Katharina Kubrick: Filming Dr. Strangelove

Stanley Kubrick’s daughter Katharina shares her memories of the Shepperton shoot, Peter Sellers’ corpsing and a certain custard pie fight.

Oliver Lunn

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963)

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963)

Katharina Kubrick was only nine years old when her father made Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963), his bleakly hilarious film about the H-bomb and Cold War military strategies. She remembers visiting the set after school, she says, and playing in the garden at Shepperton Studios. Yet at the time, her father didn’t explain the looming threat of nuclear annihilation to her. He didn’t want to frighten her, after all. When she did finally see the film, as a teenager who understood the grave reality of the situation, it was deeply disturbing. To picture Slim Pickens’ H-bomb-straddling redneck, or Sterling Hayden’s cigar-chomping military meathead who thinks, “War is too important to be left to the politicians,” is to be filled with crippling anxiety. Then, of course, there’s the terrifying what-if scenario itself: what if we’re all blown to the sky in a billowing mushroom cloud, simply because one trigger-happy military man had a meltdown? (It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds, as it happens.)

It’s because of the film’s terrifying and timeless theme – coupled with its iconic war room scenes and cartoon-like characters that, you suspect, are worryingly close to reality – that it remains a firm classic. Like any Kubrick film, you can watch it over and over again and still find something new. To dig a little deeper, we spoke to Katharina Kubrick about her father’s film, her memories of visiting the set, and how it’s more relevant today than ever.

George C. Scott in the middle of the unused custard pie fight scene from Dr. Strangelove (1963)

George C. Scott in the middle of the unused custard pie fight scene from Dr. Strangelove (1963)

On her father’s decision to make a comedy about nuclear annihilation 

“It’s sort of graveyard humour, isn’t it,” says Katharina of her father approaching the topic as a comedy. “It’s so awful, what can you do but laugh about it and hope it doesn’t happen?” Her father actually didn’t tell her about the dark reality that hung over them, she says, because he didn’t want to strike fear into the heart of a nine-year-old. It was only as a teenager that she understood the gravity of the threat, which naturally made the film even more disturbing. “It isn’t until all the pennies start falling into place and you go, ‘Oh shit, that nearly happened.’”

On visiting the war room as a schoolgirl

Though Katharina didn’t see the film until she was a teenager, she still has vivid memories of visiting the set as a nine-year-old. It was just part of her life, she explains, to visit the set at Shepperton Studios after school. “The one set I obviously remember spectacularly is the war room,” she adds, remembering its shiny floor and strong architectural form. “We had to wear felt overshoes, as everybody did, so that you didn’t scratch the floor. Shepperton was also a fantastic studio for a child, with a great garden and a little folly at the end where I would go and play.” 

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963)

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963)

On the decision to have Peter Sellers play three roles

“He was going to play four roles and then decided that that was actually too much,” says Katharina. Sellers was going to be Major Kong, too, but due to what was probably a mutual decision between Kubrick and Sellers, Katharina says they settled on three roles. “Peter was a great corpser, and there was an awful lot of hilarity,” she says. “So if you have somebody who is so multi-faceted and so incredibly talented and so willing to be utterly brave, why wouldn’t you take advantage of that skill? The great thing about Peter Sellers is that he was such a chameleon, that he did lose himself in the character, and you don’t think I’m watching Peter Sellers here.”

On the “enormously fun” custard pie fight sequence that was cut

There was originally a custard pie fight sequence in Dr. Strangelove, and we have the images to prove it. Kubrick changed the scene – which took place in the war room – at the last minute, cutting it out before the final print. “My mother and I were there during the pie fight sequence, and we were allowed to throw pies,” says Katharina. “For a child, that was enormously good fun!” She even remembers what they were made from: “They were actually foam pastry cases with shaving cream.” In case you were wondering. 

On Kubrick’s decision to shoot so many takes

Katharina remembers a conversation she had with her father about his reputation for shooting tons of takes. “I said, ‘Don’t you get fed up with so many people saying you shoot so many takes?’ and he said, ‘Look, I’ve got huge movie stars, I’ve got huge film sets, I’ve got a crew, it’s all costing a fortune; the film is the cheapest part of all of it. Why not have it running through the camera? Because when actors are relaxed, when they think they’re rehearsing, if you’ve got the camera running, you don’t know what’s going to happen.’” It also gave her father more options in the editing room. That was his favourite part of the process, she says, likening it to a painter mixing up their colours before approaching the canvas. “It’s as if all the takes Stanley did were in the can, they were in his editing room, those were all his colours mixed up and ready to go. So the editing room was just him playing with the colours.”

Credit: University of the Arts London Archive and Special Collections Centre

On what makes the film such an effective critique of Cold War military strategies

“I think it demonstrates how ludicrous the situation is, number one. And number two, how we innocent, ordinary human beings going about our lives are completely in the hands of whatever nutter has his hands on the trigger, and we are all the victims of the politicians,” she says. For her, there’s a key question at the core of the film: “What if there is a nutter, what if he doesn’t care, what if he doesn’t think about the ramifications of what he’s doing? That’s the real fear: that there’s some lunatic – I can think of two of them right at this moment – who has the potential to do that.”

On the terrifying timeliness of the film 

“Unfortunately, it’s more relevant now than ever,” says Katharina. “I think that certain people should be forced to wear lid locks and watch it all day every day until the truth sinks home. Unfortunately, powerful and corrupt individuals don’t get it, they don’t care, they don’t see the long view.” And like any great piece of cinematic art, she says, people will be discussing it forever. “As long as human beings are as awful as we are, the subject and the fear are never going to go away. The third world war won’t be a feet on the ground war, it will be a mutual annihilation war, and that will be it.” A suicide mission, then? “Which is why the ending of We’ll Meet Again [a montage of mushroom clouds accompanied by Vera Lynn’s wartime number] is the ultimate irony.

Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb newly restored in 4K will be re-released in UK cinemas and at the BFI from 17 May accompanied by an exclusive new short film, Stanley Kubrick Considers the Bomb, directed by Matt Wells.

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