Ahorn | Friday March 11th, 2016 | 13
In memoriam Ken Adam – first published on June 7, 2012.
By Andrew Horn
This was an interview I did a few years ago for an article that was much too short to take advantage of the material. Ken Adam is a production designer responsible for the early James Bond films (into the Roger Moore era), Dr. Strangelove (whose War Room Set caused President elect Ronald Regan great disappointment when he found out it didn’t really exist) and, although not specifically credited as such, the movie version of Pennies From Heaven (whose visual stylization all but made me feel like I might as well just give up and go home). And a lot of others, many of them pretty cool. I was always somehow interested in production design and talking to him definitely made me feel like I wish I had his job.
Q: Obviously the first question would have to be: what exactly does it mean to be a production designer anyway?
Basically, designers are responsible for the whole visual concept for the film, because you are normally employed before the camera man and so you work it out with the director. I was one of the first to use that title after William Cameron Menzies, who [as production designer on Gone With The Wind] invented the term, and what I’ve found was that it enabled me to work much more closely with the director and also to deal with design changes which might effect the script. I would use an art director to deal more with the practical work in budgeting and so on, and it gave me more freedom to have an overall control of the look of the film and to translate a piece of written paper into visual terms.
Q: How much would this overlap with visual concept of the director?
A good director normally has a concept, but then he employs a designer to either interpret his concept or improve on it, and so it’s a very close collaboration. The director is the captain of the ship, he is in charge of the whole thing, but I have always found if I have a very good relationship with the director, it improves the creative elements and it normally turns out to be a good picture.
I read a scene and then I start scribbling and it is mostly intuitive what I come up with. It is my scribble and I know when I do something good, I see that scribble and it’s almost like an orgasm. You say jesus, that looks interesting, so from then you try to convince the director or whoever has to be convinced, and try to create something for the film at whatever means you have at your disposal.
You know, from the beginning you have to assert yourself and you have to convince the director and producer that you know what you are doing and so on. Particularly when you come up with a different idea, or a concept that nobody may have expected – you have to have the ability to convince the director or producer of your ideas. And that’s important. You might be the most talented guy in the world but if you haven’t got the ability to sell your ideas..well forget it. Particularly if you come up with some way-out ideas as I used to do on the Bonds or something like that. And they were not at all open initially – don’t you believe it!
I was very fortunate that I had a director like Terence Young on the first picture and, although we never worked together, he was a fan of mine and I was a fan of his and he left it to me. And already on the second one which I think was Goldfinger – I didn’t do From Russia With Love, I was working on Strangelove. On Goldfinger I came up with way-out ideas, the rumpus room, Fort Knox – which was completely unrealistic – and so on. And Cubby (Broccoli) and Harry (Salzman) were not at all convinced that these were the right ideas and in fact they criticized that it looked like a prison. And that was exactly what I wanted, you know, the audience behind bars looking at gold piled up to heaven and so on. But they accepted that and Guy (Hamilton) accepted that. And then eventually the more successful these films became, the more they relied on my designs and my ideas.
I think it’s a question of the fact that there are no set rules. Your function is pretty clear, and that is, you get a script, and you should visualize that script, and how far you can go is really up to the individual.
Q: How much actual control do you have, or want to have, or be allowed to have on a film?
That depends on the film and the relationship you have with the director. I am always interested in the lighting and normally in my sketches, however rough they might be, there is an element of chiaroscuro or lighting in it to stimulate the DP. I don’t think it’s a question of being “allowed” or not, I think it’s my job.
I think what I normally do, I get a script and I think from my earliest times, since already from the 50s I think, before I accept a film I have to see a script. Then I normally discuss a script the script with the director to find out the way, or what he feels about it. And even with some great directors, like Joe Mankiewicz on Sleuth, we spent 10 days together discussing the original play and his concept of it. And then he said now it’s over to you, and I leave everything to you, and I shan’t bother you anymore. He actually was quite cynical about it, he said “if you make a success of it, I as a director, will take the credit and if you screw up I can always blame you.”
Q: And how was this working with someone like Kubrick, who’d probably never say something like that?
Well, Kubrick was a very visual director obviously. We had a very close relationship but he was not a designer himself. I mean, he could do almost any function of a film technician, you name it, he was a brilliant cameraman and brilliant with the lighting and so on, but he couldn’t really design. So I used stimulate him with my sort of thumbnail sketches and that might set up a reaction in him, and maybe something else comes out in the end. So it was a very collaborative effort and we were very close.
Here’s a little anecdote that I will never forget. I used to drive him to and from the studio every day and one morning I opened the local newspaper, The Daily Express, and I see a long article on Stanley Kubrick and how he visualized the War Room and his concept so on, and I was livid. I arrived in his kitchen to collect him to take him to the studio and I say, Stanley have you seen the Daily Express? and he said, I haven’t seen it, and I said, well you better read it, because they talk about you’re concept and…! And he said, I never said that, and I said, I can’t believe that you didn’t say it because a journalist I know wrote it, and so on and so on. And he said, Ken, keep your shirt on I tell you what we do, I will take out an ad in the Hollywood Reporter and Variety, “Stanley Kubrick thanks Ken Adam for his brilliant concept of the War Room” and both of us split the cost [Ken starts laughing].
Again, I don’t think you can put set rules to it. They are all hopefully creative people and it’s a collaborative creative effort, you know. And sometimes you create or contribute more than people on other pictures, you know. And the best proof possibly is Gone With The Wind where Cameron Menzies sketched out every frame or had every frame sketched out. And then Selznick decided to give him the credit of Production Design by Wm Cameron Menzies. And he deserved it.
I remember being attacked when I was insisting on being called production designer in the late 50s, I was also at that time the president of the Guild, or whatever it was, in England and we had some pretty heated discussions, isn’t Art Director good enough and I said it’s not a question of that but I think I can contribute more to a film as a production designer. And of course I had worked with Bill Cameron Menzies on Around The World In 80 Days and he was a big influence on me. Of course nowadays everybody’s a production designer.