Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Vietnam War drama Full Metal Jacket has gone on to become a cult classic, loved by movie fans worldwide. With Kubrick’s particular way of working and the intriguing story of the movie, it should come as no surprise that the filming of Full Metal Jacket was an interesting time – for better or worse. If you’re a fan of Full Metal Jacket, then you’re going to love these things you (probably) didn’t know about the movie.
From tech advisor to drill instructor
The late, great R. Lee Ermey was the technical advisor for the movie before telling Stanley Kubrick that he wanted to play the drill instructor instead – but Kubrick wasn’t convinced.
So Ermey decided to shoot his own audition tape where he shouted obscenities and insults into the camera, for a full 15 minutes – all while having oranges and tennis balls thrown at him. With his unflinching tirade of abuse and his experience as an actual drill instructor in the Marines, Kubrick realized Ermey just had to play Gunnery Sergeant Hartman.
To keep the reactions to the drill instructor as authentic as possible, R. Lee Ermey and the rest of the cast were not allowed to rehearse together. As Gunnery Sergeant Hartman delivers his hilarious speeches and insults, the reactions caught on camera were the legitimate reactions of the cast.
Nobody knew what he would do or say next, much like how it would have been in real drills. The looks of shock, fear or hilarity on the recruits’ faces are all real.
Months to film
Stanley Kubrick was always known for taking his time with filming, to make sure that everything was perfect. However, Full Metal Jacket was one of the longest movies the director had ever filmed.
It took over a year for him to capture all of the scenes that he wanted, with many actors running over their initially scheduled times. Adam Baldwin, who played Animal Mother, was only supposed to film for three months but ended up being on set for nine!
Pvt. Pyle used to work at the Hard Rock Cafe
R. Lee Ermey wasn’t the only unknown name to land himself a place on the Full Metal Jacket cast list. Vincent D’Onofrio was a theater actor and bouncer who worked at the Hard Rock Cafe when he bumped into actor Matthew Modine (who plays Joker).
The pair were talking when Modine mentioned there was a spot going in the movie he was working on. While he’d never really imagined himself as a movie actor, D’Onofrio went for the part of Pvt. Pyle, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Hectic auditioning process
Stanley Kubrick certainly didn’t have any shortage of actors to pick from when casting Full Metal Jacket. It’s thought that over 3,000 audition tapes were sent to the director which led to his staff having to screen them down to the ones they thought had the most promise.
Kubrick then had 800 videotape auditions that he had to personally sit through, in order to pick the best of the best. We’ve gotta hand it to Stanley – that’s the kind of dedication that makes his movies so brilliant.
Setting the scene
In order to turn the Beckton Gas Works into a replica of Hue after attacks, Stanley Kubrick is said to have used still photographs taken in 1968 as his inspiration. He then made the movie’s art director knock specific holes in certain buildings using a wrecking ball, and blow up certain buildings.
Kubrick also had plastic trees flown in from California for the outdoor scenes but didn’t like the first batch. Eventually, they used 100,000 plastic plants from Hong Kong and 200 real palm trees from Spain.
Good directors often make actors go through endless takes in order to get just the right one. Apparently, Adam Baldwin wasn’t a big fan of having to shoot so many retakes, and let his feelings be known out loud.
After Stanley Kubrick asked for him to retake yet another scene, Baldwin allegedly muttered, “Oh man, what does this guy want from us?” Unfortunately for him, the director heard, and was quick to retort, “How about better acting?” That will teach you for making snide comments in front of the boss, eh!
Weight gain record
While Stanley Kubrick was obviously impressed with Vincent D’Onofrio’s acting skills, he wasn’t happy with the way he looked. The director asked the actor to put on weight for his role of Pvt. Pyle and so D’Onofrio gained three lbs. Still unhappy with his looks, Kubrick asked him to put on even more weight.
Eventually, D’Onofrio tipped the scales 80 lbs. heavier, beating the previous record for weight gain for a movie role held by Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. The extra weight caused D’Onofrio to tear knee ligaments on the obstacle course, however. At least the role got him noticed, so it was probably all worth it to him in the end.
One scene that took 30 days to shoot
One of the longest scenes to film in Full Metal Jacket is the death of Doc and Eightball, as they go over the wall. From the moment they arrived at the wall through to the time they got over it, which is mere minutes in the movie, it took 30 days of filming.
As a perfectionist, Stanley Kubrick would only be happy when the scene was exactly how he wanted it to be. Ultimately, this led to an almost perfect war movie, but it certainly messed with the actors’ schedules.
Nearly different actors
Full Metal Jacket could have been very different, as it is alleged that there were several famous actors who nearly got roles in the movie. Anthony Michael Hall, from the coming-of-age drama The Breakfast Club, was supposed to play Pvt. Joker and spent months getting ready for the role, but couldn’t agree on salary and scheduling arrangements with Kubrick.
It’s also thought that Bruce Willis and Denzel Washington had to turn down roles due to other filming arrangements. Denzel Washington, who was going to play Eightball, says that he regrets missing out on the role.
Filmed in England
Full Metal Jacket may have been set in South Carolina and Vietnam, but it was actually filmed in England. Sets were created in Cambridgeshire, the Norfolk Broads, the disused Beckton Gas Works – which was scheduled to be demolished – and the Isle of Dogs.
The Parris Island Marine boot camp was actually filmed in a former RAF base, Bassingbourn Barracks. The scenes in open country were filmed along the River Thames and in the Cliffe Marshes in Kent. However, it took a lot of work to turn these English locations into war zones.
Modine’s diary revealed some pretty bad stuff
During the filming of Full Metal Jacket, Matthew Modine kept a diary of everything that happened on the set. This helped him get into the mindset of a reporter and Kubrick would sometimes ask Modine to read his entries out loud to the rest of the cast and crew.
Eventually, in 2005, Modine published his entries and photographs in a book called Full Metal Jacket Diary. One of the most shocking revelations was that the gas works the film was shot in was filled with toxins that made the cast and crew ill.
Another reason it took so long to film Full Metal Jacket was due to R. Lee Ermey sustaining an injury during filming. A car crash led to the actor breaking all of the ribs on one side of his body, meaning that he had to wait in the wings for four and a half months.
Ermey was actually supposed to be out of action for much longer but didn’t want to waste any more time and so decided to jump back in and film the scenes anyway. In some parts of the movie, you can see he doesn’t move his left arm at all.
Modine and Kubrick standoff
With filming taking so long, Matthew Modine needed to take time off to witness the birth of his first son. Kubrick, however, had other ideas. He didn’t want one of his lead actors to take time off and said that he would just be in the way of the doctors if he went to the birth.
Modine reportedly threatened to cut his own hand open with his pocket knife to get time off if he wasn’t allowed to go. Eventually, the director gave in and Modine saw the birth of his son.
Barely any recognition
Despite Full Metal Jacket being a must-have in most movie lovers’ collections, the film didn’t get much recognition when it was released. Critics didn’t have a lot to say about the film, though it peaked at number 2 in the box office charts.
The movie was only nominated for one Oscar and won a handful of smaller, lesser-known awards. This was quite common with Stanley Kubrick films, however, which seem to become cult classics as opposed to award-winning, box office hits.
We rarely hear the real names of any of the recruits in Full Metal Jacket, as they are just referred to by their nicknames. However, in a training shot on Parris Island, we see that it says J.T. Davis on the back of Pvt. Joker’s sweatshirt.
This is a hat tip to Spec. James T. Davis who was the first officially recognized American casualty of the Vietnam War. He died in 1961 during the war, and Joker’s real name was added into the movie to commemorate him.
Full Metal Jacket
Ever wondered where Full Metal Jacket got its name from? Originally, the movie was going to be called The Short-Timers, in reference to the book it was based on.
However, Stanley Kubrick decided he wanted to change the title to Full Metal Jacket, after a bullet which was commonly used by Marines in the Vietnam War. This bullet consists of a soft core, surrounded by harder metal. Maybe that was a little nod to the Marines themselves?
Writing his own lines
In fact, Stanley Kubrick was so impressed with R. Lee Ermey that he let him do something very unusual. Known as a bit of a ‘control freak’ on his sets, it wouldn’t be normal to let anyone ad-lib or use their own lines in a Kubrick movie.
However, in order to get a real insight into a Vietnam War drill instructor’s mindset, he let Ermey write his own lines. The drill instructor is thought to have written around 150 pages of insults that could have been used in Full Metal Jacket, and about half of his lines in the movie are ones he wrote himself. Clearly his work was praised because it got him a Golden Globe nomination.
Wanting it to be realistic
Stanley Kubrick was extremely keen to show what the Vietnam War had really been like, which is why he wanted to work with the war correspondent, Michael Herr, and author Gustav Hasford.
According to Dorian Harewood, who played Eightball in the movie, he wanted to make Full Metal Jacket as “his answer to Rambo.” The often over-the-top action series, starring Sylvester Stallone, wasn’t made to be historically accurate and Kubrick wanted to show the world that there was a much darker side to the war than Rambo’s portrayal.
In order to truly put the actors through their paces, it’s alleged that many would go through up to 10 hours a day of intense boot camp training. This included being yelled at by R. Lee Ermey (the drill instructor) and having their heads shaved once a week.
Kubrick wanted the actors to understand how difficult the training process would have been, before even getting to Vietnam. It certainly paid off with the actors’ incredible performances.
Based on a book
Reportedly, Stanley Kubrick had always wanted to make a war movie with war correspondent, Michael Herr who had written the Vietnam memoir, Dispatches. The pair threw around several ideas, including a Holocaust movie that Kubrick had been keen to make.
Instead, they settled on a semi-autobiographical novel about the Vietnam War called The Short-Timers, written by Gustav Hasford. The movie is almost identical to the book, keeping many of the names and events the same.
A nice consolation prize
With almost 35 years of hindsight, it’s pretty much impossible to imagine anyone else but R. Lee Ermey in the role of the foul-mouthed, tough as nails Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. However, he wasn’t Stanley Kubrick’s first choice of the role.
The first Hartman was in fact going to be Tim Colceri, who was also a Vietnam War vet. When Ermey was brought in to replace him, Kubrick gave him another role, and it was almost as memorable! Colceri ended up playing the helicopter door gunner, who speaks remorselessly about the number of lives he’s taken while dropping some ultra quotable lines like “Get some!”
The one thing to be touchy about
For the actors and crew, working on Full Metal Jacket was not markedly different than actually going to war. The conditions were harsh, the hours were long, and the filming was grueling. It probably didn’t help that they had Stanley Kubrick at the helm.
The director is notorious for putting his actors through the wringer, often requiring them to do takes in the high double digits until he’s satisfied. But even cruel taskmasters have their soft spots, apparently. During filming, a family of rabbits accidentally perished. The animal-loving Kubrick was so distraught that he canceled the rest of the day’s shooting.
It’ll be done when it’s done
In one of the movie’s most memorable fighting sequences, the squad advances on a seemingly-abandoned urban area. However, they quickly discovered it wasn’t quite as empty as they thought, as they’re ambushed by a Vietnamese force and are pinned down by sniper fire.
Several of the men, including Eightball, lose their lives. If the finished sequence looked brutal to watch, filming it was ten times harder. The advance – a little over four minutes of screen time – took more than four weeks to shoot. Dorian Harewood, who played Eightball, described the experience as “lying on the ground for a whole month.”
Duck and cover!
Difficult though it may be believe, Full Metal Jacket used the picturesque English countryside to stand in for the rice paddies of Vietnam. In once scene, shooting took place in the Broads – a criss-crossing system of rivers and lakes in the county of Norfolk.
A helicopter was slated to fly very low over a canal while an actor fired a heavy machine gun out of the doors. The shoot was set to take place at dawn, with local police warning local fishermen to stay away. Somehow, the message didn’t get through to them and they found themselves – to their immense shock – under attack by a U.S. Army helicopter!
Val Kilmer (inadvertently) got Modine cast in the movie
Once, Matthew Modine was in Sunset Boulevard enjoy pancakes with In Living Color’s David Alan Grier when he noticed Val Kilmer giving him the evil eye from across the way. When the two were introduced, Kilmer told Modine he was sick of him, because he’d been on a run of successful films.
“Now you’re doing Kubrick’s film,” Kilmer added spitefully. Modine had no idea what he was talking about, and his manager didn’t either. Doing some digging, they found out about the movie – Full Metal Jacket – and tried getting Modine cast in it. It worked – and all thanks to Kilmer’s professional jealousy.