The Massacre of My Movies
by Andrew Worsdale
(Originally appeared in Electronic Mail & Guardian, May 2nd 1997)
South African-born Richard Stanley was fired as director of The Island of Dr Moreau after four days on set. Andrew Worsdale asks him why.
Twenty-seven year old renegade filmmaker Richard Stanley had his first film taken away from him and re-cut. While studying at the Cape Town Film School his 15-minute Super 8 film, Rites of Passage, about cavemen and re-incarnation, was confiscated and recut by tutor John Hill down to five minutes for being "a cinematic wank".
After a year Stanley managed to track down what had been left on the cutting room floor and reassemble it. But three vital minutes, he says, are still missing. Ever since then he has been running into skirmishes with the types who decide what movies should be. His Namibian serial-killer/ghost story Dust Devil was cut by the distributors from 120 to a barely recognisable 87 minutes. He disassociates himself from the film for UK band Marillion's concept album Brave, and most recently he was fired from the set of The Island of Dr Moreau after four days.
Only his debut feature, the lowbrow sci-fi pic Hardware, was left unscathed. And that was because, as Stanley claims: "It was a pretty dumb film ... After having various scripts rejected I sat down and wrote something with a killer android in the future, with American leads, baseball bats, chainsaws, a shower scene, gas explosions, a cliff-hanger scene and so on. I wouldn't make a film as obviously commercial as Hardware again." Shot in one location for a meagre UKP1-million, the film earned over $70-million despite stinking reviews.
Stanley left South Africa in 1984 and ended up in London. "I didn't leave just because of military service - I imagined myself making military propaganda films for the army but subverting their dogma," he says. "I left because the film industry seemed like a closed shop, I couldn't get any work and the films they were making were terrible anyway."
His first job in the UK came in response to an ad in Melody Maker. A new band with no album had UKP100 to make a music video. The band was Field of Nephilim and Stanley worked for several years as a sought-after director of music videos for groups like Pop Will Eat Itself. He used the medium as a training ground for feature work. And his enduring love of magic and the occult blended perfectly with the apocalyptic strains of post-punk pop culture.
Sorcery, the apocalypse, doom and religion have always been hallmarks of his work. Hardly surprising - his mother is a feminist anthropologist specialising in witchcraft and folklore.
In 1989 Stanley went to Afghanistan where he made Voice of the Moon, an evocative documentary about the war in the region. But because it had no voice-over explaining the issues, broadcasters passed on it. "I was trying to do what Werner Herzog did in his film about Kuwait, Lessons on Darkness - not lecture; just show."
After the success of Hardware in 1990 everyone wanted another sci-fi pic. He was offered Judge Dredd but turned it down for his own screenplay Dust Devil, based on the legend of Namibian serial killer Nhadiep. "The script was written years ago," he says. In fact it had its origins in an unfinished 16mm student short inspired by the unsolved ritual murders in Bethany which also formed the basis of David Wicht's Windprints.
Late in 1991 Stanley delivered a 120-minute cut of the film, which was then cut by 10 minutes. But it seems the distributors wanted a linear thriller to cash in on the serial-killer phenomenon that came with Silence of The Lambs so they tried to make Hollywood sense out of what was a "mystical murder movie". A version lasting 87 minutes was premiered at Cannes.
"They butchered the intentions of the film," recalls Stanley, "they also re-graded it, making it all overwhelmingly red like Hardware." To make matters worse, when the producers, Palace, went bankrupt, Stanley had to rescue the film. He put UKP40,000 into reassembling it to its original form and regrading the colours for a more washed-out look. The result is a fascinating exploration of tribal rituals, witchcraft, Namibian mysticism, magic and suicide.
He hoped his next project would be trouble-free - the film of H.G. Wells's The Island of Dr Moreau, in which a sailor is shipwrecked on an island populated by human/animal hybrids created by vivisector Moreau. With novelist Michael Herr he wrote a screenplay to make it "a really slick, epic, voodoo, gothic horror". The result was good enough to attract Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer, Northern Exposure star Rob Morrow and Fairuza Balk.
But the first hint of problems came when Stanley was summoned to Tokyo by the notoriously difficult Kilmer who wanted his commitment to the film - the lead role - reduced by a crazy 40%. He switched Kilmer into the part of Moreau's assistant and cast Morrow in the lead. Things got progressively worse. Kilmer refused to give time to even the most cursory rehearsal time.
The litany of woes continued. Kilmer failed to turn up for the first two days of shooting, he hadn't bothered to learn his lines and didn't know which scenes he was in. On the fourth day, Stanley was fired by the film's financiers. Morrow jumped ship soon after and David Thewlis was brought in as the new lead, with veteran director, but now cinematic hack, John Frankenheimer.
As the replacements went ahead with production, rumours circulated that Stanley was planning to burn down the set. He decided to go native in the rainforest, with some other disenchanted crew members, and borrowed the "melting dog man" costume to pose as an extra and observe Frankenheimer's efforts on set. His guise was never found out. Those who knew about it kept it secret from the Americans.
The comparisons between Stanley's original draft and Frankenheimer's shooting draft are damning. They changed the Prendick character's name to Douglas and got rid of the idea of him being a civil rights lawyer working for the United Nations. Stanley believes it can no longer be classified as a horror movie. "It's now the slave bunch liberated by the outsider who leads the rebellion - the same old pro-democracy liberal American message that creeps into everything."
After his three-year endurance over the in-fighting with Dust Devil, Stanley decided not to go to the press over the difficulties on Moreau, and an agreement was made to cite "creative differences" as the reason for his dismissal.
The problem is that he wanted to make an individualistic, highly cinematic work and found himself dealing with company men who insisted he toe the line, especially regarding money. "As soon as the budget goes over a certain level, you're in the hands of the company. When it hit $35-million, my position started to become untenable. They 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 admits he's angry with the Americans after this experience and now hopes to make a film in Britain. It's tentatively titled The Wizard of Wicklow and is an Irish witchcraft story set in the Fifties.
There are also several South African projects he's working on, but they'll only reach fruition if the industry has the vision to support his singularly cinematic point of view.
Stanley will be in South Africa in July with Hardware, Dust Devil and Voice of the Moon, all of which will screen in Grahamstown and around the country. The Island of Dr Moreau opened countrywide on May 1.