The Frida Cinema

Orange County's Year-Round Film Festival

The Shining: 40 Years Later

The following blog was submitted by guest blogger and genre film fanatic Gabriel Neeb:

Stephen King was in Boulder, Colorado. He was far from his home state of Maine and struggling to come up with a story for his third novel, Darkshine. It was going to be about a boy with psychic powers in an amusement park. He put the manuscript away, and on October 30, 1974, Stephen and his wife, Tabitha, took a trip to Estes Park, Colorado, and stayed at a resort called the Stanley Hotel.

The Stanley was a hotel that operated on a seasonal schedule and was preparing to close down for the coming winter. Stephen and Tabitha were almost alone, save for the hotel staff. After dinner, Stephen remained at the bar for a few beers while Tabitha went back to their room. After the beers, Stephen started to go back to his room and got lost. Amid the corridors and doorways, and the jungley things on the black and gold carpet, Stephen had a thought.

            “There’s got to be a story here.”

By January 1975, Stephen King had taken the ideas of Darkshine and transplanted them into a new setting. Only now, he called it The Shine, after a line from the song ‘Instant Karma’ by John Lennon. However, instead of an amusement park, the story was not set in a vacant, maze-like hotel known as the Overlook, based on the Stanley.

The Shine did not last as a title. Once Warner Brothers bought the film rights and insisted on a different title, as The Shine was too similar to a derogatory term for African-Americans. In January 1977, The Shining was released to bookstores.

Reviews were mixed. While Stephen’s editor, William Thompson, thought it was the best thing King had written, literary critics of the New York Times found it either “gimmicky” or “overloaded with plot elements and clichés.” It didn’t matter. The Shining would sell 50,000 copies in hardcover and 2 million in paperback, landing on the New York Times bestseller list- a first for any Stephen King book.

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In 1999, my friends and I were the first people in line to see The World is Not Enough at the Avco Westwood. We walked into the theater expecting it to be empty, but there was someone already there. One of our group, Sam, a fourteen-year-old film geek, ran up to the gentleman sitting alone in the auditorium and asked him how he got in. I wish the rest of us had recognized the gentleman ahead of time and overcome the shock of seeing one of the top executives at Sony Pictures and intervened, because it might have saved our friend the embarrassment of looking like an idiot in front of John Calley.

John Calley is the reason you’re reading every word I’m writing.

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In early 1977, Calley was working at Warner Brothers. From 1969 to 1982, he’d presided over the production of many of the studio’s best films of the decade, many of which the Frida Cinema has played at their hardtop location, and now in their drive-in series. One day, Calley received galleys of an upcoming novel by a writer people only knew because one of his books had been the basis of the successful Brian DePalma picture, Carrie. He wasn’t fond of the title and made it known to the publisher, but he still managed to pass it on to Stanley Kubrick.

Kubrick and Calley had a good working relationship. Calley had been part of getting A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Barry Lyndon (1975) made. Kubrick wanted to direct a horror movie, but he hadn’t found material worth adapting. In The Shining, the story of a young boy being pursued by his bloodthirsty father around a vacant hotel, Kubrick found material that had a mythic resonance. Pre-production began soon after.

In June 1977, Kubrick hired the novelist Diane Johnson, based on having read her book, The Shadow Knows. Johnson flew to Kubrick’s London home and began collaborating on the script. Among the topics they discussing in the writing process were Freud, Horror Fiction, and Bruno Bettelheim’s work on fairy tales- The Uses of Enchantment (published in 1975, it concerns the examination of fairy tales through a Freudian perspective. It is still in print.).

 

 

Kubrick and Johnson molded The Shining into a fairy tale about a boy being pursued by a monster that happened to also be his father. They deleted a lot of the backstory of the main character, Jack Torrance, and focused on the boy and his mother, Wendy Torrance, as they ran from the monster. Soon, they had a working script. Now Kubrick needed a star–he had only one man in mind.

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Jack Nicholson was on a roll. He’d been in hit films, gotten some awards and nominations, and now, was being courted for a major role in a film by one of the era’s best directors. He was going to be Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon.

But since MGM, the studio that was going to release it, was being run by James Aubrey, Napoleon didn’t happen. Kubrick went on to film A Clockwork Orange instead. Nicholson went on to star in even more hit movies and that garnered him additional awards glory.

Years later, Stanley Kubrick reached out to Jack again to star in the adaptation of The Shining. Jack told his agent, Sandy Bresler, to make the deal before he’d even read the book.

By May 1978, Jack Nicholson was in London to shoot at the EMI-Elstree Studios. The Shining was scheduled to shoot for 25 weeks, and Jack took up residence at the Dorchester Hotel in London. However, as it quickly became clear 25 weeks was not going to be enough time to shoot the film, Jack was then moved to a four-bedroom mansion on the Thames River.

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Production began in late May 1978. The production was scheduled to finish at the end of 1978. Aside from shots taken from exteriors of the Timberline Lodge near Mount Hood in Oregon, the film was shot exclusively on interior sets built at the EMI-Elstree studio in London. Shooting nearby was The Empire Strikes Back.

For Kubrick, filming The Shining was a family affair. His wife, Christiane, and daughter, Vivian, would contribute to the overall design of the film, and his brother-in-law Leon Vitali would serve as his production assistant.

One of Vitali’s duties was to find an actor that could play Danny Torrance. After auditioning four thousand American boys, he found Danny Lloyd, who was five at the time. For as varied as the experiences of the actors on The Shining were, Danny might have had the best one. He never realized he was making a horror movie–he never saw the ghosts or the blood.

It was supposed to be a cozy 25-week shoot.

It wasn’t.

The production went over schedule and Kubrick did something he almost never did with actors: he allowed Jack to improvise. In fact, one of The Shining’s most famous lines was improvised.

Yup. That was improvised. While “Here’s Johnny!” was well known in the United States as Ed McMahon’s introduction to Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, Kubrick had spent years in England and was unfamiliar with American idiosyncrasies. So when Jack said that line, he loved it.

Kubrick was known for taking a lot of time between productions. By the time The Shining premiered, it would have been five years between it and his last picture, Barry Lyndon. Besides the complex sets designed by Leslie Tomkins, Kubrick demanded multiple takes of scenes. The scene where Jack meets Lloyd the bartender required more than 80 takes. The scene of the elevator opening and gushing blood required so many takes and generated so much fake blood that residents of a nearby village thought a massacre had happened at the studio. To add to all of this, the production was beset by a fire in January 1979. While there are no reports of anyone being hurt, the fire did destroy the set for the Colorado Lounge, the place where Jack spends most of the film writing.

The fire also destroyed sets being used by The Empire Strikes Back.  Warner Brothers, already worried about the shooting schedule, had to pay another $2.5 million and delay the release date from Christmas 1979 to Easter 1980. It was slowly beginning to be reminiscent of other nightmare productions of the era, specifically Apocalypse Now and the now infamous Heaven’s Gate production. The shoot would eventually take thirteen full months to complete.

Not surprisingly, there are no public accounts that the studio expressed concerns for the actors. Most stories of Kubrick’s penchant for multiple takes seem to come from The Shining. Scatman Crothers, playing Dick Halloran, did more than forty takes of his last scene. It took Jack’s begging off-camera before Kubrick, eventually, acquiesced from shooting.

“As the takes stacked up, Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall began to move through a range of emotions from catatonia to hysteria.” – Vincent Lobrutto, Stanley Kubrick, A Biography

Shelley Duvall. No discussion of The Shining can be had without mentioning the treatment of Shelley Duvall who played Wendy Torrance. On the DVD for The Shining, there is a documentary shot by Vivian Kubrick about the making of the film. Among things depicted is Kubrick taunting Duvall. There are some sources that believe Kubrick may have been attempting to derive something from Duvall by his behavior. Music editor Gordon Stainforth stated that he wanted scenes of him being warm and nice removed from the film and the scenes of him shouting at Duvall left in…”. What was left were the sequences of him shouting at Shelley in the snow.

And yet, Kubrick is still the director that insisted on 127 takes (possibly a record) of the sequence of Shelley Duvall and Jack Nicholson on the staircase. The production took its toll on Duvall, undoubtedly.

“Going through day after day of excruciating work was almost unbearable,” Duvall told Roger Ebert in December of 1980. “Jack Nicholson’s character had to be crazy and angry all the time. And in my character I had to cry 12 hours a day, all day long, the last nine months straight, five or six days a week. I was there a year and a month, and there must be something to Primal Scream therapy because after the day was over and I’d cried for my 12 hours … After all that work, hardly anyone even criticized my performance in it, even to mention it, it seemed like. The reviews were all about Kubrick like I wasn’t there.”

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The Shining opened in limited release on 23 May 1980 with a wider release on Friday, June 13, 1980. At a final cost of $19 million, The Shining represented a large risk for Warner Brothers, and may have been threatened by the release of The Empire Strikes Back, which had opened two days earlier. They needn’t have worried; The Shining would gross $44 million dollars at the box office and has been a perennial bestseller through home video releases over the past forty years.

However, Stanley Kubrick wasn’t quite satisfied. In one of the most unusual moves ever for a director, he removed a brief sequence at the end that featured Danny and Wendy. What was so unusual about it was that this cut was made after the film had appeared in theaters.

How soon after? I had a film professor state that he remembers the ending, where Danny is seen throwing a tennis ball against the wall, similar to how Jack had done so in the Colorado Lounge, from his viewing of the first show of the day. His friends, who saw The Shining that night, didn’t know what he was talking about. To date, there has been no release of this footage, and only a handful of stills exist that confirm this ending once existed. As of this writing, there is no way to view this scene. There is speculation that it was destroyed after its removal.

Stephen King was not happy with the movie. “Kubrick’s direction is good, but it’s heartless. Technically the movie is flawless, and the acting is great, but it’s not very scary.” Stephen has maintained this position for almost four decades, though he is complementary to the 2019 sequel, Doctor Sleep.

The Shining received no Academy Award nominations. Though, in one of the stranger episodes of “awards cluelessness,” it did receive nominations for Razzies–an award designed to note the worst examples of movies in a given year. Shelley Duvall received a Razzie nomination for Worst Actress and Kubrick received a nomination for Worst Director, losing to Brooke Shields for The Blue Lagoon and Robert Greenwald for Xanadu. In the defense of the Razzies, this was their first year giving awards.

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Like most of Kubrick’s films, The Shining would go on to gain a cult audience in the years after its release. It is regularly revived at chain and independent theaters. Even though it appeared right before the home media revolution, it has been a constant seller through its releases on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, and lately 4K blu-ray.

Stephen King still dislikes The Shining. He even wrote the script for a 1997 TV mini-series directed by Mick Garris. Not only did that production boast Stephen’s teleplay, but it was also shot at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. While that project has not garnered the acclaim or following of the 1980 film, it does feature certain elements that may have prefigured the Weeping Angels of Doctor Who fame.

The film and the movie spawned sequels decades after their respective creations. Stephen King wrote the novel Doctor Sleep in 2013, chronicling the life of Danny Torrance in the years after his time at the Overlook. It was adapted into a film in 2019 by Mike Flanagan, which was met with King’s approval.

The movie has also proved a source of Halloween costumes and regularly makes “Best of…” lists related to Horror movies. Its signature line, “Here’s Johnny!” has appeared all over the pop culture landscape, long after the originators–Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson–have disappeared.

Even the film’s carpet pattern has appeared as clothes, tablecloths, and recently, masks.

Beyond even this, The Shining has a deep hold on the popular imagination. Filmmaker and commentator Rob Ager (http://www.collativelearning.com/) has a youtube channel dedicated to video essays on The Shining and other films. In his essays, he has explored the impossible geography of the Overlook, themes of child abuse in the film, and how the film might be Stanley Kubrick’s stealth commentary on the Federal Reserve and international banking. And Rob Ager isn’t the only person who studies The Shining.

In 2012, the film Room 237 was released. Directed by Rodney Ascher, the film was about the numerous theories and interpretations people have about The Shining. The film was released to video on demand and often arises when people discuss The Shining.

The Shining is forty years old. It hasn’t gone away in our imaginations and continues to haunt film discourse and popular media. When we get back to Halloween, we’ll see the costumes and the pattern, and almost certainly one of your friends will introduce himself by saying, “Here’s Johnny!”

When he does, the drinks are on the house.

The Shining will play at The Frida Cinema’s Pop-Up Drive-In at the Mess Hall at Flight in Tustin at 7:00 pm on Friday, 27 November 2020. For tickets and more information follow the link:

https://thefridacinema.org/the-shining-40th-anniversary-the-frida-cinema-pop-up-drive-in/