Note: This is the final part of a two-part review of Michael Benson's Space Odyssey. It is assumed that the reader has already seen the movie.
Kubrick wanted to shoot the beginning of 2001 immediately after finishing Dullea's “hotel room scene.” But, he had a problem, actually several problems. No one had yet produced a man-ape costume that didn't look like a man stuffed in an ape suit. Nothing looked like a realistic Australopithecus africanus, which was precisely something Kubrick and Clarke agreed upon in their collaboration to make a scientifically legitimate science fiction film. So, the director decided, not for the first time, to defer the Dawn of Man until something more believable came along.
Discussions about the opening phase on the film, intended to happen 4 million years ago, continued between Kubrick and Clarke. Kubrick thought Clarke was being too literal in how the alien intelligence illuminated Moonwatcher's mind. The differences between the novel and the film grew more numerous. As with the man-ape costumes, Kubrick didn't know exactly what he wanted, but no one was offering it to him yet.
The other thing bedeviling the Dawn of Man opening sequence was a lack of backdrop. Kubrick sent a professional photographer with special 65mm cameras to capture specific African landscapes at specific times of day with specific attention to color hue and shadowing. Afraid of traveling himself, Kubrick tried to dictate exact camera positions from England. Air delivery of the negatives made Kubrick's international phone calls productive when directing camera corrections based upon the last shots. The film begins with many of the shots captured in this long-distance fashion.
Instead of the Dawn of Man, Kubrick next filmed the scene where HAL's brain is disconnected followed by the various EVA (extravehicular spacewalk) shots scattered throughout the middle portion of the film, all of which involved wire-work. While that began, his two-year fruitful collaboration with Clarke started to break down over the publication, or rather non-publication, of the novel. Kubrick asked that the novel not be shown to potential publishers until he had had time to read it and offer suggestions. Clarke, driven by a need for money and also by the fact that he felt the book was finished as it was, showed the draft to Dell Publishing anyway.
Dell was ready to publish the book but Kubrick, who had legal control over the novel since he had technically paid Clarke to write it, refused until parts of it were rewritten based upon what was happening to the narrative in the course of shooting the film. To be fair, most of these changes had already been made by Clarke. The writer from Ceylon failed in his attempts to persuade Kubrick, of course, and the author went home empty-handed but for Kubrick's promise to defer the director's portion of the novel's worldwide advance payment as compensation for the delay. In reality, Kubrick had decided that the movie should be released before the novel was published.
Despite all this, Clarke – still writing possible narration segments for the film – remained highly loyal to Kubrick, understanding the motives of the director more than most. Clarke wrote to a friend who was critical of how Kubrick was treating Clarke: “Actually, I do not agree with you that Stanley is insensitive to the needs of others – he is very sensitive, but his artistic integrity won't allow him to compromise. I have to admire this attribute even when it causes me great inconvenience!”
Also in the summer of 1966, Kubrick met Dan Richter, a mime actor, through a mutual acquaintance. Up until now, Kubrick had been testing the man-ape suits with stuntmen and actors. Richter showed Kubrick how subtle changes in physical body posture would completely transform the realism of the suit. Kubrick quickly hired him to play Moonwatcher. With Richter to coach others, it was almost possible to move forward with the Dawn of Man.
Meanwhile, Bill Weston, a stuntman, was handling the wire-work Kubrick needed for the spacewalk shots. This involved placing the camera directly underneath Weston with an entire sound stage blacked out, lighting only the stuntman. Benson calls this “some of the most physically and technically demanding scenes” in the film. “Decades before digital effects, they constitute an extraordinary, largely unsung moment in film history.” Weston performed while hanging from a wire in space suits that did not supply him with adequate oxygen and did not vent carbon dioxide, which made breathing increasingly difficult after about 10 minutes. Every shot was a herculean effort by Weston and the crew to capture realistic looking weightlessness conditions in-camera within the span of a few short minutes with Kubrick shouting direction from a megaphone below.
The grueling effort took weeks and was a constant danger to Weston's health. Various solutions to make things easier for Weston were rejected by Kubrick because the authenticity of the shot would be somehow compromised. Due to the fact the camera was positioned directly underneath the stuntman, every shot was made without a safety net. An assistant camera man was injured when a piece of the Weston’s support apparatus snapped and fell down upon the camera area. This spooked Kubrick, who directed the remaining shots off to the side of the camera for fear of being hit. With much personal effort, Weston survived the shoot and the scenes look perfectly realistic in the film.
Later in 1966, Kubrick was at last ready to shoot the Dawn of Man opening sequence of the film. The final impediments to making this portion of 2001 included fine-tuning the man-ape masks and finding the right backdrops to use as front projections that would make the man-ape scenes appear as if they were shot outside during a drought in Africa 4 million years ago.
This last part is why Kubrick had sent a photographer (actually more than one) to Africa and sought to control each photo taken through the tedious process of having the negatives mailed to him and then telling the photographer over the phone precisely how to reshoot. Among several shots he preferred, Kubrick pointed out that he really liked the prehistoric feel of certain aloe trees known as kokerbooms. He instructed that he didn't like to location of the trees, however, and, in what turned out to be a difficult covert operation, asked that four of them be moved to another location.
Since the trees were endangered they were protected by a fence enclosure, which the photographer and his native assistants had to break in to one night. The first two trees they attempted to cut down shattered like watermelons upon hitting the ground, they were so heavy and water-filled. After that, the other trees were tied with ropes and lowered onto truck beds for transportation several miles away. The shot Kubrick wanted was eventually captured at the cost of six trees, two lost when they were stolen and the other four destroyed and dumped into the river after being filmed and photographed. In the end, the trees are in the film for a few seconds, but they are not those trees. Kubrick ended up changing his mind and had the trees fabricated in England.
With his backdrop shots chosen, with a troupe of dancers trained by Richter to act in the man-ape suits, and finally with believable man-ape masks allowing for a range of facial expression, Kubrick proceeded with what Benson calls “one of the most ambitious, technically complex shooting situations ever attempted.” The backdrop South West Africa photos were front projected onto a special sixty-foot screen made of 3M's newly designed Scotchlite reflective material. As I mentioned, the photos were all taken around dawn and dusk, which allowed Kubrick to tweak the lighting in the sound stage.
The lighting consisted 37 crates filled with 500-watt bulbs. The array of lights was controlled through a system of 1,850 switches. As he did throughout the shoot, Kubrick took dozens of Polaroid shots to check the set. Altogether, the set used up to 1.5 million watts of light to capture the proper outdoor effect. Sections of the lights could be dimmed or brightened to match the shadows and hues of color on the projected backdrop images. All of this light heated the sound stage to over 100 degrees which made things difficult for the performers in the man-ape suits. A team of nurses stood by to assist with anyone who might pass out. Kubrick had a refrigerator full of soft drinks available for the cast and crew between takes.
Another of the many surprises in reading Benson's Space Odyssey is the revelation that all the screeches and snorts and grunts you hear in the Dawn of Man sequence are uttered from the actors themselves. They are not sound effects of “real” apes. Benson calls this “an auditory confirmation of the profoundly intimate genetic linkage between Homo sapiens and its distant ancestors.”
After filming all the tribal scenes of the film's opening section, Kubrick shot Richter’s solo work as Moonwatcher, discovering how to use a bone as a weapon. It is unclear whether or not Kubrick already had in mind what to do with Richter, but apparently, like other instances mentioned so far, what we see in the movie is the work of collaborative happenstance.
“Picking up the bone, Richter smelled it a little, and then started meditatively thumping it down on the skeleton fragments. Lined up along the reflective beam of the front-projection plate, both the camera and Kubrick were fairly close, and Dan could communicate with the director as he did so. In an early take, Dan banged the bone down, and a rib spun up in the air. 'Oh, sorry,' he said from behind his mask. 'No, no,' said Kubrick. 'Use it, it looks good. Keep doing it. Keep doing it.' And so Dan continued, smashing down on the smaller bones around him in a escalating frenzy of liberated violence. Finally, he rose on both legs and brought his bone club down on the center of the large skull – all in the fixed framing that the front-projection technique required, with the dry banks of the dead river behind him.
“Upon watching Richter's dry riverbed scene, however, everyone fell silent. Dan had played it perfectly, all the way to the smashing of the skull, which functioned as a euphoric visual crescendo. Although he knew it was good, Kubrick discovered he was still unsatisfied....He wanted to see Dan's arm with the weapon from below, in slow motion with the sky above – two things impossible to achieve with the front-projection technique, which required that the camera remain rigidly in line with the cumbersome projector.”
They waited until a day when London's skies were roughly similar to the sky in the African backdrop shot, built up a small platform and tossed some sand over the foreground. On September 20, 1967 Kubrick filmed Richter's downward smash from below, the sky filling the shot above. They shot take after take after take of Richter striking a film's collection of horse skulls.
This “simple” shoot went on for seven days and reached a point where Richter was being told to toss his bone into the air after pulverizing one of the few remaining skulls. Kubrick himself captured the shot of the bone turning end-over-end. The director would use this shot to transition out of the Dawn of Man section to the year 2001 Space Station sequence, a 4 million year match-cut that is yet another iconic moment in this film, one of the most famous transitions in cinematic history.
Parallel with the rest of production, Kubrick's special effects team worked around the clock to finalize more than 200 shots that required models and inserting literally hundreds of images into previously shot scenes. These images included everything from computer displays to people walking around inside space stations and Moon bases.
The magnificent shots of the 55-foot model of the space ship Discovery and of Space Station 5 were captured in the spring of 1967. Benson explains how these models were shot so that additional effects could be added later: “Complicated worm-gearing rigs governed by 'selsyn' motors – a postmanteau of 'self-synchronous' – had been set up, allowing shots to be repeated with frame-by-frame accuracy. This was necessary when adding tiny people moving around within the space station, for example, or the underground Moon base air lock, or showing Bowman on Discovery's bridge, and interior details of its open pod bay.
“In such cases, the model was lit with its window or pod bay areas blacked out....Then the camera was recalled down the worm-geared, studio length track and the shot repeated, now with the model dark and only the window areas alive with front-projected little figures or exquisitely detailed pod bay set photographs.”
Yet another collaborative aspect of the film, again involving Trumbull and Kubrick, resulted in an innovation that would literally blow the minds of the audience in the final cut of the film. For months Kubrick, Trumbull and others on the effects team had wrestled with how to depict Bowman's transition through the Star Gate, when the astronaut became an object of study by the alien intelligence.
Trumbull developed a special system where the camera was mounted on a track in front of a 4 foot slit on an opaque black surface with a strip of lights directly behind the slit and a glass sheet of abstract translucent photographs on a second track moving side to side as the camera moved forward and back. The result impressed Kubrick. Trumbull's innovation made the Star Gate sequence yet another visually stunning and unforgettable aspect of the film.
“It's hard to overestimate how important the Star Gate is to 2001's larger narrative arc. After two hours of perfectly realized photographic realism, it launched the film into a new realm of purely subjective audiovisual experience, much of it entirely abstract and nonrepresentational. Even today the sequence doesn't seem of have dated. For all their power, contemporary computer-generated images haven't really supplanted or superseded Trumbull's slit scan striations...”
The hours were grueling for all this effects work. Painstakingly made shots were re-shot at Kubrick's request as the director perpetually pushed the limitations of his team. This was not without some humorous moments.
“When Kubrick commanded that one of Trumbull's effects sequences be repeated yet again, [animation cameraman Jim] Dixon rose from his seat with a menacing air. 'Who fucked up the shot this time?' he demanded. Trumbull stood. 'You're embarrassing me,' he said coolly. At this Dixon pulled out a gun, aimed for Trumbull's chest and fired. A deafening bang echoed in the enclosed space.
“Trumbull spilled onto the floor of the darkened theater. Everyone leapt to their feet in horror. He clutched his chest. He stirred, groaning. He writhed, moaning. Finally, he sat up.
“Kubrick started to laugh.”
As hard as the team worked, however, 2001's additional special effects were dragging on and on in late 1967, as MGM began pestering Kubrick for a finished film to promote. Kubrick brought in Colin Cantwell, a veteran effects man, to help. Cantwell soon discovered two things: 1) that two-thirds of the film's effects were in “varying stages of incompleteness” 2) while Kubrick was king, the director really thrived on collaborative ideas. Kubrick and his wife Christiane hosted weekend evenings in his home. Cantwell attended and had a series of conversations with Kubrick about the play of symmetry and abstraction in 2001. Cantwell used this dialog to develop most of the various alignments between Jupiter, its moons, and the Sun so poetically visualized in the film.
By now Kubrick was working around the clock every day to finish the picture. Clarke continued to submit planned narration for the film. Kubrick's intent at this late date was to still use it in some fashion. He was even auditioning possible voiceover talent. But the film was fundamentally diverging from the novel with its approach to the same subject matter. Cantwell recalled a meeting between Kubrick and Clarke at this time.
“'He would come in with new narration to explain a whole section of the film that he had seen last time,' Cantwell said. 'He thought that about three or four or five minutes' worth of narration would take care of any uncertainties and puzzlement these scenes would create.' Kubrick would then screen new material for his collaborator, and each time, 'Stanley would have taken out more of the dialogue, more of the thing being handled nonverbally...So this polarity would be clearly between them.'
“When Clarke registered his worries over what he saw as the film's growing opacity, Kubrick effectively steered him back to the novel, saying, 'Don't worry about it, Arthur, just put it all in exactly as you'd like to have it. Make the story clear in any way that you want, it's your book.'
“At this, Clarke would seem 'anxious and subtly frustrated,' Cantwell observed. 'Arthur was very subtle in what he was expressing, very polite.'” When the film finally premiered in April 1968 Clarke proclaimed “This is really Stanley Kubrick's movie. I acted as a first-stage booster and offered occasional guidance.”
From the voiceover talent auditions, Kubrick selected Douglas Rain to be the voice of HAL. HAL's lines are among the last pieces of audio to be recorded for the film. Kubrick was changing the script, tweaking HAL's phrasing. “During the session, Kubrick sat four feet away from the actor, and they went through the script line by line, with the director making small revisions as they proceeded. According to one account, Rain's bare feet were on a pillow throughout, 'in order to maintain the required relaxed tone.'” Rain's voice is considered by some to be the best acted role in the entire film. Rain's performance ended with his now famous singing of Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Built for Two) which Kubrick had him sing, hum, and speak at various cadences.
Everything wasn't a success and sometimes Kubrick had to give up on an idea. One such idea was how to represent the alien intelligence visually. Various costumes and effects were tried. Nothing satisfied him and, given how the film veered toward being opaque at the end of production, he decided not to show them/it at all apart from the monoliths themselves.
For years Kubrick had been screening the unfinished space ship and space station sequences with The Blue Danube as background music, just to fill in the lack of sound. He made that choice, along with all his other brilliant selections of music for the film, by listening to hundreds of classical music albums that were bought as part of film's exploding budget.
So, when it came time to officially “score” the film, Kubrick found himself attached to his previous musical choices over a score commissioned for the film ($25,000, another budget item) and composed by Alex North. Not a single note of North's music is used in the final film. Instead we get outstanding choices by Johann and Richard Strauss, Aram Khachaturian, and especially profound selections from Gyorgy Ligeti. Kubrick had a brilliant sense for music, which is true throughout all of his films.
Benson reports that Kubrick edited 2001: A Space Odyssey between October 9, 1967 and March 6, 1968, before boarding the Queen Elizabeth to come to the United States. The film would be fine-tuned in the editing process almost continuously even after its premieres. Throughout this time, Kubrick wrestled with using Clarke's narration much as he struggled earlier with trying to visualize the alien intelligence. And he reached the same conclusion. He would not verbally explain anything. The film would be a visual experience with only the tiniest bits of dialog to orient the viewer. Clarke was upset that Kubrick didn't use any of his scripted voice-over narration. Always a gentleman, Clarke expressed his dissatisfaction by simply saying he would “be interested to see how you can possibly dispense with much of the narrative material...”
As the movie premiered: “A good two years after Clarke first insisted it was ready, Kubrick finally green-lighted the novel.” New American Library bought the rights for $130,000, of which Kubrick took 40% on a deferred basis. Still, the amount Clarke received was enough to cancel all his debts and give him a small nest egg to spare. Benson makes it clear that Clarke had not changed the novel at all during those two years, while, as we know, Kubrick deviated a bit from what was agreed upon back in 1966. Clarke dedicated the novel “To Stanley.” The book would go on to be republished more than fifty times (so far) and sell over 4 million copies.
Clarke saw 2001 at a Washington DC press screening (Kubrick was not present) on March 31, 1968. “Though he knew in advance that Kubrick hadn't used any of his voice-over narration, he was shocked and disappointed by the film's lack of concession to audience understanding.” Almost everyone thought it was a disaster. Each premiere across the US was met with jeers and hisses from the audience. Many got up and walked out, 241 at the New York premiere alone. The New York press almost universally criticized the film. Kubrick understandably became despondent. He cut 17 minutes from the film before its general release. It was his final act in mostly tumultuous a four-year process.
Benson writes: “Contrary to the myth that 2001 faltered at the box office and was on the verge of being withdrawn when younger audiences came riding to the rescue, box office data reveal excellent ticket sales on Day One. Within a week of its premiere, the April 10 Variety was already recording advance ticket sales 30 percent better than they were for MGM's 1965 hit Doctor Zhivago.”
It was predominantly a younger audience that found 2001 compelling. A few film critics, such as Roger Ebert (who attended the Los Angeles premiere) thought it was a special film. In this case, the near universal chorus of negativity both from critics and from premiere audiences did not matter. “2001 swept the entire sixties counterculture into theaters worldwide, inspiring raves from some leading figures. Asked about the film in 1968, Beatle John Lennon quipped, '2001? I see it every week.'”
The film was incredibly divisive. You either loved it or you hated it, which Clarke found quite amusing. “Clarke found himself enjoying the heated debates engendered by 2001's willful ambiguity, sometimes positioning himself near theater doors just to overhear them. 'It's creating more controversy than any movie I can think of,' he told a Berkeley radio station in May 1968. 'I used to have great fun standing outside the theater and listening to the crowds, the people coming out and arguing all the way down Broadway...And this is fine. We want people to think, and not necessarily think the way that we do.'
“Asked if the pervasive spread of technology was beginning to dehumanize us, Clarke replied, 'No, I think it's superhumanizing us.'”
Stanley Kubrick received $200,000 up front for directing and producing 2001. He got another $50,000 for writing its screenplay. Contractually, he received 25% of the film's net revenue after the film made 2.7 times its final, over-budgeted $12 million. The film grossed $58 million in 1968 in the US alone, which meant Kubrick received several million dollars directly as a result of the film's financial success.
Fans of the film, like me, owe Michael Benson a lot of gratitude. He has delivered a detailed, revealing, in-depth study of how Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke worked together on the primary story ideas and how Kubrick went on to overcome innumerable challenges to deliver one of the greatest and most innovative movies ever made. Benson’s writing is entertaining and highly accessible, the book often reads like a novel. Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was America's top-grossing film for 1968. Clarke's novel was first published 50 years ago this month.
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