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Shelley Duvall’s traumatic experience while shooting Stanley Kubrick film 'The Shining'

Adapted from Stephen King’s 1977 novel The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s feature film is considered to be one of the greatest horror movies of all time. The film’s protagonist, Jack Torrance, is an aspiring novelist and recovering alcoholic who is offered to serve as the caretaker of the isolated and infamous Overlook Hotel in Colorado.

While the hotel’s previous caretaker allegedly lost control over his senses and murdered his family, and then committed suicide, the history doesn’t deter Torrance from the job opportunity. Jack’s wife, Wendy, and their five-year-old son, Danny, accompany him to spend the winter at the hotel. Danny, who is gifted with psychic abilities, ‘the shining’, gets an insight into the gruesome past of the hotel. Supernatural apparitions start haunting them. A ghastly winter storm leaves the Torrance family snowed in for days when Jack’s sanity starts disintegrating under the influence of the sinister forces, and his slow but steady descent into maniacal madness endangers the lives of his wife and son. 

As an auteur, Stanley Kubrick was notorious for being a perfectionist and somewhat neurotic. His previous film, Barry Lyndon, had not fared well at the box office, which served as a blow for him and his undoubted cinematic legacy. He was determined to direct a film that would play along with the audience’s interests and, in turn, shooting The Shining was an arduous task for the cast and crew due to Kubrick’s finicky nature and the constant pursuit of perfection.

The auteur defended his actions by talking about how “it happens when actors are unprepared” when quizzed about the on-set demands. Detailing further, Kubrick added: “You cannot act without knowing dialogue. If actors have to think about the words, they can’t work on the emotion. So you end up doing thirty takes of something. And still, you can see the concentration in their eyes; they don’t know their lines. So you just shoot it and shoot it and hope you can get something out of it in pieces.”

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The on-set stories for the film are now a thing of Hollywood whispers. From Jack Nicholson being fed cheese sandwiches that he loathed for two weeks straight to unleash the madman in him to Danny Lloyd inventing the iconic finger waggle himself, the filmmaking history is littered with wild trivia. However, there lay some dark secrets as well, especially involving the film lead Shelley Duvall, who played Jack Torrance’s wife and scream queen, Wendy. Stephen King admittedly hated Kubrick’s adaptation, especially the characterisation of Wendy, which, according to him, was a misogynistic portrayal of a character that was totally different from the one he had written about in the books. 

Attacked for his misogyny and the insanely difficult imposition of methodical acting, the most prominent on-set horror story was the one experienced by Duvall. Duvall, who was last seen in Manna From Heaven in 2002 and has now completely withdrawn from the spotlight and keeps to herself in her Texas Hill Country home, had opened up about this in an interview, recounting the horrifying psychological and emotional torture that she endured during the shooting procedure. According to Duvall, the role was emotionally and physically exhausting as she would have to coerce her body to be in a state of constant panic to appease the filmmaker’s expectations regarding the character.

Kubrick supposedly did not “print anything until at least the 35th take”. Duvall’s role was extremely tiresome as she would have to run around, carrying Lloyd, crying and screaming for 35 takes. To be in the correct state of mind, Duvall would induce emotional pain and sorrow by listening to sad songs on her Walkman and reliving unhappy memories. Even then, she said, it was difficult to do the above-mentioned activity as her body would refuse to comply, and that sometimes made her cry. “You just think about something very sad in your life or how much you miss your family or friends,” she said in a recent interview with Hollywood Reporter. “But after a while, your body rebels. It says: ‘Stop doing this to me. I don’t want to cry every day.’ And sometimes just that thought alone would make me cry.”

Duvall found it extremely laborious to wake up on a Monday morning and cry all day according to schedule. Her plight garnered sympathy from the cast and the crew, especially her co-star Jack Nicholson who allegedly said, “I don’t know how you do it.” According to Nicholson, Kubrick was a completely “different director” when around Duvall.  

While Duvall admitted that Kubrick was unnecessarily hard on her, cruel and abusive during the shooting schedule, she also defended him by talking about how he perpetrated the same amount of abuse that had been imposed on him in the past. She never bore any ill will towards Kubrick because, apparently, he was “warm and friendly” towards Duvall behind the scenes and would spend hours conversing with her and Nicholson while the crew indignantly waited. He would ignore the crew’s earnest pleas of “Stanley, we have 60 people waiting” and ploughed on with his own vision.

Even Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian, recounted her father’s tyrannical approach towards Duvall while filming. He commanded the crowd not to show any sympathy for Duvall and asked them to ignore her completely. He never complimented her scenes while constantly praising Nicholson, who was seated right next to her. This intensive training of the mind with isolation and “torture” for the role was too stressful for Duvall to bear, who started losing hair and was “in and out of health”, having been pushed to the very threshold. 

The most difficult moment would be the baseball scene for Duvall, where the auteur had taken 127 legendary takes, the highest number of takes in any film according to the Guinness Book of World records. Duvall ended up with a hoarse throat, raw wounded hands and severe dehydration. The “primal scream therapy” she underwent caused immense torment and emotional anguish, which somehow proved cathartic, for every time she went back home, she would feel at ease. 

Despite the Kubrickian adaptation being nearly repulsive for King, it is considered one of the most influential and terrifying films in the history of cinematic horror. It has been studied by cinephiles and film buffs for generations due to the elements of trauma and psychological fright embedded in it masterfully. Martin Scorsese has listed it as one of his favourite films of all time by talking about how Kubrick’s masterpiece is a “terrifying movie” as what one cannot “see or comprehend shadows every move the characters make”. Although the film remains one of the most traumatising films ever made, making the audience embark on a never-seen-before grotesque psychological journey of terror and madness, it is difficult to ignore the ill effects it had on a young and thriving actress, by disguising the idiosyncratic cruelty of the auteur under the garb of ingenuity. 

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