Barry Lyndon was the one Stanley Kubrick movie I kept putting off. A three hour costume drama seemed really daunting, so finally with the Blu-ray set Stanley Kubrick: The Masterpiece Collection, I watched it. And I loved it. It was exciting with pistol duels, regimented battle scenes and espionage.
Warner Brothers had a roundtable interview in the lobby of their Stephen J. Ross theater on the studio lot in Burbank, where Ryan O’Neal himself sat down to talk about his experience making Barry Lyndon. We asked some questions and listened to O’Neal’s stories about Kubrick, and other filmmakers. Spoiler alert for Love Story if you haven’t seen that classic either. Stanley Kubrick: The Masterpiece Collection is available on Blu-ray Dec. 2.
Nuke the Fridge: When you’ve done a Stanley Kubrick movie in your career, that never goes away, does it?
Ryan O’Neal: No, it’s like flypaper. You’re stuck.
Nuke: Has it been good to revisit it over and over?
Ryan O’Neal: I’m not constantly revisiting it but it’s nice when people remember, sure.
Q: How do you remember it?
Ryan O’Neal: An ordeal. You turn yourself over to him and you hope that someday he’ll let you go. It took me a year and a half.
Ryan O’Neal: Yeah, I had legs. I could do it. He shoots a lot of takes. You don’t get a stand-in and it takes him a long time to light it. So by the time the’ve got it lit, they say, “Okay, now we’re going to shoot it.” It’s a new rhythm to the way you work.
Nuke: The lighting on Barry Lyndon was source lighting, candle light. Did that not make it any easier?
Ryan O’Neal: Well, if we didn’t get the take, we had to blow out the candles and start with new ones. Sometimes that was 100. The candles were all three wicks. That was our cheat. Three wicks. So it wasn’t even easy to blow them out. I used to help.
Nuke: In the documentary, someone describes Barry Lyndon as a movie where very little happens. That surprised me because there’s pistol duels, you’re marching in formation in battle. Did it strike you as an uneventful film?
Ryan O’Neal: Jeez, that’s a strong question. It wasn’t uneventful for me. They carried me away. I didn’t know what he was going to do. I didn’t see the movie for a year. After that it wasn’t ready to be seen, and I don’t even know what I saw. It’s very unique having an experience with Stanley, who was a loverboy. He was wonderful. We were all crazy about him. Whatever he wanted, we would try to do. Not just the actors, but everybody. Everybody. He was our God.
Q: Did you feel he expected even more out of himself than he expected of you?
Ryan O’Neal: Yeah, sure. First of all, he’s got the sound, he’s operating the camera and he’s directing us. So he has his hands full. He’s gone. I didn’t think he’d ever die. I thought he was going to live forever. He was that kind of a human being.
Q: You’ve done a number of period pieces. What is your favorite part of them as an actor?
Ryan O’Neal: You mean the costumes? Well, they help. If you don’t know the era, the period and you put the costumes on, suddenly you go, “Oh, okay, I get it.” For Paper Moon I had George Raft’s suit on the entire picture. I know who he was. I guess I have done a few period pieces.
Q: Did Kubrick change the scene a lot on the day, between takes?
Ryan O’Neal: No, but I remember once working on the bridge with my mother, we weren’t sure if the lines were working so he had the book, Barry Lyndon, by Thackeray. He opened the book and opened it to the page that we were shooting. It’s a 300 page book but he managed to open it to the direct page. He says, “Well, let’s do what’s here because I opened it to the right page.” So he was hopeful of fate.
Q: Besides Barry Lyndon, do you have a favorite Stanley Kubrick movie?
Ryan O’Neal: I watched Lolita this morning. I thought it had some interesting things in it. That was good. All his black and white stuff was wonderful.
Q: What was the most valuable thing you learned from Barry Lyndon?
Ryan O’Neal: I got a good salary. My deal was for I think 18 weeks and after 18 weeks we had about four pages. I was now going into overages and he said, “God, how much are you making? Shouldn’t you be unloading the trucks?” I said, “What, dressed like this?”
Q: How long did the shoot run?
Ryan O’Neal: 350 days, something like that. In fact, we got chased out of Ireland because the IRA called one of the hairdressers and said, “You’ve got 24 hours to leave Ireland,” threatened us. I said, “God, I would’ve called months ago if I knew that’s all it took. You believe the hairdresser?” He was gone within minutes. He was on a boat on his way to Liverpool.” And I thought, “Well, man, I’ve got some time off now.” So I went to Paris. I took Tatum and my friend Greg, and we went to Paris. Within 24 hours I got a call saying, “You’ve got to come to England. We’re setting up to shoot.” I said, “No, that’s not possible. We have everything to get over to England. It would take weeks.” Well, I was wrong because we were back to work. We left Ireland on Friday, we were back to work on Monday in England, in Bath. So he was a good producer too, even though he did shoot a lot of takes. Even if we didn’t get it because we were shooting takes, we came back the next day and continued until we were exhausted.
Q: What were your thoughts on all those takes?
Ryan O’Neal: Well, I worked with Arthur Hiller. He shot a few takes, but not like Stanley. Nobody ever like Stanley. We averaged 30 takes per shot. He’d say, “Just like that, do it just like that.” I said, “Then why do we keep doing it if I’m doing it just like that? Come around the camera and you do it, and I’ll do it just like you.”
Q: When you saw the finished film, did you realize why he did it that way?
Ryan O’Neal: No, I didn’t. Nor did I realize why Arthur Hiller did it that way either. I had to watch Jenny die about 15 times. I knew she died on the second take. She was dead but we kept doing it and doing it, but in the movie it’s the second take.
Q: Was Stanley funny on the set?
Ryan O’Neal: He was pretty good. I’d have to think about that. Here’s the thing. Stanley begged us never to talk to him. “Never sit at those roundtables.” I don’t know if it was his modest personality or he was very protective of his privacy. We didn’t have a PR person or a still person. We didn’t have a still photographer on the set. He said, “Well, if I want a picture, I’ll just get a frame from the picture. That’ll be good lighting and that’s your still.” I wonder why everybody doesn’t do it that way. He was quite practical. He made simple sets a lot of the time.
Q: Did filming with him affect you in your subsequent films?
Ryan O’Neal: I mean, did I have buckles on my shoes? Reach for my sword? I hope not. Probably.
Q: But did he make you a better actor?
Ryan O’Neal: I don’t know. It seems to me it’s been downhill since, just between us.
Q: Working with Hiller, Peter Bogdanovich, Kubrick. Do the great ones have anything in common?
Ryan O’Neal: Well, they’re highly intelligent. That helps. Good instincts. If they don’t fall for the blondes, they’ll probably have good careers. It’s the damn blondes.
Q: You really don’t look at Barry Lyndon and think, “Well, that was a really good film?”
Ryan O’Neal: No, I don’t. I don’t know what it is. Some people think it is. Some fall asleep. I don’t know. It’s not my film, you understand. I was just a soldier there. Can you imagine what poor Marisa [Berenson] went through to try and get that hairdo up and running? She had five o’clock calls in the morning and by 8:30 or so she’s all put together and squeezed in and ready to go. That’s only to now walk and try and find the shot. Try to get the first wide shot. Once we have the wide shot staged, then we stand there while they light it. That’s ‘til about noon or one, then it’s lunch. So you’re trying to be careful of not letting anything fall. I remember I had to wear this white makeup so they put it on me for the first time. I looked at it and said, “Gee, okay. A little slick.” Then later they said, “Where’s your white makeup?” I said, “What do you mean? It’s on.” They said, “No, it’s gone.” Apparently my skin absorbs it. And this was a lead base to get that, so I had to use something else that wasn’t as effective because otherwise I’d be poisoned. I remember near the end when I had to lose a leg and we had trouble finding an actor that would be a good double for me. So at one point Stanley said, “Why don’t you just lose the leg? It’d be so much simpler.”