Starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, the film was Stanley Kubrick's last work before his death

By Benjamin Svetkey
July 23, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
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The following appeared in the Jul. 23, 1999 issue of EW. 

”Nicole and I talk about it so much at night. When we’re 70 years old, sitting on the front porch, we’ll be able to look back and say, ‘Wow! We made this movie with Stanley Kubrick!’ We know it may take a long time to finish, but we don’t care. We really don’t.”

That was Tom Cruise in younger, more innocent days, way back in November 1996, just weeks into shooting Eyes Wide Shut. At the time, the poor guy figured it would take six months to finish the film, eight at the most. ”We’ll be done by June,” he cheerily predicted. ”But however long it takes is fine with us.”

Well, he got the month right, anyway: The cameras finally stopped rolling on Eyes in June — of 1998 — ending one of the longest shoots ever bankrolled by a major studio (or at least the longest since Kubrick’s last two-year production).

Also one of the most gossiped about. Like a lot of the late great director’s movies, Eyes was shot in total secrecy, its sets at Pinewood Studios in England locked tighter than that CIA vault Cruise dangled into in Mission: Impossible. Whatever the film’s married costars were up to inside Kubrick’s sealed soundstages — one (false) rumor had Cruise wearing a dress — the world would have to wait to find out. And wait. And wait some more.

Not anymore. This week, Kubrick’s final film — he died at 70 of a heart attack just days after screening a finished cut — will at long last unspool. All the speculation about its plot (”a story of sexual jealousy and obsession” is all Warner Bros. had said about the production) will finally be over. All the questions about how kinky (and naked) Cruise and Kidman would get will finally be answered.

Still, there is one mystery that won’t be revealed on screen this week. And it’s this: Those two years Kubrick took to finish Eyes? How exactly did he spend them? How, precisely, did he make the movie? And — most titillating of all — what was it like inside those closed sets, where the world’s most demanding director held Hollywood’s most powerful couple hostage for so long they almost did end up in rocking chairs on their front porch?

To solve that mystery, all you have to do is keep your ears wide open.

”He was a really normal guy,” Kidman said of Kubrick shortly after his funeral last March. ”A really smart, really great guy. We were even talking about doing another film together.”

Kubrick has been called many things over the years — brilliant, inspiring, abrasive, tyrannical — but ”normal” is a new one. Rumors of his eccentricities ranged from the mildly loopy (never motoring over 35 miles per hour) to the oddly paranoid (he was said to be terrified of America, even though he grew up in the Bronx) to the downright notorious (he supposedly drove actors mad with his relentless perfectionism, insisting on shooting retake after retake). Obsessively private and press shy, he seldom left England and almost never attended public events (recent photographs are almost impossible to find). Which, of course, only made him more fascinating.

But according to the actors of Eyes Wide Shut — like 35-year-old Todd Field (Twister, Walking and Talking), who labored for seven months playing a jazz musician in the film — it turns out the roly-poly, fuzzy-faced filmmaker was an altogether different sort of man. Meet Kubrick the Cuddly. “He could be like a little boy,” says Field. “His sense of humor went from very highbrow to very lowbrow. One minute he’d make the most sophisticated joke, like out of a Preston Sturges movie, and the next he’d be doing Steve Martin imitations from The Jerk. He thought that part where Steve Martin doesn’t have any rhythm was just hysterical.”

But don’t get your hopes up: There are no funny balloon animals or fake-arrows-through-the-head gags in Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick’s cinematic corpus closes on a serious, surreally pervy note, with an R-rated $65 million psycho-drama that has Cruise and Kidman playing an upscale Manhattan couple who make the relationship-rocking mistake of discussing their deepest sexual fantasies. A blue movie with stars is how Kubrick described it — or at least how he described a very similar concept he and screenwriter Terry Southern noodled around with some 35 years ago, while working on their script for Dr. Strangelove.

“Like a lot of people of my generation, I think Stanley felt he missed the sexual revolution,” muses 67-year-old Eyes screenwriter Frederic Raphael (Two for the Road, Darling). “We all felt like we were born too early or too late for the orgy. And Stanley was curious about that. Also, it was a genre — the sexual relations film — he’d never attempted before. As a director, I think he’d been wanting to explore that for a long time.”

He didn’t get the chance to explore it with Southern (the two had a falling-out over credit for Strangelove, although the writer, who died in 1995, did end up penning a 1970 novel called Blue Movie, dedicated to “Stanley K”). Instead, Kubrick went on to lens such unsexy masterpieces as 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and The Shining. But he remained curious, finding inspiration for his A-list sex flick idea in — of all places — obscure early-20th-century Germanic literature. Specifically, Traumnovelle, a 1926 novella by Arthur Schnitzler about a Viennese couple who take a walk on the uberspannt side.

Kubrick purchased the screen rights to the book around 1970 (actually, he had his pal Jay Cocks, then a TIME magazine reporter, now a screenwriter, buy them for him, to hide his interest in the project), but sat on the concept for another couple of decades. Then, in 1994 — seven years after the release of his penultimate film, Full Metal Jacket — he suddenly got interested again, hiring Raphael to update Schnitzler’s story in a screenplay. It turned out not to be such a sexy assignment (“I was Gaul and he was Caesar,” Raphael says of the collaboration), but it did provide the writer with plenty of material for a dissy, dishy memoir called Eyes Wide Open, published last month in a breach of the Kubrick code of silence that’s infuriated the director’s family, studio, and many of Eyes‘ actors. (“If you write about this sacred conflict, cast me as Spartacus, leader of the slaves,” Raphael requests.)

According to Raphael’s tell-all, Kubrick had always intended on casting a married couple for the film — although the pair he thought of first were Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. But after Cruise and Kidman helicoptered to Kubrick’s English estate to take a meeting — holding hands the entire time, Raphael reports — the roles belonged to them. There were no problems filling the film’s other parts, either; in fact, Kubrick filled some of them twice. Harvey Keitel was originally cast as Cruise’s millionaire orgy-going bud but was replaced by Sydney Pollack when scheduling conflicts came up during filming. Jennifer Jason Leigh also left in mid-production (scheduling problems again, not acting ones), with Swedish actress Marie Richardson taking over her small role.

Meanwhile, Kubrick’s craftsmen set about erecting New York City on Pinewood’s backlots, re-creating Greenwich Village to painstakingly precise specifications. Kubrick went so far as to send workmen to Manhattan to measure street widths and note newspaper vending machine locations. He also dispatched cameramen to shoot real New York footage for rear-screen projection scenes of Cruise strolling around town (a cinematic trick that long predates the work of today’s digitized directors).

Because of the nature of the material — and also because it‘s how Kubrick always worked — filming on Eyes was an intensely intimate affair. Kubrick himself usually manned the camera, allowing only a handful of crew on the set. One outsider permitted to watch the proceedings was 29-year-old Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson (Cruise, who’ll be appearing in Anderson’s follow-up, Magnolia, smuggled him past security). “Kubrick had a really small crew,” recalls Anderson. “I asked him, ‘Do you always work with so few people?’ He gave me this look and said, ‘Why? How many people do you need?’ I felt like such a Hollywood a–hole.”

Although Raphael had spent two years toiling on scores of different drafts of the film, much of Eyes ended up being reworded on the fly. “We’d rehearse and rehearse a scene,” explains Field, “and it would change from hour to hour. We’d keep giving the script supervisor notes all the time, so by the end of the day the scene might be completely different. It wasn’t really improvisation,” he clarifies. “It was more like writing.”

Sometimes the rehearsing/rewriting process would go on all day. Then, finally, Kubrick would let the cameras roll. And roll. “Time was not of the essence,” understates Vinessa Shaw, the 23-year-old former teen star (Ladybugs) who signed on for a two-week stint playing a prostitute and ended up shooting for two months. “I remember one time, around three in the morning, I did my 69th take of a scene. Iheard somebody say, ‘Wow! That must be a record.’ And then I ended up doing 20 more takes.” Not that she’s complaining: “It gives you a real sense of freedom,” she goes on. “Doing a scene over and over, all of a sudden you see it as completely different. It gives you a chance to explore.”

She wasn’t the only Eyes cast member who found Kubrick’s compulsiveness exhilarating — at least at the beginning. “He’s got amazing energy,” Cruise gushed during those early weeks of shooting. “You work on a scene and you work on it and work on it — and you know you are not going to leave that shot until it‘s right.” Still, even Cruise’s enthusiasm started to flag by the end. “I was there for a month early on and Tom was so gung ho,” Shaw recalls. “And then I came back for another month at the end of the shoot and there was a difference. He was still into it, but not as energetic.” In fact, Cruise had developed an ulcer during filming.

For Kidman, the long hours and multiple retakes were the easy part. “As an actor, you have to be very truthful,” she explains, “and that can be difficult on a marriage. It was almost like discovering a new aspect of each other, which was exciting but also scary. People ask me, ‘God, why did you put yourselves through all that?’ And it is a strange thing for a couple to do. It‘s strange that all that stuff is going to be out there on the screen. There aren’t a lot of directors we’d do that for. But Stanley was much more than a director to us.”

He was much more than a director in other ways as well. After filming wrapped, he supervised the editing, as he did on most of his pictures, splicing miles of footage into a 2-hour-35-minute film. He was also the movie’s de facto marketer, laying out every detail of the picture’s publicity campaign (his widow, Christiane, 67, now has final say on marketing decisions). And he was always his best — or at least harshest — critic, working on his films up to the very last minute, and sometimes beyond (he cut The Shining by four minutes after its release).

What tweaks he might have made on Eyes we’ll never know (those digitized bodies that were posthumously inserted into the orgy scene, Austin Powers-style, to avoid an NC-17 rating, could’ve turned out differently, for one thing). “I think Stanley would have been tinkering with it for the next 20 years,” Kidman believes. “He was still tinkering with movies he made decades ago. He was never finished. It was never perfect enough.”

Not enough for him, perhaps. But to the rest of the world, no director ever came closer to perfection. Certainly none ever pushed harder or labored longer to achieve it. Just ask the older, wiser Tom Cruise. You can probably find him on his front porch, sipping a glass of warm milk.

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