Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Doctor Moreau


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How not having a car in LA ruined one director's career...

Full Synopsis and Major Spoilers

The recent Fantastic Four debacle, in which a young promising director was hired on a big budget project then allegedly railroaded by the studio, was nothing compared to what happened during the filming of the big budget production of The Island of Doctor Moreau in 1996.

Richard Stanley was a promising South African sci-fi director. He wrote and directed a Cronenberg-esque futuristic hit called Hardware (1990) and followed it up with the visually-stunning Dust Devil (1992). Adapting H.G. Wells' classic novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, about a crazy doctor who creates man-animal hybrids on a mysterious island, was his passion project, something he had dreamt about since childhood. He wrote a spec script and his agent sent it around. Interest in the project snowballed throughout Hollywood. Marlon Brando, still "interested in the character of Kurtz," decided he wanted to play Moreau, a highly Kurtz-like character derived from a novel written during the same period as Heart of Darkness (Apparently H.G. Wells feuded with Joseph Conrad because the books were so similar). 

Once Brando was attached, New Line Cinema came on to produce and all of a sudden it was a big budget project. Bruce Willis also signed on to play the main lead opposite Brando. Stanley could not believe his luck. Not only was he directing his dream project, he was doing it with a massive budget and two of the most exciting actors in Hollywood.

But then things started to go south. And boy did they.

Willis got divorced and refused to leave America in order to shoot at the location Stanley chose, a remote jungle on the coast of Northern Australia near Cairns. Val Kilmer stepped in to play his role, but then decided he didn't want to be on set for very long, so he was recast in a smaller role. 

Meanwhile, the studio executives were losing faith in Stanley. Executive Producers Tim Zinnemann and Edward Pressman found him uncommunicative and seemingly lost in Los Angeles. One night at 2 a.m., Stanley called Zinnemann. He explained that he had walked from Burbank to Hollywood (a virtually impossible walk that would take over 3 hours) and was lost and didn't know what to do. Stanley explains that he did not drive, and, being from South Africa, had never lived in a city without public transportation. It was then, Zinnemann said, that he began to question Stanley's ability to handle the production.

Once on location, things just got worse. On the first day of shooting, the production was struck with a hurricane. Cairns, a poor choice for filming given that it's the rainiest place on the entire continent, was flooded for the duration of the shoot.

Val Kilmer started to control the set. He and Stanley clashed. At one point Kilmer screamed at Stanley, "Actors stand in front of the camera, directors stand behind it. Now go stand behind the camera!" One crew member later describes Kilmer's behavior, "Maybe that's how he prepared to play an asshole...to be one on set."

After the hurricane and the Kilmer incident, Stanley was despondent, and having a very hard time on set. The lead actor Rob Morrow, who had stepped in to take Kilmer's role, freaked out and had to be flown home. The extras and low level crew members were living hedonistically on the studio's dime, wrecking their fancy hotel and consuming lots of drugs and alcohol, particularly ironic because many of them spent all day dressed up as grotesque animals.

Stanley was, according to the producers, not communicating well, not coming to meetings when called, not holding production meetings as instructed. Ultimately, the studio execs felt like they had to take drastic measures. They fired Stanley from his own movie! They brought in studio hack John Frankenheimer to fix up the project, though it was instantly apparent that he had as little of a handle on the situation as Stanley had.

While Stanley didn't get on with the producers, it would seem in part because he, like Josh Trank, didn't kiss their asses quite enough, he had many friends on set, including Fairuza Balk and the local aboriginals. When word spread that he was to be fired, Balk "threatened to cut her own heart out with a sushi knife," and the aboriginals placed hex stones around the set. 

And all this was before Brando showed up. 

When Marlon Brando arrived on set several weeks late, he was covered in white paint. He had decided that Moreau hated the sun and heat and needed to constantly be kept cold, which meant wearing the white paint and an ice bucket on his head at all times. He also decided Nelson de la Rosa, one of the smallest men on the Earth who was cast to play a bit part as a mutated animal baby, was going to be Moreau's main sidekick and would thus now occupy a major role in the film. De la Rosa did not speak English or have any acting training, but Brando said, "It's okay, I'll teach him." The script was rewritten to expand de la Rosa's role. The small man became notorious on the already sex-filled set for hitting on every woman within arm's reach. "He was very...sexual," said one actress.

MB ndr moreau

By this point, the production was too far gone to be salvaged, but there was still one insane twist left. Richard Stanley had been escorted off the set after being fired and driven to the airport with strict orders to leave the country, but he didn't leave. Instead he snuck back into the jungle and was camping near the set. One night, he heard shouting in the jungle and went to investigate. It was several crew members from the production on a drunken bender.

Stanley had always been popular with the crew, so they offered to take him back to the set in disguise. He dressed up as a nightmarish man-dog and came to the set every day to serve as an extra. He was never caught and Stanley is actually in the film playing a destructive creature hell-bent on destroying the island. 

While these antics provided a modicum of consolation for Stanley, the blow delivered by having his dream project stolen from him nearly destroyed him. He said afterwards that he would never make a movie again.

Now, however, there seems to be rumblings of a triumphant comeback for the talented director. It would certainly be deserved. In the meantime, enjoy him in Lost Soul.

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