FIFTY YEARS ago this week, Stanley Kubrick’s epic “2001: A Space Odyssey” opened, first in Washington and then New York. The influential film, which won an Oscar for its pioneering special effects, has been called Kubrick’s “crowning, confounding achievement” and a “quantum leap” in technological achievement by film critic James Verniere, who notes that Steven Spielberg called “2001” the Big Bang of his filmmaking generation.
Timed to the anniversary, author Michael Benson’s latest work, “Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arther C. Clarke and the Making of a Masterpiece” (Simon & Schuster), debuts today, and within Benson’s devotional telling is a wealth of intriguing facts and anecdotes.
Here are 19 things you probably don’t know about “2001,” according to Benson and other sources.
1. “2001” was originally going to show a precursor to the Internet.
Kubrick’s intrepid band of futurists, Benson writes, “had seemingly already visualized important aspects of [a] new technology’s implications.” The film’s props would include a “2001 newspaper to be read on some kind of television screen.” And if the prop, which had a New York Times logo, had appeared in the film, it would have been “read by an astronaut on the iPad-type tablet computers” aboard the ship Discovery.
“Had Kubrick followed through and actually presented the newspaper in this way,” the author writes, “there’s no doubt that ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ would be remembered today as an important harbinger of the Internet.”
2. The filmmakers also envisioned a world with self-driving cars.
“In early chapter drafts,” Benson writes, “the character who would become David Bowman is named Bruno,” and he rides a “computer-guided Rolls” along the “auto-highway” bisecting the great “Washington-New York complex,” child and dog in tow.
3. Neither Kubrick nor collaborator-author Arthur C. Clarke believed they had ever seen a great sci-fi film.
Kubrick’s two-page introductory letter to Clarke teased the “possibility of doing the proverbial ‘really good’ science fiction movie.” Clarke’s reply: “The ‘really good’ science fiction movie is a great many years overdue.”
4. The creation of the iconic monolith was a years-long process.
Early on, Clarke pointed Kubrick to his story “The Sentinel,” in which a survey team discovers a “diamond-hard crystal pyramid of alien origin, which has clearly been on the lunar surface for millions of years,” Benson notes.
Plus, Kubrick initially wanted the “alien object” — what became the monolith — to be clear, like a “transparent tetrahedron.” Kubrick urged that it be made of Plexiglas, but the material didn’t create the desired effect and the immense, expensive, clear monolith was trashed, replaced by a black monolith that reflected every smudge and flaw.
5. The same year Kubrick began picking Clarke’s scientifically inventive brain, so was NASA.
Traveling from his home base of Ceylon/Sri Lanka, Clarke went to Washington in May of 1964 to meet with top NASA officials. The Apollo project director, Benson writes, solicited the author’s ideas on what the space agency should do after a moon landing was accomplished.
6. “2001” went through a run of working titles.
Kubrick and Clarke, having seen MGM’s big Cinerama production “How the West Was Won,” privately titled their would-be semi-documentary “How the Solar System Was Won,” and then “How the Universe Was Won,” Benson writes. Other possible titles included “Universe: Tunnel to the Stars,” “The Star Gate,” “Jupiter Window” and “Earth Escape.”
7. “2001” ran way over schedule and budget.
Kubrick told Clarke in 1964 that he was set to work on a film that would take “about two years to complete,” and a later deal eyed a late 1966 or early 1967 release with an initial budget of $5 million. By the time the film opened April 2, 1968, the budget was about $12 million, according to Box Office Mojo.
8. Prose and pictures likely influenced the fetal imagery.
Part of the film’s source material was Clarke’s 1959 short story “Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Orbiting,” in which a narrator says that the 21st century does not begin in 2000, but rather Jan. 1, 2001. As Benson notes, that story ends with an awesome sound — “the thin cry of a newborn baby” — but it’s “the first child in all the history of mankind to be brought forth on another world than Earth.”
Clarke’s own futurism, Benson writes, was influenced by Russian spaceflight visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who said in a 1912 essay: “Earth is the cradle of the mind, but humanity can’t remain in its cradle forever.”
Benson also notes a pen-and-ink illustration that “depicted a fetus floating in a bubble-like amniotic sac” that looked “exactly like an unborn baby in space,” as reproduced in Robert Ardrey’s book “African Genesis”; and in 1965, Life magazine published its famous images of a fetus “floating in cosmic darkness,” as shot by Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson.
9. It was Kubrick’s idea to create a simultaneous novel and film.
“We will not sit down and write a screenplay,” Kubrick said in the summer of 1964, according to Benson. “We will sit down and write a novel. We’ll get much more depth.” As a result, the screenplay went through almost daily revisions during the film shoot.
10. A meeting of the minds with Carl Sagan was short-lived.
In the early stages of planning, Clarke introduced Kubrick to the famed astronomer-author. Unfortunately, it was no great exchange. Kubrick found Sagan to be patronizing, Benson writes, and an hour after their 1964 meeting, Kubrick told Clarke to “get rid of [Sagan]. … I don’t want to see him again.”
11. HAL was a very gradual creation.
In Clarke’s “robot sequence” in an early chapter draft, the precursor to the eventual HAL-9000 mainframe is named Socrates, who is ambulatory and can be switched to “independent mode.” With each draft, Benson says, the IQ of this AI was increased.
And before the acronym HAL, the Discovery’s talking computer was named Athena.
As for the voice of HAL, Kubrick and Clarke had been influenced by an Oscar-nominated black-and-white short, titled “Universe,” that was produced by the National Film Board of Canada and directed by Colin Low. The “2001” filmmakers were struck by “Universe’s” techniques and hired Low’s effects collaborator, Wally Gentleman, for “2001.”
Yet the casting of HAL’s voice was up in the air throughout the live-action shoot. Kubrick tried such actors as Nigel Davenport and Martin Balsam before hiring Douglas Rain — the narrator he had first heard in “Universe.”
12. The movie began in a bra factory.
The first frames of “2001” were shot in early 1965, in an abandoned brassiere factory in New York. Inspired partly by “Universe,” Kubrick used paints, inks, paint thinner and high-intensity lights to create surreal spacey effects.
13. There was a list of other possible directors.
When MGM was drafting a contract for Kubrick’s production company, one clause provided a short list of possible alternate directors, Benson notes, including Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean and Billy Wilder. “MGM was apparently hedging its bets in case Kubrick was for some reason unable or unwilling to direct the film,” Vanity Fair writes.
14. One consultant had an interest in the psychedelic.
During filming, scientific consultant Fred Ordway, a former NASA employee, expressed interest via letter in the results of an early ’60s academic experiment upon Boston divinity grad students, who had taken doses of psilocybin, a hallucinogen extracted from mushrooms. Some of the subjects described a “powerful cosmic homecoming” and “a sea of color.” (One of the experiment’s thesis advisers, Benson notes, was Timothy Leary.)
15. Kubrick cast his net wide for cutting-edge expertise.
The “2001” filmmakers consulted with more than 40 corporations, including IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Hilton Hotels, Bell Labs, Bausch & Lomb, Whirlpool and Parker Pens.
During a visit to Bell Labs, for instance, Clarke heard voice-synthesizer experiments with an IBM 7094 computer that produced a rendition of the 1890s song “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)” — “the first song ever sung by a computer,” Benson writes. HAL, of course, sings that tune in “2001.”
16. Simulated spaceflight was less daunting to some than airflight.
Kubrick and two of his “2001” stars, Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, had a fear of flying, according to Benson.
17. The set was sometimes quite dangerous.
MIT artificial intelligence expert Marvin Minsky said he “could have been killed” during a set visit, when a mechanical accident close to him caused a “livid” Kubrick to fire a stage hand. Coincidentally, Benson writes, it was Minsky who had told Kubrick that computers in the year 2001 “might be advanced enough to suffer breakdowns when faced with apparently irresolvable conflicts.”
18. The secret to the “Dawn of Man” performance: method mime acting.
Kubrick didn’t want his bone-wielding simians to look just like “men in monkey suits.” So he was introduced to Dan Richter, a rising London performer and American Mime Theater star who had also studied Noh and Kabuki theater (striking up a lifelong friendship with Yoko Ono). Richter was in some ways a precursor to “Planet of the Apes” star Andy Serkis: His mime philosophy, as Benson writes, was “to start with acting values and extend them into purely physical movement.” (American Mime Theater’s founder studied under Lee Strasberg).
Richter arrived at a meeting thinking he might offer a quick consultation, but it turned into an audition after his transformational abilities dazzled Kubrick. Richter would not only play “2001’s” murderous Moonwatcher but also teach his fellow “man-ape” performers how to move and act convincingly.
19. The film debut in Washington was “a disaster.”
“2001’s” official premiere was at the Uptown theater in Washington’s Cleveland Park neighborhood, with stars and MGM brass in attendance.
By intermission, attendees were “streaming out. It was a disaster. No one liked it,” Benson recounts in his book.
Wrote one British journalist: “There was not a single handclap. … The audience just rose, stunned and thoughtful, and shuffled out to the pavement.”
The next night, after the New York premiere, Clarke reportedly heard MGM suits saying: “Well, that’s the end of Stanley Kubrick.”
Within five weeks of opening in only eight theaters, though, “2001” had grossed more than $1 million, and gradually, some critics began to see the light.