|Dr. Strangelove (Directed by Stanley Kubrick)|
Writer Terry Southern was hired by Stanley Kubrick to make a satire out of a screenplay originally based on the novel Red Alert by Peter George. Released as Dr. Strangelove (1964), the movie takes us into the war room of a certain President Merkin Muffley, to reveal a military culture gone berserk, as its leaders cheerfully prepare for the imminent end of the world.
The following extract is taken from an interview with Terry Southern by Lee Hill in which Southern discusses his experience of working with Stanley Kubrick.
What was the status of the ‘Dr. Strangelove’ script before Stanley Kubrick decided to hire you in the fall of 1962?
When Kubrick and Peter George first began to do the script, they were trying to stick to the melodrama in George’s book, Red Alert [published under the pseudonym ‘Peter Bryant’... There was an outline. They didn’t go into a treatment but went straight into a script. They had a few pages and in fact had started shooting, but in a very tentative way. Kubrick realized that it was not going to work. You can’t do the end of the world in a conventionally dramatic way or boy–meets–girl way. You have to do it in some way that reflects your awareness that it is important and serious. It has to be a totally different treatment, and black humor is the way to go. That was Kubrick’s decision.
When you first got together with Kubrick, did you start changing the tone of the script right away?
Yeah, after the first day, at our first meeting, he told me what the situation was. All those things that I’ve told you were his very words. ‘It’s too important to be treated in the conventional way. It’s unique! The end of the world is surely a unique thing, so forget about the ordinary treatment of subject and go for something like a horror film.’ He decided to use humor. The flavor that attracted him in my novel The Magic Christian could be effective in this new approach. He would talk about the mechanics of making it totally credible and convincing in terms of the fail-safe aspect and then how to make that funny. And the way you make it funny, because the situation is absurd, is by dealing with it in terms of the dialogue and characters.
I’m curious about the day-to-day working relationship with Kubrick as you wrote the film from the preproduction period through the actual shooting.
Well, after my first day in London when he told me what he had in mind, I got settled into a hotel room not far from where he lived in Kensington. That night, I wrote the first scene, and then he picked me up at four-thirty the next morning in a limo. The limo was a big Rolls or Bentley. We rode in the backseat with the light on. There was this desk that folded down. It was very much like a train compartment. It was totally dark outside. If it got light, we would pull the shades down. He would read the script pages; then we would rewrite them and prepare them for shooting when we got to the studio, which was about an hour to an hour–and–a–half drive depending on the fog.
Kubrick is notorious for his organizational mania.
Yes, he loved nothing so much than to go into stationery stores and buy gadgets and organizational aids.
You hear all these fantastic stories about how Kubrick lives. Did you visit his home much when you were in London?
Yes, several times. He has a castlelike structure, a grand old mansion, which has this two–projector screening room. It has electric fences and security devices. It has everything except a moat. He’s super private because he lives for his children. He lives in comfort and luxury in almost total isolation.
Peter Sellers was going to play all four parts originally, including the Texan bombardier. I understand you coached Sellers on his accent.
The financing of the film was based almost 100 percent on the notion that Sellers would play multiple roles. About a week before shooting, he sent us a telegram saying he could not play a Texan, because he said it was one accent he was never able to do. Kubrick asked me to make a tape of a typical Texan accent. When Sellers arrived on the set, he plugged into this Swiss tape recorder with huge, monster earphones, and listened to the tape I made. He looked ridiculous, but he mastered the accent in about ten minutes. Then Sellers sprained his ankle and couldn’t make the moves going up and down the ladder in the bomb bay. So he was out of that part. The doctor told him he couldn’t do it. Then it was a question of replacing him. Stanley had set such store by Sellers’s acting that he felt he couldn’t replace him with just another actor. He wanted an authentic John Wayne. The part had been written with Wayne as the model.
Did Kubrick ever try to get Wayne to play the role?
Wayne was approached, and dismissed it immediately. Stanley hadn’t been in the States for some time, so he didn’t know anything about television programs. He wanted to know if I knew of any suitable actors on TV. I said there was this very authentic, big guy who played on Bonanza, named Dan Blocker. Big Hoss. Without seeing him, Kubrick sent off a script to his agent. Kubrick got an immediate reply: ‘It is too pinko for Mr. Blocker.’ Stanley then remembered Slim Pickens from One-Eyed Jacks , which he [had] almost directed for Marlon Brando, until Brando acted in such a weird way that he forced Stanley out.
When Pickens was hired and came to London, wasn’t that the first time he had ever been out of the States?
Yes, in fact it was the first time he had ever been anywhere outside the rodeo circuit as a clown or the backlots of Hollywood. Stanley was very concerned about Slim being in London for the first time and asked me to greet him. I got some Wild Turkey from the production office and went down to the soundstage. It was only ten in the morning, so I asked Slim if it was too early for a drink. He said, ‘It’s never too early for a drink.’ So I poured out some Wild Turkey in a glass and asked him if he had gotten settled in his room. ‘Hell, it doesn’t take much to make me happy. Just a pair of loose shoes, a tight pussy, and a warm place to shit.’ One of Kubrick’s assistants, a very public-school type, couldn’t believe his ears, but went ‘Ho, ho, ho’ anyway.
Finally, I took Slim over to the actual set where we were shooting. I left him alone for a few minutes to talk to Stanley. While we were standing there talking, Stanley went, ‘Look there’s James Earl Jones on a collision course with Slim. Better go over and introduce them.’ James Earl Jones knew that Pickens had just worked with Brando. Jones was impressed and asked Pickens about the experience of working with Brando. ‘Well, I worked with Marlon Brando for six months, and in that time, I never saw him do one thing that wasn’t all man and all white.’ Slim didn’t even realize what he was saying. I glanced at James Earl Jones, and he didn’t crack [a smile]. Slim replacing Sellers worked out well because, unbeknownst to me at the time, the actor that was playing the co-pilot [Jack Creley] was taller and stockier than Sellers. Whereas Slim was about the same size [as the co-pilot] and more convincingly fulfilled the intention of this larger-than-life Texan.
To what extent did Peter Sellers’ improvisation depart from the shooting script?
It was minimal. It wasn’t like Lolita, where he improvised a great deal. His improvisational bits in Strangelove were very specific. One scene that comes to mind is when [Sterling] Hayden goes into the bathroom to kill himself, Peter’s lines are: ‘Oh, go into the bathroom and have a brushup . . . good idea.’ Sellers changed that to: ‘Splash a bit of cold water on the back of the neck . . .,’ which is more of a British thing. That was good.
What was Columbia’s reaction to this subversive black comedy that the studio had helped to finance?
Columbia was embarrassed by the picture and tried to get people to see Carl Foreman’s The Victors instead. At the time we thought we were going to be totally wiped out. People would call up the box office and be told there were no seats for Strangelove and asked if they would like to see The Victors instead. Gradually, the buzz along the rialto built word of mouth in our favor.
Wasn’t there some falling-out between Kubrick and yourself over screen credit following the film’s release?
Stanley’s obsession with the auteur syndrome – that his films are by Stanley Kubrick – overrides any other credit at all. Not just writing but anything. He’s like Chaplin in that regard. That’s the reason why he rarely uses original music in his films. [Since I had] written this great best-seller, Candy, which was number one on the New York Times best-seller list for something like twenty-one weeks, my reputation eclipsed Stanley’s; so I got total credit for all the Strangelove success in Life, the New York Times, and other publications. The credit I was getting was just so overwhelming and one sided that naturally Stanley was freaking out. He took out an ad in Variety saying I was only one of the three writers on the film, the other two being Peter George, and himself. He just lashed out. But it was like an overnight thing. I wrote a letter to the New York Times explaining that there was no mystery involved, and that I was brought in to just help with the screenplay.