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Richard Stanley: In the Belly of the Beast

by Alex Chisholm
(Originally appeared in In the Belly of the Beast, 1997)

In July 1997, the Fant-Asia film festival in Montreal presented an international section of fantasy, horror and action films. Directors from around the world were invited to present their films, greet their fans, face their critics and share stories. Richard Stanley is presenting the "director's cut" of DUST DEVIL, his second feature.

Richard Stanley in Montreal.RS: DUST DEVIL was basically destroyed on its release, but at the time it wasn't really because of the fundamental, moral or ideological disagreement between me and the distributors. It was destroyed for a number of silly reasons; the original production entity, Palace Pictures, went bankrupt and was basically forced to a receivership by PolyGram. As a result, the film was left unfinished. The version that ultimately found it's way to the cable and onto videotape in the United States, is really not the movie. In any normal circumstances I would've never attempted to put out my cut. But in the case of DUST DEVIL I felt that unless I put my cut out, the film essentially wouldn't exist.

Richard Stanley's first feature, HARDWARE (1990) was a box office hit for its distributor, Palace Pictures.

RS: HARDWARE, the first movie I made, is, I think, primarily concerned about the idea that I'm going to be spending the rest of my life trapped in the future. It's obviously made as a TERMINATOR rip-off or an ALIEN rip-off, because it was pretty much the brief we had. It was possible at that point in time to make a movie like that, because obviously TERMINATOR and ALIEN had been extremely popular. So, you could probably recall that there was a tremendous rash of imitations. To an extent, operating within the perimeters of doing a story, where a female character is stalked by some unseen monster in a futuristic setting, I tried as much as possible to turn it into a sort of statement about what I was really frightened about in the future. It seems to me that simply by demographics, the population of planet Earth can't go on doubling and tripling every few years, because there's simply not enough room; not enough natural resources to go around. The environment is crumbling visibly and tangibly every year.

The success of HARDWARE enabled Palace Pictures to secure funding for Richard's second production DUST DEVIL.

RS: DUST DEVIL is a kind of an amalgam of several real incidents. There was something I wanted to say at that time about South Africa, and Southern Africa. I suppose because I've been there fifteen years of my life, I wanted to do something that would say little about my roots. I was going across the country by train, and I had this silly idea that in the middle of the night I should get off the train in some town, where I've never been before, which I didn't know.

Randomly, I got off the train in a town called Bethany. It was a very, very quiet place, quiet night, nothing there. Nothing at all, you know, just a few palm trees, wide-open desert. A bunch of sidings, a few houses in the distance, the stars... I remember thinking, nothing ever happens here. No-one ever gets off trains here, no-one ever gets on. It's a place, where, presumably, nothing ever goes on. About a week later, when I was somewhere else, I was reading the newspaper, and it said that a car had been found parked out in the desert there, and it had been set on fire with the boot full of body parts. And I of course realised, terrible things happened there.

In 1992, Palace Pictures went into liquidation, and post-production on DUST DEVIL was closed down.

RS: The production company making DUST DEVIL, Palace Films, was forced into bankruptcy by PolyGram, at which point production collapsed on DUST DEVIL because of the lack of funds. There were only eight people left in the crew by the time we finished shooting; we kind of crept in to the end of production, almost everyone had given up by then. We lost the cast by the end of the production; we were shooting at doubles, and stunt doubles, producers, anyone who looked sort of like the cast from behind or when wearing a hat, and kind of completed as much as we could.

But no ADR ever happened, no post-production shoot ever happened, no special effects work ever happened. The thing was shelved, and Palace went under owing £8 Million on different projects. But after about three years the negative remained in the hands of Metricolor, the actual cutting copy and rushes remained in a storage locker in Rickmansworth, and the sound remained in the sound house. Finally, after watching a triple bill of Guns in the Afternoon, Once Upon a Time in the West and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid on LSD, I was moved to take action, and I went around the labs, I went around everyone responsible. And then, using my own money, managed to get a hold of those, steal back and cut the damn thing, and put the sound on it and do the sound mix, then succeeded somehow in cutting the negative, so it resembled my print.

At which point I was bankrupt, I was chased by bailiffs, I was out of my flat, my girlfriend had left me... I was staying at a friend's couch, everyone hated me. But noneofthelss, we got the married answer print. Once the married answer print existed, the movie existed. But then it went into a two-year struggle to get people watch the movie, and to get the distributors accept it existed, after they'd written it off, after they decided the whole thing was a dead loss. I'm rather hoping that some day, somehow, it will "leak out", or someone will try to strike a some kind of deal to get around it. But I'm not really sure who owns it, and I cannot sell it because I don't have the rights. That's pretty much it.

Muhajedin engaging into battle.VOICE OF THE MOON was made back in 1989. It's a kind of labor of love, since I always knew it was destined to have a small viewership. I suppose, at that time, the Afghan war captured my imagination; Afghanistan certainly does, in that Afghanistan itself is a country, that is largely pre-biblical with the lifestyle the people are living. They're living in a world without electricity, without telephones, without taxes, without even the written language in most places. It was a confrontation of this primal lifestyle in a way, this original life pattern, with the superpower.

The Soviet Union, with a highly a technological army, with helicopters, with chemical weaponry, with biological weaponry, with Doppler lookout systems and nightsights and everything that is available to a technological man, crashing into us; essentially a stone-age environment. Which to me seemed like an expression of the time of tension within planet Earth; within the population of this planet; within different timestreams colliding with each other; the 20th century colliding with a place, that is still existing in a different era.

In 1995, 4 days into production, Richard was fired as director of "THE ISLAND OF DR MOREAU" starring Val Kilmer & Marlon Brando for "creative differences".

RS: HARDWARE and DUST DEVIL are both pretty distorted. They're not quite the movies, that I actually set out to make, but of course they never are - the truck arrives with fresh compromises every day. But really they are the only two, that I can lay claim to with any surety - in that they do represent my point of view. In THE ISLAND OF DR MOREAU, my name may be on the credits, but not one word of the script is in fact mine, just the same as with the book.

The reduction of this into a movie about a mad scientist, who creates monsters that chase pretty girls on a tropical island is a horrible grass misunderstanding. Really, I think that also cost me my job on that movie. But I don't think it's a world now, where you can expect a major studio back a film with complicated themes like that, particularly not when it also involves werewolves or cat people. That's too damn strange and heartfelt to get their heads around it.

Q: What attracted you to that novel originally?

RS: There was on my father's bookshelf a copy of THE ISLAND OF DR MOREAU. When I was very small as a child, I wanted to read it, and it looked exciting. But my parents didn't want me to read that book, because it was too scary, or there was something too horrific in it for them to want it get down for me.

Q: Your father was a friend of an author...?

RS: Well, my fathers father was a friend of Edgar Wallace, the crime writer. Edgar Wallace, of course, is partially credited with the script for King Kong. So as a result, my father was passionate about KING KONG and forced everyone to watch this movie - a lot. I first saw it when I was about three or four years old, and I suppose, that was the beginning of it all; projecting KING KONG in a print form, and falling in love with the world they'd created, the magic of it and the idea that all this was really only about twelve inches high.

For some foolish reason, I can't watch KING KONG without getting all tearful and choked up whenever Kong's in the Empire State Building. For some reason, the big ape on top the building, smacking at the aeroplanes, always seemed to be some sort of potent metaphor for whatever it was I felt about myself, or just the idea of being some inarticulate, shaggy beast in the middle of a mechanized world, which doesn't like it particularly much.

Q: And your latest project?

The Secret Glory early title card.RS: Well, VOICE OF THE MOON, the film about Afghanistan, is almost ten years old now. I've been having quite a lot of trouble, as you can imagine, getting financed by major American film distributors and the corporate powers that be. It's a frustrating business as you can imagine; not being shoot, not being shoot film, not being able to cut film, not being able to work in the film, because it's something which I live for. As such, to live for years and years without that ability and access to the medium is a nightmare.

So, time has gone by enough that about a year ago I realized I had to shoot something, just so I could still be a filmmaker. So ten years on VOICE OF THE MOON, I'm being very stupid and once again I'm investing personal money and time and unpaid labor in doing another insane documentary project, that I'm sure no-one will want to watch and which will find a very limited audience. And again, which is thematically very difficult. In this particular case, because we didn't want to initially get involved again with a war, which included live ammunition, because Mr Horn, who is the fantastic cinematographer of these films and who shot VOICE OF THE MOON and nearly lost his legs on VOICE OF THE MOON, really deserved not to lose his legs again, not to be hit by any more shrapnel. So we thought this time around we would do something, which covered World War 2, a past conflict.

Otto Rahn, in uniform.So I'm making a very long, detailed biographical documentary about an SS-Ubersturmführer named Otto Rahn, who worked for the Ahnerbe, which was the cultural-folklore-historical department of the SS; and who was involved in creating the SS as we know it; the creation of the Order castle, the design of the uniforms, and particularly with the overview of the Third Reich with the cultural underpinnings that led to the policies of genocide; that led to the Aryan myth; that led to the idea of the master race. And I picked Otto, because he was also Jewish. To me, the idea that a man, who was even half-Jewish, was someone who is as Jewish as anyone else, could end up like Otto as an administrator with the death sect at Dachau. I'm yet to see whether this is a misguided endeavour, or whether there might be any kind of small truth that might come out of it, or anything that might be of benefit for posterity in some crazed way.

Postproduction on "THE SECRET GLORY" is set to begin in summer 1999. The director's cut of "DUST DEVIL" remains unreleased.

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