FILM Though he's now living in Los Angeles, Rodney Ascher was a San Franciscan "for years and years," he says, adding that he used to spend "a lot of time at Craig Baldwin's Other Cinema." He also has praise for the Roxie, the venue that'll be hosting the local premiere of his Room 237 — a fascinating, kinda disturbing documentary that burrows deep down the rabbit hole with people who are obsessed with Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror masterpiece The Shining.
The Roxie screens that film Thu/18, and opens Ascher's doc Fri/19; Ascher hints that he'll journey to SF for the occasion. I spoke with him about Kubrick, Italian horror, and other mind-bending topics.
San Francisco Bay Guardian How did you find your five subjects?
Rodney Ascher Before I did the first interview, [producer] Tim Kirk and I spent maybe a year researching different theories about The Shining and people who were writing about it. Some people were fairly well-known to us, like Bill Blakemore, who has the Native American [theory]. His article was syndicated in newspapers in 1987, and has been reprinted all over the internet, so he was a person that we always wanted to talk to. Jay Weidner, who talks about subliminal techniques and allusions to the space program — his essay has circulated pretty widely online too.
So we started with them, and we would find other people as we went. The writer Jonathan Lethem, who's had a lot of interesting things to say about The Shining, turned me on to John Fell Ryan, a guy in Brooklyn who'd been screening the movie backwards and forwards at the same time. Not only was that amazing in and of itself, but like a lot of this other stuff we were finding, it was amazing that it had only happened in the time since we'd started the project. A lot of [Room 237] is about the substance of what people are saying about The Shining — but it's also very concerned with this phenomenon at the beginning of the 21st century, where an awful lot of people seem obsessed with this movie made in 1980, and isn't that interesting, and why is that happening?
SFBG What was the interview process like?
RA I mailed [each subject] a digital audio recorder, and I would talk to them via Skype from my studio. I'd have a list of questions based on what I knew about what they had written, but oftentimes the more open-ended questions would lead in more interesting directions: "What was the first time you saw The Shining?" or "When did you figure out this idea? How did it come to you?"
I read someplace that one of the best interview questions is just, "Why?" I don't have much of a hard-core documentary background, so I haven't interviewed tons of people, but I figured out pretty quickly that the less I said, the better.
SFBG What role do you think the internet has played in this growing obsession with The Shining?
RA I think it's got everything to do with it. Things like YouTube videos and digital technology in general allow us to look at movies more carefully. We try to have a little bit of a subplot of people being able to watch the movie in theaters, and then on home video, on DVD, Blu-ray, YouTube. As [the opportunity to watch the film again] increases, the way we watch it changes.
But it's also things like comment threads and blog postings, which allow people to share ideas with other folks in a way that was never possible before. Even if you could write a newspaper article or a magazine entry, there are very practical length considerations that you'd have to work with. But now, if you feel like writing a 125-page article about the manager of the Overlook Hotel, you can put it up on your blog, and there's no limit to how much detail you can include.