Richard Stanley / The Espoo Ciné Interview, part II
by Lauri Löytökoski, August 28th, 2004, transcribed by Dejan Ognjanovic
Richard Stanley visited the Finnish film festival Espoo Ciné in August 2004, presenting all of his major works (two feature films, three documentaries, and one short film) during a three-day retrospective. I first met him during the second day of the retrospective, when he was about to screen The White Darkness and The Voice of the Moon. He was gracious enough to agree for this interview. In the second part, we talk about works unfinished in one way or the other, such as The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Secret Glory and In a Season of Soft Rains.
Between Death and the Devil: If someone proposed that you shoot The Island of Dr. Moreau again, would you do it?
Richard Stanley: Yeah. But no one would propose that, it's insane.
BDD: If you did it on a smaller scale, trying to tighten it down a bit?
RS: Maybe. I'm still pretty scared of it now, it was massively over the top, it was an epic. I still want to do the shark attack sequence from the opening. The way we were planning on shooting it, with real sharks and fake people, that was the way to go, and we had those mannequins full of real meat and stuff. The mannequins are on a smaller scale, which makes sharks fucking huge. I love the way they move, full of grace, under water. I really want to see them grabbing people, kicking, taking them down to the deep, writhing and stuff. Just that feeding frenzy of the UN people, with people of races, colours and creeds. I'd also like to see the ending where the Dog people cook and eat the girl.
[Prendick, the leading man in Moreau] kinda walks in there and there's this long take in which his girl is cooked and served at the table with an apple in her mouth or whatever, and they're sort of picking her ribs and stuff. They can't even remember they've done it for sure, they're happy to see him and the dog people want to be patted just like regular dogs. He sees what they've done and he goes crazy. He just shoots two of the dog men, and they're lying, and Waggdi, the little dogman tries to run away and he shoots him, too. And then he goes to shoot Azazello, the main dogman: I wanted to have him chew on one of her arms, I thought it would be quite nasty. So, he tries to shoot Azazello but he's out of bullets. And the dog men can't remember why he's angry with them. I imagine he would have lost his mind completely at that point and he starts to almost bark himself. That and the shark scene are probably two scenes I regret most not having the chance to shoot.
They wouldn't even let the cat woman turn into an animal. In none of the three Moreau versions does the cat lady actually turn into a fucking cat. In the Michael York version it's still Barbara Carrera at the end. That's so silly. They've got this huge taboo about body hair. I really wanted her to go on all fours and lick her fur and stuff, and he's still trying to love her even though she's the creature. I saw it as The Fly, but they wouldn't let even that happen, let alone allow her to get eaten. There are certainly things there that are worth shooting, but I don't think it would be a good idea for me to go there and shoot that.
BDD: Do you like Lovecraft?
RS: Big fan.
BDD: Which of his stories would you like to adapt?
RS: I can't really imagine adapting any of his stories 'cause none of them quite lend themselves to film. I wouldn't mind doing a homage. One of his stories that I might think of doing is making The Call of Cthulhu as a fake documentary. It's possible having a documentary, piecing together different pieces from around the world. I'd like that - people around the world having the same dreams, seeing the same nightmare. But otherwise it's more likely that I might make a homage to him.
BDD: You don't see films doing justice to Lovecraft?
RS: No, I don't think there's ever been an actual Lovecraft movie. Sometimes, funnily enough, I think that Bergman comes quite close, like Through a Glass Darkly, where a girl has a vision of god as a huge spider about to eat her, that's a pure Lovecraftian moment. Hour of the Wolf, and even the ending of Shame have their moments of cosmic horror.
BDD: In the past, you have expressed interest in working with Dario Argento. He might need someone like you as a script doctor...
RS: I think he might, too... He's so proud, it's difficult for him to admit that. I've been offering myself to Dario all my life, but I don't think he'd noticed. He's so arrogant in a way, he doesn't realize there's a problem with his scripts. I'm horrified by the way he's gone: after Phantom of the Opera, I couldn't support him any more. It's very disillusioning. But he's still a great guy in real life, which is the sad part of it. I met him a couple of years ago, and he's still sharp and funny, it's just that he doesn't understand what's happened to his work.
It's not just him, it's the whole bunch of them, even Claudio Simonetti's music's become terrible. His 'Dwarf Theme' in Sleepless is just embarrassing. He sometimes has great cameramen like Giuseppe Rottuno, but it doesn't show, when he works with Dario somehow the camerawork is not as good as it used to be. Whatever it was that was working perfectly ten years ago doesn't seem to work now. I don't get it.
BDD: Oliver Stone said that sometimes life slows you down, family and stuff...
RS: I guess the trick is just to work with younger people. I will try to get a hold with Dario. It's a personal matter now. I mean, if it wasn't for Dario, I wouldn't have ended up in the whole Holy Grail thing. I'm still waiting for a decent Mother of Darkness movie, I think there's more life in there. Dario didn't invent these things - they go far beyond Dario. They even go farther than [Thomas] De Quincey, who read about it in this Hebrew book of Creation, Sephir Yetsirah...
BDD: Can you mention some of the films that you'd been script-doctoring that have been made?
RS: One's in production now, but it won't have my name on it. It's a script called Blood Ties, and Michael Madsen's in it. It's about parents going crazy on an island and killing their children. I worked on it last year: mostly I tried to make children more intelligent, but I have nothing to do with the production. Since then I've worked on a script called Stray, which they may make or not. There are two more, I'm working on one. One is called Night Passenger, but it won't be called that after I've finished. It's just terrible at the moment. It's a slasher movie on a ship, it's awful. First thing that goes is - the slasher. I'm trying to get a decent monster into the thing. I'm also trying to introduce a class [struggle] between the working class Latinos and rich white Americans...
BDD: After the Moreau incident, what would you say about where your career went?
RS: There was a period when I was trying to get out of it, to retire. I had no more reason to work, they gave me a million dollars, I could go to a desert island, they paid me off to go away... There's always a moment in a project, no matter how dear it is to your heart, that you just want it to be over. But I don't think I can get rid of the film industry, somehow it always comes back at my door.
BDD: Status update on the following: Viy, Society 2, In a Season of Soft Rains...
RS: Society 2? There's no truth to that one. The script was sent to me a year and a half ago, and I've never heard back from them since then. So it doesn't seem like a realistic proposition.
BDD: Would you do it?
RS: I'm not sure I would. I don't like the idea of doing a sequel to someone else's movie. As for In a Season of Soft Rains, I'm still in love with it. I've been trying every which way to get it made. It's an important script, it needs to get made eventually. And again, [it's subject matter] is closer than you think. The world in the film is not as dramatic as people might expect. It's not like in The Day After Tomorrow - I don't see global warming suddenly causing mass destructions or being a huge dramatic thing.
And I've never made a film set in England. I want to show England - there would be very little summer, the weather would be like this here, wet and miserable, day after day. Not catastrophically wet, just nasty. Dump, and gray and unpleasant for a very, very long time. In this society, things are frighteningly unchangeable. Because, in the script the revolution happens in England, the government is deposed. But, in the course of the revolution everything goes back, and at the end of the movie things are strangely the same.
BDD: What about that Reservoir Dogs/Evil Dead movie?
RS: That was actually closest to a Lovecraft adaptation. It was written ages ago, for Jean-Claude Van Damme, when Sam Raimi was looking to do it. But it was called Nemesis, now there's another film called Nemesis. The idea was - there is a poem by H.P. Lovecraft with that title - the story is about a bank robbery in Netherlands, they break into the vault of a very old European bank to get the diamonds, and they do it on Queen's day, there is a party to cover up the noise of jack-hammers. Together with the diamonds they get a box left there since the World War II. It's got some triangular black stones in it, and one of the guys cuts his hand on a stone or something, and then they're trapped in the vault because the police surround them, and then a demon possesses one of the hoods. Particularly good was, when a demon takes over the gangster, he immediately reaches for his cell phone and calls HELP. And some Call of Cthulhu kind of 'cleaners' arrive, fast-moving Indian-like types with funny tattoos on their faces and rain capes who try to rescue their God and stuff...
BDD: There's this guy, Dejan, from Serbia, who's very interested in VIY...
RS: I can understand why. He knows what VIY means in Serbian. That's a term you use for your elder or your better, like 'Sir', or 'Vi'. It's like a term of respect.
BDD: In his words: 'Why VIY? Why Kosovo/Bosnia for VIY? How do you envision this film? Will there be a distinct, visualized supernatural entity [monster?], or will it be just psychology, a metaphor?'
RS: The script tries to play an evil joke on the audience. Because it's a serious subject matter, the Yugoslavian war, it tries to pretend it might be psychological for much longer than you'd expect, because the lead vampire doesn't turn up until the very end of the movie. But nonetheless, there is a moment where the reason completely collapses and it turns out that this folkloric character actually exists. It isn't just a metaphor, it is cheating, because it's trying to have it both ways. I wanted people to think that they're watching a serious examination of the human condition, and then it drops the other shoe about two thirds into the movie and by the end it's a fucking abattoir. It's based on a real story. [Nikolai] Gogol's writing something he heard from peasants, he's writing down an oral tradition. He says at the opening of his story 'This is a collosal creation of the collective unconsciouses. Viy is, I think, like the father of all vampires.
I'm certain that Gogol's story influenced Stoker's Dracula. Especially the central section, with the guy reading Bible over the body of a dead girl, is very similar to the stuff in Dracula, Salem's Lot, whatever came later. It's interesting that the 'V' word is never used in the Gogol story, he's not called a vampire, he calls them witches and trolls. They're not fully fleshed vampires. I got intrigued when I realised that Viy is not really his name, but Serbo-Croatian for addressing your elder. It's natural for other fiends to refer to their elder as 'Viy'. If Gogol's story is the oldest vampire story we have written down, and in the end other fiends say, 'bring Viy, fetch Viy', which is just Serbo-Croatian term for your elder, then it means 'Bring the Elder!' That still happens at the end of the script, like a proper story about Yugoslavian war, in the last sequence someone brings Viy and he's in terrible shape, he's been buried under the rock for 300 years, He's very sleepy...
BDD: You know, Serbia is now coming on its feet after the wars and all, and their film industry is recovering. Dejan would very much like to see this film made in Serbia...
RS: I'd very much hope I could do it there. It's always been the idea. Apart from the vampire thing what the script is going after is - xenophobia. In the story, I wanted to take this bunch of British, actually Irish marines, they're doing the PR service, filming the aids people inoculating children and bringing blankets, they're not really good soldiers, none of them is good enough to fire a gun, they're there to do a little commercial thing for TV.
BDD: Dejan and I were trying to sell Serbia as the location for the film in a promo-letter we sent to Bob Last.
RS: I'm really up for it. They're trying to get rid of Bob Last, by the way. There's a fight over Viy, and he may get replaced. The fact that they're all fighting over who controls the movie is a good sign because it means it must be worth something. They're bothering over the rights, so it means they might actually make the movie. I'm not so concerned about it, I'll just wait and see who wins eventually...
BDD: Hopefully it won't end up like the last times.
RS: This is a small movie; it's all set in one small village, set mostly at night. I very much like the idea of taking a small cast of British people, like just ten of them, and the one filming it all, and all the other people around them should be real Serbian or real Croatian people in their town, and they should be speaking their own language. And none of the cast members should understand what they're saying. It would be good to have subtitles for the Serbo-Croat, but the British characters just not knowing what the fuck is gong on for most of the time, because it's about xenophobia.
Vampirism for me goes back to that. Dracula is the character fighting originally for the Osman empire, for the Turks - who helped to bring Islam to Serbia or Moldavia, way back - the Voivod of Transylvania, and they say he drinks blood and eats children. It's always the same libel; it's always the other guy, the Muslim, who drinks blood. And I'm sure that even Dracula is an echo of ethnic cleansing from maybe the 12th century. But it's a tradition. I think for Viy to be really upsetting and unpleasant for the audience, it needs to be filmed in the real place. I ought to go out there myself. I want to find out where the story came from.
BDD: What did you discover exploring the history of the ustashi [Croatian fascists]? Was there some occult background to them?
RS: Uhm... [pauses] I have to think very carefully about this one... There is the matter of the... the bizarre video tape, which I also want to include in Viy. But it feels more like a snuff film. I like the idea that it's maybe a... ustashi filmmaker, someone who's in charge of a concentration camp, using their free time to make their own porno movie, using refugees as actors. It looks like something shot by someone who's got a video camera and a complete power to force people to do whatever they want. And too much time on their hands. In the script for Viy they find this tape as... the previous regime, the administration; the UN guys find it in one of the desk drawers. It's got mildew on the tape, so the image is pretty fucked, we're going to use it as the back story in Viy, as what happened to the people who were there before. It's very upsetting, and it's done to the tune of Rock Me, Rock Me Baby, which is a Croatian turbo-folk hit from the old days.
BDD: Is it connected in any way with The Secret Glory?
RS: A little. It's obviously the Nazis again. I think these guys are some kind of infinite evil that keeps returning. It's amazing to me how events keep recurring down thru time. The same kinds of things happen every two-hundred years, which is kind of upsetting. One of the aspects of The Secret Glory, which is particularly interesting to me, is that Otto Rahn, being a historian who studies the Crusades and slaughter of the Cathars, ends up being an SS. He wrote his thesis on witch-hunter Conrad Von Arbau, who came from his hometown. And in the end as an SS officer he becomes a witch-hunter again. And the way that, in the 12th century, they slaughtered Cathars in the Southern France, burning of the Cathars at Montsegur, and the Teutonic knights and all, remind me suspiciously of the Nazis. What upsets me is that the castle, the headquarters of the SS, was originally the seat of the witch-hunters in the 16th century. There were still racks and iron maidens and shit [in the castle], and they were basically the same guys doing the same shit three-hundred years later.
The Cathars were heretics, but the Albigenese doctrine was started by a bogumil missionary Nissitas, and the bogumils of course came from [the region of former] Yugoslavia, so again it's Serbo-Croat, 'bogumil' meaning 'loved by God'. But in Bosnia they were not prosecuted [the way Cathars were]. In trying to avoid that, they became Muslim. They decided to hide into Islam, and they became the Bosnian Muslims. And then you get to the present day, seeing ustashi [Croatian fascists] slaughtering them again, and it seems to me it's the same damn war. It's still the Catholic Church vs. the bogumils, so it keeps going down the ages.
I also noticed in Haiti, the black supremacist guys always wear black regalia like Nazis, and silver jewellery and the 'tottenkopf', the death-head... That skull and bones symbols turns up a lot, it's upsetting. From the beginning of Haiti they had the 'Jolly Roger'. It was originally Spanish, but then the French took it - the French buccaneers, so the skull and bones symbol's been right there. And both [John] Kerry and [George W.] Bush are members of the Skull and Bones society. The recurrence of this shit is just upsetting to me. It's like the same war constantly going on... I keep recognizing the same insignia every so often. That aspect of the Secret Glory is the most interesting, and disturbing. [...] The sense of things, that keep recurring. It's not just past, it's a real danger. I sometimes think that stories being revealed, the true story about Otto Rahn, is just because something is trying to warn us. I couldn't think why are they telling me this, why I am so lucky that this falls into my lap now. What did I do to deserve having this?
BDD: It's like you're taking orders from someone...?
RS: Part of my problem, my whole life, was trying to figure out whose side I'm on. That's definitely been a running issue. My agent [guardian angel] is a bit confused.
Continued in part III