Designing Doctor Strangelove: Sir Ken Adam

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Video Transcript

I trained for a year in the United States and then came back to England in the beginning of '43 and then was fortunate enough to start flying the Typhoon, which at the time was the most powerful and fastest fighter in both air forces, I think.

I never wanted to be an architect but a very famous designer of the pre-war times, called Vincent Korda advised me to study architecture as a background for film design. My mother had a house in Hampstead and, by this time, I was an expert on air raid shelters. I built a trench in our garden but forgetting that the groundwater level was very high and, to cut a long story short, after a couple of weeks, or three weeks, the whole air raid shelter collapsed, which was a disaster for my first architectural project.

As far as design is concerned, I don't think the war had any influence in that sense, except that I let myself go, you know. And also, as the sixties approached I felt very strongly that my designs had to be bigger-than-life, slightly tongue-in-cheek, but also reflect the time we were living in. So, Doctor No gave me that opportunity. I played around a lot with metals: copper; gun-metal. Terrence Young wanted to make them. Bought the first one: 'OK, I need an architect.'

He encouraged me enormously and being encouraged that way, I really went all out. Stanley Kubrick called me after he had seen Doctor No and loved it and asked me if I would be interested in designing his next film - a sort of comedy dealing with the nuclear destruction of the world. And he wanted me to come over straight away to discuss this project and I went over to the Westbury and we immediately hit it off. It was amazing and I thought: 'This is going to be a piece of cake; you know, everybody says this genial young director is unbelievably difficult to work with!'

I was scribbling some ideas and he loved the ideas immediately and I didn't know what everybody is talking about. Little did I know! He did say, it's the director's right to change his mind until the cameras started turning but I learnt later that he changed his mind many times after the camera had started turning. But every time he changed his mind, it was for the better - no question about that.

After three weeks, he said one morning 'You've got to come up with a different design.' I wasn't really experienced enough at that time and I nearly flipped and I took a walk in the very beautiful gardens of Shepperton studios and took a Valium, or something like that, and once I calmed down, in my cubby-hole, I started sketching again. But Kubrick was standing behind me and then I came up with this triangular shape and he said, 'Hold it a minute! Isn't the triangle the strongest geometric form?'

And I didn't really know but I said, 'Of course Stanley' and then he said, 'Well, how are you going to treat the wall surfaces?' And I said 'That's reinforced concrete.' So, he said, 'Like a gigantic bomb shelter?' I said, 'Yes.' And that sold him and one thing you'll find in most of my designs is I always introduce a circle somewhere and thought it would make an interesting table for the General Staff and the President of the United States to sit around and he said 'Wait a moment! That table, you can cover in green felt,' as in the black and white picture. He said, 'I want the audience to feel they are playing for the fate of the world, like a poker game.'

And I came up with another circle which was like a lighting ring, a suspended lighting ring, and Kubrick just loved it so we spent days together, myself sitting in a chair and he holding up photo floods to decide which is the best angle to light these actors with. The whole scene in the war room was lit from that ring. With these reflections, you didn't believe, at times, you were in reality but it had the right effect and I'll never forget Terry Southern, the writer, the first time he came on set- but he had a great sense of humour- he said, 'Well, looks interesting, Ken but will it dress?'

The vision of the war room was purely something that I invented because I didn't have any real reference. I believed I could create with a set that doesn't really reflect reality a more realistic acceptance by the audience than by designing something very realistic. And, when Ronald Reagan became President of the United States he asked his Chief of Staff to be shown the war room of Dr Strangelove because he believed it was somewhere in the Pentagon or somewhere and that is really a true story. About four years ago, five years ago, I was invited to LA to pay a tribute to Stanley Kubrick shortly after his death. Stephen Spielberg came to see me and said, "Ken I've never met you before but I've always wanted to tell you that the war room for Dr Strangelove is the best set you have ever designed and, I think, the best that has ever been designed for a film.


Sir Ken Adam trained as an architect and became the only German-born pilot to serve in the RAF in the Second World War, after which he joined the film industry as a set designer. He made his mark with the vibrant villain's lair for Dr No, attracting the attention of maverick director, Stanley Kubrick who asked him to design the set for his 'Cold War comedy' Dr Strangelove. This film looks at Adam's difficult but productive relationship with the director.

Adam made his mark with the vibrant villain's lair for Dr No, attracting the attention of maverick director, Stanley Kubrick...