50th anniversary

Destination: 2001 — Kubrick at the Controls

The cover date of New York’s first issue was 50 years ago today, on April 8, 1968. In honor of our birthday, we’re reprinting a favorite story from our inaugural issue: 2001: A Space Odyssey screenwriter Arthur Clarke on collaborating with director Stanley Kubrick.

The first steps on the rather long road to 2001: A Space Odyssey were taken in March 1964, when Stanley Kubrick wrote to me in Ceylon, saying that he wanted to do the proverbial ‘really good’ science­-fiction movie. As this subject had been my main preoccupation (apart from time out for World War Two and the Great Barrier Reef) for the previous 30 years, this letter naturally aroused my interest. The only movie of Kubrick’s I had then seen was Lolita, which I had greatly en­joyed, but rumors of Dr. Strangelove had been reaching me in increasing numbers. It would certainly be worthwhile having a talk with Kubrick; however, I refused to let myself get too excited, knowing from earlier experience that the mortality rate of movie projects is about 99 per cent.

By a fortunate coincidence, I was com­ing to New York almost immediately, but before I left I got to see Dr. Strangelove, and was happy to find that it lived up to the reviews. It made me all the more anxious to meet the creator of so extraor­dinary a movie.

Kubrick arrived right on time for our first meeting, and turned out to be a rather quiet, average-height New Yorker (to be specific, Bronxian) in his early 30s. He was clean-shaven, though he has since grown a full-fledged beard. The main impression I gathered — and still retain —­ from that first meeting was of a restless, probing intelligence, with an unbounded curiosity about the universe. Kubrick would have made a good scientist; he insists on knowing how everything works, and grasps new ideas, however complex, almost instantly.

On our first day together, we talked for eight solid hours about science-fiction, Dr. Strangelove, Flying Saucers, politics, the space program — and, of course, the projected movie. I had suggested one of my short stories, The Sentinel, as a pos­sible starting-point for the sort of cosmic saga that Kubrick had in mind, and for the next month we brain stormed on an average of five hours a day — in restau­rants and automats, movie houses and art galleries, private apartments and pub­lic parks. Besides talking endlessly, we had a look at the competition. In my opin­ion there have been a number of good­ — or at least interesting — science-fiction movies in the past. They include, for example, the Pal-Heinlein Destination Moon, The War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing and Forbidden Planet. However, my affection for the genre perhaps caused me to make greater allowances than Kubrick, who was highly critical of  everything we screened. After I had pressed him to view H.G. Wells’$2 1936 classic, Things to Come, he exclaimed in anguish: “What are you trying to do to me? I’ll never see anything you recom­mend again!”

With the help of such stimulating dis­agreements, the outline of a possible movie treatment began to emerge from the fog of words. One of our minor oper­ating problems was that Kubrick — here­inafter called Stanley — functions best in the small hours of the morning, whereas I believe that no sane person is awake after 10 p.m., and no law-abiding one after midnight. On the  whole, however, he always treated me with great consid­eration. One of my most engaging memo­ries of our New York period is of him cooking a steak and serving it to me with the remark: “Joe Levine doesn’t do this for his writers” — a statement which, I am sure, is perfectly true.

After five or six weeks of battering our brains together, we appeared to have a viable story line, and formal contracts were drawn up. Stanley hates movie­-scripts; I think that, like D.W. Griffith, he would prefer to work without one if it were possible. But he had to have some­thing to show M.G.M. what they were buying; so he proposed that we first write the story as a complete novel.

He installed me, with electric type­writer, in his Central Park West office, but after one day I retreated downtown to my natural environment at the Hotel Chelsea. At frequent intervals we would get together and compare notes; during this period we went down endless blind alleys and threw away enough ideas for dozens of short stories.

Stanley had a neat trick for getting the best out of me. When I wrote what I considered a good piece of prose, his usual reaction would be “That’s terrific!” But a day or so later he would say casu­ally: “Don’t you think it would be better if…” By the time he’d finished, nothing
would be left of the original version.

Our discussion usually took place in the Kubrick penthouse off Lexington Ave­nue, presided over by Stanley’s charming artist wife Christiane, whom he met while making Paths of Glory. (She is the Ger­man girl in its moving final scene.) Under­foot much of the time were the three — it often seemed more — Kubrick daughters, whom Stanley is in the process of spoiling. Very much of a family man, he has little social life and grudges all time not de­voted to his home or his work.

He is also a gadget lover, being sur­rounded by tape-recorders and cameras — all of which are well used. I doubt if even the most trigger-happy amateur photog­rapher takes as many snapshots of his children as does Stanley — usually with a Pen D half-frame camera, which makes a slight contrast to the Cinerama-Pana­vision 70-millimeter monster he is maneuvering most of the day. He once quoted approvingly to me Orson Welles’ remark: “A movie studio is the best toy a boy ever had” (a thought which Lin Yutang generalized years ago: “All hu­man activity is a form of play”).

Stanley likes to make gently needling remarks with a perfectly straight face, and to study the reaction of his victim; no one without a good sense of humor could tolerate his company for very long. (Or, I suspect, vice versa.) When Ken Adams, who designed the sets for Strangelove and Goldfinger, arrived for dinner one evening in his handsome E-Type Jaguar, Stanley looked at the gleaming apparition and dead-panned to the proud owner: “If you could afford to buy just what you wanted, Ken, what would you really get?”

One of Stanley’s few personal idiosyn­crasies is a rather exaggerated fear of ill­ness. Anyone with a bad cold is liable to be treated like an advanced case of lep­rosy, and conversed with at a range of not less than 20 feet. This mild hypochondria may be related to his interest in ‘life extension’; long before the subject became popular, Stanley was fascinated by the idea that human beings could be deep­-frozen and so made virtually immortal. We had frequent debates about this; he
would not agree with me that the social consequences would be almost wholly disastrous. I hope he is right, for im­mortality is now probably unavoidable.

Stanley supervises the minutest details of his films, right down to items that appear so fleetingly on the screen that not one person in a thousand will ever notice them. His task was particularly  difficult in the case of 2001, which is probably the most complex movie ever made — involv­ing scores of special effects and many technical innovations never attempted be­fore. For a time Stanley tried to keep track of everything that was going on by using dozens of little notebooks; but he soon became caught in an inflationary spiral, and found it necessary to have notebooks to keep track of the notebooks. After months of study and discussion and reading of books on PERT (Program Evaluation and Review Technique) he achieved what is probably the best solu­tion, by setting up a central command post. Here, elaborate wall-charts, updated hourly, showed the status of every one of the 225 shots involving special effects and several assistants worked full-time evaluating the information. Though this may sound unnecessarily complicated, the alternative was creeping chaos.

Stanley is one of the world’s champion worriers, though he defines this activity as ‘potential problem avoidance’. He can think of disasters that no one else could possibly have imagined, and usually acts on the assumption that if something can go wrong, it will; ditto if it can’t. (More often than not, it must be admitted, his pessimism is wholly justified.) There was a time, as Mariner IV approached its goal, when he became alarmed about the pros­pect of finding Martians. So he tried to insure himself against this eventuality with Lloyd’s of London, asking them to quote a policy which would compensate him if intelligent life was discovered on Mars and our plot was demolished. How the underwriters managed to compute the premium I can’t imagine, but the figure they quoted was slightly astronomical and the project was dropped. Stanley decided to take his chances with the universe; but he still worries about UFO’s.

Through 1965, Stanley gathered around him the armies of artists, technicians, act­ors, accountants and secretaries without whom no movie can be made; in this case, there were endless additional complica­tions, as we also needed scientific advisers, engineers, genuine space hardware, and whole libraries of reference material. Ev­erything was accumulated during the year at M.G.M.’s Borehamwood Studios, some fifteen miles north of London, and shoot­ing began here in January 1966.

The production went forward with re­markable smoothness, with no tantrums or unscheduled emotional fireworks on either side of the camera. In hundreds of hours of observation, I never once saw Stanley lose his temper or shout at any­ one; he achieved his ends by subtler means. On one occasion, an engineer re­peatedly failed to operate a complex piece of equipment in the way Stanley wanted, and after five or six takes the atmosphere was getting somewhat tense. Once again, Stanley patiently explained what was needed; once again, he didn’t get it when the camera rolled. There was no explo­sion — only a patient: “If you don’t want to do it my way, why don’t you just go home?” The next take was perfect.

When he does make a mistake, he cor­rects it unhesitatingly, whatever the cost in time and effort. A good case in point is the original ending of  Dr. Strangelove, which climaxed with a classic old-style custard-pie fight in the War Room. This seemed a fine idea on paper, and the scene was actually shot, with the usual gooey results to all concerned. However, when Stanley saw the resulting  footage, he realized that it was psychologically out of key; so he scrapped the whole sequence. (Now you know what that buffet table was doing in the War Room.)

There are, I need hardly say, no custard pies, no psychotic generals, no Coke ma­chines in 2001. Indeed, none of the action takes place on the planet Earth as we know it, for the plot begins to unfold it­self on — and under — the surface of the Moon. The year we began production, man had just obtained his first closeup of Mars, via Mariner IV. And as I watched our astronauts making their way over the lunar surface, while Stanley directed them through the radios in their spacesuits, I remembered that within five years, at the most, men would really be on the Moon.

Fiction and fact are indeed becoming hard to disentangle. I hope that, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley and I have added, constructively and responsibly, to the confusion. For what we have tried to do is to create a realistic myth, appro­priate to our time; and we may well have to wait until the year 2001 itself to see how successful we have been.

Destination: 2001 — Kubrick at the Controls