Tuesday, 20 July 2021

The Testament of Fritz Lang

M (Directed by Fritz Lang)

Born in 1890, Fritz Lang grew up in Vienna during the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The son of an architect and his Catholic wife, Lang attended art school before World War I, becoming fascinated by the works of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. After serving in the Austrian army in World War I, where he sustained injury to his eye, Lang turned his hand to writing screenplays initially for producer Joe May, who gave him the opportunity to write and direct his first film. In 1920 Lang began working for producer Erich Pommer at the major German filmmaking studio UFA. Lang began directing as well as writing, in a variety of different genres, making increasingly ambitious pictures during the 1920s, some of which were so lengthy that they were presented in two parts. Among the most well-known are Der müde Tod (1921; Destiny), an allegorical melodrama; Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler - Ein Zeitbild (1922; Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler), a crime thriller about a mysterious supervillain (played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge) and the tenacious lawman who attempts to apprehend him. However, it is also a voyage through a postwar Europe plagued by greed and paranoia, where one powerful man can exert control over the masses via the use of suggestion. Lang next turned to Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (1924; Siegfried) and Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilds Rache (1924; Kriemhild's Revenge), huge undertakings based on German epic sagas of the Middle Ages, noted for their opulence, impressive sets, cutting-edge special effects, and large numbers of extras. In the latter film, Lang focuses on the self-destructive repercussions of initiating vengeance, a recurring topic throughout his career. The former is one of his most evocative works, drawing on German Romantic ideals and the compositional influence of the painter Caspar David Friedrich to create a vivid portrayal of Norse mythology. 

Lang’s subsequent picture, the allegorical science-fiction romance Metropolis (1927), was arguably more ambitious. Co-written with Thea von Harbou (Lang’s then-wife and collaborator), Metropolis creates a future universe out of familiar elements, from the skyscrapers he had seen on his first trip to New York, to the socialist fervour sweeping the world in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. Metropolis depicts a stylized futuristic urban landscape  in which a sophisticated utopia resides above a desolate underworld inhabited by abused workers. Tracing the connection between a wealthy young man and a rebellious teacher (Brigitte Helm), the film’s extraordinary vision of machine rooms, metropolitan nightclubs, and robots, has exerted considerable influence over the imaginations of filmmakers, writers and artists, to this day. 

Lang’s first sound picture, M (1931), a chilling portrayal of a child killer (based on a true incident), was Lang’s greatest worldwide hit and ultimately his personal favourite. M is one of the enduring early talkies, anchored by Peter Lorre’s chilling performance as a deranged killer of young girls who is eventually apprehended by the Berlin underworld. It is also a landmark of German Expressionism, using distortion and exaggeration to depict subjective emotions and responses rather than objective reality.

Less successful was Das Testament von Dr. Mabuse (1933; The Testament of Dr. Mabuse), a crime thriller that was openly a sequel to Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler; surreptitiously, it was meant by Lang as an anti-Nazi statement in which the state and German ruler Hitler, were associated with criminality.

Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, banned the picture but called Lang to a meeting in which he informed the filmmaker of Hitler’s enthusiasm for his earlier work and offered him the position of creative director of UFA. Lang, part Jewish himself and fearing for his safety, declined the offer and fled to Paris before accepting David O. Selznick’s offer to make a motion picture in Hollywood for MGM. 

In 1936’s Fury, Spencer Tracy plays Joe Wilson, a man accused of a crime he did not commit, who comes close to being killed by residents of a town who set fire to the jail to prevent them from spending money and time on a trial. Joe escapes after being left for dead and then works behind the scenes to bring his would-be lynchers to justice. Fury is a powerfully emotive film that ridicules mob violence and the righteous fury of crowds. It received only modest box-office success, however, leading MGM to terminate Lang’s contract. Lang then collaborated with producer Walter Wanger on the downbeat You Only Live Once (1937), starring Henry Fonda as an ex-convict who is wrongfully sentenced to death for murder. Unaware of his pardon, he escapes jail with his wife (Sylvia Sidney), one step ahead of a nightmare manhunt, the unyielding work of fate, and inevitable death. This was followed by You and Me (1938), an offbeat story of a couple (Sylvia Sidney and George Raft) who marry unaware of their shared criminal background.

Lang then joined Twentieth Century-Fox, where he initially completed two Technicolor westerns: The Return of Frank James (1940), a follow-up to Henry King’s Jesse James (1939), with Henry Fonda reprising his role as Frank James, now attempting to avenge his brother’s death; and Western Union (1941), an impressively researched account of the company’s expansion of the telegraph into the West. Henry Fonda portrays Frank James as a modest man fully aware of his status as a historical figure. Randolph Scott stars in Western Union as a criminal who seeks redemption by accepting an honest job stringing wire. Both films contain explicit allusions to the American Civil War becoming a point of dispute during Frank James’ final trial. 

Lang’s next film, Man Hunt (1941), was based on Geoffrey Household’s suspense novel Rogue Male (1939). Walter Pidgeon stars as an English hunter in pre-World War II Germany who stumbles across an opportunity to kill Hitler. Thorndike then becomes a target himself, pursued by Nazis even when he returns to London where he develops a relationship with a working-class woman (Joan Bennett) that puts her life in danger. Lang next worked with Bertolt Brecht on the independent production Hangmen Also Die! (1943), another World War II-themed picture, this time about SS chief Reinhard Heydrich’s murder in Prague.

Steeped in the traditions of German expressionism, Lang’s film noirs of the 1940s are amongst his most successful and memorable Hollywood films. Like German Expressionism, film noir portrays a pessimistic, bleak view of human nature. Visually its style draws on dramatic lighting, contrasts of light and dark, and disturbing perspectives, typical of Lang’s films of this period.

The Woman in the Window (1944) is one of Lang’s more macabre works. Nunnally Johnson’s talky script has Edward G. Robinson as a married college professor who falls in love with the woman (Joan Bennett) who is the subject of a painting he worships. Inexorably, fate leads him to extortion, murder, and the ever-tightening net of the law. The riveting Ministry of Fear (1944), based on a Graham Greene book, starred Ray Milland as a newly released mental patient whose life is inexplicably threatened by a motley mix of spies, double agents, and fake mediums. Lang subsequently reassembled The Woman in the Window’s main cast for Scarlet Street (1945), a remake of Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (1931). Robinson gave another outstanding performance as Chris Cross, a mild-mannered clerk trapped in a loveless relationship with his shrewish wife (Rosalind Ivan). He attempts to escape his mundane existence through his hobby as a painter, becoming besotted with a younger woman (Joan Bennett), who agrees to be his model. His dream is destroyed, however, when he finds she has been collaborating to exploit him with a small time conman, who is also her lover, Johnny Prince (Duryea). Cross’s moral decline is rapid and uncompromising, allowing Johnny to take the blame for his own murder of Kitty. Lang films the later sequences in more ominous shadow as Cross’s humiliation is transformed into a living nightmare. The film remained one of Lang’s favourites maintaining it was closest to his ultimate vision of any of his works.

In the early 1950s Lang released four films in quick succession that helped redefine his Hollywood career and came to be seen as major works of late Hollywood noir. Clash by Night (1952), The Blue Gardenia (1953), The Big Heat (1953) and Human Desire (1954), are redolent works of expressionistic lighting and intense desire.

The Big Heat is the harshest and most successful of Lang’s 1950s noirs and one of the highlights of his career. Glenn Ford plays a cop, Sgt Dave Bannion, investigating the suicide of a fellow cop embroiled in corruption and bribery. Bannion investigates the case and uncovers a trail that leads to a local crime boss, Vince Stone (Lee Marvin) and corrupt municipal officials, only to discover that his own life is being threatened by a corrupt police hierarchy. When Bannion’s wife is killed, he teams up with Stone’s mistreated mistress played memorably by Gloria Grahame. Bannion becomes a ruthless force of vengeance as he tries to uncover what is going on. The Big Heat is relentlessly vicious as violence infiltrates the most tranquil of locations: suburban homes and wealthy mansions. The film’s most famous sequence is Lee Marvin’s thug disfiguring Gloria Grahame with a pot of coffee, violence destroying that which is precious. The picture is directed with a muscular precision and intensity, and was called the ‘definitive film noir’ by critic Pauline Kael.

By the mid-1950s, Lang had tired of the studio structure and the resulting artistic compromises. After a forgettable attempt at a high seas costume drama (1955’s Moonfleet), Lang concluded his Hollywood career with While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. Both films were made on a tight budget, and were scathing indictments of two cornerstones of American democracy, the free press and system of criminal justice. They looked back in anger to Lang’s first American film, Fury, but ultimately lacked the latter’s power and style.

Returning to Berlin in 1958, Lang undertook a long cherished project, an Indian diptych titled The Tiger of Bengal/The Indian Tomb (Der Tiger von Eschnapur/Das Indische Grabmal) that his ex-wife Thea Von Harbou had written in the early 1920s. He followed this with The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (Die Tausand Augen von Doktor Mabuse, 1960), which updated and concluded the Mabuse saga, fittingly into the Cold War age of surveillance. It would be Lang’s final picture before his death in 1976.

In the following excerpt from an interview with Fritz Lang from 1972, transcribed on the Mubi.com site, the great director discusses his work in Germany and Hollywood. The interviewers, Lloyd Chesley and Michael Gould, were recent film graduates from York University in Toronto.

GOULD: One thing that interested me was that other than working with Dudley Nichols twice, you never worked with any other screenwriter more than once.

LANG: Oh yes, in Europe, constantly. Ja, but don’t forget here it is very difficult because it depends on the studio where you work, you know?

GOULD: Do you think not having a script collaborator hindered or helped you?

LANG: I tell you one thing, I think that generally speaking the script writer, the script creator, is very, unfortunately, not judged correctly here in Hollywood, you know? Not as much as an actor or the director. And I think that is very wrong, and when I work with a writer I was always working hand in glove, very close.

GOULD: From what stage?

LANG: That depends. If it is my idea, from the beginning on, or if there is an outline, as it was, for example, in Fury, there was a four-page outline. And in this outline was only one thing that interested me, for example. It was my first American film. It was that one could make a film about lynching. But the outline, itself, puts the emphasis on something else. So when I found this in the chests of MGM—and they have a very good writer, Bartlett Cormack—we talk what I wanted to do. And I said “Look, there is one idea—we can make a picture about lynching in the United States.” And about the same time, or a little before, there was a lynching and I spoke very lousy English in these days, and I collected all the newspapers which I could get, you know, and we cut out all the reports about the lynching and what happened there, and we started to work together on the script. Does this answer your question in a certain way?

CHESLEY: Yes, but it raises another question. The lynching theme is a very serious and what we would call a “heavy” theme, and when you were back in Germany for the most part you were dealing with fantastic fantasies and fairytale-like romances, and then, well I suppose it was with M, you made this abrupt switch which I think no one could even predict.

LANG: No, that’s not quite correct. It’s not quite correct. But, look, don’t forget when I was in Germany, as I told you, I was born in Austria, yes, I became interested in the German human being and I wanted to make some films about the romantic German human being in Destiny, or the German after the First World War it was the Dr. Mabuse films, or the German of the legend it was the Nibelungs, or the German of the future it was Metropolis and Woman in the Moon. And then I became a tiny bit tired, and then there was something to do with my private life about which I don’t want to talk, and I got tired about the big films. And I tried to do something quite different and I made M. 

CHESLEY: Big films is right. That is the way to describe what you made. Those are probably the most super-spectacular films ever done. Metropolis and Die Nibelungen are…

LANG: No, I wouldn’t say that. I’ve seen many French, not too many, French films and so on. 

CHESLEY: I think of, for instance, in Metropolis to have the luxury of breaking off into a little tangent the story of Babel and yet to have those thousands of extras and immense set.

LANG: I don’t know if you read about it. There has been written a lot of lies about Metropolis. There were never thousands of extras; never.

GOULD: What was the number?

LANG: Two hundred fifty, three hundred. Not more.

CHESLEY: I think of that shot where there’s a man in the foreground with his back to the camera and then in the background there’s a huge stairway and all of a sudden it floods with the slaves running . . .

LANG: Ja, but it was never more than two hundred, two hundred fifty. No. It depends how you use a crowd, you know.

GOULD: The question of spectacle raises something else I am interested in. A financial matter. Your German pictures were really expensive, I imagine. They seem like some of the most expensive films made at that time, and yet when you came to Hollywood a lot of your films were, I guess, budget films almost.

LANG: Look, don’t forget one thing. After the war, after the First World War, there was an inflation, you know? And let me say, to give you an example, when a worker in the studio went home, let me say after six o’clock, we are shooting at six o’clock, you know? And the studios were about, by car, three-quarters of an hour from Berlin, at Babelsberg, which is now East Berlin. He came home and all the shops were closed. And the daily money which he got, because it was inflation, he got his salary in daily money every evening. The next day he couldn’t buy anything, practically, out of it. So, let me say in the Nibelungs I think I had one hundred and fifty knights, you know, the uniform would have cost a fortune, but when it came to paying it was no more than if he would have paid one knight at the beginning of the film. You know, it is something which is very hard to explain. It was the first time, I think, in history that a country had such an inflation.

GOULD: What I meant more was that you, as a director, were making bigger films with more money in Germany and you had to work more economically in the States.

LANG: No. You know, that’s not correct. But, as I said to you, I got sick and tired of these big films which I made and I became much more interested in the human being, itself, you know.

GOULD: You notice that in the changes in your performances, too. Your silent performances are totally different . . .

LANG: . . . and that’s another thing; don’t forget one thing. The German audience is one audience and the American audience is another audience. Right?

GOULD: Right.

LANG: Let me say, for example, I remember when the Nibelungs were shown here in this country, I remember Mr. Pommer [producer Erich Pommer], I don’t know if you know the name, he showed them in Pasadena, you know. The audience didn’t understand it. They have no fun with it, you know, because they didn’t know the legends. They had no relationship to a legend. The only legend, for example, which in my opinion the American knows are the westerners. Right? So, for example, when I got the offer to make westerns—the first one was [The Return of ] Frank James and the second one, I forget, what was the second one?

GOULD: Western Union?

LANG: Western Union. I knew what I had to do. I had to not to make a film of reality, I had to make a film which was in reality a legend. And it was something very peculiar, especially after I made Western Union I got a letter from some old-timers, and they wrote to me and they said “Dear Mr. Lang, we just saw Western Union”—and they liked it very much and then they said, “We have never seen a film that shows the west as it really was except in Western Union.” Which isn’t true, it was not true, but it was the west they dreamed about, you know, in the past they wanted that this is reality and therefore they believe it to be reality. Does this answer partly your questions?


CHESLEY: So then along with making psychological dramas, for want of a better word, things like Scarlet Street, Fury, and You Only Live Once, you were still making your fantasy and myth films when you were in the States. And the westerns.

LANG: It is very hard to explain, you know. The creative process is something very peculiar. It has nothing to do with my work in Europe, nothing whatsoever. It is something quite different because you have . . . You see, I like audiences. There is a saying that an audience is stupid, it has the mind of a sixteen-year-old, fourteen-year-old, thirteen-year-old girl. I never had this. I like audiences and I try to, I think I tried . . . I like to put something in each film which I made, something which people could discuss at home, something that it was not only pure entertainment—I have nothing against entertainment films. I think, let me say, if you are a worker, you should eat something. This is something to eat. I think so, no? If a worker goes, let me say, after a hard day’s work to a movie he doesn’t want to be preached this, and this, and this—he gets bored, no? But if he—I’ve spoken very often about this—if he gets something which entertains him and there is something which makes him think about some social things which are not quite correct, then he can talk it over with somebody, let’s say with his wife when he goes to the movies, right? And then he says, “look what was this?” and then she says, “No, that was not quite as you said it was because he said ‘so and so’.” And then he says, “So he said something different? So let’s go see it a second time.” And then they go, and then I not only make two people who want to see the film once, I make two people who want to see the film twice. But they discuss something beyond entertainment, and that is, I think, in my opinion, what is important.…

GOULD: Do you have any prints of your films?

CHESLEY: That’s a question I have. Michael asked you the other day if you were going to watch Man Hunt and you said ‘no,’ that you don’t watch your old films.

LANG: I just watched it in case you wanted to ask me.

CHESLEY: I was wondering why you wouldn’t watch your old films. They’re good movies.

LANG: Look, when you sit weeks and months with a writer, you go scene by scene through a script, right? That’s the first time that you go through a script. Then you sit with your architect and go scene by scene and you say, “Look, you made here so-and-so for a set we don’t need this one, it costs money, you know, and you make here a door here and here’s a desk, and now why don’t you make the door here because when he has to walk out he has to walk ten paces without a line. Here he can go immediately, so it is not boring,” and so on. Second time. Then the cameraman, third time. Then you go and work with the actors, so you go four times to a film before you start shooting. Then you start shooting. Then you start cutting. And then when you have the first preview you see all the things you have never seen before, and then you try to avoid all this, and then if you are finally finished, it’s finished.

GOULD: That brings up a question of editing control. Throughout your career did you always have the same kind of control over the editing, or did it vary?

LANG: Always. I insisted on it. I insisted on it…

CHESLEY: On your arrival in the States—I think Fury is a great film for an American audience, they’ll really like it—and that’s your first film. How did you find out how you wanted to approach the American audience?

LANG: When we wrote Fury, Bartlett Cormack and I, our first hero—the part that Spencer Tracy played—was a lawyer, you know? There were two or three sequences, you know? We had no producer at this time. [Joseph L.] Mankiewicz became the producer much later and he had not very much to do with the film. He was a writer and it was his first job. The so-called supervising producer called us and said, “No, children, that is wrong.” And we said “Why?” Because we felt if we make the hero a lawyer he can talk more, right? And this man said, “No, it must be somebody with whom the audience can identify himself.” Joe Doe. That was the first lecture; and the first direction which I got about American audiences. We were to rewrite the whole first two sequences for a gas station attendant, Spencer Tracy, right? The first very important lesson.

In the German films we would always see that the hero in most of the films was a superhuman being, a kind of a… Superman, you know? In America it should be the average American citizen so that the audience can identify with this man or with the woman, right? First very important lesson.

For the full interview please check out the Mubi site here

Thursday, 15 July 2021

Terry Southern on Stanley Kubrick

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.

Kubrick's examination of Cold War unease is one of the most biting satires ever produced in Hollywood. The movie is set at the height of Cold War hostilities and centres on a deranged US general (played by Sterling Hayden) who, frustrated by his sexual impotence, plots to launch a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, a disparate coalition of political leaders makes a last-ditch effort to avert apocalypse. Peter Sellers plays three separate parts, including Dr. Strangelove, a weapons specialist with Nazi sympathies, while George C. Scott stands out as a hawkish general. The film was initially intended to be a dramatic examination of the Cold War (based on Peter George's book Red Alert), but Kubrick determined that it would be more successful as a parody. Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a subversive masterpiece that established Kubrick as an unmatched stylist and bitter ironist. 

The moment in which an air force major (played by Slim Pickens) rides atop a falling nuclear weapon is one of the film’s most lasting images. Originally, the film concluded with a lavish pie fight within the War Room. The section was omitted, and the rewritten conclusion depicts a sequence of nuclear explosions set to Vera Lynn's iconic World War II song "We'll Meet Again." 

Dr. Strangelove's development was hampered by a plagiarism action involving the 1964 picture Fail Safe, which was based on a book similar to Red Alert, and the fact that the picture's premiere was initially scheduled for Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was killed.

Kubrick deftly weaves social critique onto an otherwise straightforward Cold War narrative. Kubrick clearly underlines a sense of dramatic irony in practically every scene via staging and language, most notably in the Strategic Air Command's slogan, "Peace is Our Profession,"

Kubrick deftly incorporates this lethal irony to demonstrate what occurs when communication is disrupted. Fundamentally, the tragedy is the loss of discourse during translation, which invites the question: Who is responsible? What is both funny and distressing about the film’s escalation into nuclear annihilation is that many of the film's ill-advised scenarios (such as the mishandled hotline between President Muffley and Premier Kissov) might have been prevented with appropriate planning and technology. Kubrick, however, does not underplay its baleful repercussions. By portraying caricatures of powerful characters, Kubrick skillfully suggests to the audience his own cynical views of society’s leaders: powerful men who are tragically out of touch with reality and whose paranoia will eventually destroy the world. Gens. Ripper and Turgidson exemplify this craziness. Ripper believes the Soviets have been fluoridating American water supplies to pollute the "precious bodily fluids" of Americans, while Turgidson asserts that a coordinated preemptive attack would restrict reprisal to a "modest" 20 million American deaths. As the adult men quarrel in the War Room, Kubrick wrestles with a world gone mad, warning cogently against naive reliance on a system that may result in destruction and chaos. 

While the Cold War’s immediate terrors have mostly subsided since the debut of "Dr. Strangelove," Kubrick's disturbing images implying the inevitability of nuclear war can nevertheless strike fear and dread – even today. Kubrick consistently infuses "Dr. Strangelove" with contradictory feelings of exhilaration and terror, patriotic enthusiasm and troubling hate, until the film's terrifying conclusion. As the soothing verses of Vera Lynn's optimistic World War II anthem "We'll Meet Again" plays on the soundtrack, coordinated scenes of nuclear explosions fill the screen, a disturbing vision of darkness unleashed. 

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 [1961], 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.