Conversation with Ken Adam
Considered the world’s greatest living production designer, though Mr. Adam himself is too modest to acknowledge this, we step into the bright studio of his Knightsbridge home. The walls are lined with numerous framed awards, BAFTAs for Best Art Direction on Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (‘64) and The Ipcress File (‘65), and an OBE signed by Queen Elizabeth II. Two Oscar statuettes, for Barry Lyndon (‘75) and The Madness of King George (‘95) stand guard over his tools of the trade. Propped against the bookshelves is a large black and white photo, a production still from his latest film, Taking Sides, set in the Berlin of 1946, which was screened out of competition at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. A prolific artist, Adam has worked on a total of 90 film projects, 77 of which have been realised. As creator of the visual style on seven early Bond films, working to an alchemic formula whose base ingredient was reality transmuted into the fantastic, and always with a dose of humour, he has designed huge, innovative sets such as the nuclear reactor room (Dr. No – ‘62), the Fort Knox interior (Goldfinger – ‘64) and a succession of domains, subterranean, stellar or earthbound, from which meglomaniacs mastermind their plans to dominate the world. Monochrome sketches become SPECTRE’s volcano HQ complete with rocket launch pad (You Only Live Twice -‘67), the Drax space station in Moonraker (‘79), or the towering penthouse complex of Diamonds Are Forever (‘71). For The Spy Who Loved Me (‘77) the famous 007 stage at Pinewood was created to contain the Liparus Supertanker interior, a set of gargantuan proportions. Adam’s love of gadgets also inspired the designs for the underwater craft and the Disco Volante for Thunderball (‘65), Bond’s gizmo-loaded Aston Martin DB5 which careered through Goldfinger, and Caractacus Pott’s float-and-fly car for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (‘68).
Throughout his long career he has also been involved in a number of entertainment projects: working on a new concept for cinema and multimedia presentation and designing an inflatable cinema for 20th Century-Fox, creating sets for two operas, and designing part of the Millennium science exhibition in Berlin.
Two years ago an exhibition celebrating his work was held at the Serpentine Gallery in London and February of this year will see him in Los Angeles to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Art Directors Guild of America. Wreathed in aromatic smoke rising from a huge Cuban cigar, Ken Adam talks at length about his career spanning over 50 years in the film industry.
The Making of Dr. Strangelove - Ken Adam Production Designer section.
Architecture has always been a latent subject in the majority of films, almost a filigree of the scenography and the screenwriting. How did you pass from your architectural studies to become a production designer?
I studied architecture as a means of becoming a designer for films, but I didn’t want to be an architect. I met Vincent Korda in 1936, who came from a painting background, and he said to me, “Ken, if you want to design for films an architectural grounding would be very good for you”, so at the age of 17 I studied at the Bartlett School of Architecture as an external student and was also articled to a firm of architects, C.W. Glover & Partners. The Bartlett School was very traditional in those days whereas I was a rebel, full of new ideas and I was also working part time for a young group of architects known as the MARS Group who were a splinter group of the Bauhaus. Then the war came. After joining the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps. I then transferred to the RAF, much to everybody’s surprise, and finished up as a fighter pilot in 609 Squadron. I was actually the only German fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force! When the war ended I came back to London and for eight months found it very difficult to get into any films. By pure chance my sister, who was working at the American Embassy, was contacted by a propman for one of the first American productions in London who asked her if she could provide him with American props such as handguns and so on. She brought up my name and I was then invited to see the art director at the Riverside Studios and that was how I started in films.
I had a very good grounding in architecture, design and composition. Drawing with the T square and a hard pencil certainly appealed to my pedantic sense and these beautiful working drawings were a kind of self defence, really. I was inhibited, afraid to let myself go and express myself, but then I have to give credit to my Italian wife, Letizia. She, like certain Italians, has natural good taste. She saw me doing these rather laboured big projections and sketches and kept collecting my little scribbles from wastepaper baskets saying, “this is much more alive and much more exciting than these dead sketches”. So, with the help of felt pens, which had just been invented, I changed my technique completely and my designs became much bolder in expression. Some of my scribbles were also collected for the Cinématèque in Paris.
What cultural movements and which artists have had a major influence on you?
There is no doubt that I was influenced by the Bauhaus and by German Expressionism and the architects that I admired were Mies Van Der Rohe, Mendelsohn, Gropius, also Le Corbusier and, to some extent, Frank Lloyd Wright. German Expressionism, as I had seen films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Dr. Mabuse which were designed by Expressionist painters. I decided to stylise my film designs because I felt that through stylisation I could achieve a much more theatrical reality, which I hoped would be more exciting to the public than by simply imitating or copying reality. If you ask me in terms of architecture at present I am very impressed by the work of Frank Gehry and also by the design of the Jewish Museum in Berlin by Daniel Libeskind. I got a letter from the director of the Serpentine Gallery with a photograph of the interior of the pavilion designed by Libeskind, telling me that it looks very much like a Ken Adam set. I like his lines, his use of space, the use of chiaroscuro very much and I think that’s very important.
When reading a screen-play what are the elements that most attract you?
Well, it’s a very good question. Certainly in my later years I have been rather careful in the choice of films. In earlier years of course you have to do everything, you know. I started off by working for Warner Bros. on a series of naval pictures. It began with Captain Horatio Hornblower (‘51) in ‘49 and since I was interested in yachting they felt I was the right person to design the boats from the period of the eighteenth century. Then followed The Crimson Pirate (‘52) with Burt Lancaster on Ischia, which is where I met my wife, Letizia. Then with Errol Flynn on a film in Sicily called The Master of Ballantrae (‘53) finally ending up in Rome on Helen of Troy (‘55), designing the Greek fleet, and after that I thought I’d had enough of ships! I enjoyed doing them; no script, a lot of disasters but they were a lot of fun. Really I had to take what came my way, but I was very lucky as I got offered the design of Around the World in Eighty Days in ‘56 by the producer, Mike Todd. It was my first Oscar nomination.
The film’s associate producer was William Cameron Menzies [credited as the first ever production designer, then known as art director] who had an enormous influence on me in terms of the stylisation and choice of colour and he encouraged me to be courageous in my decisions. In those days we did the majority of films in the studio; it was the first time my designs were noticed and I got some very good press write-ups which really helped me a lot in my career. When the first Bond came along, Dr. No (‘62), I saw the script and said to my wife that it was pretty awful and she told me that I was prostituting myself, but then I developed an enthusiasm for the film and it turned out to be the most important series that I’ve ever designed. Certainly at that time I was very interested in the written word and my choice was more and more influenced by the way a screen-play appealed to me.
Shortly after Dr. No I was offered Dr. Strangelove by Stanley Kubrick and I loved the script.
Which film director has influenced you the most? How did you work with and how did you develop your working relationship with Kubrick?
I suppose there were two film directors who influenced me most. One was Bob Aldrich. He was a big man and had been an all-American football star and had enormous experience in film-making. He had been an assistant to Chaplin and there was nothing he didn’t know about Hollywood and the studio system. We did three or four films together and I learnt an enormous amount about film-making. He was a true professional. The other director who certainly had a most important influence on me artistically was Kubrick and I don’t think I have ever had such a close working relationship as with Stanley. Our first meeting was fantastic. He had seen Dr. No and he asked me if I’d like to do Strangelove. Right from the start we got on extremely well. We decided to make the film at Shepperton and that I should drive every day to the Studios. I had at the time an E-type Jaguar and Stanley, who was really quite a coward, decided that I should not drive at more than thirty miles an hour. This meant that every day each journey took nearly two hours so when you do that for a period of six months you get to know each other pretty well. And that was very fortunate with such a complicated and difficult director, who changed his mind and really threw me off-kilter on a number of occasions because I wasn’t yet experienced enough to deal with these basic changes of mind, though I knew about them before anybody else and maybe even contributed to them because we were always throwing ideas around in the car. I must also say that every time he changed his mind it was an improvement to the film and to the story. He was fascinated by my wartime experience as a fighter pilot and I kept him entertained with anecdotes of my wartime exploits, but then I ran out of stories and had to invent others! But he taught me a great deal about the visuals, the photography and lighting and also never to take no for an answer, as he would never accept that. I was present when a famous cameraman once told him that a certain thing could not be done. “Oh, I can do it”, he said – and he did. He could do every member of the film crew’s job with the exception, maybe, of design. Of my more ambitious projects someone would say to me “you know, Ken it really can’t be done”and I’d say “I don’t accept that. If you were talking to Stanley Kubrick you’d be fired!”I must say the more ambitious my designs became – and they did certainly on the Bond films – the more the construction department, the art department or my team of people became ambitious with me and never used the words that it couldn’t be done. So all this came somehow from the Stanley Kubrick influence. We had a very close relationship; I suppose one can call it a love-hate relationship. He was also terribly possessive so I felt that after the completion of Strangelove I would remain his friend but would not work for him again. But of course I did.
How have recent advances in digital and computer technology changed your working methods?
Well, I think computer generated images are very important for certain films and I treat them as a new and very exciting tool which allows us to create certain effects which would have been very difficult if not impossible to do beforehand. To me, the most important part of a film is the story and that is the basis on which I now look at every film. I do use computers and there are computer technicians who work for me on certain films. In the 54 years that I have worked in the industry there have been many inventions but I think a certain danger lies in introducing any new technology. It is not the answer to film-making, it is a help, a technical aid to achieve certain imagery and I think it is a mistake when that imagery takes over and is not either properly motivated or properly designed. I have experienced problems, as on the last film, Taking Sides which I did several months ago in Germany.
I used CGIs to re-create the Berlin of 1945, and I gave very clear instructions as that work is done mainly in post production and you’re not really involved in the process. It was also complicated by the fact that the technicians were in Berlin, I was in London and so it meant flying back and forth between the two cities. However clever they are, there has to be a designer to oversee their work. And the computer is not simple. With a sketch I could immediately tell them what was wrong but with a computer it could take ten days and they had to feed back tapes to me via FedEx every week to show me what they had done. Sometimes it was right but often it had to be improved upon. Even with the best specialists I think it cannot do away with production design. It’s also very expensive in terms of production costs. We need to find a way in which the production designer is still involved after principal photography has been completed in order to supervise. From an artistic point of view computer generated images are quite fantastic. You know I’m credited with having collaborated on 80 films – whether that’s true or not I don’t know – but I certainly have learnt one thing and that is when you work with an actor they love to feel the atmosphere of the set around them and the greater the the actor, the more they appreciate that. Olivier, Coward, Gielgud, Brando, all people I’ve worked with, all used props to enhance their performance but they had to feel happy in their surroundings and hopefully this created environment helped their performance; in computer generated images the actors mainly have to work in front of a green screen, or a blue screen, and there’s no atmosphere, you see, and that always has been a problem. I remember when I started in films, in ‘47, there was a British invention called the “Independent Frame”, on which J. Arthur Rank spent millions of pounds developing.
An Independent Frame was really an array of six back projection screens and the art department had to design and lay out every shot for the picture. These screens were placed on hydraulic platforms and each screen had its own projector. At Pinewood they built a special stage and they made three or four films using that system. In other words you only had a few chairs and maybe the frame of a door and everything else was projected. It never took off. Why? Well, first of all the art department had to design every shot, the director lost a certain amount of freedom and the actors didn’t like to work in front of the screen. With CGIs it’s even worse because you’re working in front of a dead screen.
Which contemporary urban realms within the contemporary metropolis do you find interesting for which to transform and develop into film sets?
You have to remember that when I design environments I try to express that particular period but, for example with the Bond films, I created environments with a slightly futuristic edge and with a rather tongue in cheek atmosphere. I thought that it needed to be done in films, to get away from the old set design and construction methods. So I started experimenting with what I thought were interesting new shapes and new materials to express our period of electronics, of computers, etc. At the Serpentine exhibition, which was the first time that an art gallery had shown a film designer’s work, there were a lot of architects that came to see my sketches. The compliment that they paid me was that they felt my sketches had influenced quite a lot of their architectural designs in the sixties and seventies. Everybody like Frank Gehry and Libeskind has moved away from the classical basic style and they try to create shapes like a spiral, and so on, or there’s Fuksas and his “cloud”and I think that’s very exciting. I would also try to come up with completely new ideas. It’s not easy, you know. I try to break the boundaries in my film design.
Today’s urban projects are spectacular realizations: the most recent skyscrapers reach a height of 500m, the streets are viaducts that criss-cross the urban terrain, the tube trains run on monorails that slide between the towers. The new structures are objects that excite wonder, amazement – how do you view these projects?
If you go back to films done in the twenties and thirties, like Metropolis (‘27), and Things to Come (‘36) by William Cameron Menzies, they reflected all those futuristic urban townscapes. I did some designs for the Star Trek (’79) film which was supposed to be set fifteen hundred years from now. I went completely the other way. I felt it was important to keep the ecology of the earth, the plant life, and I went underground much more and created sculptural shapes adapted to the contours of landscapes rather than building skyscrapers. When in Berlin I was asked about the Potsdamer Platz, which I remember as a child. I don’t like the new Potsdamer Platz, though on first impact I thought the whole environment in terms of pure design was brilliant. I mean there are one or two buildings of good design, like the Sony Center by Helmut Jahn, but I think it’s so impersonal and cold. I wouldn’t want to live there. I prefer the old Berlin, around the Sauvignyplatz. I don’t feel comfortable in those environments. The only place where I think you can feel comfortable is in New York City, Manhattan. I feel it has enormous energy but I have not felt it in any other city. Yes, I could live in Manhattan. I have lived in London most of my life and I have lived in this late Georgian house since 1959 and we also love this area. As my wife is from Rome I have been influenced by Italy, of course, which I adore; our living room is quite Italian in style and we feel comfortable here.
Architecture, like the cinema, operates in a realm of representation, a realm of limits, of risk and of the unknown; the current sensibility expressed in architecture in films, in its representations of the metropolis, does not introduce us into a realm which is immediately readable but into a realm which is an extension of the mind, a virtual realm of illusion.
I feel that in cinema good design is like make-believe. That’s why I find imitating reality dull. Even if you go back to the old Hollywood films of Cedric Gibbons, for example, with their incredible Art Deco apartments and nightclubs full of people who were dressed in the most beautiful clothes, all this was to provide escapism for the public and that, I feel very strongly, is the function of design in most films; it is to try and create a world for the cinema-going public which is not reality but which allows them to dream a little and to escape from their own daily routine. That to me is one of the basic principles in film design as opposed to real environments and architecture and so on.
A reflection on the production of the realm, on the narrative conventions of an architectural project or a film project.
In film, of course, it depends so much on the subject matter. The Madness of King George had a low budget of $8 million with an 8-week shoot for the whole film. I think I combine clever use of studio sets with locations and stylisation of the locations, getting away again somewhat from reality by creating dramatic effects. I found a derelict Georgian home and I made a virtue of that. I just had maybe a couple of paintings, just one table and a chair in order to accentuate the loneliness of this king, this man. But you can’t compare that with an architectural problem, as it’s to accentuate the drama of the story and obviously if I were to do a futuristic or a fictional film, like some of the Bonds or Strangelove were, then I could let myself go. In The Madness of King George there is one particular scene where George III has gone completely mad. It starts on a studio set at Shepperton, where he grabs hold of his children, runs out and everybody follows him up the very high circular stone staircase (which I found in St. Paul’s Cathedral) and we finish on the roof of Arundel castle, which is more or less of the same period, but with Victorian and Norman elements, too. What I liked about the roof were these twelve-foot high chimneys and so I added more of them, which gave the set an element of a Greek tragedy. So, in this way a designer can have the drama of the set. People have often asked me what happens to those fantastic big sets. They are destroyed and I’m delighted, provided they have been well photographed in the film. I have no ego problem as regards my designs. In the heyday of Hollywood and pre-war British cinema they had enormous scene docks where they used to store elaborate set pieces so, for example, if you did a Baroque set, a lot of plaster moulding and all the columns and the doors were kept but then for economic reasons they needed the space for stages or other things and the scene docks were progressively destroyed. England has preserved more than in other countries but in Hollywood it’s a disaster, and in Germany too; they give you catalogues of plastic mouldings, everything is in plastic. In Berlin, though, there is a new generation of craftsmen learning the trade. As for the painters, either they’re East Germans who worked under Communism, highly skilled in one specific field like marbling but who are very rigid, or they are new painters who very often come from a theatrical background, and who are much more talented. I found that all the painters that worked for me in New York came from the theatre and they were scenic painters so they could create effects with one brush stroke, which a normal film painter is not capable of doing.
In the last number of years have you ever practised as an architect? Has anyone ever approached you to design their house?
Yes, I have been approached but I have never taken it seriously because I would be bored by all the practical problems that one encounters. Back in the early fifties I designed some of the first coffee bars in London and in those days I quite liked doing it because it was a new expression. That was more or less the last time I did interior or architectural design. I designed the corps of the Millennium exhibition in Berlin which was held in a Victorian Renaissance style building designed in 1876 by the uncle of Walter Gropius, within the enormous, eighty-foot high centre court. I liked its arcades so, as a contrast, I created a gunmetal steel structure which then became a kind of cathedral of science. When you’re dealing with the twenty-first century all the technology becomes much smaller. At one time computers were enormous and now they’re the size of a watch. So, I came up with five or six enormous stylised objects relating to DNA and nuclear physics, which made an immediate impression with the public. That stimulated me, the concept was like that of designing a film set, though it was a scientific exhibition.
What interventions would you introduce in the city of Rome? What for you are the spaces to exploit? For London, what would you discard?
Oh my God! (laughs) With the city of Rome, what I find disturbs me. I dislike the idea of restoring old buildings; my first impression is one of shock. Where I thought it had gone completely wrong was in Piazza Navona, a couple of years back. Part of one side had been restored and everything else remained as was and that doesn’t work. I think if you’re going to restore something then you have to restore the whole piazza. Both Letizia and I have been brought up to love the antique look, the patina of buildings, of paintings, whether it’s the Sistine Chapel or not, and one is shocked when one sees it restored to its original state. I have recently seen very little of London though I have seen Canary Wharf and the Jubilee Line, of which I think part of the stations are beautifully designed. I think the Dome has been a disaster.
Do you have a particular sketch or a set design which you look back upon with great emotion?
If I look back on some of my set designs I still think in retrospect that the war room for Dr. Strangelove was probably my best set design. Even though it is massive, it is really very simple if you analyse its design. It created a feeling of space, a claustrophobic space which was contagious to everybody, actors and technicians alike, who worked within its surroundings. They asked me recently at the Directors’ Guild in Hollywood to present that film. I hadn’t seen it for some time and I felt the whole film still stands up today and the sets, too. For Dr. No I designed what I call the Tarantula Room, a small set which I built for £435. It consisted of a room with a big circular opening in the ceiling with a gigantic grill in it. The lighting through this grill created a spider’s-web effect all over the set. In the foreground I had a little table with a cage containing the tarantula. And you hear the voice of Dr. No but you never see him. I think, in terms of stylisation and dramatic effect, that has been one of my most important sets – but then you know I could name a large number of them!
What are the mistakes that a production designer should avoid making, and what advice can you give to young people starting out in your profession?
Anybody who works in films should certainly be able to master the computer, to have an arts training and also go to a good film school and learn all the other aspects of film-making. I firmly believe that the making of films and everything that is related to it is probably the most important collective art form of the twentieth century and probably of the twenty-first century. There are, I suppose, some directors who feel they can do everything but it’s not really practical; better to use the talent of other people, to combine these talents to achieve the desired effect.
A designer has to understand all that and to handle the ‘nuts and bolts’ elements of designing and building a set. He also has to be able to convince the director or the producer of his concepts, which is not always easy. Then, when these concepts are finally accepted, to have the courage, even if they are ‘way out’, to realize these concepts. You need talent, you have to be a diplomat because you are dealing with a lot of egos and you have to have courage.
When you work what has the upper hand, fantasy or rationality?
There is always an element of fantasy. I start with fantasy and then try to rationalise it! (laughs).
© The Scenographer 2017