Thursday, April 2, 2015

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


andrew birkin interview

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 the creation of the "Dawn Of Man" sequence which opens the landmark science fiction film.

screenwriter andrew birkin
TV STORE ONLINE: When you went to Africa at Stanley's behest--what instructions did he give you regarding the photography required for the background plates for the Dawn of Man sequence?

BIRKIN: It was, more or less, to do exactly what Robert Watts had done for Stanley when he had gone to the Kalahari Desert. I would go out in a Land Rover, or at times a helicopter, and I would find myself an elevated position--bearing in mind that I needed--per the restrictions of Front Project System-- an open section of area that had some sort of barrier out in the foreground. I was using a Polaroid camera as well as a 35mm Pantex--I took, what we call a--"CircleRama"--where you do a 360 degree photo. I sent these back to Stanley, who at the time was already rehearsing around the Dawn Of Man set that they had rebuilt in England. Stanley chose the locations that he liked the best and then Pierre Boulat, a French photographer who worked for Life Magazine and his very attractive French assistant were dispatched out to join me in Africa. He brought these very large 10x8 cameras out with him.  We began to re-visit the locations that Stanley had choose, but this time it was via safari. We returned with guides as well as with about twenty-five natives. 

You could only shoot at dawn and dusk. It was what Stanley wanted. He wanted only dawn shots for "Dawn of Man." But we did shoot some sunsets. You would sleep during the day or move camp. It was like a big game safari, except we were shooting film. And I got into many arguments about apartheid. I remember one evening I was in a classic conversation with the tour guide "Bassi Martin" and his wife "Rita" about Hitler and Napoleon and The Final Solution. I said, "If the Final Solution hadn't occurred Hitler would have been looked upon as Napoleon was." Rita said, "What do you mean--The Final Solution?" I said, "The extermination of millions of Jews at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen." She looked at me with a condescending laugh. She said, "You know, I thought you were smarter than that." I said, "What do you mean?" Then Bassi responded with "Did you see it?" I said, "No, I was born after the war, but I've seen the film.." He responded with "Well, everyone knows that the films were actually shot in Russia..." 
2001 a space odyssey dawn of man
I was working in a country where there was a blind fixation about apartheid and Hitler. I was in a little town on the Coast and there was a little book store, and in the back of it there was a museum filled with all of these artifacts that the Germans' had interred there during the war. There was a cabin, in the shape of a stained-glass window, and when you opened it--there was a statue of Adolf Hitler in the pose of Jesus Christ, but with a halo around his head with two Hitler Youth at his feet staring up at him. You could get postcards of all the Nazi officers--the whole lot! They had Nazi yearbooks. I bought three tea-chests of various things I found in Africa and the punchline of it?--is that Stanley kept it all. He was fascinated by all of that.

Years later, when I was working with David Putnam and Albert Speer on a adaptation of Inside The Third Reich--there was a chance that Stanley might direct it. I even sent him the script. I talked to Stanley on the telephone about it. He was fascinated by it but he didn't subscribe to it or to the idea of directing it because he said, "I don't see how I could make it?" I said, "Why not?" He said, "I'm Jewish..." So that was that.

2001 a space odyssey stanley kubrick interview
Going back to the Dawn Of Man--we had a refrigerator out there running off of a generator and I had a gramophone with some Rolling Stones records and some Shostakovich. I became very friendly with some of the natives. They were really slaves still. On any given noon-day some of them would center around my tent to listen to music and to talk. Some were my age. I was only twenty-one at the time. One guy--he could speak very good English. I said, "Listen, you can't let these bastards take advantage of you like this. You have to seize power and be ready for it when the time comes..." I got him to translate---The Gettysburg Address into their language and I versed him in the best of Lincoln and Churchill inciting them to revolt--all under the eye of the rather bemused camp manager Bassi Martin.

We would shoot about thirty-plates a day. Your window at dawn was at best--only about thirty minutes to an hour. The plates would come out of the refrigerator and would go into the camera. Actually, they'd need about five minutes to get up to temperature before they would go into the camera, and then about forty-five seconds in the camera for the exposure. Then you'd take it out of the camera, put it into a case and put it back into the refrigerator. At night, a little airplane would come and a guy would take the plates to Johannesburg and then ship them onto Technicolor for processing in England. Then they'd go to MGM, matted onto glass, and virtually fed into the Front-Projection System. By the end of our shoot--everyone was waiting on the plates from us at MGM to arrive. Near the end I had an Army Radio set in the desert with me so I could talk to Stanley back in England while we were shooting. Near the end, too, Pierre Boulat left. He had been in a Land Rover accident while I was up in an airplane scouting an area. He broke both his legs. Stanley stopped his pay the minute that the crash occurred, just like what had happened to the crew members aboard the Titanic when the last bit of water went over the top and covered the boat! (Laughing) Then an insurance claim was filed. (Laughing)

2001 a space odyssey interview series
Because of that Land Rover accident, Stanley sent out another photographer by the name of John Cowan--who was a London fashion photographer. He was a very lively character--who dressed in Army safari gear. It was a bit absurd. He was perverse. I'd relay to him to what Stanley wanted in the shot, and he'd say, "Well I don't want to do that. I want to put some daises in the foreground.." I said, "John, this is going to be projected on a big screen, and it's going to look silly if one of the daises appears to be taller then one of the monkey men.." He didn't want to listen to some "upstart" kid like me telling him what to do. So for every shot he did as we had wanted--he did three of his own. Stanley would radio me and I would say, "Stanley--I didn't ask for these daises in the shot! Don't talk to me about it, talk to him!" So John Cowan got fired. Then Stanley sent in another photographer named Keith Hamshere, who had been an actor who played the original Oliver in the musical. He was just starting out as a photographer at that time. He became the most prominent film photographer in England over time. He went on to do many of the Bond movies.  He didn't stay too long in Africa because his marriage was on the rocks at the time.

In the end, it all got very precise. Stanley would radio me that he needed, for example, a three-quarter up-angle shot toward the sky--so I had shoot what he wanted myself.

TV STORE ONLINE: So was the shooting of the plates for the Dawn of Man sequence simply a point-and-shoot situation?

stanley kubrick 2001 a space odyssey
BIRKIN: Well, there was the long exposure times for each plate as I mentioned, but also, we had to mount the 10x8 camera onto the window of the Land Rover, and then it had to be jacked up off the ground. There were some shots, and I think, a couple of them made it into 2001--where you can see the sun in the background. Not an absolute circle of the sun though. We had to shoot at a very low ASA because of the exposure. We should shoot at a 25 ASA or at times, a 12.5 ASA in order to get that very fine grain in the image. You couldn't see any grain in the image once it was blown up for the screen.

A story that doesn't reflect well on either myself or on Stanley involves the trees in the desert in Africa. They were called "Cuckoo Palm" trees. Stanley wanted the trees in one location to be used in another location which happened to be four-hundred miles away. I said, "I'll find out if we can do that..." What I found out was that these trees are very protected in Africa. They take about one-thousand years to grow into maturity. They store water for one-hundred years, and if you were to cut them down, and didn't guide it slowly to the ground--but let it fall--it would bust into a thousand pieces due to the water that they contained. The problem became: how does one cut down a few of these trees?--And how does would one transport them over four-hundred miles of desert without the police finding out?  All Stanley said was, "I'm sure you'll find a way..." And, indeed I did.

I hired a few locals and we went out in the dead of night with wire cutters. We cut the fence down and started cutting some of the trees down. But what I didn't take into account with the Cuckoo Palm trees were their animal inhabitants--the Cuckoo Palm hornets. The moment the hornet feels their habitats being threatened they comes out and sting. This scattered many of the locals I hired and in the end they cut down about twelve trees, but only six of them were intact. And on the way to the location--one of the locals lit a cigarette and it accidentally caught fire to the trees. We had to push them off the truck into some water near by, and then we had to go down into the water to fish them out. In the end we only had four trees that we could use. So we stuck them into the ground, got the shot, and then chopped them into a thousand pieces and dropped them off an embankment. When Stanley saw the shot--he was so taken with the trees that he had the Art Department make a bunch of them out of rubber. (laughing). Another thing that I think saved me, was that when I had gone around hiring locals for our little midnight raid--I didn't tell anyone that I worked for MGM. I left word with everyone that I was working for 20th Century Fox. (laughing)

Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung
Read Part One of this interview.
Read Part Two of this interview.