and then breathe. But he had to color the water, so they colored it with this beef extract, and I smelled like an abattoir for days, like “Ugh” such a vile smell, but it was an amazing shot.
CS: The other scene I wanted to ask about was that iconic one when you’re being forced to watch the horrific films and your eyes are propped open with someone putting drops in your eyes.
McDowell: If they didn’t put the drops in, the corneas could dry up and you’d be blind. So they had to put the drops in to moisten the eye because we blink and do it naturally.
CS: Yeah, but the guy doing it seemed to be overdoing it a bit, putting drops in every second.
McDowell: Yeah, because I was telling him to. We gotta get those drops in, yeah. (Laughs)
CS: I’ve always been fascinated by your recent career, because it seems to me that you’re busier now than you were in the ’70s.
McDowell: Yeah, well, listen. I have small children. They’ve got to go to college. Besides the fact, I still love acting and I guess I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t. I get such a kick out of it and it’s true, I’m very busy. At the moment, I’m doing a series for TNT called “Franklin and Bash” that’s about to air. It airs on the first of June and I think I’ve got eight movies coming out and I’ve got one to shoot next spring, which is absolutely brilliant. I’ve had it for 25 years, finally got the money.
CS: Is that something you’re producing?
McDowell: Yes, yes and I’m starring in it. It’s called “Monster Butler.” It’s a self-evident title.
CS: I’ve been a huge fan of “Clockwork Orange” since I was a kid, but when I saw you in “The Company” that was a great role and you’ve been able to stay away from the type of roles most actors in their 60s and 70s play, that being the kindly old grandfather types.
McDowell: Yeah, I think honestly they’ve found me. I’ve played a few granddads and stuff and they’re fun. They’re nice to do. I always think I’m having to act older than I am because you always feel inside you’re like 35 or something and you walk past a reflection in a shop and you kind of go, “Jesus. Who the hell? My God, that’s me.” It never leaves you. But I am busy right now. I’m going from one thing to the other right now, which is fun. So I don’t mind doing that at all, as long as I’ve got my energy and everything I feel cool about it.
CS: Do you feel younger people who see you on “Entourage” or “Heroes” or some of these shows, do you think they ever go back and say, “Oh, he was in a movie called “A Clockwork Orange” and then go back and watch it?
McDowell: I don’t know. Look, all I know is “A Clockwork Orange” is one of the most popular titles they’ve ever had at Warner Brothers. They keep bringing new collector’s editions out and now we’re on Blu-ray, our 40th anniversary edition. It’s a beautiful rendering of it, so I think that it speaks for itself and I think every generation finds it.
A Clockwork Orange 40th Anniversary Edition is out on Blu-ray on Tuesday, May 31, as is Never Apologize, McDowell’s commemorative of director Lindsay Anderson.