Skip to main content

Kilmer didn't like Brando. Brando didn't like Kilmer. They all didn't like Frankenheimer. Frankenheimer didn't like them.

Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau
(2015)

I’m not one of those who thought the John Frankenheimer-inherited The Island of Dr. Moreau was one of the worst movies ever made. Indeed, I found it very patchy – so reflective of most of the director’s efforts by this point in his career – but actually quite entertaining, much of that down to the absurd performance of Marlon Brando, who if this documentary from David Gregory is anything to go by, really had it in for the film’s producer New Line.


Although, that could speak for Brando’s attitude to anything he stumbled into searching for spare cash by this point in hiscareer, invariably the most notable, dare I say prominent, part of otherwise middling-at-best fare. Richard Stanley’s career hitherto, making a name for himself with Hardware at a fledgling 23 and following it up with the ill-fated Dust Devil, had also been mixed. His debut had been something of a minor hit (particularly on video), a micro-budget Terminator knockoff that was technically accomplished but which left me otherwise unimpressed – aside from the PiL-infused trailer – but I rather liked Dust Devil, positing Robert John Burke as a supernatural Namibian serial killer (the mirror scene is iconic); it’s one I really ought to revisit, particularly as it seems it’s been released in a fuller version than the one I probably saw at the time. Certainly, the ideas in that one confirmed Stanley as a talent worth following, so it’s ironic it would be his last – so far – completed fiction feature (although, it might be about time to pull a Terrence Malick on us, if he’s ever going to).


I recall articles at the time on the production nightmare surrounding Dr Moreau, in particular one in first issue of the much-missed Neon magazine, the hipper sibling to Empire. That sets the scene for the Stanley who struck it too big too fast in an enterprise that escalated out of control and beyond him once he made a deal with Ed Pressman, and includes character background the doc misses out on, with more detail on his childhood, and then his time in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan war (see Rambo III and The Living Daylights for authentic accounts), his run-ins with Harvey Weinstein over Hardware merchandising (cyborg dolls and poppers for sex shops) and how he watched the finished movie tripping at Cannes. 


The latter titbit’s particularly telling, as one forms a strong sense of a very mid-20s occult-freak stoner about the Stanley circa Dr Moreau – although there’s no reference in the doc to drug use on his part until he’s gone AWOL – (and to be fair, that mysticism-and-fringes-lurking figure persists in the older one who has found solace in France and the former haven of the Cathars). That sense lingers with his clobber; Stanley dressed then, and to an extent at the time of the documentary, like a Fields of the Nephilim groupie (not so much his white linen suit on Dr Moreau), so it’s perhaps appropriate that he made a video for them.


To be honest, the concept material we see for Dr Moreau displays the same lack of restraint and discernment that put me off Hardware, with skewed attempts to justify a modern setting – the arguments about how HG Wells would have approached it now are presumptuous, since Dr Moreau is intrinsically a product of its time; that’s why The War of the Worlds never quite works when modernised, and yes I’m including Spielberg’s version – and a taste for excess (the pig lady biting Montgomery’s dick off); if Stanley didn’t understand how the system worked, it really just meant he was kidding himself. 


If his approach to tone probably didn’t do him any favours, former New Line boss Robert Shaye consistently comes across as standoffish and disinterested in the project, while noting the director was a “somewhat unusual guy” (even Pressman, who has mutual respect for Stanley, notes “He’s and odd character, but I’ve worked with many odd characters as directors”).


Richard Stanley: Knowing that the odds were stacked against me, I resorted to witchcraft.

Who knows, if Stanley hadn’t couched the experience in spell-casting, maybe he wouldn’t have had a productive meeting with Marlon (amid the news Roman Polanski had been selected to take over), but maybe he wouldn’t have had encouraged a foreboding mood to percolate through the project; Stanley talks about how he hit it off in the crucial meeting with Brando who “took a shine to me” (in Neon, he put it down to the actor’s fascination with his accent) and the Kurtz/Conrad/Wells link (there’s also mention of Stanley’s great-grandfather, a reported influence on Kurtz), but he clearly thinks subsequent derailment of his hopes and dreams is down to his pact with the devil. 


Which makes sense, at very least from the point-of-view of the size of film it became with someone of Brando’s significance attached; Bruce Willis came on board, and James Woods (neither of whose involvement I’d been aware of), and the picture gradually began to escape Stanley’s grasp. Willis exiting and being replace by Val Kilmer only compounded problems (although Stanley was sanguine about the actor in Neon: “He’s the kind of guy who would walk down a beach with a china teacup and just leave it there. He’s not someone that’s used to picking up after himself. One can’t really fault that guy for being a bit of an asshole”). Two difficult leads on a picture was a recipe for hellishness for any director, as Frankenheimer was to discover (“When Frankenheimer was on set one day, I remember him say to a few of us… if I was directing a film called The Life of Val Kilmer, I wouldn’t have that prick in it”).


It’s actually executive producer Tim Zinnemann who comes across as exerting the most antagonistic influence on Stanley’s presence on the picture, though, instantly taking a negative view of his capacity to guide the project and being the first to suggest he be replaced when problems arose. Maybe Stanley wasn’t helping himself, if reports that he wasn’t attending production meetings and was sequestering himself in his very nice Queensland pad were true, but it’s abundantly clear that there were those on the production side willing him to fail, or to give them reason to remove him, and he evidently played into their hands sufficiently. I’m unclear why Rob Morrow got quite as upset as he did so quickly (he took Kilmer’s original role when the latter opted for the Woods part; Thewlis, who barely gets mentioned, eventually replace him), but it’s evident Stanley hadn’t worked out the action sequences he decided to shoot with the actor, or discuss them with his AD.


Fairuza Balk: And he said ‘No. This is all insane. I’m getting paid. You’re getting paid. None of the scripts make any sense, so why worry? You know, do what you’re doing. You’re beautiful, don’t worry about it’.

Fairuza Balk is a consistently sympathetic presence, forced to remain on the movie after Stanley was axed by threats she’d never work in this town again (there’s also her conversation with Brando above, when she sought to discuss characters with him). The gratifying side is how nothing went any better with Frankenheimer, “one of the last old school screamers”, calling the shots and evidently capitulating to all Brando’s requests, which included wearing an ice bucket on his head and promoting Nelson de la Rosa, the shortest man in the world (the sex-crazed inspiration for Mini-Me), to his right hand man over Marco Hofschneider (consistently great value as a wry interviewee). 


The sections on New Line are as interesting as those on Stanley’s tribulations, although it’s a shame we never get any insights from Michael de Luca – who scripted Carpenter’s last great movie In the Mouth of Madness, a short while before this picture came got the greenlight – as he’s suggested to have been amused by the manner in which the production spiralled out of control, and incurred Shaye’s wrath over allowing Brando to be hired at all, because the actor was “an incredible pain in the ass” on Don Juan De Marco. The bad feeling was clearly mutual, the latter wanting to close down production “to fuck with Bob Shaye”.


Richard Stanley: Marlon Brando told me that everyone in the industry were hyenas and that I should try and stay clear of them and try and make a better life for myself.

Stanley famously came back on set disguised as one of Stan Winston’s prosthetic creations. He got to speak with Brando (above), who’d evidently been a “don’t give a shit” disruptive figure to movies for a good twenty years by this point, but that isn’t to say the industry – rather than persevering filmmakers occasionally trying to make art – didn’t deserve what it got if it kept employing him. 


When interviewed for Neon, the director commented “I’m not sure I want to end up as some wizened old fuck trying to get his movies off the ground”, and he seems to have stuck to his guns over the subsequent two decades. He has written screenplays (including an unfilmed – and now never to be, I’d warrant – High Rise), and an adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Color Out Of Space with Nic Cage has been announced (don’t hold your breath), but he has mostly devoted himself to shorts and manageable documentaries, most notably The Otherworld, on his home in the French Pyrenees, covering the Cathars and Rennes-le-Chateau. Lost Soul is a fascinating document, although it’s production values occasionally disappoint (there are synching issues I’d read about before this, and they were present in the version I saw). As it proves, documentaries about the making of cinematic disasters are generally more compelling than the disasters themselves.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

He made me look the wrong way and I cut off my hand. He could make you look the wrong way and you could lose your whole head.

Moonstruck (1987)
(SPOILERS) Moonstruck has the dubious honour of making it to the ninth spot in Premiere magazine’s 2006 list of the 20 Most Overrated Movies of all Time. There are certainly some valid entries (number one is, however, absurd), but I’m not sure that, despite its box office success and Oscar recognition, the picture has a sufficient profile to be labelled with that adjective. It’s a likeable, lightweight romantic comedy that can boast idiosyncratic casting in a key role, but it simply doesn’t endure quotably or as a classic couple matchup the way the titans of the genre (Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally) do. Even its magical motif is rather feeble.

Move away from the jams.

Aladdin (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was never overly enamoured by the early ‘90s renaissance of Disney animation, so the raves over Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin left me fairly unphased. On the plus side, that means I came to this live action version fairly fresh (prince); not quite a whole new world but sufficiently unversed in the legend to appreciate it as its own thing. And for the most part, Aladdin can be considered a moderate success. There may not be a whole lot of competition for that crown (I’d give the prize to Pete’s Dragon, except that it was always part-live action), but this one sits fairly comfortably in the lead.

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

Bleach smells like bleach.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)
(SPOILERS) I’d like to be able to say it was beyond me how Clint’s misery-porn fest hoodwinked critics and the Academy alike, leading to his second Best Picture and Director double Oscar win. Such feting would naturally lead you to assume Million Dollar Baby was in the same league as Unforgiven, when it really has more in common with The Mule, only the latter is likeably lightweight and nonchalant in its aspirations. This picture has buckled beneath the burden of self-appointed weighty themes and profound musings, which only serve to highlight how crass and manipulative it is.

I’d kill you too, Keanu. I’d kill you just for fun, even if I didn’t have to.

Always Be My Maybe (2019)
(SPOILERS) The pun-tastic title of this Netflix romcom is a fair indication of its affably undemanding attributes. An unapologetic riff on When Harry Met Sally, wherein childhood friends rather than college attendees finally agree the best thing to be is together, it’s resolutely determined to cover no new ground, all the way through to its positive compromise finale. That’s never a barrier to a good romcom, though – at their best, their charm is down to ploughing familiar furrows. Always Be My Maybe’s problem is that, decent comedy performers though the two leads may be – and co-writers with Michael Golamco – you don’t really care whether they get together or not. Which isn’t like When Harry Met Sally at all.

You're reading a comic book? What are you, retarded?

Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut (2009)
(SPOILERS) It’s a decade since the holy grail of comic books finally fought through decades of development hell to land on the big screen, via Zach Snyder’s faithful but not faithful enough for the devoted adaptation. Many then held the director’s skills with a much more open mind than they do now – following the ravages he has inflicted on the DCEU – coming as he was off the back of the well-received 300. Many subsequently held that his Watchmen, while visually impressive, had entirely missed the point (not least in some of its stylistic and aesthetic choices). I wouldn’t go that far – indeed, for a director whose bombastic approach is often only a few notches down from Michael Bay (who was, alarmingly, also considered to direct at one point), there are sequences in Watchmen that show tremendous sensitivity – but it’s certainly the case that, even or especially in its Ultimate Cut form and for all the furore the change to the end of the story provoked,…

You're always sorry, Charles, and there's always a speech, but nobody cares anymore.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
(SPOILERS) To credit its Rotten Tomatoes score (22%), you’d think X-Men: Dark Phoenix was a travesty that besmirched the name of all good and decent (read: MCU proper) superhero movies, or even last week’s underwhelming creature feature (Godzilla: King of Monsters has somehow reached 40%, despite being a lesser beast in every respect). Is the movie’s fate a self-fulfilling prophecy, what with delayed release dates and extensively reported reshoots? Were critics castigating a fait accompli turkey without giving it a chance? That would be presupposing they’re all sheep, though, and in fairness, other supposed write-offs havecome back from such a brink in the past (World War Z). Whatever the feelings of the majority, Dark Phoenix is actually a mostly okay (twelfth) instalment in the X-franchise – it’s exactly what you’d expect from an X-Men movie at this point, one without any real mojo left and a variable cast struggling to pull its weight. The third act is a bi…

They went out of business, because they were too good.

School for Scoundrels (1960)
(SPOILERS) Possibly the pinnacle of Terry-Thomas’ bounder persona, and certainly the one where it’s put to best caddish use, as he gives eternally feckless mug Ian Carmichael a thorough lesson in one-upmanship, only for the latter to turn the tables when he finds himself a tutor. School for Scoundrels is beautifully written (by an uncredited Peter Ustinov and Frank Tarloff), filled with clever set pieces, a fine supporting cast and a really very pretty object of the competing chaps’ affection (Janette Scott), but it’s Terry-Thomas who is the glue that binds this together. And, while I couldn’t say for sure, this might have the highest “Hard cheese” count of any of his films.

Based on Stephen Potter’s 1947’s humorous self-help bestseller (and subsequent series of -manship books) The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship (or The Art of Winning Games without Actually Cheating), which suggested ungentlemanly methods for besting an opponent in any given field, gam…

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.