Total Abuse - Richard Stanley and the Devil
by Gene Gregorits
(Originally appeared in Sex & Guts Magazine #3, 2001)
I saw Hardware about ten years ago. It's mix of sci-fi standards with genuine subversion, perversion, and putrescence left me with a raging curiosity about its director. Richard Stanley. He certainly wasn't easy to find.
Hardware is a post-apocalyptic, sociopolitical, and sociopathic nightmare. Its themes are dually romantic and political, a rarely successful combination of elements. The critics slagged this film off as a Terminator rip-off. The critics were numbskulled sonsofbitches who took the film as a cheap entertainment with nothing to say. The message of the film isn't even a subtext, it's a fucking plot element, so I left them to ponder the artistic significance of the latest Walter Hill blowout and decided to watch the film again. An addiction developed. Hardware was getting me off like some kind of celluloid pharmaceutical. The genius of the film - hear me out now - is restraint. I mean it. Those who know the film may think I'm out of my gourd for using that word. Note, however, I didn't say subtlety. It's nothing if not unsubtle. But it holds back. It introduces a kind of tenderness... then temporarily forgets compassion when the nails come out. It uses a sharp and focused mis-en-scene - then it obscures logic and reality. Although there is a large Argento-influence, unlike the old daughter-obsessing codger's films, Hardware does have logic. You just have to look at it sideways. You have to catch those details and Stanley's debut is packed with details like no other film I've ever seen. You are required to squarely pit your own mind within the confines of a radioactive, real-life-banal, Neo-Hitler enforced HELL. If you make that jump, you are initiated into the ferocious mind of Richard Stanley.
The antagonist of Hardware is the result of a government-funded genocide project, a cyborg called the Mark 13. Mark is named after a particularly creepy bible passage ("These are the birth pains. No flesh shall be spared.") and our boy delivers a clean, shove-shot of precylabin morphate that kills you so fine you enjoy your own death. Cancer sores cover the bodies of those dying in the street. The president preaches a hatred of mud races. The city is a barely inhabitable sewage strewn battlefield. Radiation sickness is a way of life. The sun does not shine. Rain does not fall.
Hardware rips off The Terminator? Think again. Stanley's effort has more brains, balls, and human depth than a big budget pyro like James Cameron could ever hope for. (But sparks DO fly in Hardware, and so do several precious fluids.)
Stanley's second feature, Dust Devil, was an altogether terrifying, indelibly haunting travelogue of atmosphere and abuse, preoccupied with both human frailty and human savagery. Robert Burke portrays Hitch, a white trash traveler eventually revealed as a demon spirit, wandering the plains of South Africa (where Stanley was raised). He preys on desperate, lonely, suicidal women. The impoverished town of Bethany is a perfect feeding ground. An adulterous white woman and her broken-hearted husband become fair game.
Both films, released by Miramax, remain even in their cut forms sensitive to the carnage they portray. His work is anything but shock-art. In Dust Devil, he emphasizes spirituality. In Hardware, he uses psych-o-delia and a decidedly narcotic aesthetic. But Stanley wanted to mine some fertile ground. He wanted to go further. He wanted to use other weapons.
Richard Stanley's third and most commercially promising feature, The Island of Dr. Moreau became a circumstantial tragedy. In its cast were prominently featured names such as Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer. The script was harsh. It exceeded even the confrontational realms of his previous films. The producers weren't interested, but Brando's interest greenlighted the production. Within a week of principal location shooting in Australia, Stanley had been fired from the film.
His two completed feature films have yet to be released in their intended forms. Dust Devil in particular suffered a shocking thirty minute censoring which renders the film incomprehensible. The system has not been kind to Richard Stanley. It's up to you to change that.
I talked to the director for over an hour about Hardware, Dust Devil, and his upcoming independent documentary release, The Secret Glory.
Gene Gregorits: Why won't Miramax release the director's cut of Hardware and Dust Devil?
Richard Stanley: Hardware had gotten an X the first time out, but the equivalent of an R really. It doesn't make any sense to release a movie with that age restriction. it's not very commercial. Also, at the time, they liked the publicity of it being an X rated movie, and still being able to cut it, they got free publicity on it.
GG: The cuts were pretty minor.
RS: Pretty minor, in Hardware, yes. I didn't mind most of the changes. The most damaging of the changes were made in script stage, in pre-production, because otherwise I wouldn't have gotten the deal. With Dust Devil, I've been forced to give digital master copies to people before, because in the case of Dust Devil, no one knows who owns the rights anymore. No one knows who owns the rights to Hardware either, but the situation with Dust Devil is very bad. No one can legally sell anyone the rights to the movie because no one can figure out who to buy the rights from. That means that potential distributors to their best to investigate it for 2 or 3 months and then eventually, get discouraged. Pirate video is the only way to see the real film.
GG: That was a huge cut, about a half hour I think.
RS: More than that, in fact. The stateside version runs at 70 minutes, the full version runs at 105. It only achieved 70 minutes because they run the music from the end roll twice, to bring it up from 68 or something. They needed to meet 70 minutes, and they just improvised and brought in an extra two minutes of black screen music at the end, just to meet contractual obligations.
GG: In Hardware there are all these little clues and hints that you drop, as background info. The film has a lot of ambiguous elements, in terms of location, date, political climate, things like that. I know that some critics who didn't like the film said it was incomprehensible, when it fact it's very coherent if you catch all the small details and minutia. For instance the characters will talk about New York, about going to New York, so the film obviously isn't set there. A certain portion of the cast has American accents. Did you intend for there to be a set location?
RS: Not particularly. It could have been Detroit, Philadelphia, or somewhere in the middle of the country. It started off being England, which was the problem. A lot of the script was set in council flats in futuristic London. Once Miramax became involved, they started casting American leads, which I didn't mind, but the problem was, under union rules in England, you can't bring in more than two Americans onto the same project, because then all of a sudden you've got a world where you've got American leads, but the whole rest of the world has to be made of local actors. So you've got the Jamaican security guards and an old Irish astronaut living next door, with a rather strange accent. Then there is the Chinese family downstairs.
GG: Yeah it's a very multi-cultural film.
RS: That's partially because we couldn't set it completely in America due to contractual obligations. I tried very hard to get an American shade.
GG: Could you talk a little about the original script before Miramax got hold of it?
RS: The biggest change was the character of Mo. Mo in the script is basically a junkie, and he's a bit of a burnout, a mechanic who's working for the army, in the script. And he lost his hand in some kind of industrial accident, and got addicted to some kind of morphine-type painkiller. He's also radioactive and has cancer. (Laughs) Also the girlfriend, in the original script, has a thing for his scars, and for his metal hand, and she was busy tattooing him all over his remaining flesh. A Miramax assistant noted that there should be no tattoos, because they'd released a movie called Tattoo with Bruce Dern which made no money. Terrible movie.
GG: Now, "the hand", which isn't explained as an industrial accident or anything like that, is very much fetishized by you in the film.
RS: The hand stayed there, yeah. In the script, it was the reasons for the hand, and how it fit into the relationship, that were fudged. First of all, the heroin had to go, even though the droid retains the needles. And Mo dies of a lethal trip, eventually. He still O.D.'s basically, even though he is no longer a junkie.
GG: Sweet irony.
RS: Yeah. (Laughs) There was a huge fracas over the casting of his part, because I chose Stacy Travis for the lead and she was basically an unknown. They caused a major quarrel, because I had my choice of a female lead, so they had to have their choice of a male lead. They really pinned us down about two weeks before the actual start of the movie, and very much shoehorned us into having to go the way we did, which was go with a choice of three people, and Dylan McDermott was the best of the three. When Dylan arrived on set, he had a crew cut, and I said, "Oh god." He looked very healthy, and he's into Christianity. He brought his bible with him.
GG: In a way, what they forced you to cut only made the film more unsettling. You never know what happened to Mo's hand, and there's a lot of things that aren't made crystal clear but it only makes the characters more interesting. I really enjoyed that aspect.
RS: Yeah. And another macabre part of the process was that they demanded we shoot explanations of things, that me make it pedantic about explaining everything. And they kept faxing us scenes where dialogue needed to be explained. There's a credit at the end for "additional dialogue", the name I can't remember. It was the guy who wrote The Mask. An American chappy. There was a whole long dinner scene that was shot just to please Miramax, between Jill and Mo, where all of their dialogue points of address had to be cut out, just because it was such a massively long dinner scene. That's the reason why you see them without any clothes, and they're making love, then you see them a few minutes later, they're going to sleep with their clothes back on. There was an entire ten minute "alligator steak" dinner sequence which was taken out.
GG: Another great, weird detail that isn't explained, the "alligator steaks" and "reindeer steaks".
RS: Originally the story of "the hand" came up at the dinner table.
GG: Both of your feature films are dominated by female characters. They could almost be seem as feminist stories. What interests you so much about having a woman as the central character in your films?
RS: I guess I've always been dominated by women. I've been surrounded by strong, aggressive pro-feminist characters. I think at the time I was probably entering too much into that point of view, that all male characters are overtly useless in the movies.
GG: The male leads in Hardware and Dust Devil come to rather unpleasant ends.
RS: Yeah. These days I kind of regret being so tough on men. I think the next time around I'll be an equal opportunity offender.
GG: Right. (Laughs)
RS: Actually I was going there at the end of Dust Devil, in a way that I wasn't entirely happy with. It was more ambiguous than I wanted it to be. I would've hoped that Chelsea [Field, Wendy in Dust Devil] would've been scarier than she was.
GG: Hardware is really packed with technological detail, but it still manages to be about people. It's incredibly well thought out, in terms of characterization. How did you play down the tech stuff so well, yet have it so fully apparent throughout the entire film? And also, I was interested in how you made the film look like 25 million on a one million dollar budget.
RS: They're unanswerable questions. Well, the second one's easier to answer.
RS: We worked very, very hard, and people were underpaid. The crew was insanely committed. We storyboarded the whole thing. We worked with a backwards and forwards storyboard and re-storyboarded everything. And shot with every available thing we had, for as long as we could. We had two crews working, so we were on set shooting for 24 hours a day. So when the main unit clocked off to leave, when they switched off the lights at six o'clock or something, the second unit would move on, and switch the lights back on again and get going with the droid walking around, or anything that didn't involve the principal cast. Which was quite a lot, really.
That way I could just go on shooting for as long as I could stay awake. And keep going. I think it was just a matter of taking the time we had, and the amount of money we had, and squeezing it for every insanity we could get. I'd try to take rest dozes, and every time I went to sleep, I'd gone missing. It got to the point where I knew that every time I'd stop and lay down, we'd have one less pick-up shot. One less angle.
GG: That's pretty brutal.
RS: Yeah. It was only six or seven weeks, and to go on shooting like that, I realized what a fucked up life one gets into when shooting a movie. I just had to grab it with both hands, and be prepared to stay awake. A long time.
GG: Hardware seems to be greatly misunderstood in some circles.
RS: In a way, the response was pretty good. It made quite a lot of money, considering. It's the most financially viable thing I've ever been involved with. And I suppose that ultimately, with the Hollywood bottom line, it's a success story, that one. It's partially because of the way the thing was marketed, and also because of the expectation. It was thought right from the beginning that it would be sort of an Aliens/Terminator clone, which is kind of the expectation of the backers and the distributors at the time. That's pretty much what they wanted, and I figured, okay, maybe we can take a spin on this standard premise of people creeping around in this dark warehouse, tight industrial type space, being menaced by this monster who pops out once every so often, which was common for those days. Lots of bad movies like The Titan Find. I can't remember the other titles, there are so many of them.
GG: It doesn't seem that it was at all your motive to make a typical sci-fi story. Hardware riifs on political and ecological issues, which you rarely see taken seriously in films of that genre.
RS: It just seems to me that I've always been very scared of the future. There are certainly plenty of things about it that bug me out. There are a lot of things about the genre that I've never bought into, in sci-fi movies. And I wanted to address a little about the world we live in. The film is so contained in one location, because of the budget, so it was difficult to get a lot of that stuff. I always imagined that somewhere, in America for instance, central authority would break down entirely, in a kind of Mad Max, post apocalypse kind of manner.
I always figured it would be the government's fault, and then still, some kind of civilization going on. On a depleted third world level. I like to imagine when the system dies. I would've wished I could've seen, in a big budget movie, a world in which the [government created genocide] droid was successfully deployed. To see it doing what it was built for in the first place. Instead of a single unit running amok, rather what would've happened if the experiment was successful. And did what it was meant to do.
GG: And that film would've been Hardware 2. How far into production did that film get?
RS: It never really got into production. There are a number of reasons. The main thing is sort of two-fold. One is that the people involved in the first one turned out so badly, in later years. or some just ceased to exist. The people at Palace just went bankrupt, or split up acrimoniously. It was never made clear as to who actually owned the rights. Considering how much money Hardware made, that was because when they released it, they pretended it was a regular sci-fi movie, and tried not to give away the fact that it was made for 800 grand. That's why some audiences felt betrayed walking into something like that, when they expected a 75 million dollar movie.
GG: It was also made for an intelligent audience, not for your typical video renting couch potato.
RS: Yeah, and I hope there's enough in there for them. But there's not much for the video crowd to come back to.
GG: You started your career making music videos. What videos have you directed?
RS: That's a long time ago now. I guess a lot of stuff quite widely across the board, musically. I did one for John Lydon, and Public Image Limited. I enjoyed that.
GG: Which song?
RS: The video was called The Body.
GG: That's great!
RS: Oh, you know that one?
GG: Yeah, but I never knew you made that video. I like it a lot.
RS: That video... it starred Lydon, and that weird looking guy with the glasses is an associate of Tim Leary's. He's actually been involved in that stuff, in Operation Artichoke and stuff. So we threw him in a cameo with him, as a mad scientist doing experiments on people. I did a bunch for Fields Of Nephilim. Probably the ones most directly relevant to Hardware.
GG: I don't know their music, and never saw the videos. Are they stylistically much like Hardware? Carl McCoy's image is exactly that of your film.
RS: Yeah. I was never wild about their music. They had a spaghetti western/post nuke image. Sort of a goth/horror thing. The first video we did, and then the first album cover, second album cover, second video. And then I had a chance to invent the look of the band which was very exciting. I met them before they were signed, and had a big influence on how they actually looked. I did the album covers, and influenced them across the board.
Eventually the lead singer became a character called The Preacher Man, this frightening religious zealot in a post-holocaust world. I did a great promo. He's got a prosthetic hand, dresses in black with a hat and coat. Elements of the radiation contamination, the metal hand, the thing digging itself out of the ground, all that stuff from Hardware appeared in the Fields Of Nephilim videos first. Carl McCoy [Nephilim lead singer] is the guy who comes out of the desert. That was their look. He had the yellow contact lenses in that second promo. He looked like the same guy in Hardware. They are essentially the same character.
GG: Where does your interest in that strange style come from?
RS: I love the spaghetti westerns. I saw The Good, the Bad and the Ugly when I was, I think, ten, on a big screen at the movies, and it was one of those things that encouraged me to get involved in movies.
GG: Dust Devil is even more directly influenced by that film.
RS: Yeah. I also tried to bring it back to the place I associated it with when I was a kid. Which was sort of South African tribal, and South African expoitation movie distribution.
GG: Yeah, as a kid, you would envision the Eastwood scenarios happening in your homeland.
RS: Well, it's close. For some reason, just because of the way things were out there, they never showed art house or highbrow films very much. It was very much a sort of redneck culture. So you got a lot of drive-in movies, you got a lot of kung-fu movies. Spaghetti westerns, and weird Euro comedies and things which probably wouldn't play in the States. We got a lot of Bud Spencer and Terence Hill, and very strange things that didn't take off Stateside. There were things that weren't accepted to the United States, but were huge in the third world. Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires. Dario Argento movies. The Bird with a Crystal Plumage. In Dust Devil, you notice a strange name check for that movie.
GG: What are the benefits of your background, of having a background in music videos when applied to a feature film?
RS: Well, it teaches you how to work cheaply, which is helpful. All of the videos were made very cheaply, and the cheapest one is the best one. Gemini. And you can actually use these things... because one of the deciding factors in Hardware getting funded at all was being able to show them these promos as trailers, for what the film was going to look like. A dry run for the feature film is the music videos. I had a chance to stage riots, crowd dispersal scenes, in certain isolated episodes, which would've have been nice in the longer story, but in a film, one long 48 hour shoot like that is difficult, really.
GG: There are a lot of directors now who seem like they come from a music video background. There's Guy Ritchie, David Fincher.
RS: David Fincher I like. Guy Ritchie I don't like. There's a guy out here, Chris Cunningham, who's going to be big one day. I'm rather keen on Chris' work.
GG: David Fincher isn't quite as uncompromising nor as personal a film director as you, but his films are incredibly bleak, especially Fight Club.
RS: I loved Fight Club. From a major studio! I just thought, wow, how'd you do that? It's a horrible thing to get away with it!
GG: I've heard about The Secret Glory, a film you've been working on. A documentary focused on ominous subjects such as the Third Reich, the occult, etc.
RS: It's ongoing. Turning into a bit of a lifework, that one. At some point it will have to be finished. Simply because everyone involved with it will be dead soon, and then there will be no point in trying to finish it. (Laughs) It's just something I've been doing to amuse myself, and to save something back, for my old age...basically being me, chasing the life story of a deceased SS officer. I started meeting people in Europe a long time ago, and started hearing some of the stories. I felt this conviction, that I needed to start documenting their stories, basically because no one would believe me. Because of what they'd been told, people would look at me with incredulity. And if they all died, and I never got a permanent record, it would just disappear into..
RS: Yeah. Urban myth. Friends of friends stuff. There was a chance of putting down some of the salient details. And of course, it got bigger and bigger. The more people I turned up, the more leads I found. There's always like three or four people I think I've got to find, before I get all of the answers. It's a big jigsaw puzzle. I've got about thirty people so far. I've been back and forth between Germany and France. Calling people in the telephone directories, going 'round to addresses from back before the war, and seeing if anyone knew who lived there before, and who lived there before that. I'm getting all kinds of wild results.
GG: That's amazing.
RS: It's been a strange trip. In the course of three or four years, over half of the people are dead. Several are reaching 80 and 90 and kind of, shuffling off, basically. And there's still people who were ten at the time, and believe that the lead character corpse is still alive now. I'm just desperate to get that story.
GG: You don't have all the time in the world, these people are dying right?
RS: Yeah. There will be someone from that span who eventually dies, and then I'll just have to cut my losses and say, that's it, I can't get any more than that. In the meantime, each story has been checked out, and it's gotten a little weirder. I'm putting touches on things which haven't ever been understood or worked through. The main fallacy being this notion that Adolph Hitler was really interested in that stuff.
GG: In Satanism.
RS: Or any of those things, really. I think he was much more pragmatic than that. And basically [The Third Reich] purged a lot of those
astrologers and weirdos quite early on. It doesn't really represent the actual goals or interests of the people in charge. It was just a matter of the interest of individual weirdos who managed to abuse their positions, and were trying to take advantage of them to continue their own personal obsessions, who briefly got away with it, and then when the war came along, things got tighter, basically, and there wasn't any room for chasing holy grails, or the Ark of the Covenant or anything.
Over time, it has started to seem like more of a state sanctioned effort than it really was. This guy was up to his stuff like ten years before the war, and he tried to use the Nazis to get his own way at the time, which was quite swift of mind. There's lots of odd little twists and turns and I am desperate to get the truth about it.
They went to the North Pole. Everyone knows the Nazis went to the North Pole. But no one can tell me, definitively what the hell they were doing there. I'm still trying to figure it out. You get every story in the world, from "hollow earth", to "radar signals", to "warm water lakes", to "dinosaurs". I never get a straight answer to what the hell they were doing in the North Pole. As long as there is a living link to it, I would like to nail down something.
GG: I can feel pervasive rolling waves of dread already.
RS: (Laughs) Yeah. You dig that question up and you go all over the place. Flying saucers and hollow earth. The results of ten years worth of pop cultural madness.
GG: I've heard about your unproduced film In a Season of Soft Rains, and a children's film, different things. What else have you done since Dust Devil?
RS: Basically writing ferociously. I've generated so many screenplays, I figure that if I ever get another one made, I'll be on a roll, with a huge supply of material. Or they'll have to auction them up post-humously the way you keep seeing Donald Cammell screenplays floating around. People are clutching "hot Donald Cammell screenplays". I keep thinking: "Christ. Poor devil shot himself. And now they're hot. Why are they hot now?"
GG: He died a really horrible death, too. Really upsetting story, his death.
RS: Yeah, I know. He spent years generating mounds of unproduced screenplays. Only now are they deemed to be hot and produceable. So I figure I've developed a big backlog of, I hope, enterprising things.
GG: It's tragic. I guess you have a responsibility to avoid the fate of Donald Cammell.
RS: Yeah, I suppose we have had a very similar career profile, with the expection of the fact that I didn't get to make Performance. I did get to make a "machine chases girl" movie. I did get to make a desertbound psycho killer movie. And I was involved with Marlon Brando in a huge and bullshit film that destroyed his life.
GG: Yeah, can we talk about it? I know many of The Island of Dr. Moreau stories are fictional, so what really went on down there in New Guinea?
RS: All kinds of things. Too many things to be able to put your finger on only one thing. The one arching problem with that was that the politics were completely crap, from the off. New Line didn't want to make that script. It was a project, like In a Season of Soft Rains, that seemed a monstrous, twisted project that no-one wants to get near. The thing that took it over the edge was when Brando wanted to do it. And when Brando wanted to do it, some of the other actors wanted to do it. And suddenly we had a bunch of stars [Val Kilmer, Rob Morrow]. No-one iniated the project because they wanted to make that particular movie.
GG: You got the credit for screenplay, but I can't imagine that they used your original draft.
RS: Not a word.
GG: That's really why I haven't bothered to see the film.
RS: I saw it once. A contractual obligation screening. It did have some side effects on pop culture. As I understand, Mike Myers got his idea for "Mini Me" [in Austin Powers] from Dr. Moreau. There's also a genetic engineer on South Park, who springs from it. It had some minor impact on the outside world. But not a word of my script. I wrote the first draft of the script. I was very convinced that it was genius. A work of art, whatever. It was very faithful to the Wells novel, the only difference being that it was updated to the near-future.
GG: With bio-genetics.
RS: Yeah. And that was the only relevance the New Line movie had to my script. There afterwards, I was so opposed to getting another writer onboard, that Ed Pressman hooked me up with Michael Herr, the writer of Dispatches, a great book about the Vietnam war. Michael turned out to be a total genius and in a very short time, took my script and made it much, much better without doing much work. At that point in time, I thought it was the best screenplay I'd ever read, after Michael had been through with it. Every word of Michael's stuff is gone from the movie. He's the best person I've ever worked with.
GG: What about the rumors of you coming back on to the set of the film, after you were fired?
RS: Oh yeah, it all happened. It was largely motivated by girlfriend trouble. If there hadn't been a lady involved, I wouldn't have done it, essentially. It was a matter of the heart. Otherwise, I would've just taken the money and left. There were too many reasons why I wanted to find out what happened next, and get back there again. I couldn't feel entirely free to walk away at that point.
GG: Were you caught, were you actually thrown off or what?
RS: They never knew I was there. It was only afterwards. I got in with a bunch of extras, basically.
GG: Now, how did you manage to -- I mean, without a mask, you would have been regocnized! Was it just a lot of sneaking around in the jungle at night?
RS: Yeah, it was all the night scenes. All night scenes at the big house, around the plantation. Running around the funeral pyre, burning the big house, etc.
GG: Did you sabotage the product?
RS: No. Absolutely not. (Laughs) No, I didn't. I didn't have to. When I left the production, I shredded every document I had. But the mushroom trip wasn't true. I wish it was. I've heard stories over time that I'd freaked out, that I shouted at so and so, that I punched so and so. But point of fact, what I did at the time was staying in the same chair for about two days, while continously smoking and taking telephone calls. During that time, over that 48 hour period, I shredded every single goddamn document from the last two years. I made certain at that point in time, that there were no telephone numbers, there were no timetables, no rainfall charts, anything that they had figured out about the location, so that they would have to figure it out from scratch. It wasn't really sabotage, it was to leave as little trace behind of my cooperation as possible. A stalling tactic, in a way. Have them to suss out the whole thing from scratch.
I then flew down to Sydney, immediately hated the place. After a few days, I started hearing that they thought I was out in the rainforest with the ferals, planning an attack on the set. They were trying to get a court order to keep me from coming anywhere near the location and I was already on the other side of the country. Got myself a lawyer, immediately. And then, because of personal reasons, and because they were already hitting the roof, I decided I'd go back up again and see what was happening.
GG: That's really... one of the great film stories. Aside of Werner Herzog and his mania, I can't remember ever hearing about something like actually a hiding place on a film set.
RS: Yeah, that was my thinking at the time, as well. Because the situation was already so ridiculous, I thought I'd just keep pushing it further over the top, to a place I'd never been before.
GG: Where do you think genre films, or just films in general, are at today?
RS: To me it seems worse than ever. Maybe it's because I'm getting older, or maybe it's that the eye in the pyramid is exerting further control on what makes it to the screen. It's getting intolerable, I mean, in terms of all the major studio movies which have crashed and burned, one after another. I keep thinking that if the audiences keep staying away in waves, as they seem to be, then real movies might have a chance. Certainly, at the time I was growing up, in the mid-70's, there was some kind of halcyon period which completely misdirected me. I was growing up thinking "I'd like to be Sam Peckinpah" or one of those guys.
GG: What was it like growing up in South Africa?
RS: Pretty strange. I was running into witch doctors on a very early age. My mother was an anthropologist, and was writing a big book at the time, which required a lot of travelling around, interviewing people, which meant there was to be a lot of tribal stuff getting around when I was extremely young. Which to me, of course, at the time seemed completely normal and natural. And how the world should be. It came to me as a great shock that these things weren't meant to happen, really, or shouldn't exist. Sprits and things. It was banged into me at an early age, before anyone told me to be frightened of them, that there's any reason to be scared. I thought it was very amusing when I was a kid, even kind of boring in the background as I was reading a comic book. Apart from The Secret Glory, I've also done a documentary on voodoo for BBC2 over the last couple of years, which gave me a chance to spend quite a bit of time in Haiti.
GG: You did an extended lenght music video for a group, whose name I can't remember...
RS: Yeah, but I've pretty much disowned it, though. They re-edited the hell out of it again. For the wrong reasons. Again. For stupid reasons, not the reasons you'd expect. They stretched the footage way too thin. They basically said "we got four minutes of footage here. Let's try to stretch this out and make it look like a movie." It was an abuse of the material. It's stretched beyond it's breaking point.
GG: Do you have a dream project? What would your favorite book be to adapt?
RS: Favorite book. It would probably be The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Phillip K. Dick. I won't say the other one, in case somebody else gets the idea. Eldritch gets optioned and re-optioned. I worked on a screenplay for it a few years ago, but was never able to get it off the ground. I'm very fond of the script.
GG: What are some of your favorite films?
RS: I'm always warring with myself on whether my favorite movie of all time is The Wild Bunch or The Mirror by Andrei Tarkovsky.
GG: I know you're very fond of Tarkovsky.
RS: It depends on how I'm feeling. I used to be 100% fond of Tarkovsky, but as I have gotten older, and life has taken its course, The Wild Bunch has crept up in my list of favorites.
GG: Things are getting a little mercenary at this point, right?
RS: Yeah. It always the one that makes me feel better. (Laughs) I remember seeing it when I was younger. Now, it's kind of grown on me. In just the same way, I've grown away from Pat Garret. (Laughs)
GG: Your films are seen by some critics as a blend of art and splatter. One clever critic even came up with "splart" to describe your films. (Laughs) It seems like you've really carved out a separate kind of genre. What do you think about the "art-horror" label?
RS: Well, I don't like art films the way they are now and that goes back to the 70's again. People like Tarkovsky, Werner Herzog and Alejandro Jodorowsky impressed me with how far you can push the limits of the medium. It's hard to imagine these days anyone making a film like Herzog's Lessons of Darkness or Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain. At the time, it was always the matter of pushing the boundaries of what you could actually use the camera for. Maybe Cannibal Holocaust you could put into that thing as well. I think that "magical realism" is a better term you can put that stuff in. There's a whole South African genre, which seems to push the real world politics and the supernatural into the same place. I don't see why we shouldn't take something from that. Hardware really wasn't meant to be an exploitation movie. It just got too weird for its own good.
GG: It certainly goes way beyond genre limits. It's a really great drug movie as well.
RS: Well, I was involved with a lot of psychedelics at that time. Things in that film are drawn from personal psychedelic experiences. Those things being the classics, like imagining that you're cutting yourself with a knife, or that your body is rotting away, and suddenly you've got the maggots on you. The party that goes wrong when somebody crashes through the window and leaves a great big hole in the wall, and somebody else says, "oh wow, man. Look at the stars." So all that stuff in the movie comes from drugs at one point or another.
GG: I have this feeling that I'd get extremely violent or destructive on acid, so I've never done that drug. Thanks for the surrogate experience.
RS: (Laughs) A funny detail on that is that it comes up like acid. You can drop a tab, it takes about 30 or 40 minutes to come up and then you think you haven't done enough after all. Then suddenly it just goes apeshit. Hardware is kind of similar, if you're taking something at the beginning of the movie, you've got a 30 or 40 minute period where people shuffle around and talk to each other, and not a lot happens. Then it starts to go through the roof and just keeps going. It behaves much the same way as acid. Then it starts to ease up
right at the same time daylight is coming up. Dawn. Everything starts to get lighter and eventually turns to white at the end. It starts to come down a little. I think structuring movies like trips is a fairly effective way, in terms of the experience you're getting off on. So maybe it's just a bit of a structural experience that way.
It's good to see Hardware on a screen, and one thing that I regret was that we banned blue backlighting, that sort of icy blue, steely blue 80's style lighting, because we were trying to get away from James Cameron and Ridley Scott and other people at the time, and went towards red without realizing how much red bleeds on videotape, and how it affects tape transfers from PAL to NTSC and stuff. I've never seen a good digital transfer. The first transfer was run off at 3 a.m. by people, who didn't really care when it was moved to digital, and I'd really want the entire thing to be remastered from the negative. Every time I go back to the print, there's stuff I haven't seen in years on video, stuff I'd pretty much forgotten about. I mean, shit, it's like turning on a light bulb. It gets so dark at times, it's like twilight soup, and when you get two, three generations down, it's been a real problem. The negative is still fine.
It's a much better situation on Dust Devil, ironically, because Channel 4 afforded me on the full length print, my director's cut. They allowed me to strike a digital master, which I took two days regrading with the DP, and working on the sound as well. So I eventually created a digital master for Dust Devil, which is vastly superior to Hardware. Yeah, it's still quite hard to actually get a hold of, that one. There is the television version in England, the one they usually pirate from.
GG: Do you foresee Hardware being released to DVD in the next few years?
RS: Well, ever so often I hear from people, who are trying to do it. Different studios. There's a guy in the MGM technical department, named Frank Hanson, who keeps calling me over the years. They've got the negative over there and I know they struck a new print at MGM. They were preparing to put it out to DVD and again, they lost track of the rights, legally, as to which multinational corporation actually owns the monster. Whether it was MGM, or Universal or Disney, basically. The whole thing went back on the shelf again until they can figure out, who owns pieces of it. It was partially Miramax, and it was made through Palace Pictures, who were consumed by Polygram, who were consumed by someone else. Miramax became a subsidiary for Disney. At the end of the day, trying to figure out who actually owns the back catalog, is more of a task than anyone's actually managed.
GG: There were those two animated films that sat on the shelf for well over a decade each, American Pop and Heavy Metal, because of music rights confusion. It seems the music part of it makes things even more tangled up.
RS: Actually... yeah. That's right. I remember how long Heavy Metal was missing. I liked Heavy Metal. I liked the original, I still like those stories. I was a little disappointed by the movie, but there's a couple of bits that still make me smile. Hardware will probably survive in some form. I'm fairly happy as long as it's still playing. It's playing in Germany next week. So as long as it keeps showing up in different parts of the globe, I guess that means it hasn't expended it's half-life yet. I'm still trying to throw the double six, to get out of movie jail.
GG: Any Dust Devil anecdotes?
RS: Well, it took forever just to be able to shoot out there [South Africa], with a sort of good result. At a dinner with the mayor of Capetown, I got treated like some kind of visiting celeb. That was very amusing under the circumstances.
GG: You may not be able to answer this, but I was always under the impression that Dust Devil and Hardware never got proper releases or re-releases on video or disc, because Bob and Harvey Weinstein hated you, that there was a lot of bad blood between you and Miramax.
RS: Not really. I don't think there's as much bad blood between me and Miramax as there is with me and certain other people. (Chuckles) Nothing that I can talk about. I know that, at the end of day, they did not like Hardware. I know they hated Dust Devil. I'm not sure that I ever did anything personally... I think that they hallucinated, like New Line and those people often do, that I'd done things they'd like to imagine me doing. Like me leading the ferals in insurrection against the filmmakers' union in Australia. It's often an extension of someone's paranoia. Harvey thought that the Bill Hootkins character of Lincoln Weinberg Jr. in Hardware was a deliberate attack on him.
[Note: "Linc", who lives next door to Jill and Mo, is an obese, chronically masturbating deviant, who sits at an infrared scanner peeping Jill. It is ambigously suggested in the detailing of Linc's squalid apartment - strange fluids in test tubes and a wall mounted of children's shoes - that he is a pedophile and/or crackhead.]
Ironically, that character existed years before Harvey got involved. There's no parallel whatsoever. He just happened to conform to that certain stereotype at the time, and, sadly, regocnized himself in the character, which (laughs) was not intentional at all. I hope he's not going to go and top himself because of it, or still smarting over it or anything. At the end, there's a certain amount of stuff too, which I shouldn't really talk about.
GG: There's another sort of dodgy thing I wanted to talk about, which I heard from Mitch Davis. He said you had a story about goats, or sheep, or something like that.
RS: Mitch Davis, yeah. He mentioned sheep and goats and I was very hard pressed in understanding what he meant. I'm scratching my head, there weren't any sheeps in any of those movies. In both Hardware and Dust Devil, I tried to burn a cow, and each time I was stopped. They wouldn't let me burn a cow for certain queasy reasons.
GG: However, there is real death footage in Hardware, subliminally almost, that they cut out. How much of that was in there originally? You do see a little bit...
RS: A little bit, yeah, there was a bit more. In the sex scene, where Jill is sitting on top of Mo, they're making love and there's a blue-white flicker on both of their faces and you can see... she's sitting on top of him, but isn't really looking at him. In fact, she's watching the television over the bed. All those shots of what she's seeing on the televison have been removed. Originally she was watching scenes of real death. And they wanted it all cut out. You can only see a few clips of light when she's riding him, but they're not tied to the TV anymore. So instead now, as they're trashing around on the bed, you can imagine corpses sliding into mass graves, and their limbs mixing with the limbs of the corpses, those blurry shots which are missing from even the complete version. That "This is what you want, this is what you get" -thing was too heavy for everyone. Steve Woolley, the producer, actually cut that out.
GG: Well, the atrocity clips you still have in there are pretty fuckin' chilling, anyway.
RS: Yeah. Those clips were in Dust Devil as well. Partially the idea was to give people a small moment of real death, so that they'll be reminded, for the rest of the movie, what the real thing looks like. To give you a tiny glimpse of the real thing before we show you an extended gore effect.
GG: So what's going on at the moment?
RS: I'm still trying to make In a Season of Soft Rains. That's the big one, basically the end of the British Isles movie. An American assassin sent to Britain to kill the last surviving member of the Royal House of Windsor, who is a nine-year old boy doing a King Arthur thing and trying to stabilize the democratically re-elected goverment. It keeps floating in and out, keeps getting cast and then the cast falls apart. We get half the budjet and then have to start again. It keeps almost happening and it's been almost happening for quite a number of years. My line has been, unless they make the movie, they will be doomed to live it. It will all come true. Year by year it does get closer to reality. Air and sea pollution, acid rain, the British state of disorder. It's a large thing, producing a British scifi/action movie, and they keep stalling it. Eventually I'll have to do something else. I've been developing a number of things, and the one that has gained most support from the British Film Council is a piece called The VIY.
GG: Based on... the Russian film?
RS: Yeah, Russian story, Gogol. And there was a movie. The basic notion is that it will be a retelling, a re-introduction of the VIY character, the Lord of the Undead from a long time ago. I don't think it has had a succesful screen outing so far.
GG: You didn't like the original film?
RS: Well, I'm a big fan, but the VIY himself was a bit disappointing. A little stiff as he comes out and it doesn't really do it for me. But the character is older than Dracula. But like Moreau, he hasn't had his name in the spotlight for a long time. It deserves to be dug back out from the mass grave and to be re-presented to the world. The film is set in the present day, Central Europe. It involves a team of UN blue helmets in the midst of a disintegrating Europe safeguarding a Bosnian Muslim safe haven, who fall prey to VIY. It is on the same speed as Dust Devil, but a little different.
GG: If it's about Bosnia, you could turn the real death stuff into an actual plot element.
RS: Yeah, the whole thing is told in a testimony at the war crimes trial later. People try to explain what happened.
I'm going back to horror at the moment. I'm writing something really, really horrible, and I'm quite pleased with that. I don't know if anyone will snap it up, but it's cheap and it freaks me out.