“Full Metal Jacket. A Stanley Kubrick film, coming to a theatre near you.” How many times in 1987 did the actor Kerry Shale repeat this line? Take after take, recording the movie’s trailer, personally overseen by world-historical perfectionist Kubrick himself. 1,000 times? 10,000? Shale (then aged 30) gave up counting. In this glorious three-hander (8 April, 2:15pm) written by Shale, we hear his agonising, hilarious story of that experience. He also plays himself. (Henry Goodman is Kubrick, and Robert Emms is Kubrick’s devoted assistant Leon.)
I don’t want to give too much away, because it’s so full of delicious first-hand detail (like the Rennies in Leon’s car for the explosive nerves of those on their way to meet the great man). We shuffle woozily from Shale’s London flat to Kubrick’s midnight studio replete with vomiting cats, and mad dinners of poached salmon served with a dollop of chocolate ice cream (Kubrick: “food is food”). Although resident in the UK for some 25 years, Kubrick lived on US time and expected everyone to comply. The Shale-Kubrick sessions continued until dawn (“Kerry, you gave me 40 takes of nothing”) with no escape. “Do you want to have an aspirin before you start?” Stanley asks Shale, who brightly replies that he doesn’t have a headache. Says Stanley, with certitude: “You will.”
Shale’s ability to enact the endless repetitions is marvellous, and as a dramatist he instinctively understands the thrill in hearing these endless, tiny vocal modulations alone – from sarcasm to honey. But there’s more. Here’s an unusually accurate Kubrick. That classic, confusing, manipulator’s mix of charm and meanness, with flashes of approval-seeking. A pushy person well used to attracting devotion. Creator of works of art so carefully, obsessively controlled, constructed of rhymes and echoes. Puzzle pictures, things to be decoded. Films that reward you by time spent working them out.
In Shale we hear the perpetual teenage boy who first saw Dr Strangelove, stunned by all the seeming life clues. By the end, Shale’s voice begins to feel like the voice of all fans of cult directors: Hitchcock, David Lynch, Tarkovsky, Tarantino. It’s a play about them all.
The Kubrick Test
BBC Radio 4
This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special