RISKY BUSINESS: The Shining
How “The Shining” Demonstrates the Need for Risk Management on Film & Television Productions
With Halloween season now upon us, let’s take a look at one of the most picked-over horror films of all time: Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”
Few movies have been evaluated from more angles than “The Shining.” Many believe it to have clues and codes hidden in plain sight. Still others think it is about the Apollo 11 mission. No matter how you look at it, “The Shining” has been probed from nearly every angle.
The only angle left untouched is safety. Until now. So, grab your ax, your typewriter, and your bat because we are diving in to find out just how risky “all work and no play” really is.
Safety Issues on “The Shining”
Despite its Colorado Rockies setting, “The Shining” was filmed entirely at Elstree Studios in the UK, save for a few exterior shots. Production built all the interior and exterior sets on multiple soundstages to facilitate Kubrick’s desired chronological filming schedule. A full-scale replica of the exterior of The Overlook Hotel was even built at Elstree.
The safety issues on this film are myriad, but we would like to focus on two issues that are foundational to all the risks of the production:
- An Ever-changing Screenplay
- The Auteur Issue
Let’s begin by looking at the issue that prevents everyone from being on the same page.
An Ever-Changing Screenplay
“The Shining” is based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King. Kubrick adapted it along with Diane Johnson and made multiple noteworthy changes – many of which continue to fuel alternative interpretation theories. But, in reality, Kubrick rewrote the screenplay endlessly.
The script for the movie changed so often that star Jack Nicholson would throw new pages in the trash without bothering to read them, knowing they would change before it came time to shoot. Nicholson memorized his lines minutes before Kubrick called “action.”
As we have mentioned before in this series, a screenplay is the blueprint for a film. It gives every department something to work off of as they plan their workload for each day and week of production. This important planning is impossible to do correctly without a locked screenplay.
An ever-changing script also makes it harder to achieve a safe shooting environment. When no one really knows what is going to happen on a given day, the preparation required for risk management and safety vanishes.
A production without a locked script is not only a risky one, it is also an expensive one.
The Cost of Daily Rewrites
Principal photography on “The Shining” lasted a year. That is an unheard of shooting schedule for a film with so few special effects. Typically, a film of this size would wrap in around three to four months.
Without a finished screenplay, it is nearly impossible to know how much more you have to film, leading to endless shooting. In fact, the ending of the film changed multiple times during production and even after it first premiered. Kubrick kept tinkering with it.
Not only was the shooting schedule long, the shooting days were, too. A typical shooting day saw the actors working for well over 16 hours, with the crew working significantly longer.
Jack Nicholson was so tired after his shooting days that, then-girlfriend Anjelica Houston recalls, the actor came home after filming only to fall directly on the bed and fall instantly to sleep.
Long shooting days lead to exhaustion which leads to injuries. This increases risk while also increasing the cost of the film. That is a lose-lose situation.
On “The Shining” set, these risks all stemmed from one person: the director.
The Auteur Issue
Compared to Shelley Duvall, Jack Nicholson had it easy. Kubrick tortured Duvall during production to the point where Duvall’s hair began to fall out. He kept her sleep-deprived, dehydrated, isolated from the cast and crew. He demanded an arduous number of takes without providing notes or redirection, which is both exhausting and emotionally destabilizing. And he berated her endlessly. Duvall suffered long-term psychological issues afterward, derailing a once promising acting career.
By the time production began in 1979, Stanley Kubrick was already considered one of the greatest directors alive, having made the classics “Spartacus,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “A Clockwork Orange,” and “Barry Lyndon.” Such a string of instant classics can make a director someone that no one wants to say “no” to for fear of derailing the success train.
Director as Dictator
When this happens, a director effectively becomes a dictator. Risks inevitably follow. From DeMille and Griffith to Hitchcock and Ford (and many more), cinema history is filled with examples of dictatorial directors who bullied, brutalized, and tortured their casts and crews.
Film is a collaborative medium that requires hundreds of people to work together. It is also a creative medium, one that attracts brilliant artists of all stripes. Be they lighting designers, prop masters, hair and make-up technicians, focus pullers, stunt performers, or actors: everyone who comes to the business of movie making does so to express some element of their own creativity.
When we rob our cast and crew of their creative agency, we further destabilize the atmosphere on set. Dictatorial directors can’t help but steal everyone’s collaborate tendencies. This is exactly what happened on the set of “The Shining.”
Kubrick on Set
Kubrick set the world record for most takes of a scene (127) on “The Shining.” He made Shelley Duvall perform the bat scene 127 times, leaving the actress exhausted, terrified, and with a nearly-lost voice.
Scatman Crothers had to film a close-up 60 times, which left the actor in tears.
Watching the Making of Documentary that was filming during production, you can see Kubrick berating Duvall and even going so far as to tell the crew not to sympathize with her. To leave her alone.
This led to the physical and emotional isolation of Shelley Duvall. She was stuck on an island, being tortured every day, for months on end, and no one would so much talk to her some days. It is no wonder this film had a lasting traumatic effect on the actress.
Nicholson is quoted as saying that Duvall’s part in the film is the toughest part he has ever seen anyone have to play. He goes further to say that while his professional relationship with Kubrick was good, Nicholson saw Kubrick turn dark and destructive toward Duvall.
These two issues – dictatorial director and unfinished script – are not isolated issues.
One Thing Leads to the Other
As risk management professionals, we have sadly seen this dynamic play out before. Sometimes it is a producer, other times the director, or even the star of the film. A feeling of inadequacy in one area of production leads this already powerful individual to attempt to compensate for that inadequacy in other aspects of the production.
Oftentimes, it is the powerless who bear the brunt of this compensation. Some take it out on production assistants and interns. Others, like the directors named above and Kubrick, take it out on the actors.
Actors are uniquely vulnerable individuals on film sets. Especially young, up-and-coming actors like Duvall. While stars are often capable of fighting for the performance they want, newcomers are forced to do the director’s bidding. In the wrong hands, this power can lead to manipulation and abuse.
Here, Kubrick was obviously struggling with the script. When so many people are waiting on you to finish pages, it can lead to a very public feeling of inadequacy, of coming up short. It does not surprise us then that Kubrick put his cast and crew through so many endless takes.
Dedication vs. Desperation
This is often sited as a dogmatic dedication to getting it right. But, where others see dedication, we see desperation. And not only that, but also profound unfairness.
Where was this dedication to getting it right during the writing process? To force the cast and crew to do hundreds of takes of material they saw only minutes ago is ridiculous. It is a form of punishment and a projection of one’s shortcomings.
Kubrick may be a brilliant director, but that brilliance is not on display when we look at how he treated his cast and crew – let alone his financier’s money. He tortured a young actress to, as he said at the time, get the performance he wanted out of her.
Let’s look at how risk management could have made all of this much safer.
How Risk Management Could Have Made “The Shining” Safer
These are some very complex issues, but they are not necessarily outside the purview of risk management. While we certainly are not therapists – and many on this production could use one – we can help guide productions away from many of these safety issues.
Let’s look at a few ways risk management can help:
- Saving You from Yourself: The Problem of Many Hats
- Trust Actors to Act or Why Casting is Vital to Safety
- Pre-production Planning
As we discussed in our article on “ROAR,” oftentimes one of the most common and risky issues on a film set is the problem of too many hats.
Saving You from Yourself: The Problem of Too Many Hats
When one person is in charge of too many aspects of a production it can lead to a cascading series of issues. As mistakes in one department bleed into the next, safety issues compound.
Kubrick’s failure to complete a finished screenplay before – or even during – production is a foundational safety issue that led to many other problems. The director’s job requires them to stay focused on the physical aspects of production. When a director’s attention is divided, things get missed.
On “The Shining,” Kubrick was not only the writer and the director, he was also one of the producers. This is not an unusual set-up, but it is one that creates further safety issues. A producer has the power to keep the director in line, to tell them “no,” and to pull them aside and tell them they are out of line.
But here, Kubrick was his own boss. There wasn’t anyone to tell him to get his act together. To stop torturing actors. To, maybe, take some more time on the script before rolling hundreds of feet of film on takes – and scenes – that will never see the light of day.
Like a series of well-laid dominoes, however, this dynamic leads to a string of other risky behaviors, both physical and financial:
- Nicholson is swinging a real ax at a real door in this movie, with nary a stunt coordinator in sight.
- The set caught fire due to the heat generated from the lights used to simulate sunlight
- The cast and crew suffered from exhaustion
- Dehydration and heat illnesses were daily issues
- The shooting schedule ballooned along with the budget
- Two films – “Reds” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” – were delayed because “The Shining” took so long to shoot, monopolizing Elstree Studios.
- Shelley Duvall suffered permanent psychological damage
Production risk management can save you from yourself by being the extra set of eyes when someone as important as the director is wearing multiple hats. When things get missed, risks appear. Risk managers ensure we catch the things you may miss.
Another common safety issue on set is actor manipulation. And “The Shining” has this is spades.
Trust Actors to Act or Why Casting and Rehearsal are Vital to Safety
Upon reading the novel, Jack Nicholson thought that Jessica Lange would be best for the role of Wendy and suggested that Kubrick cast her. But Kubrick wanted to change the character in the novel.
Kubrick wanted his Wendy to be fragile, weak, and emotional and set his sights on Shelley Duvall. Putting aside the sexism inherent in these changes – Stephen King took issue with Kubrick’s Wendy for being nothing but a scream machine – we want to highlight that Kubrick picked Duvall for this role, she was not foisted upon him by producers or financiers. He picked her.
And then proceeded to torment her. Some directors attempt to defend this behavior as necessary to generate the performance they are looking for. Let’s, for a moment, grant that this is why some directors treat actors so badly (though it is perfectly reasonable to question that logic).
The Importance of Casting
If true, it demonstrates how casting is vital to safety. It is imperative that we cast people who are capable of performing the role without manipulation. Why?
First and foremost, everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. Second, as stated above, this is a collaborative medium and manipulation robs actors of their contribution to the story. The third reason is safety.
When directors feel compelled to manipulate actors in order to achieve a desired performance, anything can happen. Real-world reactions to unknown stimuli are nearly impossible to predict. For instance, in this famous viral video, a guy responds to being scared by punching the prankster.
The Importance of Rehearsal
To mitigate risks on a film set, we must all know not only what is going to happen but how everyone will react to what is going to happen. The process by which we properly ascertain these things is called rehearsal. And rehearsal is an integral part of risk management.
In fairness to Duvall, she is a talented actor who was capable of turning in a wonderful, believable performance without all of Kubrick’s manipulation and trauma. In fact, Kubrick’s treatment of her actually resulted in a performance so terrible it was awards worthy. But more on that in a moment.
We highly recommend that productions hire casting directors to help identify talent that can perform the requirements of the role. And that directors rehearse scenes before filming to make sure that everyone knows what is going to happen. This allows everyone to prepare, including the safety team.
But all of this, of course, requires a finished script.
“The Shining” is a fantastic example of why we encourage all productions to on-board risk management during pre-production. So many essential decisions are made (or not made) during the planning phase. To hire risk management only for production is to minimize the effects we can have on safety.
During pre-production on “The Shining,” we would have highlighted the importance of assigning someone to oversee active risk mitigation on set – at Epitome we call this person the Risk Management Director (RMD). With Kubrick doing the work as the writer, producer, and director, risks were bound to crop up.
We would have stressed the importance of locking the script before principal photography. We would also have made sure that the production scheduled time for rehearsals to reduce the chances of actor manipulation.
But it would likely have been for nothing.
BOTTOM LINE: It’s the Culture
In all likelihood, it would not have mattered if we – or any other risk management team – were on-boarded during pre-production for “The Shining”. Why? Because Kubrick was too big a star with too much power and he was going to make the movie he wanted to make, however he wanted to make it.
This is why it is vital that we work to change the culture of filmmaking. If risk management were required on all productions, regardless of the wattage of its star director, we would be able to integrate safety into the foundation of filmmaking; changing the culture.
Until we do that, there will always be Kubricks – and Hitchcocks, Fords, DeMilles, Curtizes, and Griffiths – who are allowed to operate without concern for safety.
Had risk management been required on “The Shining” and we were hired to fill that role, we could have helped the production lock script before filming, encouraged a culture of collaboration and communication that allows everyone to feel part of the creative process, and instilled a safety mindset from the very beginning.
Pre-production might have taken longer, but a longer planning period would have drastically cut principal photography and saved the production money, time, and risks.
The bitter irony is that for all the torment and abuse, Shelley Duvall’s acting was panned. And so was Stanley Kubrick’s directing at the time. Both were nominated for the Golden Raspberry Award for worst performance in their respective categories. Overall, “The Shining” was not well received upon its release.
Had this film been made by another director, it likely would be lost to time and forgotten, like Jack Nicholson’s other attempts at horror. Because this film falls between “Barry Lyndon” (considered one of the most beautiful films ever made) and “Full Metal Jacket” (ranked among the best war films ever), it was bound to see its reputation lifted through proximity alone.
And that is, indeed, what happened to it. Over the past four decades, “The Shining” has gone from an unliked movie to a bonafide cinema classic and ranked among the best horror films ever made. Despite the fact that Stephen King himself never understood why anyone found the film scary.
“The Shining” also owes a debt to all the conspiracy theories that surround the film, turning mistakes in continuity into perceived purposeful clues to long-unsolved puzzles. Such attention has certainly led the film to be analyzed and reassessed endlessly, furthering its reputation as a must-see movie.
Stanley Kubrick only made two other films after this: “Full Metal Jacket” and “Eyes Wide Shut.” He is remembered for his trademark “attention to detail” and the often odd performances he got from his actors. No Kubrick lead since “2001” ever appears to be acting like a real human being, and that has been part of the critique against Kubrick. Despite that reputation, Kubrick remains cemented as one of the best directors of the 20th century. He died on March 7, 1999 at the age of 70.
Jack Nicholson’s career continued to skyrocket throughout the 1980s and 1990s. He turned in unforgettable performances in “Term of Endearment,” “A Few Good Men,” “Batman”, “As Good as it Gets,” and “About Schmidt.” All told, Jack Nicholson has twelve Academy Award acting nominations and three wins. He unofficially retired from acting in 2010. His last film credit is that year’s romantic comedy “How Do You Know.” Jack Nicholson is 85 years old.
Shelley Duvall starred in two major releases in 1980: “The Shining” and “Popeye.” Her career was on the rise, but she was never the same after “The Shining.” Her four most famous roles all came before 1980: Pam in “Annie Hall,” Millie in “Three Women,” Olive Oyl in “Popeye,” and Wendy in “The Shining.” Duvall moved out of the spotlight and has lived on a secluded ranch in Texas for decades. She hasn’t acted in over twenty years, and she rarely gives interviews. But when she does, all anyone wants to talk to her about is her torturous time on the set of “The Shining.” Her hair grew back but the mental scars remain to this day. Shelley Duvall is 73 years old.
Earlier this year, The Golden Raspberries rescinded Shelley Duvall’s 1981 nomination for worst actor citing Stanley Kubrick’s terrible treatment of her during production.
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.
Major Sources and Further Reading:
- “The Complete Kubrick” by David Hughes, 2000
- “Searching for Shelley Duvall” by Seth Abramovitch for The Hollywood Reporter, 2021
- “Flashback: Shelley Duvall and Stanley Kubrick Battle Over ‘The Shining’” by Andy Greene for Rolling Stone, 2016
- The Making of “The Shining”
- “The Shining:” 40 Years Later
- “Room 237”
- “The Shining” on IMDb
- “The Shining” by Stephen King
- “The Shining: The Movie’s Biggest Changes From The Book” by Adrienne Tyler for Screen Rant, 2019
- “Razzies void Shelley Duvall’s ‘The Shining’ nomination. Here’s why.” by Kelsey Ables for The Washington Post, 2022
- “From Borehamwood to Hollywood: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Elstree”
- “Staircases to Nowhere: Making Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’”