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Blow up a Storm - The Making of Dust Devil

by Mark Kermode
(Originally appeared in Sight & Sound, September 1992)

Hitch encoutering Wendy in the Great Namib in DUST DEVIL.Richard Stanley is obsessed by magic. Born in South Africa, where he attended the Cape Town Film and Video School, Stanley was introduced to the wonders of ancient religions by his mother, a feminist anthropologist specializing in witchcraft and tribal folklore. After fleeing South Africa in the 80's to avoid compulsory military service, Stanley came to Britain where his interests in mysticism and the occult blended with the anarchic strains of apocalyptic post-punk pop culture.

Having collected a brace of prestigious awards for his short films Rites of Passage and Incidents in an Expanding Universe, Stanley started to make pop promos for groups such as Public Image Ltd, Pop Will Eat Itself, and Fields of the Nephilim. A profilic scriptwriter and long-time comics fan, Stanley used pop-promo shoots as an apprenticeship for his subsequent work on feature films, learning how to realise ambitious visuals on tight schedules and even tighter budjets. Yet despite his success in the field, Stanley's respect for the pop-promo medium is limited: "I'm sort of a believer in the idea that music doesn't really need visuals," he confesses. "I could never escape the fact that videos are ultimately superfluous. If the song's good, you don't really need a video for it. But it was a great discipline, because pop-promo shoot usually consist of one day's frantic running around, and you're under enormous pressure, with all those different people telling you what to do: the band's manager; the band; the bank manager; the record company; all of them. So you learn how to work fast, and how to deal with people. When you're doing student movies, you just don't get that training."

Stanley's first feature film, Hardware (1990), was a robotic nightmare set amid a self-destructing future, and packed full of apocalyptic imagery, hallucinogenic dream sequences and bizarre Biblical references. It was made for £1 million, an extremely low sum for a high-tech movie laden with special effects. Yet despite its tight budjet, Hardware was extrordinarily successful, grossing over $70 million worldwide, and garnering quotable plaudits from such established genre maestros as Wes Craven (creator of A Nightmare on Elm Street) and Italian horror king Dario Argento.

Once again, Stanley remains cynical about his success. "Hardware was deliberately put together as a designer movie, and I made it to prove that I could work fast," he says dismissively. "After having had various scripts rejected by producers, I said 'OK, what do you want?' Then I sat down and tried to write something which had an android in it, was set in the future, had American leads, baseball bats, chainsaws, a shower scene, gas explosions, a cliff-hanger scene, and so on. I wouldn't make a movie as obviously commercial as Hardware again. In fact, I felt a little bit ashamed that, having gone to all that trouble, what I ended up with was just a reasonable Alien/Terminator rip-off. Hardware is like a monster child to me. I don't know whether to be proud of it, or to reject it."

Although the raison d'etre of Hardware was that it could be made cheaply, Stanley's second feature, Dust Devil (due for release in Britain in December) is more of a personal crusade. Turning down a lucrative offer to direct an adaptation of the Judge Dredd comic strip under the guiding hand of Ed Pressman (for whom Stanley is currently remaking The Island of Dr. Moreau), Stanley opted to pursue a less financially remunerative plan in attempting to realise his dream project. Shot entirely on location in Namibia, Dust Devil re-interprets the true story of a South African serial killer, known among the locals as 'Nhadiep'. Drawing deeply upon the gothic literary traditions of Frankenstein-ian guilt and the 'divided self', Dust Devil is set within a haunting landscape which may be interpreted as psychological rather than physical. Under the gaze of Stanley's camera, the swirling backdrop of the arid Namib desert (known traditionally as 'the oldest desert in the world') comes to incarnate the tortured mental states of the film's central characters.

Described by Stanley as "the archetypal South African horror story", Dust Devil has its origins in an unfinished 16mm student short which Stanley embarked upon after reading news reports of bizarre ritualistic murders taking place around the town of Bethany. "The killer who inspired Dust Devil largely murdered migrant workers and railway workers," Stanley recalls. "The authorities couldn't catch him, and over the years a legend grew up that he wasn in fact a supernatural force, allied to the wind. Finally, there was a shoot-out in the Canyons, and the police turned up at the town of Bethsheba with the body of a man the claimed was the killer. But his head was entirely blown off, so no one could identify him. He's buried now in the mission town in a grave marked 'Nhadiep'. But there's very little evidence to prove whether that man was the killer or not."

The legend of Nhadiep has already served as the inspiration for another British movie: David Wicht's little-seen Windprints, starring John Hurt and Sean Bean. "That was a very different movie," declares Stanley, who is keen to distance his project from Wicht's quirky vision. "The explanation they came up with was that the killer was in the pay of white farmers to drive black people off their land."

By contrast, Dust Devil presents in the figure of Hitch (Robert Burke) a shape-shifting demon who seduces his victims towards a violent death. The plot of Stanley's script is simple. The land surrounding the town of Bethany is beset by murders with overtunes of witchcraft and tribal ritual. Exotic mystical symbols scrawled in the victims' blood suggest that the killings have a sacrificial purpose. Investigating the mystery is Ben (Zakes Mokae), a disillusioned black policeman whose wife left him fifteen years previously, following the death of their young son. Meanwhile, battered white suburban Wendy (Chelsea Field) walks out on her bullying husband, a drives off into the desert, heading inexorably (and inexplicably) for Bethany. En route, Wendy picks up Hitch, a mysterious traveller whom she finds both seductive and repellent. As Ben's investigations point ever more clearly to the involvement of supernatural forces in the murders, Wendy slowly uncovers the terrifying truth about Hitch.

According to Stanley, Dust Devil was not envisaged primarily as a horror movie, although it does have certain traits (shocks, jumps and occassional interludes of graphic violence) associated with the genre. "When I was making Hardware, overpopulation and environmental collapse were the most disturbing things on my mind," Stanley remembers. "Now, I think the most frightening things I can imagine come from my memories of South Africa." For Stanley, these haunting memories (which involve "terrible fire-arm abuse, serial killings, car accidents, people being strangled on barbed wire...") are born out of the twin evils of racism and sexism which beset South Africa, both of which Stanley addresses tangentially in Dust Devil. "Ben and Wendy are both searching for the Dust Devil, and their motivations are allied to what I felt were the greatest evils in South Africa," Stanley expounds. "These evils are the racial and sexual politics of the country, and when I was writing the script, I specifically chose Ben (a black policeman) and Wendy (a battered wife) to represent the products of these evil twins. South Africa is very big on wife-beating, women are treated appallingly, and there's very little women's liberation. When Wendy drives off into the desert, she's fleeing from her husband's assaults. Ben is the flip side of Wendy, one of those Gastbyish characters who's actually been dead for a long time, killed by the destruction of his family."

As far as the visual character of Dust Devil is concerned, Stanley happily acknowledges the continuing influence of Italian gialli which is so evident in Hardware, but points also to an eclectic range of celluloid inspirations including Alexandro Jodorowsky's El Topo, Luis Buñuel's Simon of the Desert, Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew, and Sergio Leone's 'spaghetti' classic, Once Upon a Time in the West. He also stresses that the rapid-fire editing and frenzied pace of Hardware are not a characteristic of Dust Devil, which contains many languorous tracking shots which take full advantage of the breathtaking Namibian scenery.

"With Hardware, I had bits of a set and bits of a monster, and I had no choice but to use a montage of close-ups," he pleads. "At the end of the day, that was interpreted as a result of me being a pop promo-maker. Now I want to pull back and prove that I can do something very different."


Lizzie Francke on the set of Richard Stanley's ´Dust Devil´

On location in Namibia, it is hard not to feel infected by the bizarre atmosphere. Swakopmund, the seaside resort where the crew has been billeted for the duration of the two-month shoot, is a desolate place. Embalmed in a clammy fog for most of the time, it's a town which prefers to preserve its lurid German colonial history. Nearly two years after Namibia's independence from South Africa, plaques with the slogan of apartheid - 'right of admission reserved' - can still be found posted above the entrances of the Bierkellers and cafés where holidaymakers tuck into their Schwarzvelt torte. At one hostelry a makeshift sign seems to have been tacked up only recently. Meanwhile, in a dark corner of the local antique shop, a tray of swastika and SS medals is discreetly displayed. It seems easy to believe the rumors of Nazi reunions at a nearby hotel. More suburban than teutonic, the Kaiserliche is a hideous building - a mini-castle complete with turrets and battlements, and covered in white stucco.

An hour's drive inland and we are in the Namib desert, where most of the film is being shot. It feels like the beginning and the end of the world - an arid place that plays strange tricks with the imagination. Strange indeed are the signs inscribed 'Devil' that mark out a makeshift road to the film set. At least they keep tourists away. But if the more inquisitive were to follow the signs, they would stumble upon a carnevalesque spectacle of caravans and tents pitched up in the middle of a rust-coloured nowhere. Nearby stands an open-air cinema decorated with a wreath of circus lights and faded posters advertising The Exorcist and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. The set is ready for filming the scene in Dust Devil in which local policeman Ben comes to question the shaman Joe (John Matshikiza) about the murders. The scene is shot in the eerie glow of the magic hour. The desert has never looked so bare.

For Stanley, the film's gothic style puts the nightmare back into the region's history. Dust Devil is about the land of the 'Num' - the shapeshifter of Southern African mythologies - but equally about a land haunted by its colonial past. "Namibia is certainly a very peaceful country for an African republic," Stanley claims. "People are not living in fear here, but at the same time, the movie is equivocal about whether Namibia is just the last bastion of German conservatism - a refuge for Nazi war criminals - or a hope for the future and a model for a free South Africa." With Dust Devil, he hopes to tap into the mood of the country caught between death and birth.

To decipt the conflict between old and new, production designer Joseph Bennett has built the few sets needed for the film from scratch, drawing upon the architectural style of towns like Swakopmund to create what he describes as a "hyper-real version" of what already exists in the region. For Bennett, the material was already rich with gothic eccentricity. "One of the striking things about Namibia is that it doesn't say Africa in terms of what audiences have come to expect Africa to be," explains Bennett. "It's a bit like Bavaria in the desert and certainly breaks all those "Out of Africa" clichés." The German legacy includes such bizarre flourishes as the set of Struwwelpeter-style murals (actually decorating one house in that area) that has found its way into the desert. It's a fitting detail: Struwwelpeter's tales of cruelty have much in common with Dust Devil.

To use Namibia as a location became feasible following the independence in March 1990. Stanley presented the script to his producer, JoAnne Sellar, with whom he worked on Hardware. With that film's commercial success, particularly in the US, Sellar was easily able to secure the £2,8 million budjet for Dust Devil - still a modest sum for a creatively ambitious movie - from Miramax, Palace and British Screen. She was pleasently surprised to find that David Aukin, the then new head of drama at Channel 4, also wanted to invest in the gothic horror film.

The script was then sent to the Ministry of Information for approval. Pre-independence, the South-African-ruled area had been a willing host only to exploitation movies of the likes of the Dolph Lundgren vehicle, Red Scorpion (1989), which used the Namib as just another backdrop: the generic desert and sand made that much more attractive by the tax shelters and army assistance teh South Africa goverment lavished on international producers. Now it is possible for films to be made in Namibia that deal with the country's history. But while the fledgling country has as yet no film industry of its own, productions have to be financed from outside.

With the co-operation of the Film and Allied Workers Organisation in South Africa, Sellar was able to use South African personnel and equipment for the production. The crew is a combination of British, American, South African and Namibian, though all heads of department are British. The cast represents a similar mix. The lead roles are played by the American actors Robert Burke and Chelsea Field and the black South African, Zakes Mokae. For Mokae, along with fellow-countryman John Matshikiza, the film marks a return to the region after years of exile in the US and UK respectively.

During the shoot, the two are understandably reticent about their homecoming - they both say that they are unable to nail their feelings with words. Later, travelling back in the bright sunlight to Namibia's capital, Windhoek, with Matshikiza, he seems somewhat relieved to be leaving the mists of Swakopmund. The actor and playwright's next stop is Yale, where he joins a working-party on cultural change in South Africa. I wonder what his Namibian tale will be.


A Cut too Far?

by Mark Kermode

Following the grueling shooting Dust Devil, post-production began in London in early 1991. In December, Stanley delivered a 120 minute cut of the film, which was subsequently tightened to 110 minutes. Although it was understood that American co-financiers Miramax had the right to re-edit Dust Devil for distribution in the US (as had happened with Hardware), Stanley hoped that its British distributor, Palace, and British financiers would accept the 110-minute cut for release in Europe.

But this was not to be. Whatever the explanations (and there were various views), in late Spring 1992, a version of Dust Devil running somewhere around 95 minutes was test-screened in Wimbledon to mixed reaction. "The audience was clearly confused," says Stanley, who attended the screening. "They had a hard time symphathising with the characters because many of the cuts the had been made affected the first third of the movie, in which the characters' motivations were explored." Following this screening, further cuts were made, giving Dust Devil a final running time of around 87 minutes, some 30 minutes shorter than the earlier cut.

In April 1992, financial problems at Palace led the company to go into administration, leaving Dust Devil temporarily without a UK distributor. Recently British distributor Mayfair has picked up the film, and, to add to its tortuous history, PolyGram is rumoured, as we go to press, to have bought it. While the post-production history of any film is complex, what is unusual here is that the director is currently entreating Mayfair to consider releasing a special "extended European cut" of his movie. Indeed, so convinced is Stanley of the virtues of this proposed cut (of which only a grainy but impressive videotape currently exists) that he has offered personally to finance its celluloid reassembly to the tune of £40,000. "I believe I would be able to deliver a new answer print of Dust Devil for European release, which would run at between 110 and 120 minutes, and by which I would proudly stand," Stanley asserts.

Unlike the current assembly, Stanley's new version does not attempt to be a linear thriller. Portraying Hitch less as a flesh-and-blood person than as "an entity which is simply a mirage," Stanley's cut focuses on the magical elements of the legend of Nhadiep, invoking tribal rituals, witchcraft and Namibian mysticism. Stanley's cut also pays more attention to the awe-inspiring Namibian scenery, conjuring an almost surreal vision of a timeless, dreamscape environment.

Tieing in with this theme, the 'extended cut' features a number of hypnotic dream sequences which are not present in the current version. The director's interest in dream states was prefigured in Hardware, which contained depictions of drug-induced trances and nightmarish hallucinations. Unsurprisingly, Stanley claims that the dream sequences are centrally important to his cut of Dust Devil. "For me, Dust Devil is about magical reality," he explains. "The Dust Devil, or 'Nightwalker', operates inside one's dreams and can therefore, get to you when you're asleep. So the dream sequences are just a continuation of the events in the movie wherein I can be more direct about the things that are going on."

The most startling dream sequence included in Stanley's proposed cut depicts Ben returning to the morgue where he previously examined a victim's body. "The body on the slab is no longer the murdered girl, but is Ben's son," Stanley recounts. "Ben's in-laws are present, and he tries to apologise for his son's death. But his wife tells him: 'It's because of you and your stupid pride.' Then, Ben cuts off one of his son's fingers. This is a part of magical ritual which is explained earlier in another scene which I would reinstate. In that scene, Ben's friend Joe tells him that he cut his fingers off as a sacrifice to the creator. So in the dream, Ben is offering a sacrifice to allow his son's spirit to pass on."

This sacrificial element is at the core of the proposed new cut, as is the theme of suicidal guilt. Whereas the current cut portrays Ben primarily as a cop on the trail of a vicious killer, Stanley's 'extended version' presents him as a man desperately seeking his own death. This is achieved in part by the inclusion of the character of Ben's departed wife Katie, who appears to Ben in his dreams to taunt him about the death of their son. "Ben has been stuck in this dying town for fifteen years since Katie left him," explains Stanley. "His son was in the army and was killed in a border incident. But since black people don't get drafted in South Africa, the implication is that the son joined up to follow his father's footsteps - he joined because his father was a cop. As far as Katie is concerned, she believes that it was Ben's misguided love of his country, and of uniforms, that caused their son's death. So Ben has been in pain for a long time and that increasingly solidifies into the feeling that he is looking for death.

"Wendy's position is slightly different; she's like someone who wants to drown herself, swims out to the sea, then tastes the salt water and decides to turn back. But by then it's too late. The current is too strong and she can't get back to the shore."

"The idea in my version," Stanley concludes, "is that, just as vampires have to be invited into your home before they can take you, so Hitch can only take people who want to die. Both Ben and Wendy are seeking out the Dust Devil as an end to their pain; they are searching for death. To me, Dust Devil is about magic and suicide. That is the key to my version."

 
 
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