Interview: Richard Stanley

Richard_StanleyRichard Stanley may not be prolific, but his 1990 robo-slasher Hardware and the dreamy 1992 horror Dust Devil have both proved influential on genre filmmakers. Stanley is almost as famous for his experiences on the troubled mid-1990s production of The Island of Doctor Moreau where he was fired after three days – not that that stopped him sneaking back on set in disguise. With the documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau now streaming on Netflix, we present Matt McAllister’s 2009 interview with the oddball director…



You’re probably still best known for your debut, Hardware. That film had its roots in a dream you had as a 13-year-old boy, is that right?

That’s true. I had a series of dreams about the guy in the hat, the character that turns up in Dust Devil and a bunch of other things. In one dream he was searching for something, and he digs up the metal skull with the camera lens eyes and hypodermic teeth. That’s all there really was from the dream that made it into the film, but the opening of Hardware is pretty much note by note what I remember from it.

A lot of it came from comic books as well. The Creepy and Eerie comic book series of that period especially – all psychedelic, fluorescent colours, bright oranges and greens. They mixed elements of science fiction and gothic horror – rotting spacemen, decaying androids and that sort of thing.

Hardware 1Perhaps inevitably, it was marketed as a Terminator clone on its initial release…

Yeah, the words ‘The Terminator’ appeared practically larger than the title!

Of course the influences are much wider that. Aside from comic books, you take elements of spaghetti westerns, Italian horror movies and even Saturn 3

Oh Saturn 3, definitely – the robot’s neck in particular! I think we made a decision to try and get away from a humanoid droid, to depict something that was completely unlike a person. In the initial conceptual designs, it was going to have multiple legs and be much more like an insect. But because of budgetary restrictions, I couldn’t have the multi-armed droid I wanted. But there was still a desire to get away from a Yul Brynner or Arnold Schwarzenegger style figure. So Hector from Saturn 3 was one of the films we thought of.

Angry Bob’s broadcasts are also reminiscent of Super Soul in Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point

I think the film where I really cribbed that from was Kingdom of the Spiders. That’s a terrifying movie! It’s got Bill Shatner and lots of television actors, a nice country and western score… nothing prepares you for as nasty as it gets! It’s got a DJ who plays country and western tracks all the way through; I’ve got the feeling that’s where the idea came from.

The other movie I loved back then was Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part II, which had Stretch, the lady DJ. In fact I think I ripped off a lot of the structure from that film – I was totally impressed with the idea of getting the plot out of the way in the first half an hour and then having a climax for whole hour! It was pretty out there!

Hardware-DVDThe film was cut pretty brutally in the US on its initial release…

Yes, it was given an ‘X’ rating in the States. But they still cut out all the gory shots – there was no close-up eye gouge! In those days they had a problem about torture – you weren’t allowed to show characters suffering. If you mutilated a character they had to die immediately. So the security guy who was torn in half had to die straight away, and those sorts of things got trimmed. But now, Hardware is frankly quite mild as far as those sorts of things go.

What’s the status with Hardware 2? Do you see yourself making it?

I’ve been trying for 20 years, but no one’s sure about the rights and who owns it. The only way to get it made is to get everyone in a room and get them to stop fighting over it! Palace got broken up by Polygram, Polygram got broken up by MGM, Miramax got taken over by Buena Vista and then there’s Fleetway. So, I’m trying to get all the different parties to agree to a remake or a sequel, it’s always been a dream.

The sequel script is way better than the original – to a large extent because of the budget. Hardware was turned around for 800 grand; we didn’t have a lot of cash to play with. We had to stay pretty much in the one apartment, so we didn’t see much about the environment they were in or what was outside the city. I’d love to explore that terrain a bit more fully.

And I’d love to explore what the war droids do when they’re working. Each droid is connected to a VD operator, who can see through the droid’s eyes by remote. I’d like to see all that working, as I’ve never really believed in the idea of the droids running the show by themselves like in Terminator. Droids don’t kill people, people kill people, they’re very much an extension of state policy. But if you meet the video games fans who run the droids, they’re probably pretty approachable!

The interesting thing about the original film is that all of the characters work for the government, they’re not rebels. They’re all taking money from the government or at least never question the system. That’s the most depressing thing about the movie – it’s a future America that is extremely right wing, hence the Holocaust documentary on the TV, which reflects the population control eugenics thing.

[Editor’s note: As of 2015, this remains in development hell!]

There’s a big rock ‘n’ roll element in there too, with the appearances from Lemmy, Iggy Pop, GWAR and so on. Was that to inject a rebellious attitude into the film?

Well, as we came out of the whole music video thing we just happened to know them I suppose! But it was part of the toxic stew it was coming out of at the time.

Was it true that Lemmy was paid with a bottle of Jack Daniels?

Yeah, I believe that was true. He was filling in for Sinead O’Connor, as there was a clash of dates. Lemmy was so happy to have been given a Magnum that he drew it straightaway – and it dropped to the bottom of the Thames. It’s deep thick mud down there – we sent the diver down to try and find it and he couldn’t!

Dust DevilWilliam Hootkins gave a great performance as the sleazy neighbour in Hardware and a cop in Dust Devil. What are your memories of working with him?

Bill was great; he passed [back in 2005]. He improvised a lot of that stuff and it was different in every take. I know when we were editing it we tried to get the best possible take – Iggy Pop also did a lot of variants. But Bill did it off screen too. The hair and make-up girls were terrified of him, because he was this sleazy, perverse guy from hell. He did it too on Dust Devil. He’d act like his cop character off set, make racist comments and things like that.

Bill was incredible, totally underrated as an actor. He was in Star Wars as Porkins, he got killed by Jack Nicholson in Batman… He was in so many things. He elevated the character in Hardware way beyond how he was written. I think he was probably inspired by bad horror movies like Antonio Margheriti’s Killer Fish, where a fat, obnoxious character appears early in the movie in a loud shirt – if nothing else you wait around for the character to get eaten! (Laughs) But Bill managed to make his character quite sympathetic, which is rather an achievement considering what he was working with!

Dust Devil and particularly The Island of Doctor Moreau were well-publicised troubled shoots….

Problems with a shoot always come from politics. On Dust Devil it came from the collapse of Palace, so suddenly the budget didn’t exist anymore and our equipment stopped showing up. And on Moreau, it was a takeover by New Line – it started off being an Ed Pressman production. Initially Bruce Willis and Marlon Brando were in it, then we lost Bruce Willis and Brando didn’t show up on day one – and New Line suddenly didn’t have any reason to put up with me any more and it became a different movie. So both times the problems were largely political – trying to hang onto something like that once the budget’s gone over a certain level is very very hard.

Has it put you off doing a big studio picture?

I certainly wouldn’t like to make a studio movie after Moreau unless I had stronger control over the underlying rights. One of my Achilles heels on Moreau was that it was from an HG Wells novel, which meant I didn’t own it and they could take it away from me pretty easily. Whereas if you write it yourself, it’s a little less easy for them to legally wrestle it out of your grasp. If you come aboard someone else’s script or book, you’re always just a hired hand and it’s difficult to maintain control.

Lost SoulBut I had no real choice about going into Moreau as I had to pay off Dust Devil somehow [After the collapse of Palace, Stanley funded the rest of the movie himself]. So I kind of bounced into that faster than I’d have liked to have been. You’d have to have had a big successful movie behind you, like The Godfather or something, to be able to fight a big political battle like that.

There was such a series of bad luck on Moreau. If Brando had showed up on day one it might have been different, but his daughter committed suicide that day before the shoot, the whole divine rapture collapsed and it was just a really bad time. So I lost my production at just the time I needed it.

But part of the problem was my script, which was too faithful to the Wells novel. I came to realise that big budget American sci-fi movies always make the same movie with rebels fighting against an authoritarian evil Empire. But Wells’s novel was so off-message – it was partly a critique about British colonialism. But America doesn’t have the colonial history behind it and still thinks it can conquer the world, so my version of Moreau was really off-message for a Hollywood film of that scale, and it was inevitable someone would notice and change the thing. Essentially I would have just ended up remaking the UIP version, which turns the beast people back into monsters. It’s a shame as there’s still a real movie to be made out of giving dogs, cats and animals larynxes.

MoreauBut at least your experience on the film led to some great stories. Like when you sneaked back on set dressed as a beast-man…

That’s true! I’ve still got the decayed latex head! At the time I was dating Fairuza Balk, the chick in the movie, but I got a court order when they paid me off saying I wasn’t allowed to talk to any of the principal cast or be within 40km of the set. So the only way to see anyone was to dress myself up as a dog! But what was so crazy about the movie was that when New Line took it over they fired the crew – or paid them off – so no one there knew who I was! It gave me a chance to see what was happening; if I’d had gone away I’d have felt bad about it, but it made me feel a lot more confident about my own abilities!

But I’m glad I dressed up in a dog suit. I don’t think anyone’s ever done that before. And it seemed like a good way of demonstrating the lunacy of the whole situation. Though it was like being stuck in a bad dream – being on the set and not being able to do anything about it. And being dressed as a dog made me feel like I’d been absorbed as one of the characters. It was very strange.

But you didn’t try to burn down the Queensland set, right?

No, that’s a myth. It’s something that New Line convinced themselves that I might try and do after I’d gone, but I wouldn’t have done that!

Have you seen the completed film again?

I’ve only seen it once and can’t watch it again. It’s still too rough. Because buried within the film are remnants of my old movie. It’s like, Damn! Damn! Damn!

Voice of MoonYou seem attracted to adventure. After all, you spent time hanging out with the Mujahedeen on your documentary Voice of the Moon

Yeah. We didn’t go out to make a documentary. I essentially just wanted to get out to the mountains because there were pagan people living in the mountains in Kafiristan [also known as Nuristan] who were neither Muslim nor Russian but living in a dark age and virtually uncontacted by the outside world.

My main dream was to parachute myself into a shamanic, pre-industrial Dark Age society. The only way to do that was to join the Mujahedeen – and we got distracted fighting the Russians. This was back when Afghanistan was like Chechnya – it was one of those things that nobody mentioned for 10 years. It was only after 9/11 that the Afghan/Osama Bin Laden plotline collided with the outside world in a big way. Up to then it was so far off the chart, I didn’t know what to make of it.

Voice of the Moon was shot immediately before Hardware, and post-produced after someone paid me! We got to live out there on and off for six months – I would have stayed if it hadn’t been for Hardware. I got dragged out of it. The cameraman, Immo Horn, who also worked on Hardware and Dust Devil, got pretty bad shrapnel wounds in a battle and I had to get him to a field hospital – we had to get him to the nearest surgeon in Pakistan. But the Red Cross refused to deal with it because they said we were mercenaries, so we ended up in a Saudi Red Crescent Hospital in Pakistan. And it was there that the British producers were able to get through to me about filming Hardware – and by that time they were very angry!

I had a strong temptation to stay in one of those villages in the mountains – Afghanistan has that effect on people. Carlos, the third member of our crew, was very intent on knocking over Jalalabad the provincial capital, and then taking over Kabul. It was like The Man Who Would be King! It’s probably the last time I’ll get to be on the back of a horse with a gun, in a place where there are no rules of laws. The one stop shopping impressed me – you can go into a shop and there’s chewing gum and chickpeas and plastic explosives and hashish and heroin all for sale in the same place. Yep, I’m very fond of Afghanistan.

You’re also rumoured to be directing a movie entitled Bones of the Earth. What stage is that one at?

It’s a real nightmare project this one, and has its own special destiny. The first initial draft was written by Donald Cammell – before he sadly shot himself for no good reason. The project was dearly cherished by Richard Harris, who wanted to play the lead – unfortunately he died playing Dumbledore in Harry Potter instead. Had he lived another year, it might have happened at that stage. But after that it become very difficult to find another actor to play a lead clearly written for Richard Harris – a drunken, working class, Gaelic role. Billy Connelly is maybe the only person who could climb into the role and do it justice.

It’s a fat old movie, and because of its logistics a bit of an epic. It’s basically a British First Blood or a British Deer Hunter. The character’s a messed-up medievalist character who sold out to the Americans during the Afghan war, and is left brain-damaged in an American military hospital. He escapes by gouging out the eyes of his psychiatrist and heads to the Highlands where he waits patiently for the Americans to arrive for the Highland cull. But he comes up against the aging chief stalker of the hunt, who is the one person who has the smarts to take him down. So it’s a running battle between the stalker and the brain-damaged terrorist lead who is obviously tremendously lovable!

It’s a killer action movie that runs a bit like a Western – I’m a big Sam Peckinpah fan. I’d like to do the movie before 35mm dies. I’d like to have live stunts, horses, stags, helicopters – it’s a proper big movie! Though it’s the one script likely to kill me… [and as of 2015, it’s still not happened…]

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