The collaboration between Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke gave birth to one of the greatest films in the history of cinema—2001: A Space Odyssey. But how did this brilliant collaboration come to pass? Well, we begin in New York City…
In February of 1964, right around the time Dr. Strangelove came out, Stanley Kubrick was having lunch with Roger Caras when esteemed science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke’s name came up. Roger Caras worked as the Columbia Pictures publicist for Dr. Strangelove and later, the vice president of Kubrick’s production company, Hawk Films, during the making of 2001. During their lunch together, Caras asked Kubrick what he had in mind for his next film, to which Kubrick responded, “I’m going to do something on extraterrestrials” (Odyssey of a Visionary). Kubrick mentioned he was reading “everything by everybody” to find a writer and story that suited his interests on the subject and Caras replied, “Why not just start with the best?” This man was Arthur C. Clarke whom Kubrick thought was a recluse, postulating that he was [quote], “a nut who lives in a tree in India some place.” At this time Clarke was living in Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka).
Caras sent a cable out to Clarke saying:
STANLEY KUBRICK—“DR STRANGELOVE,” “PATHS OF GLORY,” ET CETERA, INTERESTED IN DOING FILM ON ET’S. INTERESTED IN YOU. ARE YOU INTERESTED? THOUGHT YOU WERE RECLUSE.
And Clarke responded:
FRIGHTFULLY INTERESTED IN WORKING WITH ENFANT TERRIBLE STOP CONTACT MY AGENT STOP WHAT MAKES KUBRICK THINK I’M A RECLUSE?
On March 31st, 1964, Stanley Kubrick wrote a letter to Clark in the hopes of a potential collaboration. The letter reads:
Dear Mr Clarke:
It’s a very interesting coincidence that our mutual friend Caras mentioned you in a conversation we were having about a Questar telescope. I had been a great admirer of your books for quite a time and had always wanted to discuss with you the possibility of doing the proverbial “really good” science-fiction movie.
My main interest lies along these broad areas, naturally assuming great plot and character:
- The reasons for believing in the existence of intelligent extra-terrestrial life.
- The impact (and perhaps even lack of impact in some quarters) such discovery would have on Earth in the near future.
- A space probe with a landing and exploration of the Moon and Mars.
Roger tells me you are planning to come to New York this summer. Do you have an inflexible schedule? If not, would you consider coming sooner with a view to a meeting, the purpose of which would be to determine whether an idea might exist or arise which could sufficiently interest both of us enough to want to collaborate on a screenplay?
In that most agreeable event, I feel reasonably certain that further agreement for your services could then be reached with your agent.
Incidentally, “Sky & Telescope” advertise a number of scopes. If one has the room for a medium size scope on a pedestal, say the size of a camera tripod, is there any particular model in a class by itself, as the Questar is for small portable scopes?
In 2001italia’s post on the letter (you can find the link in description) he notes that Kubrick was interested in astronomy and was known to purchase “every new gadget he could,” so it is likely that his question about the Questar was sincere. Here you can see a picture of Clarke during the 70s on a beach in Sri Lanka with a Questar telescope. Along with Clarke, Marlon Brando, Johnny Carson, and Nazi turned NASA engineer Werner Von Braun also reportedly owned Questar telescopes.
The following month, on April 22nd Kubrick and Clarke met at New York’s Plaza Hotel at a restaurant called Trader Vic’s. Trader Vic’s was a Tiki themed restaurant featuring “an exciting and tremendous assortment of Polynesian, Chinese and East Indian delicacies served in authentic style and tropical atmosphere.” A fun bit of trivia is that the 54 foot long outrigger canoe displayed in the lobby was featured in the movie, “Mutiny on the Bounty.” Allegedly, Kubrick and Clarke talked about science fiction there for eight hours straight (Letters of Note).
Clarke described Kubrick’s appearance when they first met as a “rather quiet, average-height New Yorker” and that he hadn’t yet grown the beard that we see in many of 2001’s set photos (McAleer 178). He looked more like this:
Clarke also described Kubrick as being a night person, which affected their working schedule (McAleer 178).
On his first conversation with Kubrick, Clarke was quoted saying:
“Even from the beginning, he had a very clear idea of his ultimate goal. He wanted to make a movie about man’s relation to the universe—something which had never been attempted, much less achieved, in the history of motion pictures. Stanley was determined to create a work of art which would arouse the emotions of wonder, awe, even, if appropriate, terror”(McAleer 178).
Their conversations would last well through the spring of 1964 and carried them all over New York City—including the Guggenheim, Central Park, and a variety of movie houses.
Clarke thoroughly enjoyed all of what would be considered B-grade (or worse) science fiction movies and suggested that Kubrick watch Things to Come based on the H.G. Welles novel—Kubrick decided shortly after that he would never take another movie suggestion from Clarke again. According to technical advisor Fred Ordway, Kubrick found it incredible that someone as knowledgeable as Clarke would [quote], “go see a horrible black-and-white science fiction film and just sit there like a school kid” (McAleer 178).
In his book, The Lost Worlds of 2001, Clarke said:
Of course, there had been innumerable ‘space’ movies, most of them trash. Even the few that had been made with some skill and accuracy had been rather simpleminded, concerned more with the schoolboy excitement of space flight than its profound implications to society, philosophy, and religion” (The Lost Worlds 29).
This picture shows Kubrick and Clarke in one of their early sessions at Kubrick’s apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Arthur C Clarke: “I was hold up in the Hotel Chelsea most of the time during the early stages. I went through my short stories and dug out six which seemed appropriate to- ideas and I sold them all to Stanley. And one by one he threw them away and I bought them back and they’re still available. And Stanley decided the best way to produce the film was to write a novel—or at least the outline of a novel first.”
“That way,” Clarke was quoted saying, “before embarking on the drudgery of the script, we [could] let our imaginations soar freely by developing the story as a novel upon which the screenplay would eventually be based. We would generate more ideas this way, Stanley thought, and give the project more body and depth, though I had never collaborated with anyone before in this way, but the idea suited me fine… In theory, therefore, the novel would be written (with an eye on the screen) and the script would be derived from this. In practice the result was far more complex; toward the end, novel and screenplay were being written simultaneously, with feedback in both directions. Some parts of the novel had their final revisions after we had seen the rushes based on the screenplay based on earlier versions of the novel… and so on.’” (McAleer 178).
Around May 1964, after endless discussions and brainstorming, Kubrick and Clarke decided to base the story of 2001 around Clarke’s short story titled “The Sentinel”— about the discovery of an artifact of unknown origin.
When asked why he and Kubrick chose “The Sentinel” as their jumping off point, Clarke said this:
Arthur C Clarke: “Well this idea is a kind of an open-ended one—you can develop it in almost any direction, you see? In fact, we develop it not only into the future, but into the past because there is a flashback to three million years ago showing how this… how, in the past, visitors to earth affected our destiny. So, there’s this longest flashback in the history of movies to the dawn of man and then, on to the future, to what this all leads to.”
However, this was originally meant to be the climax of both the book and the film. It was after they agreed to move this plot point closer to the beginning of their story that Clarke brought forth more of his early novels and short stories to inspire the “six additional building blocks for the novel and the screenplay” (McAleer 178). These were: “‘Breaking Strain,’ ‘Out of the Cradle,’ ‘Endlessly Orbiting…,’ ‘Who’s There,’ ‘Into the Comet,’ and ‘Before Eden’” (McAleer 178).
“Breaking Strain” is a short story about freighter stranded in space after a meteor collision. It soon becomes clear that there won’t be enough oxygen for the two surviving crew members to survive. According to its Wikipedia article, the Discovery One spaceship from 2001: A Space Odyssey is very similar to the ship in ‘Breaking Strain’ in that both “ships have a spherical command module which is located a great distance away from the nuclear powered engines of the ship, connected by a long spine” (Breaking Strain Wiki).
Kubrick and Clarke started writing the story that would become 2001: A Space Odyssey, using the working title “How the Solar System Was Won.” Kubrick had a penthouse near Lexington Avenue in New York. On the night they finalized their deal—May 17th 1964 to be exact—they went out on Kubrick’s balcony and saw a UFO. Now, it is highly likely that after all this talk of extraterrestrials they were just seeing things. However, despite Clarke’s insistence that it wasn’t aliens coming to stop them from making the movie, he couldn’t offer an explanation.
Clarke thought it looked like a satellite, but there was no mention of a satellite passing at that time of night in the New York Times listing (McAleer). Clarke’s friends at the Hayden Planetarium had an explanation—what Kubrick and Clarke had seen was the Echo I satellite, which was a “hundred-foot balloon [with a] highly reflective aluminum surface” (McAleer).
Clarke kept a log during this time and noted various breakthroughs in the writing of 2001. Including such entries as:
March 8th: Fighting Hard to Stop Stan from bringing Dr. Poole back from the dead. I’m afraid his obsession with immortality has overcome his artistic instincts.
April 19th: Went up to the office with about three thousand words Stanley hasn’t read. The place is really humming now — about ten people working there, including two production staff from England. The walls are getting covered with impressive pictures and I already feel quite a minor cog in the works. Some psychotic who insists that Stanley must hire him has been sitting on a park bench outside the office for a couple of weeks, and occasionally comes to the building. In self-defense, Stan has secreted a large hunting knife in his briefcase.
The entries extend on into the production of the film after Kubrick moved the team to England and Clarke spent a year back in Ceylon. On November 10th, he wrote this after visiting one of the sets: Accompanied Stan and the design staff into the Earth-orbit ship and happened to remark that the cockpit looked like a Chinese restaurant. Stan said that killed it instantly for him and called for revisions. Must keep away from the Art Department for a few days (Visual Memory).
It would be that December that Kubrick would shoot his first images of 2001, which were of Floyd’s encounter with the monolith at the TMA-1 excavation site. The scene was shot at Shepperton Studios instead of MGM Borehamwood like the rest of the film, because Shepperton was the only facility that could fit the massive excavation set. Because of this, Kubrick had a hard deadline to shoot that scene because another film was coming in to use the space. So, Kubrick was forced to shoot such an important scene in only a week (Visual Memory).
After all of the production and post production ended, and the public was about to experience the fruits of this beautiful collaboration, Clarke looked back on his relationship with Kubrick at a press reception shortly before the film’s premiere.
Arthur C Clarke: “I would like to begin by a number of tributes. First of all, colleague for the last four years, Stanley Kubrick. It’s over four years that we started work on this and it has been an extraordinary and exhilarating experience. I think I can safely say that in all that time, we never came to blows, we had no major disagreements, we had all sorts of arguments about the best way of doing things—all these arguments were amicably resolved and looking back on it now it seems incredible to me that such a complex and lengthy collaboration has gone so smoothly. This is really Stanley Kubrick’s movie. I acted as the first stage booster and provided occasional guidance.
Thanks for watching! This is a new series devoted to all things Kubrick and won’t be limited to just things about 2001. Let me know in the comments what you think and if you are interested in more. And if you’re new here, please hit that subscribe button now because there are plenty more videos on the way for cinephiles like you!
I talked to the concierge at The Plaza Hotel and he said that Trader Vic’s was located in the Plaza Food Hall on the 59th Street side. This is what it looks like today.
Thanks again for watching!