Stanley Kubrick: Launching Full Metal Jacket
June 5, 2010 18 Comments
Like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket pierces into the military mentality and highlights the futility and inevitability of war. In essence, the film is told in two distinct, yet comparable parts. The first section of the film is Parris Island, South Carolina – boot camp. It is a terrifying and lifelike look at the creation of turning young, naïve American men into absolute killing machines. The second section is the inescapable aftermath. Always drawn to the dark side of the human experience, Kubrick used the war genre to explore the basic evil inherent in man. In fact, images of the violent nature in man spanned over five decades of work of the unrivaled Stanley Kubrick, from 2001 to A Clockwork Orange to Barry Lyndon.
There are surely other spectacular movies made about the war experience (Coming Home, The Green Berets, Apocalypse Now, et al), but Full Metal Jacket is unlike any of them. Not to say it’s a better film…it’s just, well Kubrickian. It is what Kubrick’s very personal perception of war in general symbolizes. Unlike other Vietnam films, Full Metal Jacket was not made in direct response to the war. I always thought also that Kubrick’s film suffered unfair comparisons to Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning Platoon. Platoon had come out only one year earlier and had won four Oscars just months before the release of Full Metal Jacket. But Platoon is a more traditional war film. Kubrick himself had publicly expressed his respect for Stone’s movie, but thought that it catered to its audience too much. “I liked Platoon,” Kubrick said. “I think Platoon tried to ingratiate itself a little more with the audience. But then, I have enough faith in the audience to think that they are able to appreciate something which doesn’t do that. At least you’re not bored.”
Full Metal Jacket was Stanley Kubrick’s 12th motion picture. Released in 1987, it took in a respectable $46 million domestic at the box-office, and did very well overseas. The film completed his own war trilogy (following Fear and Desire and Paths of Glory) that spanned over 35 years. Shooting began in the summer of 1985 and ended September 1986. This is not a review of the film – though I find it to be an important, haunting, and brilliant film – but rather the story behind the making of what is one of cinema’s grandest achievements in the genre of war films.
IN SEARCH OF A PROJECT
After the release and commercial success that followed The Shining in 1980, iconic film director Stanley Kubrick wasted no time in trying to find out what his next film would be. He had no idea what the subject matter would be, but he spent time doing research, screening material, and reading in hopes that he would soon be inspired. During that time, Arthur C. Clarke had written a sequel to his 2001 novel, 2010: Odyssey Two. MGM had acquired the rights and asked Kubrick if he had any desire to direct the movie; an offer that Kubrick turned down and personally gave his seal of approval to Peter Hyams to forge ahead with the project. Kubrick considered a film about war. Not unfamiliar terrain to him. Not surprisingly, Kubrick wanted to make a certain type of war movie, but had not yet found the ideal story to adapt. In 1980, he decided to reach out to Michael Herr.
Herr was a foreign correspondent for Esquire during the Vietnam War (1967-68) and the author of Dispatches, chronicling his experiences in Indochina. In addition, Herr wrote all of the voice-over narration spoken by Martin Sheen in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Kubrick and Herr spoke endlessly about war, film and countless other subjects. Herr once said that it was “one phone call lasting three years with interruptions.”
In 1982, Kubrick stumbled upon a book by Gustav Hasford called The Short-Timers, which he was instantly attracted to. He loved its stylistic approach (“…written in a very, very almost poetically spare way,” Kubrick said). Hasford was a former Marine who served in Vietnam at the height of the war. The novel took him seven years to write and another three to get published (1977). While working as a security guard and living in his car, Hasford discovered that Stanley Kubrick now owned the rights to his book.
To no surprise to anyone familiar with the work of Stanley Kubrick, his approach to the Vietnam War would be vastly different than any other. He wanted to target the military establishment. As he did in Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick focused his concentration on the powers that lay lurking behind the military structure. “Vietnam was such a phony war, in terms of the hawkish technocrats fine-tuning the facts like an ad agency,” he said. In 1985, after writing out a fully detailed treatment, Kubrick asked Herr to work on the screenplay. While leafing through a gun catalog and stumbling on the phrase “full metal jacket,” Kubrick decided to change the title, since The Short-Timers did not have the universal recognition that The Shining or A Clockwork Orange had anyway. The term described a lead bullet encased in a copper jacket. When Herr finished his first draft of the screenplay, Kubrick would re-work it and, as he always did, would be re-writing the script even during days of shooting the film. As for Gustav Hasford, he had only met with Kubrick one time, though the two would speak at length over the phone about the screen adaptation. Kubrick embraced technology and preferred to communicate through telephone and fax during collaboration.
CASTING HIS PLATOON
With a working script in hand, Kubrick was set out to continue pre-production and cast his war film. Through Warner Brothers, he advertised a national search in America, encouraging unknown young actors to audition. He asked actors to send in videos dressed in a T-shirt, speaking about anything at all pertaining to the subject matter of war. Kubrick would receive over 3,000 tapes at his quarters in England and would personally view over 800. What Kubrick was looking for was his own platoon of young actors to serve in his own tour of duty known as Full Metal Jacket. He wanted to cast actors that would function as exact and precise as any military unit. And they certainly did just that, waking up at dawn, taking bus rides to the location, and developing a solid camaraderie in the process.
In the lead role of Private Joker (fittingly, we never know his real name), an up-and-coming Matthew Modine was cast, no stranger to the military, having 3 brothers and a sister who served in Vietnam. “It was something I grew up with,” Modine said. Modine was well aware of all the unflattering myths concerning the auteur director and, like so many other actors who spoke to this, he was quick to set the record straight: “He’s probably the most heartfelt person I ever met.” All the other actors associated with the film would echo this same sentiment.
Vincent D’Onofrio learned about the auditions from Modine. He sent in his own homemade audition tape and got the integral part of Private Pyle. At the time, the Brooklyn-born 6’ 3” actor was fit and athletic-looking. Kubrick had asked the unknown actor to gain 70 pounds for the role (to reach 280 lbs.) in order to physically suit the part of the misfit, country-bumpkin soldier. Kubrick later said, “Pyle was the hardest part to cast…I wanted to find new faces. We received about three or four thousand videotapes.”
On his character, D’Onofrio stated, “I don’t think he was insane. What they did to Leonard was they made him into a very efficient killing machine.” And those familiar with the film can certainly not forget that sullen, haunting image of Private Pyle sitting in the latrine giving what D’Onofrio referred to as the “Crazy Kubrick Stare”; a stare not unlike Nicholson’s in The Shining or McDowell’s in A Clockwork Orange.
The rest of the squad of soldiers was cast with relative unknowns: Adam Baldwin (Animal Mother), the theatrically trained Arliss Howard (Cowboy), Dorian Harewood (Eightball), Ed O’Ross (Lt. Touchdown), and Kevyn Major Howard as the innocent photographer, Rafterman. In a very shrewd and wise directorial decision, none of the actors were allowed to rehearse with the man who was cast in the pivotal role of the man who breaks them all down in the first half of the film, Sergeant Hartman.
Lee Ermey was no stranger to combat and no stranger to the motion picture industry. A Kansas farm boy, Ermey enlisted in the Marines in 1961, served for 2 ½ years as a drill instructor during the Vietnam War, and served 11 years in total before being injured by an exploding rocket in 1969. Ermey met Coppola in 1976 and served as technical advisor on Apocalypse Now, Purple Hearts, and The Boys in Company C (where he also played a drill sergeant). At first, Kubrick thought Ermey to be too gentle to play Sgt. Hartman, but after watching him audition, the director quickly changed his tune. In fact, Kubrick would videotape Ermey breaking down British soldiers, hurling insults left and right. “I was struck by his extraordinary ability as an actor, “Kubrick said. “Lee lined them up like recruits who had just come off the bus and let go with a barrage of intimidation and insults.” From these sessions, Kubrick had over 250 pages of transcript just from Ermey’s improvisations and began inserting choice lines into the screenplay. In the end, about 50% of Ermey’s lines came from these initial improvisations. “Kubrick said I’m a superior intimidator,” Ermey told The New York Post — the perfect reason why he was kept away from the young actors who would play his subordinates. When he finally did start shooting scenes with his co-stars, Ermey came as quite a shock to them all. “It was terrifying to those actors,” Ermey told the New York Times. “My objective was intimidation. The first time I came up to Vincent, all he had to say was ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir’ and he was so shocked he blew his lines three or four times.” Ermey’s Sgt. Hartman dominates the entire first part of Full Metal Jacket and as such, was under orders by his director to set the tone and create a strict boot camp-like atmosphere on set.
Check this video out. It’s a scene of the Sergeant introducing himself (that’s a kind way of putting it) to his unit. Check out how authentic all of the dialogue sounds, how authoritarian Ermey is as he fires one offensive slur after another, how the privates all react to this despot. Notice the monster-like look on Modine’s face as he shows the Sergeant his “war face” — overwhelming and powerful. And even with the severity of the situation, the scene is awfully funny at times, in the darkest of ways (“I bet you’re the kind of guy that would fuck a person in the ass and not even have the goddamn common courtesy to give him a reach-around. I’ll be watching you!”). Most of all, watch the rapport between Ermey and D’Onofrio here — and contrast it to their final confrontation in the latrine – the arc of this battle is terrifying. A perfectly choreographed scene.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION!
Unlike Apocalypse Now or Platoon, which were shot in the Philippines because of the jungle terrain, Kubrick sent his location scouts to all areas of London as his film had no need for the jungle. “When you think of Vietnam, it’s natural to imagine jungles. But this story is about urban warfare,” Adam Baldwin had said. Kubrick needed locations to resemble Parris Island and Hue, Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. Three separate sites in northeast London were found and secured. Usually, a strict perfectionist for capturing realism, Kubrick would sometimes sacrifice this in favor of the more dramatic. For instance, he did not particularly care for the look of the latrine in Parris Island, so he had one built on a studio stage in London. The latrine scene is one of the movie’s most enduring images and Kubrick went for a more expressionistic interpretation of the setting to heighten the drama.
For the street scenes in the second half of the film, Kubrick brought in 5,000 Vietnamese immigrants living in London to inhabit the area to resemble Da Nang, 1968. For the rest of the Marines unit, he cast members of Britain’s Territorial Army. For palm trees, he hired some woman at a local nursery to track down the precise trees he wanted. Eventually, Kubrick would have around 200 palm trees personally found by Anne Edwards in Spain shipped to England. Everything on camera was personally chosen by him and given his stamp of approval…as always, he left nothing to chance and did not overlook a single detail.
Matthew Modine told American Film magazine, “Everything that happens in Full Metal Jacket exists. The boot camp sequence is probably the most realistic portrayal of boot camp in the Marines that’s ever been put on film, with the exception of a Parris Island training film. It’s not pleasant. You’re not allowed to escape. The reason Stanley’s stories are so shocking is because they are so truthful. He doesn’t try to create some sympathy because he wants to win the audience over. It’s not pleasant to see somebody get killed. And it’s not pleasant to die.”
It’s hard to watch Full Metal Jacket and not have a strong, visceral response to its characters, plot devices, brutal images (remember the female sniper?), and Kubrick’s overall interpretation of the war experience. But like all of his films, you feel strongly in one direction or another. Kubrick did have a tendency of alienating his audience and here, he deliberately creates a movie that distances itself from the audience. Also, his longtime love of the silent movies is clearly evident here in his directorial approach, as the film communicates to us on a much more visual level than its sparse dialogue. I have heard many tell me that they absolutely love the first part of the film, but not the second half so much…that the film trails off at that point. To those people, I would suggest giving Full Metal Jacket a new screening and try to see exactly what Kubrick was doing by editing it as such. Though surely difficult to watch at times, it has some vintage Kubrick humor (a.k.a. ‘dark’) sprinkled throughout (usually at Private Pyle’s expense) and has a definitive Kubrick-like feel from start to finish. Just take a look at the beautifully filmed shot below (see video) of the soldiers singing the “Mickey Mouse Theme” with guns in their hands as fire blazes around them. Why would they be singing such a song at this particular time? The absurdity and humor placed in this dark context works brilliantly. It’s a masterful work of art by one of cinema’s greatest all-time filmmakers and certainly more than holds its own in the great canon of work that is Stanley Kubrick.