“The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent, but if we can come to terms with this indifference, then our existence as a species can have genuine meaning. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.” – Stanley Kubrick
Adapted from Stephen King’s 1977 novel of the same name, the legendary auteur Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining goes down in history as one of the scariest and genre-defining films in the history of horror. Kubrick took his own creative liberty to wander away from King’s novel. Much to the displeasure of the novelist, the film explores the themes of isolation, the slow descent into madness and frenzy and violence in his film, which is unnerving and discomforting, to say the least.
The film revolves around the Torrance family and their tryst with the Overlook Hotel when the father, a recovering alcoholic and aspiring novelist, becomes the caretaker for the infamous Colorado hotel. He is accompanied by his wife, Wendy, and their five-year-old son, Danny, who has the psychic abilities called “the shining”, which gives him an insight into the hotel’s horrifying and bloody past. Haunted by supernatural apparitions and more, the family gets snowed in after a ghastly storm for days when Jack’s sanity starts disintegrating, and he embarks on a maniacal madness that threatens the lives of his son and his wife.
Starring the legendary Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd and more, the film is inarguably one of the greatest horror films ever made. Stanley Kubrick, who was disappointed by the criticism he faced for his previous film Barry Lyndon, was determined to direct a film that would cater to the interests of the audience.
Notorious for his immense perfectionism, this auteur’s film was an arduous task that took over 12 months to film, especially due to his neurotic, finicky nature. He was known for taking multiple shots and not yielding near-perfect shots — Kubrick was determined to achieve perfection. “It happens when actors are unprepared,” he once said. “You cannot act without knowing dialogue. If actors have to think about the words, they can’t work on the emotion,” he added in defence of his own style. “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.”
This film has been heavily criticised and has received mixed responses over the years. However, as Steven Spielberg correctly stated when he said that “Kubrick’s films tend to grow on you,” the film has received better reception where people have started acknowledging the sheer brilliance of the Kubrickian vision. The sets of The Shining were reflective of the auteur’s deeply critical and analytical mind and his love for intricate details. Over the years, there have been many revelations about the on-set activities where we have received insights into what it was like shooting for Stanley Kubrick. While he was a brutal perfectionist, one cannot help but marvel at his dexterous filmmaking skills.
On the film’s 41st anniversary, let us celebrate the brilliance of the misunderstood masterpiece by taking a look at ten fascinating facts that you probably never knew about The Shining.
10 facts about Stanley Kubrick film The Shining:
Secrets about Overlook Hotel
The iconic Overlook Hotel appears deeply unsettling due to the patterned carpeted floors and snaking hallways. Kubrick, the perfectionist, wanted a specific look for the hotel and, along with his team, used thousands of reference photos of shots taken of various American hotels. The result was a patchwork of all these shots, mainly inspired by Yosemite National Park’s The Ahwahnee, which also inspired the huge lobby and the blood-red elevators. The exterior of the hotel is actually the shots of an Oregon hotel named Timberline Lodge.
Timberline Lodge did not have a Room 237. They made a special request to the crew to change the number, so Room 217 was changed to Room 237 by producers. The management was afraid that following the film’s release, viewers would be too wary of Room 217 as the family in the film was warned to stay away from that particular room. Thus, they prompted Kubrick and his team to make this change.
The longstanding elevator scene
One of the most iconic and scary shots of the film is the elevator scene where the doors open to let out a wave of gushing blood, flooding the hallway. The scene, although freakish, took nearly a year. Do not get us wrong, the shot was filmed in three takes, but the thought-process behind the scene took nearly 12 months. Notorious for his desire to get every shot perfect, Kubrick spent nearly a year thinking about the scene.
The fake blood did not seem realistic two him after two unsuccessful takes. He wanted an element of realism to the already shocking scene, and the fake blood was a hindrance in his way. It took nearly nine days for the crew to set up a clean hallway once again with the elevator filled with blood, ready to flood out.
Kubrick also wanted this scene to be in the trailer, which had the risk of being cut out by the Motion Picture Association, who were against gory trailers. The director ended up convincing them that the blood in the elevator was actually rusty water! Way to go, Stan!
Jack Nicholson’s tryst with cheese sandwiches
Jack Nicholson is one fine actor, and his role as Jack Torrance reinforced audience expectations. Stanley Kubrick had immense faith in him as well. Jack Nicholson was iconic in his portrayal of Torrance’s slow but steady descent into madness. However, Kubrick used a secret ingredient to enhance Nicholson’s anger and to add a hint of realism to his character. It was an unconventional method that seemed to work wonders.
Strange as he is, Kubrick resorted to the power of a cheese sandwich to get Nicholson in his right frame of mind. Knowing Nicholson’s sheer loathing for cheese sandwiches, Kubrick fed him just this for two whole weeks, fostering in him a sense of immense disgust, rage and frustration that Nicholson successfully channelled through his character portrayal. Cheese sandwiches led Nicholson to deliver a phenomenal performance as the frenzied mad lad.
One can expect this of Kubrick, whose keen eye for detail would prompt him to go to great lengths to quench his satisfaction for creative perfection.
Stanley Kubrick and his doors
Fans must remember the ripples of chills and fears that they felt move across their spine in one of the most iconic yet unscripted scenes in the film. Jack Nicholson, the king of ad-libs, improvised the “Heeeere’s Johnny!”, referring to Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. To make the shot, where his character draws an axe to the bathroom door before demolishing it, more unnerving, Nicholson had incorporated this line which was in sync with the atmospheric horror and stayed within the film. Although Kubrick did not get the reference, he decided to keep the scene that went on to become one of the scariest film sequences in cinema history.
However, this sequence was indeed a difficult one. The props department had built a door that was relatively easier to tear down. Since Nicholson had volunteered as a fire marshall, he tore it down too easily, which prompted the props department to rebuild a stronger door. This particular sequence took three days to film, and the crew ended up using nearly sixty doors to get it right, according to the Kubrickian standard. While Nicholson breaks through the door, Kubrick panned the entire shot using the pan-and-scan technique used in older tube TVs.
“Do you believe in God?”
Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick did have a lot of difference of opinions on the film. However, Stephen King referred to a strange theological discussion that he once had with the auteur. Apparently, Kubrick called King up late at night and had a direct question for him: “Do you believe in God?” Kubrick wanted to know it because he was curious as to what led King to write a ghost story, whether it was his belief in the afterlife that prompted him to do so or not.
In his interview with Terry Gross, King actually ended up calling Kubrick a “thinking cat”. Kubrick had asked King, “Don’t you feel that anybody who tells a ghost story is basically an optimist because that presupposes the idea that we go on, that we go on into another life?” which prompted the latter to ask him about hell. Kubrick was stiff and indifferent in his answer where he said, “I don’t believe in hell.”
It was King and Kubrick’s sole theological discussion and highlighted their differences well.
Danny Lloyd’s improvised finger waggle
Although Kubrick was particularly stern and harsh with most of the crew, especially Shelley Duvall, he had a soft spot for the child actor Danny Lloyd. Kubrick was determined to protect him from external influences and emotional upheavals. Lloyd never knew that he was acting in a horror film up until he watched the entire film in his teens. Kubrick made sure that Lloyd was sheltered from the process and told him they were shooting a drama film. Lloyd received Christmas cards from Kubrick years after the release of the film. Danny Lloyd pated the role of Jack and Wendy’s son Danny, bestowed with “the shining”, which allowed him to see the hotel’s terrifying past.
Lloyd left the world of acting yet looked back fondly on his experiences. He was once quoted saying, “I don’t do many interviews. But when I do, I try to make it clear, The Shining was a good experience. I look back on it fondly. What happened to me was I didn’t really do much else after the film. So you kind of have to lay low and live a normal life.” Lloyd did an iconic and infamous finger waggle whenever he spoke to his imaginary friend Tony in the film.
It was actually improvised by the child actor himself, and he came up with it during the first audition, which immensely impressed Kubrick. This peculiar characteristic made Lloyd and his interaction with Tony even more disturbing.
The hedge maze predicament
Kubrick, who had an innate eye for detail, wanted to add terrify the viewers even more by incorporating a labyrinthian maze in the film, which reflected the convolutions and complexities within his creative mind. Kubrick was afraid that the maze created by the production team would be too easy to solve as it was nearly two-thirds smaller than the film. The crew challenged him to solve it one Saturday morning and got lost. The crew was delighted to see the filmmaker giving up.
However, Kubrick was not the only one. The maze was covered with nine hundred tons of salt and crushed Strofam to give it a snowy look while shooting the sequence where Jack chases Danny through the hedges. This scene took over a month to film as the crew members kept getting lost within the stifling maze set and used walkie-talkies to find their way back to each other. It was frustrating and exhilarating.
Those who are die-hard Kubrick fans will also appreciate the director’s knack for details when they look back at Jack’s tie, which he wears to his interview as it reflects the hedge-maze used in the film.
Shelley Duval’s nightmarish experience
Shelley Duvall was left scarred and traumatised after shooting with Stanley Kubrick on the sets of The Shining. It was a nightmarish experience for her and her predicament induced pity in the hearts of the crew and her co-stars, nearly everyone except the notorious Kubrick who would not yield to her requests at the cost of getting a perfect shot. While Kubrick was called out for his misogynistic portrayal of Wendy Torrance, who merely screamed throughout the film, he had also imposed an insanely difficult methodical acting on Duvall, which affected her physically as well as emotionally.
The infamous 127-take episode that the auteur prompted Duvall to go through had left her with severe dehydration, a hoarse throat and wounded hands.
Duvall has often opened up about how the role was mentally and physically exhausting. She would constantly have to induce panic and fear in her mind to live up to the filmmaker’s expectations. Kubrick was supposedly unbearably rude to her and even bullied her by asking others to make her feel isolated. He would compel her to do the same scene tirelessly till he was satisfied.
Duvall would often resort to listening to sad songs on her Walkman to coerce herself into feeling the negative emotions Kubrick desired in his character of Wendy. Her plight worried the crew as well, and very soon, she had started losing her hair. While Duvall acknowledged the immense emotional anguish she underwent, she also defended Stanley by saying that he was “warm and friendly” behind the scenes and would often spend hours conversing with both her and Nicholson, which often angered the crew.
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”
Kubrick sure did pay a lot of attention to whom he was hiring because the sheer dedication and perseverance of his crew leave us flabbergasted. The novelist Jack Torrance had spent months working on his novel; however, when his wife Wendy comes across the writing, all she finds are 500 pages filled with the same phrase repeated over and over again: a very sinister message: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”.
Had Kubrick shot the sequence now, it would be relatively easier with modern computers having the “Copy-Paste” functions. However, back in the day, when typewriters were used, it was a different ball game altogether.
Courtesy of Kubrick’s assistant and her unimaginable dedication and patience to sit and type the same phrase for 500 pages, the film has the iconic sequence. This unsung hero even repeated the procedure to produce the same phrase in three different languages for the other versions of the film. She spent months typing these ten words over and over again; there had to be enough of that which could be destroyed by Duvall an endless number of times during the retakes.
The rivalry between Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King
Stephen King hated Stanley Kubrick and his adaptation of The Shining. King had allegedly written a draft for the film’s screenplay but it did not sit well with the director who did not even bother to give it a read. Instead, he collaborated with Diane Johnson for the film script.
King has, over the years, a reputation for not liking Kubrickian filmography, but his disdain for Kubrick’s adaptation of his novel The Shining was palpable. While King is known for not being particularly hostile towards other film adaptations, he flat out rejected Kubrick’s film, saying that it was the only adaptation he remembered “hating”.
While Kubrick received praise for his “memorable imagery”, King said it was a poor adaptation. He criticised Kubrick’s characterisation of Wendy Torrance by saying, “She’s [Shelley Duvall] basically just there to scream and be stupid, and that’s not the woman I wrote about.” He ended up criticising Kubrick as a director by saying that while some sequences retained the “relentlessly claustrophobic terror but others fell flat”.
In his interview with Laurent Bouzerau, King had a lot of interesting insights. “Not that religion has to be involved in horror, but a visceral sceptic such as Kubrick just couldn’t grasp the sheer inhuman evil of The Overlook Hotel. So he looked, instead, for evil in the characters and made the film into a domestic tragedy with only vaguely supernatural overtones”, said King, identifying it as the “basic flaw” in the film.
King further added that since Kubrick himself could not “believe, he couldn’t make the film believable to others. What’s basically wrong with Kubrick’s version of The Shining is that it’s a film by a man who thinks too much and feels too little; and that’s why, for all its virtuoso effects, it never gets you by the throat and hangs on the way real horror should.”