Documentaries about movies are old hat these days. The new fashion, it would seem, is for documentaries about unmade and unreleased films. Hot on the heels of the excellent Jodorowsky’s Dune and ahead of upcoming features about the buried Roger Corman Fantastic Four and the Nicolas Cage / Tim Burton / Kevin Smith Superman Lives comes this impressive look at the disastrous making of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr Moreau, directed by David Gregory.
Gregory is an old hand at movie documentaries, having pioneered the feature length DVD extra with impressive movies about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,The Wicker Man, Maniac, Santa Sangre and the Mondo movies of Jacopetti and Prosperi, and he bring his usual style to this – not overly fussy and never forgetting that the story is the main thing, he is able to craft a sorry (if often hilarious) story of actors out of control, natural disasters, rebellious crews and studio panic.
Now, I’m no fan of Richard Stanley, and so I’ve never quite bought into the idea that his version of Moreau would have been a masterpiece, compared to the clumsy mess that John Frankenheimer’s final version turned out to be. After all, if the director of Seconds, The Manchurian Candidate, French Connection II andBirdman of Alcatraz couldn’t salvage this project, what hope that Stanley could?
Lost Soul doesn’t necessarily change my opinion of the film’s potential, or of Stanley, but it does seem likely that there was the possibility of an interesting, original interpretation of H.G. Wells’ tale of genetic manipulation (previously filmed as Island of Lost Souls in 1932 and under its original title in 1977) within the story he was developing. Of course, it could’ve also turned out to be another Nightbreed, following the adventures of a collection of ropey looking monsters. We’ll never know.
Stanley spent years on his version of the film, finally getting the green light from New Line, who didn’t want him as director – he met with Marlon Brando, who was due to star in the film, and convinced him to be a supporter, securing the directing gig but probably not making himself and friends at the studio in the process. Stanley puts this turnaround in his fortunes down to the work of a magician in London. Some viewers might raise their eyebrows at this.
Once on set in Australia, things began to go wrong. By most accounts, Stanley was in over his head on the now big budget project that also had notoriously difficult then-star Val Kilmer on board, and reacted in ways that didn’t exactly inspire confidence from the crew – refusing to leave his temporary home to attend meetings, not talking to anyone and allegedly climbing a tree and refusing to come down at one point. Things weren’t helped by outside forces either – Kilmer’s ego was out of control and to make things worse, he was in the middle if a divorce; Brando’s daughter had just committed suicide, and so he wasn’t on set – and no one really knew if he’d ever be on set – and a huge storm flooded the sets. Stanley lasted three days before being fired.
In his place came veteran director Frankenheimer, who soon found the project to be equally cursed. He clashed with star Fairuza Balk and found Kilmer to be every bit as much a nightmare to deal with as Stanley had. Brando finally arrived and then seemed hell bent on sabotaging the entire film with ludicrous script changes and characterisations – if you’ve seen the final sorry mess, you’ll know what I mean. Actors and crew members didn’t seem to know what was going on and eventually became somewhat crazed by the isolated jungle lifestyle, sliding into a sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle as the shoot dragged on for months. Eventually, the whole sorry mess was finally finished, only to be savaged by critics and bomb at the box office.
Gregory tells this sordid story through interviews with many of the major players – no Kilmer of course, and both Brando and Frankenheimer are no longer with us – and crew members, all of whom tell the story with the sort of shell shocked memories of a war veteran. Stanley talks us through his original idea, showing the Graham Humphreys storyboards and radical concept he had for the film, and the whole story is peppered with remarkable anecdotes – after being fired from the film, Stanley relocated down river to smoke tons of dope before finally sneaking back on set disguised as one of the creatures. Given that the producers were paranoid that he would try to destroy the sets and had attempted to ensure he left the country, this was ironic indeed.
Gregory has worked with Stanley on various projects, and it’s clear where his sympathies lie – but he tells the story in a pretty even-handed way nevertheless. It’s pretty clear from watching this that Stanley’s shoot was always going to end in disaster, and in a way, getting fired from the film probably saved his reputation (and certainly made him a martyr). His version might well have been a more interesting disaster, admittedly – but frankly, the final film is so utterly, chaotically nonsensical and bizarre that I can’t help but feel that I’m glad this is the version we got to see. It’s a study in cinematic insanity that is by no means good, but is compulsive viewing nevertheless. There’s nothing else quite like it in existence.
In any case, Stanley gets his vindication here to a certain degree, and is a mire sympathetic character than you might expect. This documentary is, ultimately, a story of an artist beaten down by the system, and that sort of thing always appeals, even if you don’t think that the artist in question is particularly good. It’s a story that is stranger than fiction, and compulsively entertaining, packed with great interviews, outrageous stories (no one seems to feel the need to sugar coat anything at this point) and fascinating archive footage. Movie fans who enjoy a ‘what if?’ story will find much to appreciate here.