‘Eyes Wide Shut’: A Tense, Nightmarish Exploration of Marriage and Sexuality in Kubrick’s Ultimate Film

Kubrick was allegedly very proud of the film, even considering it his greatest contribution to the world of filmmaking, and the palpable feelings of anxiety, perplexity and tension we experience every time we see the film somehow convince us Kubrick was not far from being right. Production still photographer: Manuel Harlan © Warner Bros., Stanley Kubrick Productions, Kubrick estate, SK Film Archives LLC

Almost a decade passed since Full Metal Jacket hit the theaters, and Stanley Kubrick lived a sort of a reclusive life in London, distanced from the press. It was then that he felt he could turn his attention to his slow-brewing passion project. In the sixties, he purchased the rights to Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler’s novella called ‘Traumnovelle,’ which translates as ‘Dream Story.’ Kubrick apparently felt the story was an ideal foundation for a cinematic exploration of sexual relations and all the tension, jealousy and passion that inevitably come along with it. Kubrick’s fourteenth feature film, which would unfortunately turn out to be his last, was written by screenwriter Frederic Michael Raphael and it soon acquired Hollywood superstars and real life married couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. In 1996 the production began in London under the veil of severe secrecy. Given the fact that the idea for the film was conceived three decades earlier, it only seems fitting that, in the hands of a notorious perfectionist of Kubrick’s rank, the project would break all records in terms of its production length. Filming took no less than 400 days, which earned Eyes Wide Shut a deserved place in the Guinness Book of World Records. Sometimes classified by critics and scholars as a mystery-driven erotic thriller, Kubrick’s last movie is a complex exploration of marriage and sexuality, fidelity and jealousy, a detailed, nightmarish study of human intimacy with strong erotic tones, carried on the performances of a highly talented cast, with excellent back-up from supporting actors such as Sydney Pollack and Todd Field (both acclaimed filmmakers in their own right), accompanied by nice miniatures from Vinessa Shaw and Rade Serbedzija. Cruise’s distanced, obvious insensitivity and certain woodenness that some complained about upon the film’s release actually fits in perfectly with the filmmaker’s assumed vision: Cruise’s character leads the audience onto a voyeuristic journey of intimate self-discovery, and his performance, labeled underachieving by critics who just might have misunderstood Kubrick’s intentions, allows the viewer to more easily relate to the character by projecting their own image onto the actor’s frequently blank face. The motif of masks, the act and symbolic meaning of wearing disguise, is delightfully explored here, whether we’re talking about literal masks worn at the infamous and unfortunately digitally altered orgy (the studio wanted to get an R rating, thus changing and diminishing the great filmmaker’s last vision for financial purposes) or the metaphoric ones that the protagonists of the film, and probably every other person in the real world, wear on a daily basis. The image we choose to project from the inside, either to impress, accommodate or deceive other people, is a constant theme throughout the picture, and it’s interesting to note that the whole plot is pushed violently forward when Nicole Kidman’s character confesses fantasizing an affair, a verbal act with a lot of gravity which completely shakes the image of a faithful, loving wife she projected until this fateful moment of drug-induced honesty.

Kubrick relied on psychology in the process of preparing his lead actor and actress for the shoot. Kidman and Cruise we’re Hollywood’s hottest couple, but during filming Kubrick demanded complete honesty from them, leading them to confess and discuss things they would most likely have liked to keep for themselves. The usually fine line between reality and fiction became oblique, with more than a little help from the filmmaker, who made his stars sleep in their character’s bedroom. These tricks resulted in magical on-screen performances spurred by palpable chemistry. At the same time, the stretch was a bit too much for the couple, as it would soon turn out. Exhausted and tortured, they still remained faithful to their visionary leader, defending him to the public with regard to the prolonged shooting. English composer Jocelyn Pook provided the music, even though Kubrick still liked to base the score on classical tunes, while cinematography was handled by Larry Smith, former gaffer on Barry Lyndon and The Shining, whom Kubrick promoted. It’s needless to say that Kubrick remained very much involved with every single aspect of the film’s production.

After the laborious shooting finally ended, Kubrick entered the lengthy post-production process and ultimately presented his film to Cruise, Kidman and the studio executives. Less than a week later he suffered a severe heart attack and died, three months before the film’s premiere, unable to witness its international box office success or discuss any of the themes and problems of this difficult project’s production. Upon seeing the film, some critics believed Kubrick needed more time to finish it, not failing to note the irony in the fact that the most notorious perfectionist ended his career with a practically unfinished film in need of some obvious polishing. But in the years that followed its release what was established was the dominant notion that Eyes Wide Shut was indeed a complete masterpiece, just what the old master wanted to present to the world. Kubrick was allegedly very proud of the film, even considering it his greatest contribution to the world of filmmaking, and the palpable feelings of anxiety, perplexity and tension we experience every time we see the film somehow convince us Kubrick was not far from being right.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Stanley Kubrick & Frederic Raphael’s screenplay for Eyes Wide Shut [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
On the occasion of the LACMA retrospective, two of Kubrick’s friends and collaborators reminisced about the master director’s approaches, rituals, and concerns. Tom Cruise, who starred in Eyes Wide Shut, and former Warner Bros. head Terry Semel, who oversaw the production of many of Kubrick’s films, got together for a phone conversation that Annette Insdorf moderated in late August to discuss Kubrick’s brilliantly cinematic storytelling. Courtesy of Interview Magazine.

CRUISE: We discovered that we were both Yankees fans. But in that meeting, he didn’t really want to discuss certain subjects—like how he made certain pictures or the choices he made. But as time went on, we became great friends, and he just broke down for me all the sequences of his movies—starting with 2001—and how he came up with all the ideas for each shot. It was an incredible learning experience. Working with Stanley was a lot of fun because even though it may look like a very simple film, he was brilliant at getting under the audience’s skin. He was very interested in the idea of, “How can I tell this with just a camera?” I know the games that he and Sydney Pollack used to play back-and-forth. They would trade commercials back-and-forth and see how much of the dialogue could be taken out of the commercial while still retaining a story and also seeing what they could do visually with it. When you look at Eyes Wide Shut, there’s the sense of, “Is this a dream or is this a nightmare?” and how do you handle the aspects of the story in such a way that you’re not resorting to the usual visual techniques to say, “This is nightmare.”

You mean Kubrick was playing with formal structures?
He was pushing the film very hard. One fascinating thing about Barry Lyndon was that he used the Apollo lenses [still photography lenses developed for NASA, modified for film use]. The speed of those lenses is startling, and he used them to shoot in candlelight, which gives it that incredible depth of frame that he’s really known for. He likes those wide-angle lenses and he would often adjust the furnishing and the pictures on the wall. He understood those lenses completely, because a lens like that will bend the picture. It will alter it, and he made adjustments because he wanted that depth, he wanted the audience to feel the space. He was very selective when he went into a close-up. Every director has his taste in a performance, but Stanley would explore a scene to find what was most interesting for him. When you look at the lens choices with Jack Nicholson, for example, when he’s in the pantry leaning against the door and Stanley shoots up at him, its clear what an amazing eye he had. When you’re working with a filmmaker with that command of storytelling, you know right away that it’s his taste, it’s an extension of him. It’s not necessarily analytical. As an actor—like an artist—you have to ask, “Why do I choose a certain moment to play something a certain way?” It’s organic to who we are. I think you see through Stanley’s movies that his visual command was an extension of him. And in Eyes Wide Shut he was very much pushing the film. Every morning, I would go in early and we would look at the negatives together. We would look at the day’s rushes—not with sound, but we would look at the image, and he was checking the film to see how hard could he push it. There was an interesting moment during filming. We were shooting in the backlot of Pinewood Studios and he had built a set to resemble New York. We were working on a scene where I see that a guy is following me. He cast a very distinct-looking actor, a bald guy with a very particular wardrobe. In the shot, this guy walks across the street. We went back and looked at the video playback; we must have spent hours studying it, just to figure out what the behavior of this man should be like crossing the street. Finally, Stanley said, “Listen, when you’re crossing the street, please don’t stop staring at Tom.” It looks like a very simple thing, but behaviorally, it had a tremendous effect. He just immerses you with his tone. His tracking shot through the trenches in Paths of Glory is revolutionary. And it’s the same with the Steadicam shot in The Shining with [camera operator] Garrett Brown. That was a very difficult shot where the boy is racing from carpet to floor to carpet. That was the brilliance of Stanley: he knew how to use the medium of film and the camera and the lens, and, of course, also sound. He had such command of his craft.

Tom, were you amazed by how few people he had on the set?
Yeah. In all matters of the film, he was economical. He needed time to make the film, yes, but he also needed time to think about the film. The script, for him, was just the blueprint. And, as you know, as much as Stanley projected this notion of him as not being collaborative, he actually was incredibly collaborative. We had a $65-million budget for Eyes Wide Shut, and everyone thinks we ended up shooting for two years. But it wasn’t quite two years. I got there in August and he gave us a month off for Christmas and left about a year and a half later. But we had a lot of vacations in between. Stanley would allow us to break, and that would give him time to evaluate the film and look at the sets. So he knew what people he needed. And he was very smart about money. He never went back to Terry and asked for more. He stuck by the budget and did everything it allowed him to do—with the time he needed—to make his film.

6

SEMEL: I don’t think it can be overemphasized how hands-on he was on his projects. He never became the type of filmmaker to direct from a distance.

CRUISE: Earlier on in his career, he would do all the operating. When you look at The Shining, you see that he operated a lot. He did less so on Eyes Wide Shut, but even then, he didn’t want many people on the set. He wanted to keep it very contained and very intimate and personal. It was the least amount of crew I’ve ever had on a movie. I think he was always looking at “How do I bring things down to a simplicity?” Annette, you spoke about Paths of Glory. After that film, he went on to work with Kirk Douglas again on Spartacus. The original director for Spartacus was Anthony Mann, but Douglas replaced him with Stanley after the first week. And, of course, Stanley and [director of photography on Spartacus] Russell Metty didn’t get along, because Stanley, of course, really knew as much, if not more, about lighting and composition. Metty was used to, “You’re the director and you stand over there and I do my work over here.” He and Metty really came to blows on that. I think that experience changed Stanley’s feelings about Hollywood in terms of not wanting to go through that again.

SEMEL: I remember he would finish a film and come to me and say, “I, Stanley, want to create all the ad campaigns. I want to do all the PR. I want to be involved in every aspect of the movie.” He worked on every inch of how a movie got promoted. He did the trailer. He decided when it was going to open, and in which city. And all of this was done with the backdrop of, “No, I cannot leave London or the greater London area.”

CRUISE: The trailer for The Shining is stunning. And I think the one for Eyes Wide Shut is as well.

I remember François Truffaut telling me about 30 years ago that Kubrick had a hook-up in his home that alerted him when a projection bulb blew in a New York theater that was showing one of his films. This was before computers were part of our daily lives. Was he the most exacting perfectionist with whom you’ve ever worked?
SEMEL: Without question. He would get a list of the theaters that his movie would be opening in, and he would have his brother-in-law go from theater to theater taking photographs. Stanley was interested in how many people there were in the audience when the movie opened. His brother-in-law would photograph them coming in and out of the theater. So Stanley knew more about what was happening day by day than I did. [laughs] He’d call and say, “You gave me a list of all the theaters and I have photographs of them. This one doesn’t have good parking and the screen isn’t very good in this theater in Denver!” I’d say, “How do you know about this theater in Denver?” So this was not a man who just went out and made a movie. It was sad in fact that the final night before he died he had been going over every detail of Eyes Wide Shut—the ad campaign, the trailer, everything—and it was only week or two before it all came out. He was so good at that aspect of promotion, but he would often make this comment about other filmmakers: “Why in the world do they go on talk shows? Do they realize that they’re not celebrities? They make movies. Why are they there?”

CRUISE: He did not want to be a celebrity. You know, [the late director] Tony Scott worked on Barry Lyndon. He was in art school at the time. Tony told me that he wrote down the exact longitude and latitude of where Stanley wanted the camera, the exact height of the camera, and the time, to get the shot that Stanley wanted. Tony said he sat there for a couple of weeks trying to get the right light. Stanley really loved the Scott brothers. I’ve had long conversations about this with both Tony and Ridley. Stanley was a director who did not let people borrow or rent his lens. He never gave his Apollo lens to anyone. But when Ridley was having a really difficult time with the end of Blade Runner, Stanley gave Ridley footage that he had shot but didn’t use for the opening of The Shining. He was offering to let him use it for Blade Runner. That’s how highly Stanley thought of them.

I want to go back to something that you said, Tom, about his ability to get under the audience’s skin. In comparison to other contemporary filmmakers, his vision wasn’t upbeat or comforting. The choices he often made—a wide-angle lush exterior with a tiny human being in the center, or a crowded interior with few close-ups of the character, for example—give a sense of dehumanization. If you look at Eyes Wide Shut, the mansion is an arena where cold copulation is the norm and anonymity is the condition. Do you think that bleakness was an integral part of his vision?
SEMEL: He had a great sense of humor. I don’t think he saw any of that as being bleak.

CRUISE: In terms of the orgy scene, that’s how Stanley wanted it to feel. He wanted the audience to have that reaction. Here’s a guy going into the dark side of life. One of the themes that the film explores is jealousy—the wife never actually lived this fantasy that she had, and the husband goes on this journey where he feels, I’m going to do this. But nothing ever happens. He doesn’t sleep with the woman whose father has died. He doesn’t end up being able to participate in the orgy, and, as an audience, you wonder how much danger he was ever really in—you know what I mean? And yet, it does have to be dark. The character that I’m playing—and Stanley and I spoke about this—is using his title as a doctor as a way to open doors and as a weapon. Stanley’s own father was a doctor. People look at doctors like they know everything, and Stanley was very cynical about that—people using their titles or power to allow themselves into places and to exploit others and the situation. And the orgy is dark, but it’s not satisfying either—it’s a slow burn. In The Shining, there is the same slow burn. There is no cat that jumps out at you. It’s a slow, slow burn that gets under your skin, and it builds and becomes quite terrifying. He’s someone who definitely understood the tone of the story that he was telling and the consistency of tone. So I think, personally, when you watch Eyes Wide Shut, yes, it’s a disturbing film. But when we were shooting the end, Stanley said, “This is a happy ending.” We were in a toy store. As Terry said, he had an amazing sense of humor. And he was a lot of fun to be with.

Terry, was there any serious thought of releasing Eyes Wide Shut as an NC-17 film with no digital covering of nudity?
SEMEL: It was such a short period of time between Stanley’s death and the release of the film. I did not want our company to be responsible for changing Stanley’s view or adding things to Stanley’s view. I just decided in my own self that I was going to do everything I possibly could to make sure that the film got this rating. It’s Stanley’s movie. And I don’t want anyone else touching it or fooling with it. I don’t want to change history with it. I think the best parts of the film still shine. I just made sure that we got the rating so it could be in lots of theaters throughout the world.

CRUISE: Stanley wanted that. He wanted his movies to be huge successes. He did not want an NC-17 rating.

SEMEL: He would call me every other week to tell me to go back to the rating board. [laughs] To push them against the wall… Tom, do you want to talk about the final nights before he died?

CRUISE: What happened is, Stanley sent the final cut of Eyes Wide Shut to New York. And the four of us watched it—Terry and Jane and me and Nicole. We watched it twice in a row and went out to dinner after that. I had to leave after that for Australia to start filming Mission [Impossible 2, 2000]. You were on the phone talking with Stanley about the movie, going over everything—

SEMEL: That’s right. Stanley wouldn’t allow anyone else to see the cut. I think his nephew carried the print from England to a screening room in Manhattan. And he called that night—”What did you think? And how was this? And how was that scene?” He went through every bit of the film. And generally speaking, we were all very happy and excited. I said, “Stanley, I’m going to fly back to Los Angeles,” which is where I was living. “We’ll continue this tomorrow. We’ll talk about lots of details. You have notes, we have notes.” And then when tomorrow came, he was on the phone with me—which was not a rare occurrence—for many, many hours. And it was probably about three o’clock in the morning at that point, and he and I had been talking the entire time. And he went over every detail of how the movie would be released—of who would do it, of what it would look like, etcetera. It just went on and on and on. When it was about four o’clock in the morning, I said, “Stanley, I’m really tired. I’m going to go to sleep now. We can continue this conversation in the morning.” So I go to sleep, get up in the morning, and in those days we had an answering machine, and there were dozens and dozens of calls on the machine, starting with Stanley’s wife, who was insisting that they wake me up. He had died during that night. She said, “What was it like? What happened? Were you guys angry?” I said, “No, we were laughing for hours. We were going over everything on that film and we were in hysterics for hours—for many, many hours until sunlight was starting to come through.” We were all in a state of shock. I’m so happy to say that his life ended on a huge up-note of feeling success coming from his latest movie, Eyes Wide Shut. It was like a celebration on the phone for many, many hours and a lot of laughing. Later, we did an opening for Eyes Wide Shut for a charity in Los Angeles, and I got up to introduce the movie to the audience, and I said, “This is going to be my last movie at Warner Bros.” I think all of my colleagues and the whole company all stopped to say, “Terry, what did you just say?” I just felt there’s no way to top the experience with Stanley. And then didn’t we all fly back to his funeral in his backyard?

CRUISE: Yeah, we did. I was in Australia when I got the call. I talked to Stanley on the plane. We talked for about an hour, going through the film. And then I got the call. And we flew back for the funeral at his house in England. —Stanley Kubrick By Terry Semel, Tom Cruise

 
Cinematographer Larry Smith helps Stanley Kubrick craft a unique look for Eyes Wide Shut, a dreamlike coda to the director’s brilliant career. Courtesy of American Cinematographer.

Larry Smith notes that the filmmakers applied a classic trick in a rather unusual manner for a few medium shots of Harford walking restlessly along Manhattan streets. “In some of the scenes, the backgrounds were rear-projection plates,” the cinematographer reveals. “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. We had the plates shot in New York by a second unit [that included cinematographers Patrick Turley, Malik Sayeed and Arthur Jafa]. Once the plates were sent to us, we had them force-developed and balanced to the necessary levels. We’d then go onto our street sets and shoot Tom walking on a treadmill. 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.”

THE LAST MOVIE: STANLEY KUBRICK & ‘EYES WIDE SHUT’

Produced by the British television network Channel 4, The Last Movie: Stanley Kubrick & Eyes Wide Shut (1999) takes a look at the life and work of acclaimed filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, with special emphasis on the production of what proved to be his final film. Family, friends, and collaborators of the great director offer a glimpse into his working methods and personality, among them actors Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, fellow directors Steven Spielberg and Sydney Pollack, studio executive Terry Semel, Kubrick’s wife Christiane, and his daughters Anya and Katharina. Here, Kubrick is portrayed as an eccentric but stable man whose reclusive nature allowed him to go out in public when he chose without being recognized, who had a close and loving relationship with his family, and who could be difficult and challenging to work with. Another of Kubrick’s daughters, Vivian Kubrick, who made a documentary on the production of her father’s film The Shining (one of the few relatively close looks at Kubrick at work), did not participate in this film. —Mark Deming, Rovi

EYES WIDE SHUT MASKS

The great folks behind Forma Cinema, Massimiliano Studer and Filippo Biagianti, made an excellent documentary about the creators of the main venetian masks of Eyes Wide Shut. You can watch the documentary about Eyes Wide Shut masks with English subtitles. This little gem was recently broadcasted by RAI (Italian Public Television).


Open Vimeo video

Evan Puschak’s excellent video essay: Eyes Wide Shut: The Game.

 
With a photographer’s eye, a philosopher’s curiosity, and a searing intellect, Stanley Kubrick’s films have cut a distinctive path through cinematic history with a scope that is still hard to estimate. Here Charlie Rose talks with the late director’s widow Christiane, his lifelong friend Jan Harland, and adds modern master Martin Scorsese into the mix to round out the table. Christiane Kubrick provides heartwarming insight on their marriage, while Harland and Scorsese weigh in on why Kubrick’s films continue to provoke, compel, and stimulate new generations of filmgoers.

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Production still photographer: Manuel Harlan © Warner Bros., Stanley Kubrick Productions, Kubrick estate, SK Film Archives LLC. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in