The Craziest Moments in Stanley Kubrick's Career

There are directors who are known as actor-friendly. Then there is Stanley Kubrick, a filmmaker who was not too afraid to tell an actor to do a scene again and again and again and again. Some may call a director who asks an actor to do the simple task of walking through a door 95 times demanding, or even insane, while others simply call him a perfectionist. Either way, here are some of Stanley Kubrick's craziest moments.

Unlike a meticulous director like David Fincher, who’s known to do dozens of takes in order to achieve his vision, Kubrick did not come to a film set with a concrete plan. Fincher knew exactly what he wanted in his mind and would continually do take after take until his vision was achieved. Kubrick did not realize his vision until a production was already underway; he would ask actors for multiple takes because he didn’t really know what would work until he saw it in front of him.

No doubt, any actor who worked with Kubrick would admit that he was difficult. But we can’t argue with the finished products. There are very few directors who achieved cinematic greatness in so many different genres, from science fiction to war to horror. Sure, he pushed his actors to their limits in order to squeeze out every single ounce of their talent. However, the end product was The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Dr. Strangelove.

The next time you enjoy one of Kubrick's masterpieces, think about all the madness that had to happen behind the scenes to achieve these works of brilliance.

Photo: Warner Bros.

  • He Made Shelley Duvall Walk Backwards Up Stairs for 127 Takes

    He Made Shelley Duvall Walk Backwards Up Stairs for 127 Takes
    Video: YouTube

    The stories regarding Kubrick's treatment of actress Shelley Duvall during the filming of The Shining (1980) are legendary. The original shoot for the film was only supposed to last 17 weeks, but instead it lasted one year. In order to get the paranoia and fear Kubrick wanted from Duvall, he would constantly scream at her. The actress became so stressed and petrified during the filming that her hair began to fall out.

    Perhaps the most stressful scene is when Duvall's character Wendy is walking backwards up the hotel stairs, weakly swinging a baseball bat at her lunatic husband (Jack Nicholson). The scene took 127 takes, which broke the record for "most retakes of a single movie scene with spoken dialogue."

    But, of course, the thing is, that the scene is actually perfect. Duvall looks like she is riding on the edge of sanity, her eyes are blood-shot, she's shaking. Has an actress ever looked so terrified on screen? Is it even more terrifying to know that Duvall isn't really acting during this scene?

  • He Exhausted His Crew Getting His Big Wheel Steadicam Shot

    He Exhausted His Crew Getting His Big Wheel Steadicam Shot
    Video: YouTube

    In a movie filled with iconic scenes, The Shining's Steadicam shot of Danny riding around the Overlook Hotel may be the most memorable. The Steadicam was a fairly new invention in 1980; it allowed a cameraman to attach the camera directly onto to his body via a harness. This would create the same smooth effect of a camera on wheels or tracks, but would allow the cameraman more freedom of movement. Kubrick loved the idea of the Steadicam and decided to use it in the long take of Danny riding his Big Wheel.

    Cinematographer Garrett Brown took on the task of shooting the scene carrying a 60-pound Steadicam, which required him to walk behind Danny as he's riding the Big Wheel. However, Brown became "too winded" during the three-minute take and he couldn't get the lens low enough to the ground for the shot. (It needed to be 18 inches from the floor.) They first tried a skateboard, then a wheelbarrow, neither of which worked. Finally they were able to rig a wheelchair so Brown could sit in it while following the racing Danny. And because it's Kubrick, he needed at least 30 takes, and that tired out the man responsible for pushing Brown's wheelchair.

    Once again, it all seemed to be worth it in the end. The film's Steadicam long take is considered one of the most visually stunning achievements in filmmaking. The addition of the menacing sounds of Danny's Bigwheel going from wood floor to carpet to wood floor makes the scene even more memorable.


  • He Insisted on Making Something Green in a Black and White Movie

    He Insisted on Making Something Green in a Black and White Movie
    Video: YouTube

    Stanley Kubrick combined the war film with satire in 1964 with Dr. Strangelove, a black comedy about the Cold War. Even though the film is shot in black and white, the director insisted that the huge table used by top military officers while discussing blowing up Russia should be green and covered with the same exact felt material used on a poker table. He demanded it that way because he wanted the scene to  have the feeling of a poker game, with the military literally gambling on the lives of millions of innocent civilians. 

    Of course, this didn't make sense to the production crew. They didn't understand Kubrick's wishes, because the film is in black and white, and the audience would never notice the table's color or material. Kubrick responded to their criticism with "the actors will."

  • The Crew in Dr. Strangelove Became More Scared of Kubrick Than They Were of the FBI

    The Crew in Dr. Strangelove Became More Scared of Kubrick Than They Were of the FBI
    Photo: Columbia Pictures

    Imagine being so petrified of your boss that you're willing to steal Pentagon secrets. That may or may not have been the case on the set of Dr. Strangelove. The story goes that Kubrick wanted his design team to make their replica set of the B-52 Stratofortress bomber as accurate to the real-deal bomber as possible. However, the Pentagon's bomber was top-secret, and the film crew was not allowed to see what the inside of one really looked like.

    The set design team was able to get a photograph of the B-52's interior and take a look a real B-29 bomber, which has a similar design. With just those two things, Kubrick's crew was able to build the film's rocket with so much accuracy that real-life pilots called it "absolutely correct." Additionally, these pilots were shocked to see that the film's black box was in the correct location, the same as in the real bomber, even though that information was classified.

    The uncanny accuracy made Kubrick think that the crew had somehow broken into a real B-52. Could that be true? Was Kubrick's crew so scared of him that they would risk stealing Pentagon secrets in order to please the director?

  • He Wouldn't Let Matthew Modine Leave Set to See the Birth of His Son

    He Wouldn't Let Matthew Modine Leave Set to See the Birth of His Son
    Photo: Warner Bros.

    The filming for Kubrick's Vietnam war movie Full Metal Jacket (1987) lasted two years, and the entire movie was shot in London. The film's star, Matthew Modine, decided to keep a detailed diary during production, which he later published under the name Full Metal Jacket Diary.

    He was asked about how the film's shooting schedule coincided with the birth of his son during an interview with Unframed. The actor explained that his wife was going to need an emergency Cesarean because the baby was not growing the right way in the womb.

    Modine raced to the set to tell Kubrick that he needed to leave and could not work that day. The director's response: “What are you going to do? Are you going to stand in the operating room? You’ll faint as soon as they cut her open! You’ll see all that blood and you’ll pass out. You’re just going to be in the way of the doctors.”

    After Modine persisted that he needed to be there for his wife, Kubrick responded by yelling at him. This caused Modine to pull out a pocket knife and threaten to cut open his hand, so he would have to be taken to the hospital. Finally, Kubrick acquiesced, “Okay, but come back immediately after it’s done.”


  • He Recreated a War-Torn Vietnam City from a Toxic Gas Works Company

    He Recreated a War-Torn Vietnam City from a Toxic Gas Works Company
    Photo: Warner Bros.

    Kubrick spent months turning the condemned Beckton Gas Works in England into the ruined city of Hue, Vietnam. In order to recreate the war-torn city, Kubrick destroyed the gas works, blew up some buildings, and took a wrecking ball to other buildings. All he had to go by was a photograph of the city in 1969, which he wanted to create with as much exactness as possible.

    Modine stated in his diary that the gas-works-turned-movie-set was an "environmental disaster." It was filled with asbestos and other toxins that actually made the cast and crew sick.