Twenty years after Stanley Kubrick’s death and the release of his last film, Eyes Wide Shut, the film and its director have reached a peak of popularity and public interest. The film met with a decidedly mixed reception on its original release as audiences, led to believe they were about to see an erotic film with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, discovered instead a deliberately paced, intellectually, and emotionally challenging meditation on marriage, fidelity, jealousy, domesticity, desire, and dreams.
Eyes Wide Shut took a full two years to shoot. But, more importantly, it was on Kubrick’s mind for 50 years. He began thinking of adapting Arthur Schnitzler’s fin-de-siècle Viennese novella, Traumnovelle, at the same time as he began making feature films in the early 1950s. There were many stops and starts along the way as Kubrick struggled to find the right way to do it. Finally, in the mid-1990s, he put his doubts to rest and plunged into the demanding task of making the movie that would become his last.
He gave the task of writing the initial screenplay to Frederic Raphael, a seasoned screenwriter, and the two clashed almost immediately. Feelings were so raw on Raphael’s part that he wrote an unflattering memoir of working with Kubrick, Eyes Wide Open. What Raphael failed to realize—or perhaps he realized it too well—was that he was something of a hired hand, someone to spark Kubrick’s imagination. As we see throughout the numerous drafts of the screenplay, Kubrick kept pushing and guiding Raphael’s hand. “NO!!” he writes in the margin. “Keep to A[rthur] S[chnitzler].” Or more intriguingly, as the orgy sequence was being written: “He should first be very sexy, then turn Pulp Fiction dangerous and brutal.” Raphael did as much as he could. Kubrick took over and finished the screenplay himself.
At the same time, Kubrick engaged in a typically detailed, all but obsessive, period of pre-production. Kubrick looked at everything—all the masks he could import from Venice for the orgy sequence; detailed measurements of Tom Cruise’s face for his mask. He sent out photographers to scour London, and other parts of the UK, for images that might be of use should he want to shoot on location. (As it turned out, much of the film, including the streets of Greenwich Village, was shot on studio sets.) He ordered catalogues of women’s underwear. He read widely not only books about Schnitzler, but Karen Horney’s work on psychology and a book called Cult and Occult, detailing bizarre sexual practices.
What followed was a shoot that was a remarkable period of concentration, patience, and working against Kubrick’s own biological clock. Despite deteriorating health, Kubrick insisted that every element in the film be exactly what he wanted, no matter how long it took. If a location was not to his liking, he moved on to another. If a set was not just so, he had it rebuilt. His actors—Cruise and Kidman—stuck with him throughout the arduous shoot. Others left, like Harvey Keitel, who was originally cast to play the role of Victor Ziegler and was replaced by Sidney Pollack. Begun in November 1996, the shoot was completed in June 1998. Months of editing followed.
Finally, in early March 1999, Kubrick sent a print of Eyes Wide Shut by air to New York (Kubrick never flew; in fact, he never traveled very far from home) where it was screened for Cruise, Kidman, and Warner Bros. executives. The projectionist was asked not to watch. Everyone was pleased with the film.
On March 7th, Kubrick died. He left much of the work of preparing a distribution print to family and co-workers, who made numerous small decisions, including blacking out figures in the orgy in order to get an “R” rating for the film and adding the pre-credit shot of Kidman dropping her dress, one of the “erotic glimpses” that Kubrick had filmed. Kubrick had always tinkered with a film before, and sometimes after, distribution, famously cutting 20 minutes from 2001: A Space Odyssey during its initial run. This has led to much speculation about whether the Eyes Wide Shut we have is the film Kubrick would have wanted us to have had he lived. The question, of course, is moot, an unsatisfying quest for what might have been. The film we do have tells a complete, if enigmatic, story of male sexual instability, of an uncertain reconciliation of a couple whose marriage had become ferment because a wife admits that she has sexual longings, of a world in a liminal state between dream and waking.
Despite the ongoing conspiracy theories that have surrounded the film’s orgy sequence, the film is not about the Illuminati or child sex trafficking, but rather the instability of seeing and desiring, of being certain in one’s gender, sexuality, and marriage. It is about class and power and the masks used to keep our identities from ourselves and others. The negative reviews that greeted the film’s opening have been replaced by serious scholarly inquiry into its enigmas. The Stanley Kubrick Archive at the University of the Arts in London have offered unparalleled access to the director’s working methods, offering detailed information on the particulars of his creative process on this and all his films. Eyes Wide Shut itself keeps opening new insights on each viewing, new interpretations—like a dream.
Featured image credit: Masks from the film Eyes Wide Shut displayed at Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibit, TIFF, Canada. Photo by Carlos Pacheco. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.