The Forward to Full Metal Jacket

by Michael Herr

I first met Stanley Kubrick in the spring of 1980, at his house outside London. It's nice to get a call from a culture hero, especially when you have so few. It isn't really true that Stanley Kubrick is a weird recluse, but it's usually true that if you're going to see him, you're going to his house, which is also his place of work, and business. We talked about many things that night, but mostly about war and movies. He had a strong feeling about a particular kind of war movie that he wanted to make, but he didn't have a story. By "story," I learned, he meant a book of such agreeable elements and proportions that he could break it down and build it up again as film; a tree with perfect branches. It was another seven years, a lot of it uphill, before he showed me the finished version of FuII Metal Jacket.

I once told him about a dinner I'd had with a director who is at least as famous for his excesses as he is for his movies. We met to talk about a movie, but with one thing and another -- mostly the dozen other people who joined us -- the subject never came up, I know to our mutual relief. It was a star-studded table and a totally entertaining dinner, but dinner isn't work, necessarily. And as we left the restaurant, everybody checking out everybody else, I noticed roughly 300 Pounds Sterling of wine left at the table, all the bottles opened but otherwise untouched.

"There you go, Michael," Stanley said when I told him the story."Those guys don't know how to live like monks."

And he does. He lives in a great house (great in the English, not the American, sense of the word), stocked inside with every toy a hyperactive technology can provide, but this is just a description of the physical plant. Most of the space, like the time, is for work. The action is strictly monastic, secular-electronic but ascetic. By temperament and through control (he is the control-freak par excellence), he conducts himself like a monk in the material world, disciplined and multi-disciplined. That's why his movies are his in ways no other American director can claim: Stanley Kubrick Presents a Stanley Kubrick Presentation. For someone who claims not to believe in the auteur, he makes extremely personal films.

During the next few years, we talked on the telephone. I think of it now as one phone call lasting three years, with interruptions. The substance was single-minded: the old and always serious problem of how you put into a film or a book the living, behaving presence of what Jung called the Shadow, "the most accessible of archetypes, and the easiest to experience." It was everywhere in Conrad's work, it starred in all of Bunuel's films, and it served as my personal co-pilot in Vietnam, where I learned to know and respect it. It came up out of me a thousand times to whisper the words spoken later by D.I. Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket: "I got your name. I got your number ... Because I am hard, you will not like me ... I am hard, but I am fair." Damned if you do, warped if you don't, that's what the Shadow thinks is fair. Only the courage to look it in the face can subdue it for even a minute, according to Jung, in so many words; War is the ultimate field of Shadow-activity, where all of its other activities lead you. As they expressed it in Vietnam, "Yea, Though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no Evil, for I am the Evil." And the Fear, they could have added.

This is what we talked about in the eternal, recurring telephone call. Never boring, it was sometimes difficult. Talking to someone who is so blatantly hard at work can only mean that you are working, too. Writers stare at their tables all the time, and live such wonderful inner lives that they can forget to speak for days. In other words, most writers are manic-depressives, while movie directors are like generals, outward bound, out there and putting it out there, full of pep, talking story, brainstorming, performing schedules, highly conceptual, totally practical. This is compounded with Stanley by what I would have to call his intellectual fearlessness. His elevator goes all the way up to the roof. He's a regular mental warrior, and his means are telephonic. He has tremendous information, and he loves to process it. I valued his information so much that I didn't even charge him to talk to me. Nor did it matter that, after seven years' work on a Vietnam book followed by at least a year on a Vietnam movie, I wanted to become the last person in the world anybody would think of when they needed a Vietnam screenplay. So what money couldn't make me do, I did for information.

At the very moment in 1979 that I was making my No More Vietnams oath, I was sent a novel in bound galleys called The Short-Timers, by Gustav Hasford. I meant to read only a few pages, but I could see immediately, in one paragraph, that this was impossible. When I finished the opening section, I felt as though I'd read a whole novel, and it was twenty-eight pages long. I knew I was reading an amazing writer. He was telling a truth about the war that was so secret, so hidden, that I could barely stand it. I certainly didn't want to be associated with it in my neo-postwar period. It was a masterpiece that absolutely anybody could pick up and read in a couple of hours and never forget; and it went out into the world seeking shelf life without the albatross of my blurb around its graceful neck. I didn't answer the publishers, I didn't write to the author. I folded. I felt vaguely ashamed, but I got over it. I repressed it. Later, when Stanley was looking for war books, I may have mentioned it, but I'm not certain that I did. When he came across it, he knew immediately that he wanted to film it. I'd recoiled so far from it that I couldn't remember anything about it. It came straight back when I re-read that first great page.

I think that before he found the story and the locations, even before he knew which war he would be filming, he knew what the movie would look like. It was the leanness and incredible tact of The Short Timers that was so satisfying. The dialogue wasn't like any movie dialogue we'd ever heard before. It was pre-cliched dialogue, the funniest and most painful distillations of the most extreme experience. The leanness was the story; lean young men, with only the teenage fat of their innocence to keep away the chill; and then they lose that. "The phoney-tough and the crazy-brave," walking the walk and slipping in blood,"Is that you John Wayne? Is this me?" The moral and political trellises are down, with all the rhetoric that grew on them. The audience would not be told how to watch this movie. This would be what the studios used to call a "Who Do You Root For?" movie, non-explicit in its meanings, low-road in its production, minimal in expression; highly specific, like Hemingway. Simple surface, long reverberations.

Stanley wrote a detailed treatment of the novel. We met every day for a month and talked. We broke the treatment down into scenes, with a titled filing card for each scene. (One scene, the writer's dream, where the Lusthog Squad rests between battles, Iliad-style, and talks and talks and talks, we called "C-Rats with Andre.") I wrote the first-draft screenplay from this, in prose form. The pages, if any, went out by car every afternoon, followed in the evening by a phone call. (Gustav Hasford says that one of his calls from Stanley ran more than seven hours.) If I got stuck, I'd phone that in, and Stanley would perform a line from his ongoing satirical revue of Hollywood types. "Don't write it fast, write it good," he'd say, in homage to Harry Cohn, and, "If it ain't broke don't fix it." (It's interesting, and often true, that scenes that are written fast usually play best.) When I finished the draft, he rewrote it, and I rewrote that. Gus came to London and wrote. Stanley rewrote all through shooting. Sometimes an actor, through inspiration or incapacity, would revise all of us. Lee Ermey, the ex-Marine who had been hired as technical advisor, bugged Stanley to test him for the part of Sergeant Hartman, and he brought a lot of his own incredible language in, like Orson Welles in The Third Man.

When Francis Coppola was making Apocalypse Now in the Philippines, the furies combined to turn the filming into something too much like Vietnam, and that was only part of what was paid for that great film. The furies would operate under tighter regulations on Full Metal Jacket. Except for some second-unit jungle footage, it would be filmed in England. He found Beckton, on Thames, an abandoned gasworks, and blew it up for Hue City. The cast was young, and used to short schedules. They heard that Stanley Kubrick worked his actors hard. They found out. Halfway through, when Lee Ermey was hurt in a car accident and shooting was suspended for three months, they really got salty. I went out a few times, by invitation. ("Hey Michael, wanna get your ass in the grass?") There's nothing more boring than a film location when you're not busy. It was a fairly tight ship, better than many, and there are plenty who would sail her again. Not exactly frisson-free, but that's the movies. Directors behave like directors, actors behave like actors, the jolly English crew behave jolly, and the writer watches. Stanley does not get lost on the set.

It takes a great manipulator to make a nonmanipulative movie. If you work as a writer on a movie, you inevitably shoot a version of it in your mind. Just as inevitably, the director will shoot a movie that is nothing like yours. Yours is in your head with no audience, and his is on the screen. Almost the first thing that struck me about Full Metal Jacket was how little it had to do with me. I suffered the usual screenwriter's losses, and found them acceptable losses. It was very different from Gus's book, but true to it. I couldn't, and can't, get over the beauty of the acting. And the next morning, I couldn't remember for a long time what I thought had been cut -- lines that had been fun to write, whole scenes, beloved voice-overs, stuff that looked great on the page but couldn't be performed. I could only remember the completeness of the movie, and how new it looked to me.

When Viva Zapata came out in 1952, the ads featured a rave from John Steinbeck, something like, 'The greatest movie of all time." I remember how I felt when I saw that John Steinbeck had also written the screenplay. Without the words to say it, I was shocked by the immodesty of it, the shameless conflict of interest. But I was only twelve then, and had never written for the movies. At least from the day that Stanley saw the phrase "full metal jacket" in a gun catalogue and found it "beautiful and tough, and kind of poetic," he had taken the book and the script, the cast and the technicians, into his obsession. We'd get out when the movie got out. Film isn't all that's released when a powerful picture is finished.

August 1987