The Nuts and Bolts of Hardware
by Philip Nutman
(Originally appeared in Fangoria #92, 1990)
With the decline of Hammer films in the early 1970's, low-budjet filmmaking in Britain all but disappeared. Only bargain basements directors Norman J. Warren and Pete Walker continued undeterred, struggling against the system with films like Satan's Slave, Prey and House of Whipcord. By the early 1980's, the situation was bleak, and it was until Hellraiser went into production in 1986 that Britain had a horror movie to call its own. Now, fortunately, there appears to be life beyond Hellbound. Hardware, a $1,5 million science fiction/horror rollercoaster ride is a step in the right direction.
There's none of the typical British snobbery that goes hand in hand with most indigenous productions shot here, no posturing or talk of the movie's being "a human drama set against an SF backdrop" nor any of those interchangeable quotes from those novice directors being embarrassed to be dealing with than savory subject matter. Hardware's intention is to shock , disturb and quite probably offend. It's a movie with attitude, and first time director/writer Richard Stanley makes no apologies. "Hopefully, it will play like the worst possible drug trip," he assesses from Hardware's North London studio. "I'd like it to be a genuine psychedelic experience."
Hardware takes place in a not-too-distant future America - probably New York City, although the script is not specific. It's a Blade Runner environment stripped down to its charred roots, a world submerging under the weight of its own corruption and decay. Post-industrial, post-nuke, post-economic crash. Famine and radiation sickness are a part of everyday life. A civil war rages outside the city, but no-one seems to know why or care.
Moses Baxter - Hard Mo, to friend and enemy alike - is such a man. A cyberpunk vision of a Vietnam veteran wearing his emotional and physical scars like an armor, his only reasons for living are fighting, scavenging and spending time with Jill, a fragile, withdrawn sculptress whom he loves but cannot commit to. Jill hides away in her cramped, crumbling apartment, afraid to face the world around her. Jill's only means of expression comes from her art, fashioning surreal constructs from the detritus of the society. When Mo gives her a pile of robot junk as a Christmas gift, he inadvertently invites the insanity of the outside world to intrude on her cocooned space with violent results. The "junk" is what's left of Mark-13, a prototype killing machine lost by the military. It is sentient, it is deadly, and its sole function is to kill.
Although most of the movie's dramatic components come from familiar areas, there is a refreshing aspect to the production that may be a good omen. The majority of the cast and crew are in their 20's, all young, enthusiastic and hip to the movie they are making. Walking on the set, one can't help but pick up the energy level resonating throughout the building. Most of the crew have cut their teeth in the demanding rock video world and are used to working fast, making every dollar count. Richard Stanley is 25 and co-producer Joanne Sellar is 26, as is the director of photography Steve Chivers. All three have toiled in the promo marketplace, working with limited budjets. Chivers has lensed clips for Eurythmics and Fine Young Cannibals, in addition to the business' cheaper end. Stanley directed Public Image's "The Body" and the first two videos for British doom rockers Fields of the Nephilim, the latter showcasing his ability to make a $1400 promo look like it cost $70,000.
Sellar serves as managing director of the Promo Palace, the rock video division of Palace Pictures, famed for High Spirits and Mona Lisa. Palace is co-financing Hardware with the American firm Miramax. Sellar has worked with a variety of groups, including U2, Elvis Costello and 10,000 Maniacs. In fact, her first project as a producer was Iggy Pop's "Cold Metal", directed by Sam Raimi. Nevertheless, Stanley assures us Hardware will not come off as a let's-sell-the-movie-by-the-videos-and-the-soundtrack music/multimedia mess."This is a movie, not a bunch of video clips pretending to be a story," he nods. "The only connection to that stuff is the speed we're working at."
With such connections, it's no surprise to learn the flick has cameos from a handful of performers. PIL's John Lydon (aka punk hero Johnny Rotten) will be providing the voice of Angry Bob, the psychometal DJ whose vicious rants keep Jill abreast of the events in the world outside her apartment complex. Lemmy from heavymetallists Mötorhead appears as a foul-mouthed cab driver, and Nephilim vocalist Carl McCoy plays the enigmatic Nomad, an existential drifter/mercenary character not far removed from McCoy's stage persona. The main cast, however, is grounded by Stacey Travis as Jill, Dylan McDermott as Mo, and rising British actor John Lynch as Mo's buddy Shades. All are experienced performers, if not regocnizable names; the acting should be a notch above typical low-budjet standards.
Richard Stanley has almost finished his hurried lunch and, checking with first assistant director Ray Corbett (a British industry veteran with numerous credits), discovers there's time for us to continue talking before the next setup.
"Complete bollocks," Stanley responds to the accusation that Hardware is nothing more than an amalgam of Robocop and The Terminator ("Bollocks", for our Yank friends, is English slang for bull testicles.). "If it steals from anywhere, it steals from Italian horror movies. I'm hugely fond of everything by Dario Argento, so that influence is definetly there, and I'll admit to spending too many night watching Lucio Fulci films. Hardware's a mix of my favorite Italian styles and elements, spiked with the basic cyberpunk aspects. Terminator and Robocop made it possible to get this made. If I'd been pitching a straight Gotchic horror story it would have been harder - if not impossible - to raise the finance," he notes. "The setting obviously helped a lot in working up a deal, and I'm sure a lot of people will expect this to be a James Cameron type of picture, but they'll be surprised. I'll have failed miserably in my task if Hardware is a reflection of those movies."
The script was conceived with a low budjet in mind. Stanley seriously considered shooting the project entirely under his own steam if professional financing proved difficult to come by, with a deserted warehouse facility standing in for a soundstage. "And I had it all worked out how to do Mark 13 via stop-motion animation, although that probably would have taken me a year to do," Stanley admits. "I was going to make this film one way or another, since the script is loaded with personal obsessions." Pushed to be specific, he replies, "Basically the Argento connection. The lighting, the violence, the intensity of human life in conflict with technology, social decay. That kind of stuff."
One thing about this film seems a given: ratings problems. Hardware is a bleak, nihilistic movie. "There's not a lot of hope in the story," Stanley notes. "The audience won't walk away feeling safe." Aside from the heavy violence, explicit gore, and depressing subject matter, there is the frequent drug use, which while certainly not glamorous will no doubt anger various international censors. It would come as no surprise if the MPAA immediately awarded Hardware an X rating in the grounds of its amoral tone. Although the violence could be trimmed and the gore diluted, you can't turn a relentlessly dark film into a Disney movie. Like John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Hardware is about lost people in a grim environment. With addiction to crack reaching epidemic proportions and the ozone layer ready to disappear, perhaps Stanley's vision of the future isn't far off the mark.
"I always knews there could be a ratings problem, and both Palace and Miramax will have to fight to get this movie shown," he confides. "What amused me is all this talk in Britain bemoaning the fact there are so few low-budjet movies with commercial potential, yet we're making one that might not get shown. To be honest, I've structured the story in such a way that it can't be cut in the way the censors usually work. It's a case of all or nothing. Everything that's in the story is there for a real reason, not just to exploit. I wrote the script to read like a hard-boiled novel by Jim Thompson or Cornell Woolrich - writers who focus on bleak situations featuring doomed characters. Hopefully, the end result will underline the hypocrisy surrounding low-budjet movies."
On set, it's nearly time to paint the stage red. As Stanley strolls off to confer with Ray Corbett concerning the amount of time the setup will take, Stacey Travis navigates the cables and props to chat.
"This is a good part for me," the young actress states. "It's giving me the chance to really stretch my emotions." Travis, whose past credits include the lead in the horror comedy Doctor Hackenstein and smaller parts in Earth Girls are Easy and Phantasm II, is nevertheless restless today. She's been on the set since 7:00 am, and it now looks like she won't be needed. Standing around in her light blue silk kimono, her face splashed with dried blood and decorated with bruises, she doesn't look like she's having much fun. "I've been made up since I got here," she explains, "and it does feel uncomfortable. But it comes with the territory."
Director of photography Steve Chivers passes us to go check on the camera setups. He looks tense. Richard Stanley smokes impatiently near the video monitor. Ray Corbett paces. FX guys run back and forth to their workshop space. The clock ticks on.
"Jill is an interesting character," the actress continues. "She's coming from a hardened place, emotionally speaking. The exteriors of the film - the world she's in - are so horrible, and she's resigned to that. It's a natural defense. She's shut herself up in the apartment and doesn't really come out unless she has to. Then when all the mayhem starts happening, and more and more people start coming in, she has to open up, but that fighting spirit, that sense of territory, is still there. Every day I come in, I'm asked to do more than just what's written in the script. I don't think this is a typical role for a woman to play."
We stand to one side of Jill's ramshackle apartment, watching the FX crew rig the upcoming dismemberment scene, now running several hours behind schedchule. Stacey starts shivering and decides to return to her dressing room.
The set is situated on an irregularly shaped dais constructed around a skeleton of scaffolding with the floor five feets above the ground. To the rear is the apartment's one window, its shattered, gore-stained glass looking out onto the carefully camouflaged model cityscape, the light of the illusionary metropolis twinkling like dirty diamonds in the perpetual smog that blankets this future world.
Three steps up from the bedroom area is an open space running parallel to the corridor that connects Jill's junk-strewn workshop and the equally garbage-covered kitchen, trashed after a tense confrontation with the murderous Mark 13. Next to this is the apartment entrance, where the malfunctioning electronic doors will chop in half the hapless police chief played by British soap opera star Oscar James. Two carpenters complete a rig that will support the performer during his death scene.
The film's FX are handled by Bob Keen's Image Animation team, specifically Little John, Will Petty, David Keen, and Paul Catlin supervising the animatronics.
Little John, who threw around gallons of blood on both Hellraiser epics, check the gore pump. As usual, his clothing is splashed with red. "This is a crazy movie," he smiles. "We've been saying, 'Surely, you mean less blood?' They've been pushing it to the maximum. This one might turn a few heads.
"We've had a good working relationship with the director on Hardware, which isn't always the case," he continues while mopping up a minor splatter spill. "Our input has been listened to, noted and frequently acted upon, so it has turned out to be a good shoot. I actually feel privileged to be on this one. It's going to be a special film."
Ray Corbett interrupts the conversation to check on the timing. Little John assures him they're ready to roll once the carpenters are finished. With that, Corbett departs and Oscar James tries out the floor harness. All the while, Stanley listens to his actor's comments.
Business begins to heat up. Crew members don white suits, and the set starts to resemble a nuclear disaster area. Plastic sheeting is draped over the main camera as Steve Chivers checks on the positioning of the other two.
The red light goes up and the bell sounds. Corbett calls for silence. Sound running. Camera ready. Stanley calls action.
On the first beat, the electronic doors close halfway and recoil; on the second, they shoot together like a guillotine, and the actor screams. Blood flies. The doors open to reveal not one police chief but two, the actor's torso trashing in agony as his innards are exposed to the world.
It's a cut, but there's a problem: The blood spurted prematurely, splattering before the doors did their dirty work. A second take is required, and the set must be re-dressed before the mayhem can resume. The director sighs and walks on to the rear of the set.
"The backers decided to give the project a greenlight because they found the script tasty," Stanley recalls. "They were convinced we could make Hardware really cheaply, so that aspect clinched the deal. But it's turned out to be much more than they bargained for. When we first discussed it, I could see them thinking they could get Alien" for $1.98, and cash registers clinging in their minds. But now they've realized they're getting a more expensive, highly unpleasant movie. I'm delighted by that, but we had some serious fights all the way down the line. They're now trying to pull me in on certain scenes, and I can see I'm going to have to fight hard to get what I want over the next three weeks. But I'm not going to give in," he smiles maniacally as Ray Corbett calls him back to the bloodletting.
Oscar James dies perfectly. The doors slice the actor right on cue, gore spraying up the walls.
It's a cut and a print.
As we walk away from the corpse toward the coffee trolley, a happy crew member proudly displays his gore splashes. "I can't believe I'm getting paid for this," he beams.
Richard Stanley lights a cigarette and smirks.
A Hardware news update
by Philip Nutman
(Originally appeared in Fangoria #91, 1990)
"Hardware": In a world plagued by famine, war and environmental collapse, where there is little hope and love is a luxury, two people - Jill and Hard Mo - are about to face something far more dangerous than the social decay that surrounds them: Mark-13.
It is the ultimate soldier, a hi-tech fusion of spider and samurai warrior, designed to tip the balance of power on the battlefields of the next American Civil War. It can kill you in a space of a breath and make you enjoy it.
Welcome to the future. Welcome to Hardware.
Located in London's Camden town, the set of Hardware is not a typical film location. Housed inside the cavernous interior of The Roundhouse, formerly one of the British capitol's premier rock venues, the set is a low-budjet marvel of creativity triumphing over meager financial resources. The main set is an interior of an apartment complex; grim, neon-washed, sinking under the decaying city that surrounds it.
Here a bloody fight of surivival will take place as Jill (Stacey Travis) and Hard Mo (Dylan McDermott), a black marketeer and sometime soldier of fortune, encounter the fearsome might of technology out of control.
"There's no hope in this movie," states writer/director Richard Stanley, a 25-year old film school graduate whose background is in documentaries and rock videos. "I wanted the script read like good hard-boiled fiction - Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich, those types of writers - a fast pulp read with an edge. But translating that kind of drama into a science fiction setting on this budjet is difficult."
"People read the script and think, 'Oh, it's Terminator or Aliens,' but it's not," comments Stacey (Phantasm II) Travis. "Jill starts off hardened, defensive, but her experiences in fighting against Mark-13 help her break through to reconnect with her emotions, which is the exact reverse of what the female characters in those movies go through. I've done some difficult roles in the past, but this is really grueling, both physically and emotionally."
A serious genre aficionado, Stanley has taken an active involvement on all areas of his debut feature, co-designing Mark-13 with Bob (Hellraiser) Keen and his crew at Image Animation. Handling the on-set FX are Hellbound and Nightbreed veterans Little John and David Keen, with Paul Catlin supervising the animatronics. One thing everyone involved in Hardware agrees on concerning the film is its blood quota. "This movie is violent and bloody," says Little John. "It's been one of those productions where we throw it around and then they ask us to pump more blood! Although there isn't a huge body count, there is a lot of brutal stuff in this movie, and there's going to be a real problem with the censors. I can't see this film being passed anywhere without cuts."
Storyboard artist Graham Humphreys concurs. "From my perspective, Palace Pictures saw this as an opportunity to make the British equivalent to The Evil Dead. This is going to be a very intense film." A highly-rated illustrator and movie poster artist, Hardware is Humphreys' first active involvement in a production.
"Iniatially, it was going to be two weeks work, with me illustrating the main effects sequences, but it turned into a five month stint," Humphreys notes. "But it's been fascinating to see the way the ideas developed, especially watching my drawings turned into celluloid reality. Richard Stanley has taken some tough ideas and turned them into a very intense experience."
"Parts for actresses like this don't come along that often," adds Travis. "Most low-budjet horror movies just have women scream a lot. Hardware isn't one of those. This movie is very demanding, for both the performers, the crew and hopefully the audience."
New York-based company Miramax, who co-produced the $1,5 million Hardware with Britain's Palace Pictures, will release the film in America this spring.