Everything You Always Wanted To Stop Worrying About The Bomb over at Cinephilia and Beyond including these two notable items by screenwriter Terry Southern:
Stanley's "writing plan" proved to be a dandy. At five A.M., the car would arrive, a large black Bentley, with a back seat the size of a small train compartment — two fold-out desk tops, perfect over the-left-shoulder lighting, controlled temperature, dark gray windows. In short, an ideal no-exit writing situation. The drive from London to Shepperton took an hour more or less, depending on the traffic and the density of the unfailing fog. During this trip we would write and rewrite, usually the pages to be filmed that day.
It was at a time when the Cold War was at its most intense. As part of the American defense strategy, bombing missions were flown daily toward targets deep inside the Soviet Union, each B-52 carrying a nuclear bomb more powerful than those used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Bombers were instructed to continue their missions unless they received the recall code at their "fail-safe" points.
In my Knightsbridge rooms, I carefully read Red Alert, a book written by an ex-RAF intelligence officer named Peter George that had prompted Stanley's original interest. Perhaps the best thing about the book was the fact that the national security regulations in England, concerning what could and could not be published, were extremely lax by American standards. George had been able to reveal details concerning the "fail-safe" aspect of nuclear deterrence (for example, the so-called black box and the CRM Discriminator) — revelations that, in the spy-crazy U.S.A. of the Cold War era, would have been downright treasonous. Thus the entire complicated technology of nuclear deterrence in Dr Strangelove was based on a bedrock of authenticity that gave the film what must have been its greatest strength: credibility.
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.”
For more on Southern, check out this 2009 Bronx Banter post. In includes more on Strangelove:
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 him 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 sound stage to meet him. 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 got 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 how the experience of working with Brando went. “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. Slim replacing Sellers worked out well because unbeknownst to me at the time, the actor that was playing the co-pilot 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 Hayden goes into the bathroom to kill himself, Peter’s lines are, “Oh go into the bathroom and have a brush up… Good idea.” Seller 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 Peter Sellers like to work with in general because you were associated with him off and on following Strangelove with The Magic Christian and Grossing Out, which was going to follow Being There?
“Well, it was a complete dichotomy, because working with him was like working with two people. He was an ultra-talented person who was one of the fastest improvisers ever. He could add to and enrich a scene or character tremendously beyond what was written. On the other hand, he could take it too far and detract from the quality of humor when it was his own. He was too complicated because he was so insecure. If he had reached the saturation point with the particular innovations he was making and you said ‘yeah, I don’t think we should go any further with this,’ he would take it very personally as though you were putting him down as a friend. He thought you were withdrawing your affection from him or whatever he felt was there. Then he would just get more and more into the improvisation as though he were going to insist on it because then your suggestion would represent more than just the quality of the material. For Sellers, it would represent something excruciatingly personal, which was a lot more important than the movie or any of the aesthetics involved. So it was tough because it was a constant balancing act.”