Why the sinister voice of HAL in “2001: A Space Odyssey” needed to be Canadian

A distant memory.
A distant memory.
Image: MGM
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Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey turns 50 today. The film, considered a masterpiece of science fiction, has changed the genre in countless ways—its depiction of artificial intelligence most of all.

The most enduring (and influential) character of Kubrick’s film remains HAL 9000, the AI system that controls the Discovery One spacecraft en route to Jupiter. Personified by a circular red camera lens, HAL is an unfeeling aid to the astronauts. Eventually, though, he beings to gravely malfunction, unable to reconcile his original programming with a new directive to withhold the true objective of the mission from the crew.

Kubrick likened HAL’s breakdown to an “acute emotional crisis because he could not accept evidence of his own fallibility.”

HAL wasn’t always expressionless, however. The story of HAL’s creation is long and fascinating, most recently detailed in the New York Times (paywall) in honor of the film’s 50th anniversary. The Times cites interviews with the actor who portrayed HAL, Douglas Rain, and a 1969 interview with Kubrick to paint a picture of how HAL became the model from which future AI voices—from Apple’s Siri to Amazon’s Alexa—would draw inspiration.

Oscar-winning actor Martin Balsam originally provided the voice of HAL, but Kubrick changed his mind

Balsam, who had by the 1967 filming of 2001: A Space Odyssey already appeared in 12 Angry Men and A Thousand Clowns (and would later appear in Pyscho), was hired by Kubrick to do the voice of HAL. His son, Adam, told the New York Times that Kubrick wanted his father to perform the voice “very realistically and humanly,” which included actual crying during the part when one of the crewmen deactivates HAL’s memory.

But Kubrick realized that Balsam’s version sounded a little too emotional and “colloquially American,” so he went in an entirely new direction.

Kubrick needed HAL’s “accent” to be less identifiable, and Canada was perfect

Rain, a Canadian theater actor, had been hired to provide narration for the film. Kubrick ultimately decided that it didn’t need narration, but thought Rain could work as the voice of HAL instead. (Kubrick had reportedly watched a documentary featuring Rain’s voice almost 100 times and became infatuated with the actor’s tone.)

“Marty [Balsam] just sounded a little bit too colloquially American, whereas Rain had the kind of bland mid- Atlantic accent we felt was right for the part,” Kubrick said. In fact, Rain had a Standard Canadian English accent—not quite the Mid-Atlantic accent commonly used by actors in the 20th century, but similarly straightforward and hard to pin down.

“You have to have a computer that sounds like he’s from nowhere, or, rather, from no specific place,” Jack Chambers, a linguistics professor at the University of Toronto, told the New York Times. “Standard Canadian English sounds ‘normal’—that’s why Canadians are well received in the United States as anchormen and reporters.”

Rain recorded HAL’s voice with his bare feet resting on a pillow

Kubrick thought that by doing so, Rain would keep a relaxed tone and HAL’s voice would come off as “cool” and soothing.” Rain recorded all of his lines in one 10-hour session, with Kubrick sitting next to him, feeding him different cues.

Rain hadn’t seen any of the film and never met any of the other actors

During filming, a number of people stood in for the voice of HAL, including Kubrick himself. The cast never heard the actual voice of HAL until long after their work on the film was done. Rain never read a page of the script and had no idea where any of his lines fit in. He never even saw the film, or heard his recordings, until the film was released in theaters to the public. Despite working “together,” actor Keir Dullea, who played the astronaut David Bowman, recently said that he has never met nor directly spoken to Rain.

Kubrick made Rain sing “Daisy Bell” 50 times, but wound up using the first take

As Bowman unplugs HAL, the AI system regresses to its earliest programmed memory—the song “Daisy Bell” (which was actually taught to an IBM 704 computer in 1961). Kubrick asked Rain to sing the song in dozens of different ways, according to the New York Times, before settling on the very first one.