On Robots and Ratings
by Philip Nutman
(Originally appeared in Fangoria #97, 1990)
Richard Stanley's unusual life experiences helped him to create the nightmarish visions of Hardware.
It is a rainy Thursday evening and I am seated in The Nellie Dean Pub in London's West End, reading a book on addiction while waiting for writer/director Richard Stanley to appear. The choice of reading matter is apt: nearly everyone in Hardware, his debut feature, is on something, and in his bleak future vision Stanley seems to be saying, "Tune in, turn on, drop dead." He is half an hour late.
This doesn't surprise me. He's coming from Shepperton Studios, several miles outside the city, where for the past week or so he's been overseeing the final dub on the movie. Also, I know from previous experience that Stanley seems to inhabit his own world, that time appears to have a different meaning. Aside from being a talented twentysomething promo director, he is also a nomad, a peripatetic wanderer who's drifted far from his South African roots where he shot anthropological documentaries, ending up in Britain waiting tables in a London restaurant before going to Afghanistan to film life under the Russian occupation. There, he'd been blown up by a Communist missile and lived - physically unscathed - to tell the tale, and had wandered for three days with his wounded comrade strapped to his back before finding a Red Cross refugee camp, only to learn via a telex that Hardware had been given the green light, necessitating his immediate return to England.
I didn't know this the first time I met him, but the encounter was a little disconcerting. There was something otherworldly about this guy, and the only other person I'd met whom I could draw a parallel with was eccentric Italian director Dario Argento. Both seem to inhabit someplace strange, and Hardware has proven to be one of the most interesting movies I've crossed in my eight-year stint with Fango.
So here I am, waiting in a pub, frequented by media types and working Joes for a man who, technically speaking, should have died a year ago. As if by invocation - speak of the devil - Stanley appears, tapping me on the back.
He has a tendency to stoop his 6-foot frame, tilting his head and peering at you from underneath the brim of his ever-present black cowboy-style hat. Sometimes you feel like you're under a microscope and Stanley is Dr Cyclops (the film version played by Albert Dekker, not Fango's video phantom) about to dissect you.
I'm not expecting an apology but the director is cordial, more relaxed than last time I'd seen him at the recent Splatterfest where a ten-minute Hardware trailer was screened. We exchange small talk and head for the Rosa Sayang Malaysian restaurant down the street.
"Tell me about your original plans to have Bill Paxton and Jeffrey Combs star in the movie." I say after we order a selection of exotic foods. Hardware stars Dylan McDermott (Hamburger Hill) as Hard Mo Baxter, future warrior, and Stacey Travis (Phantasm II) as Jill, his sculptress girlfriend. Shades (John Lynch) is Mo's best buddy. Together, the three of them have to defect the prototype killing machine Mark 13 that is the movie's Terminator-like antagonist. The final casting, however, is not quite what Stanley wanted.
"Bill Paxton would been ideal as Mo." He confides. "He's been great in every movie he had done; Aliens and Near Dark obviously come to mind, but surprisingly, no one at either Palace Pictures or Miramax, who financed the film, had heard of Near Dark. I met with Bill when we went to LA to cast the leads - part of the cast - and he was excellent. He loved the role. And we tried out Jeffrey Combs from Re-Animator as Shades, because I felt there'd be an interesting chemistry between the two of them. But we lost Jeffrey because we were told we could only employ two Americans. Since Jill had to be American, and I'd already decided on Stacey, who's excellent, that meant Combs was out."
So what happened to Paxton?
"Because no one at Palace or Miramax has heard of him they didn't chase his agent," Stanley sighs. "Bill was keen to do the part, but since he didn't hear anything for a few months, he signed up to do Navy Seals. There was a terrible period of three days when, finally, the executive producers saw what I was getting at and tried to sign him. Bill wanted to do Hardware so much that he had his agent try get him out of the Navy Seals contract, and we were hanging on by our fingertips waiting to find the outcome."
Paxton, unfortunately, was bound to the big-budget film, and so the infinitely more interesting Hardware, which at $1.5 million cost about as much as Seals catering budget, had to do without him. Enter McDermott.
"I had to make the characters more sympathetic than they should have been, the leads aren't quite as screwed up as they were originally intended.' Stanley adds with an air of dissapointment. His expression goes distant for a beat, as if he were thinking about how Hardware was meant to be one hell of a cyber/splatterpunk horror movie that he described to me during a set visit as "a bad drug trip into the future" which is an apt description. "Aside from having to soften the characters, the rest of it was just down to economics, we didn't have the time or the money to make some of the material as unpleasant as I intended."
One such unpleasant moment is the death of Chief, the movie's splatter setpiece. "It was OK," Stanley sighs. "There should've been more blood, but on the whole it works. Vernon, the other cop, gets the shorter-shrift, he's shot in the head, whereas originally he was meant to get shot in the balls. This was supposed to be one of the movie's nastiest moments. The guy's left alive, then cut up with a chainsaw. The actor had a page in the script of screaming and begging as his spine was severed so he couldn't move, beseeching Jill to help him. But she can't because the droid is using him as bait to get her."
"Effects-wise, it would have taken two days to shoot, but we were at the end of the schedule so all we could do was shoot him in the head." This time there is no attempt to disguise his disappointment and a sardonic smile creeps across Stanley's lips.
Like numerous other recent horror films, Hardware was beginning to sound as if it was another well-intentioned movie that suffered production problems, not ot mention shaping up for a fight with the censors. "I imagine the censors are going to have a good time with this." Stanley says, smiling at the thought.
"Even in the light of what you had to take out? The way you had to make the characters more sympathetic?" I ask. "You told me this was going to be a nihilistic movie without hope. A horror movie that delivers."
"It is, it is" he insists, stubbing out his cigarette for emphasis. "But not quite as extreme a vision as I once had."
* * *
A month later. I have the opportunity to see Hardware at the cast and crew screening held in a plush art house cinema and I am reassured. This is a tough movie and Stanley has delivered what he promised. Director of photography Steven Chivers makes the low budget work in the movie's favour, its claustrophobic sets and do-it-yourself post-apocalyptic exteriors belying financial limitations.
The good matte work mean Image Animation FX, blood, violence and cutting edge put many current genre movies to shame.
But as we eat that night, our conversation inevitably deals with censorship and the petty arguments espoused by the British Board Of Film Classification and the MPAA. "The censors are going to cut Lincoln's eye-gouging, and they'll probably trim Chief's death as it goes on for quite some time." Stanley predicts. "You're allowed to tear people in half so long as you kill them but if they're alive it comes under the heading of torture."
"The only thing Palace and Miramax made me take out was the footage of real death, which was part of a TV documentary running in the background in one scene," he adds.
Regardless of the movies strengths he is still troubled by his experience with McDermott. "It means I've got a lead in my movie who I really don't like. It's an Argento situation: Dario has often said he deliberately casts actors he has no sympathy for, but I ended up with a square-jawed lead who believes in the family and is career military with short hair. He reads the bible! That was Dylan's idea. I find it very hard to like Mo now. He was meant to be more like a Hell's Angel in the original script." But Stanley doesn't feel the changes hurt the film. "I would have preferred Mo to be in that mould but the same terrible things still happen. It would have been more interesting if the characters had had deeper flaws to start off with, but I prefer to hurt people I like."
He pauses ominously. "In movies anyway," he laughs.
Sources close to the movie believe that many of the film's character dynamics reflect Stanley's own struggle with elements in his background, and that there's a great deal of autobiography in the film, particularly in the relationship between Mo and Jill.
He responds to other question in a roundabout way. "I did go to a Catholic Military School in South Africa," he admits. "By the time I was 12 I could strip down a rifle and put it back together again. And I was a good shot."
"I just got my gun permit the other day," he says as an aside. "Can you imagine the authorities giving me the licence to own a gun?"
After a turbulent youth in the Dark Continent - including a trip to a witch doctor who gave him a protective medallion he wears to this day - Stanley decided to turn his energies to filmmaking. "I studied filmmaking at Cape Town Film and Video school for two years before being booted out during my final term for endangering the lives of actors on a shoot," he says nonchalantly. "We were filming a stunt sequence on a cliff face, using professional climbers as doubles for the actors, and they doubled so well the faculty heads didn't believe we didn't use the actors." Following this, Stanley signed up with a music college to film documentary footage of tribal customs, music and dance, a subject he was familiar with from his anthropology studies.
He eventually decided to leave South Africa in the early '80s when he was drafted into the Army. "Actually, it was a combination of things. I had a bad car accident, there was trouble looming with the authorities over something I won't go into and the Army was the last straw."
Arriving in London, Stanley worked as a waiter while feverishly writing screenplays and shooting Super-8 shorts, which in turn led to his directing videos for bands including Fields Of The Nephilim, Public Image Limited and a host of unknown French groups.
During this time, Stanley started work on a Super-8 project that was to metamorphose into Hardware. "It was the same characters, the same setting but very laid back, more of a comedy, in fact. That became the basis for the script, which turned increasingly mean and evolved into another draft which was where Mark 13 first appeared. Before that it was this weird story about Mo, Shades and these other strange dudes in Jill's apartment. I never intended it that way, but it then made perfect sense to put the characters together and have the droid kill them all."
This version of the script was the one that made Stephen Woolley of Palace Picture sit up and take notice, realising that here the opportunity to make a British movie with the same visceral, unrelenting qualities as The Evil Dead, which Palace had successfully distributed in the early '80s.
The economics of studio moviemaking may have changed - budgets increasing at an enormous rate, necessitating a bigger slice of the box office pie - but low budgets are still a safe bet for a solid financial return. Months before its release date, Hardware is already in profit due to healthy international presales, and as a result Stanley is now prepping Dust Devil.
"I've been working on the first draft for the past month," he reveals, "and we have some development money. It looks likely Palace will finance again with Miramax, and I'm off to Namibia to do some research.
Namibia, South Africa? Yes. Stanley is going walkabout again and it promises to be a strange trip. "Dust Devil is a werewolf story with much more. I think of it as a road movie Western, a socio-political romantic police procedural psychokiller movie about a cop tracking down a shapeshifter in Africa." He exclaims with no pause for breath.
Why chose South Africa as a location, I wonder. "It's a strange, scary place." Stanley responds. "There's nothing more viscious and wild than Africa in the middle of the night. There's always something lurking outside your campfire."
Stanley lights a cigarette, the smoke curling supernaturally around his head. "The main character is a borderline demon straight out of popular mythology." He reveals, "we're talking The Hitcher, The Man With No Name, the Demon Gunslinger, The Walking Dude. Randall Flagg in [Stephen] King's The Stand was a great character, but he wasn't used properly. He's the basic nomad archetype, which is a figure I've always been obsessed with. He appears in my promos, he's the nomad in Hardware who unearths Mark 13, so Dust Devil is the next logical step."
Though it is in the earliest stages of development. Stanley is proposing a budget of $4.5 million for Dust Devil. "We have to shoot entirely on location in Namibia," he vows. "It's got to feel authentic. The story revolves around a cop who is one step from hell. That country's the closest thing to hell on Earth I've found. If you start a story there, there's no turning back. It's downhill all the way for the characters. If there really is a Walking Dude, he would naturally seek out a place where life is miserable and Namibia is it."
As we depart the restaurant. I think about the differing opinions people who've worked with Richard Stanley have of him. Some maintain he is a genius, others a mad con man. Is it all an act? I don't think so. There is something definitely unusual about the guy, but the bottom line is he's made an impressive debut feature, a lean mean SF horror movie for the '90s. We say our farewells and head off in opposite directions. The night is unusually quiet for central London on a Thursday, and as I wander along an almost deserted Oxford Street towards the subway. I could swear I hear the sound of worn-down bootheels clicking along the sidewalk.
If there is a Walking Dude, Richard Stanley will find him.