“I’m going to tell you the most incredible story you’ve ever heard, and when I’m finished, you’ll either think me a liar, or insane, or both.”
So began director Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil) back in 1996 when he sat down over lunch with me to speak – for the first time – about the sorry saga of his ill-fated adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), a passion project the writer-director had nurtured from the germ of an idea (“What if there was a good film adaptation of Wells’ visionary book?”) all the way to the jungles of Cairns, Australia, carrying Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer, Ron Perlman, David Thewlis, Fairuza Balk and millions of New Line Cinema’s dollars along with him.
A week after principal photography began, Stanley was fired from the production, turning a labour of love into a legacy of pain from which he has never recovered. Wild stories of sex, drugs and movie star misconduct began to leak from the set, now under the direction of veteran John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds). Brando hated Kilmer! Kilmer and Thewlis swapped roles! A storm washed away the set! Brando would only act in Kabuki makeup… with an ice bucket on his head! As these stories fed back to Stanley, who had spent several weeks in the wilderness, both literally and figuratively, the saga of The Island of Dr Moreau took a turn from typical movie-making misadventure to something more deeply and uniquely bizarre. Apparently subscribing to gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s screed that “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro,” Stanley managed to get himself re-hired as an extra in a ‘beast-man’ costume, returning to work and watching events on set unfold through the baleful, slightly crazed eyes of a Dog-Man mask. The tale Stanley told me between lungfuls of pasta, sugary espresso and cigarettes – you could still smoke in British restaurants back then – was, indeed, the most incredible story I had ever heard. It was so unbelievable, in fact, that it could only be true.
In September 1996, the strange, sad saga of The Island of Dr Moreau became the cover story (“The Massacre of My Movie”) of the launch issue of The Guardian’s Review supplement, and subsequently formed the basis of more expansive stories I wrote for Empire, Fangoria and my book The Greatest Sci-Fi Stories Never Made. Now, nearly twenty years later, the story is being told anew, in David Gregory’s documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s [The] Island of Dr. Moreau, and it has lost none of its power to amaze and dismay. And yet, frustratingly, the whole story has still not been told. For although Lost Soul is largely comprised of new interviews with Stanley himself, producer Edward R. Pressman, actors Fairuza Balk, Rob Morrow and Marco Hofschneider, former New Line president Bob Shaye, conceptual artist Graham Humphreys and other assorted bit-players, many more key personnel are notable by their absence. Brando and Frankenheimer are, of course, no longer with us, but after two decades, it seems, there are still people alive – Kilmer, Thewlis, Ron Perlman, former New Line President of Production Mike DeLuca, and others – who are not willing to go on the record to talk about what really happened The Island of Dr. Moreau. It’s that toxic.
Stanley told Entertainment Weekly that when he saw Lost Soul, he was pretty unhappy. But he changed his mind after attending a screening of the film last year at the Oldenburg Film Festival in Germany. “I saw it with an audience and realized that they were enjoying it,” he said. “What was irritating to me was going over their heads and they were more enjoying the chaos.” Stanley has a point. Audiences laugh when Shaye explains that his misgivings about Stanley as a director when he asked for three or four sugars in his coffee. “When I heard, that I thought, ‘There’s something going on here that I don’t completely understand.’ Nobody takes four sugars in a cup of coffee.” No wonder Hollywood didn’t take to Stanley, a South African-born psychonaut, who believes in magic, dresses like someone out of Fields of the Nephilim, lives in a haunted French monastery and is a direct descendant of Henry Morton Stanley, the basis for the Kurtz character in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). Nevertheless, Pressman and DeLuca believed in him – right up until the perfect storm of events (including a literal storm that washed away the set) conspired to get him kicked off the project.
We’ll never know whether Stanley’s take on The Island of Dr Moreau would have been any good; there isn’t a frame of film shot by Stanley in the finished film, released in 1996, and only tantalising glimpses of his original vision. Lost Soul may, therefore, be the closest we get to seeing what might have been – at least, until Stanley and Humphreys gift us a Kickstarter-backed graphic novel adaptation of Stanley’s original script. All credit to Gregory to finding a way to capture, retrospectively, the excitement of pre-production, the chaos of the shoot, and the terrible fallout of Stanley’s removal from the project. (For one thing, it robbed us of more films like Hardware and Dust Devil.) It feels mean-spirited to point out that the interviews are hardly conducted with the artistry we’ve come to expect from modern documentaries, or that the omnipresent muzak adds nothing to the production except the awful feeling you’ve left a radio on somewhere while you’re watching it; when a story’s this good, such things matter less. Despite its technical shortcomings, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau may very well be the best film about filmmaking folly since Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.
David Hughes (@DavidHughesTwit)
Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau is on VOD now, and released on DVD (US only) on July 14– details here.