The 1977 Burt Lancaster version of The Island of Dr. Moreau was the first movie South African director Richard Stanley ever saw, and the furious boy wanted his money back. He loved the H.G. Wells novel about a mad scientist surgically blurring the line between human and beast, and years later, after his first two cult-hit horror films — Hardware (a robot techno-tragedy with Iggy Pop and Lemmy) and Dust Devil (an unearthly Namibian demon flick) — earned him enough creative cachet to get his own version of Moreau green-lit, he went for it with headlong fervor.
Stanley decamped to rural Australia, cast Val Kilmer, Marlon Brando and a 26-inch-tall Dominican celebrity in key roles, and molded a wild menagerie of masks. Like a flesh-eating parasite, the story buried so deep in his brain that Stanley quarantined himself from the cast and crew, refused to show up for meetings and, when he did, had a hard time explaining his ambition. The set was spooked by hurricanes, witchcraft allegations and Kilmer's continual tantrums. The studio was terrified of losing millions. Three days after filming started, Stanley was fired. His replacement, veteran director John Frankenheimer, held his rescue mission in such contempt that chaos reigned. Kilmer and Brando commandeered the schedule. The extras blew their accruing per diems on drugs. Stanley, legally barred from the set, crept back on in a canine costume to bear witness, mourning that he had suffered “a full arc from creator to dog.”
The final 1996 film won six Razzie nominations and is most charitably remembered as that weird mess where Marlon Brando demanded he be slathered in white face paint. Like all film disasters, it's merited a wrenching making-of documentary: David Gregory's Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau, which will screen Feb. 28, March 1 and March 3 at Cinefamily. Hardware, Dust Devil and, yes, The Island of Dr. Moreau will screen two weekends later with Stanley in attendance — except during Moreau, which he refuses to watch. “It's like having somebody sandpaper my brain,” he sighs. Yet two decades later, Stanley finally has some good news: He may soon have a second shot at directing his vision of the jinxed Wells classic — and this time, it'll be X-rated.
The rumor was true: Even after you were banned from set, you snuck back on in a dog costume. How hard was that, to stand by and act like an extra while watching your movie fall apart?
I was there largely because I was feeling sympathy for the cast members. Most of the cast members had come on board because I'd talked them into it, and then they were trapped under contract, unable to leave because they'd all been life-cast for the creature effects and they couldn't recast the movie. No matter how bad they wanted to get out of the film, they had to be there or be sued for breaking contract. To simply take the money and run and leave Fairuza Balk and everyone else trapped there felt wrong, so sticking around meant I was able to show solidarity. Point of fact: It also cheered me up tremendously to see how much worse things were without me. We hadn't been doing such a bad job after all. If everything had run like clockwork, I think I would have quit forever. Realizing that the budget had continued to skyrocket, that was very satisfying. There was something like 40 shooting days after I left where they never got a shot off at all. Day after day, it was completely out of control, and the budget quadrupled because they gave Frankenheimer a lot more slack than they gave me. The overhead was something close to $150,000 a day without getting a shot. No matter what you think, there's no possible way I could have made a worse job of it.
Was it frustrating to think that you could have handled Marlon Brando better and kept him more in line?
Personally, I never thought that Brando was the problem. He always behaved in a very gentlemanly manner and was very, very nice to me. I don't really know what planet Val [Kilmer] was coming from. But Marlon was always very friendly. I think that comes through in the documentary: His first act on set was to introduce himself to everyone and shake the paws, claws and trotters of the various creatures. He felt contempt for the confusion. By the time he arrived there, the script had been effectively destroyed. They started rewriting the script instantaneously, and that process never really stopped — I think virtually everyone on that project tried to write the script at some point. I'd hoped that there was the potential in there for Brando to have that great swan-song performance, which the world was cheated of. At the time as well, he was going through such a nightmare. The shooting in Mulholland Drive and thereafter, the death of his daughter Cheyenne. Really, his life resembled a Greek tragedy at that point. The problems of a monster movie seemed trivial in comparison.
Did any part of your original vision survive in the 1996 version?
The Frankenheimer film is very much like a bad dream — the difference between a lucid dream and a nightmare. You can recognize yourself and pieces of your life, but it's all in the wrong order. I recognize the interior decor, I recognize the costumes, the bookcases behind the actors. I recognize weird little tiny things, wardrobe details, the basic updating of the story was mine. But there's not one line of dialogue from the original picture that survived through to the final film. I think what happened is after they got rid of me, no one really spoke to the make-up people again. They were just left to follow their basic impulses and not a lot of attention went to the final look of the movie.
When David approached you about digging back into the film for a documentary, what were your first thoughts?
I was reticent because it wasn't really something I'd spoken about for the last 20 years. But I owed David a favor and I thought it would be an extra section on the DVD for The Theatre Bizarre [a compilation film] we were doing. I had no idea he was doing a whole feature-length documentary, and when I first saw a cut, my first impulse was to call a lawyer and try to stop it.
It touches on so many different things that were hot issues for a long time. At the time, when the film got made, I was legally threatened by a whole bunch of the different folk involved — I shouldn't name names. But I wasn't ever supposed to open my mouth about the Moreau affair or say one word about what had happened. In the documentary itself, I still never actually say anything bad about any of the people involved or anything that happened. I try to keep as optimistic as possible given the catastrophic circumstances. But then when I saw the film with an audience, I realized that the audience found it funny. It got laughs — pretty big laughs. That it somehow works as a black comedy is a redeeming feature. And it's also reawakened interest in the Moreau project. Since the documentary's been around, I've been getting lots of inquiries about the original screenplay.
Wait, so there's a chance you could be involved in making The Island of Dr. Moreau again?
At this stage, it looks very likely. It's too early for me to name the company involved, but I was actually put under contract in January to write a new draft of The Island of Dr. Moreau, which is already completed and delivered. The project has come back to life, which I think is a side effect of David's work.
Can it still feel fresh to you?
I don't honestly think at that point in time anyone really understood the movie. New Line said that all of a sudden they were making a movie about dogs with machine guns that was some kind of art film. Now, of course, we're living in a universe where people have seen Guardians of the Galaxy and the idea of dogs carrying machine guns no longer seems like a way-out art-house idea. I suspect the original script simply came too early. If it had come now, it would make sense as a VFX oddity. I think Dr. Moreau is going to be now better. I've had 20 years of hindsight. The plan is it's going to resurface initially as a graphic novel next year from the Humanoids, who've picked it up. And if that works well, then the insane plan is to develop the comic book back into a movie again.
What is it about this story that's so deep under your skin?
It needs to be told. Someone needs to get it right. I think part of that problem is the world's still not used to the idea of an epic fantasy film for adults. They've always had the desire in the last adaptations to make it safe for the family. The script I've turned in now isn't so much R-rated as X-rated. And then the wrangling can begin after that as to how it will be put on the screen.
How long has it been since you've watched Dust Devil and Hardware with a crowd?
It's been quite a while. I particularly love watching Hardware with a young audience. In the first 20 minutes, you sense that people have come to laugh because it's a retro sci-fi movie and look at what some people looked like in the '80s. And of course the film is more more horrific and severe than they're expecting. I like the way that the kids gradually fall silent and then get increasingly traumatized by it — the freaked-out looks on their faces when they leave. It reminds me that film still has the power to grab them by the lapels and shake them around. Always a pleasure. Dust Devil, I've never really seen with an American audience, so I'm looking forward to that experience. It's obviously a more difficult movie. It's longer and requires more work on the audience's part.
Will you stick around Cinefamily and watch The Island of Dr. Moreau?
No. I've never actually seen the Frankenheimer movie from one end to another. I've managed to avoid seeing it the whole way through. I've tried watching 15-minute segments and it's like having somebody sandpaper my brain.
Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau starts at the Cinefamily on Saturday, Feb. 28. Click here for details.
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