Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau Amazon Instant Video Directed by David Gregory Starring Richard Stanley, Fairuza Balk, Marco Hofschneider, and Rob Morrow Severin Films Not Rated | Running Time: 97 Minutes Release Date: February 27, 2015
Twenty years ago, the visionary South African filmmaker Richard Stanley, adored by cult and horror audiences around the world for his uncompromising features Hardware and Dust Devil, ventured into a lush, remote region of Australia to make a film version of a book he had cherished since his youth: The Island of Dr. Moreau, by H.G. Wells. The finished film was released in the summer of 1996, the time when the alien invasion blockbuster Independence Day ruled the box office, but what audiences saw was radically different from what Stanley set out to make. That’s because he didn’t direct a single frame of the film.
The more experienced journeyman John Frankenheimer (Ronin, The Manchurian Candidate) was called in to replaced Stanley only a few days into principal photography for reasons that have since become legend. David Gregory‘s new documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau aims to tell as much of the horrific story behind the operatic unmaking of Stanley’s grandiose and grotesque vision for the latest cinematic iteration of the classic Wells novel as the living participants are willing to recall.
When he sought to make Moreau his third feature-length film, Stanley hoped it would be a lower-budgeted production so that his provocative interpretation of the Wells novel would not require much compromise from New Line Cinema, the minor league Hollywood studio that was born on the back of the Nightmare on Elm Street series and had agreed to finance Moreau. Those hopes went straight out of the nearest window the moment that Marlon Brando read and loved the script and signed on to play Wells’ mad scientist with a heavy-duty God complex and a tropical island populated by the half-man, half-animal mutants of his own creation.
Once Brando was on board, both Bruce Willis and James Woods became interested in taking the two other male leading roles up for grabs. It wasn’t long before Willis and Woods decided against joining the cast and rising star Val Kilmer and Northern Exposure‘s Rob Morrow took their places. Though Brando could be quite difficult to work with, it was his impetuous co-star Kilmer that initiated much of the consternation Stanley faced during his time on the project. The stress of dealing with a temperamental actor prone to fits of arrogant, diva-like behavior while attempting to mount the most ambitious film of his career eventually took its toll on Stanley and made him appear to the executives at New Line like a rank amateur hopelessly out of his element. Three days after principal photography began, Stanley was handed his walking papers, and soon after his departure the studio hired Frankenheimer to take his place and oversee script rewrites.
Following Stanley’s ousting from the project he had developed with affection and respect for years, production on Moreau finally got underway proper. That’s where the story gets really interesting. Kilmer’s disrespect for Stanley’s direction paled in comparison to the horrors he inflicted upon the shoot under Frankenheimer’s stewardship. British actor David Thewlis, in a decision he no doubt still regrets to this day, agreed to replace Morrow as the film’s sympathetic hero. Morale among the cast and crew plummeted. Worst of all, top-billed Brando took Stanley’s firing as an omen of bad things to follow and stopped caring about giving an actual performance. The ’96 Moreau‘s fate as one of the most ineptly conceived and produced films ever released by a major Hollywood studio was sealed. In a delicious twist that makes this one of the weirdest stories of filmmaking in history, Stanley managed to sneak back onto the set in full make-up as one of Moreau‘s background “Beast-Men”, giving him a front row seat for the complete dissolution of his passion project.
Documentaries about the bizarre implosion of potentially cool and endlessly watchable genre films are becoming more prevalent than ever thought possible. In an era where we can go online and download discarded script drafts, watch bootleg videos of rejected effects, and marvel at unrealized conceptual artwork, a simple magazine article timed to the theatrical release of a different version of what wasn’t made just can’t suffice any longer. Lost Soul joins the growing ranks of Jodorowsky’s Dune, the upcoming The Death of Superman Lives, and Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four in providing curious viewers with an unflinchingly honest oral and visual history about the collapse of a unique film that never stood a chance in the face of rampaging egos and unfettered industry greed.
Director David Gregory has been documenting the strange-but-true stories behind the making of the greatest works of cult cinema for the past fifteen years for video distributors like Blue Underground and his own company Severin Films (which is releasing Lost Soul). To tell the story of the unmaking of Richard Stanley’s vision for The Island of Dr. Moreau, he assembled a good number of the principal players, including a few who were forced to remain on the production in the wake of Stanley’s firing and helpless to impact the final product in any way. The original director himself is extensively interviewed, offering his complete take on the origins of his version of Moreau, the initial optimism surrounding the project, and how it all ultimately came apart. Stanley pretty much put the entire production together, though he had a lot of help.
He hired famed British movie poster artist Graham Humphreys to create a series of provocative concept art pieces as a way of selling studios on his compelling vision for the latest adaptation of the Wells novel. He was instrumental in securing Brando for the title role (of Moreau, not the island) because the legendary method actor was genuinely fascinated by the material. He developed the script, scouted ideal filming locations in Australia, staffed the crew and supporting cast, etc. Stanley didn’t do all of this on his own, but he was hardly a passive observer to the careful coming together of the production. The filmmaker was fully invested in this, so he can’t exactly be faulted for continuing to harbor bitter feelings of betrayal and failure. Yet Stanley seems rather content with how he was rewarded for his creative and physical labors, and in his interviews comes across as a man at peace with the world and fully cognizant that Moreau might have been a setback, but it wasn’t the end of everything.
Stanley is forthright and occasionally funny in discussing his hopes for the adaptation and where it all started to go off the rails. His stories are an essential component of Lost Soul and the documentary would not have amounted to much without his participation. Stanley’s remembrances form the backbone, heart, and soul of Gregory’s film, but further interviews with Humphreys, actors Fairuza Balk and Marco Hofschneider, producer Edward R. Pressman, and former New Line Cinema honcho Robert Shaye help to flesh out Lost Soul with multiple relevant perspectives of the chaotic production. The best stories usually come from those who were on the shoot practically the entire time; Balk’s recounting of her attempt to quit her role after Stanley was dismissed and Hofschneider’s increasingly contentious relationship with Kilmer are just a few of the standout anecdotes. We even get to hear a little from Rob Morrow, who has been barely heard on the subject of his involvement with Moreau over the years and gets to set the record somewhat straight regarding his casting and his near-instantaneous desire to resign (the latter part is recounted, quite amusingly, by Shaye).
The interviews are illustrated with select Humphreys artwork and behind-the-scenes stills and footage. We are even treated to a few glimpses of Stanley in full monster make-up, and as one production executive who had no idea the original director had covertly become an extra remembers it, his performance was quite remarkable. The same can be said for the entirety of Lost Soul, a terrific documentary that approaches its subject with candor, intelligence, and a wealth of background material. It makes for a great companion piece with Jodorowsky’s Dune, and depending on the viewer, might lead you to like or despise the 1996 Island of Dr. Moreau even more than they already had. This is a voyage well worth taking time and again.
Severin Films, the company that produced Lost Soul, has plans to release the documentary on home video later this year with extra features including outtakes, a featurette on the history of H.G. Wells in cinema, and a rarely seen 1921 German adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau titled Isle of the Lost. They are also working on a Blu-ray release of the director’s cut of Stanley’s Dust Devil which will contain most of the supplements included on Subversive Cinema’s 2006 DVD box set along with new features. In addition to Amazon, you can find Lost Soul streaming on iTunes and YouTube.