Ken Adam on Stanley Kubrick
Wally Hammond talks to Ken Adam about the work of idiosyncratic moviemaker Stanley Kubrick ahead of a retrospective season of films at the Barbican
The gentlemanly, German-born Adam – son of an elite cavalry officer and the first German fighter pilot in the RAF – had no idea what he was getting into. His work on ‘Dr Strangelove’ (1964) was the start of a long, affectionate yet stormy relationship with Kubrick, which would land Adam an Oscar for ‘Barry Lyndon’ (1975), but would mostly play out over regular dinners at Adam’s home.
‘I met him in 1962 – we were both young then – and I was fooled by his boyishness, by this almost naive curiosity that he had,’ Adams recalls. ‘He questioned everything. I discovered very quickly that here was a man of unbelievably high intelligence.’
Kubrick had been born in the Bronx in 1928 – like Adam, he was Jewish – and, after a precocious apprenticeship taking photographs for Look magazine, broke into the film industry with the self-financed ‘Day of the Fight’ (1951). His pair of influential early noirs ‘Killer’s Kiss’ and ‘The Killing’ brought him to the attention of Kirk Douglas, who produced and starred in Kubrick’s anti-war drama ‘Paths of Glory’(1957). By the time the director took over the reins of ‘Spartacus’ in 1960, he was A-list, but a fraught relationship with the producers led him to seek more control by heading for England to make ‘Lolita’ and ‘Dr Strangelove’.
Adam recalls designing the latter film’s famous war room: ‘I used to scribble as we talked, you know. And Kubrick said, “Let me look at those doodles of yours – they’re fantastic.” ' Nothing is ever that simple with a perfectionist, however. Kubrick tore up Adam’s first designs, leading to a protracted argument, re-working, and more argument. ‘I finally won that battle, and it developed into what, in hindsight, I believe is probably the best film set I ever designed.’
Many agree. Steven Spielberg told Adam that he thought it ‘the best set ever designed’ – ‘which was nice,’ he remarks, with typical modesty. Adam’s admiration for the man, if not the taskmaster, led him to turn down work on Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968). The violent public and press reaction to his next film, ‘A Clockwork Orange’, which Adam also sat out of, was to turn the director’s privacy into manic reclusivity.
‘There was a kind of madness at that time,’ Adam recalls. ‘I remember Stanley and I had a discussion about how he could defend himself against an assassin. He asked me if I had a gun. I hadn’t.’ Despite this, in a weak moment, Adam gave in to Kubrick’s pleas and signed on for ‘Barry Lyndon’ (1975), a candle-lit, location-shot Thackeray adaptation with enormous logistical difficulties.
‘What destroyed me at the time was that I spent 16 hours a day with him. He kept changing his mind, and I was racing around the Irish countryside trying to find locations. When he didn’t like the location, the whole thing would have to be shot again, and [it felt as if] it was my fault. It was a disaster.’ Not such a disaster, ultimately, given that it won Adam his first Oscar.
According to Adam, ‘Barry Lyndon’ – with its extraordinary tracking shots of eighteenth-century armies traversing the Connemara hills – was a dress rehearsal for ‘Napoleon’, a long-vaunted project of Kubrick’s that never came to fruition. ‘Stanley liked to relate to Napoleon,’ Adam says. ‘When he first came to Europe – remember he was a brilliant chess player, too – he explored every battlefield. And then he went through the battles and how he would have won them.’
Despite suffering a breakdown on ‘Barry Lyndon’, Adam went on to cover press duties for his reluctant director, who nonetheless managed to monitor his every word (Adam called him a ‘paranoiac’ in one interview; Kubrick was not best pleased). Despite all this, they remained friends.
‘He was annoyed that I turned him down on other films. But I felt that he was capable of destroying me,’ explains Adam, before going on to describe the escalating demands the director placed on all who worked with him. The picture that Adam paints is of a man of Napoleonic genius and ambition – one of cinema’s greats who enabled many to achieve their finest work – but, also like Napoleon, a man who had no respect for individual human beings.
Does he think that Kubrick’s more extreme behaviour could be justified in the name of great art? Adam sets his jaw: ‘No. No.’
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