September, 1990: Young South African born filmmaker Richard Stanley delivers what will be his signature work, Hardware, despite what was considered to be a meager budget when compared to the wallets of the Hollywood giants.
A slasher story that is set in a visually eye-popping dystopian future most major releases could only dream of achieving. It would set him at the forefront of Britain’s most promising directors.
His second feature was the unfortunately misunderstood Dust Devil. Though given creative freedoms of a much larger budget, the production suffered heavy re-editing by distributor Miramax, which altered Stanley’s original vision for the project. A later Director’s Cut would surface on DVD.
Things took a turn for the worse on his next big production – penning the original screenplay for a $35 million dollar adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, a production reportedly plagued by two troublesome stars in the form of Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando. Stanley was replaced as director a mere three days into filming.
From there, Stanley would return to the world of documentary filmmaking, having cut his teeth in the area during months spent in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan with the well received look into the troubled country titled Voice of the Moon.
More recently, Stanley directed a portion of the Grand Guignol-inspired horror anthology The Theatre Bizarre, with his adaptation of Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Mother of Toads” – an arcane fable fiendishly laced with Lovecraftian references. We recently sat down with Stanley for a discussion of all of this and more.
On his roots that led him to where he is today…
My dad wanted to be in the film business when he was growing up in England. Apparently he was caught stealing camera equipment from the set of the Thief of Baghdad, was disgraced and ended up in South Africa. He still wanted to be a filmmaker. He never got it together but he had a whole editing setup upstairs, and when I was a child, I was playing with the editing equipment. He showed me King Kong when I was four years old; he brought back a print and forced us to watch it. That and Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. Like a lot of other kids I was into that.
On stirring up controversy at film school…
I managed to get my ass expelled. It’s a film called Rights of Passage. What I wanted to do was show a day in the life of prehistoric man. It starts with a 20th century office worker who’s leaving his suicide note on a Dictaphone. We get the 20th century person’s suicide note on the soundtrack with images of the primordial people going about their business. I couldn’t convince anyone to play a caveman so the caveman is played by myself covered in mud. I think what worried the film tutor the most was the location. It was shot on the cliff faces of a mountain, and the rock climbing sequences were pretty hairy.
On his tutor’s reaction to the film…
Partially, I don’t think he was expecting it. It was about reincarnation, and there was kind of a very despairing tone to the whole piece. It upset him on some level. He got very angry when he saw the rushes. He confiscated the film.
On his decision to shoot in Afghanistan for Voice of the Moon…
That came from about three years of making music videos. I got so cheesed off with making one music video every month that I was pretty desperate to do anything else. It’s okay for a while to do music videos, but the quality goes down; you’re just doing anything you can to pay the rent. After about three years we had enough. Basically I’ve got a sort of first on/last off policy as a director. I like to arrive first in the morning and stick around until everything’s loaded and taken out. I noticed that the driver of the truck was complaining about the gears. He was saying it was as difficult to change gears on the truck as it was on a BTR-60, which I was realised was a lightweight Soviet troop transporter used in the invasion of Afghanistan. I then asked him how he got to drive one, and he explained he had been fighting the Russians in Afghanistan and he was back in London trying to save up enough money to go back to join the Jihad. I asked if we paid for his plane ticket, would he take us with him. My cameraman and I went back with him to Afghanistan to film what happened.
I guess we were pretty fed up with London enough that we gave it a shot. I was pretty in love with Afghanistan at the time and wanted to get into the Hindu Kush really badly. We were fond of the results. I think we came back with something really worth having.
On how the production for Hardware came to be…
Well, like everything it was a series of very random encounters, basically. Hardware had been written before I went to Afghanistan. During the time I was in London, I was churning out screenplays and banging on every door available trying to get people to read them. The Hardware script had been doing the rounds.
On accepting scripting and directing duties on the ill-fated Island of Doctor Moreau remake…
By a miracle we got Marlon Brando on board to play Doctor Moreau – that’s because he agreed to any movie provided you put a million dollars in escrow. Brando agreed to do it – I don’t believe he actually read the script. Then once he was on board, suddenly it was a hot project, at which point Bruce Willis came on board. There was a point in time where he was going to be the leading man. At that point when Bruce Willis was on board, New Line wanted to get on board. New Line more or less took over the production, then we started building the sets and getting prepared in Australia, and then of course the next thing that happened was that Bruce Willis hopped out of the project.
The reason I was given was that he couldn’t travel at the time because he was getting the divorce from Demi (Moore) and didn’t want to leave the States. Simultaneously, Brando’s having his problems – his son is going down for first degree murder. After that his daughter, Cheynne, committed suicide. It started to become clear that Brando would be too bereaved to start shooting on Day One. All of a sudden we couldn’t have Brando or Bruce Willis. There was a move to try to replace the leading man, which is where Val Kilmer came in. Val had just come off Batman Forever, and he didn’t have enough time to play the lead role. He wanted 40 percent fewer shooting days then we had on our schedule. The only thing we could do to try and keep Val on board was put him in as a support part so he ended up taking up the part of Montgomery, Moreau’s assistant, which was originally meant to be played by James Woods — at which point James was axed from the project, too. So suddenly New Line had Val Kilmer in a supporting part and no one else, which did not make them happy. At no point did New Line want to make a $45 million Richard Stanley movie – they were hoping for a Bruce Willis movie.
On the rumors of his sneaking back on set in animal disguise…
Yeah, I came back as a dog. This is true. I still have the dog head. It’s in pretty poor shape, but I held on to the head as proof. The cast knew because there were still some of my cast members on the movie, trapped and held by their contracts. No one wanted to stay on the production because it was a totally different script from the one we had been shooting originally.
On viewing the finished film…
I was forced to see it as part of a contractual screening. They had to show me the movie and I had to watch it. They didn’t want to show it to me and I didn’t want to see it.
Was the result close to his vision?
Well, they used my sets. The sets were already built. They kept the same idea of updating it, moving it to the near future, but beyond that it’s pretty much a different movie. It’s very close to the Burt Lancaster movie, the original Don Taylor film. It seems they went back and re-adapted the last remake rather than trying to work with the [original] script. I was very naïve to imagine Hollywood would make that movie to begin with because looking back, I now realise the script was really off message for a Hollywood film, particularity one that large.
In a way The Hitcher helped us because the Dust Devil script had been knocking about for so long that when The Hitcher came out, I was so pissed that someone had already tackled the same theme that we ended taking the script the other way and making even less of a serial killer movie.
I’d originally written it as the first movie I wanted to make when I was still in South Africa. I tried writing a screenplay that revolved around two characters in a car. We could shoot it on location with a great landscape.
On a potential Hardware sequel…
Well, Hardware has unique problems because the original rights are so conflicted that no one has been able to untangle the legal rights to the movie to make a sequel. This is because Palace Films went bankrupt, got taken over by Polygram, got broken up, and now Buena Vista, Miramax and MGM all own parts of the title.
His advice for future filmmakers…
If you wanna be a filmmaker, you have to keep working. Keep shooting! If too much time has passed and I haven’t turned over on something, I start to get worried. At the moment we are just working on a new documentary project. The important thing is to start shooting and keep shooting and try not to let anyone stop you.
So what’s next for him?
Well, thankfully The Theatre Bizarre has done very well for itself. Everyone was pretty happy with “The Mother of Toads” episode. The actual segment was shot for a lot less than what we used to shoot the music videos for. It worked out well; the producers are very satisfied with the results so they’re talking about bankrolling a feature-length Lovecraft adaptation, which we hope to shoot in the next year. The idea is to shoot it out here on location in the backwoods of the Pyrenees. We do live in a very Lovecraftian part of the world, which we showed off pretty well in “The Mother of Toads”.
I find most of the themes I deal with tend to scare people. It’s difficult to deal with the supernatural of the future in a modern movie because generally it tends to wander over to sci-fi horror. Again, the important thing is to start shooting and keep shooting and try not to let anyone stop you. Never give up!
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