Wednesday, September 2, 2015

On the Set of 2010

Launching a spectacular odyssey through the worlds of Arthur C. Clarke's imagination as realized by director Peter Hyams - and you're invited.


By itself, there's nothing interesting about the two-story, yellow plywood ball which occupies a blue-draped corner of MGM's cavernous stage 30. But if you squint, and use a little imagination, the sunlit soundstage suddenly becomes deep space. You are floating beside the sulphur-stained, derelict Discovery as the spacecraft performs its carousel spin in front of an ominous black shape set against the stars like a tombstone.

This is just a part of novelist Arthur C. Clarke's captivating vision, a story which began more than 15 years ago with director Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and now continues in 2010, a cinematic sequel based on Clarke's bestselling follow-up. Director Peter (Outland) Hyams (STARLOG #85) adapted Clarke's novel and, now armed with a $25 million bankroll, he has assembled an international crew of actors, artisans and technicians to capture the long-awaited saga on film.

Hyams, in attempting to follow 2001, has assumed a seemingly impossible task. 2001 was a landmark motion picture, a science fiction filmmaking experience as no one had ever seen it before. Clarke and Kubrick created a sweeping, philosophical movie which traced mankind from its infancy to its first contact with life from another world. Utilizing state-of-the-art special effects and a classical music score, 2001 had a depth and intensity far beyond the cartoonish cinematic science fiction which had dominated the movie screens for decades.

But the technological wizardry that made 2001 unique is commonplace in films today. The streamlined, sterilized look of Kubrick's spacecraft has also been eclipsed by the familiar sight of NASA vehicles during the Apollo landings and the space shuttle flights. And the use of Richard Strauss' "Zarathustra" theme to characterize the majesty of space is itself now a cliché. All Hyams has left to work with from 2001 is the story and the questions it left unanswered.

"I don't think it's possible to repeat 2001. The first time is the first time. When I saw 2001, it blew my mind just like it did everyone else's," recalls 2010 star Roy (Blue Thunder) Scheider. "But the choice Kubrick made to make it particularly dull, deliberately dull, in that very modern situation, was a wonderful conceit which can only work once when you see the film for the first time. After that, the characters just become very, very dull. Peter was right to avoid that idea. You can't pull the same stunt twice."

The real task facing Hyams, who is also doubling as cinematographer and producer, is to imbue 2010 with enough original and compelling qualities so that the film can stand on its own merits while still measuring up to the classic example set by its predecessor.

Hyams has, in consultation with Clarke, altered the storyline of 2010. One of the film's crew members promises that moviegoers can expect the sequel to be "exciting and full of action, something you couldn't say about 2001. While 2001 was more cerebral, 2010 will be more accessible."

2001 star Keir Dullea agrees. "It's a different style, and it has more plot than 2001 but it dovetails very well."

"I think the film's plot will be much clearer than in 2001," Scheider says. "There's a story you can hook onto here and ride to the end, which you couldn't do in 2001."

Director Hyams explains, "The feeling of sheer terror, this is basically Arthur C. Clarke's story. It's a book he has written and a story he wanted to tell, I can only try to tell that story to the best of my ability, and hopefully please Arthur. In essence, I'm a tailor, and it's Arthur's suit. I have to fit that suit to a different body—a film—and obviously a different form of art than Arthur's book."

"I'm happy with the changes that Peter has made with 2010," adds actor Bob (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) Balaban, who plays HAL's creator in the sequel. "I like to think of the book as an outline for a good movie. Based on the script and the actors working on this film, 2010 could really be an exciting movie and not just, you know, 'ta-da, here's the sequel.' "

Past Odysseys

The material artifacts of Clarke's tales lay scattered about the mammoth soundstage 30. HAL, the coldly efficient computer who murdered astronaut Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), and the sleeping Discovery crew, and doomed David Bowman (Keir Dullea) to an uncertain fate, is a harmless wooden box full of red plastic strips and fluorescent lights. The exterior and partial interior of the Leonov pod bay rises from a grimy pit that once, long ago, was filled with bright blue chlorinated water, allowing Esther Williams and a dozen swimsuit-clad starlets to frolic for the cameras. And off to one corner is the Discovery pod bay set where the legacy of 2001 and the promise of 2010 will meet.

The sets for 2010, says Peter Hyams, are
designed to appear functional and practical.
Just a few steps away, in another huge soundstage, the new environs of 2010 reside safely outside the shadow of memories from 2001. Here is the entire interior set of the Leonov, the Russian vessel which journeys to Jupiter to investigate the fate of the Discovery and astronaut David Bowman, whose last message - "My god, it's full of stars!" - continued to perplex scientists long after he disappeared into the monolith.

The Leonov is crewed by a team of U.S. and Soviet scientists. The U.S. scientists are Heywood Floyd (Scheider), who uncovered the lunar monolith; Walter Curnow (John Lithgow), an engineer and expert on the Discovery design; and Dr. Chandra (Balaban), journeying to fix HAL, his malfunctioning creation. The Russian crew is headed by Tanya Kirbuk (Helen Mirren of Excalibur), the Leonov commander (whose name is "Kubrick" spelled backwards) and engineer Max Brailovsky (Elya Baskin).

In addition to Baskin, the Soviet contingent includes several expatriate Russian actors. Among them are Vladimir Skomarovsky, once Best Soviet Actor in his home country; Savely Kramarov, the popular star of 42 Russian comedies; and Natasha Shneider, the lead singer of a "Western" style Russian rock'n'roll band before she emigrated to New York, and began a new American group, "White Russian."

Keir Dullea reappears in the Discovery pod bay as an ethereal David Bowman, Douglas Rain once again gives HAL his voice, and author Arthur C. Clarke turns up in a cameo on a Washington, D.C. park bench.

"I guess I have sort of proprietary interest in 2010," Dullea says of his second turn as Bowman. "I'm very glad I could be a part of it." Makeup expert Michael Westmore, who transformed actor John Lone into a Neanderthal for Iceman, will supervise Dullea's physical agings and regressions.

This is the big movie on the MGM lot, so despite the fact that it's based on a well-read book, everyone is "hush-hush" about the film. The set is closed. Guards stand watch both inside and outside the soundstages. Those few authorized visitors must wear dated, laminated identification cards that change color daily. The lone exception was England's Prince Andrew, who visited Los Angeles during the shooting and was conducted on a royal tour of the sets by Roy Scheider. The Prince's press entourage was left outside to stare at the grey soundstage and gape at the leotard-clad Fame dancers strolling to work.

Actor Elya Baskin, who emigrated from Russia in 1976 and recently co-starred in Moscow on the Hudson, found the set's rigid security and the sense of importance inferred by it, stoked his confidence and creativity.

"Everyone, starting with Peter Hyams on down to the costume and prop people, are so confident that we're doing something meaningful and important," he says. "It's very impressive. They take this work very seriously. You can feel it, walking on the set, that 2010 is something with extra meaning for everyone involved. This is far from routine work. That feeling and working with such a cast gives me great confidence. I feel privileged."

Yet, despite the sense of importance attached to their work, Balaban says the emotional temperature on the set stayed comfortably warm.

"The atmosphere around here is rather pleasant," he says. "When you walk on some movie sets, you get an immediate impression that there is ice flowing in many people's veins. The atmosphere here is due to Peter, mostly, and it flows down from there. Everybody's attitude is that 2010 will be a long movie to shoot, a meaningful movie, so let's be smart, let's be happy and let's be as creative as possible."

The inside of the Leonov soundstage is dark. A hazy cloud of gritty smoke flows thickly over the floor. When Hyams first came on the set, a crew member recalls, the director took a deep breath, exhaled slowly and grinned, "Ahhh, smells like filmmaking." The smoke is spewed out frequently between takes by a machine which lets out a hacking, mechanical cough that grates on the ears. The camera doesn't see the smoke, but it plays on the light, adding atmosphere.

Hyams huddles in front of a video monitor several yards away from the cramped Leonov communications room set, where Roy Scheider and Bob Balaban prepare for a scene. The two actors are doing their part of the initial Discovery reconnaissance trip that Lithgow and Baskin, suspended in front of a blue screen, filmed a few days earlier.

Movie directing has become something of a video game with the Louma Crane that Hyams is using. It's a camera, on a telescopic crane, which can snake into the narrow Leonov corridors and follow the cast. Hyams controls the crane from a station where he can see through the camera's eye on a video screen. The Louma crane allows the director to create a more claustrophobic feel and squeeze into areas where a camera and crew cannot go. It will be extremely useful when Balaban enters HAL to bring the computer "back to life."

Future Plastics

Wandering through the Leonov set is an education in set-making and detail. Stop at an airlock, a control panel, one of the space pods, any place where there's fine print to read. Look closely. It's always going to be the operating instructions for the zero gravity toilet from an early scene in 2001. It's an in-joke moviegoers will never notice. The camera will see only indiscernible lines of type. But there are other details, which moviegoers can see, that are far more interesting. Production designer Albert Brenner, whose previous work includes Turning Point and Hyams' Capricorn One, is the man behind them.

The Leonov, Brenner stresses, is a differnt sort of ship than the Discovery. "We're machinery, floating hardware," he says. "The feel of the Leonov is entirely different [from that of the Discovery]. We had a problem with this film - we had to stay close to 2001 while also taking into account the audience's new visual sense. The Discovery is slick and streamlined with nothing showing. Audiences don't see space travel as something so sleek anymore. The Leonov is more like a flying tugboat or submarine."

"Hundreds of miles" of wiring, some serving a real function, others used only as set dressing, are strewn over the set's grey-and-white interior and plywood exterior. More than 120 TV monitors dot the Leonov's halls. Yet, Brenner says, that isn't even enough. The monitors serve double, sometimes triple, duty and are yanked out when the action changes locale to fill other portions of the Leonov set and part of the Discovery. The abundance of monitors and other instrumentation is visual futurist Syd (Blade Runner) Mead's responsibility.

"I gave Syd the sketches and he filled in the details," Brenner says. "You know, the TV sets, readouts and stuff. It was just a bunch of garbage in my sketches. Instrumentation is Syd's specialty."

There is no room in the Leonov set for the traditional bulky movie lights - and that is intentional. "Peter likes to work with available light," Brenner explains. "Tight, claustrophobic set's aren't amenable to lighting. So, we turn on all the monitors and switches and that's it. Peter uses fast film. There's a tremendous amount of fluorescent and incandescent light. All the banks of plastic switches are lit from behind by fluorescent tubes. The light intensity is cut down by the colored plastic switches."

The Leonov is also a "wild set," meaning many sections are removable to allow the camera to poke through and film from several angles. Original plans to "shoot up through the floor," Brenner says, were scrapped. So, the set is on the ground. The corridor floors are simply hard, plastic, industrial pallets utilized for shipping materials.

Director Peter Hyams and production designer
Albert Brenner examine the Leonov model.
The Leonov flight deck, however, is suspended over a hole in the soundstage and built on an axle-like mount. In the flight deck, the chairs are refitted armor plated helicopter seats "that weigh a ton," Brenner groans. "We retro-fitted things onto them to give them this look. They're wonderful. At one point in the film, we must get away in a hurry. So, there's a rapid acceleration. When that happens, everything falls backwards under the force of the thrust. So, we strap the actors into those seats and take the entire set, turn it 90 degrees and let everything fall."

"But," he grins playfully, "the real secret to all of this is Joe's Plastic in Vernon, California. He gets scrap plastic from everywhere and recycles it. I found the place and acted like a kid in a candy shop. This ship is full of pieces from Joe's Plastic."

Brenner sweeps his hand expansively over the set, inviting visitors to look around at the details of the Leonov interior for "anything unusual." It isn't easy. And Brenner, smiling, knows it. "Right here," he points, "is a little device that's really one half of a ski tote. Those, over there, are small motor housings from lawn mowers. That brown object protruding from the wall is a child's car seat turned down and spray-painted. That, by the door, is a Sparklett's water bottle; that's a pool filter; and that, a car bumper."

Welcome to the future.

"Joe never thought he would be in the movie business," Brenner laughs, strolling through the Leonov's dark corridors. "I bought everything that looked interesting. I just pointed things out, I asked for 20 of those, a couple hundred of these. I had a huge mountain of plastic hauled down here. As the set was being built, I went through the rubble and picked out pieces, roamed around the set and put them on the wall."

"I had a picnic in my backyard last June where I served ice cream cones. The cones come in a box packed in styrofoam packaging. The packaging is interesting, something you would usually throw out without looking at it." Brenner grins. "I'll show it to you on the walls."

The entire Leonov set is littered with, well, litter – and liberally polished with several coats of imagination. Basking found it a fascinating contrast to Russian film making and a further incentive to give his best efforts to this role.

"In Russia, money is not limited. If a film requires a high budget, the government gives it. So, seeing a big set isn't such a big surprise, but to see such a masterfully crafted set ... I was really shocked when I saw the work Albert Brenner and Syd Mead have done. During the whole filming, I was still wandering around the set, touching things. I was very fascinated. And then Al took me to the special-effects place which was even more impressive. I tell you, working with such fine craftsmen and such experienced actors helps you do your very best."

Brenner began designing the sets while Hyams was still busy hammering out the screenplay. "I began working from the book, though the set is laid out for the screenplay's geography," the production designer notes.

Reconstructing the Discovery proved to be a challenge. "We had to go through a print of 2001, pull out frames, and work backwards from there because the blueprints for the original sets were destroyed," Brenner explains. "So, we pulled out maybe 50 frames and, based on the size of the people, we plotted out how large the set actually was. We've reconstructed the airlock, flight deck, corridor interior and pod bay. We've also done some exterior pieces of the Discovery's front ball and the spine which leads back from it to the engine."

As difficult as the task was, they were successful. "The sets from the Discovery have been reproduced exactly and I hadn't seen them in 10 years," says Dullea, remembering his days in 2001. "To walk on the set was like going through a time machine."

"This movie is going to be something," Keir Dullea notes, a strange smile creeping across his face. "Something wonderful."

(Originally published in Starlog Magazine. Copyright ©1984 Starlog.)