Island of Lost Opportunities & The Madness of Moreau
by Dave Hughes
(Originally appeared in Fangorias #156 & 157, 1996)
Richard Stanley, writer/director of such cult genre films Hardware and Dust Devil, had a dream. A virtually lifelong fan of H. G. Wells's classic novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which a ship-wrecked sailor washes up on a South Seas island only to find it populated by ghastly human/animal hybrids created by scientific genius, Stanley felt that neither of the previous cinematic adaptations - Erle Kenton's subversive 1933 The Island of Lost Souls and Don Taylor's mediocre 1977 remake with Burt Lancaster and Michael York - had done justice to Wells's prophetic 1896 fable which was originally banned for being blasphemous and later repudiated by its own author. Accordingly, Stanley set out to try his own hand at turning one of his favourite books into a screenplay worthy of both its subject matter and its illustrious history. He succeeded.
While still embroiled in legal and political wrangles over his second feature, Dust Devil, which had foundered on the rocks when British independent Palace Pictures had gone down in stormy financial waters in 1992, Stanley completed a screenplay that, over the next four years, would become one of the hottest talent-magnets in Hollywood. First, Marlon Brando agreed to take the title role (not the island, as Hollywood wags rather unkindly wisecracked, but Dr. Moreau), his commitment to the project seemingly as much a tribute to his liking for Stanley as to the script itself. Lifelong Brando fan Val Kilmer, revelling in his new status as a box-office giant following the success of Batman Forever, was next to sign on, followed by an impressively credible and eclectic supporting cast: Northern Exposure star Rob Morrow; rising ingenue Fairuza (The Craft) Balk; The City of Lost Children's Ron Perlman; Stanley film veteran William Hootkins and others.
For Stanley and New Line, the film's financiers, all the ingredients seemed perfect. And yet, just as Dr Moreau's genetic experiments had succeeded only in creating life, not humanity, so the beautiful creature Stanley and his fellow believers had envisioned began to change, shedding the artist who had devoted four years of his life to the project after only four days. As Moreau himself might have asked as he stood among the ruins of his experiments, "What went wrong?"
Sitting in a quiet Italian restaurant in the heart of London's Soho on a day so hot it seems a dust devil might materialize at any moment, Stanley ponders the same question, chain-smoking Salem Menthols and taking capuccino with his gnocchi (which he endearingly pronounces "ganocky"). He's agreed to speak once, and only once, about the tragedy of Moreau, and it is clear that it will be a long, painful and probably cathartic process.
According to Stanley, the problems with The Island of Dr. Moreau were evident long before shooting had commenced on the $35 million production, shortly after Kilmer had agreed to take on the lead role of Edward Prendick, the shipwrecked civil rights lawyer who becomes the first outsider to discover Moreau's horrific work. Just weeks before shooting was scheduled to begin in Queensland, Australia, Stanley was summoned to Tokyo for a meeting with Kilmer, who had decided, for reasons best known to himself, that he wanted his commitment to the project - and therefore his role, the film's lead - reduced by 40 percent.
"He really put me in an impossible situation," Stanley recalls bitterly. "You spend years loving a book and then somebody says 'Well, chop [these scenes].' I said 'You're crazy, I can't do it, I'm not going to lose them.' And that all helped to push me down the plank towards the point where they shoved me off." Adamant that the lead role could not be reduced to such a degree, Stanley hit upon the idea of switching Kilmer into the role of Montgomery, Moreau's assistant on the island, a part not only significantly smaller than that of Prendick but ironically one far more suited to Kilmer's personality. "It was a vain triage suggestion that didn't save me," Stanley explains, "based on the presumption that if Kilmer walked out, it would be perceived as my fault. Essentially, I had to find a way of keeping Val on board. I couldn't have him walk, because if he did, he would have probably collapsed the project."
Kilmer agreed to the compromise, but the famously difficult actor - who had previously clashed with Tombstone director George P. Cosmatos, had a pushing match with the mild-mannered Batman Forever director Joel Schumacher (who called Kilmer "childish and impossible") and ultimatly got himself released from his contractual agreement to do another Batman film because the imagined clout that box-office smash had given him was apparently gone straight to his ego - was still not satisfied. In addition, the non-availability of the principal cast before shooting meant that there could be no rehearsal, no "table reading" of the script. "It was all stitched up in such a way that there was no available time," Stanley recalls. "Brando wasn't due to arrive until later, so people would turn up on set, and that would be the first time you'd meet them. The first time I'd seen Fairuza in x number of months was in the middle of a hurricane on a beach at Cape Tribulation, and it was like, 'Hi, how are you doing? Action!'"
Compounding the problem was Kilmer's insistence that he wouldn't give his time to even the most cursory rehearsal. "His line was always just, 'Be there for me and I'll give you the moment'," Stanley says, "but a lot of the other cast members needed to rehearse to know what they're doing." Worse still, Kilmer himself failed to materialise at all for the first two days of shooting, a typical Kilmer stunt that concerned the director less after an agent at Creative Artists Agency - which represents both Kilmer and Stanley - told him, "Every Kilmer project loses the first two days". On the third day, when Kilmer did finally show, it was clear that not only did he not know his lines, he did not even appear to know which scene he was supposed to be in. According to one actor on the set Kilmer recited "lines written for other characters, in other scenes." Stanley remembers it differently. "He'd do [the lines], but he'd throw it all away."
"So there you are, tossing around in the sea; nobody else in the cast knows what's coming and everyone's trapped in this situation where the best you can do is stick multiple cameras on it - which are all kind of static - and see what happens. Of course," he continues with a sigh, "the moment you roll, it's rushes, the equivalent of raw, unrehearsed material, with everyone stumbling into each other and Val saying anything. No one knows how to respond to it and everyone's confused. And this fairly miserable material filters back to [New Line in] Los Angeles, where everyone watches it and says, 'What's going on here? They're not doing the script!'" Thus it was that on the fourth day, Stanley received a message that he was officially "relieved of his duties." The project he had spent four years of his life perfecting had been taken away from him, a victim of the very talent his script had encouraged in the first place.
Did Stanley get the feeling that Kilmer was deliberately trying to sabotage the shoot? "Possibly. I think maybe Val does it the whole time, that [he] might always automatically throw his weight around the first few days. I've heard very few reports from Heat or The Doors - I'm not sure how he responded to Michael Mann or Oliver Stone - but I understand it was much the same with Tombstone and [others]." Stanley suggests, however, that if Val had behaved in a similar fashion with a more prominent or powerful director, things would probably have been different. "I mean, I'm not sure anyone would have fired Oliver Stone after three days, so I can't help feeling it's more the company's fault than Val's. I feel that I would have been able to contain Val had I had the support of the company behind me. I'm not convinced that New Line ever really understood the script, and I'm not sure anyone ever really tried." Basically though, "Val came on with such a head of steam that he wasn't going to bother to actually get to grips with what was going on."
Soon after Stanley left the production, Morrow - who had traded roles with Kilmer and thus found himself playing his first feature lead - jumped ship, escaping to the safety of a commitment elsewhere. "One of the reasons that Rob left was [that he'd] done his homework," says Stanley. "[He had] read the Wells novel and the script, and was prepared to try quite
hard. In the pathetic rushes that did leak out, Rob is trying quite hard, which I found quite a shame because he would potentially have been a good Prendick had he actually been allowed to deliver a performance." In addition, Stanley believes that Morrow saw that the production was "obviously going to be hell. The first few days were a relentless nightmare; nothing was going right. And it was also plain that Val was going to carry the day and none of us had any chance of countermanding him. Rob was still a lightweight in terms of his box-office value, as were Fairuza and myself. We were all basically little people." Even now, he says, New Line is standing by Kilmer, "which is probably a good thing, because the studio has to stand by its star. But I regret that [New Line president of production] Michael De Luca is saying some of the things he's saying, because as far as I can tell, he's the only person who's trying to pin it on me."
In fact, De Luca has gone on record saying, "I didn't give [Kilmer] a strong director. And that was my fault." Stanley resents this. "Mike was the one that insisted that I go out to sea on the first day," he says. "It was easy for the 'suits' because they were all thousands of miles away in Los Angeles. [Where we were] the weather was very bad, the wind averaging 30 or 40 knots, and we were tied to a stinking, creaking freighter which gave us no ability to move the camera. It was terribly hard to actually get a shot under those conditions."
But surely it was Stanley - or more accurately, his script - that had attracted talent of Kilmer's stature in the first place? "That doesn't matter," he says. "The script is just a lure. They don't actually want or need a script to shoot the movie, they need it to draw the talent. Once the talent's on board, the script gets thrown over your shoulder and it's time to do something completely different."
"Also," he continues, "one must never forget that [The Island of Doctor Moreau] is actually a very fine novel by H. G. Wells, and it's been filmed twice before, which means that I was attempting another remake. So, right from the start I was taking something which was somebody else's and which I didn't own - I had never at any point owned the rights, which were passed down for a long time from AIP to Orion, then ended up in New Line's hands. I was there basically to do my version of it, but they then removed me from it and ended up with something very akin to a remake of the AIP version. The only thing they got from me is my cast."
Not even the whole cast, since Morrow's escape meant New Line needed to find a new lead, which they did in the person of David Thewlis, whose startling turn in Mike Leigh's Naked had led to a number of higher-profile roles in such films as Dragonheart and Total Eclipse. "The irony is that Thewlis was one of the people on my wish-list right from the start, but whom they would never have let me have because they didn't want the lead to be British. I actually like David and I'm kind of glad he wasn't around when I was because, with a bit of luck, maybe we'll be able to do something else together."
Stanley also feels that the fact that it was his idea to give Kilmer a lesser role is something the director's hasty replacement, veteran filmmaker John (The Manchurian Candidate) Frankenheimer, should be grateful for. "If they'd had to put up with Val in every shot of every day, they'd have had a real number," he says. "The fact that they had Thewlis instead meant that at least they had a performer on whom they could have hung the whole movie. Unfortunately, they still went away and destroyed his part, rewriting it to such an extent that it's actually nothing like it was."
Did they do this to make more of Kilmer's part, afraid that a supporting role from the only A-list actor on board might have audiences less inclined to see it? "No, [they did it] to bland it out. And where it all becomes a real tragedy is that Val didn't mean to do what he did - I believe that he was just trying to demonstrate who the top dog was, to show how much power he had and make the cast jump through a couple of hoops, so they'd behave in future. What he didn't realise was that by getting rid of me, he also gave the company the chance to finally turn it into the movie that they really wanted to make."
Indeed, comparing Stanley's original draft to the shooting script of Frankenheimer's version is as futile as trying to find more than a passing resemblance to Wells's novel in the final release version. The word which occurs most frequently in the shooting draft (dated November 1995, shortly after Stanley's departure) is 'OMITTED' - it is, scariest of all, the very first word of the screenplay. "They changed everything that was any good," Stanley says sadly, "starting with the main character. I mean, they changed his name, his profession and his whole background. One of the best ideas of the original screenplay, which is totally lost now, is the character of Edward Prendick. He originally had the same name as the character in the Wells novel, which I felt strongly about because everyone always changes Prendick's name, because it's such a silly name, you know; you can't have a lead called Prendick. But I thought, 'Well, people in real life have silly names, so I'd rather have him called Prendick and make him precious about it, and have everyone else make fun of him.' They call him 'Prawn-dick' for most of the way in the original draft and generally treat him quite badly. Of course, as soon as I was gone, they changed his name to Douglas, which they thought was more manly - a typical example of how the movie changed."
"He was also [originally] written as a sort of right lawyer working for the UN, who has just come from trying to negotiate a peace settlement somewhere like Bougainvillea in the South Pacific, when a limited nuclear exchange breaks out in the rest of the world," an intriguing premise was not part of the original novel, but which provided the cornerstone of Stanley's update. "So even when he reaches the island, there's an issue as to whether there's an outside world left. The beast-people [become] like the cradle of civilization, and were potentially what was going to come next in the evolution of the species. And of course," he adds, "Moreau was diligently working on a replacement species for Man."
Stanley felt that casting Prendick as someone whose job it was to defend the civil rights of oppressed peoples meant that he would naturally be freaked out by Moreau. "Then, after Moreau dies, he is ironically cast in the role of lawgiver and has to sort things out for the beast people. In the original draft, it was going to turn into a kind of piss-take on Yugoslavia or Somalia, where the man from the UN did extremely badly and succeeded in messing things up even worse for the people he was trying to protect. That is all completely gone, so now, although Thewlis is a very fine actor, he's playing a very conventional character called Douglas who is just a heroic castaway called Douglas who is just as regular, heroic character like the old Michael York role [from the 1977 remake]. It's been blanded out and watered down."
"Part of the problem," he continues, "was no one understood why there were no actual bad guys in my script. I even tried make Moreau sort of heroic - I felt a good deal of sympathy towards him because he is by no means an evil character. But now they've tried to make them more obvious good/bad people, so that Thewlis's character is now the clearcut good guy with no negative qualities, and Moreau is more of a textbook bad guy than he was meant to be, either in the Wells novel or in my draft."
"On top of that, ironically, the extremes of unpleasantness are gone, so that even though they've got more obvious bad guys, far fewer horrible things actually happen. It's now a slave bunch eventually liberated by an outsider, who leads the rebellion - the same pro-democracy liberal American message that creeps into everything if the Americans are given half the chance. It's basically been blanded out, and all the genuinely unpleasant stuff that happened in the script has gone, including the graphic demises of almost all the cast. [For instance,] Val still dies, but now he's shot, which apart from being slightly less blood-thirsty than what I had planned for him, is just too damn quick!"
Stanley says that his principal were the gruesome yet metaphysically charged films of Italy, particularly Zombie and Cannibal Holocaust. "I was heading towards a much tougher third act, which just isn't there at all in any respect. I mean, nobody gets eaten, no one is cooked, and I don't think they even have a sex scene between [Thewlis' and Balk's characters] now - let alone does she get eaten, as she was in the original screenplay!"
More surprising are the number of apparently critical elements of the Wells story missing in the version ultimately shot by Frankenheimer, the best example of which is the sidelining of the Saying of the Law - arguably the most memorable part of the novel - and the complete omission of the infamous "House of Pain", which is longer even mentioned in the shooting script. This feel rather like attempting an adaptation of George Orwell's 1984 but leaving out Room 101 and its implications. Stanley cannot help but agree. "The most extrordinary part of what Frankenheimer's done, is that he's dropped so many things which you would have thought no one could ever have dropped," he says. "Things that were part of the Wells novel and which I think are some of the strongest things in the story." These changes were made after Stanley left, by a gallery of writers who struggled to turn the script into a more generic monster movie. At one point, even Thewlis was valiantly trying to re-write a few scenes in attempt to give some substance to his role.
But if Stanley left production after only a few of days, how can he be so sure of the direction that Moreau has taken after his departure? The answer, which makes for the most fascinating part of the story, lies in the fact that, although he was officially sent home when production was closed down pending a replace being found, in a bizarre development largely of his own making, he curiously found himself back on the film set after just a few weeks.
"When the actual events happened," he remembers, "I remained extremely calm, which has been widely disputed. Quite a few people had nervous breakdowns around me - without naming any names - but I pretty much stayed in the same armchair as everything disintegrated around me, until the whole thing was over. I took a few phone calls and saw the people I needed to see, and my assistant sorted out a plane ticket to Sydney, where I immediately got a good entertainment lawyer and started to protect myself. Then, after a week in Sydney, I started getting weird phone calls from New Line's legal department and my agent, who were claiming I was hiding out in the rain forest with the local feral community and planning to attack the set!"
He laughs, a strange, spluttering gesture which seems to shake his lanky frame from shoulders to waist, before continuing. "They'd suddenly become terribly afraid that I would attack the cast or the main compound or whatever, which quite offended me because, of course, I would never do anything which could be construed as malicious towards my cast and crew."
[But] even though I was getting telephone calls in Sydney - very rudely - at three and four in the morning [from people] on American time, I couldn't convince them that the prefix for the number at which they were calling me was thousands of miles away from where the
shoot was going on."
Other, equally nasty rumors began to spread, including the story, told to Brando by two different people, that Stanley had gone crazy on the set, beating up a member of the crew and punching his girlfriend. "Of course, Brando's immediate response was to phone my girlfriend and say, 'Is this true?' and she said, 'No, of course not!' So he knew even before he arrived that everyone was lying to him." Feeling that he had become the scapegoat, "an all-purpose boogeyman" for the production's myriad problems, Stanley understandably felt the need to set the record straight, with Brando if no one else. "Although I had left peacefully at the time, as a result of the huge amount of disinformation that had started pouring out I eventually turned around and decided to go back up to Queensland," he explains. "I had been heavily warned by everyone that if I came anywhere near the set I'd be sued for trying to disrupt the shooting, so it became obvious that if I did go, I'd have to do it incognito."
Stanley skirted the security set up by New Line and eventually found Brando, who by this time, had had his own clashes with the wayward
Kilmer and was sympathetic to Stanley. "I put my case [to him, assuring him that] I would never have harmed anyone and that any stories about me trying to threaten or harm the cast or Val were just wish-fulfilment. He very sweetly offered to pay me off," Stanley says, touched by the recollection. "He offered me a chunk of money, which I, of course, refused."
[Stanley] decided to take a break from the increasingly insane world in which he found himself, heading into a section of unbroken rainforest with a close female friend. "We lived out in the woods for a few weeks with food, coconuts and mangoes on the trees, good sunlight and fresh water," he says, "I was given a couple of dingo pups to look after by some feral, and kind of went native for a while. We pretty much forgot about the world and refused to have anything more to do with the shoot."
Then, after a couple of weeks in the forest, reacquainting himself with nature as he is occasionally wont to do back in Britain, Stanley and his companion noticed some campfire smoke coming from downriver. Eventually deciding to be sociable, the feral film-maker was surprised to find a group of former Moreau crewmembers who, having been fired by production - principally for siding with Stanley - were now ready to exact their revenge. One of the campers was Lewis, who had the distinction of having been fired twice from the production.
"Lewis had started as a carpenter working on Moreau's house," Stanley recalls, "and he'd been fired for standing round thinking too much, which tells his story! He then got re-hired as a driver." Unfortunately, he adds, when "the shit hit the fan" and everyone was trying to leave the mess behind, Lewis was caught trying to help actress Fairuza Balk to escape the set. "She ran away with him and had a fleeting passionate affair on the way, but they only got as far as Sydney before they caught her and put her on a plane back to Queensland, firing Lewis for the second time."
Thus it was that with the aid of Lewis, the aggrieved carpenter/driver, a cunning plan was hatched around the campfire. Stanley, it was decided, would take the 'melting Dog-Man' costume "borrowed" from Stan Winston by William Hootkins, supposedly for a prank on the staff at the hotel, and attempt to get himself re-hired on the production as an extra playing one of the Beast People. Having already procured the costume, Stanley would not have to report to make-up or wardrobe, and would naturally be familiar enough with the movie to know what he was required to do in order to keep up the ingenious deception. Although Stanley was unwilling to go on record confirming that it did in fact take place, one of the prank's alleged participants said later, "He would black himself out, put on the bulldog face and hands, sit in his car until all the extras were called, then just go on with the rest of the Beast People."
In this way, incredibly, Stanley is said to have continued to work on the Moreau production for the remainder of the shoot. While there is no similar incident on record, even in the traditionally insane world of Hollywood filmmaking, Stanley likes to think that his marvelous conceit might have had a precedent in Apocalypse Now. "Imagine if, after three days of shooting, when the movie was not cutting together, and [Francis Ford] Coppola said, 'This is not working, I've got to fire Harvey Keitel and replace him with Martin Sheen,' and they fired Coppola instead, then Coppola sneaked back to play a dead Vietcong - or just a head!" And then hired John Landis to finish the movie? "Well, John Frankenheimer would have been bad enough. I mean, I've got no problems with his earlier movies like The Manchurian Canditate, but I fear this is going to be much more in the vein of Prophecy."
Now that Stanley had apparently found a way to be present at the location, he found Frankenheimer's directorial approach very different to his own. "They were making it up as they went along," he says succinctly. "Everyone was desperate - the most commonly spoken line on the shoot was, 'I don't know.' As in, 'What are we shooting today?' 'I don't know.' 'What time is Val arriving?' 'I don't know.' 'Is Brando coming today?' 'I don't know.' There was so much disunity within the basic shoot," Stanley adds, "that a lot of the Australians among the crew - even some of the ADs [assistant directors] - actually knew I was there, but my presence inside the compound was kept secret from the Americans, and the Australians actually colluded to deceive the American director in that no one was willing to tell him I was there. So, despite what New Line and Frankenheimer might say now - that they knew I was there and that it was all a joke - they actually had no idea at all."
There were close calls, however. One night, Stanley was spotted talking to fellow beast-person, Ron Perlman, who, having sworn never
again to be filmed in prosthetic make-up after four years as Linda Hamilton's co-star in Beauty and the Beast, had agreed to do it once more for Moreau lead Marlon Brando, an actor he very much admired. "He'd consented to play the Sayer of the Law, just because the part was so loaded to start off with," Stanley says. "He's still playing the same role, but they've screwed him. Everything's wrong; apart from the fact that his character's been marginalized, his makeup and costume have been badly handled, because all that was redone after I was gone." Perlman was angry because, in the whole time he was on Beauty and the Beast, he was only asked to put on the make-up once without it being shot, whereas on Dr. Moreau, they only filmed him once for every five times he got made up. "The rest of the time," Stanley says sadly, "he'd put it all on, come to the set and stand around, with no lines and nothing to do, go home again and take it off without doing anything. This went on for weeks."
"The particular night I got spotted, I was talking to Ron when word came on set that Val had decided he couldn't come again - he'd thrown another number, so shooting was cancelled for the night. This was typical for the whole shoot - every time Val would throw a tantrum, the strong line that Frankenheimer took with him was that he'd close down shooting, which to me was incredible because he'd be standing there with Ron, Temeura Morrison, Marco Hofschneider, Fairuza Balk, David Thewlis and Marlon Brando, and they'd close down shooting because of Val. They had so many good people there, and a good crew, you'd imagine they'd be able to shoot something."
"Anyway, at that moment, Ron, who was trying to learn his lines, said, 'God, what's the point of learning this then?' and made a big gesture of tearing up the script and throwing it down. It drew people's attention, [and it] was the last time I came on, because after that rumours start to fly that I was actually there..." So was Stanley, in effect, present more often than Kilmer, the film's supposed star? "Probably not," he says with a smile, "but when they were shooting on the boats, I was having a fairly good time sitting on the beach with binoculars, watching them floundering around in the distance!"
As word filtered back to the US and Britain about the increasingly bizarre nature of events occurring in Australia on The Island of Dr.
Moreau shoot, Stanley decided not to go to the press with his story. This was partly because of the three years of "ridiculous infighting" on his earlier film Dust Devil, but also because he felt that if he tried to explain people what was going on, they would think him deranged, or, at best, a liar. "At the time, an agreement was struck with New Line, whereby, if anyone asked what had happened, we would just shrug and say 'creative differences' and let it go. I actually kept my end of the bargain - I haven't done any press until now. It's only been since [studio president of production] Mike De Luca or New Line have been saying, 'We should have had a stronger director,' or, 'Stanley's rushes couldn't cut together,' that I felt moved to try and actually set the record straight in some way." Nevertheless, Stanley feels that what happened really was his fault, because he should have been in control of the circumstances. But how could he hope to control the star without the backing of the studio?
"I blame the system," he says with a twinkle in his eye. "I'll give you an elliptical rant to try and justify that statement. I grew up in the 60's and 70's, and at the time there were an awful lot of really good movies being made; even if they weren't any good, at least they had integrity. People like Sam Peckinpah were doing fairly adventorous things with B-movies, action films, Westerns or horror movies, which excited me a lot. In that period, the 'auteur theory' was kind of invented by a bunch of French nutcases who got together and decided that Orson Welles and so on were 'auteurs' who had some kind of creative influence and control over what you saw on the screen. Before that, of course, the director was never as anything more than a technician on set, who was there to carry out the studio's instructions, no matter how insane they seemed to be."
"The auteur theory has always been largely hype," he continues, "but it was rammed down my throat when I was growing up [and it] gave me a lot of wrong ideas about the power of the individual. With Dr. Moreau, the company was always much more in charge than I thought they were, and in the end I was always going to end up counterdemanding the company too much to keep my position secure. I don't think Hollywood likes writer/director hyphenates. I find that I get a lot more job offers to rewrite or direct other people's material, whereas it's extremely hard for me to get money to direct something which is out of my own stable. I don't think they like putting all their creative eggs in one basket, because they don't like to admit that anyone other than themselves is making the movie."
So is this whole sorry state of affairs an argument for a serious filmmaker like Stanley to try and make films with smaller budjets and lesser-known actors, even though the director experienced an equally painful situation while making Dust Devil? "I think if you want to do something which has integrity or which is particularly heartfelt, then it's probably the only way," he agrees. "As soon as it goes over a certain budgetary level, you're in the hands of the company. As much as anything else - the bad weather, the flu epidemic, the car crash I had on the morning of the first day, Val and everything else - I believe that the budget did a lot of the damage. When it hit $35 million, my position started to become untenable [because] unless you're Steven Spielberg or James Cameron, they're not going to say 'yes' to you. They're going to say, 'It has to be this way, kid - the waist-high field of marijuana plants has to go, the animal sex has to go, you can't have the female lead cooked and eaten.'"
Stanley feels he could have tried to raise money for a smaller-scale Moreau, thus avoiding the inherent problems brought by big stars and big budjets. "But I was always kind of stuck because of the 80 creatures, the tropical location, and so on." He does believe, however, that a great deal of money could have been saved in the areas of makeup and CGI FX. "Unfortunately," he jokes, "by the end everyone was just running off with bundles of money under each arm - including myself!"
So after the insane debacle of Moreau, what the future holds for its weary, storm-ravaged survivor is uncertain. "What is means is that I basically have to try and backpedal a little. I mean, whatever I do next is either going to have to be cheap or stupid, because although I've got a number of fairly intelligent scripts on the table, I don't think I'm going to get a dime for any of them at the moment. I'm toying with the idea of doing a fairly brainless actioner in order to try and get myself back to the bargaining table, so that I can get something else off the ground. The onus is on me in Hollywood now to bring home the bacon and do something that makes money if I want to save my career."
There have been rumors that the writer/director has been asked to collaborate with Italian genre veteran Dario Argento on a project for television, but although Stanley is excited by the talk, he is "totally devastated" that there is no substance to it. "Dario's out there and I'll do anything for him," he says brightly. "If he needs a manicure, I'm there! I'm the hugest fan of Dario, because no matter what happens in the world, he comes in every couple of years and delivers a new movie. I'd do anything for him, but he hasn't called for a while!"
Stanley still has hopes, however, of getting a sequel to his first film, Hardware, off the ground. "[Hardware 2] is arguably the best script I have in my possession," he says. "It's pretty much got everything going for it. I never had any desire to do the same movie again; it needed to be something totally different, so we've ended up with a slight genre shift..." It's now a romantic comedy? "No, but it's very close to being a Western." Set in Splendora, Texas, seven years after the events of the first movie, Hardware 2 begins with a Mexican family trying to cross the border at Rio Grande, but underestimating how much America has changed. "It's still a droid movie," he adds, "and we've corrected the design problems of the first one - although I don't think the ad line 'This time it's waterproof' is going to stand up to much scrunity...!"
Seriously, though, Stanley says that Hardware 2 remains "permanently stalled," partly for reasons of scale - "the first movie is basically a woman being chased around the room by an android, so in the sequel we felt we had to at least try to open it out" - but mostly because the rights to the original film remain split between the liquidators of Palace Pictures, producer Paul Trybits and Miramax, "three parties who basically don't get along. So it's a matter of getting a whole bunch of people who hate their each other around the table, which is not likely to happen." Nevertheless, he says, "I'm gonna keep campaigning for it, and not let it die - even if that means retitling it and severing its links with the original film."
Stanley says that his relationship with Miramax has improved considerably since the Dust Devil disaster, when Britain's Palace Pictures collapsed halfway through shooting and left Stanley stranded in Namibia with film incomplete, losing equipment and crew as the film's precarious finance began to evaporate. "When Palace went belly-up, Miramax was basically stuck with a jumped-up version of the cutting copy - a fine cut was never reached. For sound economic reasons, they had to salvage something from the wreckage, so they took the rough cut that they had and edited another movie out of it. That's the American version - it's graded differenly, it's revoiced, there are new voiceover lines on the soundtrack to hold it together and its 40 minutes shorter than the so-called 'director's cut.'"
To see Stanley's preferred version, "You have to come to Britain," he says simply, describing how he rescued the film with the help of British television station Channel Four, whose broadcast version remains the best cut in existence; no longer than the British video version, it is nevertheless "brighter, louder and totally uncut. I hope that one day, when the Dust has settled," he quips, "someone will see fit to try and rerelease it in America. I got Harvey and Bob [Weinstein, of Miramax] to agree to release it once, but they seem to have changed their minds."
Other projects Stanley has in the pipeline include something he describes as "Reservoir Dogs meets The Evil Dead, chiefly because its largely bound to one location, and involves a shapeshifting alien demon which does unspeakable gloopy things to most of the leads." Gloopy? "Yeah, it's a pretty gloopy script, but I haven't been able to get it off the ground, even though H.R. Giger was interested in doing the demon. It's kind of run afoul of the people scratching their heads and saying, 'We're not sure whether horror's selling this year.'" Which is, of course, a self-fulfilling prophecy - horror isn't selling, so no one goes to see any horror movies. "I'm already in a pretty bad mood about the shape of the horror genre," he says. "It seems to be absolutely dead, not because there's a lack of people out there wanting to watch it, but because there's a lack of people willing to release and finance it. People have this perception that horror is such a turn-off. I can't get a horror movie financed. I've got a few near-horror movie ideas out there, but even the sort of crowd-pleasing horror hybrid things I have are not finding any takers."
And of course, even when horror movies are succesful - Seven, Species and The Silence of the Lambs - the studios disguise them as psychological or sci-fi thrillers, thus perpetuating the myth that people don't like seeing scary stuff at the cinema. Stanley agrees. "Political correctness is the other problem," he adds. "People are just too frightened of being horrible. If you have something that is genuinely shocking, they'll just say, 'You can't have that, it's too horrible.' So even if it's a horror movie, you get stuck in this fairly toothless world where you can't do anything which is actually nasty, which has kind of given me a lot of problems in my writing. I've found myself moving over to the sort of sci-fi or political thriller to try and cut down on the excessive gore and physical mutilation side - which is a great shame!"
The demise of Stanley's vision of The Island of Dr. Moreau as "a really slick, epic, voodoo gothic horror movie on a grand scale", has left
the filmmaker with a number of regrets, the most painful of which is that the potential to create a truly unique genre movie - with the added bonus of a great performance from Brando - has been lost, probably forever. He admits that he did make mistakes, chief among them being the failure to realize his own place in the power scheme. "My principal mistake was overconfidence," he admits. "I had too much of an old-fashioned idea about teamwork, I didn't pay attention until it was too late and I didn't realize to what extent things had gone against me." Thus, he was unprepared to the "myrid number of betrayals" that he says ultimately led to his departure. "They always say that a director is the general in charge of an army of traitors, but I never understood it until they let me go and I suddenly became the scapegoat for everything that went wrong."
Stanley used to say that making Hardware was like having a child delivered with pliers of forceps, its skull slightly crushed in the course of pulling it out so that it ends up deformed or brain-damaged. "It was mine," he says of his first film, "but it was kind of dumb and mad, though still very active," he says, enjoying the analogy. "I guess Dr. Moreau was more like a bucket job, in that it came straight out of the womb and into the shredder."
He laughs, but it's a humorless, hollow sound. Not really a laugh at all.
Another Side of the Island
by Bill Warren
The old saying goes there are two sides to each story needs to be modified when it comes to movies. Just as it can be said that any two people see a different film, each member of the cast and crew often seem to have made a different film. For a movie with as many problems in its production as The Island of Dr. Moreau, conflicting stories are the order of the day.
There are a few facts everyone agrees with: After four days of shooting, Richard Stanley, who had conceived a new movie version of H.G. Wells' novel in the first place, was fired as the project's director. Veteran director John Frankenheimer was hired to replace him, and went to Australia to take over production. At the same time, Rob Morrow, cast as the hero of the story, backed out of the film, to be replaced by David Thewlis. Frankenheimer had the script revised, and production recommenced. All this is clearly true; almost everything else seems to be a matter of opinion - wildly varying opinion, in fact.
For example, Frankenheimer concedes that "the script that New Line had approved was not at all the movie I ended up doing. It's a page-one rewrite. The reason is this: They approved the Richard Stanley script, which made no sense. It was a kind of homage to the Italian horror films of the 70's, and had very little to do with the H.G. Wells' novel. I had studied Wells in college, and loved the book; I wanted to go back to it. The Stanley script just didn't work at all, and so it was a question of keeping the essence of what they wanted to make, and doing it the way I wanted to do it."
Producer Edward Pressman says that he became interested in Stanley when he saw the writer/director's first film, Hardware. "I was impressed by a number of things about it," Pressman recalls. "We got to be friends, and talked about projects that he was interested of doing. The first one he mentioned was Moreau, which I thought was a great idea, and he had a terrific take on it. Richard tried to reflect Wells' objectives. But the final film that John did, with all the changes and all the improvisation and everything else, still remains very compelling and very coherent because of the underlying themes."
But writing a script and directing an expensive, star-laden movie require different skills. Stanley had only directed two films before Moreau, Hardware and Dust Devil; both were very low-budjet, and he'd even run into production problems on the latter. With Moreau, he had to handle temperamental actors, a difficult location and weather problems.
Just who was really responsible and what actually happened on the set of Moreau during those first four days are complicated questions that probably cannot be fully answered even by the participants. Stanley has one story (see accompanying); others have their own. Essentially, however, it's obvious that friction rapidly developed between the director and star Val Kilmer, and that the footage sent back to California reflected this, suggesting that Stanley simply could not handle the job.
Executive producer Tim Zimmerman feels that one particular actor "sort of triggered the whole downfall of Richard Stanley without even knowing it. Val was trying to act with [this actor], who was emoting all over the place, and Richard was doing nothing to stop him. Val was saying to Richard, 'This is the worst actor I've seen in my life - do something about it.' What Richard chose to do was more close-ups of [that actor]. This was on day one, and that was basically that."
Others say that Kilmer was already testing Stanley himself, delivering the wrong lines in a low voice, keeping his back to the camera and leaving the scene too early. But the director is the person in charge of any movie set; it is vital for a cast and crew to see that he has a clear vision of the picture, can make quick decisions on the set and can handle egoistical showoffs. In this case, its obvious that for whatever reason, the actor simply did not trust his director.
"It was a very difficult production to deal with," Pressman admits, "with very strong personalities and tremendous physical, production and geographical problems. We needed a real general, someone who could tackle such an ambitious project. Richard was a friend, and is still a friend," sighs the exprienced producer. "I have great respect for his talent - but the situation we were in wasn't working. I went down there to help remedy the situation and agreed that a change should be made. I'd never been in a situation like that in my life, and it was personally difficult. But in the end, Richard will make other movies - and this one got made because of our decision to replace him."