As we’ve been discussing here in our little gatherings, “making of” documentaries are common coin in Hollywood. Nine times out of ten they’re cookie-cutter short subjects made with standard-issue, behind the scenes footage (i.e. people standing around) and interviews with cast and crew (i.e. people who would much rather be at lunch). By and large these are made for the sole purpose of promoting the film. But once in a blue moon, a filmmaker examines the making of a movie and manages to achieve an artistic statement of their own; bearing witness to the chaos, ego, and the inevitable clashes that result when an artist has a story to tell, but has to spend a lot of someone else’s money to tell it.
The best of these, by design or happy accident, tend to parallel the story and themes of the movie they’re documenting. Burden Of Dreams analyzes power and obsession much the same way Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, the film it is documenting, analyzes the same themes. Hearts Of Darkness, A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, documents the out of control production of Apocalypse Now and witnesses eerie parallels to the Viet Nam War itself. Lost In La Mancha documents Terry Gilliam’s quixotic first attempt to tell the story of - guess who? – Don Quixote. All of these movies stand as worthy companion pieces to their respective subjects as well as works of art in their own right.
And then there is David Gregory's Lost Soul, The Doomed Voyage Of Richard Stanley’s Island Of Dr. Moreau, which analyzes a young director’s attempts to make a film version of the already twice-filmed HG Welles classic, The Island Of Dr. Moreau. Lost Soul is not a worthy companion piece to 1996’s The Island Of Dr. Moreau. It is an infinitely superior film.
Written in 1896, The Island Of Moreau tells the story of Dr. Moreau, who has relocated to said island to create, through grotesque experiments, a race of half-human, half animal hybrids that he calls, “beast folk.’
As in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it’s only a matter of time before the created turn on the creator, teaching Moreau the terrible lesson of the fate that befalls humans who dare to play God. Pride goeth before a fall and all that.
Fun fact! Welles was friends with Joseph Conrad, who wrote the novel Hearts Of Darkness, which was the basis for the afore-mentioned Apocalypse Now. Hearts Of Darkness was published only a couple years after The Island Of Dr. Moreau, and Welles felt Conrad’s story was a little too close for comfort. One man’s Moreau being another man’s Kurtz, as it were. Regrettably, the ensuing rift ended the friendship.
The novel was first made into a film in 1932 under the title of The Island Of Lost Souls. Made before the Production Code went into effect (we’ll get into that eventually), the film was directed by Erle C. Kenton and starred Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi. The film is a dark, spooky, creepy, atmospheric, and effective.
It was remade, to less effect, in 1977. This version was directed by Don Taylor and starred Burt Lancaster as Dr. Moreau with Michael York as Braddock, the shipwreck survivor (“Prendick” in the book) who is thrust into the Dr.’s evil clutches.
Thirteen years later, in 1990 a young director named Richard Stanley released his first film. It was a low-budget, indie sci-fi movie called Hardware about a repair robot that malfunctions and goes on a murderous rampage. Hardware was a critically lauded cult sensation (it also has cameos by Iggy Pop and Lemmy). Stanley followed with 1992’s Dust Devil. Another indie thriller that tells the story of Hitch, a young dude wandering the desert who is not only wanted by the police but may or may not be the current incarnation of a legendary supernatural creature. The film was shot on location in Namibia and was also a critical sensation. Richard Stanley was now a hot – if broke – young director. Hollywood was now interested.
Richard set about creating a pitch for his dream project, a re-re-retelling of H.G. Welles’ The Island Of Dr. Moreau. He had loved the book since finding it on his father’s bookshelf as a child. He enjoyed The Island Of Lost Souls, but, even though he was only a child when he saw it, really disliked the Burt Lancaster version. Even then, he became obsessed with bringing Welles’ story properly to the screen.
Dr. Moreau was dealing with savage, untamed predators, panthers, tigers, wild boars and hyenas. Richard Stanley also dealt with untamed predators, studio heads and movie stars. Both The Island Of Dr. Moreau, and Lost Soul, The Doomed Journey Of Richard Stanley’s Island Of Dr. Moreau, tell stories of artificially created entities that grow and change so rapidly their creators lose control over them. In the former, it was the Beast Folk. In the documentary, it’s the movie itself.
Stanley’s first move after developing the pitch was involving producer Ed Pressman. Both Pressman and Stanley both saw Moreau as a moderately-priced sci-fi film, tentatively budgeted at five to eight million dollars. This should have been perfect for Stanley. A bigger budget than he had dealt with previously, but no so big that he would drown in it. Pressman brought the project to New Line Cinema.
New Line was then a young, upstart studio with a great track record for pulpy, drive-in flavored movies. In the eighties, new Line made a name for itself with franchises like The Nightmare On Elm Street, Critters, and movies like The Evil Dead and John Waters’ Hairspray. Perfect for Richard Stanley’s take on Moreau. But, as the doc Lost Soul deftly illustrates, their timing was off. As the eighties became the nineties, New Line began turning out some high quality movies. Not just movies, but “films.” David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Allen and Albert Hughes’ Menace II Society and David Fincher’s Seven.
Like one of Dr. Moreau’s experiments, the next step in making Richard Stanley’s movie would inexorably alter the film’s DNA, changing it from a scrappy, moderately-priced horror film to… something else. Something indescribable. The way this initial misstep is described in Lost Soul not only illustrates why this movie is a must-see, why it is so much more entertaining than the movie it’s actually about. How, once again, a filmmaker set off into the jungle to make a movie, and ended up being nearly devoured by his own creation.
Richard Stanley (director): “The very first thing really came down to who was going to play Dr. Moreau. And Ed (Pressman, producer) figured out a way of getting to Marlon Brando.”
Edward Pressman (producer): “Someone had the idea of Brando playing Dr. Moreau, which changed the whole character of the movie and increased the budget enormously.”
Bob Shaye (founder, New Line Cinema): We had just made a film with him where he was already totally impossible. So I was pretty incensed with (New Line’s Mike) DeLuca for choosing Marlon Brando for another film. There was no particular reason to have him and he was an incredible pain ion the neck.
Richard Stanley: The very next thing I heard was that, yes, Brando was prepared to be Dr. Moreau, the money was in escrow, the film was greenlit and was going to be directed by Roman Polanski….. Certainly New Line couldn’t wait to get rid of me. Knowing the odds were stacked against me, I resorted to witchcraft.
TO BE CONTINUED! (and we haven’t even gotten to Val Kilmer yet!)