Richard Stanley’s The Island of Dr. Moreau is one of the great unmade films in the history of science fiction cinema, yet unlike many “unmade” films, such as Jodorowsky’s Dune, this project actually did yield a finished product. But like one of Moreau’s distinctly Victorian grotesque biological experiments, it had mutated beyond recognition from its original conception. The film that was eventually released in 1996 was a haphazard mishmash of styles and tones, and betrayed every sign of a film in deep production hell. The story behind the making, un-making, and re-making of Moreau is well-told in a new documentary by David Gregory, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau.
Stanley himself is one of the true artists in cinema history, and a rare breed in that cutthroat medium. Born in South Africa, he emigrated to England to avoid military service and adopted a deeply “pommy” accent and the mannerisms of a British mystic. To be fair, Stanley’s commitment to his artistic identity and the occult sciences seems genuine enough. A true believer in witchcraft and magic, sporting the requisite long hair and trench coat of a British comics writer in the early 1990s, he made two very influential and highly regarded “cyberpunk” films, Hardware and Dust Devil before turning to Dr. Moreau. A natural fit for his artistic inclinations, being a sort of punk rock version of Terry Gilliam with a dash of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman for good measure, Stanley became obsessed with bringing this dark Victorian story to life.
In the documentary, the connection between HG Wells, the writer of Dr. Moreau, and Joseph Conrad, who would write Heart of Darkness soon after his friend’s book, is emphasized, reflecting a strong thematic and aesthetic link in Stanley’s mind. He wanted to get back to the original notion of Moreau as metaphorical science fiction, set in the near future, just as Wells intended, for example, rather than doing an historical piece. He also wanted to stress the Victorian anxiety that’s such a strong theme in the book, regarding emergence of powerful new technologies and encounters with far-off and savage people. The balance between society and savagery is a natural link with Heart of Darkness, so it was to Conrad’s book that Stanley looked for the overall mood.
In that context, the notion of casting Col. Kurtz himself, Marlon Brando, as Dr. Moreau seems quite inspired, and Brando was willing to do the part, taking a great liking to Stanley himself in early meetings. But this was going to have to be a Hollywood movie, which means lot of money, high stakes, high anxiety, and essential no trust whatsoever on anyone’s part, buried under layers of social nicety. For a sensitive Commonwealth mystic like Stanley, it must have seemed an odd world, but in initial meetings in Los Angeles, things seemed to be provisionally okay. Certainly Stan Winston loved working with a true artist and his studio got straight to work building elaborate monsters and makeup for the film. A location in Australia was chosen for the view it afforded of mountains (a later Line Producer ruefully notes that they had to put the camera a foot down into the ground before they could actually get an angle where they could see those mountains ). Since Brando was a big name, but not a bankable name, the production made the second big mistake and hired hot-at-the-time Val Kilmer to play the male lead, a castaway who finds himself on Moreau’s island.
Kilmer and Stanley did not get along from the outset, to put it mildly. And in fact, Kilmer’s behaviour on-set became the stuff of legend, driving just about everyone in the cast and crew on the film to have “extremely negative” feelings about him by the end. (One participant describes him as a “Private School Bully”.) But personal relationships were only one of the problems with Kilmer, as just before production he demanded that his part be cut by 40%, since he didn’t feel like working that hard and didn’t like the script. Stanley’s frankly ingenious solution to this problem was simply to give him a smaller role (in the process bumping out James Woods) and hire another actor, Rob Morrow, to play the lead.
If only the problems ended there. In Gregory’s film, Stanley holds forth from his home in France with cigarettes and Pastis, but there’s still a shell-shocked look in the filmmaker’s eyes. One gets the sense of an artist far too sensitive for the inhuman and mercenary world of Hollywood. Intimidated by the growing size and scope of the production, when the entire company finally got down to Australia, Stanley would rarely emerge from his rented villa, sitting amongst pages of his script, slowly losing his mind in an eerie parallel with the Conrad-influenced story he was telling. As Gregory tells it, the final nail on the head was Brando, Stanley’s closest artistic ally in the project, delaying his participation in the film due to his daughter’s suicide. The Producers insisted Stanley start shooting without Brando, and with rather difficult scenes set on the water, in a small boat.
Stanley lasted a few days, and was fired. Kilmer’s apathy didn’t help (he simply said out loud to anyone listening that he thought the script was “stupid” and didn’t bother to learn his lines), but the project had simply taken too much out of the artistic director. As part of his severance, Stanley was explicitly forbidden to be within 40 miles of the set for the remainder of the shoot. Hollywood veteran John Frankenheimer, himself a notably good artist and technician, took over the film with only a week to prepare, and arrived on set shouting and barking orders, the polar opposite of the mystical artist who had just been run out of town.
(There was one last twist in the directorial casting involving a hut, “huge joints” and a dog mask that people familiar with this legend will already know, and I leave it to viewers of Gregory’s entertaining and thought provoking documentary to discover.)
Frankenheimer, however, had his own problems, Once Brando arrived on set to find Stanley had departed, he instantly set about sabotaging the whole production, making ridiculous suggestions and demands, re-writing his part to include the diminutive Dominican actor Nelson de la Rosa in every one of his scenes (setting the stage for Dr. Evil and Mini-Me) and exuding bored contempt. When fellow actor Fairuza Balk asked Brando to discuss their characters, he waved her away, “Oh, dear, this is all garbage, don’t you know? You’re getting paid, I’m getting paid, the rest doesn’t matter. You’re doing fine.” When neither the director, nor the two lead actors have any interest in making the film they’re engaged to make, it’s difficult to imagine anything good resulting.
For those who saw the 1996 film and thought, “Huh?”, this documentary provides some sort of explanation. And for those who had heard hints of this legend over the years, it’s refreshing to see the truth come out, and a lesson to all true artists who dare step into the rat’s nest of Hollywood.
(Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau is now available on Netflix.)