Miami has a living connection to Stanley Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut. Lisa Leone is the Vice President of Artistic Programs at The National YoungArts Foundation. She plays a key role programming artistic events at the institution that fosters the creativity of emerging artists, between the ages 15 and 18, who enroll from across the nation. However, before taking that job, she lived in Brooklyn, where fate led her to take research photos for Eyes Wide Shut a job that snowballed to further work on the set, including a small speaking part as the secretary to Tom Cruise’s Dr. Bill. It was a multi-tasking gig that would also include her taking on the role of set decorator for the movie, which began with her shipping New York taxi cabs to England, where Kubrick shot the film, and ended with her still speaking to him after finishing his final cut of the movie.
This Saturday night, Leone will present a 20th anniversary screening of the movie as part of the Miami Jewish Film Festival and the Coral Gables Art Cinema “After Hours” programs on 35mm. Independent Ethos caught up with Leone via phone to ask some burning questions. Leone says she fell into the job thanks to a close friendship with Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian Kubrick. They met in 1995 through a mutual friend. She says, “We wound up living around the corner from each other in New York … We totally got along, and then we became good friends, and then she got a fax from her dad saying, ‘Hey, I’m doing research for this film. It takes place in New York.’”
Leone says there were pages and pages of things he wanted her to go photograph, but Vivian was about to move to Santa Cruz, something her father was unaware of. “So she came to me,” says Leone with a laugh, “and said, ‘Look, can you do me a favor? My dad wants me to shoot all these things, but I have to pack and get myself together, so can you help me? But I can’t tell him, I can’t pay you, and I can just buy the film,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, fine,’ never expecting anything to come out of it.”
Leone took the list, took pictures of everything that was asked for and handed the photos to her friend who sent them to Kubrick. “I kinda forgot about it,” says Leone.
Six months later, after returning from a photo shoot assignment for Vibe magazine in Trinidad, she checked her answering machine to find a message from the director himself. She says Kubrick had asked her if she might be interested in a couple of weeks of work shooting some research photos. “Of course he had called Vivian and said these are great research photos. She said, ‘Well, I gotta be honest with you,” Leone says with a laugh, “‘I didn’t take them. My friend Lisa…’”
Kubrick has a well known rapport on the telephone with any collaborator, and Leone experienced it firsthand. For Leone, however, it never felt like anything more than talking with her friend’s dad. “Plus, he was from the same neighborhood in the Bronx that my family was from,” notes Leone. “It was very comfortable, because he spoke kind of like my uncles.”
However, as with any job with Kubrick, a couple of weeks turned into several months. “We just spent every day on the phone where he was like, ‘OK, go shoot this,’ or go there, and then it just got bigger and bigger and bigger.’”
She says Kubrick eventually confided that he was not happy with his art director. “He said, ‘I need a new art director,’ so I said, ‘Oh, I can find you somebody else.’ He said, ‘No, I have you,’ so then I became like the only person from New York working on the film, so I wound up buying taxi cabs, buying lamps. I basically sent two 45-foot containers over to build the back lot.”
She also shot pictures for second unit, finding establishing shots for scenes. She says Kubrick was meticulous about the pictures she shot. “He would say, ‘Now go back and tilt up and pan left a little,’” she says with a laugh, “and then he would finally pick the image and say, ‘OK, now go back and shoot this as the establishing shot,’ so I brought on Malik Sayeed and Arthur Jafa to do the [second unit] cinematography, but basically I was handing them the photograph and saying, ‘All right, here’s the frame … This is what he wants.’”
She says this part of working on Eyes Wide Shut lasted about a year, and Kubrick eventually invited her to come to England to work on the movie. The director latched onto the fact that she had experience dressing sets, and he hired her for that job. “So I went over there and became a set decorator,” says Leone, “but then also wound up in the movie and doing all the lighting and film testing. It’s like, once he could find you could do something, you wind up doing everything, but I was giving up everything to be able to work that time on the film, so a couple of weeks of work turned into four years, until the day he died.”
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This concludes part 1 of our conversation with Leone. In part two of this feature, the renaissance woman of Eyes Wide Shut answers the question of whether or not Kubrick finished the film to his vision, a debate that continues to this day. Check it out by jumping through the headline below:
Eyes Wide Shut plays one night only as a co-event between the Miami Jewish Film Festival and the Coral Gables Art Cinema “After Hours,” Saturday at 10:30 p.m. Leone will be present to introduce the movie. Get tickets here.