8 revelations about 2001: A Space Odyssey, from the monolith's genesis to a Hitchcock connection

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Mar 15, 2018

2001: A Space Odyssey is legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s trippy magnum opus that influenced pretty much every science fiction movie that followed it — and made all those before it seem as ancient as the monolith. Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the film, author Michael Benson, in his meticulous making-of/history book Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece —  out April 3 from Simon & Schuster — takes us behind the scenes in almost every aspect of the landmark film’s creation, revealing history, trivia, and secrets about one of the most important movies of all time.

Benson did the hard work, scouring through original sources and conducting interviews to collect all sorts of insights for hardcore fans. So, of course, we read his huge accomplishment and brought that essential knowledge here.

Here are eight of the best things we learned:

The monolith started as a joke idea

During co-writer Clarke and director/co-writer Kubrick’s ideation period, they debated the merits of inorganic versus organic aliens for their film. This led to the pair discussing, in early June of 1964, “a hilarious idea we won’t use. Seventeen aliens — featureless black pyramids — riding in an open car down Fifth Avenue, surrounded by Irish cops.” The spirit of the joke may have disappeared over the preproduction period, but the mysterious black, featureless creations remained — even if their shape was refined over time.

Carl Sagan was consulted about aliens — and ignored

The astronomer was asked to dinner by Clarke and Kubrick, taking credit years afterward for the pair’s decision not to show alien life in the film. In truth, Kubrick so disliked Sagan that he told Clarke to “get rid of him. Make any excuse, take him anywhere you like. I don’t want to see him again.” Then, over the next four years, the director proceeded to ignore Sagan’s suggestions by attempting over and over again to put extraterrestrials in his movie. It just never worked out.

The film’s nebula-like shots in the Star Gate sequence were shot in an abandoned brassiere factory

Kubrick modeled the shots after the short film Universe, which were created by dropping paint into black ink mixed with a World War II-era paint thinner called banana oil. These were the first frames ever shot of 2001, in early 1965.

Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder were on MGM’s shortlist to direct 2001

In his contract with MGM to produce the film, Kubrick was only one of four directors listed as possibilities. The other three were Hitchcock, Wilder, and The Bridge on the River Kwai’s David Lean.

HAL 9000’s “brain room” came via recommendation from IBM

The company, which Kubrick sought advice from regarding his sentient computer, told the director that a computer that complex “would be a computer into which men went, rather than a computer around which men walk.”

The first hint of HAL’s breakdown was in the chess game

Based on a real match played in Hamburg in 1913, the chess game in the film between HAL and Dr. Frank Poole has the computer cheat to win (citing “queen to bishop three” as a play toward an unavoidable victory rather than “queen to bishop six”) — the first signs of instability.

The production spent about $10,000 in today’s money stealing endangered African trees

When taking photographs in Namibia for the front projection technique later used in the film, Kubrick’s assistant Andrew Birkin was told by the director to take a few of the quiver tree (or kokerboom) to a different location to get the look right. After a fire and a car crash, the trees were set up in the background. After all that work, very few real ones are visible in the opening section. The rest were fake, made in England.

Kubrick was “the most reliably shameless bummer of smokes in the British film industry”

His wife, Christiane, was pressuring him to quit during production of the film, so Kubrick always hit up his crew for cigarettes. Some crew members were so put upon that they kept empty cartons with them to prove they were out. When Christiane found out, she brought a carload of cartons to the studio for the workers.

Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece is out in stores on April 3.