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 … A very famous designer of the pre-war times, 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’d built a trench in our garden, but forgetting that the ground water level was very high and to cut a long story short, after a couple of weeks, three weeks, the whole air-raid shelter had collapsed, which was a disaster – it was 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 60s approached I felt very strongly that my designs had to be bigger than life, slightly tongue in cheek, but also reflect the time that we’re living in. So Dr No gave me that opportunity. I played around a lot with metals, copper, gun metal. Terence Young was the director, was the first one who came and he loved the sets. They encouraged me enormously and being encouraged that way I really went all out.
Stanley Kubric called me after he had seen Dr No, and he loved it, and asked me if I would be interested in designing his next film, a sort of a comedy dealing with the, looking at the 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, you know … 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 and I was scribbling some ideas and he loved the ideas immediately and I thought, you know I don’t know what everyone’s 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 that he changed his mind many times after the cameras 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 to me, 'You’ve got to come up with a different design'… And you know I wasn’t really experienced enough at that time, and I nearly flipped you know … And I took a walk in the very beautiful gardens at Shepperton Studios and took a Valium or something like that … And once I’d calmed down, in my cubby hole I started sketching again. But Kubrick was standing behind me and when I came up with this triangular shape he said 'hold it for a minute', you know, 'isn’t the triangle the strongest geometric form?' And I didn’t really know but I said, 'Of course then'… and then he said 'well how are you going to treat the wall surfaces?' I said 'As 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 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', was a black and white picture then. He said 'Well I want the audience to feel like they’re playing for the fate of the world like a poker game', you know … At the same time came up with another circle which was like a lighting ring, a suspended lighting ring, and Kubric, just loved it…And 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 and the wall was lit from that ring. You know 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 the set, but he had a great sense of humour. He said, 'It 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 that I could create a set which does not reflect reality, a more realistic acceptance by the audience than by designing something very realistically.
When Ronald Regan 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 so on … 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. Steven Spielberg came to see me and he said, 'Ken, I’ve never met you before but I’ve always wanted to tell you that the boardroom in Dr Strangelove is the best set you ever designed and I think the best set that has ever been designed for a film'.