Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Open the bomb bay doors, please, Ken…”

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Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove

After the legendary production designer Ken Adam died last week, I found myself browsing through the book Ken Adam: The Art of Production Design, a wonderfully detailed series of interviews that he conducted with the cultural historian Christopher Frayling. It’s full of great stories, but the one I found myself pondering the most is from the making of Dr. Strangelove. Stanley Kubrick had just cast Slim Pickens in the role of Major Kong, the pilot of the B-52 bomber that inadvertently ends up triggering the end of the world, and it led the director to a sudden brainstorm. Here’s how Adam tells it:

[The bomber set] didn’t have practical bomb doors—we didn’t need them in the script at that time—and the set was almost ready to shoot. And Stanley said, “We need practical bomb doors.” He wanted this Texan cowboy to ride the bomb like a bronco into the Russian missile site. I did some setups, sketches for the whole thing, and Stanley asked me when it would be ready. I said, “If I work three crews twenty-four hours a day, you still won’t have it for at least a week, and that’s too late.” So now I arrive at Shepperton and I’m having kittens because I knew it was a fantastic idea but physically, mechanically, we couldn’t get it done. So again it was Wally Veevers, our special effects man, who saved the day, saying he’d sleep on it and come up with an idea. He always did that, even though he was having heart problems and wasn’t well. Wally came back and said, “We’re going to take a ten-by-eight still of the bomb bay interior, cut out the bomb-door opening, and shoot the bomb coming down against blue backing.” And that’s the way they did it.

I love this story for a lot of reasons. The first is the rare opportunity it affords to follow Kubrick’s train of thought. He had cast Peter Sellers, who was already playing three other lead roles, as Major Kong, but the performance wasn’t working, and when Sellers injured his ankle, Kubrick used this as an excuse to bring in another actor. Slim Pickens brought his own aura of associations, leading Kubrick to the movie’s single most memorable image, which now seems all but inevitable. And he seemed confident that any practical difficulties could be overcome. As Adam says elsewhere:

[Kubrick] had this famous theory in those days that the director had the right to change his mind up until the moment the cameras started turning. But he changed his mind after the cameras were rolling! For me, it was enormously demanding, because until then I was basically a pretty organized person. But I wasn’t yet flexible enough to meet these sometimes impossible demands that he came up with. So I was going through an anxiety crisis. But at the same time I knew that every time he changed his mind, he came up with a brilliant idea. So I knew I had to meet his demands in some way, even if it seemed impossible from a practical point of view.

Which just serves as a reminder that for Kubrick, who is so often characterized as the most meticulous and obsessive of directors, an intense level of preparation existed primarily to enable those moments in which the plan could be thrown away—a point that even his admirers often overlook.

Design by Ken Adam for Dr. Strangelove

It’s also obvious that Kubrick couldn’t have done any of this if he hadn’t surrounded himself with brilliant collaborators, and his reliance on Adam testifies to his belief that he had found someone who could translate his ideas into reality. (He tried and failed to get Adam to work with him on 2001, and the two reunited for Barry Lyndon, for which Adam deservedly won an Oscar.) We don’t tend to think of Dr. Strangelove as a movie that solved enormous technical problems in the way that some of Kubrick’s other projects did, but like any film, it presented obstacles that most viewers will never notice. Creating the huge maps in the war room, for instance, required a thousand hundred-watt bulbs installed behind perspex, along with an improvised air-conditioning system to prevent the heat from blistering the transparencies. Like the bomb bay doors, it’s the sort of issue that would probably be solved today with digital effects, but the need to address it on the set contributes to the air of authenticity that the story demands. Dr. Strangelove wouldn’t be nearly as funny if its insanities weren’t set against a backdrop of painstaking realism. Major Kong is a loving caricature, but the bomber he flies isn’t: it was reconstructed down to the tiniest detail from photos in aeronautical magazines. And there’s a sense in which Kubrick, like Christopher Nolan, embraced big logistical challenges as a way to combat a tendency to live in his own head—which is the one thing that these two directors, who are so often mentioned together, really do have in common.

There’s also no question that this was hard on Ken Adam, who was driven to something close to a nervous breakdown during the filming of Barry Lyndon. He says:

I became so neurotic that I bore all of Stanley’s crazy decisions on my own shoulders. I was always apologizing to actors for something that had gone wrong. I felt responsible for every detail of Stanley’s film, for all his mistakes and neuroses. I was apologizing to actors for Stanley’s unreasonable demands.

In Frayling’s words, Adam was “the man in the middle, with a vengeance.” And if he ended up acting as the ambassador, self-appointed or otherwise, between Kubrick and the cast and crew, it isn’t hard to see why: the production designer, then as now, provides the primary interface between the vision on the page—or in the director’s head—and its realization as something that can be captured on film. It’s a role that deserves all the more respect at a time when physical sets are increasingly being replaced by digital environments that live somewhere on a hard drive at Weta Digital. A director is not a designer, and even Adam says that Kubrick “didn’t know how to design,” although he also states that the latter could have taken over any number of the other technical departments. (This wasn’t just flattery, either. Years later, Adam would call Kubrick, in secret, to help him light the enormous supertanker set for The Spy Who Loved Me.) A director has to be good at many things, but it all emerges from a willingness to confront the problems that arise where the perfect collides with the possible. And it’s to the lasting credit of both Kubrick and Adam that they never flinched from that single combat, toe to toe with reality.

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