Stanley Kubrick was never the most prolific of filmmakers, but his productivity slowed right down in the last couple of decades of his life; while there were several projects he worked on that never got made, including “Napoleon” and “A.I.,” the director only made three films in the last twenty years of his career. And sandwiched between 1980’s “The Shining” and 1999’s posthumously-released “Eyes Wide Shut” was his Vietnam war epic “Full Metal Jacket.”
Profane, profound and endlessly influential on war movies to come (it features an early use of the shutter-speed effect that Steven Spielberg would later make popular with “Saving Private Ryan“), the film, quite unlike anything else that Kubrick ever made, follows a group of aspiring U.S. Marines as they are pushed through basic training by their sadistic drill sergeant, and shipped out to Vietnam. Full of unforgettable sequences and typically pitch-perfect filmmaking, it’s somehow less talked about than some of Kubrick’s pictures, but certainly remains one of his most powerful and brilliant films.
Released 25 years ago, today sees the arrival of a new anniversary Blu-Ray of the film. But that’s not all for Kubrickphiles, as Matthew Modine, the film’s star, put out a new iPad app today that sees the actor narrate the photos and journals he kept, at Kubrick’s encouragement, throughout the making of the movie. To commemorate both, as well as the release of the film 25-and-a-bit years ago, we’ve gathered up five things you might not know about Kubrick’s Vietnam classic. Read on for more.
1) The film began from the seeds of a Holocaust movie that Kubrick wanted to make.
Kubrick had already made one of the all-time great war movies with “Paths Of Glory,” and indeed, when he first started thinking about a new project after “The Shining,” the director wasn’t intending to make a film in the same genre as his earlier Kirk Douglas-starrer. As far back as 1976, Kubrick was starting to think about a Holocaust film, attempting to get Nobel Prize-wining Jewish-American author Isaac Bashevis Singer (“Enemies: A Love Story“) to write a script for him. It was in this context, shortly before the release of “The Shining,” that Kubrick contacted Michael Herr, who’d been the war correspondent for Esquire magazine in Vietnam, and written the acclaimed memoir of his time there, 1977’s “Dispatches.” Kubrick wanted Herr’s opinion on whether an adaptation of historian Raul Hilberg‘s seminal “The Destruction Of The European Jews” could work, but talk soon turned to Vietnam. The pair came across Gustav Hasford‘s novel “The Short-Timers,” and decided to adapt that instead, with Hasford working on the screenplay along with them. After “Full Metal Jacket,” however, the Holocaust still lingered in Kubrick’s mind, and in the early 1990s the director came very close to making “Aryan Papers,” an adaptation of Louis Begley‘s “Wartime Lies,” about a young Polish Jewish woman and her nephew who take up identities as Catholics to avoid persecution by the Nazis. Kubrick cast “Jurassic Park” actor Joseph Mazello as the boy, with Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege (“The Vanishing“) as the aunt, but scrapped the project after the release of Steven Speilberg’s “Schindler’s List.”
2) Co-writer Gustav Hasford didn’t attend the Oscars, partly because he’d fallen out with Kubrick, and partly because he was being prosecuted for stealing library books.
Like Herr, Gustav Hasford had been a reporter in Vietnam, although one attached to the Marine Corp. After returning, Hasford moved in science fiction-writing circles, publishing stories and even sharing an apartment with Harlan Ellison at one point, before writing his Vietnam novel “The Short Timers.” It became a bestseller, and was optioned by Kubrick; the two would talk on the phone for hours at a time, and Hasford was ultimately asked to help write the screenplay. They’d never met in person, however, his fearsome reputation having preceded him (Herr described him as “scary”), and when the three writers finally had dinner, it went badly — Herr would later relate in his memoir, “Kubrick,” that the director passed him a note saying “I can’t deal with this man.” After that, he was frozen out by the director (at one point, Hasford snuck onto the set disguised as an extra, only to be mistaken for Herr), and had to sue in order to receive credit on the screenplay. As such, it was unlikely he would have attended the Oscars when the film was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (its only nod) in the first place, but it can’t have helped that not long before the ceremony in 1988, Hasford was arrested and charged with having stolen 10,000 library books from around the world, which had been found by campus police in a storage locker at California Polytechnic State University. Hasford eventually plead no contest, and was sentenced to six months, serving three. The following year, he published his sequel to “The Short-Timers,” entitled “The Phantom Bloomer,” which sees Joker captured by the Viet Cong and fighting alongside them. A third entry was planned, but Hanford died of heart failure in Greece in January 1993.
3) Anthony Michael Hall was the original choice to play Joker, while Kubrick considered casting “Deliverance” rapist Bill McKinney as the Drill Sergeant.
The cast of “Full Metal Jacket” didn’t quite contain any future A-listers, but a number of the major actors — Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Arliss Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio (who put on 70lbs for the role, more weight than Robert De Niro did for “Raging Bull,” and which took him nine months to lose) — went on to long careers elsewhere. But as ever, the cast could have looked quite different. “The Breakfast Club” star Anthony Michael Hall was in fact Kubrick’s first choice to play the lead role of Private Joker, but after nearly eight months of negotiations, dropped out. The actor, more recently seen in “The Dark Knight,” said in an interview “we negotiated for eight months and could not come to an agreement. My dad was managing me and we decided not to do it. It was not just about the money, as some people have said. I was not prepared psychologically to give the guy a year of my life at 18.” Val Kilmer was another actor up for the part, and according to Modine, insulted him in a coffee shop when he discovered that he’d lost out — the first time Modine knew he’d landed the role. Meanwhile, Bruce Willis said in an interview with Playboy in 1988 that he’s also been offered a role in the film, but had to turn it down because he was already committed to the first season of TV series “Moonlighting.” Finally, Kubrick had, according to “Deliverance” director John Boorman, expressed an interest in hiring Bill McKinney, who played the ‘Mountain Man’ rapist in the 1972 film. Boorman relates “Kubrick phoned me up and said, ‘What’s Bill McKinney like?’ And I said he’s a very good actor and a lovely guy. And Kubrick said [adopting a skeptical tone] ‘Come on now – that’s the most terrifying scene ever put on film and that guy has gotta be an awful person.’ He phoned me two or three times about Bill McKinney and eventually offered him the part. Bill told me later that he was in the LA airport about to come to London and he got a message from Kubrick to cancel. He was paid in full but Kubrick couldn’t bear to face him – he was just too afraid!”
4) R. Lee Ermey, who played Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, was originally only a consultant on the film, but pursued the part, and was allowed to ad-lib.
His inability to face McKinney meant that Kubrick needed someone to play the fearsome drill instructor, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. The director originally cast a relative unknown, former Marine Tim Colceri, in the part. But the film’s technical consultant, R. Lee Ermey, had his eyes on the role. Ermey was a former Marine Sergeant who had served as a drill instructor before doing two tours of duty in Vietnam, and then making his acting debut in 1978’s “The Boys In Company ‘C.’” He then served as a technical advisor on both “Apocalypse Now” and “An Officer And A Gentleman,” appearing in a cameo in the former, and helping Louis Gossett Jr. win an Oscar for playing another Gunnery Sergeant in the latter. To begin with, Ermey was set to only be an advisor on “Full Metal Jacket,” but filmed his own audition tape, improvising insults while being pelted with oranges and tennis balls. His unfazed fury convinced Kubrick that he had the right man, and the rest was history. Ermey was allowed to improvise his profane insults (having to explain to the director what a ‘reach-around’ was at one point), with as much of 50% of the actor’s dialogue being ad-libbed, which was quite unusual for the meticulous Kubrick. Colceri, as consolation, was given the small but memorable role as the door gunner of the helicopter, while Ermey went on to a long career as a character actor, including essentially reprising his “Full Metal Jacket” role in films as diverse as “The Frighteners” and “Toy Story.”
5) The film was the unlikely inspiration for two hit singles.
Stanley Kubrick was not known, in his earlier films, for a keen interest in pop and rock music, but the 1960s setting of “Full Metal Jacket” called for some more contemporary sounds. After poring through Billboard Top 100 lists, the filmmaker came up with a soundtrack that included Nancy Sinatra and, over the end credits, The Rolling Stones, among others. Kubrick had also intended to use a score of Japanese drum compositions, but the director was played a synth composition by his daughter Vivian (who was also on set making a documentary, as she did for “The Shining,” although it was never completed; she can also be seen in a cameo as a news camerawoman at the mass grave), he elected to get her to write the whole score of the film, under the pseudonym ‘Abigail Mead.‘ One of the more curious effects of the movie was the release of a single, “Full Metal Jacket (I Wanna Be Your Drill Instructor,” soon after the release of the film in the UK in October 1987. Credited to Abigail Mead and the mysterious Nigel Goulding, it featured samples of R. Lee Ermey‘s drill chants from the film, in an almost hip-hop style, and proved a surprise success, reaching number 2 in the UK charts for two weeks, kept off the top spot at first by “Pump Up The Volume,” by M/A/R/R/S, and then by The Bee Gees‘ “You Win Again.” That wasn’t the film’s only contribution to the music world: two years later, 2 Live Crew sampled dialogue from Joker, Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard) and the prostitute in Da Nang (Papillon Soo Soo) for their huge hit “Me So Horny.” Listen to both below.