Eyes Wide Shut Took Stanley Kubrick's Exhausting Methods Even Further Than The Shining

Before Stanley Kubrick died in 1999, he was seemingly determined to take his famously perfectionist practices to a new level. His final film, "Eyes Wide Shut," took an incredible 15 months of production, including an unbroken 46-week run, making it the world record holder for the longest continuous film shoot. From the fall of 1996 to January 1998, Kubrick subjected the film's two married stars, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, to his often grueling approach, even recalling the actors back for reshoots in May of '98.

The auteur's singular method, which involved demanding multiple takes of single scenes and an extreme level of control over his projects, seemingly worked in his favor throughout his career — even if it had almost given Shelley Duvall an anxiety attack on "The Shining" back in 1978. Some 20 years before shooting "Eyes Wide Shut," Kubrick had unleashed a particularly exacting form of perfectionist control on Duvall, infamously showcased in his daughter, Vivian's, behind-the-scenes documentary. Despite what amounted to emotional abuse in that instance, for better or worse, the director's reputation as one of the greats endures to this day.

But that didn't stop stories of Kubrick's perfectionism circulating for decades before his sudden death six months before the release of "Eyes Wide Shut." His widow and three daughters have since tried to dispel the myths that grew around the renowned director, with his daughter Anya, saying, "It's a kind of sloppiness to say that someone who was a perfectionist, which he certainly was, was also an obsessive ... There are certain themes — his being a recluse, being an obsessive — that are journalistic exaggerations of his characteristics." 

But if you asked Tom Cruise after shooting "Eyes Wide Shut," you might get a different story.

Breaking down the idea of performance

Back in the late-70s, Kubrick had challenged the great Jack Nicholson's acting philosophy on "The Shining," famously making the actor shoot 60 takes for one scene — an example of his career-long commitment to getting the perfect take. As explained by Amy Nicholson in Vanity Fair, in practice that commitment involved "repeated takes designed to break down the idea of performance altogether," forcing actors to reach an exhausted state where the notion of performance almost disappears and they can "rebuild and discover something that neither [Kubrick] nor they expected."

That continued right up to production on "Eyes Wide Shut," where Kubrick reconstructed entire New York City neighborhoods at England's Pinewood Studios. It's often reported he would shoot in his adopted UK due to his fear of flying. But for someone so committed to meticulous control over his projects, there was surely some appeal in having the ability to construct sets from scratch and have a say over every prop and set decoration. Hey, if you can convince people North London is actually Vietnam, then bringing NYC to the English countryside shouldn't be that much more difficult, right? Especially if, as Amy Nicholson recounts, you send a designer to NYC to "measure the exact width of the streets and the distance between newspaper vending machines."

And when it came time to shoot on his fabricated Manhattan, Kubrick brought his infamous shooting philosophy with him. Luckily, Cruise and Kidman seemed willing to accommodate their idiosyncratic director. According to director Todd Field, who appeared in "Eyes Wide Shut," the pair were "completely subservient," and "prostate[d] themselves at the feet of [Kubrick]." So when, as Amy Nicholson claims, the director demanded "that Cruise do 95 takes of walking through a door," the actor was seemingly happy to oblige.

'I demand a lot of myself'

Since wrapping on "Eyes Wide Shut," Cruise has remained surprisingly positive about his experience, defending Kubrick's methods and even blaming himself for much of the perfectionist energy on-set. In the Vanity Fair piece, he's quoted as saying, "In times when we couldn't get it, it was just like, 'F***!' I'd bring it upon myself because I demand a lot of myself." But no matter how much Cruise deflected, the facts suggest he wasn't coping too well. He suffered from an ulcer during production and reportedly tried to hide it from his director, while co-star, Vinessa Shaw, claimed Kubrick's method took the actor from "gung ho" at the start to "still into it, but not as energetic."

Considering the strict rules Kubrick had for Cruise and Kidman, which involved keeping them apart as much as possible, on top of his exhausting filming method, it's remarkable that the stars haven't been more negative. Cruise has since remained consistent in his defense of the director, telling Roger Ebert that Kubrick had "made 13 perfect visions," and that he was "just proud to have been part of it." He also claimed there was a jovial atmosphere on-set, saying:

"I'd show up on the set and we'd find ourselves singing a song, goofing around, and we'd rehearse the scene, and he'd ask, 'What are we gonna shoot the rest of the week?' And I'd say, 'Oh, Stanley, please don't say that!' Because at the end of the week, we'd still be working on that same scene, and he would laugh at himself."

Meanwhile, Kidman told the Wall Street Journal in 2020 that she appreciated Kubrick's, "Ability to not give you answers, yet stoke a fire," praising his process as, "So deeply unusual," and seeming generally positive about her experience.

Kubrick's indefinable perfectionism

Despite his family's attempts to play down his obsessive side, Kubrick clearly had one, and it would often manifest itself in ugly ways. But there's more to it than that: The director's penchant for meticulous planning wasn't designed to make his actors or production crew miserable; rather, it was part of his general philosophy on filmmaking. As he told Sight&Sound when asked how much planning he does before shooting as scene, he said:

"As much as there are hours in the day, and days in the week. I think about a film almost continuously ... but I have found that when you come down to the day the scene is going to be shot and you arrive on the location with the actors, having had the experience of already seeing some of the scenes shot, somehow it's always different ... The reality of the final moment, just before shooting, is so powerful that all previous analysis must yield before the impressions you receive under these circumstances."

In this light, Kubrick seems like a bit of a paradox — basically planning as much as someone can, all the while knowing that the real magic was going to be captured in the spontaneous moments on-set. In that sense, you could say his perfectionist side came out in the planning, and his obsessive side came out in the shooting. He was obsessed with finding the perfect take, even if it took 94 other takes to get it. For some, that's too much. For the man who isn't fazed by the idea of being blasted into space for a movie, it was all in a day's work.