I was lucky enough to catch Color Out of Space when it premiered at Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX last September. I was even luckier to have a chance to sit down with the film’s legendary director, Richard Staley, for a one-on-one.
Color Out of Space is now playing in theaters nationwide. Give the film’s trailer a spin at the top of the article and read the synopsis below. My exclusive conversation with Stanley follows.
Highlights of our conversation include: “Cage Rage”, young actor Julian Hilliard, and H.P. Lovecraft’s problematic legacy.
After a meteorite lands in the front yard of their farm, Nathan Gardner and his family find themselves battling a mutant extraterrestrial organism that infects their minds and bodies, transforming their quiet rural life into a technicolor nightmare.
Dread Central: Your movie is based on the H.P. Lovecraft short story “The Colour Out of Space”. I’m just curious why you axed the “The”?
Richard Stanley: I think as it comes around it will be put easier on the marques. It also shows that we’re not the short story; we’re an adaptation. We dragged it kicking and screaming into the present day. The slight change of spelling in the title indicates that; it’s faithful but not completely faithful.
DC: Fantastic. Let’s talk a little bit about Nicolas Cage: Cage is kind of enjoying a renaissance right now. What I loved about Mandy was they put him in a situation where his over the top freak out was understandable; he’s just seen the love of his life murdered right in front of him, you see him go ballistic, and it doesn’t seem outlandish. Similarly, in Color Out of Space, you’ve got some great scenes of ‘Cage Rage’ but in situations where you can’t really under-react to what’s going on, so it seems very fitting. Do you want to talk about what it was like working with Nic? Was this type of over the top performance something you were going for, or did you have to rein him in?
RS: Well I think this whole project only happened because of Nic. We noticed there was a Lovecraft script flying around and [producers] managed to put the two of us together. He’s got tremendous potential.
DC: I think horror is a great genre for him.
RS: Yeah, he absolutely adores what he does and brings an incredible energy to it. It’s all planned in advance; it’s not nearly as chaotic as people think. We went through the script weeks before we shot and highlighted different areas he could cut loose. “So, I’d thought I’d do something with this scene here? Do you mind if I run amok and try and milk the alpacas?” (which was a scene that was subsequently cut out–hopefully it makes the Extended Cut at some point; the level of hysteria on display in a part of the movie that was toned down considerably). Once that’s locked in, once the sequences are decided on and we know what we’re doing, Nic will repeat that same performance with the same timing and inflection again and again from every camera angle. So, it’s not as out of control as people think; there’s quite a lot of method going into it. The volatility in his performance, for me, is thoroughly entertaining to watch, never knowing when he is going to blow up or how he is going to react, which I think just keeps it a lot more interesting.
I notice people have been having trouble with the sense of humor coupled with the dark subject matter which for me seems bizarre because in real life no such generic distinctions are apparent if something really terrible happens to me. At the same time, on camera, I was channeling a lot of emotions connected to my mother’s death from cancer. She was a huge H.P. Lovecraft fan so that bleeds across the terrible relationships, across the family members in the movie. Nic is, in the later part of the movie, doing the same, largely channeling his father, who was the basis for the strange accent and hand movements and things. And I think that last time he did that was on Vampire’s Kiss, also a point of recreation of his dad. Not a lot of people know that; they think his just chumming around. But to an extent he’s actually working through baggage and trauma from his own past.
DC: So, one of the things you always hear in regards to filmmaking is “Never work with kids or animals”. I’m wondering what it was like to work with the youngest cast member (Julian Hilliard) and I’m really curious to what it was like to work with alpacas.
RS: Both were incredible, so don’t believe what they say. Young Julian Hilliard, who was the youngest member of our cast, was having a ball. I think if he survives growing up he’ll be a genre directory, probably. He’s super observant and very smart; constantly watching, seeing what we’re doing, checking how it was coming out, fully aware of what was coming next. His mom had to sit next to me and I briefed her and had her cover his eyes and ears, mostly due to language. No sex; there is some body horror but not your conventional violence. I don’t want to give away too much. There was body horror, so it was difficult to shield him from that but his habit of drawing monsters the whole time we were on set, drawing creepy creatures with crayons, really helped. We incorporated that into the movie. He was constantly running up to me with completed drawings of creatures and their different dimensions, how large they would be in real life and what they would sound like. Between this coming out and The Haunting of Hill House he’s going to be with us for a while. He was a joy to work with.
As for the alpacas, they came in very early in the draft. We knew the story had been adapted a number of times before, most notably The Farm from the eighties and “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” in the original Creepshow. The original story is from the 1930’s and had a huge impact on 1950’s B movies. Every single movie where a meteorite comes from outer space, it seems to be descending from the same source material. So, I knew going in we couldn’t do that; we had to find a different way of doing those key sequences. I didn’t want to show a meteor come down and hit them in a long shot. I knew it couldn’t be a conventional farm family that would come out and poke it. At the same time, I didn’t just want cows or chickens. So, one of the first decisions was, “Ok, what are they farming?” and I think it was a toss-up in my mind between ostriches and alpacas. Ostriches can be a little dangerous and hard to get a hold of whereas alpacas are pretty user-friendly and valuable.
DC: We live in an age now where your past sins are going to come back to haunt you and, recently, I’ve noticed some backlash against Lovecraft because of the racism of his era. Do you think H.P. Lovecraft is problematic in any way for modern audiences?
RS: I would like to think that Lovecraft should be problematic. I’d be sorry if he wasn’t. Lovecraft has always been problematic and I would hope that he still retains the power to shock and unsettle audiences. I think Lovecraft is an author who generally had the power to destabilize the sense of what grounds you–if you read too much into it. Lovecraft was obviously almost unknown during his lifetime and from the time his works started appearing in paperback in the sixties and seventies, those had a strong core following. About fifteen years ago it was at the point where he was almost inducted into the pantheon of American literary elite and they started putting up bronze statues to him in Providence, Rhode Island; they named town squares after him. And, of course, when that happened people started examining his life more closely and it was the letters he wrote which pointed to his racism and his sympathy towards the Nazis.
In full context, I think Lovecraft’s racism is symptomatic of his overall worldview. If you read him long enough, you’ll realize he kind of hates everyone; he’s as insulting towards Italians, Irish people, Polish–pretty much everyone. There are a number of stories, notably “The Outsider” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth” where he looks himself in the mirror and realizes that, the writer realizes, that he too is a monster. I think in one of those stories the character was looking too close to his own reflection and ends up dosing himself in gasoline and setting himself on fire.
So, I think Lovecraft’s racism is his dislike for the human race on the whole. In a way it’s part of his hatred of life. I think his has mistrust of anyone who is enjoying themselves too much; life is such a terrible thing, surely if you are enjoying it too much there must be something wrong, something off about you too. I would recommend a more careful approach to reading his material but on some level, he is the American Kafka; it doesn’t rob him of the fact that he is still a major figure to be dealt with.
DC: I’d like to hear your thoughts on Color Out of Space and what people are going to get out of it.
RS: Well above all else, first and foremost it’s a heck of a ride. I tried to make a movie that is very carefully paced…intentionally funny and horrible. I’d like to think that people who are looking for something suitably mind-bending, something that works well at the midnight hour. Color delivers on all of that. It is a psychedelic movie as well; it contains some psychedelic aspects that I think improve the later in the evening you watch it. I think it also improves with the larger audiences. I’d hate to watch it alone or in the morning. It would probably hurt my head!
Are you excited to check out Color Out of Space? What do you think of our exclusive interview with Richard Stanley? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram! You can also carry on the convo with me personally on Twitter @josh_millican.