Why 2001: A Space Odyssey's mystery endures, 50 years on

The author of a new behind-the-scenes look at the sci-fi classic talks about his friendship with Arthur C. Clarke, and why the film still fires imaginations today.

Nicholas Tufnell Associate Editor
8 min read

Michael Benson's new book Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece offers a fresh look at the making of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, a movie about space travel and the inception of mankind partially filmed in an abandoned Manhattan bra factory (it's a long story). 

With new insights from many of the original cast and crew -- HAL's eye was actually a Nikon Nikkor 8-millimeter lens, lit from behind -- the sprawling, meticulously researched account proves the film is worthy of its venerated status and remains as relevant today as when it hit theaters 50 years ago this week.

Benson, an American artist, writer and filmmaker, focuses on the intersection of art and science. His earlier work, Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time, was a finalist for the science and technology award at the 2015 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

I spoke to Benson about his passion for Kubrick's work, his relationship with writer Arthur C. Clarke (who knew Clarke could sing?) and why 2001: A Space Odyssey continues to capture imaginations today. (Disclosure: Simon & Schuster, the publisher of Benson's new book, is owned by CNET parent company CBS.) 

How and why did you end up writing the story of the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey?
My mom took me to see the film when it came out in 1968. I was 6. She was a Clarke fan and interested in space flight. It was my first exposure to a masterpiece in any medium -- or at least, the first that really spoke to me. I was amazed.


Michael Benson

Simon & Schuster

Ever since, I've thought, 'I really should find a way to engage meaningfully with that film. Someday.' Of course, I saw it many times since, but I mean to look under the hood. And the 50th anniversary gave me a great opportunity.  

How did you gain so much insight and access, and was it difficult getting reliable sources and vivid anecdotes 50 years after the fact?
Well, apart from the generosity of such surviving collaborators with Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Clarke as Tony Frewin, Doug Trumbull, Dan Richter, Andrew Birkin and others, who spent a lot of time with me and patiently answered my questions about the film, I benefited from several astonishingly rich lodes of material.

The first were the Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Clarke archives, which can be found in London, at the University of the Arts, and in Virginia, at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center, respectively.

Then came a seriously in-depth and fascinating set of transcripts from interviews not conducted by myself, which included discussions with key players who're no longer with us -- people like stuntman Bill Weston; Kubrick friend and consigliere Roger Caras; makeup man Stuart Freeborn; and the like.

These came from exceedingly generous fellow researchers such as "2001" researcher David Larson, Cinefex magazine editor and publisher Don Shay, Arthur's biographer Neil McAleer, and last but not least, Dan Richter himself, who apart from playing the lead man-ape, Moonwatcher, wrote a book about it 30 years later called Moonwatcher's Diary, and conducted dozens of excellent interviews back then to refresh his memory of the production.

When did you first meet Arthur C. Clarke and what was your relationship with him like?
I actually met him in the year 2001, no less, in December. We hit it off, and had quite a few lengthy discussions, and not just about "2001," either. I learned a lot from him, including about the ancient Greek mechanical geared astronomical calculator, the Antikythera Mechanism.

Arthur had been instrumental in seeing to it that an early researcher of the mechanism, Derek de Solla Price, wasn't dismissed as a quack by the editors of Scientific American, and de Solla Price duly published the first detailed analysis of the machine in Scientific American in 1959.

I'll always remember Arthur, a lifelong atheist, observing that of all the world's religions, Hinduism came closest to comprehending the vast scale in both space and time of the universe as revealed by science.

He was a very deep guy, Arthur, but also a very funny one. Another precious memory I have was his singing to me Tom Lehrer's devastating satirical song about Wernher von Braun, a man who Arthur proudly considered a friend, even while acknowledging his dubious Third Reich history.

Have you heard the song? "Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department, said Wernher von Braun." Anyway, I visited Arthur three times in Sri Lanka, the last with my family in tow. He was a great man, and I miss being able to shoot him an email now and then.

The passage detailing an ailing Clarke bursting into tears on seeing his old "intellectual sparring partner" on TV decades after the release of "2001" stuck with me long after I finished the book. It's a deeply melancholy yet beautiful moment. What was Clarke's relationship with Kubrick like toward the end of his life?
I owe that story to a major contributor to my narrative, Stanley's fantastic widow, Christiane. I also was quite taken with that story.

The way that familiar media distancing -- with each watching the other on TV -- did the opposite, and actually brought them back together ... It's the kind of thing Arthur wouldn't have necessarily told me, it was too intimate, but he told Christiane, and thankfully she told me.

Sri Lanka - Author and Scientist Arthur C. Clarke

The late science fiction writer, scientist, inventor and author Arthur C. Clarke, pictured at his home in Colombo, Sri Lanka. 

Andrew Holbrooke/Corbis via Getty Images

I think Arthur really loved Stanley, and deeply respected both his artistic integrity and sheer brilliance. And Christiane left me no doubt that Stanley also greatly valued Arthur, as the episode with his physically taping what he said with a handheld microphone directly off a BBC TV broadcast illustrates pretty well.

They were in regular contact in the decades after "2001" was released. That's not to say they didn't have tense periods and misunderstandings, including when Arthur started writing sequels. They settled them, however, and Kubrick got a percentage of Arthur's income from the books. Kubrick was a formidable businessman, apart from everything else.

There are some memorable characters -- Andrew Birkin, Douglas Trumbull and Dan Richter stand out. Who did you enjoy talking to or researching the most (excluding Kubrick and Clarke)?
I never met Stanley, unfortunately, and as for the people you cite, I truly don't have a favorite, they're equally fascinating and articulate creative types, really, in their different ways. I had a nice relaxed jokey time with all of them, and let's not exclude Tony Frewin, either. Great people.

In a way, I was benefiting from Kubrick's own discernment, 50 years later, if you know what I mean. It was a real brain-trust/think-tank, that production, with many great ideas emerging from the collective brainpower of that crew, as I hope the book conveys.  

What surprised you and what did you learn about the film and its creators as you researched and wrote the book?
There's so much of it, I don't know where to begin. From the source of Arthur's financial distress during the four years of production; to stuntman Bill Weston's ordeal after Stanley refused to allow him to punch air holes in his helmet while dangling 30 feet above the studio's hard concrete floor; to the intricacies of makeup man Stuart Freeborn's incredibly elaborate techniques as he worked to create believable man-ape costumes -- it goes on and on. Not to mention Dan Richter's simultaneously dominating the role of a lifetime and holding down a seriously hard-core heroin addiction. 

Simon & Schuster

You know I used to make films myself, and I remember realizing as early as film school in the early 1990s that frequently the story of what's going down behind the camera is as interesting or more interesting as what's going on in front of it. Given the scale of what we see on the screen with "2001" I'm not sure I'd make that claim here, but I do feel that I discovered a lot of interesting things.

What do you think current filmmakers and science fiction writers could learn from Kubrick and Clarke?
There's just an impressive artistic integrity and honesty to what they brought off. It was all deeply informed by innumerable sources of information from all quarters, concerning such questions as humanity's place in space and time to high technology to philosophy and futurism and design and so forth.

Both of them were endlessly curious characters, with the ability to synthesize complex ideas in non-dogmatic ways. They were really admirable characters in that way. So I suppose what they could learn is to not stop learning, and not only that, but to find ways to incorporate that learning in practice. To consider almost everything potentially actionable intel, if you will.

There are multiple interpretations of "2001: A Space Odyssey" and your book makes it clear that Kubrick wanted to leave the film open to analysis. With that said, what's your interpretation of the film and why is it still relevant in 2018?
Part of their achievement, and one reason why it remains relevant now and will continue to remain relevant for the foreseeable future, is exactly in its openness to interpretation and the way it channels the mystery, really.

It's like Leonard Cohen's "crack in everything" that lets the light get in, from his song Anthem. Not to sound mystical about it, but "2001" lets the light in, and the mystery, of our position not just in space, but also in time, meaning on our evolutionary timeline also.

It's really quite an extraordinary achievement in that sense, and it rivals the original Odyssey and also James Joyce's Ulysses -- which I kind of highlight in my prologue as the other great 20th-century iteration of Homer's Odyssey -- in its ability to encompass vast expanses of space and time. 

There's no single valid interpretation, but it lures you into its mystery, and makes you want to form interpretations, doesn't it? And that's what great art is sometimes capable of, in any medium.

For example, William Blake wrote, "Eternity is in love with the productions of time." How cool is that? And is there a definitive interpretation of what he meant? Not really, and I like it that way. 

Or to quote Kubrick himself in his 1968 Playboy interview, "How much would we appreciate La Gioconda today if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: 'This lady is smiling slightly because she has rotted teeth' or 'because she's hiding a secret from her lover'? It would shut off the viewer's appreciation and shackle him to a 'reality' other than his own. I don't want that to happen to '2001'."

Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece is published by Simon & Schuster on April 3 and is available online or in stores for £20/$30.

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