What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
In 1996, when I still had my film company, we worked on a disastrous new version of ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’. HG Wells never makes for easy adaptation, partly because, like John Wyndham, we remember his books wrongly.
In Wyndham’s ‘The Kraken Wakes’ and also in ‘The War of the Worlds’ events unfold in a matter-of-fact style from a distance. In Wells’ ‘Moreau’ a large chunk of the book is taken up with the journey to the island, and it’s not really about the beasts overthrowing the doctor. Both authors wrote about normalising strange events. So in order to provide more action beats, film companies tend to throw away everything but the titles.
The new ‘Moreau’ was to be made by Richard Stanley, a socially awkward young director capable of producing some nice visuals, but who had no facility with actors. He was also a fantasist, reimagining himself as some kind of a shaman when he was in fact a rather geeky bloke in a hat. He’d made two low-budget films, both of which ran into trouble over financing because Stanley hadn’t done his preparation properly, and suddenly here he was being trusted with a big budget Hollywood A-lister movie.
Suddenly people were calling him a visionary because his films looked good, even if ‘Hardware’ had been nursed through by penny-pinching Palace Pictures and nobody saw ‘Dust Devil’, which ended up existing in lots of different versions. I wrote to JG Ballard about this second film – Ballard had seen it and loved the images but agreed that it didn’t hang together as a story.
My great pal Graham Humphries was ‘Moreau’s concept designer, and we heard regular horror stories about the film’s production as it veered wildly off the rails. Now the whole ghastly story has been told very well – and very accurately – in a new documentary DVD, ‘Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr Moreau.’
If it was a mistake trying to shoot on location in a remote hurricane-prone part of Australia, driving 2 hours a day from the hotel just to get a view of a mountain that could have been found anywhere, it was also a mistake to major on lots of silly rubber creature transformations instead of getting the character dynamics right. Worse was to follow with the casting of the dreaded kiss-of-death Val Kilmer, and then the addition of Marlon Brando, still grieving for his lost daughter, who simply turned up to make mischief and express his contempt for stupid movies.
The description of Brando’s first appearance on set in a costume of his own devising is hysterical; delivered on a palanquin, chalk faced, dressed in a cheesecloth sarong and wearing what appears to be a tablemat on his head he’s beyond absurd – but it was when he decided to wear an ice bucket that things got out of control; Stanley was unable to stand up to him (or anyone else on the shoot – he did what awkward directors usually do, retreated to his trailer) then got kicked off the set by New Line and later snuck back as an extra when John Frankenheimer came on board with just a week to prep the remains of the movie – after that everything really crashed and burned.
In a way Stanley was in the wrong time; CGI was coming and would have solved most of his problems, but there was also an issue of personality. Whenever I’ve met him Stanley has been perfectly affable, but he seems a rather distant, detached person, and not really suited to directing films. At least this retelling is a well-constructed hoot, and Graham’s production paintings are stunning to behold.