Stanley Kubrick is a versatile and incredible filmmaker – from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Eyes Wide Shut, his repertoire has stunned and amazed those who watch them. Recently, I re-watched Full Metal Jacket (1987) and was blown away by the beauty, skill, and plot.
If you’ve watched this epic tale of Marines in the Vietnam War, read on for the greatest stories from the making of it. If you haven’t watched it, stop what you’re doing and see what all the fuss is about! Oh, don’t miss the video!
Did you know that R. Lee Ermey, who played the hardcore, abusive Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, almost didn’t get the role? Stanley Kubrick felt that he didn’t have what it took to play the sergeant (despite Ermey having served in the Marine corps), and rejected him. Ermey then barked an order at Kubrick – to stand up when spoken to – and Kubrick instinctively snapped to attention and obeyed. Needless to say, Ermey got the role!
Vincent D’Ornofrio, who played the slow, eventually murderous Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence, gained 70 pounds for the role – the most any actor has ever gained for a part, ever! He shaved his head as well, and it had more of an effect on him than he’d anticipated.
He said of the experience, ”It changed my life. Women didn’t look at me; most of the time I was looking at their backs as they were running away. People used to say things to me twice, because they thought I was stupid.”
The whole movie was actually filmed in England. Crazy when you consider how convincing the Vietnamese landscape and American army base were, but Kubrick ingeniously used what he had at his disposal – an army base for the Marine training camp, an abandoned gas works on the Thames River, and imported palm trees created the backdrop needed to make the movie.
It’s based on a book, but the book doesn’t ever use the phrase “full metal jacket”. That came from Kubrick, who saw the words in a gun catalogue. Full metal jacket describes the casing of a bullet. The book that the movie is based on is called “The Short-Timers” by Gustav Hasford, which a semi-autobiographical novel about Hasford’s experience in the Vietnam war.
However, the book contains a bloodier, more disturbing third part which got left out of the movie due to the studio wanting to keep the movie appealing to mainstream audiences.
Joker, the main character who is a war correspondent observing the dehumanizing effects of war, played by Matthew Modine, is based on a real person. On Parris Island, his shirt says the name “J. T. Davis”, a direct reference to Spec. James T. Davis, who was the first American casualty of the Vietnam War.
In order to make R. Lee Ermey’s performance as Sgt. Hartman more believable, the rest of the cast didn’t see him before filming or interact with him between takes. The terror on their faces is often very real, as they had no context to place him in other than an abusive, angry instructor. To this day, some of the cast members avoid talking to him!
Anthony Michael Hall was set to play Joker, but left the production two weeks before filming began. Rumors swirled about why – some say it was a financial dispute, others think it was friction over Kubrick’s perfectionist shooting style.
Hall said of the incident, “It was a difficult decision. Because in that eight-month period, I read everything I could about the guy, and I was really fascinated by him. I wanted to be a part of that film, but it didn’t work out. But all sorts of stories circulated, like I got on set and I was fired, or I was pissed at him for shooting too long. It’s all not true.”
Written on Animal Mother’s helmet are the words “I Am Become Death.” This is a quote from the Bhagavad-Gita (a Hindi holy book) that Robert Oppenheimer, one of the members of The Manhattan Project, uttered at the detonation of the atom bomb.
The first part of the movie is undoubtedly about Sgt. Hartman and Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence. When filming the scene where Pyle shoots Sgt. Hartman, Ermey came into the head (bathroom) while wearing just his Smokey hat and underwear.
Kubrick immediately cut, saying that it made no sense for a drill sergeant to be wearing his hat in the middle of the night and needed to have Ermey explain to him that a Marine Drill Instructor is never, ever seen without his hat on – anyone who’s been to the Marines knows this to be true. In fact, the only place we see Sgt. Hartman without his hat is when he’s dead.
Kubrick was a known perfectionist, shooting things over and over again until they’re flawless. Full Metal Jacket was no different. Actor Matthew Modine got married, his wife got pregnant, gave birth, and celebrated their child’s first birthday all during the course of filming!
One of the reasons for the long filming time was because R. Lee Ermey was in a car accident during filming and broke several ribs. Healing time took around five months, which set production back a bit.
Speaking of Matthew Modine, he owed Val Kilmer for the role! A chance meeting at a restaurant between the two nearly descended into fisticuffs as Val Kilmer angrily accused Modine of stealing the role of Pvt. Joker from him.
At the time, Modine hadn’t even heard of the movie, but quickly sent Kubrick footage from a movie he’d acted in – Vision Quest – and won the role.
The movie shows several instances of Vietnamese prostitutes selling their wares to the American soldiers on base. There originally was a sex scene between Joker and a Vietnamese prostitute that got cut out, as Kubrick felt it detracted from the cold, often brutal nature of the film.
Another version of R. Lee. Ermey’s audition story is thus: he was on set as an advisor for the Marine training (having spent a significant amount of time as a Marine Drill Instructor himself). He made a fifteen minute audition tape of him screaming insults non-stop, without repeating himself or pausing, all while being pelted with oranges and tennis balls. Kubrick loved it, and he got the role.
Tim Colceri was originally tapped for the role of Sgt. Hartman. However, he never got the chance to show his acting chops, as Ermey swooped in and grabbed the role. He did get a consolation role – as the trigger-happy helicopter door gunner eagerly mowing down Vietnamese villagers.
Stanley Kubrick had never heard of the Rolling Stones before the movie! His explanation was that he had been “too immersed in Beethoven and the Strausses while making Orange and 2001 to notice rock and roll”. Interestingly, the Rolling Stones had wanted to be in A Clockwork Orange, even buying the rights to the script at one point!
Gustav Hasford wrote the novel that inspired the movie. Kubrick often consulted him over the phone in order to properly turn the book into a screenplay. However, Hasford had a reputation as a very difficult person, so when Kubrick wanted to have a face to face meeting, his co-writer Michael Herr tried to talk him out of it. He didn’t succeed in dissuading him, and the meeting went so terribly that Hasford was kept out of the writing process for the remainder of production.
The extras in the military training scenes were actually British army guys. The reasoning was that it would be easier to have army men in that role. However, Ermey needed to re-train them to look like U.S. Marine cadets, and found that so difficult he said it would have been easier to train people from scratch!
Joker was originally supposed to die. Kubrick was battling with the decision for a while, asking Matthew Modine, who played Joker, what he thought.
He recounts the discussions: “When I said, out of absolute anger, that Joker should live because that is the real horror of war – spending the rest of your life with that experience of his drill inspector getting shot and killed in a toilet, that the guy he was helping get through boot camp would put an M14 in his mouth and blow his brains out… I knew that it was the right ending.”
The parts of the movie set in Vietnam are noticeable for the smoky backdrop often seen, which lends to the feeling of absolute destruction that the war had. The reason for it is far more mundane. Set designer Anton Furst was tasked with creating a realistic Vietnam in England, as Kubrick was unwilling to fly to location.
Fortunately, the base was set on a coastal city, so creating a jungle was unnecessary. The clouds of smoke were there to block viewers from seeing the London cityscape that was really there behind them.
Kubrick is well known for overseeing every tiny detail that goes into his movies. However, for authenticity, he allowed Ermey to come up with his own lines. The actor put together 150 pages of original insults to use!
Depending on who you ask, anywhere from half to all of the lines Sgt. Hartman yells were conceived by Ermey himself. He was so spectacular in that role that his takes were usually finished within three tries. The only scene that took longer was the jelly donut scene.
Stanley Kubrick’s daughter Vivian helped create the score for the movie, shot a bit of footage (that never made it to film) and co-produced the mash-up “Full Metal Jacket (I Wanna Be Your Drill Instructor).” She was credited as one “Abigail Mead.”
Michael Herr, co-writer, was a longtime friend of Kubrick’s. He also penned his own book about his experiences in the war, called “Dispatches” which also inspired many events seen in the film.
The scene where the door gunner (Tim Colceri) is mercilessly – and remorselessly – gunning down innocent Vietnamese citizens is taken directly from Dispatches.
This amazing look at what went on behind the scenes is a must-watch!
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