Everett Collection
Keir Dullea, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, 1968Everett Collection
Navigate to Arts & Letters section

The Making of Kubrick’s Masterpiece, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

Fifty years after the release of the film that changed the world, two new books look back at its transcendent genius creator

David Mikics
April 03, 2018
Everett Collection
Keir Dullea, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, 1968Everett Collection

In Haight Ashbury it was the Summer of Love, and the new Adams and Eves, barefoot and bedraggled, were spawning cosmic peace. But during the summer of 1967 at Borehamwood Studios, England, Stanley Kubrick’s man apes ran screaming, jabbering and fiercely exulting in prehistory’s first act of bloodshed. Kubrick was filming the Dawn of Man, the opening section of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which astonished the world when it was released fifty years ago this week, on April 2, 1968.

A few minutes into 2001, a mysterious, matte-black monolith touches down among the apes. This object hums and buzzes with the agitated spiritual strains of György Ligeti’s music. Ready for lift-off: now the apes, on the cusp of humanness, start to kill animals for meat. They kill each other, too. One ape flings his bone into the air and (here comes the most famous jump cut in cinema history!) it morphs into a spaceship. So crude prehistoric violence rockets forward into the space age, subtly infecting its supermodern, clean, computer-driven rationality. With the Dawn of Man Kubrick echoed the writer Robert Ardrey, who argued that lethal violence first made us human. The “territorial imperative” meant capturing a place and fending off rivals with a rock to the head or, as in 2001, a dead tapir’s bone.

Was the monolith a Mosaic tablet designed by Mies van der Rohe, as one critic suggested? Or a Golden Calf, with the apes dancing and chattering around it? Nathan Abrams, in his pathbreaking new book, Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual, says that the Dawn of Man resembles Genesis: a faceless alien God jolts the apes into new knowledge. Make of the monolith what you will—for MAD magazine’s bewildered cartoon apes it was a prehistoric handball court. The Dawn of Man’s monolith was only the first of the film’s many puzzles. The wide open quality of 2001, the way it wanted viewers to speculate rather than simply being absorbed by what they saw on screen, was something new in Hollywood movies.

2001 was one of a kind, and it still looks shockingly new five decades later. After the apes we find ourselves beamed into space, where everything turns, slowly and magnificently, to the tune of a Strauss waltz. At the end, two hours later, we are left to wander with the astronaut Dave Bowman, everyman and blank slate, through a Louis XVI bedroom, until the Star Child turns his gaze on us—no more innocently, perhaps, than the rapist and murderer Alex does in the first shot of Kubrick’s next movie, A Clockwork Orange, which like Altamont sounded the death knell to a decade’s hopes for peace and love. Still there is the clarion music of Richard Strauss, a Nietzschean dare for us to brave metamorphosis, and the sublime overload of the avant-garde Stargate sequence, where Bowman sees and feels new thresholds, new anatomies (Hart Crane), and during which one early audience member—who was tripping of course, like most everyone in the theater—ran through the screen shouting “I see God!”

“Not even heroin or the supernatural ever went this far,” said the critic David Thomson about what cinema does to us, its super-real spell-casting power. No movie has ever gone as far as 2001, soaring before and beyond the human, showing us the silence of infinite space. More than any of his other movies, this one fits Martin Scorsese’s comment: “Watching a Kubrick film is like gazing up at a mountaintop. You look up and wonder, How could anyone have climbed up that high?”

Michael Benson’s new book Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece climbs the mountain, showing us in fascinating detail how Kubrick got there. Benson did scores of interviews with the men and women who helped Kubrick achieve the marvel that is 2001, and his book offers much news about what was probably the most technically daunting movie ever made. Kubrick and his crew were patient problem-solvers, and Benson, a superb storyteller, makes their work sound thrilling—which it was.

Kubrick treated every movie as a “grand investigation,” Benson writes. This one began in 1964, when Kubrick first heard about Arthur C. Clarke. In Spring 1964 Kubrick was in New York, basking in the growing success of his Dr. Strangelove, which had opened in January. He lived with his third wife Christiane and their three daughters in a penthouse at Lexington Avenue and 84th Street, where his friends included the novelist Terry Southern, who had written some of Strangelove, the jazz musician Artie Shaw, and their wives. Shaw, who hadn’t played clarinet for years, was trying his hand at writing fiction and distributing films. Shaw was a champion marksman, and like Kubrick he had a big gun collection. He and Kubrick bonded over their shared love of jazz, weaponry, and movies. Shaw knew that Kubrick wanted to make a science fiction film and was looking for a co-screenwriter, and so he told him to look into a novel titled Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke, who was also a science writer and amateur astronomer, lived in Ceylon, and he was chronically short of money, mostly as a result of funding the projects of his filmmaker boyfriend.

Kubrick got Clarke’s novel and read it eagerly with Christiane by the bedside of their four-year-old daughter Vivian, who had a dangerous case of the croup, an inflammation of the throat. Listening anxiously to Vivian’s breathing, Kubrick tore the paperback into chunks, handing the pages to Christiane when he had finished them. “Arthur, we thought, was the ultimate,” Christiane remembered. Kubrick’s publicist Roger Caras sent a telex to Ceylon, and Clarke cabled back “FRIGHTFULLY INTERESTED IN WORKING WITH ENFANT TERRIBLE.”

Kubrick was no enfant terrible, though years later someone described him as a cross between Rasputin and Santa Claus. Those pitch black, sleep-deprived eyes bored right into you. Kubrick did not tolerate fuckups, and he inspired real fear. But he was also “congenial, accessible, bemused, sardonic,” said the young Jay Cocks (later a screenwriter for Scorsese), and he could be a pal on the set, too. Kubrick, who never went to college, knew and talked eagerly about a lot of things, from Wittgenstein to pro football, but most of all he knew about making movies. 2001’s director of photography, Geoffrey Unsworth, confessed that he learned more from Kubrick in six months than he had in 25 years as a top British cinematographer. “He is an absolute genius,” Unsworth marveled. “He knows more about the mechanics of optics and the chemistry of photography than anyone who’s ever lived.”


Kubrick hit the big time in the early 1960s. In 1959 Kirk Douglas, who had produced and starred in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, fired Anthony Mann from Spartacus after two weeks of shooting and called in the 30-year-old Kubrick to direct the film. (“Get that little Jewboy from the Bronx off my crane,” grumbled veteran cinematographer Russell Metty, whom Kubrick promptly put in his place.) The sword and sandal epic became a bona fide Hollywood blockbuster, and Kubrick’s future was assured. Then came Dr. Strangelove, a wild and unprecedented satire about nuclear war, adolescent but razor edged in its humor, like a hybrid of Swift and MAD magazine.

“He had a night person pallor,” Clarke remembered about Kubrick when the two first met in New York over dinner at Trader Vic’s. In the mid-1960s Kubrick was clean shaven and he had, the journalist Jeremy Bernstein remarked, “the somewhat bohemian look of a riverboat gambler or a Romanian poet.” Before long Clarke was ensconced in the Chelsea Hotel, where he ate a lot of liver paté on crackers, pursued a love affair with an Irish merchant seaman who lived down the hall, and rubbed elbows with fellow Chelsea residents William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. Clarke was writing several thousand words a day of the script, and he met with Kubrick constantly to hash out the details of what would become the most innovative science fiction movie ever. “Science-fiction films have always meant monsters and sex,” Clarke said later, but his and Kubrick’s would be different, a serious glimpse into the destiny of the human.

It’s possible that Napoleon’s march to Moscow involved more technical challenges than the making of 2001. Then again, maybe not. Live action production for most of 2001, with the exception of its prehistoric prelude, occurred in the eight months between December 1965 and July 1966. Then came nearly two years of post-production. Kubrick was a fiend about asking for one more take, and the crew slowly got used to his mantra “do it again.” The movie required over two hundred process shots: the original negative was stored as a “held take,” and then foreground and background elements were painstakingly added, for example the stars or the earth through a spaceship window. After many months of trial and error, the outer space scenes started to look right.

Christiane said that Kubrick, who loved chess, was “very much a chess player” when he made movies: “He said, ‘Don’t relax too soon. That’s when you make mistakes.’ ” Kubrick once commented that “chess teaches you … to control the initial excitement you feel when you see something that looks good,” and to “think just as objectively when you’re in trouble.” Dave in 2001, confronted with the murderous computer HAL, is a chess player. Worry, fear, and anger ripple across Keir Dullea’s usually impassive face when HAL refuses to open the pod bay doors, but the man, brave and ingenious, beats the computer.

2001, that halcyon and disquieting film, has at its center the strangely human pathos of its computer. The movie’s point of view shots are all from HAL’s perspective. And in 2001’s most famous scene, Dave kills HAL. The computer’s mind slowly falls apart and, discombobulated, it sings “Daisy.”

During early work on the script Clarke noted in his diary, “Stanley has invented the wild idea of slightly fag robots.” Kubrick eventually chose the Canadian actor Douglas Rain to play HAL because, he said, Rain’s voice had an “asexual and patronizing” quality. HAL is both strangely soothing and malevolent, a blend that seems right for today’s technological inroads into your life. You can now even order an Alexa terminal that looks like HAL, the most relatable AI presence ever to appear on screen.

Benson is excellent on 2001’s many design triumphs. In space Kubrick’s humans inhabit a white, gleaming world where style and function are mated. When Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) jogs and shadowboxes on his wheel-like path past the coffin-style hibernacula of his fellow astronauts, Kubrick brilliantly gives viewers the feel of a zero gravity environment, a “Möbius strip … WTF quality,” Benson notes. Then there was the revolutionary slit screen technique used for the trippy Stargate sequence, devised by Doug Trumbull: Benson gives the details of the process for the first time. The sleek space helmet, based on men’s Ascot riding hats, was invented by Harry Lange, a German scientist who had followed Wernher von Braun to NASA’s base in Huntsville, Alabama. Lange had a confederate flag and a model of a V-2 rocket in his office, until the British crew threatened a walk-out and Kubrick made Lange remove the flag and the rocket.

Kubrick hired Dan Richter, a professional mime, for the production’s climactic adventure, figuring out how to play the humanoid apes. One of Richter’s big hits was the Pinball Machine, in which, scuttling and rolling around with his knees up to his chest, he played four balls with distinct personalities. Richter and his girlfriend were drug addicts under legal supervision in Britain, and the doctor who gave them heroin, Richter recalled, was “an aristocratic lady in tweed suits and a gold lorgnette.”

Like Kubrick himself, Richter was a fanatic about getting things right. He spent many weeks studying primates at the zoo before he figured out how to become Moonwatcher, the ape who propels his cohort into murder and meat-eating. Stuart Freeborn, who devised the ape costumes, was as tireless as Richter. Making the apes look real required letting them bare their teeth, snarling and grimacing through a rubber mask. After long trial and error, Freeborn found the answer: seven tiny, tilted field magnets behind the actors’ teeth, along with powerful elastic bands.

The future of MGM was balanced on the fortunes of 2001 since the studio was still hurting from a series of big-budget flops in the early 1960s. When Kubrick unveiled his masterpiece, studio executives, bored to tears by the movie, were sure they were doomed. Droves of MGM suits walked out during the first New York screening. A disheartened Kubrick retreated with his wife to a hotel room, where, she remembered, he “couldn’t sleep and couldn’t speak and couldn’t do anything.” She told him that the movie would find its audience, even though the middle-aged Hollywood brigade didn’t get it.

Christiane was right. By the next afternoon reports started to stream in: audiences under 30 were flocking to 2001. Word of mouth spread like a fever, and soon an advertising team devised a new slogan for the film: “the ultimate trip.” People were watching 2001 over and over, and always, it seemed, in an altered state. Before long, John Lennon remarked, “2001, I see it every week.”

With 2001 Kubrick became a prophet for 1960s youth culture, though a rather wary and skeptical one. Nathan Abrams’s book explains the wariness by casting Kubrick as a Jewish intellectual. Yes, it’s true that his movies nearly always avoid any mention of Jewishness, but so do Kafka’s novels and stories (which Kubrick loved to read). Abrams remarks that Kubrick “had a fondness for ideological speculation, he was Jewish by birth, and he strived self-consciously to be brilliant,” all common traits of the New York Intellectuals. His high school grades were too low for him to attend college in the GI Bill years, but he sat in on Lionel Trilling’s and Mark Van Doren’s classes at Columbia, and in the Village during the 1950s he knew Diane Arbus, Weegee, James Agee, and Dwight Macdonald. “I spent an interesting three hours with Stanley Kubrick, most talented of the younger directors,” Macdonald wrote in 1959, “discussing Whitehead, Kafka, Potemkin, Zen Buddhism, the decline of Western culture, and whether life is worth living anywhere except at the extremes—religious faith or the life of the senses; it was a typical New York conversation.”

Kubrick was a Jewish director, though he himself would never have said so. He obsessively read about the Holocaust, and came close to making a movie about it based on Louis Begley’s novel Wartime Lies. “In a sense Kubrick even married into the Holocaust,” Abrams writes. Christiane, who lived with Kubrick for the last 35 years of his life, was the niece of Nazi filmmaker Veit Harlan, director of the anti-Semitic propaganda movie Jud Süss. Before Kubrick met Harlan in 1957, he drank a big glass of vodka, and he told Christiane, “I’m standing here like Woody Allen looking like ten Jews.” Among fellow directors he felt closest to Allen and Steven Spielberg, who completed Kubrick’s project A.I. Artificial Intelligence after his death. The smart-alecky black humor of Dr. Strangelove aligns him with Lenny Bruce, Joseph Heller, and the sacred-cow-bashers at MAD. As a Bronx Jew on his country estate in Hertfordshire, England, Kubrick must sometimes have felt just as out of place as that Irish upstart Barry Lyndon.

Stanley Kubrick’s “mythological documentary,” as he called 2001, will probably live on as long as movies are made and watched. It’s one of those achievements that Ardrey talks about in Kubrick’s favorite passage of African Genesis:

We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles and irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties, whatever they may be worth; our symphonies, however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams, however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen.

2001: A Space Odyssey is evidence of that brief transcendent elevation.

David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.