You can't get away from Stanley Kubrick’s grandiose, mysterious and undeniably trippy 1968 space epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like the imposing, sleek monoliths from the film, 2001 looms over all cinema genres, not just science fiction. Even director Christopher Nolan’s new sci-fi film Interstellar, released in the same month that the BFI and Warner Bros studio have released a new digital transfer of Kubrick’s movie, openly pays homage to its predecessor.
Eventually becoming a huge box office and critical hit following its release 2001 is now a permanent fixture in all the major “best of” charts. It remains still in the top ten of the Sight and Sound Magazine Greatest Films poll, and was recently voted No. 1 in a Time Out London poll for the best 100 Sci-Fi films. It is fair to say that 2001, with it’s largely dialogue-free narrative, avante- garde music and benchmark-setting special effects, has gone beyond being just a film that is widely regarded as a masterpiece; it is spoken of and written about as if it is a piece of art.
Though the most famous character in 2001 is undoubtedly supercomputer HAL 9000, the human presence in the film's second half is made up of astronauts David Bowman and Frank Poole, two men on what must be the loneliest mission in history aboard the spaceship Discovery. The pair are bound for Jupiter, following the path of a mysterious alien transmission from the alien monolith found on the moon. Actors Keir Dullea (Bowman) and Gary Lockwood (Poole) were reunited this month in London to celebrate the 2K digital reissue of 2001 playing as part of the BFI’s Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder season, and kindly shared their memories with me of going on “The Ultimate Trip” (as studio MGM sneakily billed the film when they realised how certain 60s youthful audiences were enjoying the film).
The two are an interesting double act; Dullea’s precise, carefully-considered answers contrast with the curmudgeonly Lockwood’s more roundabout ways of telling stories. Both are sharp as a knife when it comes to recalling various behind-the-scenes memories, thought that did not prevent the pair putting our interview on hold on occasion to get stuck into a friendly row or two as to the order of certain scenes in the film. Both remain fierce in their praise of the director who gave them the job.
You can read fuller version of my interview over at Grolsch FIlm Works who originally commissioned the piece, but here are some highlights below:
On getting hired by Stanley Kubrick for 2001:
Both Dullea and Lockwood were already Kubrick fans when they got the call to join 2001, so for both it was no brainer to sign up for the space mission. Keir Dullea was actually in England at the time, shooting an Otto Premigner film. Wandering in to a Battersea Park funfair one day, he encountered a palm reader who warned him: ‘I see a rocket ship in your future.’ ” A week after that, Kubrick called.
Lockwood already had secured a place in sci-fi history, having starred in the pilot of a little show called Star Trek (where he plays Gary Mitchell, ultimately the villain of the story, in a one-off role). He'd already worked with Kubrick on Spartacus. At the time he remembers he was: “getting a lot of jobs, doing rather well, enjoying it, chasing beautiful girls and driving Porsches: the routine.” Then his agent called with Kubrick’s offer. Lockwood jumped at the chance: “I was a giant fan of Kubrick, even though I was a cowboy. I knew his stuff. I thought he was a genius.”
On working with the legendary director.
Neither Dullea or Lockwood will have any truck with the myths that Kubrick was a strange, obsessive loner who enjoyed pushing his actors. Instead they found him professional, courteous, and amazingly curious, seemingly about everything. Says Dullea: "I’d just finished working with Preminger, so let me tell you, it was like going from hell to heaven! [Kubrick] was so easygoing with us, he never raised his voice, ever. He put us at ease quickly and was never demanding in the way you might imagine he would be. He was so prepared, the most prepared director I had ever worked with, so I guess he could relax about everything else.”
Lockwood liked Kubrick’s directing style, the way he let professional actors get on with the job on set and when the cameras rolled: “I asked him once why I got the part, and he told me that he thought I could ‘do a lot without doing anything.’ Stanley never said anything, that’s what I liked about him."
For Lockwood: “There is only one Stanley Kubrick. People who are really good at something have to have an IQ! They have to be intelligent! I meet students out of film school and they say things like: ‘I wanna make films like Stanley Kubrick’. You can’t tell after just five minutes with them; there’s just not the grey matter there! Kubrick was curious, and so very, very intelligent.”
Dullea remembers Kubrick as: “the most curious man I ever met. I remember the Pentax camera had just come out that year: he stopped shooting and took hours to find out all about it!”
On their characters:
There is little dialogue in 2001, even when the film moves out of the prehistoric era. Dullea noticed that Kubrick cut more and more dialogue away the more takes they did. To help the cast, Kubrick prepped them via fictional biographies: “Our characters had double doctorates in sciences; the concept was that by year 2001 NASA wouldn't be taking astronauts from the military necessarily: they'd be looking early on at young men from high school and college, narrowing it down in terms of choosing based on their psychological profile.
Both actors have little stories about they shaped the direction of 2001 with their own input. Lockwood laughs as he recalls how Stanley Kubrick challenged him to come up with a better idea of how the astronauts would confront HAL once he started malfunctioning. After a trip to a deli on Golders Green courtesy of Kubrick's driver, Lockwood scribbled out a scenario where the astronauts would plot in the pod, where they felt HAL couldnt hear them. Only a few hours previously, Lockwood had feared Kubrick was going to fire him for complaining about how he felt the narrative had been constructed. For his part, Dullea suggested to Kubrick that he break a wine glass during the sequence where Bowman ages in huge jumps in the strange artificial hotel room, after his voyage through the star portal.
On finally seeing 2001 in the cinema in 1968:
Both were blown away by seeing the film on the big screen, Lockwood in particular as he was extremely stoned at the time. Corralled by a film journalist for an interview after the screening, Lockwood remembers the man commenting: “ Well Mr Lockwood, you still look like you’re out there in space!” Dullea was struck by the Dawn of Man sequence (with its famous jump cut from the bone in mid air to a satellite orbiting Earth); as it was a section of the film that neither of the actors had worked on and thus were seeing it for the first time.
On talking to younger audiences about 2001:
Though Lockwood deplores modern audiences “with their lack of attention thanks to MTV-style fast cutting”, Dullea is upbeat about 2001 finding new audiences now. He recalls that on the autograph circuit he started noticing that: “more than 50% of fans now were not born when 2001 came out. That speaks to the trans-generational aspect of this film. The genius of this film, of Kubrick, has appealed to generations up to this moment.”
2001: A Space Odyssey will be back on cinema screens in a new 2K digital edition across the UK from 28 November and will play an extended run as part of the BFI "Sci-Fi : Days of Fear and Wonder" season.