request | Filmmaker Magazine
CHECK-UP WITH DR. STRANGELOVE
By Terry Southern. Introduction by Nile Southern. In 1963, as Stanley Kubrick began production on Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Terry Southern completed a profile of the director for Esquire, which promply shelved it. Earlier this summer it was finally printed in Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot To Print (Nation Books), edited by David Wallis. The abridged version of Southern’s article that follows is reprinted on the occasion of Sony Pictures Repertory’s 40th anniversary presentation of Dr. Strangelove this fall.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF FILM FORUM.

This is really the story of two killings.

In the summer of ’62, my father received a fateful assignment from Esquire to interview Stanley Kubrick whose film Lolita was about to be released. Terry admired Paths of Glory, The Killing, and Spartacus and, despite the list of canned (mostly trivial) questions from Esquire, engaged Kubrick in a provocative discussion about film, literature, and eroticism. After submitting the piece through his agent, it was clear Esquire wanted something more “gossipy” on Kubrick. Hoping to throw the editors off their celebrity blood hunt, Terry wrote:

    …trying to establish [Kubrick] as a ‘wise-guy,’ ‘difficult,’ or having the reputation as such, was so far off-mark that to have pursued it would have been altogether misleading.... He does not know what [actress Sue Lyon] is going ‘to do next’. He suggested, as I was well afraid he might, that I ask Hedda Hopper. Similarly, he had no opinion on Elizabeth Taylor’s behavior in Rome…

As the interview languished at Esquire, Terry began working on the screenplay for Dr. Strangelove, and in 1963 asked Esquire if he could do a piece on the movie. Incorporating bits of the squelched interview, he found the time to write the article during filming. In the piece that follows, Terry introduces the reader (and the masses) to Kubrick, this revolutionary film, and the all-important (and ever looming) topic of the day: nuclear annihilation.

Much to his astonishment, the editors dismissed the article as a “puff piece” and prodded him to go more gonzo. Esquire’s assistant managing editor suggested Terry “jettison most of the article” and instead describe life in London “with his friends, books, parties and especially his own self.”

Terry protested, quite presciently, that this was one of those “rare instances where something genuinely great was at hand.” He wrote back:

    I have obviously failed to persuade you as to the phenomenal nature of the film itself — i.e. that it is categorically different from any film yet made, and that it will probably have a stronger impact in America than any single film, play, or book in our memory. To say that the piece is a “puff” is, to my mind, like saying that a piece about thalidomide babies is “downbeat.”

Kubrick’s insights into America’s military are eerily prophetic of the Bush administration, particularly the ideologues Wolfowitz, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Pearle, and their Project for a New American Century.

The idea of launching a “first strike,” had been anathema to all government and military policy strategists since World War II. Amazing how now, preemption and even preemption with “low-yield” nuclear devices is part of the dry rhetoric of the United States. It is, as Terry warns, “a curious self-deception which tends towards making the unthinkable thinkable.”

— Nile Southern

Stanley Kubrick on the set of Dr. Strangelove.

In Kubrick’s office, I counted sixty-three volumes concerned with nuclear warfare; they ran the gamut of possible approaches — from Unilateral Disarmament to The Preemptive Strike. But one has only to listen to know his concern with the subject.

“During the past six years,” he said, “I’ve read almost every available book on the nuclear situation, including regular issues of Air Force Magazine, Missiles and Rockets, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and so on. What has struck me is their cautious sterility of ideas, the reverence of obsolete national goals, the breeziness of crackpot realism, the paradox of nuclear threatsmanship, the desperately utopian wish fantasies about Soviet intentions, and the terrifying logic of paranoiac fears and suspicions. The present world seems very much like a neurotic paralyzed by incompatible goals.”

It was in October, 1961, at London’s Institute for Strategic Studies, that Kubrick’s hazy and incredible dream of “doing something about it” began to take on the bitter-sweet edge of reality. Alastair Buchan, director of the Institute, told him about a certain novel he had just read which he considered remarkable in its verisimilitude of how a nuclear war might start. The novel, published in 1958, was written by a former RAF officer, Peter George, and was entitled Red Alert. Kubrick read it and was intrigued by its suspense, and by its technical authenticity — which had also been strongly endorsed by Professor Thomas Schelling of Harvard’s Center For International Affairs; he immediately bought the film rights.

The novel itself, though highly suspenseful, offered little more than a straightforward melodramatic attitude towards the subject — not unlike that presented by its 1962 successor, Fail-Safe. (The basic similarities, incidentally, between Red Alert and Fail-Safe are embarrassingly sharp — so much so that the authors and publisher of the latter are now embroiled in a plagiarism action brought against them by the English author Peter George.) In any case, the sort of standard or prosaic approach afforded by melodrama, to the most astounding phenomenon in the history of man, was not what Kubrick had in mind. “The present nuclear situation,” he has said, “is so totally new and unique that it is beyond the realm of current semantics; in its actual implications, and its infinite horror, it cannot be clearly or satisfactorily expressed by any ordinary scheme of aesthetics. What we do know is that its one salient and undeniable characteristic is that of the absurd.” And so what Stanley Kubrick has done is to create the blackest nightmare comedy yet filmed. Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

 

The “War Room” at Shepperton Studios outside London is one of the largest indoor sets ever built. It is 130 feet long and 100 feet wide, with a 35-foot high ceiling. The walls are made of huge electronic world-target maps which cast back in weird reflection from the high-gloss black floor. The mammoth circular table, seating the Prez and his council, is covered with green baize, like a monstrous gaming-table, and is 380 square feet in surface area. An equally important sequence of the film takes place in a B-52 bomber — representative of those on their way towards Russian targets. “I’ve seen a lot of airplane pictures,” Kubrick said, “but I’ve never seen one where I got the feeling of really being inside a plane.” To this end he spent $150,000 authenticating the interior of a B-52, and in sending a 12-man camera crew to the far north in a specially equipped B-17 photographic plane, where they shot 40,000 feet of moon-like Arctic ice-pack and wasteland footage and it has resulted in some of the most convincing flying sequences ever filmed.

This accentuation of realistic detail is part of the overall concept which he has tried to impose on the film — including character interpretation. A note at the front of the shooting script reads: “The story will be played for realistic comedy — which means the essentially truthful moods and attitudes will be portrayed accurately, with an occasional bizarre or super-realistic crescendo. The acting will never be so-called ‘comedy’ acting.” This clearly derives from Stanislavsky’s own theory for obtaining the highest comic effect from a given scene — namely, that if the situation is inherently funny, it should be played as though it were not — played, in fact, as gravely straight-faced as possible. It is the difference between seeing a custard pie hit the face of a clown or the face of Herbert Hoover — one is predictably funny, the other outrageously funny. “I think that surprise,” Kubrick said, “whether it occurs in love, war, business, or what have you, produces the greatest effect of any single element. It gives the added momentum to the sort of see-saw of emotion from one position to another, and you get this extra push of thrill and discovery. I’ve always believed that in presenting realistic drama — as opposed to verse or impressionism — the only thing that justifies the time and effort of making it realistic is the power, the tremendous power, including the comic, which you can generate emotionally if you astonish the audience and allow them to discover for themselves what your meaning is. People don’t like to be told anything — I mean I don’t think they even like to be told their pants are open. They love to discover things themselves, and I believe the only way to do it is to lead them up to a certain place, and then let them go the last distance alone — taking the chance, of course, that they may miss your point.”

There is little danger that the points of Dr. Strangelove will be missed — although for Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch Swing the suspense alone should suffice. For despite General Ripper’s ultimate suicide, the recall-code is uncovered, and all but one of the planes are brought back; with this one, however, it is touch-and-go all the way. Its entire communications-system shot out, the “Leper Colony” — with veteran Texas pilot Major “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) at the stick — doggedly presses on. (“Well, boys” he drawls in the classic John Wayne manner, “I reckon this is it — nuklar com-bat! Toe to toe with the Rooskies! San An-tone!”) Meanwhile, back at the War Room, President Muffley speaks on the “Hot Line” (another case of fiction preceding fact) with the Russian Premier, in an all-out cooperation to help him intercept the plane and stave off mutual disaster.

 

Kubrick’s status among American film directors is most exceptional. At 34 he has directed seven features and two documentaries — including such divergent fare as the prize-winning Paths of Glory and the ten-million-dollar Spartacus. His real affinity however is with the European school who think of themselves not as directors but as filmmakers. The distinction is the area of responsibility assumed toward the film as a whole. Aside from directing, the filmmaker prepares his own script, supervises set design, imposes the lighting values, and finally spends eight hours a day in the cutting room editing the footage. Kubrick’s interest ranges beyond that, into designing his own ads and translating foreign titles. When the French, Italian, Spanish, and German titles for Dr. Strangelove were designated by the studio and reached his office, he revised each of them in consultation with Oxford language professors, who, of course, readily agreed they were faulty.

Not since Chaplin or Welles has anyone achieved the kind of autonomy which Kubrick has vis-à-vis whatever major studio happens to be financing his film, and it is certainly unique for one his age. “It’s the first time I’ve worked on an A picture,” said George C. Scott, “where there wasn’t somebody from the front office snooping around. I guess they’re afraid of what they might see — I mean maybe they don’t understand Kubrick or what he’s trying to do, but they do know how good he is.”

 
Kubrick himself is of a somewhat different opinion: “When the major studios started unloading their back catalogue of films onto the television networks, movie attendance — which was already in a steady decline — took a nosedive that was really alarming. Now these studios are beginning to realize that to get people back into cinemas they have got to produce films of a different order from those being shown on TV. A new group of farsighted men, like Mike Frankovitch of Columbia, are leading the way in this — and it is extremely encouraging, not only for the creative people in the industry, but for movie-goers, and for the culture generally.”

Kubrick has a frightening amount of controlled energy; he sleeps little, and while his assistants are reduced to an almost straight diet of dexies in order to keep abreast, he coolly munches a sedative and plays blitz-chess, at a point (sterling) a piece, during the lunch break. He also possesses a curious Eastern-like facility for dropping into states of complete repose, seemingly at will. During one of these I ask him what was the best way to become a movie director — and his answer should be an inspiration to every young cineaste.

“The important thing,” he said, suppressing a yawn, “is to start at the top.”

Oddly enough, this is in keeping with his own self-made career, which he began at 21, by doing a sixteen-minute documentary called Day of the Fight — a day in the life of a boxer, from the time he wakes up in the morning until he steps in the ring that night.

“How much does it cost to make such a film?”

“Well,” he said, “I knew this fighter, Walter Cartier, a very good middleweight boxer, and so I put up the money and shot it, and we were supposed to share the profits. As for actual costs, the camera — a 35-millimeter Eyemo — was ten dollars a day, and the cost of the film, developed and printed, is about ten cents a foot. The only expensive thing on this film was doing an original music score. The whole film cost 3,800 dollars, and 2,800 of it was for the sound.”

“And what did you do with this film?”

“Well, I didn’t know what to do with it — but I called up RKO, because they were using a lot of shorts at the time, and asked them to have a look at it. They did, and they bought it — for 4,000 dollars, so I had picked up a quick 200 on it. I mean it only took about four months to put it all together... but the important thing was they advanced me 1,500 to make another one.”

“And then what happened?”

“Well, these small things led from one to another until I met James Harris, a very courageous and perceptive young man, and he was able to raise some money so we formed our own company. Up until then I hadn’t been able to consider the content of a story or anything like that — I had to use whatever material came to hand, simply to keep functioning in the medium. But now we were able to start thinking in terms of buying good stories and taking the time to develop them. We bought a novel called Clean Break, by Lionel White, and made it into The Killing. That’s the first film I made with decent actors, a professional crew, and under the proper circumstances.”

“And then you made Paths of Glory?”

“Yes. That was a book I had read when I was about fourteen, and one day I suddenly remembered it.”

“Wasn’t there some controversy over the ending of that film — where the French soldiers are executed for desertion?”

“Well, it wasn’t a controversy — I mean there are always a lot of people around a film studio who like to give artistic advice, and they said ‘You’ve got to save the men at the end!’ but, of course, it was out of the question. It would have been like making a film about capital punishment in which the innocent man is saved — it would have been pointless.”

“Now what about your involvement with Marlon Brando on One-Eyed Jacks?”

“Yes, that was a curious involvement. We became friendly, and he told me about this ‘western’ he wanted to do — and I was to direct it. So we spent six months working on the script — Marlon, Calder Willingham and myself, along with Guy Trosper, George Glass, Carlo Fiori, Walter Setzer, Frank Rosenberg... and maybe some others. But it’s really a much too complex and Kafkaesque story to go into now.”

“I have here a quote from Brando about you — ‘Stanley is unusually perceptive and delicately attuned to people. He has an adroit intellect and is a creative thinker, not a repeater, not a fact-gatherer. He digests what he learns and brings to a new project an original point of view and a reserved passion.’ What do you say to that?”

“Well, Marlon is very generous, of course — but surely it’s possible for two ‘adroit, perceptive and delicately attuned people’ not to agree in any way, shape or form.”

“I understand that the only picture you’ve done where you weren’t your own boss was Spartacus — how did that occur?”

“When the thing with Marlon didn’t work out, I had nothing to do, and they asked me to direct Spartacus. So I did that. Yes, it’s the only picture where I was employed — and I found that’s the wrong end of the lever to be on. In a situation like that the director has no real rights, only the rights of persuasion. And very often you fail to persuade — and even if you do, you’ve wasted so much time you may find you’ve overlooked some even better ideas than those you had to push for.”

Terry Southern, photographed by Stanley Kubrick near Shepperton Studio, England, 1963. PHOTOGRAPH FROM THE TERRY SOUTHERN ESTATE PRIVATE COLLECTION, COURTESY OF NILE SOUTHERN.

Kubrick and Harris first read Lolita in the original Olympia Press edition, and they bought the film rights to it for $150,000 before it became an American bestseller. Shortly afterwards they declined an offer of $500,000 for the book. Kubrick himself now admits to a keen interest in affairs of high finance, and he is by all accounts an astonishingly adroit businessman.

“I love to gamble,” he said, “and games of logic and intuition have always fascinated me.

The financial aspect of filmmaking is like a three-dimensional poker game, composed of logic, psychology and instinct. It’s a game the filmmaker has to play, and to win — or he simply will not be in a strong enough position to make the kind of films he wants.”

“Did Lolita present any problems which were different from those of your other films?”

“Yes, I think the process of trying to gradually penetrate the surface of comedy which overlies the story, and reach the ultimate tragic romance of it, put it in a category apart from the others. In terms of format, all of my other films, including Dr. Strangelove, have been strongly plotted, whereas Lolita was more purely a mood piece — like music, a series of attitudes and emotions that sort of sweep you through the story.”

“Do you feel that the totality of your work has any specific goal or direction?”

“Perhaps, in a very personal sense. In making a film I generally start with an emotion. The theme and the technique come as a result of the material passing as it were, through myself and coming out of the projector lens. It seems to me that a genuinely personal approach, whatever it may be, is the goal. Chaplin, Bergman and Fellini, for example, although as different in their outlooks as possible, have achieved this, and I’m sure it’s what gives their films an emotional involvement lacking in most work.”

During my visits to the Strangelove set I heard a number of interesting anecdotes about Kubrick’s gifts as a director — that is to say, as a manipulator of the human personality in creating a film. One of the most striking of these was told by his English associate producer, Victor Lyndon, who worked with him in Germany on Paths of Glory. This is a film about the French Army in World War I; several hundred German police were used in the movie to portray the French infantry regiment on which the story is focused.

“They were the most disciplined extras in the world,” Lyndon said. “They would do exactly as they were told, and between takes they would sit for hours without saying a word — rather frightening actually. Well, in this particular scene they were supposed to advance across about a hundred yards of broken terrain under heavy shell fire. The first time they did it so fast, so efficiently fast, that it was hardly more than a blur in the lens. Kubrick told the interpreter to tell them to do it one-quarter as fast. The second time, it was still much too fast and likewise with the third, fourth and so on, despite these renewed instructions each time. There seemed to be no way to get these chaps to slow down. Well, Kubrick sat there staring at them for a while, and then he went over to the interpreter and said, ‘Listen, tell them to remember that they’re not German soldiers now, they’re French soldiers.’ The interpreter said this, and a great bloody roar of laughter went up — the only sound they had made all day — and when they crossed that field again, by God it was perfect.”

From beginning to end, Dr. Strangelove is, among other things, an unrelenting indictment of the specious logic and the conveniently flexible semantics which have served militarists and politicians in such good stead from time immemorial.

Sophisticated nuclear strategists also speak a language all their own. They are gradually evolving a terminology which is free of moral, or even human, connotation. They do not, for example, use any form of the word attack, but use instead the term preempt — which, of course, sounds like something in a bridge game rather than what it is. One of the most outlandish of their new words is megadeath — thus allowing the estimates of loss of human life (in case Russia should preempt) to be expressed in an easily digestible form: “New York Area, 12.7 megadeaths” (whereas should we preempt and so only have to absorb the limited counterstrike, the same area is rated at “4.3 megadeaths.”) Preempt is supposed to mean “delivering the initial strike in the knowledge that an enemy strike is in preparation” — naturally the words “in preparation” are variously interpreted. Behind the use of such euphemisms as “preemptive strike” and “4.3 megadeaths” — instead of spelling it out as “attack” and “four million, three hundred thousand dead” — is a curious self-deception which tends towards making the unthinkable thinkable.

Probably the most sophisticated concept now on the boards is that of the “ultimate deterrent” — the so-called Doomsday Machine. This world-suicide apparatus is formed by a complex of gigantic nuclear devices (as the bombs are called) encased in a cobalt compound and buried in the earth.

The theoretical value of the Doomsday Machine is that it dramatically negates the usefulness of a nuclear attack on the nation possessing it, because the cobalt-casing means that the bomb, if exploded, will produce a lethal cloud which within six months will enshroud the surface of the earth, destroying all life, plant and animal, for a duration of ninety to one hundred years. The final sophistication of the machine is that it is so designed that it cannot be untriggered, even by the nation possessing it — thus its effectiveness is not to be impaired by threats or bluffs. Should a nation convert its defense strategy to the use of a Doomsday Machine, it would need no other nuclear armaments. Some strategists foresee this eventual likelihood for both Russia and China, whose economies could be more advantageously geared to projects other than armament production.

When President Muffley gets the Soviet Premier on the phone and “explains” that a wing of nuclear bombers is mistakenly on its way to Russian targets, and asks for his assurance that this will not be regarded as a hostile act, he is dismayed to learn that Russia does, in fact, now have a Doomsday Machine — it was to be announced at the People’s Congress the next day — which lends a bit of spice to the already mounting suspense, for it is set to trigger if an explosion of the twenty-megaton range occurs anywhere in the Soviet Union. Finally, when all efforts to recall the one remaining plane have failed, it appears that the end of the world is well at hand, and a pallor of despair engulfs the War Room.

“Mister President,” says Presidential Aide Staines gravely, “how are we going to break it to the people — it’s going to do one hell of a thing to your image.”

Reprinted by permission of the Terry Southern Literary Trust and Nile Southern.

VOD CALENDAR

Filmmaker's curated calendar of the latest video on demand titles.
Free Men Sensation Restless City
See the VOD Calendar →
© 2017 Filmmaker Magazine
All Rights Reserved
A Publication of IPF