Interview with Full Metal Jacket editor Martin Hunter

Note: I found this while researching Full Metal Jacket and recently noticed that it is no longer online, so here it is.

27 years ago, Stanley Kubrick unleashed his singular Vietnam War movie Full Metal Jacket, featuring a haunting drone score from his daughter Vivian Kubrick (credited as Abigail Mead). For the role of editor, Kubrick went with first-timer Martin Hunter, with whom he had worked on The Shining (1980) as sound assistant. The pair immediately struck up a friendship and Kubrick told him to “stick around, I’ll have something for you”. 

With a Kubrick exhibition at Muzeum Naradowe W Krakowi this month, a rerelease of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) in the UK, and an imminent Kubrick exhibition at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, ‘Kubrick fever’ is spreading across the globe (let’s be honest, when is it ever not?). To help spread this fever a little further, we spoke to Full Metal Jacket’s editor Martin Hunter about Kubrick’s “illogical” approach to making films, whittling roughly 7,200 minutes (120 hours) of footage down to 116 minutes, Kubrick’s love of Mad Max, and why at times he could be “terrifying”. 

GFW: Full Metal Jacket was your first feature as editor. How did you land the job?

Martin Hunter: I first worked as a sound assistant on The Shining and I helped Kubrick with the making of the foreign versions of The Shining. At a certain point, The Shining had been released for more than a year and I was anxious to get on with my career, so I said to Stanley that I was looking for other work and he said, ‘no, no, don’t do that, stick around, I’ll have something for you’. Eventually I said ‘well, if it’s the editing job on your next picture, then yes, I will stick around’. And so he eventually said, ‘all right, yes, you can edit Full Metal Jacket.’ 

Was Kubrick confident about you taking the job, knowing that this would be your debut feature as an editor, and were you daunted by the prospect of working with the infamously meticulous director?

He was confident because he’d seen how I helped him to edit the network television versions of The Shining, and so we spent a week together in the cutting room working on that. We got along very well on a personal level, we had a couple of things in common: we had both been photographers – I studied photography for quite a long time and Stanley had worked as a photographer for years – so I think he found it comforting to have someone around with whom he could discuss F-stops and emulsions and development. We clicked very much on a personal level. 

I was a little daunted but I have to say, he completely charmed me during The Shining days because at that point the movie had been released and a lot of the pressure was off. Stanley could be extremely charming and he could be extremely terrifying also, but I knew that we shared the same sense of humor and the same work ethic and so I wasn’t as daunted as perhaps I should have been. 

In what way was Kubrick “terrifying”, as you say?

Stanley could be very forgiving of people’s failings, but two things would absolutely enrage him: one was laziness – not laziness as most people would think of it but someone who only wanted to work 18 instead of 20 hours that day could arouse his wrath – and the other thing was deception. He was a very straightforward, straight-talking man and he hated any kind of artifice. The worst thing you could say to Stanley if he asked you how a project was going was, ‘it’s in the works’ or ‘it’s being done’, to which he would always reply, ‘WHAT does that mean? How far along have you got?’ He wanted to know the specifics of exactly what had been done, what remained to be done and an estimate of how much time it would take. 


How long was the editing process from start to finish?

Stanley never had anything edited while he was shooting because he wanted to be in the cutting room for the entire process. We started editing about a week after production wrapped and we were on the mixing stage seven months later. And that was seven months of seven-day weeks and very long days, minimum of 12 and sometimes 24 hours. 

Wow. And did you visit the set during production?

Yes, when we were shooting it I had a cutting room adjacent to the set, and for the first couple of days I was given use of a World War II jeep and I would drive out in this four-wheeled vehicle out to the set to deliver my report on the rushes. 

How much footage did you start with?

I believe from memory it was about three quarters of a million feet, so I think it was around 120 hours if I recall. 

How involved was Kubrick with your work? Was he standing over you every day?

Oh 100 percent, he was there the whole time. I understood from the beginning that that was the way it was going to be and it’s not a way that I like to work with most directors but in Stanley’s case I just looked at his past track record and realized that I was going to come out of it with my name as editor on a very good film. 

What discussions did you have around continuity?

We didn’t think continuity was that important. I know there are articles you can find on the internet about how many continuity errors there are in The Shining but I don’t think Stanley made films for those sorts of people. In fact in the opening of Full Metal Jacket there’s a continuity “error” which I often point out in lectures which I give to film students: there’s a cut when Lee Ermey, the Drill Sergeant, punches Matthew Modine in the stomach, and in one shot, he pulls back with his left hand and in the cut he punches with his right. Nobody’s ever pointed it out, as far as I know. But those kinds of things don’t really matter because if a scene is effective, you shouldn’t be distracted by things like that. 

It was shot in Cambridgeshire and east London; what were your first thoughts when you saw those places on film double for Vietnam? 

I was actually intimately involved in all of that because prior to the shooting of Full Metal Jacket I did a lot of location scouting for the film and I spent two months in Belize in Central America and sent back like, 20 hours of videotape and 100 rolls of 35mm slide film, and we were looking for locations that Stanley intended to use as background plates. There was a sense in which we modeled east London on Belize because I had been looking for these Vietnam-type locations there, and then in the six months before we started shooting I was very much involved in finding all those military bases: I went and videotaped every military base within 50 miles of London. 


How many edits did you put together before settling on the final cut?

We worked, as I always work, by assembling the scenes and then going back and re-cutting all the scenes and assembling them into a movie, and then tightening the transitions and going back and working on things that felt out of place. So it wasn’t like we did cuts 1, 2, 3 and 4; it was a continuous, ongoing process that went on right up to – and including – he sound mix. It was one of the only movies I’ve worked on where there was no test screening. 

How would you compare his methods to other directors you’ve worked with?

I know his method drove some people nuts. They’d say, ‘it’s completely illogical, the way he’s doing this’, but my response would always be, ‘I don’t think logic has anything to do with this. This is part of his process and his process has proven to yield pretty wonderful results and I’m happy to go along with it.’ 

So what was “illogical” about his approach?

Well I’ll give you one example. There’s a scene where Vincent D’Onofrio is trying to climb over an obstacle built out of logs, he tries several times and fails. The scene consists of something like seven shots and we edited that scene the first time for two weeks and then put it aside and went back and spent another week on it and then put it aside and went back a third time and spent a further week on it. So of the seven months that we were editing Full Metal Jacket, almost one of those months was spent on editing that 30-second scene, seven shots. Now no one could possibly claim that there’s any logic in that at all but I just accepted it, that there was something bothering Stanley about it and he wasn’t going to be able to rest until he had either solved the problem or done his best to attempt to solve it, and I was happy to go along with it. 

Did you think of him as a genius at the time?

From the moment I met him, I thought he was a genius. I’m not exactly sure what defines genius but let’s say he was the most intelligent man that I’d ever met, with the sharpest brain and the most enquiring mind. Just watching the news with Stanley could be a very entertaining and educational experience. 

Did you talk about films?

Yes, he would always talk about films. He was a very avid film watcher as well as maker and he used to borrow prints from the film distributors in London and had an old projector in his house which he would project movies through himself. He would run up to the projection booth and watch films every weekend when we weren’t in production. I remember in the 80s we had a conversation about the early Mad Max movies and – being fresh out of film school and a bit of a film snob – I said, ‘oh no, I would never watch anything like that’, and Stanley said, ‘oh no, no, no, you have to, those movies are great’. So I went to the National Film Theatre one night and saw a double bill of Mad Max one and two and I was just blown away by the storytelling and the editing. I was just really impressed with how innovative and effective they were.