White Spaces on the Map: An Interview with Richard Stanley
by Tom Huddleston
(Originally appeared in Notcoming.com, September 2007)
Richard Stanley's strange and tortuous career seems in many ways to typify the erratic trajectory of an artistically inclined genre director struggling on the fringes of the mainstream. His edgy, self-serious but steadfastly entertaining apocalyptic narratives resist easy categorisation, as do his playful, shambolic documentaries. His eccentric manner and idiosyncratic mode of dress have surely marked him as an outsider to those in power, and for the past decade he has been scratching out a living on the outer reaches of the industry.
Perhaps Stanley's most appealing trait as an artist is his unwillingness to compromise. The man himself would most likely argue the opposite, viewing both his completed feature films - Hardware and Dust Devil - as crippled by concession. But in comparison to many of his apparent contemporaries - Russell Mulcahy, say, or George Miller, both of who began their careers with rather outré genre pictures before escaping to Hollywood and relative blandness, Stanley has remained surprisingly committed to his singular vision. His experience on the disastrous The Island of Doctor Moreau is telling: where many a director would have eagerly signalled his willingness to compromise with the suits, Stanley instead chose dismissal - whether by design or default is largely irrelevant. And he has never succumbed to the lure of the easy DTV paycheck; there's no Piranha sequels lurking in his filmography, though by his own assertion Hardware sometimes comes close.
In fact, despite his devotion to horror as a genre and his willing acceptance of populist monster narratives (robots, serial killers), as a director Stanley remains closer in both style and personality to great 20th century mavericks like Donald Cammell, Peter Watkins and Alex Cox (though, as he readily attests, he is yet to make the unqualified masterpiece each of those directors has achieved). The influence of the avant garde and especially the 1960's is never far from the surface in his work - Hardware features a wild, outrageously incongruous acid trip sequence, and Dust Devil has far more in common with Zabriskie Point than its ostensible close relative, The Hitcher.
In a modern context, Richard Stanley feels like one of the last of a dying breed, an incisive, inquisitive mind committed to a genre increasingly dominated by conformity and dumb thrills. His visual sense is infinitely more developed than the majority of modern horror filmmakers - there's not much call for epic helicopter shots in your average dirty low budget slice and dice. Stanley is currently trying to raise funding for a pair of violent, mid-budget political thrillers, one of which, Vacation, looks set to star Bruce Campbell, a match surely made in geek heaven. Let anyone who longs for a more challenging genre experience, a horror film with layers and depth and social intelligence, keep their fingers crossed now...
I met with Richard Stanley in his West London flat, cluttered with Eastern idols, trinkets and movie souvenirs, plastered with storyboards and lined with shelves of dusty books. Over sweet tea and cigarettes we talked extensively about Richard's worldwide adventures, his unfinished career and his feelings about the state of modern genre filmmaking.
Tom Huddleston: What were the opportunities like for cinemagoing when you were growing up in South Africa during the apartheid era?
Richard Stanley: Well, I suppose I was extremely lucky to grow up without television. If I had kids I'd try to engineer a way to get them into some kind of blackout area where there was no reception. I don't think it's too healthy for them to be exposed to random imagery, or commercials, up to a certain point.
My Dad was a failed filmmaker, and he brought home a print of King Kong, which was the first official movie I saw, projected on the wall back home. And then my mother would sneak me into the drive-in, so I got to see a lot of the Hammer movies, like Horror of Dracula and Taste the Blood of Dracula very young, I suppose when I was about 4. I saw all the junk movies that were around and started collecting Aurora monster model kits.
TH: What made you first think about making films for a living?
RS: Well, I'm still trying to figure out the living part. Making money, that's a different thing.
TH: As a career, then.
RS: Well, my mother and my sister were both very good artists. My sister had this ability to just draw anything, which was actually really annoying. She could just sit down and doodle a polo match on a serviette. She had this grasp of anatomy and movement, all the muscles were right and there was bounce and energy. She knew what she was doing. And I just couldn't compete, there was no way I was going to be able to draw that well. And so there had to be a simpler solution, which was obviously photographing it. So it was sort of a straight sibling rivalry thing, it just seemed much easier than drawing or making comic books. It just seemed like so much energy went into it, I didn't think I could make it. I wasn't initially thinking, I could make movies. I was thinking damn, I'm too stupid to draw comics or to be a real artist. So I thought I'd make junk movies.
TH: Did you get film education in South Africa?
RS: I didn't get much proper film education. There was a film class which ran once a week, which I joined at high school. It was run by a guy called John Hill. Initially it was called the Young Filmmakers Workshop. Whenever anyone joined they had to make the same first film, which was always man watering garden, and a naughty kid comes and stands on the hose. The hose stops working, he looks at it and it splashes him in the face. And over the years that's all John did, he just took these young kids out to shoot the same sequence with a hosepipe... I've since run into a number of people who have these obsessions with children, rubber and hosepipes to see what John's motive was in running the class. He probably wasn't very interested in the rest of it.
But that meant he let us use the equipment, and he was also silly enough to let us start to program films to show the other kids, so we ended up playing Apocalypse Now, Straw Dogs and Werner Herzog movies. I must have been about 16, a bad time to be allowed to program movies - they were all really violent.
Then eventually after much trial and error we made this Super-8 caveman movie, Rites of Passage, which was shot by doing one shot a week for about a year. I appear in it, I'm playing the only caveman. I'm much too young for it. Then when the adults saw the finished caveman movie, they freaked and I got thrown out of the film class. John tried to confiscate the film, mostly using the excuse that we were risking human lives in the course of shooting it. And then about a year after that it won an international film trophy, which John Hill managed to use. He got a grant to turn the Young Filmmakers Workshop into the Cape Town Film And Video School. But I do question the chappie's motives. He took my film away from me so I don't feel I should try to cover for him.
Between that and the music videos we made a feature-length Super-8 movie and a 16mm movie. The Super-8 movie was the original Hardware, and the 16mm one was the original take on Dust Devil. Then I uprooted and came to England and started shooting another feature-length 16mm movie, which was the first take on a script called Season of Soft Rains. We were doing a cricket match on Kew Green which was bombed by terrorists, we had these exploding cricketers, blood flying around. That got us a bit of publicity, and we got a music video on the back of that - Preacher Man by Fields of the Nephilim, which inherited a lot of the stuff that'd been shot on Super-8. Radioactive zones, a lot of stuff that leaked in from the Super-8 movie.
Stanley's earliest available film, the oblique 30-minute wordless documentary Voice of the Moon, was shot entirely on clockwork Bolex cameras while travelling around war torn Afghanistan with Jihadi rebels, the same fighters who would later form the core of both the Taliban and Al Qaeda. At the time they were freedom fighters battling against Russian oppression, and Stanley was one of the few outside filmmakers to document their struggle.
TH: So why did you ditch London and run off to Afghanistan?
RS: Well, after getting into the music video business it became obvious that to sustain a living off it we had to make about one a month. Although they're really quick to shoot the amount of politics that goes on makes it very hard to turn them around fast enough. After about two years of doing that we were having to accept every job that we could and the quality of the music videos was going all over the show.
The low point was towards the end, we started working on dance videos for kids. There was one with all these kids dancing with animated characters, a funky worm. But I was just wrapping out and our driver was complaining that the gears on the truck were tougher than the gears on a BTR-60, which is a lightweight aluminium Soviet troop transport used in the Afghan war. I immediately asked what he'd been doing driving a BTR-60 in the first place. He laid this spiel on me about how he'd been fighting in the Jihad in Afghanistan, he was living in London working odd jobs, trying to raise enough money to go back and fight. And being in a very bad mood I said, well, would you take me with you if I pay for your ticket? So that's basically how that happened.
We first of all went to Peshawar, with a UN convoy. The first bit of shooting on Voice of the Moon was when we were trucking all these sacks out to the towns and then filming them distributing the flour. But because it was part of a UN convoy we had to turn around and go straight back out of the country via all the right police posts, show all the right documents in all the right places, we weren't allowed to deviate from this course. We did deviate once, and they got quite pissed about it. We actually stopped off at the captured Soviet farming project outside Jalalabad, which was later to become Osama's home. But at the time it was just a former farming project with piles of grapefruit everywhere. Then the UN saw the grapefruit on the dashboard as we came back through the Khyber Pass and they got really pissed off because they knew we hadn't stuck entirely to the plan.
TH: So you decided to get off the beaten track?
RS: I was very intrigued in shamanic culture and some sort of original Cro-magnon religion, a sort of European primordial pagan faith, kind of like voudou. I think voudou is actually very similar to what was going on in this place before Christianity arrived, with people getting possessed and flying into ecstatic frenzies around idols and stuff. I was very keen to find my way back into a pocket of that kind of culture.
The whole thing about the Hindu Kush is that Islam arrived in about 1910, which is pathetically recent. Christianity in Europe has been around for a thousand years, more, and yet there's still so much weirdness flying around. In a place where the orthodox religion's only been there for 100 years I figured that the original shamanic thing's got to be pretty strong.
There's one book (The Kafirs of the Hindu Kush by Sir George Scott Robertson) written by a British guy, Col. Robertson, who just walked into Kafiristan around the turn of the century. All he had was a donkey. And he wrote this book about his travels, which is the only account of pre-Islamic culture in the Hindu Kush. He was the only one to set foot in that world. He was just this crazy little Kiplingesque balding guy with a moustache who just walked in there on his own. Which is exactly how to do it. But there's a lot of stuff in there about shamanic trances, people flying into possession, a lot of magic.
TH: Do you regret the fact that there are no such boundaries any more, no wildernesses to explore with your donkey? I saw Lost Horizon for the first time recently, and even that late (1937) there's this feeling that just about anything could be waiting around the next corner.
RS: It's still possible. I think that Shangri-La could just about still be out there. Anyway, Shangri-La's just a fictionalised version of Shambala, the place where Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society thought that the seven Masters of the World were living. That was floating around for ages, but no one was sure whether it was really there or not, this magical Tibetan kingdom up in the mountains where they were directing the world. And it was only when those first expeditions got to Tibet and went to Lhassa, that they realised Shambala didn't exist, there weren't seven Masters running the world. They started to get confused and decided, well, maybe they're inside the hollow earth, or on another planet. So Shangri-La is just a 1920's, 1930's version of a place where they've really got it together. It's still out there, whether in Tibet or the Himalayas... there's white spots on the map in the Kushkun Mountains which just say relief data incomplete, where it's not electrified and there's no roads, and each river valley has a certain dialect.
TH: Would you be tempted to go back and explore?
RS: I've always wanted to, but the war on terror has made it very hard. We're now the bad guys, the equivalent to the Russians, it's very unfortunate. It all gets very complicated. The sheer fact of having known about some of these people makes you automatically suspect, and rightly so. Because even having been there in the first place, regardless of whether one thinks of oneself as a spy at the time, one is automatically bringing things into the popular ken and making things known. I imagine they would have been better off killing me back then. All those things have repercussions that are ongoing. It ain't quite over yet.
But the fact is that we're going to lose badly in Afghanistan. I wish they'd figure that out. A lot of people who've been out there have been harping on for about ten years now that it's impossible, don't try it. The penny hasn't dropped that we're going to get trounced. We're in an unwinnable, untenable situation that, some time in the next few years, is going to go down horribly. Karzai won't survive, and Musharraf won't be around forever. That whole situation's going to go terribly, critically, badly wrong.
The collapse of the Russian effort was a big lesson to the West, because they tried much harder, did a much better job. They lasted a long time because they invested heavily in infrastructure, new cash crops, wells, education. They only used troops from Soviet Central Asia and tried to be extremely sympathetic in the initial part of the occupation, did a really good job to win hearts and minds. And they still failed horribly.
TH: So what was the editing process like for Voice of the Moon? What did you expect the footage to become?
RS: At the time it was an unmitigated, complete disaster. We weren't thinking about any kind of finished movie, we were just shooting what we could along the way. But it was a disaster, we were wiped out, the cameraman was wheelchair-bound, one member of the party was missing. The whole thing was in these tiny little film cans, many of which got lost along the way. Then, pre-Hardware, I managed to get the film processed and transferred, so I could actually see what was in the cans.
TH: How did Simon Boswell come on board?
RS: That would have been post-Hardware. We didn't have the money to cut it or finish it during Hardware. We got hold of Simon in the course of Hardware, that would have been through Stage Fright, the Michele Soavi movie, a little Italian horror movie that Simon had written the score for. I would have seen that, and it was close enough to Hardware, I was in a position to hunt Simon down, and he was cheap.
He did such a good job on Hardware, but here I think he wanted to show what he could do. He really took the bit between his teeth on Voice of the Moon. The music is based on all these amazing leaps, using slide guitar, Bulgarian voices. I've always been very pleased with Simon, the bizarre palette he has to draw on. He pointed out that the theme from Dust Devil is actually Scarborough Fair, if you hum it differently.
Stanley's first feature film, the futuristic techno-thriller Hardware, was commissioned by Stephen Woolley at Palace Pictures as a British riposte to the wave of American monster movies which were popular at the time. But Stanley still found a way to imprint his own idiosyncratic style onto what was ostensibly a mainstream slasher movie.
TH: So how did Hardware come about?
RS: It was a horrible accident at the end of the day. I guess it happened because I'd been pushing hard for so many years to get something made. It wasn't the first script that got out there, but it was the first commercial script. I did something I'd never done before, which was just to dump in a monster that would just kill everyone. Otherwise it's precisely the same world that exists in the Super-8 movie, exactly the same characters, it's just more depressing because there's no droid. Mo and Shades come home, Mo's got one hand, Jill's a scrap metal sculptress, they're both radioactive, they can't have children because she's got cancer. They slouch around the apartment, it's Christmas, nothing comes and kills them. Which is much more depressing in some way.
TH: How did you get the kind of production values you did, on both Hardware and Dust Devil? Do you think Hollywood just tends to waste a lot?
RS: Certainly, on The Island of Doctor Moreau it was a nightmare. They were spending about 100,000 dollars a day just to keep people standing around doing nothing, for 40 or so days that Val wouldn't come out of his trailer. It's incredible how much waste there is. But on Hardware most of the people were just really young, the average age must have been about 16. The rudimentary wireframe animation in the film was done on somebody's school computer. I know that Chris Halls, later to be Chris Cunningham, turned 16 on the shoot. He was involved in the security guard being cut in half, Mo cutting his arm.
TH: Just to have scenes like that, to have a psychedelic acid trip self-mutilation suicide sequence in what is otherwise a pretty straightforward monster movie, how did you get away with that? Was it scripted?
RS: Sure, they were very uneasy about those scenes, and it was drastically reduced in America. I could see that Miramax weren't that confident, it's cut by about half. They removed the fisheye stuff, and also some of the psychedelia. What's bad in all the versions, which I hope to fix for the DVD, is to remove some of the ADR. They dumped huge amounts of ADR into the movie to make it seem more reasonable. The characters shouldn't be making any sort of logical sense either, none of this 'Baby, I love you', 'Fuck you, I know the answer'. It should just be whimpering and crying and begging. A lot of that was coming out of acid trips, I was taking a lot of trips at the time and it's a classic bad trip thing. All that stuff of looking at your body and seeing maggots coming out of it. Classic bad trip material.
TH: What about the fascist dictator character who appears on TV in a couple of shots?
RS: That was an ongoing character, he appears in some of the music videos. He started out in a Renegade Soundwave video, Kray Twins, when there was a dispute between the band and the record label, the band didn't want to make the video. So we invented Boelghakov, this insane dictator, and then he grew and appeared in a Black Uhuru video, then he became one of the leads in Season of Soft Rains, which starts with the assassination of the character. In Hardware he's floating around in posters, these very right-wing posters, then he shows up on the TV. Years ago we hacked him onto the BBC as well, a friend had a transmitter and they were breaking into BBC2 after closedown.
TH: You weren't concerned about broadcasting images of fascist dictators late at night on the BBC?
RS: It was the Thatcher era. We hoped people were wise enough to get the joke.
TH: Watching Hardware, it feels a bit like a farewell to the 80's.
RS: It was very well timed, because I didn't know that the 90's would bring about this whole deconstruction of the kind of culture we were in. It ended up becoming a sort of checklist of all the cultural threads that were around at that point in time, from GWAR through survival research through cyberpunk. I had no sense that all those things would disappear right afterwards. But a lot of that stuff's coming back. As well as Hardware being reincarnated and the new Fields of the Nephilim video, Ridley Scott's busy shooting new scenes for Blade Runner. And what with Transformers being remade there's a steady progression of things from that period reincarnating themselves. So almost anything could happen. I'm hoping that Transformers might create a need for a droid movie for adults. From what I've seen of the Transformers movie already, some bits seem very similar to my script for Hardware 2. They've got droids attacking soldiers and digging themselves out of the ground. The problem is they can't actually kill anyone, and they still look like cars. So we'll see about Hardware 2. But it is starting to look a little likely. People have started waking up to it, which is interesting. From a totally commercial point of view the pitch I'm taking is trying to convince them to do a remake, because people understand that better than sequels. I'm basically pitching the sequel script as a remake.
Hardware's about to come back. In what form it'll get reincarnated I don't know, but it will happen. Literally just in the last 24 hours or so all the rights have cleared up. It looks like it'll be Subversive again - they have all the American rights and although I still haven't seen a penny from Dust Devil they did a really good job of putting it together. I'm going to see if I can get them to do another box, but with all the stuff from the Zone on one disc, the Hardware Super-8 version, a couple of the Nephilim promos that are set in the same universe, all together on the same disc. All the old stuff's on VHS. Failing all else I suppose I might be able to put a few of the deleted scenes on as scruffy VHS copies. One of them is the Holocaust documentary that Jill's watching while they make love, I'm definitely putting that back in. Every time she's on top of him and she glances towards the TV, you can see the flicker on her face but all the shots of the TV are removed.
TH: Talk about William Hootkins and the guy he played, repulsive sex pest Lincoln Wineberg, Jr. How did you write and cast such a loathsome character?
RS: His character was blatant padding in the movie, to bring it up to feature length. There's a whole 20-minute digression in the movie which doesn't really come to anything much. It comes from watching too many bad Piranha ripoffs, like Killer Fish with Lee Majors, when I was a kid. When you know there's a monster that eats people and then you see a fat man in shorts being really unctuous walk on in the first act, you know something bad's going to happen to him. It's a reason to hang around a little bit longer, because you know the fat guy's going to fall in the water and the piranhas are going to get him.
TH: But I think apart from maybe Bobby Peru [in Wild at Heart], he's just about the most disgusting character in a movie that I can think of.
RS: Funny you should mention Bobby. There was a parking lot behind the local cinema when I was growing up where we ran into a very similar character. South Africa was full of people who were very screwed up because in those days they didn't have any sex at all, no pornography, close censorship, and it was full of these religious zealot paedophile nutcases. And I remember we were smoking a joint in the parking lot before going to see a movie and this geek started trying to pick us up, and his pickup lines were just deranged. A couple of them stuck in my head, they just came straight out of him. One of them was, 'You smoke a lot of dope, I see you. Sometimes when people come back to my place I give them dope and it makes them hard. Does it make you hard?' Everything was interpreted as an aphrodisiac, no matter what you did or said it was seen in some strange sexual light. So I think it started from that.
But Bill Hootkins improvised an awful lot of that, a lot of the foulest and most obscene lines in the movie, like 'baby, I'm so hard I could cut diamonds', they were original Bill Hootkins. But of course he's gone now, we lost him about a year ago. A great shame. I guess he was just too large. He popped his clogs after playing Hitchcock on stage in a play which was actually a hit. And then the moment he had a hit he suddenly died, which was very annoying.
TH: He's one of those character actors that seemed to pop up in everything, from Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark to Batman...
RS: He was all over the place. My mum was really sad because to her he was that nice man who did Charlotte's Web on the radio, he was just so ubiquitous, known in so many different ways. I'm advised that his best work was his audiobook version of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, the unexpurgated version read by Bill Hootkins. Apparently he did a much better Ahab and a much better Starbuck than in the movie. I'm still trying to track that down.
Richard's second movie Dust Devil is at once more ambitious and more problematic than Hardware. Drawing his inspiration equally from serial killer movies, spaghetti westerns and African folklore, Stanley constructed a bizarre but astoundingly beautiful horror fable, tying clear-headed insights into the southern African situation to an uneven, rather characterless supernatural melodrama. The film was cruelly treated by the studios, recut by Miramax for American consumption and swiftly vanished without trace.
TH: So when did you start writing Dust Devil?
RS: Literally, it was the cheapest thing we could think of when we were trying to get a movie set up in South Africa. We thought, well, if we have one car, and one girl driving the car, and she stops and picks a guy up, we can have two people in a car. It was a premise for a low budget movie. Then after Hardware we sort of got blackmailed into it. The script existed and was floating around, and Silence of the Lambs had come out and was doing well, the initial wave of serial killer movies were in. The script had been floating around for about five years, landing on various people's desktops, and what happened was Paul Trijbits, later to run the lottery fund and allegedly become the most powerful person in the British film industry, removed the negative of Voice of the Moon from the post-production place. He tried to hang onto the negative unless we signed Dust Devil over to him.
TH: So Dust Devil was seen as a genuine commercial prospect?
RS: Yes, I don't think anyone had read it. It just happened to be around, it was on a table top and I think I just signed it over to Paul to get the rushes back because I didn't think it was worth anything myself. It got slammed into production very fast after Hardware and all of a sudden, just when no one was expecting it, Dust Devil got made, which seemed to be awkward for everyone.
TH: Was it always intended as a political film?
RS: The funny thing is it was originally intended as a science fiction movie. It was written before the collapse of apartheid in South Africa, so it was science fiction but set in the immediate future, when society's collapsing. Which meant that real life just caught up with it. The movie was made just before the end of apartheid, it was made in Namibia for that reason, without South African funding. It was an immediate pre-Mandela movie.
TH: Would you be interested in making a more directly political film about the South Africa situation?
RS: Well, it's not good to be interested in that part of the world because there's no market for it. I did write one other one, but there's just no point in trying to get it done. The take on it was to try and create a black action hero along the lines of Snake Plissken, sort of how you imagine Road Warrior or Escape from New York would be like if you did it with a black cast. I thought maybe African audiences would respond to a kickboxing, charismatic sex machine tough guy lead. Because they love the spaghetti westerns all over Africa, they play to tribes all over Uganda, Kampala and places. Terence Hill, Bud Spencer, all those silly Antonio Margheriti movies. But there's just no sense in trying to work for that market, because the South African film industry has just failed to ever do it.
TH: Would you have made Dust Devil with a black cast, given the choice?
RS: It would have been great if that was possible, though I would always have had the killer be white. But I was always keen to have, you know, a witch doctor with a walkman who worked in a drive-in, a witch doctor who was culturally different.
But it continues today, the two most recent examples being The Last King of Scotland and Blood Diamond, both movies where the white lead has got no reason to be in the plot at all. I couldn't figure out really what Leonardo DiCaprio was doing in Blood Diamond 90% of the time. The dramatic plot points always turn around the black guy. And in The Last King of Scotland it was particularly apparent because Forest Whitaker was so good. The Idi Amin story is big and important, and every time you keep wanting to get sucked into that storyline you're suddenly flung back to the fictional white character's storyline, which is barely relevant.
TH: So what other compromises were forced on Dust Devil? Given unlimited resources, what would the film have looked like?
RS: I think the most obvious thing is that it probably wouldn't have been as good. As originally imagined it was much more of an action movie, much closer to The Hitcher. One of the best things about us running out of money (on the original 16mm version) was that The Hitcher came out, which I thought was the last nail in the thing's coffin, I thought it would never get made at that point. I thought, okay, someone else has made a killer hitchhiker in the desert movie. As a result I took out all the hitchhiking scenes, the guy never raises his thumb in the movie. I also cut out 90% of the slasher movie action, so at that point all that was left was to go more left of field. Which was a happy accident.
We were always going to have no dialogue for as long as possible. In fact, we would have had no dialogue for even longer, but Miramax and the various powers that be got cold feet, and the stuff with the telephone calls was shot later just so somebody could say a few lines. But I'm very happy with that whole section. There are a few things that don't quite work but I think that, up to the first half hour, I couldn't have done it much better.
Infamously, Stanley's next and by far his largest project was to be his own faithful adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau starring Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer and Rob Morrow. But the film was beset by difficulty from the very beginning - Morrow quit, Kilmer was typically recalcitrant, Brando had his own problems involving his daughter Cheyenne and a murder at his home. The script was huge and complex, the budget spiralling upward and the weather worsening. After just three days of principal photography, Stanley was replaced by veteran director John Frankenheimer, who threw out Stanley's script and managed to produce what is widely regarded as one of the worst films of all time. The disaster of Moreau - and Stanley's controversial part in it - has already been widely documented, but it remains a fascinating topic.
TH: When did you first read The Island of Doctor Moreau?
RS: It was one of the books on my father's shelf. When I was a kid I remember pulling it down and asking about it, and the adults said no, don't read that one, it's really scary. So there must have been a strong sense early on that that was one book I really had to get my head around.
TH: You worked with Michael Herr on the script. How did that work?
RS: It was really fantastic. He was the greatest scriptwriter I ever worked with. I would kill whatever fatted calf I had to bring him back, he's just so underused, no one ever hires him. I think his last screen credit now is Full Metal Jacket. And even there Kubrick simplified it and simplified it, toned it down and down until there was hardly anything there. All the stuff Michael's written is just stacked up on shelves, he's got a whole pile of scripts. He wrote one about the Indian War, a Wounded Knee script which he wrote for Michael Cimino, which, post-Heaven's Gate, never went anywhere. Michael said that whenever Cimino talked about it he started crying, and got emotional.
TH: Who convinced Marlon Brando to get involved?
RS: It's convoluted. It's hard to know why he said yes. In short form, Ed Pressman put $1,000,000 in escrow, which is presumably encouragement for anyone to say yes. There is a strange Moreau / Kurtz link: they come out of the same source in many ways. Wells accused Conrad of stealing from Moreau for Heart of Darkness. But there was a lot of weird skulduggery going on behind the scenes that I wouldn't really be able to put my finger on. The entire period of time, the murders at Brando's house with Cheyenne, the whole period is drenched with paranoia and skulduggery. What Brando's motives were I can't honestly say.
TH: Is there any more to say about the collapse of Moreau?
RS: It's just too complex to be reduced to any one factor. The real reasons are so subterranean, there's no point trying to dig them all out. It was a $75 million budget, and after $45 million the decisions go right out of the New Line boardroom, it's to do with Time Warner or whoever else. Who was really in charge, like the guy in the glass tank in Mulholland Drive, who was really making the decisions? We'll never know. It had nothing to do with me or Val Kilmer or Brando being crazy. Most of these people weren't present or had nothing to do with it at the time. The idea of the cast being crazy or the Brando curse was being used as a smokescreen by the corporate powers to be able to float away from it without anyone actually having to carry the can. Then pretty much every executive at New Line got canned themselves, lost their jobs, so it doesn't really matter anymore.
But the one really obvious thing about Moreau was that the real truth was far more convoluted than any of us knew. Even Val picked up that he'd been used. Even before the end of the shoot there was a point where Val gave me a big hug and said he realised we'd both been totally used. His reputation was trashed too. It wasn't down to anyone on the actual movie being insane. The reason it felt that way was because of the money. My position just became untenable. I had no cards left on the table.
The Island of Doctor Moreau effectively finished Stanley's career as a feature filmmaker. His reputation was in tatters, exacerbated by rumours that he had been sneaking back onto the set disguised as an extra and sabotaging the production, an accusation Stanley has always vehemently denied. But in the aftermath of the disaster he found a renewed calling as a documentarian, leading to his next and in some ways most complex project, the still incomplete The Secret Glory, an investigation into the mysterious life of SS agent and Grail scholar Otto Rahn.
TH: So what happened after the breakdown of Moreau?
RS: Well, I kind of took my approach from the epic of Gilgamesh. When Gilgamesh gets really pissed off after Enkidu the Wild Man dies he goes off and seeks out the first man, he goes back to the garden of Eden and talks to the equivalent of Adam, Utanapashtim. So I went to the Virunga Mountains and ended up running into the mountain gorillas. That seemed to be the equivalent of going back to the Garden of Eden. Like trying to find the first actual man and start from scratch. It seemed like if we could just start simple next time round, I could put the blocks back together in some kind of order that would make more sense.
TH: So how did The Secret Glory come about?
RS: Well, I suppose that when one gets beyond the epic of Gilgamesh the next thing is the Arthurian myth and the quest for the Holy Grail. So I guess the Grail phase needed to happen. And at the same time I had a critical and permanent falling out with British pagan society and new age culture. It had been boiling for some time, but in the interim of being in America and Australia, coming back to Britain, changes had happened in the national culture which had taken things further down the nationalistic route. New Labour were here, and I guess that some of the people who had seemed righteous ten years previously were seeming hypocritical, the whole movement was seeming increasingly fascist. That got me interested in how much the new age, pagan, Wiccan thing was inherited from the 20's and 30's in the first place. It had always seemed obvious to me that Stonehenge was thousands of years old, it predates the Druids, predates all history. No one knows who built the stones, even what skin colour they were, what they said or did or what colours they wore. All this strange dogma that has built up is incredibly recent. So I started splashing into it, assuming I was just being paranoid, and suddenly hit a rich seam of Nazi occult stuff.
I hadn't really had any interest in it before, the Nazis or World War Two or any of it. But we kept bumping into people who'd been around back then. So then after interviewing some of these people and hearing their stories firsthand I tried to pitch it back to the BBC and Channel 4 and a few of those places, but nobody makes those kinds of shows. All the Nazi shows on the BBC are made by Laurence Rees and the history department, and they just don't do new research. They rehash the same old research, but interviewing new sources or doing new or variant research into the Holocaust or the SS just doesn't happen. They weren't interested.
But we realised that most of what we'd heard was probably true, and it didn't make sense just to walk away and let the story go cold. To let everyone die who could make sense of it. So it was left to us to beg, borrow or steal a camera and to record as much as we could get without a budget. All the people who had spoken to us were the ones who didn't ask for any money. We had a general rule of thumb that as soon as anyone started to ask for payment we didn't bother with the interview. Which is why we didn't get closer than we did. It was really annoying, I always hoped that we'd get enough information that we'd get one of the major channels on board so that we could continue to pursue the story further up the ladder of command.
There are obvious lines of inquiry which could still be pursued. There are threads I'm still picking at, holes in the narrative that need to be filled. We don't know what they did at the North Pole. We know the Nazis went to the Pole, we know the name of the ship full of SS people, we can even figure out the names of people who were on the ship. But there's not a single photograph of a Nazi at the Pole, there's not a single written account or explanation that tells me why they went there. And I think that a piece of history like that should really be explained. We know a lot about the SS Tibet expedition, there are books on the Schaffer expedition, but nothing at all on the Pole. As far as I can see it's still classified, but I don't really know why. I often think it maybe has something to do with the American base in Greenland, some kind of continuing radar work. The Nazis must have had a practical reason for going to the Pole - it can't have been just total silliness. And the most practical reason you can think of is that the magnetic fields change closer to the Pole, there are some things you can only do if you're far north. Possibly there was something they were up to that became part of something else that remains classified, that we're not allowed to know about. And all the ones who are left now were kids, drivers, receptionists, switchboard operators, people who were very low down in the whole thing. And I haven't checked in the last few years, but most of the people I was in touch with are probably gone now.
Continuing with documentary, Stanley's next project, The White Darkness, was an investigation into Haitian voudou culture. The film echoes many of the themes previously explored in Stanley's work: ancient and mystical cultures, hidden histories, the use and abuse of religion and power.
TH: Why did the BBC agree to fund The White Darkness?
RS: Well, The BBC showed two other films that we shot out there. But The White Darkness is everything they wouldn't let you see on the BBC. All the animal sacrifices, naked people, references to drugs, voudou being like orgasm or like being on a drug. Originally it was for a show called Last of the Medicine Men, presented by Benedict Allen, in the 4 o'clock slot for housewives. It had a white presenter on camera, dancing with the voudou people. It was a completely different format, away from what we did. But we did it to show the BBC that we could do that, that we could do a regular Michael Palin-type travel documentary if we wanted to, it was just deliberate that we weren't. And they took it fine. They just didn't bother asking us for anything else.
TH: How involved did you get in the culture while making The White Darkness?
RS: The general feeling was just to go along with it, to do everything they asked. To drink whatever they gave me to drink and to say whatever they asked me to say, to grab the bull by both horns and to go with it. I was in the beautiful, unique situation of being the BBC's man in Port-au-Prince, which was glorious, having all those cameras and as much tape as we could shoot. It was just a licence to get as much out of the island as we could in the few months we had there. So we bribed all the main people like crazy. We almost got to interview Aristide; we were constantly being fobbed off. We paid for all the food at one voudou festival, everyone got to eat free courtesy of the BBC. And BBC licence payers' money provided sacrificial goats for Altes Paul.
TH: This is probably your most directly political film. Have you ever had the desire to make something openly polemical?
RS: It's always been inadvertent. We set out to make a voudou film, I had no idea about the occupation. But the more we tried to shoot the voudou film, the more belligerent the occupying forces got. I've got a bad habit, if I hear something I've never heard before I tend to hang onto it. So the stuff about the death camps I had to put in there because I'd never heard it before. The moment one stubs one's toe on a little bit of history that's been left out, sheer serendipity forces me to include it.
TH: How do you feel about religion? It's beautiful but dangerous in your films. There seems to be a sense that myth and belief are healthy until they go too far, become too controlling, then they can become dangerous. I'm thinking about the Nazis, Moreau, the army types in White Darkness.
RS: I suppose that I'm a believer, I'm just trying to figure out what the rules are, what the sides are. I've always had the impression that there's a conflict going on which seems to get manifested in the strangest ways. We continue to run these parallels down through time, conflicts re-emerging through different generations. Like, is 9/11 the Reichstag, and do we need these detention camps, and freedom is our responsibility but you can never escape. It scares me that, underneath all that, the sense that there is any kind of pattern implies that there must be some sort of Factor X involved.
TH: Tell me about Vacation, with Bruce Campbell. Because it sounds like that also deals with religion and politics.
RS: It's a black comedy based on the war on terror. Our two unspeakable leads are a coke-snorting banker and his former lapdancer girlfriend. They're marooned after the end of the world in a sort of Year Zero barter economy. It's sort of predicated on this whole run of xenophobic tourist abroad movies, the trick with this one being that Carly and Bryce are much more dangerous than the locals, who are actually quite sympathetic, simple folk. Finally, after the collapse they're able to reinvent themselves, and we get to see Carly the lapdancer become the goddess Kali. After the world burns she becomes the death goddess she always wanted to be, is liberated from being anyone's servant or anyone's slave. While the banker chappie gets to rediscover himself as a hunter-gatherer, killer warrior, and they get to be much happier than they were before. Sometimes you need to massacre the wrong people, or go to war with the wrong folk after you've had your credit cards cut off. It's what we need to do to still feel like human beings and Americans. It's an attack on the Iraq war, really.
As of a few weeks ago, all the funds are there to make it on a low budget, no frills level. But the main producer is currently producing something else that doesn't get out for a month or so, and Bruce Campbell is not actually acting but he has a producer credit on the big budget Hollywood remake of The Evil Dead. I've spoken to him and I know he's up for it, but I know that this is insignificant money-wise compared to the Evil Dead remake, which will steamroller us if we get in the way. It's basically a question of juggling our dates to survive.
TH: And what of Bones of the Earth, the Donald Cammell project you've talked about taking over?
RS: That's been idling until someone can figure out a way to make a movie that big in England. It's not huge, but a respectable sort of 8-10 [million pounds], more than I've ever been able to get access at. It was looking healthy when Richard Harris was alive, but since he passed on we haven't had a star or a name connected to it big enough, which is annoying. If we were able to get Vacation out there and it made some money that would increase it's likelihood. But it's the best script that I've currently got access to. It's the first thing since Doctor Moreau which really reads like a movie.
TH: Do you feel a certain kinship with Cammell as a director? There are parallels: studio interference, killer robots, a sort of wildness verging on complete incomprehensibility.
RS: I realised after Doctor Moreau that I'd caught up with Donald's work. When I saw Demon Seed it all fell into place, there are also parallels between White of the Eye and Dust Devil. Donald also had a longstanding Brando project called Jericho, which parallels well with Doctor Moreau. I always think that the main difference between us is that Donald got to make one bona fide masterpiece in Performance, which is the odd one out. Whereas I have no equivalent to that, but I'm alive. He shouldn't have shot himself. Plainly that was dumb.
TH: I think the thing that attracts me to your work is the love of story and image working together, you seem to have a very pure love of cinema rare in genre filmmaking - cinema itself features in Dust Devil, in the Moreau script. Even after everything that's happened, are you still in love with the cinema?
RS: That's a tricky one. Yes and no. Certainly, once one's been around Hollywood a few times, some things pall. One ends up thinking, damn, that seemed so great up until I met the people who made it. But at the same time, even though it's dead, I've still got a strong respect for the old beast. It's not the same with video. I mean, in a few years it's all going to be videos downloaded into the computer. Everything's going to be DVD; actual movies are pretty much extinct. I'm hoping I'll get to shoot one more thing on 35mm before I die.
TH: But do you still get excited about the films that you watch?
RS: Not as much as I used to. Maybe I'm getting old, but maybe the movies aren't as much fun as they used to be.
It's a long time since I've been allowed to do a really elaborate take, which is one of the great joys of these things, when you say action and all the pieces fall into place. There's a tremendous rush when something that's been planned for months finally clicks together. And that's something that I feel is close to being lost by the way that everyone's jumping to shoot on the cheap on video. Everyone is assuming that by marketing the technology they can market the medium, but they haven't really paid attention to the language. 90% of the low budget direct-to-video things I'm seeing have no real attention to any kind of formal language, they don't even seem to know about crossing the line. They shoot everything handheld then throw it to the editor to hack together one way or another. They assume that by covering it handheld they'll get everything sooner or later. And of course by doing that they're just eliminating a whole formal language. One can deliberately work meanings into things by the way they're storyboarded and the way they're shot, but you don't really do that if it's all mumbo jumbo. I'm hoping that some of that original language will survive.
TH: I found it annoying watching 28 Days Later, he made the choice to shoot on video and I just thought... why? If you can get the budget to shoot on film, why not? It just looked cheap and sort of...
RS: Cheesy, yes. It was also annoying that it was not quite what it wanted to be. The first half hour is basically Day of the Triffids, and it's sort of a zombie movie, but it gets lost when they get the magic Volkswagen thing, they evade the zombies by doing a series of car stunts. And it stops being Day of the Triffids.
I've always thought that science fiction is hard done by in this country. How come not one of the Wells books has gotten a decent English adaptation? The Time Machine, War of the Worlds: every single one of them's gone to America. If we did that with every single Dickens book someone would complain. But Wells is chronically underrated, he gets confused with Jules Verne and consistently written off. People think he's a children's writer; they just don't see how incredibly iconic his books were at the time. If the BBC was really up to it, what I wouldn't give for just one season of one hour Wells adaptations. All those short stories, I'd love to see them faithfully adapted. It's just consistently frustrating how the accepted, conventional literature is highlighted over the weird stuff. You've got Ballard's very cogent argument that sci-fi might be the only relevant literature, that it's dangerous to be dealing with the present without dealing with the future. Just look at the state we're in. So many things keep being totally predicted in stories, like global warming, the greenhouse effect, which has been around in sci-fi for as long as I've been alive. Now we have to put with people like Al Gore acting like they've discovered it for the first time.
My script, Season of Soft Rains, covered some of this territory. It was set in the future, in a flooded Britain which is now an American colony. It's a desperate, plague-riddled, mutated, environmentally destroyed, ravaged kind of place. The democratically elected American-backed government is challenged by a neo-pagan, crypto-fascist underground rallied around the last surviving member of the royal house of Windsor, a 9 year-old boy king, blue-eyed and angelic and totally scary. The lead is an American agent sent back into Britain to infiltrate the pagan underground and kill the prince, a real rip roaring adventure. I had a lot of fun writing it. But no one really went for it.
Michael Moorcock is another British writer with hundreds of titles. There was a very bad film adaptation of Final Programme back in the 70's, which is probably why no one ever made another one. It crashed and burned, which was a bit of a shame. Jerry Cornelius was Moorcock's version of James Bond, except he's bisexual and it's the end of the world. He's in love with his sister, he lives in west London, and as far as I can tell only eats jam and chocolate digestive biscuits. So much more fun than Austin Powers. But Moorcock's written hundreds of books, and he's one of the few authors who's so desperate that you can actually persuade him to give you the rights free. His only screen credit apart from Final Programme was on The Land that Time Forgot, and in fact Ballard was the writer for When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. I love it that the cream of British new age 70's sci-fi was responsible for two prehistoric running around in bikini movies.
I'd love to do a remake of Land that Time Forgot. When I was up in Iceland I took a lot of 'hollow earth' reading material with me, reread the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. I thought it'd be fun to do a sort of sequel/ remake, make it a Nazi U-boat crew that marries the Neanderthals and stays behind on the lost island. Come back seven years later and find out what sort of strange culture has emerged. Getting Nazis and dinosaurs in the same movie, it's got to be possible.
TH: What makes you stick to horror filmmaking? Is it love or logistics?
RS: Both. On some level, yes, it's a commercial genre, and I like the fact that it's not respectable, it doesn't have pretensions. You don't go out there saying this is art, or this is an important statement about anything, I do like that. But at the same time the genre has been incredibly kind to me all my life, I've always done well with it. And it's impossible not to notice how people, be it Dario Argento or the voudouists in Haiti or even the Afghans have always been incredibly friendly, whereas the moral authorities have always been the scary ones, the South Africans, the missionaries. There's always been an obvious, running battle line, and it seems unlikely that I'm going to switch sides or start wearing brighter colours.
But out of all the people I knew in South Africa, my family and all the other kids at school, I was the only one to turn against the government, to refuse to join the army. I had to leave the country, I fell out with my family. There was a full-on moment where I had to choose to be with them or against them, and if I chose to be against them it was completely down to the horror movies and the horror comics. I think that any sense of liberal values that I've picked up came solely from the genre. I can't think of any individual, any role models around me at school or in the government or on television or anything that I'd learned anywhere else that would have helped me, except for George Romero and the horror comics that were coming out of that 70's liberal mentality. They often explored themes of race, voudou stories and things. So yes, I think it's valuable on that level.
TH: It was a lucky escape, avoiding national service.
RS: Yes, all of my friends, even those who weren't directly implicated in crimes, who ended up doing soft functions, bureaucrats or medics, they're all guilt-ridden. They all went along with things which, even if they weren't responsible, they turned a blind eye or things were rubber-stamped by their presence. I imagine similar things are going to happen now in Israel, any country where kids are conscripted at 16, too young to know what the issues are. In South Africa the age restriction on Apocalypse Now was 21, so you could be legally killing people at 16 but it would take another 5 years before they would let you watch Apocalypse Now. One can't judge them too much, because they had so little idea of what they were doing. But at the same time, I was definitely sharp enough at that point to know what was happening. And I thank the genre for it.
We sit for a while longer, discussing past and future projects, British science fiction and recent movies such as Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, which Stanley liked, and Danny Boyle's Sunshine, which neither of us did. And I get the sense that, however chaotic his career path, Richard Stanley is not about to give up any time soon. He's still bursting with ideas, some old, some new, some brilliant, some just deeply odd. It makes you realise how much film culture has changed since the 70's and even the 80's, now that B-movies are mainstream there's no place for the strange little ideas that produced so many of our modern genre classics, the films of Larry Cohen and George Romero, Don Coscarelli and Dario Argento.
But Richard Stanley is still trying, and with renewed interest in his work comes the promise of increased funding and wider acceptance. Hopefully one day he'll get the chance to make his masterpiece, before the apocalypse comes.