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Ken Adam

Caption
Master production designer Ken Adam

A Kubrick Masterclass with Sir Ken Adam, Hosted by Sir Christopher Frayling
 
Co-presented by The National Film & Television School and The Script Factory
Curzon Soho, London, 6 November 2005

 
Extracts from the conversation

Christopher Frayling
With Goldfinger where the set piece is Fort Knox, how can you as a designer imagine a place which no one is allowed to go and see?
 
Ken Adam
Well, I was really delighted because I once saw the exterior of Fort Knox which was Art Deco, 1920s style and didnít look at all exciting. But the fact that I wasnít allowed inside helped me because it would have been quite dull, and really the audience just wants to see gold. It is the biggest gold depository in the world, so it gave me an opportunity to build a setting like a cathedral of gold piled up forty foot high, behind an enormous grill, with the public being kept out by this enormous grill. At that time it was difficult to convince Harry Saltzman, Cubby Broccoli and Guy Hamilton that it was the right concept. Eventually, I talked them all into it, and from then on, certainly on the Bonds, it became much easier for me to assert myself.
 
CF
When doing the research for Fort Knox, you went to the Bank of Englandís vaults, and discovered that the gold is actually piled about two blocks high or else it becomes very heavy and all the floors would have collapsed.
 
KA
Yes, it becomes very heavy! It was completely impractical to pile the gold as high as you see it in the films. But itís not that I like to fool the audience, but because I feel I can help to create a reality that you, the audience, are much more liable to accept, rather than by showing you reality. The proof was that United Artists, after Goldfinger was released, received between two and three hundred irate letters saying, how was it that that a British film director and film unit were allowed inside Fort Knox when the president of the United States himself is not allowed to go there.
 
CF
Everyoneís idea of Fort Knox is now the last reel of Goldfinger, which is the same thing, in a way, because you have specialised in creating images of secret places that are more real than the real thing. Your other great example of that is the war room in Doctor Strangelove, where it is said that when Ronald Reagan was elected president, the first thing he said when he went to Washington was, can I please see the war room? He then had to be told that there wasnít one. Can you take us through the design Ė give us a sort of Kubrick masterclass? So, Doctor Strangelove, the script arrives; interior: war room; underneath the PentagonÖ!
 
KA
Of course, we were very young. This was 1962, and Iíd never met Stanley, heíd never met me. But heíd seen Dr No, and as a result, he called me and asked me to do Dr Strangelove. During our first or second discussion, I was doodling away as I normally do, and I came up with the idea of a two level set. Like an amphitheatre. Obviously, research was limited. There was a place called NORAD, which was very uninteresting. In fact I thought the space launch centres were more interesting. So I came up with the two level set, and Stanley seemed to love it. I thought, here I am working with a man with a difficult reputation, and he immediately accepts my first designs. I studied the art of Barman of doing working drawings, and so on. I drove Stanley to and from the studio every day. Two and a half weeks later, he said, Ken, Iíve got to have at least sixty or seventy people on the second level; what am I going to do with them? I said, well Stanley, youíre the director. He said, it doesnít work that way. Youíve got to start re-thinking. I really flipped because I was relatively inexperienced. Suddenly, after three weeks, now I had to come up with a completely new concept. I had to calm myself down by walking in the gardens of Shepperton. Then I went back to my office, and started doodling again. Stanley was standing behind me, and fortunately, when I came up with the triangularised shape, he said, a triangle is the strongest geometric form, isnít it? I said yes, Stanley. He said, what are you going to do with the texture on the walls? I said: reinforced concrete. He said, like a gigantic bomb shelter? That sold him. And that was how that set was really conceived. In hindsight, when I look at my designs, thereís always a circle somewhere. So, I had a big circular table, with a light ring above it. Stanley said that I had to cover it in green felt, but it was a black and white picture. So I said, why green felt? He said itís got to be green, I want the audience to feel that they are playing a poker game for the fate of the world. And remember, that was during the Cuban missile crisis, and we were all pretty scared. Then he decided the that circular light fitting I had designed was going to not only light all the actors sitting around the table, but the whole sequence in the war room was to be lit from that light as well.
 
CF
Obviously, he was obsessed by the idea of the triangle. But because you donít get the long shot of the war room, you donít really get that impression. What Ken means is that youíve got the maps on a slant on the right, youíve got the reinforced concrete on the left, youíve got a shiny black floor, and if you stand back from it, the whole design is triangular. He took some long shots, but theyíre not in the film. Itís all very close on the table.
 
KA
Funny you should bring that up. I was furious with Stanley because in those days, the production designer/art director normally did an establishing shot for the set to sell it. So my establishing shot for that famous set is more or less triangular. But after we had shot for two or three days, I went to Stanley, and said, Ďyou still havenít done the establishing shot!í He said, Ďdonít worry, Iím not going to do an establishing shot, because I want the audience to feel theyíre in space and not know where they are. I want to establish the action slowly, with the setting, and possibly Iíll end up with the long shot that you have designedí. He was, of course, absolutely right. Photographically and dramatically, itís still one of the great scenes.
 
CF
Itís one of your masterpieces. Stephen Spielberg referred to the war room as one of the greatest special effects in the history of the movies. Itís up there with the house in Psycho, and all the great sets that everyone remembers. You say that Stanley Kubrick chose you because of Dr No, but you entered the industry in the late forties as a draughtsman, and then became Assistant Art Director, then Art Director, then in the fifties, about the time of Around the World in 80 Days, then Production Designer in the late fifties. Dr No was the breakthrough movie for you in a way. It was the one that really got your name known.
 
KA
Yes, particularly for these tongue in cheek futuristic movies. But the first movie that really got critical acclaim was a film which I did for Kevin Brockley before then called The Trials of Oscar Wilde with Peter Finch. It was a period picture, and I had to stylise a lot of the settings because I didnít have the money. It was the first time critics like Alex Walker gave great reviews to my work in the film. In fact, Luchino Visconti was president at the time of the Moscow Film Festival in í61, and gave me first prize for best art direction.
 

CF
That was your first award. You had been nominated for Around the World in 80 Days. The Trials of Oscar Wilde was interesting because itís a classic example of when a subject is in the public domain, because there were two films about Oscar Wilde being made simultaneously. One with Robert Morely as Oscar Wilde, and the other with Peter Finch (which was the one which Ken was designing). It was a huge race against time to see who would get it made first.
 
KA
One is in black and white (with Robert Morely), and ours was colour. We were fortunate in a way, because one of Cubby Broccoliís partners, the senior partner, an American producer called Irving Allen, who was actually a bit of a monster, was also a brilliant editor before he became a producer. What he did, he started four completely independent editing rooms at the same time as we were shooting, and as a result, the film was on the screen in the West End seven weeks after weíd started filming. And Ken Hughes, who was directing it, hated Irving Allen, and Irving was not allowed on the set. If he came on the stage, Ken would stop shooting. But he brilliantly got the film ready in seven weeks.
 
CF
And on a budget too. The most famous example is the Marquess of Queensburyís apartment, which you did for tuppence haí penny, which looked fantastic.
 
KA
Which was completely stylised. It was pinching bits and pieces from some of the other sets Iíd done.
 
CF
Then with Dr No, lots of trademarks begin to appear. The shot where Dr No is introduced, but we donít see him, we just hear his voice. Then the professor steps forward, and you have a circular grill in the ceiling which is like a spiderís web, throwing distorted shadows on the floor. But it wasnít a particularly elaborate set, was it?
 
KA
Not at all. That was really an afterthought, because we had really forgotten about that set. It was on the last week of shooting, and Terence Young (the director) came to me, and said that he needed something simple for the first meeting of Professor Dent and Dr No. So I came up with the idea of the big circle in the ceiling, and we built the set on a raised platform so that I could slope the ceiling down to get more of the circle into the frame. I think the whole thing was done for five or six hundred pounds, and I showed the set to Terence before lunch and he said: Ken, let me give you a word of advice, if you want me to see that whole circle in the establishing shot, you have to extend the ceiling piece by another ten feet. So I said: Iíll do it. And he was right. During the lunch hour, we extended the ceiling piece another ten feet, and thatís why you get the incredible full circle. And Ted Moore did a brilliant job with the lighting.
 
CF
That is only a little snippet in Dr No, but itís very striking. And it says a lot about where you came from. You grew up in Berlin in the 1920s and came over to Britain in 1934, and youíd seen Caligari and Metropolis, all these German Impressionist films. And the spider and his web was pure Impressionism. And then the criminal mastermind who is only a voice. Itís like a Fritz Lang moment in a way. But then you get to Dr Noís apartment, which is equally characteristic in lots of different way. There is a curious mixture of antique and modern, so you have all these antique furniture, fixtures and fittings with a very modern aquarium in the background with the fish. Tell us about the aquarium.
 
KA
Well, remember we had no money. We made the whole of Dr No for just less than $1 million and my budget was £14,000. I told Harry that I couldnít do it for that. But they had £6,000 stashed away somewhere. So we did it for £20,000 in the end. So for the idea of his living room being under the sea, I came up with a big glass screen with the fish behind it. But we couldnít afford to send a unit to shoot some aquarium fish, so we had to get some stock footage, and nobody knew what was going to be on that stock footage until we shot the scene. We suddenly found out that they were goldfish sized fish which were rear projected to about fifteen times their size, which looked ridiculous to some extent. So they put a line in the script of them magnifying the aquarium.
 
CF
Itís very clever, and an interesting example of how already in the first Bond film, the sets are beginning to affect the script. Connery says to Dr No, ďa minnow has blown up a shark Ė itís your psychology Dr NoĒ. So they make a point of the magnification. And as the Bond films progress, they were almost built around your sets, such as You Only Live Twice.
 
KA
Yes, because we had less and less script material, you see. We ran out of Ian Fleming!
 
CF
There was a touch in Dr No which I love, where Connery and Ursula Andress go into the apartment, and on an easel is the Goya Wellington, which had been stolen from the National Gallery the previous year, and it was a wonderful double take for everyone in the audience. Was that your idea?
 
KA
No! But it was amazing, and I have to go into some detail here. I was lucky when I designed Dr No, because of the low budget and the fact that everybody wanted to be in Jamaica, which was the Caribbean and the good weather, to shoot the locations. I started it off, then had to dash back to London to fill three stages at Pinewood with settings. I had absolutely no input from anybody. Terence was a friend of mine, and he said Iíll leave it to you, providing Iíll give you entrances and exits. But the concepts are yours. So I filled three stages full of settings which were slightly ahead of their time, but always tongue in cheek, and I also wanted to reflect new film construction materials, and the era of the Sixties that we were just about to live in. Iíll never forget when Terence and the two producers arrived on the Friday at Pinewood, and we started shooting the next Monday, and they looked at the three stages on this particular set, and Cubby said for some reason that it looks like Leo Carilloís ranchhouse. Iíd never heard of Leo Carillo.
 
CF
He was the San Francisco kid.
 
KA
It eased the whole tension and atmosphere, and Terence loved it. That started everybody coming up with ideas. So when I said it wasnít my idea, I think it was one of the writers called Johanna Harwood, who said wouldnít it be great if we had some famous art treasure or something here. As you remember, the Goya had recently been stolen from the National Gallery, so I rang them up and they let me have a slide, and I projected it in my house to copy.
 
CF
So you did the painting yourself?
 
KA
Yes.
 
CF
It was very good because sometimes the masters in these films arenít up to it. It looks like the real thing; Scotland Yard may have been phoning you!
 
KA
They used it to publicise for several years. It was at the first night. But then it disappeared, and nobody knows where itís gone to.
 
Audience Member
Salon Kitty: why?!
 
CF
[Laughter] Ken designed a film for an Italian director called Tinto Brass just after he designed Barry Lyndon called Salon Kitty. Itís a soft porn, Nazi deco movie!
 
KA
It was a saving grace for me for several reasons. I had just done Berlin, and I had become very ill with a nervous breakdown. And I had to re-start my life completely because everything had crashed around me. Tinto Brass came to London and wanted me to design this film. So it was the first film I did after my breakdown. Tinto was a very clever director, and Salon Kitty was actually a true story although not necessarily the way he shot it. We went to Berlin, and I saw the actual brothel which had been off the Kurfurstendam, and the cellar still existed, although they had taken away the wax cylinders. But you could see the cubicles where they had the listening devices where the SS used to listen to famous VIP generals, or foreign ambassadors having a bit of fun. But I didnít realise at that time Tintoís obsession with sex, which becomes very apparent in that film.
 
CF
For those who have been watching the BBC series, Rome, I think Tinto Brassís Caligula also had an influence.
 
KA
I think the series is awful!
 
CF
I think that Salon Kitty as design is a remarkable film because itís art nouveau. Pre-nazi, itís art nouveau, then it turns into deco, and you get a larger than life art deco interior. Visually, it knocks spots off Cabaret.
 
KA
The clever sequence with Eva Toulon playing on one side a man and on the other side a woman is quite brilliant.
 
CF
So if you turn down the soundtrack and just watch the design itís a great movieÖ
 
KA
What has happened, unfortunately, I showed Christopher and some old friends because I found an old video of it, and it was soft porn, but even some of my titled ladies seemed to enjoy it. So I rang up Tinto in Rome, and I said people really liked Salon Kitty. To cut a long story short, you told me, have you seen the latest Salon Kitty, and Tinto was so encouraged by that that he re-released the film, with all the pornography in it. Now itís awful.
 
CF
The directorís cut of Salon Kitty is quite something.
 
KA
Even Sir Christopher Frayling apparently was deeply shaken!
 
CF
No I wasnít.
 
KA
You were! You said, I might be arrested watching this! [Laughter]
 
CF
I wasnít sure that everyone was watching the design. Itís like that wonderful photograph of Christine Keeler, sitting on the chair, all the furniture designers say, is that the Aaron Jakobson wooden model? They the only people in the world who are looking at the chair.
 
AM
I heard that you were involved in a computer game [Goldeneye: Rogue Agent]. I was wondering what you thought of the increasing use of CGI and green screen. Do you think it is something of a mixed blessing?
 
KA
I think itís a fantastic tool, and should be used as such. With any new invention or process, producers and some directors feel that itís the answer to all our problems. It obviously isnít. Itís great if itís used to create certain effects that would have cost a fortune, or which we were unable to get before. It creates a lot of technical problems, particularly for the actors. I grew up with great actors in this country and in America. The setting, to them, was most important. Particularly if it was a well-designed set, reflecting the character they were playing. People like Olivier and Marlon Brando loved the surroundings of the set, and it inspired them in the use of props. Nowadays, itís in front of a green screen, and sometimes you get on a video what is going to happen, but itís a completely different technique in acting.
 
CF
Looking at your sets, and knowing that they were real like the missiles inside the volcano in You Only Live Twice, or the submarines inside the super tanker in The Spy Who Loved Me, knowing that you actually built them leads to a different kind of suspension of disbelief to CGI, where in some ways, realism has taken a step backwards. A sheen comes over the image, and you get thousands of orcs or whatever it is, and in some ways itís less believable, than the work you did.
 
KA
Youíre absolutely right.
 
CF
The Aston Martin actually did those things it seemed to.
 
KA
Talking particularly about the Bonds, some of my grand nephews, they enjoyed the first eight or nine Bonds, but they know the latest ones are tricks. But what we tried to do is try to cheat the audience as little as possible Ė to build everything for real. Obviously, you couldnít very well kill people with machine guns, but the jet pack in Thunderball was real and very dangerous.
 
CF
And the gyrocopter in You Only Live Twice.
 
KA
Yes, it was all real. So I think the young audience of today know the difference. I feel the danger today is that directors fall in love with CGI where everything is possible. As a result, you have two million people attacking a city, whereas normally you would use eight or nine hundred extras, or like on Ghandi, maybe ten thousand. It stated off with computer games. When I did the Electronic Arts game, they said to me that this is great because now I donít have to worry about set sizes or cost, because weíre going to build it all on the computer. Mind you, I learnt a lot: that I canít carry on with a minimalist approach to design, because then the gaming department complained that they didnít have enough places to hide behind, or shoot behind.
 
CF
And multiple points of view is the big thing. With your single point of view sets, suddenly, the person playing the game can go into utility rooms or behind pillars; itís a completely different concept, isnít it?
 
KA
Yes. The other thing that I didnít realise, dealing with Fort Knox, was that they couldnít get the reflective surfaces of gold. I was working here in London, and they sent me a disc. I couldnít believe it: all the gold is in crates, so you get a little bit of gleaming yellow. I immediately get on the phone and say: what happened? They said they were having big problems with reflection. I said what about all my reflected surfaces? I used stainless steel, gunmetal. They couldnít do it. When they offered me the next game (which I turned down because they hadnít done it), they said: it depends on what processes theyíre using. I canít remember whether it was X-Box or whatever. But if it had been a computer game, then they could have dealt with these reflections. So itís a new art form, a very important art form in its embryo stages. And itís unbelievably competitive because thereís so much money involved.
 
CF
In between Dr No and Moonraker, you did seven Bonds, and there was a saying in the industry where theyíd talk about who was the real star of James Bond: is it Connery, Moore, Lazenby or Pierce Brosnan? The answer is of course that the real star was Ken Adam!
Connery is Bond against Honor Blackman's Pussy Galore in <i>Goldfinger</i>
Connery is Bond against Honor Blackman's Pussy Galore in Goldfinger

 

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