Interview: Dan Richter, 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Moonwatcher


Recently by chance I discovered Dan Richter, chief  choreographer and lead performing man-ape “Moonwatcher”, from the Dawn Of Man segment of 2001: A Space Odyssey, is on twitter. I contacted him through his website and he very kindly agreed to give the readers of Cinetropolis some insight into his experiences working on Stanley Kubrick’s seminal science fiction opus.


Dan, you were lead man-ape “Moonwatcher” and chief choreographer of the 26 “Dawn of Man” segment performers. How did you get the job? Did you yourself recruit the other man-apes?


Stanley and Arthur were pondering what to do about the opening which was stalled.  Principle photography was done and they still didn’t have a way to do the opening.  Stanley had looked at dancers, stunt men, even a comedian, but nothing seemed right.  They decided that they wanted to talk to a mime and through mutual friends they asked me to come in so that Stanley could pick my brain.  We hit it off right away and I told him I thought it was a acting problem.  The audience needed to be involved immediately as it was the opening and that I could do it given my training as an American Mime which is based on the extension of the acting process into formalized movement.  I put on a black leotard, stuffed some towels in it to adjust my body shape, and played a few different man-ape characters for him.  He loved it and pretty much hired me on the spot.  Over the next 8 months I worked with Stewart Freeborn to develop the costume, I created the movements and choreography for the characters, cast the group of man-apes, and trained them. The whole process is covered in detail in my book “Moonwatcher’s  Memoir.”


I’ve seen pictures of you on set sans Moonwatcher costume, you appeared to be very thin. Was this a prerequisite for wearing the costume? How difficult was it to apply the make-up and maintain it through the demands of filming?


It was critical that I and my man-apes be thin. Early primates who were just becoming bipedal had smaller waists.  Also you put a hair covered costume on with padding in places, unless you are very thin, you will look bulky and it will blow the illusion.  We made the costumes as thin as possible so that the expression of the movement would come through.  With the front projection system the demands of lighting to get the proper match and color temperatures right meant that the temperatures were sometimes over a hundred on the set.  We had medical personal standing by and compressed air to be blasted into our costumes the moment Stanley called cut.  The union also limited the time we could have the masks on.  I and Richard Woods, who played One-Ear, had full contact lenses to color our eyes for close ups which got very painful as the dust rose.  Putting on the makeup didn’t take that long as the only part of us that was made up was some black around our eyes.

2001 On the set

I believe you studied a National Geographic film by Primatologist Jane Goodall. What other research did you undertake?


My research was extensive.  I  used the Hugo van Lawick footage that he did of Jane Goodall’s chimps for National Geographic.  It was a great tool for me to develop activities, characters, and relationships for my Australopithecine band.  I also used it to develop the movements for the man-apes for the bodies from the waist up. George Schaller’s “Year of the Gorilla” was very helpful as well.  I visited, filmed, and spent a great deal of time with apes and monkeys.  Guy the gorilla at the London Zoo became the basis for my character.  The stacks at the Museum of Natural History and more research papers on early man than I can remember also helped bring our man-apes to life.

2001 Choreography Notes 1

Two real chimps were used and made up to resemble your costumes, by disguising their ears and so on. Did they immediately fall in to group behaviour, or did they play up?


They were delightful, but extremely difficult to work with as are all little children.  We slowly acclimatized them to me and the two females first without costumes and then introduced the costumes slowly.  Stanley wanted them to drink milk from bladders Stuart built into the breasts of the females, but that never really panned out.  On set they were very nervous and would just run to me or the females for comfort.


How did it feel to see Planet of The Apes win the honorary Oscar for best make up, and for make-up artist Stuart Freeborn and your efforts be overlooked?


One of our masks was stolen as well as hands and feet.  We were sure it was them, but could never prove it.  We felt we should have got the Oscar and were of course disappointed.  Arthur said the reason we didn’t get it was because people thought we were real.


Dan Richter and Stuart Freeborn monkeying around

Dan Richter and Stuart Freeborn monkeying around

Can you tell us about how the Leopard attack was done?


We had a lot of animals that I was in charge of down at the South Hampton Zoo.  The stunt man Terry Duggan, who worked for the Chipperfields, was practising play fighting with a lion and a leopard. Stanley in the end went with the leopard.  Stanley had a cage built around him, the camera, and the crew.  We put Terry in a man-ape suit and I got between him and the background man-apes.  On the first take the leopard, confused and nervous, went for  me and Terry tackled him before he reached me.  The second take worked.


I’ve read that Arthur Clarke stated that the idea for the iconic Bone toss match-cut came to Kubrick as he tossed a broom on the studio backlot. What do you recall of how the iconic scene came about?


That’s true, Arthur and Stanley were walking back to his office after he had shot me on an outside platform so that there would be clouds behind me.  Stanley had a broom stick and he was tossing it and had the idea.  The use of the bone became central to the sequence from the first takes we did in close up of me picking up the bone and smashing the animal skull. There wasn’t that much in the script so it was great being able to develop it as we went along.

Finally, the man-ape hoots, growls and screams still send a shiver up my back! Did you perform them yourselves?


Yes we did all the sounds.  I encouraged my guys to use chimp sounds and calls from the first rehearsals.  It helped a great deal with motivation and we got really good at it.  Since we were shooting MOS we could make as much noise as we wanted which we did.  Later after filming was done we took the best guys and found a field away from air traffic and recorded lots of sounds for Stanley to use for the sequence.


Thank you Dan Richter, for speaking to Cinetropolis.


It’s been a pleasure…

2001 dan richter now

Originally posted 2013-08-23 18:15:17. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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