Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was a watershed moment in filmmaking. The epic sci-fi story of extraterrestrials and higher planes of existence bridged the gap between studio pictures and art films, all because of the inimitable genius of its writer/director. Here are 12 facts about the sci-fi classic.
1. The book and the movie were developed concurrently.
2001: A Space Odyssey sprang from a February 1964 lunch between director Stanley Kubrick and Roger Caras, the publicist for Kubrick’s previous film Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick told Caras that for his next movie he wanted to do a movie about extraterrestrial life, which prompted Caras to suggest he get in touch with his friend, collaborator, and science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke.
Caras introduced the two, with Clarke sending a telegram saying, “Frightfully interested in working with enfant terrible,” and soon the two were working on expanding Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel” into a movie treatment. Per Kubrick, “The novel came about after we did a 130-page prose treatment of the film at the very outset. This initial treatment was subsequently changed in the screenplay, and the screenplay in turn was altered during the making of the film. But Arthur took all the existing material, plus an impression of some of the rushes, and wrote the novel.”
2. It had a few alternate titles.
During development on the movie, Kubrick and Clarke humorously referred to their lofty project as “How the Solar System Was Won,” a play on the title of the 1962 western epic, How the West Was Won. It was never a serious title option, though in author Jerome Agel's 1972 book, The Making of Kubrick's 2001, Clarke admitted, "[It] was our private title. It was exactly what we tried to show."
The pair’s first working title for the movie was Project: Space, which is listed in their first outline. Other temporary titles included Across the Sea of Stars, Universe, Tunnel to the Stars, Earth Escape, Jupiter Window, Farewell to Earth, and Planetfall. The official MGM press release for the movie from February 1965 lists the title as Journey Beyond the Stars, though two months later Kubrick selected 2001: A Space Odyssey for the final title, as an homage to Homer’s Odyssey. “Stanley selected 2001: A Space Odyssey,” Clarke said in his book, The Lost Worlds of 2001. “As far as I can recall, it was entirely his idea.”
3. One of Stanley Kubrick's biggest inspirations was a 1960 animated short from Canada.
It’s no surprise that Kubrick selected “Universe” as a possible title for his movie, as it was also the name of one of the biggest inspirations he had while making it. Universe is a 28-minute, Oscar-nominated animated documentary from 1960 made by the National Film Board of Canada that was meant to be an awe-inspiring look at what it would be like to sail through space beyond the Milky Way.
Kubrick was so taken by the short film that he hired Douglas Rain, the narrator of Universe, to be the voice of the evil computer HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and also hired Universe’s optical effects artist Wally Gentleman to do special effects for the movie.
4. Kubrick had a little help from Carl Sagan.
Kubrick began principal production on the movie without knowing how to convey many of the film’s key scenes, most notably the ending where Dr. Dave Bowman makes contact with extraterrestrial life. One of the biggest problems Kubrick had while developing the movie was how to depict these extraterrestrial life forms in a way that suited his abstract ideas, but could also be covered by the film’s budget. So he asked noted astrophysicist/author Carl Sagan for help.
In his book The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective, Sagan explained, “I argued that the number of individually unlikely events in the evolutionary history of Man was so great that nothing like us is ever likely to evolve again anywhere in the universe. I suggested that any explicit representation of an advanced extraterrestrial being was bound to have at least an element of falseness about it, and that the best solution would be to suggest, rather than explicitly to display, the extraterrestrials.”
Though Kubrick would experiment with literal ways to show aliens in 2001, like hiring a ballet dancer in a special polka-dotted suit filmed against a black background, he settled on Sagan’s insinuation of extraterrestrials.
5. Kubrick tried to take out an alien insurance policy.
Kubrick was paranoid that he’d put all this work into getting as close to reality with the concept of extraterrestrial life as he possibly could and then aliens would be discovered just before his expensive sci-fi movie was finished. In order to literally insure his movie wouldn’t become obsolete, Kubrick attempted to take out an insurance policy at Lloyd’s of London to protect himself against losses in case extraterrestrial intelligence was discovered before the film’s release. Lloyd’s declined the policy because they figured the probability of discovering extraterrestrial intelligence in such a short period in the mid-1960s was too small.
6. The film was shot almost entirely indoors.
The film was shot almost entirely at England’s Shepperton Studios and MGM-British Studios. Massive sets were built for the film’s locations, including a 30-ton rotating Ferris wheel set meant to portray the Discovery’s gravity, built by a British aircraft company called the Vickers-Armstrong Engineering Group.
The film’s iconic monolith was actually comprised of wood and a special graphite mix black paint in order to get an extremely smooth sheen on the outside surface.
The only on-location exterior shot of the movie was of the Moon-Watcher ape smashing the animal bones with his own bone weapon, which was shot on an elevated platform near the studio so that Kubrick could get a low angle of actor Dan Richter, who played the Moon-Watcher, tossing the bone into the air. The shot, which would be the first part of the film’s infamous bone-to-spaceship match cut, was thought up during the shoot after Kubrick tossed a broomstick to a crew member before directing a shot.
7. All the apes were mimes.
One of the last sequences Kubrick shot was the opening “Dawn of Man” sequence, mostly because the director had difficulty in figuring out who could portray the apes in the scenes. He auditioned actors, dancers, and even comedians to potentially perform the parts, and initially hired Richter (who was working as a professional mime in London at the time) to simply choreograph the sequence. Instead, Kubrick hired Richter to be the main ape and tasked him with recruiting 20 other mimes to be the apes.
To help with the reality of the sequence, Richter explained, “I spent a lot of time at the zoo, in front of the chimp cage and the gorillas. I got all the footage of Jane Goodall's work and watched it over and over again. I met with anthropologists. My goal was to take this group of 20 man-apes, drop them in a parking lot without telling them what to do, and they would just look right.”
8. Kubrick got some help from NASA pros.
Even though the story he was telling was science fiction, Kubrick wanted a lot of collaboration in basing the film in science fact. To work as technical consultants on the film, Kubrick hired German-born designer Harry Lange, who had previously worked at NASA as the head of its “future projects” section, and Frederick Ordway, NASA’s former chief of space information systems, who had helped develop the Saturn V rocket.
Of his collaboration with the director, Ordway said, “Kubrick wanted to make certain that every special-effects shot would be completely convincing, yielding a realism never before accomplished in motion pictures.”
9. It featured some truly groundbreaking special effects.
Entire books have been written about the elaborate special effects used to create the futuristic world of 2001. Such effects were painstakingly created because the movie existed in an era before you could just fire up a computer and make whatever is in your noggin come to life. The most famous special effect in the movie is perhaps the end “Star Gate” sequence, which was created by effects artist Douglas Trumbull using a technique called slit scan photography.
To get the trippy colors to portray Bowman traveling to a higher existence, Trumbull used nothing but two sheets of glass and a camera on a custom dolly track. He placed a static foreground sheet of glass that’s entirely blacked out, save for a small slit in the center, in front of the camera. Another static sheet in back of the blacked out sheet featured a piece of glass with interchangeable paintings, drawings, and geometric patterns on it. He then pushed the camera backward and forward to, as Trumbull explained, “produce two seemingly infinite planes of exposure,” that were edited together to create the sequence.
10. Kubrick scrapped the entire original score.
Kubrick called 2001 “a visual, nonverbal experience,” and to help create that the director wanted to stress the music of the film. In the early stages of production, Kubrick commissioned composer Alex North, whom he’d previously worked with on creating the music for Spartacus, to score the movie. North composed a full score, but Kubrick ultimately abandoned it during post-production in favor of iconic classical music cues like Johann Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” waltz.
North didn’t even find out his score was scrapped until he attended the film’s 1968 premiere. North’s score would eventually be released on CD in 1993, and more recently received a limited-edition vinyl release on niche collectible record label Mondo.
11. HAL's death song came from a real-life experience.
The scene where Bowman deactivates HAL, who is singing “Daisy Bell,” was inspired by a visit Clarke made to Bell Labs in the early '60s to see a demonstration of an IBM 704 computer singing the very same song. It gave credence to the idea that “HAL” is a sly reference to “IBM,” since each letter in the evil computer’s name is one alphabetical letter away from the letters in the computer company’s name.
Clarke remained resolved to the fact that HAL, whose character was originally a female persona named Athena, stood for “Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer,” and any connection to IBM was pure coincidence.
12. Kubrick supposedly burned all of the extraneous footage, but it was found decades later.
Kubrick was legendarily secretive about his movie, going so far as to have all the props for the movie destroyed so replicas couldn’t be made. He also didn’t want anyone seeing extra footage he deemed unworthy of being in the final movie. Extra footage was only included in the film during the first premiere, which caused Kubrick to cut 19 minutes of footage from scenes like the “Dawn of Man” over pacing issues, after which he ordered all of the negatives of those sequences destroyed.
The complete extra 19 minutes was thought lost until 17 minutes of footage were found, preserved in a salt mine in Kansas, in 2010. Special effects supervisor Trumbull hopes to feature never-before-seen images from the once-lost footage in an upcoming behind-the-scenes photo book.
Additional Sources: The Making of Kubrick's 2001, by Jerome Agel