Wednesday, April 1, 2015

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY INTERVIEW SERIES: Andrew Birkin (PART TWO)


andrew birkin perfume: the story of a murderer

Screenwriter Andrew Birkin (The Name Of The Rose, Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer) talks with TV STORE ONLINE about getting his start working with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as the origins of the "Dawn Of Man" sequence and shooting the footage for the Star Gate sequence..
andrew birkin screenwriter
TV STORE ONLINE: How did you come to work on the film 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY with Stanley Kubrick?
BIRKIN: Well, I was--what is commonly known in an England --a "tea boy." I had left school when I was sixteen-years old. The only reason I got into the film industry was because I was in love with an actress. I thought that the only way I could be with her was if I joined the business. She was working for Disney, and I came to America. I hitch-hiked across America, rather naively, I had been hoping that I'd be able to join one of the unions when I arrived. Along the way I did some freight-train jumping and I met a lot of very interesting people. When I got to Hollywood, I met "Uncle Walt" and he was more interested in hearing my stories about freight-jumping then I was in the history of the movies. By 1965, I had worked on a couple films. I had worked on a Robert Mitchum film, and I had worked on the Charlton Heston movie THE WAR LORD (1965). The latter, only because the producer of the film was kind enough to allow me to sleep on his sofa. Shortly after that, I found myself back in England, sort of having returned with my tail between my legs.
I mention all of this, only to put you in the mind-set of a boy who wasn't very into movies but, who, was very naive. I was only pursuing the actress, who was a film star by then. 

When I got back to England, I took a job in the mail room at 20th Century Fox. In those days, it was almost impossible to get a job in the film industry unless you had a union ticket. So, the idea was that one should get a job that employed you long enough, in that, when the next job came around they'd need someone for that because the previous job wasn't completed yet. It was tricky, and perhaps, rightly so--because it kept back people who probably shouldn't have been able to work in the film industry--people like me!

andrew birkin 2001 a space odysseyIt was around this time, I think around November 1965, that I got a call from an old friend-- Robert Watts--who has since gone on to work as a Line Producer. He called me and said, "How'd you like to work on the new film that Stanley Kubrick is doing?" I had seen DR. STRANGELOVE (1964). I said, "Well, what's the new one about?" He said, "Well I can't really tell you that much, but it's something to do with space. Do you want the job or not? It doesn't pay very much, only like six pounds a week..." So, the following Monday I started work at MGM Borehamwood Studios.
I started work in the Mail Room. The first Xerox machine, ever to be imported into Britain--it was my job to put the paper in it correctly. If you didn't it put the paper in the correct way it would burst into flames! I wasn't even a tea--boy, because they already had a tea-boy. I worked in the Mail Room for two months. I used to go onto the sets for 2001 during the lunch hour and nose around. It was off-limits to all, but one time I was sent over to Stage 3 to pick up something and when I arrived I was mesmerized. I got lost in the sets, and after a while someone came to find me and I got a bollocking.
arthur c clarke 2001 a space odyssey interview
It was because of Arthur C. Clarke that I was able to get a promotion. Arthur didn't have a lot to do at the studio during the shooting of the film and so he would often be around the Xerox machine having a coffee. I would talk to him about the movie, because I had gotten to read bits of the screenplay as they came burnt through the Xerox Machine. Arthur was incredibly modest and it was quite wonderful of him to spend his time talking to someone, me, who hadn't even finished school. We began to talk about what the world would be like in 2001 and the possibility of making contact with extra-terrestrial life. Then our conversations shifted to Calculus. He said, "What do you know about Calculus?" I said, "Oh, he was the Emperor before Nero.." He said, "No, that was Claudius." I knew nothing. He said, " You need to look at Calculus, because at a certain point in a mathematical discussion you can't perceive much further without having an understanding..."    He made me curious about everything.
It was very regimented in those days. You addressed everyone as "Sir." Another of my jobs on the movie was to go into the office of [Associate Producer] Victor Lyndon. This meant that I had to leave my house by 5 o'clock in the morning so I could catch the various trains. It was to wind his clock for 7:30 a.m., and to get the kettle-oven ready for the milk for the cups of tea. I was in his office and I glimpsed the budget accidentally. Someone saw me looking at it and I was reported. I thought I was going to be kicked off the movie. He said, "Well, why were you looking at it?" I said, " I'm interested in it. I was curious about it." He said, "It's more secretive than the script. We can't have people know what each is getting paid." I said, "I assure you, I've forgotten every detail..." At any rate, he was very kind to me and allowed me to stay on the movie.
I had only seen Stanley Kubrick in those months that I had worked on the film in a long shot. I had seen him a few times getting into his car at the end of the day. I had been barred from the sets. I was asked to stay late one day to get the tea and the coffee around for a post-shooting production meeting on Stage 3. It was the stage that hosted the "Dawn Of Man" set. I had seen it once before on one of my lunch hours. On most days shooting would end at 5pm, and so, there I was, at 6:30pm on Stage 3 getting the tea around when a white Mercedes drove onto the set containing the all-mighty Stanley Kubrick.
stanley kubrick interview 2001 a space odyssey
He hopped out and he was surrounded by various people from the Art Department. I was standing there with the tea. Stanley starts to look at the Dawn Of Man set for a few moments and said, "Gee, Fellas, this isn't going to work." He always said, "Gee, Fellas..." He said, "Gee, Fellas, I can't believe there isn't a desert in England. There's got to be a place we can shoot this outside..." Someone said, "Stanley, we've looked for six months..." I piped up, and I shouldn't have... I said, "I know where there's a desert." The stage froze and everyone turned to me. Stanley said, "Who are you?" I said, "I'm the tea-boy." He said, "You know where there's a desert?" I said, "Yeah, it's in a book at home." He said, "Really? Are you sure?" I said, "Yeah, I'll bring the book in tomorrow." That was it. So I rushed home and began to rifle through my old geography books to find the photo that I had once remembered seeing of what looked like a desert near Liverpool.
By this time, I had also made friends with John Alcott, who was the Focus Puller on 2001. He would eventually go on to be Stanley's Director Of Photography on his later films. He was having an affair with a women who lived at the top of the street that I lived on in Chelsea. She would eventually become his second wife. John and I had an arrangement. He had a car, but no license. I had a license, but no car. So I would drive him over from the studio. He said, "Do you really know where there's a desert in England?" I said that I did. He said, "Well, Stanley might send you off to it to photograph it. Do you know how to use a Polaroid camera?" I said, "No!" So John Alcott gave me a crash-course in the operation of the camera. The next day, when we arrived at the studio Stanley said to Alcott, "Can we trust this guy?" Alcott said, "Yes. Give him a break. " So I was sent off with a thirty pound bag with the camera, a compass and a bunch of film. Alcott said, "Take a typewriter with you because Stanley likes notes. Be sure to note any hotels around the location." So I borrowed my Mom's typewriter and I headed off for the train station. I took a train and then I had to take a taxi. By the time I arrived it was getting dark. To my horror, the desert had been converted into a housing development. It was a desert yet, but it had been grassed over. I photographed it. Took a taxi to a hotel, typed up all my notes and put together a packet and headed back to the train station so I could catch what was called the "milk train" for London which was leaving at 3 a.m. I arrived in the morning and then went out to the studio. The nightwatchman was still on duty at the Studio gate. I said, "Look, I just need to leave something for Stanley Kubrick. I'm not trying to sabotage anything." So the nightwatchman took me into Stanley's office and I left the package on his desk. Then, I went back, in reverse, to the train station, hoped a regular train and went back to Liverpool.
2001 dawn of man sequence andrew birkin
When I arrived at my hotel, the desk clerk said, "You have a call from London. They've been ringing you for thirty-minutes." It was Victor Lyndon, the guy, who had "saved my bacon" before. He said, "I'm not sure what you've done but Stanley had asked me to have you come back to the studio. We're going to triple your salary and we're going to get you a union ticket. Well done..." So I went back to London and to the studio. I hadn't slept in over twenty-four hours.
When I got into the Production Office, there was a strained atmosphere. I walked into the conference room and Stanley was waiting with all of the Art Department. Stanley said, "Andrew...It is Andrew, isn't it? This is pretty impressive..." Then he turned to the Art Department and said, "You guys have spent $52,000 pounds over six months looking for a desert in England and the British Isles and have found nothing. I send the tea-boy out and in twelve hours he's found a desert at the cost of fifteen pounds. Can you explain that?" You could see steam coming out of their ears. They were all staring at me with daggers. From there, Stanley had me start searching all of Ireland and Scotland for deserts and eventually I found an old copper mine desert in Wales, and while it would have worked for the "Dawn Of Man" sequence--I was never sure that Stanley had actually ever wanted to shoot on location anyway...(Laughing)
TV STORE ONLINE: Did the Art Department ever get over it?
2001 centerfuge set
BIRKIN: Some of them did, and a couple of them didn't. But, and this proved to be a pattern, Stanley loved to work with people that had no experience but had great enthusiasm. I didn't know anything but I was fascinated by it all. When I got barred from the sets of 2001, at lunch, I would go around to the sets for the others movies that were shooting at the studio at the time. I spent time on the sets for THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967) and I got to see Roman Polanski shoot that scene in THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS (1967) with Sharon Tate in the bubble bath. But, I wasn't supposed to be there. I was peaking in from the pantry set.
TV STORE ONLINE: Did you spend any time on the Centrifuge Set?
BIRKIN: I did. Once I had found the desert for Stanley he said, "Well, what are we going to do with you now? Do you know anything about special effects?" Stanley sent me down to train at Technicolor for a couple weeks. I worked with a guy named Stu Brown, and he had been in the business going back to start of Technicolor.  I learned the process of three-color separation. Movies like GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) and THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) had been shot in black and white and the color had been added in the release printing phase. This is why those films will always look like they were shot yesterday, as opposed to the films that have been shot in Eastman Color.
When I came back, Stanley said, "I want to put you in charge of the special effects..." At that point, there were five separate units shooting around the clock. It was also my duty to put an ad in the paper to find modelers.
Before I had been barred, I would often visit the Centrifuge set. I would sneak in at lunch and walk around in it. I would even put on Dave's space suit and walk around. I locked myself into the Pod too and it took me quite a while to figure out how to get out of it.
The Centrifuge had been built by a company named Vickers-Armstrongs. When you stood far away from it you didn't know what it even was. It was just a giant wheel on a tripod that had all of these 16mm projectors attached to it. The camera was mounted on a steel plate and the Centrifuge would rotate around it. But, also, the camera would be strapped in as it went around as well. I remember they were having problems with the food falling to the ground once it went to the top of the rotation of the Centrifuge. And it was my Mom who solved it. I went to see her one evening after shooting and I had mentioned the problem to her. She suggested that we add gelatin to it. So we added gelatin and peanut butter to it so that it would stick to the sides of the tray as it rotated upside down. I don't think she ever got credit for that.
TV STORE ONLINE: Going back to what you mentioned earlier...The original Dawn Of Man set...
BIRKIN: Right, they scrubbed it. Robert Watts had been out to the Kalahari Desert in the Summer of '65 to take photographs, and in the summer of '66, Stanley decided that with the Front-Projection System it would be much more interesting to combine the real desert with a new foreground set. I didn't know that I was going to be the one who would go to Africa to shoot the plates for it until much later though. I didn't leave for Africa until January of 1967 for that.
kubrick behind-the-scenes 2001
At that point, I was working on the movie seven days as week. The girl I was dating,the actress, had dumped me because I had been working so much on the movie. I was devoted to the movie, and I saw Stanley as my mentor. I was devoted to him as well. I remember once, I was talking with Stanley about a film that I had just seen that I really had liked with Dirk Bogarde called KING AND COUNTRY {1964). He said, "Did you ever see PATHS OF GLORY (1957)?" I said, "No, what's that?" He chuckled, "It's a film I made." He set up a private screening for me. He always took the time to talk to me and to teach me. And I always had the sense that he was a lonely man. I don't know if I can explain that. But, you had the sense that at his center he was lonely. He had that wonderful paradoxical nature. He was crazy about systems and filing and the ordered-mind, but his office was always chaos. There were papers all over the place, even on the floor.
Robert O'Brien, who was the President of MGM at that time began to ask when they were going to see something from 2001. Stanley had only over a couple test shots by this point only. He had [Publicity Department Liaison ] Ivor Powell and myself working together in the special effects office. Ivor stayed in the office and I was the one who would go around visiting the departments. Stanley had drawn almost all of the shots that he had wanted, almost like in the way a child does, on these little cards and they all had numbers. So it was up to Ivor and myself to try to make sense of where a particular shot was in the long process of completing each. This wasn't in public view, and when Robert O'Brien rang and said that he was coming over to England to find out where the film was regarding it's completion it caused quite a bit of anxiety for all of us. Stanley said, "Guys, there's a thing called a SASCO Chart. It's a sales chart for office managers..." We ordered in loads and loads of these SASCO Boards and various colors of tape. He said, "Just make it look good." I said,"There will be no way that we will be able to translate what we're doing into something visual." Stanley said, "It doesn't matter, just make it look good." Robert O'Brien arrived on that following Saturday. Ivor was off that day. Stanley said, "Hey Andrew, can you come in here please?" I walked in and Robert O'Brien and all of these MGM executives were looking at the SASCO Boards. And then Stanley smiled and said,"Hey Andrew can you explain these charts..." (Laughing) He loved to play around like that. He was very boyish in that sense.
2001 a space odyssey interview series
TV STORE ONLINE: Which came first? Did you go to Africa first for Dawn Of Man or to Scotland to shoot the mountains for the Star Gate footage?
BIRKIN: To Scotland.  It was about late October 1966, when it became clear that the special effects were going to take longer than were planned out. Originally, it was thought that it would take three months to shoot everything, and in the end, it took nine months. As I remember it, I was going around and I stopped by to see [Visual Effects Artist ] Bryan Loftus. He had been playing around with the YCM [Yellow, Cyan, Magenta] masters for the Technicolor. Which goes back to what I spoke about earlier regarding the shooting of GONE WITH THE WIND. Something like GONE WITH WITH WIND, again, was shot in Technicolor, but first was shot in black and white--a particular color filter was used for each of the strips in the 3-strip process for Technicolor. Which is why when you combine the three strips in the release printing you get those amazing colors that never suffer because in each strip at the time of printing is added: Yellow, Cyan, and Magenta. Now, 2001 was not shot that way. It was shot on a single strip of 65mm negative, but you could employ the Technicolor technique to it. You could make three strips from the one negative. In order to produce a film in Technicolor, all three of the strips need to be back together in the printing and at the same f/stop. But, what Bryan discovered was that if you put the strips together using different f/stops it produced this weird effect with the colors. You didn't get the same wash pending the density of what was photographed. So reds could turn blue, and greens could turn purple. Bryan showed me what he had discovered and I suggested that he should take it to Stanley. Bryan was very shy and reserved. I said, "Okay, well, would you mind, then, if I took this to Stanley?" He said, "Well, what exactly would you suggest to him?" I said, "I don't know, but I'm just thinking about how this might be able to stand-in for the landscapes that [Special Photographic Effects Supervisor] Con Pederson had been painting but were months away from realization." Stanley said, "Well, what are you suggesting?" I said, "How about mounting a camera on a plane or helicopter and then let Bryan do his magic." He said,"Hmm...that could be interesting. Okay, go and do it." I said, "Who? Me?"
So we did some tests to make sure that the idea would work. The best we could do was to make the camera a part of the aircraft, by bolting it to the floor. I went to work with surveying maps. I just looked at places in Scotland that I'd always wanted to go. I began to plot out various runs against the times of day when there would be too much shadow. I had twenty pages of notes which I ran by Stanley. He sent me to Scotland with a Camera Operator. Our helicopter had a French pilot.
2001 stargate sequence monument valley
For the first few days we couldn't go up because of a storm. Finally on the fifth day, we managed to get a little bit of footage. The Camera Operator had been arguing with me about the safety of it all leading up to it. At the end of that fifth day he pulled me to the side and said, "Can I buy you a drink?" At the pub he continued, "How many kids do you have?" I told me that I hadn't any. He said, "I have three and there is no movie in the world that is worth this. Do you know how to change a magazine and use a light meter?" I told him that I had only an idea on how to use the light meter, but had previously worked as a loader on a commercial. He said, "Okay, I'm going back to London then." I said, "The union will shut us down if they find out that you've left." He said, "Don't worry. I won't say anything." So he left and for another week after, myself and the helicopter piliot went up over the mountains in Scotland to get the footage that would be used in the Star Gate sequence. It was just the two of us in that helicopter, and for every foot of that footage used in 2001 there is an additional six hundred feet that wasn't used somewhere in a vault now. We shot miles-and-miles of film.
When we took it back and Stanley saw it he got on the phone and commissioned a crew to go and do the same thing in Monument Valley in the United States.
Stanley said, "You had a pretty good time in Scotland, didn't you?" I said, "Yeah, it was great." He looked at me and said again, "No, you had a pretty good time, didn't you?" I said, "Yeah, it was great." What I didn't know was that the local newspapers in Scotland had reported me and there had been a photograph of myself and my girlfriend on the front page. Stanley said, "You didn't tell me that you were talking your girlfriend..."
TV STORE ONLINE: Was this the same girl that you had broken up with during the making of the film? The actress?
BIRKIN: Yes, we had been busted up on and off several times during the shooting of 2001. And she was an actress, so the reporters really hadn't been interested in what I had been up too, but that she was vacationing there! She had came to Scotland with me (Laughing). The next thing I knew Stanley said, "How'd you like to go to Africa?" That was in 1967.
I didn't get off to a good start there. I had landed in Johannesburg and when I landed I had to fill out some documents. And a question they asked: "Race?" I wrote "Human." It was 1967! I was subjected to a full body search!  We shot the plates for the Dawn Of Man sequence in what is now known as Namibia. Also, because of apartheid, MGM wasn't allowed to have a bank account. So I had to have a bank account and the entire budget for the shoot was in my name. I had to set the account up at the Standard Bank of South Africa.
The second time I went into the bank--I had to pick up some cash--I had walked in the wrong door. People were looking at me. People seemed embarrassed. I went up to the cashier and I asked to withdraw some money and the cashier said, "I'm sorry. I can't serve you." I said, "Why not?" He said, "I'm sorry this window is for colored only." I was only twenty-two then and I was very precocious. I made quite a noise. I asked to see the manager. I said, "Will you cash this check or not?" He said, "I'm sorry I can't. You need to go down the street, go across, come back up and enter on the other side." I said, "If I do, I'm going to withdraw all my money from here and take it to another bank!" He said, "Well, I'm afraid you'll find that bank, too, will have the same policy." I said, "What kind of country is this?" They made an exception for me and later that night I was greeted at my hotel by three nice plain-clothed officers, who sat me down and more or less said, "In your country you have your rules, but here we have ours..."
Interview Conducted by: Justin Bozung
Part One of this interview can be found HERE.
The final installment of this interview will be published here on 4/2/2015