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'It Was Nerve-Destroying': Legendary Set Designer Ken Adam Recalls Working with Kubrick

dr-strangelove-1964Set design is one of the most complicated elements in film. Ideally, it’s meant to serve the story and not call attention to itself, while still adding to the mood of the movie. In the second half of the 20th century, perhaps no set designer has been more influential than Sir Ken Adam: his set design on several James Bond films helped establish a cinematic aesthetic  for the 60s, and his work on Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove cemented his place in cinema history. Kubrick and Adam would later collaborate on Barry Lyndon, for which Adam won an Oscar, and now he’s given an interview to the BBC on his work with the legendary director.

In 1962, Adam was the set designer for the James Bond film Dr. Noand his innovative work caught the eye of a young Stanley Kubrick, who commissioned Adam for his next film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a farce about accidental nuclear war.

Adam’s war room set, where the bumbling leaders of the free world attempt to stop the impending apocalypse, is a nightmarishly cold and futuristic vision of the Cold War, and stands today as one of the great achievements in set design. Adam describes meeting Kubrick in the BBC interview:

We were sitting across a table in the living room, and all the time we were discussing Strangelove, I was doodling. Immediately Stanley was fascinated by my doodles so we got on like a house on fire — At first I thought well this is amazing: here is a man who is supposed to be one of the most difficult directors ever and he accepts everything I’ve designed. All I have to do is hand it to the art department and they will get cracking.

It didn’t take long, though, for Kubrick to show his famously perfectionist side:

It came as a big shock when two or three weeks into filming I realised Stanley wasn’t so easy-going after all. I’d designed the war room as a split-level set with actors on each level but he came to me and said, “Ken what the hell am I supposed to do with 60 people on the upper level? They’re standing around with egg on their faces doing nothing — get rid of the upper level.” I said: “Stanley, now you tell me. But of course he was right.”

By the end of the shoot, Adam had resolved to never do another Kubrick film, but a decade later, he got another call, this time for Kubrick’s epic historical drama, Barry Lyndon:

It was Stanley sounding like a little New York boy: he said the designer hadn’t worked out and he needed me. He schmoozed me into doing the film and I was never happy about it — we’d have big arguments because I would say: “No that’s Victorian but the film is set in Georgian times.” Well Stanley was so competitive that he bought almost every book available on Georgian architecture so he could argue with me. But none of this was getting the movie made because the buildings and peaceful locations he wanted just don’t exist anymore near London — It was nerve-destroying. But after five months I got Stanley to switch production to the Republic of Ireland — which I thought was my masterstroke.

The film’s production was so intense, though, and Kubrick such a task-master, that Adam had to leave and check himself into a hospital, the victim of a nervous breakdown. But all of his work was worth it, and he won an Oscar for his lush work on the film.

Adam was knighted in 2003, the first time a film production designer was given such an honor. He also recalls probably the greatest compliment of his career:

I was in the States giving a lecture to the Directors Guild when Steven Spielberg came up to me. He said ‘Ken, that War Room set for Strangelove is the best set you ever designed’. Five minutes later he came back and said, ‘no it’s the best set that’s ever been designed’.”

What do you think? Are you a fan of any of Adam’s other work, and what role do you think Adam’s set design contributed to these films? As an indie filmmaker, how do you use set design in your films, working on a budget? Let us know!

Link: Kubrick recalled by influential set designer Sir Ken Adam — BBC News


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  • Rebrand the site “KubrickSchool”.

    • I was going to say more or less the same.

      I love Kubrick as much as the next guy, maybe more, but there are other giants of cinema out there besides old Stanley. Give them some love.

      • Justin Morrow on 09.4.13 @ 10:24PM

        Point taken, guys. I was on a bit of a Kubrick kick. I just think he embodied many qualities that indie filmmakers can find instructive, though, especially in the way he planned productions and improvised new systems to get things done. I also, I confess, just like the man’s work.

    • yeah, fuck them!!! How dare they provide interesting content to us

    • No seriously, that’s a good idea.

  • It may be overkill, but I love it.

  • Ken Adam as quoted in the recent Kubrick exhibit at LACMA: “Stanley is an extremely difficult and talented person. We developed an extremely close relationship and as a result I had to live almost completely on tranquilizers.” At the time I thought that was witty, but it turns out to have been more than that.

  • I watched the Stranglove clip, and while I do see that the set looks great, could someone enlighten me as to why it could/would be classified as the best ever built? I mean it’s great, but… is it really that good? And if so, what is it that makes it so good?

    • Think about every “top secret government room” you’ve seen in movies, tv, cartoons since 1963. They all look like the war room in Strangelove. Right up to Pixar movies today. It perfectly parodies our mind’s eye version of a secret nuclear bunker base.

    • Haha, great comment. I love it how as generations pass what was once great and era-defining work there way into simple cliches.

      I remember taking a buddy to see Raiders when they did that 30th anniversary re-release (he had never seen it before… I know right?!) and when we got out he said, “sure it is fun and all, but I don’t think it’s as great as everyone says it is.”

    • Everything old is unique and singular, while all things new are flashy and disposable.

      Tongue-in-cheek yes, but I think there’s some truth to it. Given the sheer volume of media and platforms today, along with the imprint of decades of cinematic history, contemporary work cannot be viewed through the same lens as that of the past.

    • I guess it’s all a matter of opinion, in this case Kubrick’s, but sheesh, I’m surprised he himself didn’t give a shout out to the Discovery centrifuge set in 2001. That still has to be one of the most innovative sets ever built. Sure, we’ve had the Inception revolving room, etc., since then, but as far as I know Kubrick’s set was (one of) the first and quite possibly the biggest, even now.

  • I thin k Tarkovsky would be another great that could have his say on this site.

  • I cant be the only person that thinks Kubrick is over rated?

    I rate a film by how much I watch it. I can honestly say I’ve never wanted to watch one of his films more than once. And most of those were a struggle to keep my attention as it was. I dont have ADD. I love David Lean films and they are very long. I can sit through Lawrence of Arabia in one sitting easily. Bridge on the River Kwai, now thats directing. I was actually standing on that bridge a month ago :)

    I think Kubrick got attention because the stories were interesting and different. Not because of his directing. Look at that clip of the war room. Bad camera angles and framing, bad timing and it leaves you with no sense of the atmosphere in the room in respect to everyone else there. But the writing is good and its memorable because of the story.

    • Not even The Shinning or a Clockwork Orange?

    • I’m with you, Simon.
      I’ve yet to see a Kubrick movie I wanted to watch twice…
      While there are many other director’s movies I’ve watched over and over. And studied. And watched again.
      I’ve seen Kubrick’s movies more than once but, it was because 2001 was shown hi-def on one of my hi-def channels. I don’t get it. I have nothing against him, I just don’t understand the attention of late. Is it simply because of the show a LACMA?

      I put Eyes Wide Shut up there with the worst movies I’ve seen. It was one of the most boring 159 minutes I’ve ever spent. At the end, I was pissed that I sat thru the whole thing.

      Gimme some backstory of the Coen Brothers, Ridley Scott, Michael Mann, David Lynch, Terrence Malick. Hell, even Lars Von Trier which, I can barely stand. Etc. etc. etc.

      Talk about Kubrick but, let’s hear from the plethora of other greats out there, too.

      • I’m impressed you made it through Eyes Wide Shut! David Lean is my all time favourite but like you said there are so many others that deserve attention before Kubrick. I’ve liked Steven Soderberg’s work up until Magic Mick (WTF).

        Dont know how true it is but I heard Kubrick made an old lady do 50 takes of shutting a car door. If its true thats not genius thats unbalanced.

        Would we even remember 2001 if it wasnt for a homicidal computer?? I cant remember anything about it apart from the whole “I’m sorry Dave” scene.

  • How about Dean Tavoularis?
    Apocalypse Now must have been one of the most demanding film sets ever.

  • I’m surprised to see the negative views on Eyes Wide Shut.

    I first stumbled upon it when I was quite young… it was on some movie channel. It was honestly unlike anything I had seen before. Just the tone, and the way the camera followed Tom down the street, the haunting masked ball. Other than that, I can’t really explain why I like it so much. I have since seen it at least 5 times.

    The other film that I always will record if it’s on TV is The Shining. I think I might have seen it 15 times so far…

    • To me, it was an extremely disappointing “last film”. I remember not liking most of it and I think my comment, after seeing it, was “The work of an old man stuck in the 70s”.

      • Justin Morrow on 09.4.13 @ 10:21PM

        The odd thing is, from all interviews I’ve read, is that he thought it was his greatest work.

    • I have to agree. I really like Eyes Wide Shut as well. The pacing never struck me as slow, either. I found most of it pleasantly… intriguing. Maybe it helps I enjoy Ligeti?

  • I´m not shocked “Eyes Wide Shut” it´s been beaten by yuo guys ;o)

    It has always been that way, and it tells me more and more that Kubrick nailed it!

    Kubrick films aren´t made to “entertain” as most filmakers do.

    Tell me about one Bergman´s film that is “entertaining”.

    That´s the level of filmaker Kubrick was… it´s not a surprise that he left USA, afterall.

    • So… if they weren’t made to be entertaining, what exactly were they made for?

    • Cid, what are you saying? That we are Michael Bay fans or something? Thems fightin words!!!! So you actually liked it? You and Robert could start an Eyes Wide Shut fan club, population = 2. I doubt even Tom Cruise would join that club ;)

      • Sorry couldnt resist :) Maybe its not such a bad movie. But I cant get past the Cruise Kidman aspect. Dont get me wrong I actually really like most of the movies Tom Cruise chooses. Absolutely love Oblivion!! That is art in my book on all levels.

  • funkydmunky on 08.24.13 @ 2:28AM

    Cruise/Kidman were the King/Queen of Scientology at the time. This mirrors the outsiders/elite that the movie portrays. They were also married. Kubrick made no mistake in casting. Considering we will never know what Stanley’s final cut would have been, it dug deep enough into a world that we were not meant to be shown.
    Understand Kubrick’s works, or not, there is a depth to what he is providing whether you enjoy the film or not.

  • If you don’t appreciate Kubrick, you might want to wait a bit before you decide that he is a bad director. Unless you are just trying to spur conversation or troll.