Cinematographer Larry Smith helps Stanley Kubrick craft a unique look for Eyes Wide Shut, a dreamlike coda to the directors brilliant career.
In Viennese author Arthur Schnitzlers Traumnovelle (Dream Story), a seemingly happy marriage is nearly torn asunder when a prominent physician learns that his faithful wife has strayed in her imagination. Stunned by his spouses confession, the good doctor suffers Freudian feelings of emasculation that send him spiraling off on a compulsive quest for sexual validation and revenge. He wanders the nighttime streets, determined to regain his pride, and soon meets a succession of temptresses who steer him toward a reunion with an old college classmatea failed medical student who earns his living playing the piano. When the musician reveals that he occasionally plies his trade at masked orgies staged by wealthy and prominent citizens, the doctor insists on infiltrating that very evenings event, consequences be damned. Once he gains entrance, however, a sinister twist of fate threatens to derail both his marriage and his sense of security.
Schnitzlers novella, penned in 1926, fascinated legendary director Stanley Kubrick for several decades. The filmmaker finally took his first serious step toward adapting the material in 1994, when he began collaborating with noted screenwriter Frederic Raphael, who had earned an Academy Award for Darling (1965) and a nomination for Two for the Road (1967). Convinced that male-female relationships hadnt changed a great deal since Schnitzlers era, Kubrick told Raphael that he wanted to update the writers tale, which was set in 19th-century Vienna, to present-day New York.
The duo hewed closely to their source material, fashioning a dreamlike tale of sexual obsession that became a star vehicle for married actors Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, who were recruited to play Dr. William Harford and his art-curator wife, Alice. Production of the film began in November of 1996, and proceeded at a pace that could only be described as unusually deliberate, even by Kubricks standards. The film was finally completed in March of 1998 and released this past July, just four months after the filmmakers death.
Renowned for his exacting standards and perfectionist tendencies, Kubrick labored over every detail of the filmright down to the set dressings, which included paintings by his longtime spouse, Christiane. Famously unwilling to travel far from his home base in Hertfordshire, England, the filmmaker had elaborate Manhattan street sets constructed at Pinewood Studios. He also selected various other locations, including an estate in Norfolk that would serve as the site of the orgy, which ostensibly occurs on Long Island.
On one of these scouting trips, Kubrick brought along cinematographer Larry Smith, who had served as a gaffer on both Barry Lyndon and The Shining. The duo drove out to an estate that was being considered for the orgy sequence, and as they examined it from a distance, the director asked Smith how he would light the imposing edifice for a night exterior scene. After Smith detailed his strategy, the pair headed back to Kubricks home. "When we arrived at the house, he said to me, Well, do you want to shoot the movie?" Smith recalls. "It was as simple as that. This may sound strange, but I didnt say yes right away; I actually asked him if I could sleep on it! Because Id worked with Stanley before, I knew what kind of commitment he demanded. I knew it would be a long schedule and that Id have to be wrapped up in the project body and soul. Of course, deep down I knew right away that I was going to do it, and I told him so the next day. Obviously, most cameramen would give their right arm to work with Stanley, but ultimately, the reason I said yes was because wed been friends for more than 20 years, and he asked me personally if I wanted the job. That meant a lot to me."
Smiths association with Kubrick began in the early 1970s, when he was asked to serve as chief electrician on Barry Lyndon. Smith had carved out a career in exhibition lighting, but he had repeatedly found himself drawn to feature filmmaking, and he jumped at the chance. "At the time, I didnt really know too much about Stanley," he admits. "I knew he was an American movie director whose films had been very well-received. As soon as I began working on the show, though, I realized that Stanley was not an ordinary person; he had tremendous vision, as well as a unique and very charismatic presence. His personality was quite understated, but when people were around him, they didnt know quite how to comport themselves. They definitely became intimidated, even though he never resorted to tactics like shouting, screaming or foot-stamping. Rather, their uneasiness stemmed from the fact that he was a very smart man who asked intelligent and searching questions. Interacting with Stanley was a bit like playing tennis with a professional; if you were quick enough, you could hit the ball back to him, but if you werent, you wouldnt last long."
Smith himself managed to return Kubricks serve during a day of interior shooting on Barry Lyndon. The production was set up in one of the films stately manors, but it was raining heavily outside,where the crew had set up an array of Mini-Brutes on towers to illuminate the scene through the buildings windows, which were covered with tracing paper. "Things were going a bit slowly, and I was discussing the situation with the director of photography, John Alcott [BSC]," he remembers. "All of the lighting gear was mounted on metal platforms, and the crew was proceeding with caution. Up to that point, I hadnt had any personal interaction with Stanley, but he ambled over and said to me, Its raining out there, isnt it? I told him it was, and he asked, Is it dangerous? I answered, Well, thats what theyre saying. He replied, Youre communicating with the crew, so theyve obviously got radios, right? Arent the radios getting wet? I told him, No, they arent, because we wrapped them in polythene bags.
"Well, thats just what Stanley wanted to hear, and from that moment on, we got along famously," he says with a laugh. "I had a very happy friendship with him right up until he died."
Asked to outline Kubricks methodology on the set, Smith compares the director to a field general in the military, noting that "any general worth his salt knows that he has to have very good officers down through the ranks. Stanley wanted everybody on his projects to really know what they were doing; he needed to have complete confidence in the people around him. When youre working on a film as big as Barry Lyndon, with the vastness of the locations and the splendor of it all, you quickly realize that none of it happens by accident everything has to be very carefully thought-out and choreographed. Stanley had a lifelong fascination with Napoleon Bonaparte, and if he hadnt been a committed pacifist, I think he would have made a great military strategist, because he was very organized and good with logistics."
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