The “Writing Of” Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut

Frederic Raphael: There’s a lot of talk. You want a lot of talk?

Stanley Kubrick: I can’t say what I want. I want to do Arthur’s story (Schnitzler’s “Traumnovelle”), but in New York, now. That’s all I can tell you. I wish I could tell you more. I can’t.

This exchange is one of many cryptic conversations between two first-class filmmakers in the book we’ll be dealing with in this post. One, a celebrated award-winning writer, Frederic Raphael. The other one, a total filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick.

This book is about an essential part of the making –the writing– of a feature film which, sometime in their future, would obtain a cryptic title too, Eyes Wide Shut. The book where Frederic Raphael poured his memories of working with Kubrick is called Eyes Wide Open.

When Raphael was contacted by Kubrick, his main credits as a screenwriter were not small: Oscar winner for John Schlesinger‘s Darling (1965), Oscar-nominated for both Stanley Donen‘s classic Two for the Road (1967) and the film adaptation of Thomas Hardy‘s Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), directed again by Schlesinger. Hardly a beginner, hardly the new guy around.

Not short of controversy, the book Eyes Wide Open was criticised when it came out because of the way Kubrick was described in it. Kubrick’s wife Christian, Kubrick’s producer Jan Harlan, director Steven Spielberg and Eyes Wide Shut actor Tom Cruise were not happy with the way Kubrick was depicted in its pages and they all had a go at the author, Frederic Raphael -particularly because of some statements that they thought could lead to linking Kubrick with antisemitism. I am not going to go into that -if you are interested, please read the book and get your own opinion on the matter. Despite this, Kubrick fans have to be drawn to this account on How Eyes Wide Shut Was Written, as it’s made by someone who spent many months working with Stanley Kubrick.

If you require more context, please check Roger Ebert’s article Cruise opens up about working with Kubrick, The Guardian’s Eyes Wide Open and Variety’s Kubrick ‘Memoir’ shocks Spielberg.

Truth be told, Kubrick does not appear in this book in a very good light. But if you are familiar with another book about the writing of another Kubrick movie, The Lost Worlds of 2001, also by a film co-writer with Kubrick, the eminent Arthur C. Clarke, everything will ring a bell. Kubrick does not come out in that book nicely either, he appears like a person difficult to read, not an easy collaborator, with sudden changes of opinion, testing Clarke’s patience to the limit. What’s the truth about Kubrick? That he was a film genius, of course. The rest is just a guess. But these two books show us a bit of his human/professional side, and that is very appealing for us, film lovers. Good to know that geniuses are humans, after all. Often we forget.

If I had to summarise what the book really tells us, I would choose two main traits.

First, maybe the least relevant one (but a very interesting one for Kubrick lovers indeed): the secretive director’s small confessions and anecdotes on some aspects of his previous films, usually answering candidly to Raphael’s curiosity.

About Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

F.R.: Sellers was unbelievable. How did you get him to do that stuff? Was it all scripted?

S.K. He just did it. Know what I did? He was so great. But he couldn’t do it over. Once or twice, that was it. So what I did was, I set up like six cameras. First thing in the morning, Peter’d come in, he’d say when he was ready and I just let him do what he wanted to do.

About Barry Lyndon and film acting.

Only so much of a work of art can be foreseen. Stanley confessed to me, nothing in the story-board of Barry Lyndon, still less in the sketch characterization of the smaller roles, envisaged the brilliant invention of Leonard Rossiter as Captain Quin.

Not the least of Kubrick’s unrecognized skills was that of allowing space for the genius of others to flourish. If he had no patience with mediocrity, he could be accommodatingly deferential when it came to the talent he admired. Rossiter, he conceded, had made something unforgettable out of a cardboard character. Actors might be abused or worked to exhaustion, but Kubrick never regarded them, as Hitchcock was said to, as ‘cattle’.

About Full Metal Jacket‘s promotion.

After a while, we went into what had evidently been the billiard room. There were still markers and cue-racks in the walls, but no table. Most of the floor was covered with newspapers with unfamiliar print. When Kubrick went to pee, I look closely and saw that they came from Djakarta. On his return, I asked him what particularly interested him about Indonesia. He looked puzzled. I indicated the newspapers.”Oh”, he said, “not a lot. I was only checking the size of the ads for Full Metal Jacket. Making sure that they are as big as they should be according to the contract.”

About One-Eyed Jacks, the Marlon Brando film Kubrick ended up not directing.

I spent years trying to do a western, with Marlon.

The story of why, after 2 years of work, Kubrick never got to direct Brando’s film is a great one. Get the book and read it!

The main substance of the book, though, is about the creative voyage that Raphael does with Kubrick.

For months, Raphael scrutinizes Kubrick and, in doing so, explores the relationship between writers and directors. He does not spare criticisms.

We talked, but what did we achieve? Well, we lubricated the lines of communication. What does he want this movie to be? Is it that he can say or that he won’t? Why this movie? He won’t even say that. He can do anything he wants and he wants to do this, but he cannot say how or why, just that! Perhaps it is a puzzle that he has to solve, like a chess master who recognizes that the answer has to be a queen sacrifice, but cannot yet see how or why.

The writer may believe, with whatever degree of justice or modesty, that he has been responsible for the substance of a movie. If it had not been for his lonely work, before actors or technicians have been hired, nothing would have happened. If he is the prime mover (Aristotle’s term for God), he soon loses his primacy. The production -the film-making- takes place after he has completed most of his work. In the jostle of egos as filming begins, the less that is said about the script the better it probably is. The old saw is that movies are not written, they’re rewritten.

Longing to deserve the accolade of auteurship, directors often seek to append their names to the writing credits. Their habit is to be empowered to embellish scripts which they were powerless to begin. The writer may be crucial to the conception of a movie; he is seldom integral to the business of shooting it. He has to take his chances with what powerful directors or demanding stars will do when he is out of the way.

(…) (Stanley Kubrick) lives in England without England really knowing it; and without knowing England.

S.K. has been coshed by his own fame. He is, if anyone is, a thinking director. Hence, perhaps, his dread of the “conceptual”: he has no interest in purpose and refrains from declaring any big idea. He is so afraid of pretentiousness (and perhaps so attracted by it) that he refuses to say, maybe even to himself, why we are doing this story. He wants to strike out into undiscovered territory, but also to be sure that it contains the gold he needs to find there.

What is a little sad, these gloomy March morning, is the sense I have (and probably should always have had) that he does not want, and never wanted, a collaborator, but rather a skilled mechanic who can crank out the doss he will later turn to gold .

The principle what’s that I was free to do things again, but not to do them freely. Stanley was attentive to my pages, and alert to what he did not like, but he admitted that he was making no contribution: ‘I wish I could give you some input, but I can’t. I’m not a writer.’

Working for all those months with Stanley was like being in solitary confinement without the comfort of being alone.

I have never met anyone for whom a had less consistent feelings. I think I admire him still, I begin to sense the limitations of a film-making style which reveals an almost solipsistic lack of interest in character. His films are “about” situations, never about people.

I do not know him much better than I did at Christmas, though at much greater length. Perhaps he’s an enigma without the secret, a man who was abandoned motives: there is no sense in trying to divine the psychological make-up someone who is no longer interested in himself. He limits self-knowledge to having inflexible ambitions. I have to hope that making this film is still one of them.

Joe (All About Eve) Mankiewicz used to say that a good script had, in some sense, been directed already. That is not the kind of script Kubrick will ever want.

Sometimes (i.e. very often) I feel that I have been asked for a lift by a man who claims to admire both my driving and the power of my vehicle and who then, as I accelerate, asks why I have released the handbrake.

The Writing Of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut

One last quote from a dialogue between S.K. and F.R., so you get the tone of some conversations.

After reading a chunk of new scenes that Raphael has written, Kubrick has a question for him:

Stanley

How long did it take you, doing those pages?

F.R.

Forty years, plus however long it took.

Interested in the making of Eyes Wide Shut? There’s a book by Robert P. Kolker and Nathan Abrams about it, named Eyes Wide Shut: Stanley Kubrick and the Making of His Final Film.

If you want to know more about what Frederic Raphael has to say, check this article of his in The New Yorker here, and watch the 2 videos below!

More about screenwriting in Ten Amazing Discussions On Screenwriting And Filmmaking From The Masters Of Cinema, Save the Movie! The 2005 Screenwriting Book That’s Taken Over Hollywood — And Made Every Movie Feel The Same, Screenwriting Tech, Best Scriptwriting Books Ever: The Art of Dramatic Writing, On Screen Writing, According to Edward Dmytryk and Endings, amongst many other posts!