Director Richard Stanley on Why His 'The Island of Dr. Moreau' Became Such a Notorious Flop
"People weren't prepared to see baboons with machine guns."
In 1990, writer-director Richard Stanley was off to a fantastic start with Hardware, a visually driven cyberpunk horror film about technology's execution of man by the hand of a regenerating robot. The film's tagline—"You Can't Stop Progress"—would go on to summarize the rest of Stanley's career as mainstream Hollywood did everything it could to destroy him.
After Hardware pulled in $1.5 million at the box office, Stanley's next film, Dust Devil, proved he was capable of creating spectacular dreamlike visions and had a legitimate shot at becoming one of the next big auteurs in the ranks of Jodorowsky.
Then Hollywood knocked on his door. For years he had been developing a script adaptation of H.G. Well's The Island of Doctor Moreau—a science-fiction novel he had read over and over as a child. His vision for Moreau was crystal clear and ripe for the picking. With a movie studio and Marlon Brando behind him, he was on his way to a major mainstream breakthrough.
But after just three days into production, Stanley was fired. What happened next is an epic tale of one of Hollywood's greatest production disasters and what wound up being one of the worst films ever made. The film's legacy is based on bizarre behind-the-scenes stories about Val Kilmer's ego, people trapped in beast costumes, and Marlon Brando insisting on wearing white makeup and an ice bucket attached to his head with the smallest man in the world at his side.
Leaving the disaster in the dust, Stanley continued to pursue his visions, spending his time as an occult researcher, anthropologist, screenwriter, and documentary filmmaker. Recently, he has returned to Hollywood to present a retrospective of his life's work at the Cinefamily in Los Angeles and to screen the insane documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau. Stanley, it seems, is due for a victorious comeback.
VICE: When did you start making films?
Richard Stanley: I started messing around with Super 8 movies when I was ten or 11 years old. I was a huge Ray Harryhausen fan and managed to mail-order his book Film Fantasy Scrapbook. From staring at the Famous Monsters fan page I could see that there were other kids around the world who were also making creatures and admiring the same films. It convinced me I wasn't alone and that I needed to get to the outside world.
You grew up in South Africa, right?
As a child, my mother dragged me around while she was researching her book Myths and Legends of Southern Africa. This meant that between one and six years old, I was visiting tribal areas and meeting witch doctors. My reality was a world where people put snakes into their mouths and make them come out of their nostrils and get possessed and talk to spirits and believe in invisible beings who have magic pebbles. When you are young and not told to be scared of things, you're not scared of them—particularly when it comes to the supernatural. It wasn't until later in life when I started going to school that I found out this sort of thing scared the crap out of people.
Do you remember which films inspired you to become a filmmaker?
When I was four, my dad brought home a 16mm print of King Kong. I adored it. Obviously I cried and still cry every time Kong climbs the Empire State Building. I was super impressed that the Denham character was a filmmaker who had gone to Skull Island to bring back images of a world that no one had ever seen before. Immediately I started making dioramas of imaginary worlds and messing around with stop-motion dinosaurs.
Can you tell me more about the film Hardware?
It's extremely detailed and a lot more dystopian than The Terminator, which it's often compared to. I had worked on developing the Hardware world for years and years, since I was as a teen. I was originally inspired by the book Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison. After I made a caveman Super 8 film, I thought what's next but to do something set in the far future? It was set in a future city on Christmas Eve in the apartment of a scrap metal sculptress and her drunken one-handed boyfriend. Later, when I was living in London and working in music videos, the Hardware world evolved to become a multi-apocalypse world and eventually my first film.
Is it because you were working as music video director that Hardware features cameos by big-time rock stars like Iggy Pop and Lemmy?
I came straight off of a music video period to doing Hardware. I just phoned them up. John Lydon was a big supporter from the beginning and contributed the main theme, "This Is What You Want This Is What You Get."
How did you go from doing Super 8 movies to booking top music videos?
Flukes. I blundered into a band that didn't have a recording deal who wanted to shoot a video to land a deal. The band were called Fields of the Nephilim. They were a goth band with a spaghetti western look. I did their first videos and their first few album covers. They carried me through with them into the industry but the first time I ever had a crew was when I shot the P.I.L. video for a song called "The Body."
In order to survive many directors wind up doing commercials. Did you?
I have always despised commercials. I'm a great believer of the Bill Hicks saying that "when you do commercials, you suck the devil's dick forever." I stayed away from commercials and have even turned some down because the concepts offended me—even though they offered me ten times what I earned making a film like Dust Devil.
Your father failed to become a filmmaker, but you continued despite setbacks.
My father is also the one who gave me a copy of The Island of Dr. Moreau. I read it when I was very young and was moved by Moreau's beast people in the same way that King Kong moved me. The beast people were trying to deal with human moral issues and the uses to which humanity puts animals. I was such a fan of the book when I was 12 I managed to convince the school teacher to read it to the class. It is certainly H.G. Wells's most interesting and developed work.
What became of the 1996 film must have cut you pretty deep.
I was surprised, under the circumstances, that they were even able to cut together a series of sequences, let along finish the film. It was totally chaotic. I remember David Thewlis saying one day that he was going to cut off one half of his mustache to see if anyone would notice. Not a single line from my script wound up in the film, which in some ways I am grateful for.
It's obvious in the documentary Lost Soul that the producers wanted you to fail. Why do you think they didn't believe in you?
With The Island of Dr. Moreau, I think it happened too soon. People weren't prepared to see baboons with machine guns [in 1996]. The production's biggest complaint was that I was spending too much time on the animals. Today, the special effects are the most important part of the movie, and people go see films like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to see the creatures, not the actors who support them. They fired me and hired Frankenheimer because he had a reputation for dealing with difficult actors and they thought he could wrangle Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer. The first thing he did was back away from the creatures and delegate the direction to Peter Elliott, who was by profession a primate behaviorist. Because he was also in the film he did most of the directing from behind an ape's snout. From there the movie began to drift.
After you were let go, the producers wanted to be sure you left Australia, but you secretly returned to the set. Why?
I returned incognito mostly because I didn't want to leave Faruiza and my other friends who were now trapped on the set. They signed onto the film because they were my friends and now they were stuck there for six months.
What happened after you returned?
At first I found a place to stay out in the rainforest. I was wary of going anywhere near the movie because I was told very emphatically that if I was caught talking to any of the cast members or coming within 40 kilometers of the set that I would lose any financial claims on my fee. As I never raised my voice or threw a punch or stepped out of line on the production they had to pay me and were looking for a reason to hang my neck.
Instead, you decided to dress as a mutant dog and blend in with the beast people on set for the rest of the production. Why torture yourself?
Once you are under makeup you become invisible. They treated the beast people like they were animals. That's why I knew that if I went undercover as a dog, no one would notice me. I did it out of morbid curiosity, really. I was told by the extras that if I came onto the set and saw what was happening I would feel a lot better. Which was true. Before that I was sulking out in the rainforest.
While the Hollywood production turned their back on you, the beast people came to your rescue.
There were so many fantastic, sweet people there trapped under makeup. Even seasoned actors like Temuera Morrison and Ron Pearlman, for instance, would have to undergo hours of makeup and then sit under the sun and melt. Often times they wouldn't even get shot. Their talents were wasted. It was soul destroying. In a lot of ways the film is also a waste of Marlon Brando.
Seeing all the insane things Marlon Brando put the production through it's pretty obvious he was acting out on his contempt for Hollywood.
He was always very sweet to me. Brando knew I was there as the dog. We were speaking secretly by telephone. He had amazing powers. One day he just showed up in a dress and no one was brave enough to tell him to take it off. He was a genuine genius. We remained friends after the film and he invited me up to his house several times.
I'm sure at your first meeting Brando took one look at you and knew you weren't some Hollywood douchebag.
Every time I saw him I brought a bottle of tequila. I think he liked that. It was very special for me to be able to go up Mulholland Drive and get drunk with Marlon Brando. It was unfortunate that around that time there was the murder and all the dark things that were going on around his home. The last time I saw Brando's daughter Cheyenne she gave me a lift back to my hotel room and as I was getting out of the car she looked at me and said, "Aren't you afraid?" A few weeks later she was dead. There was a darkness around that I didn't understand. I should have been more aware of the storm clouds that were gathering around my head. I was too naive to realize I was doomed.
Val Kilmer notoriously bullied you on set. Have you run into him since? I imagine that would be awkward.
Val actually apologized to me at the wrap party. He hugged me and kissed me and told me how sorry he was. Even though it wasn't entirely his fault, I told him it was a little too late.
Do you still have mainstream Hollywood dreams?
Somewhere deep within me still lurks the original King Kong film. I still have the desire to create lost worlds and civilizations with a decent budget. I think we are reaching a phase where VFX fantasy films are becoming more imaginative. I really liked Guardians of the Galaxy, for instance, because it reminded me of all the places we were hoping to go all those years ago. I also have a soft spot for Avatar. There is definitely a side of me that wants to make left-field art movies that can reach a large number of people.
After seeing your creation destroyed, how did you avoid becoming jaded and bitter?
I guess it stems from Marlon Brando saying, "The industry is run by hyenas. Get out and make a life for yourself." In some ways it is true. But Brando had been in Hollywood for decades and I don't think he realized that there are hyenas everywhere. It's not just the film industry. It's the human condition. I'm not ready to be like Dr. Moreau and turn my back on the human race.
The Richard Stanley Retrospective takes place at Cinefamily in Los Angeles. Check its calendar for showtimes.
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