Eyes Wide Shut at 15: Inside the Epic, Secretive Film Shoot that Pushed Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman to Their Limits
Kubrick's obsession with secrecy so infected his cast and crew that no one has ever spoken about it in detail. The day-to-day life on set can only be inferred from facts and hints. The most major fact: Eyes Wide Shut was exhausting. Kubrick had asked Cruise and Kidman to commit to six months. When they landed in London in the fall of 1996, the couple fully expected to return to Hollywood by spring. Instead, they stayed on through the summer, fall, and another Christmas. Filming wrapped in January of 1998, but in May they were summoned back for more months of reshoots. Altogether they'd spend 15 months on Eyes Wide Shut, the Guinness World Record for the longest continual film shoot.
"Stanley had figured out a way to work in England for a fraction of what we pay here," explained Sydney Pollack, who joined the cast as the corrosive tycoon Victor Ziegler after the extended shooting forced original actor Harvey Keitel to cry uncle and drop out. "While the rest of us poor bastards are able to get 16 weeks of filming for $70 million with a $20 million star, Stanley could get 45 weeks of shooting for $65 million." Though every six months Cruise spent in London cost him another $20 million film he wasn't making—plus he had the fledgling Cruise/Wagner production company to oversee—he swore to the press he had no qualms about his extended art house sabbatical.
"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?'" said Cruise. "People were waiting and writers were waiting. I'd say, 'Stanley, I don't care—tell me it's going to be two years.'"
Kubrick is legendary for his perfectionism—to reconstruct Greenwich Village in London, he sent a designer to New York to measure the exact width of the streets and the distance between newspaper vending machines. But his approach to character and performance was the opposite. Instead of knowing what he wanted on the set, he waited for the actors to seize upon it themselves. His process: repeated takes designed to break down the idea of performance altogether. The theory was that once his actors bottomed-out in exhaustion and forgot about the cameras, they could rebuild and discover something that neither he nor they expected. During The Shining, he'd put Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall through 50 takes to figure out what he wanted, causing Duvall to have a nervous breakdown. For Eyes Wide Shut, given his stars' extreme pliancy and eagerness to please, Kubrick went further, once insisting that Cruise do 95 takes of walking through a door.
"In times when we couldn't get it, it was just like, 'Fuck!'" admitted Cruise. "I'd bring it upon myself because I demand a lot of myself." But what he never asked—at least, not openly in the press—was if there was an "it" Kubrick wanted him to get. After all, a director who demands 95 takes could be exacting—or conversely, he could be ill-prepared and uncommunicative. Cruise's overpreparation had served him well in the past. Not here. He got an ulcer, and tried to keep the news from Kubrick. At its core, the Cruise/Kubrick combination seems cruel: an over-achieving actor desperate to please a never-satisfied auteur. The power balance was firmly shifted to Kubrick, yet to his credit, Cruise has never complained.
Kubrick defenders—Cruise included—insist the legend was fully in command. "He was not indulgent," Cruise insisted to the press. "You know you are not going to leave that shot until it's right." Yet it's hard not to see indulgence when even small roles demanded prolonged commitment, like starlet Vinessa Shaw's one-scene cameo as a prostitute, which was meant to take two weeks and ended up wasting two months. Adding to the peril, Kubrick also refused to screen dailies, a practice Cruise relied on. "Making a movie is like stabbing in the dark," the actor explained. "If I get a sense of the overall picture, then I'm better for the film." 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.
Adding to the actor's peril was the part's personal and emotional risk. Kubrick decided to find his story through psychoanalyzing his stars, prodding Cruise and Kidman to confess their fears about marriage and commitment to their director in conversations that the three vowed to keep secret. "Tom would hear things that he didn't want to hear," admitted Kidman. "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." The line between reality and fiction was deliberately blurred. The couple slept in their characters' bedroom, chose the colors of the curtains, strewed their clothes on the floor, and even left pocket change on the bedside table just as Cruise did at home.
"As an actor, you set up: there's reality, and there's pretend," explained Kidman. "And those lines get crossed, and it happens when you're working with a director that allows that to happen. It's a very exciting thing to happen; it's a very dangerous thing to happen." Added Cruise, "I wanted this to work, but you're playing with dynamite when you act. Emotions kick up." At least the two actors had an auditory cue to distinguish fact from fiction: on camera, Kidman changed her Australian accent to American. But there was also external tension pressing down on their performances as both actors—especially Cruise—were media savvy enough to recognize that audiences would project Bill and Alice's unhappiness on their own marriage, which was already a source of tabloid fodder. Even during the course of filming, the couple had to successfully sue Star magazine for writing that they hired sex therapists to coach them.
Kubrick's on-set wall of secrecy even divided Cruise and Kidman. To exaggerate the distrust between their fictional husband and wife, Kubrick would direct each actor separately and forbid them to share notes. In one painful example, for just one minute of final footage where Alice makes love to a handsome naval officer—an imaginary affair that haunts Bill over the course of the film—Kubrick demanded that Kidman shoot six days of naked sex scenes with a male model. Not only did he ask the pair to pose in over 50 erotic positions, he banned Cruise from the set and forbade Kidman to assuage her husband's tension by telling him what happened during the shoot.
Co-star Vinessa Shaw would eventually admit Kubrick had exhausted the once-indefatigable actor, confessing that compared to Cruise's "gung ho" first months of shooting, by the end, "He was still into it, but not as energetic." Still, when gossip columnist Liz Smith wrote that the Eyes Wide Shut set was miserable, Cruise quickly fired back a letter insisting that his and Kidman's relationship with Kubrick was "impeccable and extraordinary. […] Both Nic and I love him." Added actor and director Todd Field, on set for six months to play the pivotal role of the piano player Nick Nightingale, "You've never seen two actors more completely subservient and prostrate themselves at the feet of a director." However, Cruise's devotion to Kubrick's massive mystery masterpiece would prove damaging to his screen image.
Good vs. Right
It's hard to love Cruise's character, Dr. Bill Harford. He's closed off and slippery, a cipher whose choices don't make consistent sense. What personal history screenwriter Frederic Raphael had included in the original drafts—Harford's strained relationship with his father, his guilt over his prurient interest in female anatomy—Kubrick had purged from the script, leaving Cruise to play a shallow voyager who only serves to lead the audience on an odyssey of sexual temptation. Also on the page but deleted from the final film is Bill's explanatory voice-over that invited the audience to understand his feelings. Worse, Kubrick deliberately shunned including the Tom Cruise charisma fans expected in his performance, raising the question of why he cast Cruise at all. Why ask the biggest star in the world to carry your film and then hide his face under a mask for 20 minutes?
Though this is a story of sexual frustration—an emotion Cruise had played with conviction in Born on the Fourth of July—and jealousy, which is just the darker twin of Cruise's signature competitive streak, his performance in Eyes Wide Shut feels flat. He'd done vulnerability better in Jerry Maguire and had captured neutered paralysis a decade and a half before in Risky Business. Yet in nearly all of Eyes Wide Shut's key emotional moments—his wife confessing to her first and second psychological "betrayals," his patient's daughter professing her love over her father's corpse, nearly kissing a call girl's corpse in the morgue, being unmasked at the orgy—Cruise's face is stiff and visibly unfeeling, almost as if he never took the mask off at all.
Cruise's blankness makes Eyes Wide Shut take on an element of kabuki theater, the art form where emotional perception—not projection—is key. The whole film feels like an exercise in theatricality, as though Dr. Bill is not a person but a prop. This isn't a movie about a human possessed with distrust and jealousy—it's a movie about distrust and jealousy that simply uses a human as its conduit. With Cruise hidden in a mask and robe, the intention is to hide his individuality in the service of a larger ritualistic machine. Even in his scene with the impossibly sweet prostitute played by Vinessa Shaw, their conversation about how much cash for which physical acts doesn't spark with lust but limps along like the characters themselves are merely performers recognizing that this is the negotiation that is supposed to take place. "Do you suppose we should talk about money?" he asks—it's as if their whole conversation is in air quotes.
To critique Tom Cruise's performance in Eyes Wide Shut, it's important to distinguish between good and right. Measured against any of his previous screen roles, his acting reads as terrible. It's artificial, distant, and unrelatable. However, the terribleness of his performance translates into a tricky logic puzzle. On-screen, we're given only one take of the 95 attempts that Cruise shot. If Kubrick was a perfectionist who demanded Cruise repeat himself 95 times on the set, and in the editing room rejected 94 of those takes, then the "terrible" take Kubrick chose must be the take that Kubrick wanted. What feels flat to the audience must have felt correct to the director, so even though it's hard to appreciate Cruise's performance, at least one person must have thought the chosen take was perfect: Stanley Kubrick. And for Cruise, a perfectionist himself who was determined to make his master happy, we're forced to defend the "badness" of his performance by recognizing him as an excellent soldier following orders.
Yet critics under the sway of thinking that the great Kubrick could do no wrong and Cruise, the popcorn hero, could do little right, blamed the actor for the director's choices and groaned that "Our forever boyish star just can't deliver." The irony, however, is that in 45 years of filmmaking, Kubrick had never asked his actors to deliver. His films had earned Oscar nominations for their acting only twice: Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Peter Ustinov in Spartacus (1960). In his much shorter career, Cruise himself had earned as many Oscar nods. That fact alone speaks to the limited value the director placed on acting—to Kubrick, his cast was merely a tool for his vision and individual performances subservient to his intimidating authorial style. Kubrick's disinterest in actors is evident even in Eyes Wide Shut's credits, which despite including two directors (Pollack and Field) and two great character actors (Alan Cumming and Rade Serbedzija) filled the rest of its cast with new faces and 10th-billed TV actors. As much as Cruise wanted Eyes Wide Shut to prove, yet again, that he could act, Kubrick clearly had scant interest in giving him the opportunity.
Cruise made himself vulnerable before Kubrick and his devotees, but instead of being rewarded for his emotional and financial sacrifice, audiences dismissed his performance as callow. He couldn't even ask his by-then dead-and-buried director for support. Eyes Wide Shut's fallout wasn't flattering: he was blamed for the film's failure, and the tabloids took a savage interest in his marriage, which would last only two more years. Yet Cruise continues to defend his two years of hard work. "I didn't like playing Dr. Bill. I didn't like him. It was unpleasant," admitted Cruise a year later in the only public criticism he's ever given. "But I would have absolutely kicked myself if I hadn't done this."
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