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Cruise opens up about working with Kubrick

LOS ANGELES--Tom Cruise had just flown in from Australia and he was tired and a sad. Sad because he was talking about the new Stanley Kubrick movie, and Stanley wasn't there to pitch in.

"I haven't really talked about the movie, you know," he said. "The pressure of going through this without Stanley being there also. Stanley who was gonna do everything, you know, suddenly..."

Dying, last March, just four days after a completed version of "Eyes Wide Shut" was screened for Cruise and his wife Nicole Kidman, who were the co-stars, and for Robert Daly and Terry Semel, the top executives at Warner Brothers.

"Nic had laryngitis from her play," Cruise said, remembering his feelings after seeing the first cut of the movie they'd spent three years on. "She couldn't talk, so she was writing notes to me as I was talking to Stanley over the phone from New York. We were so excited and proud. Then I had to fly off to Australia. I was meeting with John Woo, and we had a month of pre-production on the new movie. Nic was gonna follow with the kids. I got in on Saturday. Stanley and I were supposed to talk on Sunday. He'd call me in the middle of the night. You're asleep? No, Stanley, what's up? Instead I got a call from Leon, who worked with him for many years and said, 'Tom, Stanley Kubrick has passed away'."

Cruise paused and toyed with a glass of mineral water. We were talking on Sunday, the day after the Los Angeles preview screening of "Eyes Wide Shut."

"Well, he had made 13 perfect visions, Stanley Kubrick, and I'm just proud to have been part of it."

Like all of Kubrick's films, "Eyes Wide Shut" was made in strict secrecy. Rumors flew about the picture. It was about Cruise and Kidman as two sex therapists. It was hard-core porn. It was...

"Stanley would just say, let them keep talking," Cruise smiled. "Now it's such a relief to actually be able to discuss the picture. It's also--it's strange. It has a bittersweetness. At night, you hear Stanley's voice..."

The film has sex as its subject matter, along with trust, fidelity and jealousy. But the Cruise character never has sex with anyone during the movie, and that sets up the movie's final line of dialog, a punch line that will gain a certain immortality. He plays a rich Manhattan doctor. He and Kidman have one child. She tells him a story one night about how she was so filled with lust for a strange man that she would have left everything--husband, home, child--just to have sex with that man. The story fills him with anger and jealousy, and he sets out on a dangerous odyssey through the sexual underworld, which leads to a masked orgy in a country estate. A wealthy friend of his seems to be involved, and there is the possibility that dread secrets lurk just beneath the surface.

It's all based on a book, Traumnovelle, by Arthur Schnitzler--a book Kubrick didn't want them to read. The book was a starting point, not a destination. Kubrick worked obsessively on every scene, rehearsing, rewriting, involving Cruise, Kidman and the other actors in discussions about motives. I got the sense that the movie evolved from the collaboration; one reason for the secrecy might have been that Kubrick himself didn't know for sure what the movie was finally going to be about.

"Stanley had worked on this and thought about it for about 28 years," Cruise said. "The apartment in the movie was the New York apartment he and his wife Christianne lived in. He recreated it. The furniture in the house was furniture from their own home. Of course the paintings were Christianne's paintings. It was as personal a story as he's ever done. When he first wanted to do it, it was after 'Lolita' (1962) and Christianne told me she said, 'Don't...oh, please don't....not now. We're so young. Let's not go through this right now.'

"They were young in their marriage, And so he put it off and put it off. He was working on "A.I." [a planned film involving artificial intelligence] and was waiting for the technology to get to where he needed it. So he put that on hold, and it was just the perfect time to do this project."

Sometimes, Cruise said, it was just the three of them in a room. Kubrick would send the crew away. There was no deadline. They had all the time in the world.

"The crew wasn't ever there when we were rehearsing. We'd rehearse and he'd rewrite and he'd say, 'Well, what would you guys do here?' or 'What happened here?' And without talking about what the scene was about, you know, we'd discuss details of behavior or dialog. 'What makes sense?' he would say. And finally, 'Okay, well, that makes sense.' We'd rehearse and he'd rewrite and it got to the point that it was in your bones. Just in your bones."

What was your feeling, I asked, about that article in The New Yorker by Frederic Raphael, the co-author of the screenplay? It was an article that painted a harsh portrait of Kubrick as a self-hating megalomaniac.

Cruise made a face. "He wouldn't have written it if Stanley had been alive. Opportunistic. Self-serving. Inaccurate. I don't know that man at all and I've never met him. It's been interesting seeing how people have behaved afterward."

This was Cruise's first newspaper interview about the movie, although he had talked a few weeks earlier to a team from Time magazine. As he spoke, it was like listening to him relive his thoughts. They didn't come out in neat sound bites, like the typical movie star interview where everything has been said a dozen times before. Cruise has obviously been through a deep creative experience, and was only now surfacing and looking at it more objectively.

"I'm glad Nic and I didn't make this movie in the first or second year of our marriage," he mused. "The stuff we were talking about, confronting together with Stanley, was volatile and intense. The characters are very much at odds. When you're talking about jealousy or raw emotions that bring men to their knees at times, it can be crippling."

Everyone who has worked with Kubrick returns with stories of perfectionism, of the same shot being taken dozens of times, of days spent on a single scene.

"But it was funny," Cruise said, "how he was truly optimistic about the schedule. I'd show up on the set and we'd find ourselves singing a song, goofing around, and we'd rehearse the scene, and he'd ask, 'What are we gonna shoot the rest of the week?' And I'd say, 'Oh, Stanley, please don't say that!' Because at the end of the week, we'd still be working on that same scene, and he would laugh at himself."

The small crews meant less pressure, Cruise said.

"Stanley bought time when he made a movie. He was not at the mercy of a studio. I'm used to working. I'll work 15 hours a day and I'll work very hard to try to make something work. But if he felt that I was tired or the scene wasn't working, he never panicked. He knew he had the time. No matter what, he could always go back and take time to fix it. He never locked himself in."

Despite all the rumors about the film, I said, your character never has sex with anyone. It's not a movie about sex but about what sex represents.

"Sex itself wasn't what interested Stanley. The movie's about many things but especially the dynamic of a relationship that's affected by the raw emotions of obsession and jealousy. About how one little event in your life can take you off into such debilitating emotions."

When your character goes to the address where the orgy is being held...

"I think he was driven by his emotions," Cruise said. "He didn't want to go back home. He was absolutely driven by what his wife said to him. He was heading right for Dante's Inferno . He's consumed by the image of his wife he has created in his mind."

We see that fantasy image in monochrome, as he imagines his wife making love to the stranger she described. Then, at the orgy, surrounded by masked and hooded figures and nude women, he sees pure lust unbridled by morals, conduct--even personalities. It was that scene that created the movie's problems with the MPAA Code and Ratings Administration, which gave the film an "R" rating only after certain images at the orgy were masked by digitally-created figures who are superimposed between the viewer and some of the action.

"Stanley was concerned through editing," Cruise said, "that certain shots would get an NC-17. Stanley committed to an R rating." But it's an adult movie.

"Listen, at 16 I would have been interested in seeing what Stanley Kubrick had to say. I think I was seven years old when my father took me to '2001.' He felt that he wanted an R for the movie. He committed to an R for the picture and he felt that the changes would affect the form but not the content."

The Cruise character glides from one room of the chateau to another, in long, unbroken, elaborate shots. To cut out the offending images would destroy the exquisite rhythm. Therefore, blotting them out with digital additions was the only alternative.

When both versions of the famous 65-second scene were shown at the preview, I said, a lot of people didn't like the strategy.

"Well, it's a shame if people feel that. But it doesn't change the content of the movie. Not a frame is touched on this, except just in form. I think when audiences see the movie, that won't be an issue for them."

Well, it might be, since for Kubrick form and content and style are all so closely linked. Isn't it a shame, I said, that America is the only country with no workable adult category? So that everything has to be cut and squeezed and compromised to get the R rating?

"With the NC-17--there are papers that won't run NC-17 ads, television stations that won't have NC-17 promos..."

But wouldn't a Kubrick picture with Tom Cruise be just the opportunity to overturn all that?

"You're preaching the converted here. But Stanley made the decision, you know. He wanted this and there's nothing I could have done."

Did he say he would add digital figures in the forefront?

"Yes, that's what he was exploring when he was in the editing process and what he discussed. He didn't wanna cut into the shots, but he felt that if he took the digital effects and just covered, you know...because he wanted to deliver an R rating."

But when he was shooting it, obviously he thought it was an R rating, because otherwise he would have had real people standing there instead of adding digital figures later.

Cruise sighed. "There aren't any real rules with the MPAA, you know. There aren't any rules like, 'Look, you can say three swear words or 16 swear words, but you can't have fornication in various positions, blah, blah, blah.' He worked very hard on that sequence. What's really even more important in this scene is the people in the masks watching. His composition is stunning."

I agreed, and said something about how there'd someday be a director's cut on video.

"But this is Stanley's cut," Cruise said. "I would not have supported anything that Stanley hadn't approved or didn't want. There's absolutely no way that would have happened. I mean, before he died, we went through a lot of details about how the movie was going to be released, how he wanted things handled, where he wanted the print developed. All of these issues. Stanley did everything. Only Stanley."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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