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Ken Adam: drawn to the movies

Meet Sir Kenneth Adam, Kubrick's confidante, 007's creative mastermind and the designer of the world's biggest movie set

TextTim NoakesPhotographyBen Parks

Taken from the October 2008 issue of Dazed: 

When James Bond swaggered into our lives for the 22nd time in Quantum of Solace he was pitched against an eco–warrior gone bad – a man hellbent on controlling Bolivia’s water supply at any cost. Audiences, it seems, have become too clued up to believe in the Bond villains of yore, those cat–stroking loons who, instead of just going to a desert to launch a nuclear warhead, felt compelled to begin Armageddon from inside a hollowed out volcano.

But for all the people wrapped up in Daniel Craig’s CGI-enhanced shorts, there are millions who would secretly prefer a return to the halcyon days of ejector seats, jet packs, suitcase helicopters and underwater sports cars. One of them is Sir Kenneth Adam, the iconic production designer who singlehandedly created the visual aesthetic for over 75 movies, including seven Bond films, two Kubrick masterpieces, The Ipcress File to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

“Personally, I don’t think there was anything wrong with the volcano in You Only Live Twice, says the real-life “Q” with a laugh. “We tried to use special effects but CGI didn’t exist back then. These days anything is possible, but we were trying to cheat the audience as little as possible. So we built things for real. Bond’s Lotus could actually drive underwater. The ejector seat in his Aston Martin worked. His jet pack was a real jet pack, which would cut out after a few minutes in the air and send the stuntman crashing down to the ground – if he wasn’t lucky.”

Holding court in the study of his palatial Knightsbridge town house, Ken, as he prefers to be called, has lived a life most people can only dream of. “That was the plane I flew in the war,” he says, pointing to a model sitting in the corner of the room. “A Hawker Typhoon. But that was long before your time...”

Situated just a few feet away from his OBE, a couple of honorary doctorships and two shiny Oscars, the tiny toy plane symbolises the start of one of Hollywood’s most amazing, yet comparatively underreported, journeys. Born Klaus Hugo Adam in Berlin in 1921, Ken had an early affinity with model making and design, spending countless hours sketching cars, planes, and buildings. After his Jewish family fled Nazi persecution in 1934, he went to school in Edinburgh and London, eventually studying architecture at UCL’s prestigious Bartlett School. “As a teenager I was never quite sure whether I wanted to be a theatrical designer or a film designer,” he states with a noticeable German twang to his English accent.

“I always knew I wanted to be one of them, particularly after watching The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. That film was so imaginative. It made me want to incoporate theatrics into actual film design.” However, before he got his first movie job, he signed up as a pilot in the RAF, earning the distinction of being the only German national to fight for the allied forces.

Critics have claimed that it was Adam’s WWII experiences which provided the primary inspiration for Bond’s darkest death traps – concentration camps re–imagined as private torture lairs built by crackpots. Ken, however, is ambivalent about the comparison. “My work on Bond had nothing to do with my past, in relation to Germany and the second world war,” he says. “I always did things tongue in cheek. I never took it very seriously and I think that was very important, certainly on the Bond films.”

His first 007 assignment came in 1962 with the film adaptation of Dr No. In the years leading up to it, he cut his teeth as a draughtsman at Riverside Studios, and later worked alongside Gone With the Wind production designer William Cameron Menzies, who encouraged Ken to use bold colours and stylised sets.

After completing work on films such as Sodom and Gomorrah, Around the World in 80 Days, and The Trials of Oscar Wilde, he was offered the Bond gig. On set in Kingston, Jamaica he encountered a young boy who was also destined to shape the course of popular culture, although through music, not film.

“I had a 19-year-old assistant called Chris Blackwell,” recalls Ken, folding his arms on to his belly. “We used to waterski a lot in Kingston harbour, which was foolish in those days because it was full of sharks. One lunchtime we had been drinking quite a lot and I decided to go waterskiing. And would you believe it, the towrope snapped! I had seen a white shark a few minutes before it happened and I was just floating around waiting to be bitten! Thankfully, Chris circled around and picked me up before I could get eaten. He really wanted to be in film, but I said ‘Chris, you are so musical, you know every group on the island, follow that.’ We drifted apart after he set up Island Records. But, you know, it’s understandable, he became a billionaire.”

After his shark experience, Ken flew back to London and filled up three sound stages with a nuclear reactor, a tarantula room and Dr No’s sleekly modern apartment, offset with classical paintings. He then waited nervously for producers Cubby Broccoli and Terence Young to come back from Jamaica and pass judgement. They loved his futuristic vision and two years later asked him to recreate Fort Knox for Goldfinger. In typical grandiose style, he drew a monument to gold, reasoning that normal bank vaults were too boring for an audience to look at.

“I sketched something that resembled a prison. It was 40ft high and full of grilles with the gold situated behind the bars. None of the producers liked it, but I convinced them that the audience wanted to be in the position of Bond – looking at this gold from the outside. They finally agreed. That was the last time – certainly on a Bond film – that I had a problem convincing anyone of my ideas because they became less and less about the books, and more and more about the visual look.”

“It was like a marriage. Kubrick was unbelievably possessive and very difficult to work with because he knew every other part of filmmaking, but not design” – Ken Adam

In between Dr No and Goldfinger, Ken was hired by Stanley Kubrick to work on his cold war satire Dr Strangelove. It was the start of an intense working relationship that would win Ken an Oscar for Barry Lyndon, but also lead to a nervous breakdown.

“Kubrick had seen Dr No and loved it,” Ken says, tugging back a lungful of cigar smoke. “He asked if I would be interested in doing a picture for him. I went to see him and he had a lot of charm and curiosity, but I also felt he was very naïïve. Little did I know that there was this gigantic computer-like brain functioning all the time!” He sketched out an idea for the film’s centrepiece – a split-level War Room. Kubrick liked it at first but scrapped it after wondering what he would use the second level for. Ken then drew an imposing triangular design, with the director standing behind him commenting on every stroke. “We were too close,” he continues. “It was like a marriage. He was unbelievably possessive and very difficult to work with because he knew every other part of filmmaking, but not design. He was suspicious and I had to intellectually justify every line I drew. That can be so destroying to deal with day after day.”

Eventually they came to an understanding, and Ken constructed the iconic set at Shepperton Studios. Angular, dark, and highly forboding, the War Room’s only source of light was a gigantic suspended ring of light above a huge conference table. “Years later, president Reagan asked his chief of staff to show him the War Room that he had seen in Dr Strangelove,” Ken chuckles. “He actually thought it was real!”

Even though the film was shot in black-and-white, the table was covered with green poker table felt, so the actors would feel like they were really bluffing for the future of humanity. The mind games carried on behind the camera. “I put a chess set on the War Room set because Kubrick said to me, ‘I’ve got to beat George C Scott every day so he’ll eat out of my hands’.

"He loved being in control. I used to drive him to the set and back again every day, at a top speed of 30mph because he was scared to go any faster. He was fascinated with my war experience and we talked about doing a film about fighter pilots in the First World War. We got to know each other pretty well. Compared to most people, I found him quite easy to take because I could argue my point. That changed eventually.”

In the months and years after Dr Strangelove, Ken made sets for The Ipcress File and Sleuth, and fused together a Rolls-Royce and a Bugatti to create Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's famous flying hovercraft car – or as Ken now refers to it, “That bloody car!”

“One lunchtime we had been drinking quite a lot and I decided to go waterskiing. And would you believe it, the towrope snapped! I had seen a white shark a few minutes before it happened and I was just floating around waiting to be bitten!” – Ken Adam

But all of these were small potatoes compared to the volcano missile bunker he built for You Only Live Twice. “I could have built a model,” he ponders. “But then we couldn’t have flown a real helicopter into it or had 200 stuntmen abseil in from the roof. It took three months to build, stood 120ft tall and used 700 tonnes of steel. Although I did feel sorry for the men who had to hang up there in the middle of the night and make the fibreglass roof.

"One night I drove out to Pinewood at midnight and gave them two bottles of brandy to keep them happy. But I don’t think that they really minded, because something like that had never been done before.”

By the early 70s, Ken’s imagination had made him Hollywood’s most celebrated production designer, and in 1975 he got another call from Kubrick, who was preparing to come out of hiding after the fallout from A Clockwork Orange. He wanted to re-tell Barry Lyndon, Thackeray’s candle-lit ode to the Regency period. Ken reluctantly agreed. He had happily passed on the opportunity to work on 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“Stanley got very nasty menacing letters from people threatening to take his life after Clockwork Orange, so when we were preparing for Barry Lyndon he wouldn’t move out of his house for six months. I said, ‘How can you make a film on location when you don’t go out?’ So he employed an army of young photographers to take pictures of stately homes. No one was allowed to say anything about his paranoia. He controlled everything you said in the press.”

Physically exhausted, Ken had a nervous breakdown on set. Kubrick fired everyone for six weeks, and retreated to an Irish bolthole to rethink the film. “I can cope with normal pressure,” he says, with a gutsy laugh. “But it wasn’t normal pressure. I had to go into a clinic. Stanley was more worried than I was. I was beyond worrying really. He rang me every day but wasn’t able to talk to me because my psychiatrist wanted to cut this umbilical cord between us. Which he never managed to do, actually.

"When I finally came back to this house, he rang up and asked me if I wanted to direct a scene over in Germany. The moment I heard that, I was back in the clinic.” Ironically, Barry Lyndon, the first film that he had not sketched out any set designs for – it was all shot on location – won Ken his first Oscar. “Yes, it was ironic!” he exclaims. “But nothing is worth that recognition if you lose your life. It really was that serious.”

After Barry Lyndon, Ken went on to work on two more huge Bonds – Moonraker, and The Spy Who Loved Me, for which he designed the world’s biggest movie set – a nuclear submarine-docking bay. It was such a national achievement, the set was opened by prime minister Harold Wilson (“I still have no idea why!” splutters Ken).

In 1993, he designed a gothic mansion for Addams Family Values, and a year later won his second Oscar for The Madness of King George. The film’s aesthetic was based on his pre-Kubrick ideas for Barry Lyndon.

Now 93 years old, Ken fills his days sketching new architectural ideas, swimming at the RAC club, chuffing back big cigars, and driving around town in the gleaming Silver Cloud Rolls-Royce he’s owned since 1969. In Berlin he picked up a lifetime achievement by the Raymond Loewy Foundation, plus the €50,000 cheque that came along with it. It may not be as prestigious as the OBE he collected from the Queen in 2001, but it seemed fitting that Sir Ken was finally getting formally recognised in the place where his extraordinary journey began.

“I recently found this interesting letter from Stanley,” he says, before reading from a piece of paper sat next to his beloved model warplane. “'Ken, The fact that you have become a ‘star’ should not cause you to act like one.' Believe me, that was nothing! You should read the rest of it!”

This feature originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Dazed