2001: A Space Odyssey

Kubrick’s tedious attention to detail
was a risky business for stuntmen

Stanley Kubrick is revered for pushing cinematic boundaries with his cult SciFi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. But, for art’s sake and an obsessive pursuit of realism, the director was prepared to endanger a stuntman’s life. Bill Weston simulated weightlessness and zero gravity as an astronaut in the film’s extraordinary spacewalk sequences, but Kubrick refused to allow a second safety cable, despite the dangers of performing more than 30 feet above a hard concrete floor.

Some of the most demanding scenes filmed at the MGM Studios in Borehamwood were shot without a safety net. Nor would Kubrick agree to the British stuntman having air holes punched into the back of his astronaut’s helmet, in case light was visible through the visor. He also refused to stop filming even when he was warned that Weston was in grave danger. Weston realized that he was losing consciousness, with oxygen deprivation and carbon dioxide taking their toll. He mustered enough strength to extend his arms into a crucifix pose –an arranged signalling system for an emergency.

The extraordinary happenings are revealed in the new book Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece. Weston, who died in 2012, is quoted in the book saying he will never forget hearing someone urging Kubrick that “we’ve got to get him back!” -or as he was passing out, hearing Kubrick ignore that warning, exclaiming: “Damn it, we just started. Leave him up there! Leave him up there!”

Its author, Michael Benson, acquired detailed information from Weston and the visual effects supervisor Doug Trumbull, who photographed the daredevil stunts, among others. Kubrick was a supreme visual stylist with a perfectionist’s attention to detail. Benson says that, decades before digital effects, the 2001 stunts “constitute an extraordinary, largely unsung moment in film history”. 2001 was so realistic that the Soviet cosmonaut Alexey Leonov, who became the world’s first spacewalker in 1965, said after seeing the film in 1968: “Now I feel I’ve been in space twice.”

Kubrick, like his lead actors Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, was afraid of flying. Yet the most complex shots of his film included Weston playing the dead astronaut Frank Poole, spinning lifelessly. His stunts involved being suspended horizontally from wires connected to a drill motor against a black abyss of outer space recreated by vast curtains of black velvet. But Kubrick did not make things easy. He insisted that Weston wore a wig that made his hermetically sealed spacesuit become all the more overheated.

More seriously, a small tank within Weston’s backpack contained only 10 minutes’ worth of compressed air. In his book, Benson writes: “Given the complexity of the shots, and the amount of time it took simply to remove the platform used to prepare the stuntman’s wires and suspend him, 10 minutes wasn’t enough. There was another problem. Even when the tank was feeding air into the suit, there was no place for the carbon dioxide Weston exhaled to go. So it simply built up inside, incrementally causing a heightened heart rate, rapid breathing, fatigue, clumsiness, and eventually, unconsciousness.”

Having recovered from the oxygen deprivation, Weston was so outraged that he decided to confront Kubrick, only to find that he had fled the scene. The director did not return for two or three days, Weston recalls. “Because I was going to fight him.” Tempers were soothed after the stuntman was given a lavish dressing room with a fridge full of beer and a large raise in his pay. Weston, who went on to perform in numerous James Bond films, says: “One of the great things about Stanley was he had an incredible, tremendous artistic integrity. I think morally he was a little bit weaker.”