Kubrick’s decision to allow a documentary film to be shot on the set of The Shining was an unprecedented departure from his usual ultra-secretive work policy. The resulting 35 minute film has led many film critics to reach a variety of mistaken assumptions about Kubrick’s personality. Based upon this documentary Kubrick has been described as “camera shy”, “impatient”, and “demanding”, but the factor that seems to be universally forgotten is that Kubrick personally approved the content of the documentary film. Are we really to believe that Kubrick would take great efforts throughout his career to avoid public attention – rarely giving interviews, not travelling outside of Britain to make films – yet would suddenly bare his soul on set in front of a rolling camera? Are we to believe that he would approve a final edit of this behind the scenes documentary that would further fuel rumours of him being difficult to work with?

I’ve read several Kubrick biographies and, while many cast and crew members have expressed difficulties in working with Kubrick, they very rarely describe him as having emotional tantrums or making degrading comments to people on set. He was renowned as being calm and rational even when spending days repeatedly filming a single shot. His ability to frustrate people tended to be based more upon his lack of open communication and his obsessive attention to detail that required endless takes of the most seemingly arbitrary shot.

So why did he so thoroughly break his own codes of practice in allowing documentary footage to be shot on The Shining? Well, the first thing to note is that Kubrick had full control over the documentary. All of the behind the scenes footage was shot by his daughter Vivian so trust wouldn’t have been an issue. Kubrick could rest assured that the footage would be safely stored away where only he and Vivian could access it. Another factor is that if Kubrick was even remotely concerned with dispelling negative industry rumours about himself then he would have made sure to conduct himself more professionally on camera and to make sure the most self-complimentary footage made it into the final edit.

Without realizing it, many film critics and biographers have accidentally identified Kubrick’s motive for releasing this documentary. Time and time again they have described his edgy behind the scenes behaviour as being comparable to the film’s main character Jack Torrance. One of the biographies I read (sorry, I can’t recall if it was the one by John Baxter or Vincent Lobrutto) even claimed that there were running jokes on set about the similarities in appearance and behaviour between Jack Nicholson’s character and Stanley Kubrick.

My theory is that Kubrick was deliberately creating these character parallel between himself and Jack, both in the documentary and among his crew in general. Consider the following:

  • Kubrick is seen typing away, just like Jack Torrance does in the film.

  • He appears frustrated, short-tempered and domineering - like Jack.
  • He swears and raises his voice - like Jack.
  • He has long hair - again like Jack.

But the most prominent example of this parallel is Kubrick’s degrading treatment of the actress Shelley Duvall (Wendy) and the actor Scatman Crothers (Halloran), both of whose on screen characters are victims of Jack Torrance’s madness. And so it is they who are the targets of Kubrick’s most irrational behaviour on set. His demanding impatience with these two performers is very prominent both in the documentary and in cast and crew reports about the shoot.

Halloran is the only character to be killed in the film and Kubrick reportedly drove him to tears with gruelling numbers of takes.

In one scene I had to get out of the Sno-Cat and walk across the street. No dialogue. Fifty takes. He had Shelley, Jack and the kid walk across the street. Eighty-seven takes. Man, he always wants something new, and he doesn’t stop until he gets it. – Actor Scatman Crothers (Halloran in The Shining) p443 Stanley Kubrick by Vincent Lobrutto

For the scene in which Halloran shows Wendy and Danny through the storage rooms of the kitchen, Kubrick demanded eighty-five takes, in the middle of which Crothers broke down and cried in frustration. ‘What do you want, Mr Kubrick?’ he screamed, ‘What do you want?!’ … Nobody was ever sure if this system bore fruit. - p316 Stanley Kubrick: A Biography by John Baxter

A single camera position of Scatman Crothers explaining The Shining to little Danny racked up 148 takes. The shot lasted seven minutes and Kubrick printed all of them. - Condensed from p430 Stanley Kubrick by Vincent Lobrutto

40 takes of Scatman Crothers being axed to death – Condensed from p431 Stanley Kubrick by Vincent Lobrutto

In the documentary Scatman Crothers is in tears, while talking about the “joy” of working with other performers on set, but considering the stories of how Kubrick over worked him, he may have been crying about the pain and frustration of the shoot.

As for Shelley Duvall, we actually get to see Kubrick repeatedly degrading her in the documentary. After she complains, “Look at this. I pulled hunks of hair out on the window sill,” she passes a few strands of her hair to Kubrick, who holds them up to the camera and sarcastically comments “Hunks of hair. Okay”.

He then prompts her to do another take. “Come on. Let’s go Shelley.” And when she carries on grumbling he interjects, “Don’t sympathize with Shelley. It doesn’t help you.” This kind of arguing may occur on some film sets, but it generally wasn’t Kubrick’s approach and it is definitely a golden rule of industry practice to keep these personality clashes in private and off camera.

While filming a dialogue scene in the Torrance bedroom Kubrick tells her, “Many parts of that were very good. There were quite a few fuck ups, but many parts were good. … Come and look at this Shelley. The only part CLEARLY wrong was at the end when you said ‘we’ve gotta get him out of here’ is that you got strong at the end, and I think it has to be a last desperate begging. You know. And I still think that you shouldn’t jump on every emphatic line. It looks fake. It really does. … Shelley I’m telling you it’s too many times. Every time he (Jack Nicholson) speaks emphatically you’re jumping and it looks phoney.”

And Kubrick continues to talk down to Shelley as they discuss the script, “I think that line is in the right place … I honestly don’t think the lines are gonna make a lot of difference if you just get the right attitude.”

And he gets even more cross with her in an exterior scene, “There’s no desperation. Oh come on, what do you mean ‘roll video’? We’re fuckin’ killin’ ourselves out here and you’ve gotta be ready. Shall we play mood music? When you do it you’ve gotta look desperate. Otherwise you’re just wasting everybody’s time.”

It could be argued that Shelley Duvall provoked Kubrick’s wrath with her apparent attention-seeking behaviour on set. And it may even be that he was so frustrated with her that he decided to capture her counter-productive habits on video to show to the industry. Shelley even admits her desire for attention, “Jack (Nicholson) is such a big star, such a famous personality that people do tend to be a bit sycophantic with him … and it wasn’t entirely ineffectual. I mean I did get jealous sometimes, I admit. … Well, it was mostly between takes, not during work. When we were actually working on a scene that did not interfere at all, but on occasion when we were just sitting around or about to come to work or standing by in our rooms, whatever. I mean there were times when I felt a bit jealous because he got very much attention … and I suppose I like attention.” Shelley’s assertion that her jealous attention seeking didn’t interfere with filming is then directly contradicted by a shot of her laying down on set while people are covering her with blankets and putting pillows under her head. It looks as if she’s feigning illness to get attention mid-shoot.

Kubrick also appears to have played a practical joke with the edit. During Shelley’s interview, when she explains her desire for attention, a caged bird can be heard off screen squawking away as if seeking attention. The bird noises can be heard over Shelley's interview approx 50 seconds into the following clip.

Filmed interviews are normally done in locations that have minimal sound interference, so it’s quite possible that Kubrick either deliberately ensured the caged bird would be on set or he may have had the it's audio dubbed over Shelley as a way of mocking her. Notice that in the footage of Shelley talking more sensibly about working on the film the bird audio is absent.

Personally, I’m quite convinced that Kubrick gave Shelley Duvall and Scatman Crothers a difficult time as a way of drawing parallels between himself and the character of Jack Torrance. A significant shot shows Shelley sat in a chair staring at a playback monitor, looked extremely stressed, and the shot then pans to the right where we see Stanley Kubrick and Jack Nicholson sat side by side watching the same monitor.

It’s like Kubrick is demonstrating that he and Jack Nicholson (Torrance) are equally the source of Shelley’s misery. Jack Nicholson has also commented that he found Kubrick good to work with, but that he seemed like a completely different person with Shelley.

It’s also unlikely that Kubrick would have told his cast that he was faking or acting his tantrums, just like they were acting in the film. It was very rare that he told anyone what he was really up to with anything. He only gave people enough information to ensure they would comply with his wishes on set. If an actress like Shelley was really being a nuisance to him, Stanley wouldn’t have responded with emotional outbursts. He would have used his chess wizard mind to calmly outplay his opponent as usual.

So did we get to see the real Stanley Kubrick, heart and soul, in the Making of The Shining? Frankly, no. He baffled people who had worked with him for years, so it’s unlikely that a 35 min film approved by Kubrick himself would allow us any greater insight into his true character.

What we’re seeing is Jack Torrance played by Nicholson in the film and by Kubrick in the documentary. This is another of the film’s many duality paradigms. It also allowed Kubrick to promote The Shining in a behind the scenes documentary without revealing any of his closely guarded secrets. The Making of The Shining is, in a way, a fiction film in itself. And it seems that Kubrick didn't care about the effect it would have upon his reputation. In his usual smoke screen fashion, it may have even assisted him in disguising his true motives as a film maker. Many film critics have sincelabelled him as obsessive-compulsive, a control freak and deeply paranoid - and he seemed happy to encourage these rumours.

Kubrick also used the behind the scenes documentary to reinforce many more of The Shining’s subliminal themes. To understand this we first have to acknowledge that we’re not just seeing random footage from the shoot. Kubrick will have collaborated with his daughter, telling her what kinds of footage content he required for the documentary. It’s also industry standard, especially in the days of DVD extras, to semi-script behind the scenes footage and interviews. It’s a modern form of marketing, disguised as critical insight … hence most DVD extras have a strong bias toward the film in question that borders on straight forward advertising. So just as with the usual DVD extras, we have little way of knowing which details in the Making of The Shining documentary were choreographed and scripted as opposed to just natural behaviour on set.

Kubrick virtually announces that the documentary is semi-scripted in the very first shot. We see the numbers 4 and 3, each beneath a window on the exterior of the set where The Shining was filmed.

The shot pans across to the next three windows where we would expect to see the numbers 2 ,1 and 0, as if counting down to action on a universal lead counter (inserted at the beginning of video edits as an industry standard).

Next we cut to Jack ordering food over a phone in his room and the documentary wastes no time in making parallels with the movie content. Jack tells Vivian she looks cute in her red shirt – Danny also wore one at several points in the film. Vivian then films Jack’s bathroom – mirror on the right, bath tub to the left, just like the bathroom in the Torrance apartment.

Then Nicholson brushes his teeth, just like Danny did in the first bathroom scene of the film.

And afterwards he tells Vivian “You’ll have to excuse me because I’m going to take a piss.” He then closes the door behind him and on the outside of the door is a calendar picture of a soft porn model.

This all parallels the room 237 scene in which doorways were used as symbolic mirrors to reveal the naked woman as a reflection of Jack Torrance.

And all that is just in the first scene. There are several more parallels with the feature film embedded in the documentary, but those themes are explored later in this analysis. Where relevant, the documentary content will be incorporated into the remaining chapters.