A Brief Oral History Of The Making Of “A Clockwork Orange”

This past week marked the 40th anniversary of the release of “A Clockwork Orange” one of the most violent and provocative films ever made and a triumph of the sci-fi genre. The movie, which was rated X, was credited with inspiring copycat crimes: A young, Dutch secretary was assaulted by a gang while they chanted “Singing in the Rain,” a Jehovah’s witness was beaten up a by a gang dressed as Droogs and an old tramp was kicked to death by a 16-year-old said to be obsessed with the film. Sixty-one weeks after its release, the film was pulled from theaters in Britain and remained banned for 27 years. Everywhere else in the world it became a cult classic, especially among the young and rebellious.

As interesting as the affects of the film’s release is, the story of the making of this film is just as fascinating. Terry Southern wrote a screenplay that was never produced. At one point, Mick Jagger wanted to play Alex with the other Stones as his Droogs. The Beatles are rumored to also have been temporarily attached to the project. And then, of course, Stanley Kubrick took to the helm.

Over the past few weeks, I read and watched interviews with the cast and crew. I’ve assembled quotes from these interviews to give you a bit of insight into what the making of this film was like.

“He told me, Burgess, […] that he got the idea for this film from being in Moscow in the early 60s in a coffee shop. The windows were all steamed up and he was sitting by the window talking to one of his compatriots and these thugs would press their faces up to the window. He was obviously a foreigner because he was dressed differently and it was obviously threatening. And that’s what kicked off the spark of ‘A Clockwork Orange.'”

Malcolm McDowell From “A Clockwork Orange” Blu-Ray Commentary

“I was sickened by own excitment at setting it down, and saw that Auden was right that the novelist must be filthy with the filthy.”

Anthony Burgess from “A Forbidden Fruit”

“It was given to me by Terry Southern while I was making “2001,” and due to the time pressure I was in, it joined that certain number of books that one has sitting on the shelf waiting to be read. Then one evening I passed the bookshelf, glanced at the paperback still patiently waiting on the shelf, and picked it up. I started to read the book and finished it in one sitting. By the end of Part One, it seemed pretty obvious that it might make a great film. By the end of Part Two, I was very excited about it. As soon as I finished it, I immediately reread it.”

Stanley Kubrick, from Kubrick Country, Saturday Review, December 1971

After “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Stanley Kubrick attempted to make a film about Napoleon Bonaparte, but the project ended prematurely after financing fell through due to budget concerns.

“When I went to meet Stanley and I said ‘What’s the budget for the film?’ He said, ‘Well it’s going to be tight.’ And I said how tight? I looked at the front page and I was horrified. I looked at Stanley and he said, ‘Yeah I know, we’ve got to make a breakthrough and show them I can do a low budget picture.'”

Bernard Williams, Associate Producer, from “‘Great Bolshy Yarblockos!: A Making of ‘A Clockwork Orange'”

“I remember him coming up to me excited when he’d seen the dailies [of the opening scene] and said, ‘Malcolm, do you realized you toasted the camera?’ And I said, ‘That’s right.’ And he said, ‘I didn’t notice, why did you do that?’ And I said, ‘Well, Stanley I wanted to let the audience know they are in for one hell of a ride.'”

Malcolm McDowell From “A Clockwork Orange” Blu-Ray Commentary

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On the Language of “A Clockwork Orange”

“Well the alternative to using a slang of my own was to use an existent slang, which would date to rapidly. It would date in a year, in fact, in between the writing of the book and its publication.”

Anthony Burgess from An Examination of “A Clockwork Orange”

“Many people have praised the special language of the book, which is itself a stunning conception; but I don’t think sufficient praise has been given for what might be called, for want of a better phrase, the ordinary language, which is, of course, quite extraordinary. For example, when the Minister says at the end of his speech to the press, “But enough of words. Actions speak louder than. Action now. Observe All.”

Stanley Kubrick, from Kubrick Country, Saturday Review, December 1971

On the Set

“Instead of carrying around a big screenplay, he carried around the book.”

Bernard Williams, Associate Producer, from “‘Great Bolshy Yarblockos!: A Making of ‘A Clockwork Orange'”

“He would go on the set and he’d open the book. OK, page twenty-seven, we’re going to do that today. How are we going to do that? And he’d sit down with the actors and the technicians and they would work out the way to do that.”

John Baxter, Author of “Stanley Kubrick: A Biography” from “‘Great Bolshy Yarblockos!: A Making of ‘A Clockwork Orange'”

“Stanley would spend a lot of time rehearsing. I mean you could go to work at six in the morning and not roll that camera until two in the afternoon, but then he’d want to shoot until midnight.”

Bill Butler, Editor, ‘Great Bolshy Yarblockos!: A Making of ‘A Clockwork Orange'”

“His method of working is not to give you directions. ‘You come in and you go from A to B and then you talk.’ His method is we come in at seven o’clock in the morning and we rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse until we get the scene right. And when I say rehearse, I mean that everybody is there to throw in ideas.”

Malcolm McDowell from An Examination of “A Clockwork Orange”

“If he thought someone had a valid opinion about anything, even if it wasn’t their area, he’d be interested in it.”

Barbara Daly, Makeup Artist, ‘Great Bolshy Yarblockos!: A Making of ‘A Clockwork Orange'”

“The whites were actually from my cricket gear that I had in the back of my car and the codpiece was actually a cricket protector you wear under your trousers.”

Malcolm McDowell, from “A Clockwork Orange” Blu-Ray Commentary

“Singing in the Rain”

“[There’s] a scene in the film, where Alex and his three Droogs come in and rape a writer’s wife and beat the writer up. We arrived at the set, looked at the bare walls for three days. We rehearsed various bits of the script that weren’t good enough. It just wasn’t working for us. On the third day Stanley said to me, ‘Can you dance?’ And I said, ‘Yes! Why not?’ I’m not a dancer, but I went into a sort of soft shoe number and started to hum [he hums “Singing in the Rain”] and then started to sing. Subconsciously, I remember that scene in the Gene Kelly film as being one of the happiest scenes I’d seen on film. It was right for the moment and Kubrick took this immediately, within three hours he had the rights to the song.”

Malcolm McDowell from An Examination of “A Clockwork Orange”

“I never actually met him [Gene Kelly] because when I was introduced to him at a party in Hollywood three or four years later he looked at me and quickly turned away and walked off. I think he was disgusted.”

Malcolm McDowell From “A Clockwork Orange” Blu-Ray Commentary

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“What exactly is the treatment going to be then?”

“Stanley actually showed me a picture of this, and I go, ‘Oh, that’s pretty grisly.’ And he goes, ‘No, do you think you can do that?’ And I go, ‘Absolutely not.'”

After many takes in the scene with the clips holding his eyes opening and receiving eye drops every 15 seconds all while wearing a straightjacket, Malcom McDowell panicked, thrashed about and scratched his cornea.

“Everything was fine. We got the scene, it was harrowing but quite extraordinary. Then on the way home, the anesthetic wore off. I went over a pothole and it felt like I’d had a razor blade sliced right down the whole of my body.”

Malcolm McDowell from Malcolm McDowell Looks Back

Death by Phallic Statue

“One always finds rape the most horrendous, monstrous thing to contemplate. I think it was handled in the film rather well. There wasn’t the amount of gratuitous violence that people imagine there was. It was all in their own heads actually. I remember with my own killing, I was fighting for my life and all I had to defend myself was my statue of Beethoven. And he was using my three foot phallus, but you didn’t actually see my death. You see my open mouth as he’s about to finish me off.

Miriam Karlin, Actress, from “A Forbidden Fruit”

“[Stanley Kubrick] had great fun making this.”

Malcolm McDowell From “A Clockwork Orange” Blu-Ray Commentary