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Remembering Ken Adam (1921-2016): Legendary Production Designer of James Bond and ‘Dr. Strangelove’

Remembering Ken Adam (1921-2016): Legendary Production Designer of James Bond and 'Dr. Strangelove'

The avant-garde look of James Bond would not exist without the futuristic vision of Sir Ken Adam, the Berlin-born production designer, who passed away Thursday at the age of 95. Adam introduced the world of 007 in “Dr. No” (1962) with a new kind of Expressionism – electronic and metallic – which he continued in six more Bond films, including “Goldfinger” (1964) and “You Only Live Twice” (1967). He not only created the famous super baddie lairs but also the fully-loaded Aston Martin DB5 introduced in “Goldfinger” and still going strong for Daniel Craig’s sentimental Bond.

Dr. No’s flamboyant Crab Key lair was a combination of Asian and European influences laced with copper and highlighted by a distorted-looking aquarium. Megalomania never looked so sinister and beautiful. Fort Knox was a cathedral-like shrine made of steel and concrete with gold bars stacked to the ceiling, and the million-dollar volcano built at Pinewood was the most magnificent piece of kitsch ever conceived.

Along the way, Adam collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on the absurd “Dr. Strangelove” (1964) – the fiendish War Room would’ve make Fritz Lang blush – and the sublime “Barry Lyndon” (1975, his first Oscar winner). He snagged his second Academy Award for “The Madness of King George” (1994), an outlandish look at royalty, if ever there was one.

It was a delight interviewing Adam 13 years ago in honor of an Academy exhibition, and we spent a glorious hour viewing the linear and circular sketches up close, including the “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (1968) car, which he also designed, an unrealized “Star Trek” film about Spock with Philip Kaufman, the puzzle-laden “Sleuth” (1972),  the Depression-era “Pennies From Heaven” (1981) and the exotic Oscar-winning “The Last Emperor” (1987). These were all indicative of an imaginative designer who gave new meaning to world building as the fusion of aesthetics and psychology.
But what was it like working with Kubrick on “Dr. Strangelove”?
“Well, he had seen ‘Dr. No’ and we hit it off immediately,” Adam recalled. “And I was scribbling ideas about the War Room while we were talking and sitting down. And he asked to see it and he liked it. I thought here was this supposedly difficult director, and my first scribble was good enough. And he had a certain naiveté that fools you at first. New York and Jewish – like Streisand – questioning everything. And then eventually I found out about that brain, that intelligence. At the age of 12, he was a professional chess player, and a brilliant photographer. So we hit it off. We became close friends, and what was helpful too was the fact that I drove him in my Jaguar to and from Shepperton. So I spent about two hours with him every day. At first I had to keep him entertained, so we established a great relationship. And I found how little I knew about films, really, and I had to become much more flexible because he kept changing his mind. So it was a very exciting but draining experience. 

“He worked with [cinematographer Gilbert Taylor], but he came to me too and said he wanted me to design the whole lighting in the War Room [a suspended hoop of harsh fluorescent tubing located above the table but beneath the ceiling that is the room’s only light source]. So in the evening I sat up in a chair and studied which is the best angle. It was all done from that light and we had the phony beams coming from the sides, which were mattes. He was an innovator. He thought this was the best way photographically and artistically to show this claustrophobic atmosphere. He taught me how to be a better production designer by telling me how the sets can be just as important as where you put the camera and how you light a scene.
“After that I thought once was enough. And I was able to turn him down on every subsequent film.”
Except “Barry Lyndon,” and Kubrick tricked Adam on that one. “When he started ‘Barry Lyndon’ and he had his slide shows, the thing that he was drawn to, particularly in the interiors, was Victoriana. And I said, Stanley, you can’t do that. But he said I like it. But by the time we were half way through the picture, he knew more about the 18th century than anybody else.”
But Adam got his revenge with “The Spy Who Loved Me” (1977), luring Kubrick to Pinewood to help solve the lighting of the massive supertanker, which vexed cinematographer Claude Renoir (the son of actor Pierre Renoir, the nephew of director Jean Renoir, and the grandson of painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir).
“I rang Stanley on a Sunday and asked him if he would come and take a look. Knowing his paranoia, I assured him that only the two of us would be there. And to his credit, he came out to Pinewood.  He knew where to put the source lighting. And Renoir never knew and never had a problem.”
With Bond, though, Adam was always innovating. “What people don’t realize today is that our principal on the first Bonds was to be real. Even things that I had nothing to do with like the jet pack in ‘Thunderball’ were real. And sure, the [‘You Only Live Twice’] volcano, I could’ve built parts of it with models, but to see hundreds of stuntmen coming in on ropes and to see actual helicopters flying in added a dimension that was real. Today, they are all done by computer and nothing is left. What is that?”

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