In most professions, performing a task dozens of times before you get it right is not something to brag about. Film-making is not like most professions. For the upcoming release The Mummy, Tom Cruise insisted on filming an action sequence 64 times in a zero-gravity environment just to make it as realistic as possible.
When we typically discuss scenes or shots that require numerous takes, however, it’s usually about directors instead of actors. Stanley Kubrick was famous for it, and reportedly made Cruise walk through a door 90 times while filming Eyes Wide Shut. David Fincher has earned a similar reputation, claiming in a recent survey to have once used up to 107 takes to get a shot right. It sounds like a nightmare for the cast and crew, who are operating purely on faith in their director, but actors continue to flock to such film-makers because their methods seem to work. Kubrick famously never made a bad film, and Fincher hasn’t yet. Here are the most famous scenes that took a mysteriously high number of takes to get right. Decide for yourself if they were worth it.
The Shining – the pantry scene
Perhaps mimicking the obsessive nature of his protagonist, Kubrick shot every scene in The Shining multiple times. The famous sequence in which Shelley Duvall waves Jack Nicholson off with a bat while he advances on her? They filmed it 127 times. Kubrick shot 60 takes of a wordless scene in which the camera simply pushes in on Scatman Crothers in his room, eventually prompting the 70-year-old actor to break down in tears. Most fascinating is the pantry scene in which Crothers’s character discusses his ability to “shine” with young Danny. It’s a fairly straightforward scene of dialogue, yet Kubrick required 148 takes to get it right. Unsurprisingly, the boy who played Danny never acted in films again.
Spider-Man – the tray catch
These days, comic-book movies rely almost entirely on CGI, but when Sam Raimi was making the first Spider-Man, he used practical effects as much as possible. In this regard, there was no more important scene than the one in which Peter Parker first discovers his powers. It had to feel real. In the high school cafeteria, Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane slips and her tray goes flying up in the air. Tobey Maguire catches her in one arm, then uses the other to catch her tray and each item of food, all without a single spill. Without the use of CGI, it took 156 takes to perfect, but it gives the film a realism that the most advanced visual effects in the world can’t replicate.
The Usual Suspects – the line-up
Sometimes, multiple takes result in a scene you could never have expected. For this film’s famous police line-up sequence, in which a group of thieves meet each other and plan a heist, director Christopher McQuarrie wanted a serious, dangerous tone, but the actors were having too good a time in each other’s company. Numerous takes were spoiled by corpsing, another was interrupted by comically-timed flatulence. In the end, McQuarries reversed course and used one of the sillier takes in the final cut. It worked perfectly. The scene is now an iconic depiction of camaraderie among thieves, unintentionally reinforcing Kevin Spacey’s voice-over that accompanies it: “You don’t put guys like that into a room together.”
Oldboy – the fight scene
Comparatively, the famous fight scene in Chan-wook Park’s twisty gangster movie wasn’t shot that many times. It only took 18 takes. But considering just what transpires in the long tracking shot, it must have felt like a lifetime. Choi Min-Sik, playing a man who has been imprisoned for decades and is now seeking revenge on his captor, encounters 25 armed men in a narrow hallway. In a single four-minute shot, he takes them all out with only a hammer, suffering endless punches, kicks, and even a knife to the back in the process. In the context of the story, it’s depicted as a miraculous act of physicality. Filming it 18 times may been an even more impressive achievement.
City Lights – the flower scene
Charlie Chaplin was a perfectionist when it came to physical comedy. Often stumbling and bumbling on-screen as The Tramp, Chaplin’s movements were actually precise and rehearsed to perfection. He brought the same dedication and precision to his less physically-demanding scenes. In The Gold Rush, he filmed the sequence of him eating a shoe 63 times. It wasn’t real footwear, of course, but rather a prop made out of licorice, and Chaplin had to be rushed to the hospital after consuming so much sugar. Anything for his art. But the shoe sequence was a walk in the park compared to another scene in which a beautiful young girl offers him a flower. The simple close-up of her speaking the line, “Flower, sir?” was shot 340 times. It’s a particularly astounding number considering City Lights was a silent film.
Dragon Lord – the hacky sack
Legend has it that a scene in this early Jackie Chan film required 2,900 takes. The famous “shuttlecock sequence”, which depicts a sporting match of a game that’s a cross between soccer and hack sack, is composed of dozens of shots, unlike other sequences on this list. According to cinematic lore, one shot alone, in which Chan makes a miraculous, game-winning kick, took hundreds of attempts. Chan’s dedication and physicality over the course of his long career is unmatched. It earned him a Lifetime Achievement Oscar earlier this year, but something tells me this record – 2,900 takes for a single scene – might be more meaningful. Tom Cruise, eat your heart out.