Eyes Wide Shut screens on SBS VICELAND Wednesday 7 November at 8.30pm.
The common narrative around Stanley Kubrick's final film, the intense 1999 erotic thriller Eyes Wide Shut, is that it was a strained, laborious process, driven by the secretive, perfectionist director's penchant for changing the script.
The movie is also considered to have played key role in the breakdown of stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s marriage thanks to a mixture of stressful shooting conditions, Kubrick’s psychoanalytical probing and the dark pall cast over their relationship, together with the twisted subject matter, which forced the pair to more-closely examine their own odd nuptials.
But one of the more interesting conspiracy theories surrounding the film is that it was all an elaborate, expensive way for Kubrick to toy with the psyche of superstar Cruise. The details of the shoot certainly add weight to the theory, and the below facts, if recounted about any other combination of people, would sound like the work of a power-crazed tyrant and a hapless victim. Here, we explore the ways in which Kubrick beautifully messed with Cruise (with thanks to this Vanity Fair extract of Amy Nicholson's book: Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor).
Stringing Tom along with a never-ending shoot
In 1996, Tom Cruise was in the middle of a purple patch, having released Mission Impossible and Jerry Maguire within the same calendar year. As they say in the business, strike while the iron is hot. So when Cruise signed on to Kubrick’s as-yet-untitled film project, it was under the proviso that he and Kidman would spend six months filming in London, a reasonable amount of time to commit to a film by one of the most storied directors in Hollywood. It seemed like a safe move.
He and Kidman started shooting in November 1996, with Mission Impossible II scheduled for mid-’97. Kubrick had zero regard for Cruise’s conflicting schedules, however, pushing back the end date constantly, while keeping Cruise in the dark about when the shoot would actually wrap.
“I remember talking to Stanley and I said, ‘Look, I don’t care how long it takes, but I have to know: are we going to finish in six months?’” Cruise told Time magazine after the film’s release. “People were waiting and writers were waiting. I’d say, ‘Stanley, I don’t care — tell me it’s going to be two years.’”
More than anything, Cruise’s further career ascent was waiting. Filming finally ended in June 1998, derailing and delaying the Mission Impossible II shoot, and ultimately costing Cruise and Kidman tens of millions in lost time. At a time when both were arguably at the commercial peak of their careers, they could have cranked out nine months' worth of filming each. As a result, there is also a three-year gap in Cruise’s otherwise consistent filmography — an age in Hollywood time.
As if to really drive the point home, the 15-month slog — including an unbroken run of 400 days — landed it in Guinness World Records for the longest continual movie shoot.
Making him walk through a door 95 times
This one cannot be anything but a man trying to break down another man through power games, repetition and lack of direction — 95 takes of a brief shot where Cruise simply walks through a door. Kubrick refused to give Cruise performance notes on the set, no doubt resulting in the baffled actor wondering what he wasn’t nailing. “Tom, stick with me, I’ll make you a star," Kubrick would say, taunting the frustrated actor.
…and weeks of just walking on a treadmill
“Generally, when Tom’s facing the camera, the backgrounds are rear-projected; anything that shows him from a side view was done on the streets of London," explained cinematographer Larry Smith. As Kubrick was afraid of flying to New York City, yet wanted to set the film there, the backdrops were shot in NYC and Tom walked on a treadmill in London as the imagery was beamed behind him.
“We’d then go onto our street sets and shoot Tom walking on a treadmill," Smith continues. “After setting the treadmill to a certain speed, we’d put some lighting effects on him to simulate the glow from the various storefronts that were passing by in the plates. We spent a few weeks on those shots.”
A few weeks of Tom walking aimlessly in one spot while people shoot lights in his face — sounds like the type of torture even armed forces would outlaw.
Interview with Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise (The Movie Show)
Refusing to show him dailies
“Making a movie is like stabbing in the dark,” Cruise said after filming wrapped. “If I get a sense of the overall picture, then I’m better for the film.”
This was a problem, considering Kubrick straight up refused to show the actor dailies of each day’s filming — a standard procedure in films and often a vital part of the process, as Cruise explained above.
As Nicholson outlines in her book, Tom Cruise: Anatomy Of An Actor, which details the secretive, painful shoot, “Cruise couldn’t watch and adjust his performance to find his character’s through line — a problem exacerbated by the amount of footage the director filmed. For most of the cast, who appeared only in one or two moments, they had only to match the timbre of their character’s big moment. But Cruise alone is in nearly every scene and had to spend the shoot playing a guessing game.
“Not knowing which of his mind-melting number of takes would wind up in the film, he still had to figure out how to shape a consistent character from scene to scene. Given Kubrick’s withholding direction and the exponential number of combinations that could be created from his raw footage, it’s understandable if the forever-prepared actor found himself adrift.”
Using real tensions in the Kidman/Cruise marriage as inspiration
Kubrick was so determined to force Kidman and Cruise to explore the parallels between their own fractured marriage and the one they were portraying onscreen that he held intense interview sessions with the two of them, with the proviso that they would keep the conversations secret. This led to the pair delving into the tensions in their marriage.
“Tom would hear things that he didn’t want to hear,” Kidman said of the chats. “It wasn’t like therapy, because you didn’t have anyone to say, ‘And how do you feel about that?’ It was honest, and brutally honest at times.”
Kubrick then modelled their characters’ marital bedroom on their own, even asking the two stars to sleep in the room during the shoot. As if that wasn’t unsettling enough, he made sure the couple chose the room’s curtains, kept their own clothes in the room and left personal belongings on the dresser-table, as if in real life.
Having Kidman shoot six days of sex scenes with a male model
“I didn’t like playing Dr Bill," Cruise admitted within a year of the film coming out. “I didn’t like him. It was unpleasant. But I would have absolutely kicked myself if I hadn’t done this.”
While he didn’t enjoy playing his part, he also certainly didn’t enjoy Kidman playing her role, in particular almost a week’s worth of steamy and physically varied sex scenes with a male model, during which time Kubrick banned Cruise from the set, and forbid Kidman from disclosing any details from the shoot.
In the end, the entire scene lasts less than a minute — you’ve gotta wonder how many of the various angles and takes were always destined for the cutting-room floor, merely shot as a technique to drive Cruise to jealousy and resentment.
Contributing to Cruise's stress-induced ulcer
“I didn't want to tell Stanley”, Cruise claimed after giving himself an ulcer from the stress of the drawn-out shoot. “He panicked. I wanted this to work, but you're playing with dynamite when you act. Emotions kick up. You try not to kick things up, but you go through things you can't help.”
He panicked, claims Cruise. Kubrick is a masterful director, so it’s unlikely he was anything but pleased he had driven Cruise to such psychological depths that it manifested in a stress ulcer.
Kubrick died six days after showing Cruise and Kidman the final cut of the film. We wager that with his excellent "pwning" work now complete, his could finally die in peace.