Wednesday, May 12, 2010

TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL 2010: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)—Onstage Conversation With Douglas Trumbull and Ben Mankiewicz

Each morning at the TCM Classic Film Festival a 70mm film was screened at The Egyptian Theater. I wish I could say I caught them all but the only one that truly worked for my schedule was the Friday morning screening of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which—believe it or not—I'd never seen in 70mm.

As the TCM notes synopsize: "With the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, science fiction moved into the Hollywood mainstream, paving the way for such later blockbusters as Star Wars (1976) and Avatar (2009). Director
Stanley Kubrick and legendary novelist Arthur C. Clarke created a visionary work about the human race's coming of age, highlighted by a richly detailed view of space travel. The film not only featured space ships so realistic they seemed about to take off, it filled them with product placements for everything from IBM computers to Howard Johnson hotels. And the Oscar®-winning special effects team, led by Douglas Trumbull, pioneered in the use of front projection and split-scan photography to create the most dazzling visions of space travel to that time. Kubrick deliberately kept the film's action ambiguous, a choice that left most critics dumbfounded and even hostile. But it also opened Hollywood's eyes to a new audience. Word soon came back that box office returns were being generated largely by students and hippies who attended multiple times, often in drug altered states, to experience what they considered 'the ultimate trip.' The film's success helped create the cult movie phenomenon of the '70s and established the market for other visionary filmmakers like David Lynch. In Kubrick's words, he proved the viability of film as 'a non-verbal experience—the truth is in the feel of it, not the think of it.' "

I was baffled by 2001 when I first saw it as a 14-year-old at the Idaho Theatre in Twin Falls, Idaho; but, just as the TCM notes characterize, my young psyche was already galvanized by the cultural foment taking place all around me. I hadn't even tried pot yet; but, 2001: A Space Odyssey insinuated that inevitability and—until that first puff—was, as Spike Lee coined it, my first joint. Like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, I have watched this movie countless times, but am grateful to the TCM Classic Film Festival for providing the opportunity to see it in a pristine 70mm print provided by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. It was a spectacular experience, nearly as thrilling as when I first saw it over 40 years ago. This go-round, I was struck by the startling contrast between the immaculate interiors of the Discovery One—all that white plastic and metal—and Gary Lockwood's virile physique; yet another inflection of the tension between technology/machinery and flesh/the human. Lockwood's performance of astronaut Dr. Frank Poole has entered the domain of the iconic and, without question, he never looked better (except, perhaps, wearing a tight black t-shirt in Jacques Demy's Model Shop).

After the screening, TCM daytime host Ben Mankiewicz welcomed special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull to the stage of the Egyptian to discuss his participation in the film.

Mankiewicz asked Trumbull if he was still moved watching the film? "Yeah, I am," Trumbull responded. "It's really great to see it on a big screen and to see it in 70mm." Guessing the Egyptian had a 65-foot screen, Trumbull reminded his audience that 2001 was designed for a 90-foot curved
Cinerama screen. "There are very few people alive today," he conjectured, "who have seen it in that format."

Mankiewicz enquired how Trumbull came about to work on the film? How Kubrick found him and hired him? Recounting that one of the first films he worked on was To the Moon and Beyond for the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair, the film was produced by Cinerama Inc. using a camera with a single fisheye lens and projected onto a dome screen in a process called Cinerama 360. To the Moon and Beyond was shown in a 96-foot high "Moon Dome" that was part of the Transportation and Travel building (Pavilion No. 123) in the Transportation section of the Fair. Both Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke had seen the film at the Expo and hired Con Pederson from Graphic Films—where Trumbull was working at the time—to do some preliminary designs because they were specializing in space simulations. Trumbull then cold-called Kubrick after obtaining the director's home phone number from Pederson and left Graphic Films to work on 2001.

Asked of his impressions of Stanley Kubrick as a person and as a professional, Trumbull answered, "Stanley Kubrick is a lovely man. Stanley is—or was—extremely intelligent. Way over people's heads. People around him were intimidated by him. But he also was a very private man. He liked to be left alone. He liked to be left to his own creative processes. He didn't like the interference of Hollywood studios and of people second guessing him. That's why he left the country and went to shoot in England for most of his films. He didn't like being critiqued and he didn't like talking to the press about what it was he was trying to do. It pissed everybody off, frankly, because the press doesn't like being denied access. For a lot of reasons like that, he got a bad reputation of being eccentric, difficult, whatever. Stanley was definitely eccentric—there's no doubt about it—but, I don't say that in a derogatory way.

"My experience of him was that he loved me and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. He was extremely supportive. We were struggling with the Star Gate. Nobody knew what a Star Gate was; but, I came up with some ideas that I didn't even know at the time were based on some things I was learning as a young guy about street photography and weird photographic techniques where the camera is a different kind of a camera; the shutter is not in the camera, the shutter is out in the world. Street photography was a technique that was used for photo-finish cameras at the race track. Stanley was a photographer. He knew a lot about photography. He knew all about lenses. He had a lot of Nikkons all around. A lot of people don't even know that 2001 was shot largely with Nikkon lenses—Panavision doesn't like to admit that—but, he was very involved with photography and when I came up with ideas and said, 'I think there's this street photography application that will solve the Star Gate thing', he would say, 'Hey. That's great. I love it. I believe it. I understand it. What do you need to do it?' and I would have complete carte blanche, which was wild as a young guy; I was 23-24 when I started the movie, and was 25 by the time I was doing the Star Gate. He would say, 'What do you need?' and I'd say, 'Well, I need to go into town and buy some weird bearings and some stuff' and he would send me off to town in his Bentley, with a driver, into London. It was great!"

Despite Kubrick not wanting to have to explain himself to the press, he was nonetheless sensitive to reviews and was very hurt by Pauline Kael's negative response to 2001. "He was completely dumbfounded that people didn't get the movie when it first came out. He was totally there and he'd been in it for years, obviously he'd made this movie and understood it completely. He incorrectly estimated how much slow, endless shots that people could tolerate, so—as you probably know, 17 minutes was cut out right after the first premiere to get the pace up a little bit; but, yeah, he was very hurt by these reviews and it really wasn't until a whole different audience than the studio expected started showing up for what they rebranded 2001 as 'the ultimate trip' and it became an experience where you would sit in the front row, smoke a little pot, and trip out. It completely rebirthed the movie. The movie was a day or two away from being pulled when the theater owners started calling the distribution company saying, 'Why don't you wait a couple more days before you pull this movie because the audience is starting to build back up' and it was all about the young people in the front row. People, finally, after a lot of agony for Stanley, started understanding what he was trying to do."

Referencing the impressive special effects and Bruce Dern's performance as an "eco-astronaut" in Trumbull's 1972 film Silent Running, Mankiewicz queried about the film's effect on a young filmmaker named George Lucas who was making his own film at the time. "George came to me after I had made Silent Running—I had a little office out in the San Fernando Valley—and asked me if I would do the special effects for Star Wars and I said no. That would have diverted my life or changed the course of my life in some drastic way if I had. I had just directed a movie and I told him, 'I'm very honored to be asked and I'll give you all the help I can'—because he said he was going to need robots (which became R2D2)—and I said, 'I'll help you out by giving you the names of all the people we used, the bilateral amputees who were performing' and he said, 'No, no, no, thank you, but that creeps me out.' He was going to use midgets and I said, 'Well, whatever you want.'

"I said no to George because I was on my own career path starting out as a young director in this town. I was getting into development deals with almost all the major studios and I had a number of sci-fi films that I was going to direct after Silent Running. I went into what is called development hell. You don't get paid much money when you're developing a screenplay or a production design or whatever. I kept going through these incredibly amazing experiences as a young filmmaker. I was like the hot young filmmaker. Everyone was amazed that I could make Silent Running for such a low amount of money—just a little over a million dollars; a fraction of what 2001 had cost—but, I had a project at MGM and we got way down the pipe: we had a screenplay; we had locations scouted; we were starting to cast the movie when Kirk Kerkorian decided to close the studio and build a Las Vegas casino. That stopped that one dead.

"And then I had a project called Journey of the Oceanauts, a big underwater action adventure sci-fi spectacle with
Arthur Jacobs who had done The Planet of the Apes. We got way down the pipe on that, started shooting tests, had a screenplay in production, and Bob McCall did a lot of production design for me—he did the poster for 2001—and we were getting that all geared up when Arthur Jacobs suddenly died and the whole project got tied up in his estate. I could go on and on and on but development hell is exactly that.

"I was really hitting the wall and going broke and—though I've never had an agent—I went to my attorney and said, 'I'm desperate. I've got to find something to do and I do have a lot of ideas about how movies can or should be made. We could dramatically improve the quality of film technology by doing some experiments.' So we actually got some money from Gulf & Western and Paramount Pictures to start a company called Future General Corporation, which was a research and development company down in Marina del Rey where we started experimenting with film. We started exploring tests with every film format known to man, every kind of camera, every kind of lens, every kind of projector and that's when I realized that one thing no one had ever tried was to really dramatically change frame rates. We shot films at 24, 36, 48, 66 and 72 frames per second and showed them in a special theater. We were blown away. We knew it was great; but, in order to get a patent, we had to prove that it was stimulating to audiences. We set up a lab out in Pomona at a university and hooked individuals up in a screening room to galvanic skin response ... four different sensors—breathing, heart rate—like a lie detector test and mapped them out relative to frame rate. That was in 1975-1976 and we found out that getting up to around 60 frames per second created a dramatic increase in human stimulation; a sense of immersion. That became the Showscan film process, which I patented. We did quite a few films for expos and world fairs and other special projects. We invented simulator rides, 3D-interactive video games, virtual sets, electronic cinematography, all kinds of stuff came out of this little company. Then the management of Paramount changed and I was back in development hell."

With the current popularity of 3D, Trumbull was asked if he would have done 2001: A Space Odyssey in 3D were it being made today? "I would," he said, "but not like this." Conceding he was "a complete media fanatic" as a result of working on 2001, he learned a lot about film formats and giant screens and film technology even as they began making the movie. They hit a lot of obstacles. For starters, they discovered that 24 frames per second limited the speed at which anything could move across the screen before it would start blurring and strobing. They had trouble holding the resolution of stars against a black field. But since then, Trumbull has been looking at every conceivable way to make movies, including the Showscan process he developed several years ago that used 60 frames per second, which got rid of all the resolution problems they had making 2001. Jim Cameron, who has "broken the mold" with Avatar, has often talked about Showscan and high frame rates. They both opine that 24 frames per second is inadequate for 3D and Trumbull is convinced that Cameron will continue to push the envelope. "There has been talk about going to 30 frames per second, there's more talk about 48, there's serious talk about 60, and now there's talk about going to frame rates even above that. As a result of Avatar, and 3D, a whole lot of other dynamics in the way that movies can be made are in play."

Understanding that Trumbull was impressed with Avatar from a technological point of view, Mankiewicz queried whether Trumbull was as impressed with its storyboard? "I have complicated feelings about it," Trumbull offered. "Impressed? Yes. If you look at 2001, Kubrick was trying to explore what he thought was a new cinematic form. He was very tired of normal cinematic conventions: master shots, two shots, over the shoulder singles, close-ups, inserts. There's a language of film that's very well-known that every good filmmaker knows how to do. He was trying to break the mold here. 2001 was a first-person experience. It was about you being in space. He wanted you to be able to interpret any way you wanted and just kind of be there rather than him hitting every nail on the head where—by the end of the movie—you knew everything and there was total closure. He wanted you to drift off into all kinds of your own speculations about what the meaning of life is, what the meaning of God is, what encountering a civilization a billion years in advance of us would entail, and how would we handle it? It's an extremely intelligent movie in that respect.

"What I'm getting at is that Jim Cameron made Avatar in this completely amazing new technology, which is only enabled by digital computer graphics; but, it does adhere to normal cinema conventions. All the stuff in there is fairly straight drama ... but he lands in this new territory, which is really beautiful and is one of the attributes that people are enjoying about the movie. We don't discuss it very much and critics don't seem to talk very much about it; but, it's a technology-enabled out-of-body experience. ...He shot his actors in advance, he built all the virtual location sets and props in advance, worked out all his lighting, worked out all his blocking, and then went back in with this virtual camera and looks at the scene in its digital form but with total camera fluidity inside the computer-generated world. He has controls on it so that he can be one-to-one, which means that—if he moves a foot—the camera's going to move a foot. But if he wants a hundred-to-one, they dial it up and just doing this [Trumbull gestures a dive with his hand] is a thousand-foot dive off the edge of a cliff. He becomes, still, the director of these virtual shots that are completely amazing arobatic maneuvers.

"Jim is an informed filmmaker because he understands flying dynamics, he understands underwater dynamics, he understands what bioluminescent creatures look like underwater when there's no light, all kinds of things that you see in Avatar that have been informed by a lot of his diving experience before and after Titanic. You see a lot of things in there that are enhancing 3D. They're not necessarily story elements, but—when there's a lot of little sprites and things or motes of dust in the air—it's all about enhancing your perception of depth and scale."

Cross-published at