So, Edinburgh is playing host to Reel Afghanistan, the first festival of Afghan cinema and culture in the U.K. As part of this, filmmaker Richard Stanley gave a talk at my place of work, Edinburgh College of Art.
Jolly entertaining it was too!
Stanley’s horror movie career began when his script for HARDWARE fell into the hands of Palace Pictures while he was in Afghanistan filming the Mujahideen in the Afghan Civil War, using a couple of wind-up 16mm Bolex cameras (it’s a beautiful camera that doesn’t need electricity — I used it to shoot CLARIMONDE, while, more famously, Richard Lester used it to shoot THE RUNNING JUMPING STANDING STILL FILM). While the film company was trying to contact him to sign a deal on his cyberpunk splatterfest, he was attempting to transport his injured cameraman to hospital from the Hindu Kush.
‘It turned out he had exactly the kind of serious injury you want to have — his nerves were severed in his legs so he wasn’t in any pain, but none of his major blood vessels had been damaged. It was a miracle he got the use of his legs back though. We reached the hospital and my memory of it is like something out of GONE WITH THE WIND, with the stretchers spilling out of the building. That’s where I got the phone call and it was like, “Where the fuck have you fucking been?” and I was in a strange state because I’d been living with these very religious people so I was really offended by this language.
‘To get me to come back to the U.K., because I wanted to stay in Afghanistan to look for the third member of our team, who was still missing, they had to get an ex-girlfriend of mine to call me up and say she wanted me back. Then, because they weren’t sure how I would react when I found out this wasn’t true, they hired a private security firm to be there when she told me, so I got back to my flat and there were four strange men in the lounge listening to my records.’
After HARDWARE was an unexpected hit (an $800,000 film that apparently made 70 mill) a respected British producer apparently abducted Stanley’s Afghan footage from the lab and threatened to burn the negative unless he signed away the rights to his follow-up, DUST DEVIL. After Palace Pictures went bust, Stanley ran up a $100,000 debt buying up the film materials and producing a single print of his director’s cut.
The debt was wiped out when Stanley was hired for, then fired from THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU.
‘What happened was that New Line finally read the script. The head of development had been away on pregnancy leave and didn’t read it until we were starting to shoot it. And yes, it had animal sex, and animals on drugs. And it was very expensive to fire me because I hadn’t done anything wrong. On other films I had done terrible things and it didn’t matter because they wanted me to make the movie.
‘Like, on HARDWARE, I was in a strange mental state making it so soon after Afghanistan, and I got into a fight with this bloke, nothing to do with the film, about PROPERTY. He was hitting me and I hit him back and he went flying and hit his head on the mantelpiece. He was lying there and moving a little, and I didn’t know whether to call an ambulance or attempt to dispose of the body. So I called the production and they sent somebody who took him away, no problem. I didn’t ask after him but apparently he came out of his coma and was fine.’
So — returning to MOREAU — Stanley was fired and John Frankenheimer came aboard. Stanley had signed a contract saying he wouldn’t come within X miles of the location or have any contact with the crew, but camping out near the Australian location one night he saw lights, and found some crew members. ‘So I came back as a dog.’ That is to say, sympathetic crew-members loaned him a dog mask and he played a background monster (visible hamming it up in at least one scene) so he could watch as Frankenheimer and teams of new writers dismantled the script which had already been written by Stanley, re-written at great expense by Michael Herr and then re-re-written by Walon Green.
Eventually Stanley didn’t even need his dog disguise because all of the crew who knew him had been fired, and Frankenheimer had never met him. ‘He was a bad, bad man,’ said Stanley of the once-great director of SECONDS and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. ‘I don’t know what had happened to him in the years since he made those films…’ (Twenty years of alcoholism is part of the answer.) ‘He told people in Hollywood that Fairuza Balk was an intravenous drug user, which wasn’t true. She was probably seventeen at that time, and when he should have been in loco parentis, he was trying to destroy her. We were so happy when he died. It isn’t right to be that way, you should have respect for the dead, but we were dancing with joy.’
I read an interview with MOREAU star David Thewlis years ago where he said, ‘I hated, hated, hated the director,’ meaning Frankenheimer.
It’s a film that seems to attract stories. I once chatted to a New Line executive — I think he was about 14 — whose girlfriend had been involved in the shoot. He claimed to have seen weird rushes: Brando had it in his contract that the director wasn’t to interfere with his performance at all, and after Stanley’s departure he sabotaged the film. They would turn the camera on and he’d PAUSE until the film ran out. Ten minute pauses. Or else he’d goof around and do silly stuff. Some of this may be in the finished film. Certainly Brando plays an entire scene with an ice bucket on his head.
What else is in the film:
Val Kilmer forgets his lines, laughs, and wanders out of shot.
Nelson de la Rosa, the smallest man in the world puts his feet up on the dinner table and Brando interrupts his own dramatic speech to gently say, “No no no.” For the rest of the scene the smallest man in the world can be seen shaking in helpless mirth.
David Thewliss has a fight with some very strong mice.
Fiona once met one of the writers brought in to reconfigure the movie after Stanley’s departure. He said, ‘I TOLD them the mice wouldn’t work.’
It seems unkind to suggest that the dogman’s-breakfast MOREAU is actually more fun that Stanley’s own, more personal and unified projects… but Brando had a way of making bad films fascinating (he could also mess up perfectly good films).
Austin Powers fans can be grateful to the film for giving us Mini-Me. When Mike Myers saw the tiny Nelson de la Rosa playing a toy piano on top of a grand piano played by an identically-dressed Marlon Brando, he said, ‘I have got to do something with this because that is the craziest thing I have ever seen.’
And Frankenheimer, that bad bad man, always expressed confidence that, “one day,” the film would be seen as “some kind of classic.”