Searching For Stanley

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South African-born filmmaker Richard Stanley achieved huge success at the age of 24 when he made the cult British sci-fi movie Hardware. The Terminatorish story of a cyborg going berserk in a decaying urban tower block was a big homegrown success for Palace Pictures and an equally commercial prospect in the United States. The film quickly paid back its meagre $1.5 million budget and Stanley went on to make Dust Devil, a serial killer thriller with an arty touch.

Unfortunately the release of Dust Devil coincided with the demise of Palace, and the movie got lost in the shuffle. But Stanley’s career continued to flourish and Hollywood came calling, snapping up his script for The Island of Dr. Moreau, a radical remake of the famed H.G. Wells tale (written in 1896) about a doctor on a remote island who manages to turn animals into humans. The film was due to star Marlon Brando and… for a time at least, Bruce Willis.

Stanley was signed to direct, too. But suddenly it all went pear-shaped. Brucie split and was replaced by Val Kilmer, a somewhat temperamental actor at the best of times. The studio chucked out Stanley’s script and he was fired from directing at the insistence of Kilmer, who reputedly refused to come out of his trailer for 40 days. Must have been luxurious in there, eh?

The resultant movie, directed by John Frankenheimer, contained about two words of Stanley’s dialogue and was nominated for a Razzie award as the worst film of 1996, only losing out to Demi Moore’s Striptease. What a shame Bruce ducked out – it could have been him vs Demi.

Then it was off into the wilderness for Richard Stanley, both figuratively and literally. There were reports he was offered the chance to direct Sylvester Stallone’s Judge Dredd and Spice World: The Movie, but turned them down, wisely as it happens. He made some interesting documentaries, including The Secret Glory, which told of German officer Otto Rahn’s obsessive quest for the Holy Grail that came to a rather abrupt end when he was found frozen to death in the snow at the age of 35.

But now Stanley is back with a couple of interesting new feature projects, neither of which feature Val Kilmer. He was also involved with Optimum’s DVD and Blu-ray release of Hardware. The last time I chatted with Richard was way back in 1990 when Hardware was first released. That was a face-to-face interview, but this one is on his mobile, on what turns out to be a very crackly line.

“I’m in the middle of the mountains,” he says, “so it could be a bit rough.” It turns out that he’s in the Pyrenees, the rugged mountain range between France and Spain. He’s on the French side at Montsegur, which is famous for its fort, one of the last strongholds of the Cathars, a 13th century religious sect that was pretty much wiped out by the Catholics in a Masada-like massacre in 1244. Richard says he fell in love with the place when he went there to film some of The Secret Glory in 2001, but we doubt it will ever feature on Wish You Were Here?

My first question is, why has it taken so long to get Hardware onto DVD when the film was such a hit in the first place? Stanley responds, “I think it was a case of killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Over the last ten years everyone’s been trying to control the rights to the movie. Since Palace Films went under, it has passed from Polygram, Miramax, Buena Vista, MGM… virtually every corporate firm in the world have owned part of it for some period of time. But they’ve never owned enough of the rights to release it or actually produce a sequel.”

At the time of making the movie, Stanley was already a successful director of pop promos, having worked on music videos for bands like Fields of the Nephilim, as well as directing a 50-minute length video for Marillion’s concept album, Brave. But getting the dosh together for Hardware was a struggle. “It was really a perception thing,” he explains, “because nothing like that had really been made in England at the time. There was a strange perception that British films weren’t sci-fi action movies and that you couldn’t shoot a low-budget sci-fi action film in London.”

Stanley then realised that the only solution was to pretend that it wasn’t set in London. “I went to Miramax in the States and the film was largely funded by Harvey and Bob (Weinstein), which partly explains the kind of transatlantic limbo that it’s in. The movie was originally supposed to take place on a kind of futuristic British council estate but they basically Americanised the film in order to pick up the funding. It always saddens me that we couldn’t raise the money for it out of England. But the perception of it being an American film was what we needed to get it funded.”

And where was Richard Stanley when the filming of Hardware was due to get underway? Er… try Afghanistan! “Yeah, that’s true,” he chuckles dryly. “It was one of those ridiculous situations where in point of fact it only got made at the time when I wasn’t doing anything to try and get it made!”

“I’d spent years and years basically going around Soho with different scripts trying to get people interested and wasn’t getting anywhere, so I’d gone off to make this film about the Afghan guerrillas just when somebody decided to pick up the script. There’s some kind of Murphy’s Law thing involved here, where if you going around making phone calls and sending people scripts no one’s going to take your call, but if you are really unavailable then all of a sudden these things change.

“At the point of time when Palace greenlit the film, I was completely out of contact. It was a time period before cellphones and I was right in the middle of the Hindu Kush (a mountain range in eastern and central Afghanistan and north-western Pakistan). One of the producers at Wicked Films had already sold the option to Palace even though they didn’t own the option, so they had to find me in Afghanistan to secure my approval for the deal and sign off on the damn thing!”

REDISCOVERING DARIO

Watching the movie on Blu-ray recently was the first viewing I’ve had of it in many years, but Richard says he sees it regularly because he has his own print. What does he think of it in retrospect? “I’m pretty happy with what we managed to do under the circumstances,” he muses. “There are a few bits that got pulled out of the script to reschedule, and I shot the second half of the movie first so I ended up spending seventy percent of the budget on the second half of the movie which meant we had to shoot the first half of the movie quickly… so the overall style of coverage in the first half hour of the film is much more traditional. Its kind of close-up, close-up, master, not as many tracking shots, and the lighting and cinematography improve, I think, immeasurably in the second half of the film.”

The director is also enthusiastic about the performance of Stacey Travis in the movie. “She is just fantastic,” he enthuses. “She deserved so much better than she got because she really holds that film together in my opinion, the one person in the film who can really act! The droid was most of the time a head on a stick or a hand and Stacey managed to hold the whole thing together just through her presence.”

He seems generally much happier with Hardware than he is with Dust Devil (1992), in which a shape-shifting serial killer (Robert Burke) preys on his victims against the bleak backdrop of South Africa’s Namibian desert. “Dust Devil was pretty much last to get out of the gate at Palace,” he recalls, “and they were done by the time it was finished. It was scarcely distributed and had virtually no post-production. It managed to get out a couple of years ago and it is out in the States on DVD in a very nice transfer.

“I think that the subject matter in Dust Devil, obviously being of South Africa and apartheid, was less commercial. I also think I read too many bad reviews of Hardware, because at the time the perception was that Hardware was too much like a music video with fast cuts and loud music. I think that pushed me down the road of making Dust Devil with continuous tracking shots and keeping rock and roll out of the movie just to show we could do it. The net result, along with leaving scenes out of the script and not having the money to do action scenes meant Dust Devil turned into more of an art movie than we had intended.”

When I first talked with Richard all those years ago we touched upon his admiration for Dario Argento, the Italian maestro of macabre movies. I wonder how he feels about Dario these days in the light of recent disappointments like Mother of Tears. “He has gone off a bit,” Stanley says, “but I’m still very fond of him. We’re very hard on Dario because he’s so good. Lesser work by Dario is still better than most of the stuff I see, but the fans come down on it just because it’s not as good as his original material. His Masters of Horror episodes are among the best of that series and if I had to see those without it being Dario I’m sure I’d enjoy them immensely.

“People take issue with how mad some of his new films are, but you know films like Phenomena, when we first saw them we said, ‘My God, what is he on?’ But 20 years later we look back on them with great fondness, so some of the stuff coming out now we may feel the same about. I already like Mother of Tears better than I did a year ago!”

ANIMAL INSTINCTS

Moving on to The Island of Dr. Moreau, I wonder how Stanley feels about that somewhat traumatic experience nowadays. “Well,” he sighs, “I think it’s a damn shame that nobody has ever filmed the book properly, but I’ve now accepted that it’s never going to happen. More than anything else I hadn’t realised, going in, how ‘off-message’ the Wells book is for an American sci-fi movie, but I guess I hadn’t appreciated that most big budget US sci-fi movies generally tell the same story and it’s basically a pro-democracy story.

“They always want the Beast People to be the oppressed race and they’ve got to rebel against Moreau and there’s got to be a happy, pro-democratic ending, whereas the message in the book is that every attempt to create a better system for these people to live under is even more of a fiasco than what Moreau is doing. It’s way too dark for the American audience. Apart from anything else I was responding to Ruggero Deodato and the Italian cannibal movies, and when I look back on it now I realise he would never have got away with it.”

He admits that for a time it was looking good though. “When Marlon Brando was on board and initially Bruce Willis was on board, nobody was questioning the material in the script. But the moment Bruce Willis dropped out and Brando’s involvement became unclear, the powers-that-be started reading the script and realised they didn’t want to make that movie. I think if I’d been more powerful, if I’d had a major hit behind me I’d have had a better negotiating position. But nobody wants to make a $25 million Richard Stanley movie!

“When they got rid of me they basically remade the Burt Lancaster version. They went back to the previous AIP version. The original script was by myself and Michael Herr, who wrote Apocalypse Now, and Walon Green who wrote The Wild Bunch. Even if you left me out, it was a great script but not one scene or one word of dialogue made it into the Frankenheimer movie.”

NEW BONES

For years it has seemed like nobody wants to make a Richard Stanley movie at any price, but now, like London buses, two are coming along at the same time. First off the bat is Vacation, in which an American couple holidaying in the Middle East find themselves caught up in an end of the world scenario. Then there’s Bones of the Earth, the tale of a former U.S. Special Forces soldier framed for the mass destruction of a village in Afghanistan. He returns to his homeland in Scotland and plots revenge on his former commanding officer, who now supervises hunting parties during which rich people get to shoot deer.

Bones was one of the last scripts written by Donald Cammell, the co-director of Performance who committed suicide in 1996. “Yeah, I’ve got this cursed movie which is the last movie that Donald tried to make,” chuckles Richard. “It’s a bit like the Brando curse, but I enjoy the challenge.

“The Donald Cammell piece has been lurking since the late 80s somewhere. Like a raisin dropped into a glass of champagne, it kind of rises and falls continuously until the glass goes flat or whatever. There was a time when Richard Harris was connected to it, up until he died. It was his favourite script but he went off to play Dumbledore in Harry Potter instead and then he died. He didn’t get a chance to get it made. So it passed from Donald Cammell to Richard Harris and then myself. It does have a habit of killing the people but it’s a hell of a good script.”

Was he a fan of Donald Cammell’s work? “I actually didn’t see White of the Eye until very late,” he replies. “Then I realised that Demon Seed and White of the Eye run a really strong parallel with Hardware and Dust Devil… the main difference between me and Donald being that Donald got to make Performance which is a kind of masterpiece, which I didn’t do, and Donald’s dead and I’m alive (laughs) which means I’ve still got the chance to get one in there!”

Before Bones we’ll be seeing Vacation, which Stanley describes as “not so much a post holocaust romance as a during the holocaust romance. An American couple go on holiday to a Middle Eastern hotel and WW3 breaks out simultaneously. It’s kind of an upbeat end of the road movie. We’re in pre-production but we’re having a devil of a time trying to nail down the actual cast and get all the dates in order. Technically we want to start shooting at Ramadan in Morocco in August. We need to start shooting at a time when we can actually get access to the locations and Ramadan seems to be the best bet. At the moment it looks like Vacation will be British backed because it stars Americans, but our problem has been trying to get American actors to go to a location that is 100 km from the Moritanian border during Ramadan when they are terrified of terrorism and the African border in the first place. We’ll certainly look after them once we’ve got them.”

Why does he make life difficult by choosing such remote locations? “I’ve always had the desire to show people things they have never seen before,” he replies, “which is difficult, because Hollywood prefers things which are like something else. I want to find something that people have never seen before and put it on screen. The desire to bring people back something they don’t know about or haven’t seen is pretty strong. It’s the same logic behind going to Afghanistan or wanting to do a movie in Chechnya or somewhere. To me it’s much more interesting than trekking into suburbia.”

Richard Stanley’s Hardware is out on DVD and Blu-ray from Optimum.