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Author tells behind-the-scenes story of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

Brooklyn BookBeat

March 28, 2018 Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Author Michael Benson. Images courtesy of Simon & Schuster
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In April of 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” premiered in the United States. Now, on the 50th anniversary of the film’s release, Michael Benson provides the definitive account of how the movie came to be made in “Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece,” which will be released on April 3. Benson lived in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn for one year until the end of 2016, and conducted much of the research for his book from his space on MacDonough Street.

Regarded as a masterpiece today, “2001: A Space Odyssey” received mixed reviews on its original release. Despite the success of “Dr. Strangelove,” Kubrick wasn’t yet recognized as a truly top-tier filmmaker, and “2001” was radically innovative, with little dialogue and no strong central character. Although some leading critics slammed the film as incomprehensible and self-indulgent, the public lined up to see it. The movie ended up the highest-grossing film of 1968. Its resounding commercial success launched the genre of big-budget science fiction spectaculars. Such directors as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and James Cameron have all acknowledged its profound influence.

Filmmaker, artist and writer Benson explains how “2001” was made, telling the story primarily through the two people most responsible for the film, Kubrick and science fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke. Benson interviewed Clarke at length before his death in 2008, visiting him in Sri Lanka three times. He also spoke at length with Kubrick’s widow Christiane; with visual effects supervisor Doug Trumbull; with Dan Richter, who played the movie’s leading man-ape, “Moonwatcher”; and many others to create the definitive account of the making of the film from those who lived it.  Here are just a few of the interesting facts that emerge:

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  • Before NASA’s “Mariner 4” passed Mars, a worried Kubrick attempted to take out an insurance policy in case the discovery of extraterrestrial life ruined the plot. He ultimately decided to “take his chances with the universe,” as Clarke put it.

  • Some of the sets were so novel that they caused unintentional hazards. Forced to spin 360 degrees in the film’s giant centrifuge set, ranks of powerful film lights overheated and exploded, and crew members had to wear hard hats at all times. On one occasion visiting artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky was nearly killed by a pipe wrench left behind by a crewman, which fell from the turning centrifuge, narrowly missing him.

  • Stanley Kubrick and lead actors Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood were all afraid of flying, with each travelling to the U.K., where 2001 was shot, by boat for filming. As Benson writes, “The most convincing film about space exploration ever made would be captained and crewed by groundlings.”

  • The reaction to the April 3rd New York premiere was so negative that Clarke left at intermission in tears. 241 audience members walked out, and film critics almost unanimously issued seething reviews, but young people flocked to see the film and its fortunes quickly reversed. Despite the cinematic success and fan base, “2001” did not crack the British Film Institute’s Top 10 list until 1992.

Featuring many previously unseen photographs (including Polaroid shots from the set, many taken by Kubrick himself), this colorful nonfiction narrative is packed with memorable characters and remarkable incidents. “Space Odyssey” provides a 360-degree view of this extraordinary work, tracking the film from Kubrick and Clarke’s first meeting in New York in 1964 through its UK production from 1965-1968, during which some of the most complex sets ever made were merged with visual effects so innovative that they scarcely seem dated today. A concluding chapter examines the film’s legacy as it grew into it current justifiably exalted status. According to Kirkus, Michael Benson’s definitive account is “essential” reading.  

Michael Benson works at the intersection of art and science. An artist, writer, and filmmaker, he’s a Fellow of the NY Institute of the Humanities and a past Visiting Scholar at the MIT Media Lab. In addition to “Space Odyssey” he has written such books as “Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time,” a finalist for the Science and Technology award at the 2015 Los Angeles Times “Festival of Books,” among other books. His planetary landscape exhibitions have been shown at major museums internationally. Benson has contributed to such publications as The New YorkerThe New York TimesThe Washington PostThe AtlanticSmithsonian and Rolling Stone.


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