April 2, 2018, is the 50th anniversary of the world premiere of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” And July 26, 2018, would have been the 90th 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.