When Frederick I. Ordway III spoke, Stanley Kubrick listened.
Well, most of the time. Shortly after the 1968 release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ordway — a longtime friend of author-screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke, and a scientific consultant throughout its lengthy production process — drafted a memo about what he felt was the movie's one significant misstep: its opening.
"The 'Dawn of Man' scene should be shortened, and above all narrated," Ordway advised Kubrick. "No one with whom I talked understood the real meaning of this visually beautiful and deeply significant sequence. Its intended impact was lost. Certainly, some reviewers, aided by press releases and Arthur Clarke's lucid comments, knew what it was all about, but the audience doesn't. And the audience not only has a right but a need to know, if the sequence is to have relevance."
Yet Kubrick stood firm, reasoning that mystery was crucial. And cinema history was left intact.
"It was his call," remembers Ordway, speaking by (regular, non-visual) phone from Washington, D.C. But he still feels it's a mild blemish on what's considered the movies' greatest, most scientifically accurate work of speculative fiction. That part, like the cosmic finale, was inspired fantasy, he says.
"All you can talk to me about is the main part of the film," Ordway says with amusement.
That's where Ordway's legendary career in rocket science proved invaluable — and where Kubrick, Clarke, and the movie's production team knew better than to argue. That's also what makes Ordway and 2001 exemplary choices to launch one of The Belcourt's most ambitious film series yet at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 5.
The monthlong 15-film retrospective Science on Screen pairs movies about scientific concepts with guest speakers who can explain the hard facts. These range from a rare screening March 10 of title designer Saul Bass' only feature, the 1974 ant-revolt thriller Phase IV, with a talk by Stanford arthropod researcher Deborah Gordon; to a showing of Shane Carruth's ingenious 2004 time-travel drama Primer accompanied by Vanderbilt Department of Physics and Astronomy chair Robert Scherrer on quantum mechanics. (A full schedule can be found at belcourt.org.)
Ordway has received advisory offers from other filmmakers (notably Ridley Scott, who contacted him before shooting Alien). But he turned them down, considering them distractions from his true career — which began in the late 1940s after he graduated from Harvard, then studied geoscience and upper-atmospheric physics in Paris.
It was there, in 1950, that he met Clarke at a convention and began a friendship that lasted until the author's death in 2008. His own career in rocket science started at pioneering Reaction Motors, not long after pilot Chuck Yeager used the experimental X-1 jet to shatter the sound barrier. When Ordway left, it was to join the renowned Huntsville, Ala., "rocket team" of NASA scientist Wernher von Braun, with whom he went on to co-author seven books.
Von Braun, famously recruited from Hitler's rocket program and brought to the U.S. as what Ordway terms a "prisoner of peace," evolved into the rock star of the space age. But Ordway remembers him as an excellent leader: quick to praise and credit his colleagues, open to new ideas but able to anticipate all sides and faults of an argument.
"He always talked about 'my team,' " says Ordway, who recounted those years in his 1979 book The Rocket Team — one of some 35 books he has authored, co-authored or edited, and which still remains in print.
His work on 2001 started with a chance New York encounter in January 1965 with old friend Clarke, who was amazed to hear Ordway was researching the same topics (like interstellar travel) that a filmmaker wanted him to fashion into a screenplay. Ordway was headed to a Park Avenue party that snowy evening when he was interrupted by a phone call. The voice on the line said, "My name is Stanley Kubrick."
Ordway would spend much of the next two years working on the film — first at Kubrick's New York headquarters, then at the production's British offices and the enormous set at MGM-British Studios. This included the 38-foot centrifuge, which weighed almost 40 tons yet was so delicate, Ordway recalls, that its 3 mph rotation required unbelievable logistics. Because Kubrick wanted freedom to point his camera anywhere, he insisted on accurate detail in every cranny, down to the food dispenser on the movie's space shuttle.
"On things I didn't know, I knew who would know," Ordway remembers, chuckling. "So I could reach out to all the right people."
Periodically, impressive movies about space travel are made — such as Alfonso Cuaron's current Best Picture Oscar nominee Gravity, which Ordway saw and found "brilliantly made but lacking a strong storyline." Inevitably, though, they're compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that still inspires debate, argument and awe long after the year 2001 has passed. A few weeks ago, Fred Ordway met another old friend for breakfast: 2001 co-star Keir Dullea. He was headed to Australia for a screening while Ordway was coming to Nashville.
"You're like me," he told Ordway. "Attached to 2001 forever."
There's a word for such impact: monolithic.
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