Stanley Kubrick & ‘2001’: Over Budget and Behind Schedule — but a Radical Classic

Stanley Kubrick 2001 Space Odyssey Moon
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

July 26 would have been the 88th birthday of Stanley Kubrick, one of Hollywood’s all-time greats. His output was slim — only 13 films in a 40-year career — but his batting average was very high.

Over the decades, Variety chronicled his various films, including “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It began filming in London in December 1965, aiming for a Christmas 1966 release. In September 1966, MGM president Robert H. O’Brien told Variety that the film had been delayed and its original $6 million budget wasn’t enough. “Stanley is an honest fellow and he simply admitted to me that he hadn’t anticipated the tremendous technical problems he’d have with all the fantastic special effects he wanted. For $6 million, we could have had a Buck Rogers sort of thing, but for the extra million we’ve got what we originally planned. Should we have told him to stop at $6 million? Why have Buck Rogers at $6 million when you can have Kubrick at $7 million?”

O’Brien admitted that several of MGM’s other films also had gone over budget, including “The Dirty Dozen,” “Blow-Up,” and Roman Polanski’s “The Vampire Killers.”

MGM delayed the “2001” opening until spring 1967, then October 1967, and finally Easter 1968. In December 1967, two years after it began shooting, O’Brien gave the update that shooting had finished on “2001” and it was being scored and edited. And the budget had grown to $9.5 million.

Anticipation was high, partly because of the delays and the mystery surrounding the film, but mostly because everyone was curious to see what the director of “Lolita” and “Dr. Strangelove” would come up with. In March 1968, just a few weeks before the film’s launch, writer Arthur C. Clarke told Variety reporter Jerry Beigel that Kubrick’s secrecy was not a PR stunt. “There were times when he cleared the entire set, and only he and the cameramen know what was filmed.”

Clarke said he and Kubrick wrote the novel and screenplay simultaneously, expanding on a short story by Clarke 20 years earlier. The two spent “nearly all of 1964 writing and discussing the project. The next year was spent polishing the script, drawing on technical advice from the National Aeronautics & Space Administration and some 40 private corporations and other physical work of preparing the picture.”

Clarke said there was little or no change in the film as it progressed, thanks to the duo’s thorough preparations. The most difficult part of the picture came after principal photography. “There are more than 200 special-effects sequences,” Clarke said. “Kubrick had gigantic wall charts in his office that tracked all the space operations and indicated possible bottlenecks. We worked very closely with NASA, particularly with the Apollo program boys and (astronaut) Deke Slayton.” Clarke described one sequence “where the spaceship seems to be rushing past exploding stars that will put the psychedelic boys out of business.”

However, he never explained who “the psychedelic boys” were.

On March 27, 1968 a Variety report said the MGM lab was been working around the clock, using 31 workers in sound and editing departments to ready the 70m prints and six-track stereo of the film for its world premiere. Kubrick and his film editor, Ray Lovejoy, joined in March 16, working up to 15 hours a day. MGM chief projectionist Frank McBrien was checking projection equipment in all theaters where the movie was scheduled to play.

The film had its world premiere in Washington, D.C., on April 2, 1968, with Kubrick in attendance. He also went to the New York premiere but didn’t attend in L.A., thanks to his aversion to flying.

Critical reaction was mixed. Many reviewers complained that the plot made no sense, and some balked at Kubrick’s explanation, “I wanted to make a non-verbal statement, one that would affect people on the visceral, emotional and psychological levels.” But Variety predicted it could be “the first ‘serious’ or ‘intellectual’ pic to (become a hit) sans significant critical support.” As a safety measure, Metro wanted to build word of mouth for the film, which was slowly opening around the U.S. So the studio gathered a list of fans of the film, including Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Warren Beatty, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Mike Nichols, Henry Fonda and Stanley Donen.

And MGM successfully targeted an audience that would appreciate Kubrick’s non-linear approach. More than a year after its debut, Variety in 1969 reported that the pic was still in exclusive engagements “in cities with the largest concentrations of hippies — L.A., 65th week; Toronto, 58th; Seattle, 58th; Frisco, 55th; San Jose, 50th.” At that point, the film had made back its costs at the domestic box office, and all overseas money was gravy.

The film eventually played 80 weeks in Los Angeles, earning $2.5 million at the Pacific Warner (later the Hollywood Pacific). It held the L.A. single-screen record tally for several years, until “Deep Throat” at the Pussycat Hollywood eventually exceeded that amount in 1974.

After “2001,” Kubrick made only five more films, including the 1980 classic “The Shining.” (For more on that film, go to Lee Unkrich’s website TheOverlookHotel, which carries the work of painters, designers and writers who were inspired by the film.) Kubrick’s final film was “Eyes Wide Shut,” released a few months after he died at age 70 on March 7, 1999.

It’s easy to imagine bloggers today flogging Kubrick over his prolonged schedule and inflated budget for “2001.” But the film turned out to be wildly profitable, beloved by audiences, and a big influence on “Star Wars” and every other VFX-heavy movie that followed.

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  1. Mike says:

    Regarding the L.A. single-screen record claim in the article…. The writing is unclear. Is the record you’re referring to its $2.5 million gross or its 80-week engagement? If the latter, then the claim is erroneous since there were at least six other films that had a first-run roadshow release play longer than 80 weeks: “Cinerama Holiday” (Warner Hollywood, 81 weeks); “How the West Was Won” (Warner Hollywood, 93 weeks); “The Sound of Music” (93 weeks, Fox Wilshire); “Ben-Hur” (Egyptian, 98 weeks); “Around the World in Eighty Days” (Carthay Circle, 128 weeks); “This is Cinerama” (Warner Hollywood, 133 weeks).

    • timgray2013 says:

      The amount, $2.5 million, was a record number for a single-screen engagement. It made that amount in its 80 weeks. Thanks, Tim Gray

  2. Kwabena Jabbar says:

    My favorite film of all time. Certainly the most influential in terms of popular cultural impact on fantasy/sci fi (absolutely Star Wars and most recently Interstellar). Just an incredible achievement. Last viewed in 70mm Cinerama at the magnificent Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor a few years back.

  3. I caught “2001” at the very impressionable age of 8 in Times Square at the Loews Capitol (in Cinerama!) with my late father. Prior to our arrival at the theater we had a brief stop at the Automatt which fascinated this Jersey City rube to no end. Outside the theater a ticket barker was hawking remaining seats to our upcoming show, I urged my dad to buy them before they sold out when he paused to remind me we had mail ordered our tickets weeks earlier. Once inside he purchased a program book for me (I still have it!) which he insisted I not look at until the film was over, lest I spoil the experience. Shortly after being seated the lights darkened and the overtures 6-track magnetic soundtrack roared around me and the gigantic curved screen was filmed with the most remarkable images I’d ever seen. It’s hard to explain to today’s generation who grew up on CGI what this was like, it had a profound effect on me which lasts to this very day. “2001” was groundbreaking in so many ways it’s impossible to name them all. Thank you Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C Clark and the army of technicians for showing me anything is possible in the cinema and thanks dad for that very special day!
    Jim Kroeper

  4. Walter says:

    “My God, it’s full of stars!”

  5. Merryl aka mez says:

    That film was fantastic .I could watch it over and over again and each time come away with something new

  6. Greggan says:

    An unsurpassed cinema achievement.

    I’ve seen it theatrically move times than I can count (including a pristine 70mm print) and I watch it every month or two for inspiration.

    Imagine a film playing for 80 weeks? If it were released today, it would be rolled out to 4,000 screens and it probably wouldn’t last through the second weekend. Some movies need time for the audience to discover them, although most contemporary movies benefit for the fast play-off before the audience gets wise.

    I still mourn Stanley’s passing.

  7. P. Beaucamper says:

    I was lucky enough to see it in Cinerama at the wonderful age of 23, in New York on Times Square twice and over the years six more times in various Cinerama theaters.
    I expect anyone who has seen it in Cinerama will agree that it is not the same experience without it.
    And lets just say I know exactly why it was so popular with ‘the hippies’.
    It continues to influence me to this day.
    Happy Birthday, Stanley. I still miss you.

  8. Paul De Zan says:

    I was lucky enough to see 2001 in Cinerama twice, at age 10 when it first opened and again five years later, during its first big re-release. The first time I was naturally bewildered, but knew I had seen something very, very grand. The second time, after studying everything I could find about the film and about Kubrick, was the closest thing I think I’ve had to a true spiritual experience. I still think it’s the greatest film made in my lifetime.

  9. Ken says:

    Its philosophical depth, technological virtuosity and prescience, its visual and directorial brilliance remain almost unmatched 48 years later. I saw this movie in Toronto at the Glendale Cinema back in 1968 when I was 11 — it was the most transformative movie-going experience of my life. Happy Birthday Stanley, wherever you are…up there in the cosmos I think.

  10. Jim says:

    Happy Birthday Stanley….

    Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do,
    I’m half crazy all for the love of you.
    It won’t be a stylish marriage,
    I can’t afford a carriage,
    But you’d look sweet upon the seat
    Of a bicycle made for two.

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