How Sir Ken Adams designed Stanley Kubrick's most popular movies

London – Sir Ken Adams was one of the most outstanding production designers of the 20th century. Together with writer, thinker and cultural critic Shumon Basar he talks, among many other things, about his work for the James Bond movies, working with Stanley Kubrick, and the power of imagination.

SHUMON BASAR: In over 75 films you’ve managed to create worlds that have somehow become embedded in our imagination; worlds that are not necessarily of the past, the present or the future but are a magical combination of all three. I was wondering which films, from a visual perspective, had an impact on you when you were young? 

KEN ADAMS: The first time I saw real films was maybe at the age of 13: The Cabinet of Dr. Calligari (1920) by Robert Wiene and Dr. Mabuse (1922) by Fritz Lang. These films just blew me away. From the age of 14 or 15 I knew that I wanted to design for either theatre or film.

SB: You once told me that Terence Young, the director of the first Bond Film Dr. No (1962) gave you a huge amount of freedom in sculpting the vision of the first Bond.

KA: The first Bond was a low-budget film. Nobody expected the success of this film. One of the sets that critics later hailed as style-setting for all future Bond movies, was actually invented on the spot, because I completely forgot about it. I had only 570 GBP left, so I came up with this minimalistic set built in perspective on a sloping platform.

SB: Did the very modest budget of Dr. No force you to make do with a bricolage of things that you already had? From what I understand, certain objects in the movie even belonged to you and your wife at the time.

KA: Yes. (Laughs) I sort of mixed all sorts of things. I liked it because what I did on the first Bond was to really experiment with new materials, too. Real wooden floors, copper or gun metal doors, and things like that. Terence left the style completely up to me, and I got away with it. I was all by myself at Pinewood Studios, with nobody looking over my shoulder while the whole unit was shooting in Jamaica.

SB: After the next Bond film with Terence Young called From Russia With Love (1963) you also started working with Stanley Kubrick, with whom you established a very close relationship. I imagine Kubrick to have been a very different director to Young.

KA: Yes, of course. Kubrick had an unbelievable brain and a lot of imagination. I think he was probably the director I had the closest relationship ever with. At the same time, he became very destructive, and I didn’t really want to do another film for him. I got out of doing 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and originally also out of Barry Lyndon (1975) but then Stanley got me back on board. Looking back, I realise that it was a mistake. 

SB: From your early sketches of the war room for Dr. Strangelove, it looks like it was originally imagined on two levels, is that correct? 

KA: Yes. Kubrick loved the idea, and I had it built over the course of three weeks. Then one day he suddenly told me that he didn’t know what to do with the second level anymore and that I had to come up with something else. I nearly flipped out, but I didn't have the confidence in those days—yet. I walked in the gardens of Shepperton Studios and took a double dose of Valium to calm me down. Then I started scribbling on this design whilst he was standing behind me, saying: ‘Gee, Ken, it looks like a triangle. Isn’t that the strongest geometric form?’ I said: ‘Absolutely, Stanley.’ ‘And what are you going to use for material?’ I said: Reinforced concrete. ‘So, like a giant bomb shelter?’ I said: ‘Yes.’ That’s how I sold the idea. Then he never used that angle in the movie at all!

I designed all those things tongue-in-cheek

SB: What was the biggest set you’ve built?

KA: That’s probably You Only Live Twice (1967). During the making of the movie, we found out that Ian Fleming had never been to Japan, because after two helicopters had flown over Japan for three weeks, we still hadn’t found any of the locations that Fleming wrote about. As a result, in desperation, we flew over Kyushu, a Southern island, and we luckily found this area of actual volcanoes. Incredible. That triggered the idea: Wouldn’t it be fun if the villain has his headquarters inside this big volcano crater? I did a quick scribble and Albert R ‘Cubby’ Broccoli, the producer of the Bond movies, asked me: ‘How much is it going to cost?’ I said: ‘Cubby, don’t ask me how much it’s going to cost, I have no idea.’ He said: ‘If I give you a million dollars, can you do it?’ To which I said: ‘Yes.’ Then, of course, all my worries started, because even though a million dollars in 1966 was a fortune, the ideas I had were rather grandiose, and I thought I was actually going crazy. A lot of my assistants thought so, too. We had a great team, though, and we managed everything in time. From my experience, fewer things go wrong on the most difficult and large-scale sets than with a corner set of a room.

SB: I have noticed that in many of the Bond movies you play with the contrast between things that are hyper-modern, almost space-age, and traditional, neo-classical interiors. Do you consider this a rather anti-modernist idea?

KA: Well, remember that I designed all those things tongue-in-cheek. That was a saving grace, you know. So many people tried to analyse it and say that it’s about my past, but I don’t think it had anything to do with my past.

SB: Lastly, you once said that no design is worth doing, if you just reproduce reality—that you don’t believe that you can get a sense of reality by copying. Fantasy is more acceptable and believable to the public. Would you say this perhaps encapsulates your approach to the cinema?

KA: Yes, absolutely, but I’m not the originator of this idea. Just think of all these incredible early Hollywood films designed by Cecil Gibbons, for example. Art Deco interiors with women in Balenciaga dresses and men in tails and so forth. This was completely unreal for the American public, but they loved it as a form of escapism. In a way, that’s just what I have given the public. They accepted my ideas as reality even though they were a complete departure from reality. I think that’s what a designer has to be able to do.

This is an edited version of a piece originally featured in our book, Legacy. You can purchase a copy here.

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