In the four decades since he designed Stanley Kubrick’s production of “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” Ken Adam still figures it’s the best work he’s ever done.
This from a man who has had a hand in 88 motion pictures, from “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” and “Sleuth” to “Barry Lyndon” and “The Madness of King George” — the last two carrying away Oscars for Adam’s artful design work. On top of that, Adam created the famous James Bond look, having overseen seven of agent 007’s well-appointed yarns.
When he is presented on Saturday night with a lifetime achievement award from the Art Directors Guild, the modest, soft-spoken Adam will doubtless try to deflect the laurels of his admiring colleagues. In an interview from Careyes, Mexico, where he was vacationing, Adam made sure to hand out a few compliments of his own.
“The art directors who gave me this award have such a cultural preparation, they are so bright, that it’s really so fun to talk to them,” he says, slight traces of his native Germany still evident in his accent.
In England, where he lives, that’s not always the case. “There’s a bit of envy there when someone gets somewhat successful,” he says.
Born in Berlin in 1921, Adam and his family moved to England when he was 13. He eventually became a Royal Air Force fighter pilot, highly unusual for a German in 1943. Five years later, he became a draftsman for art director Andy Massey, and by 1956 was art director on “Around the World in Eighty Days.” He later worked on “The Ipcress File,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “The Owl and the Pussycat” and “Sodom and Gomorrah,” among others.
But it was in the War Room on the “Strangelove” set — with its inclined wall map, huge round table, shiny black floor and ominous lighting — that Adam truly felt he had arrived.
“It’s one of the best sets I’ve ever designed,” he says. “It still stands up. It’s big, powerful and very simple. It creates the right sort of atmosphere of claustrophobia.”
Kubrick insisted that the table be covered in green felt — the film was shot in black-and-white — to give the actors a sense that “the fate of the world was being played out in a card game,” Adam recalls.
More difficult to accommodate was Kubrick’s insistence that the 36 actors in the scene be lighted solely from a light ring suspended above their heads. After much trial and error, the effect was accomplished.
In “Dr. No,” the first James Bond outing, “I suppose I unwittingly created a style for the rest of the Bond movies,” Adam says, although, typically, he credits author Ian Fleming with establishing the secret agent’s elegance and panache.
Adam also acknowledges a debt to the film’s relatively low budget, which enabled him to improvise on the set at London’s Pinewood Studios while director Terence Young and producer “Cubby” Broccoli were still shooting scenes in Jamaica.
“I told the construction crew I wanted to use new materials and to experiment,” he says. “They all rose to the challenge and we built three or four stages full of sets. If the producer and the director hadn’t liked them it would have been a disaster.”
Adam’s favorite scene in “Dr. No” is the least complicated, however, and emerged only as an afterthought. In it, a bound Sean Connery is joined by a predatory tarantula. There is a chair, a table and little else in the room.
“It created a slightly theatrical style that was very suitable,” Adam says, proudly. “And I remember exactly what I spent on that scene — £475.”