South African filmmaker Richard Stanley is currently enjoying a years-later career revival thanks to The Color Out of Space, a new film hitting theaters Friday and based on H.P. Lovecraft’s classic short story. Stanley’s adaptation stars Nicolas Cage as an eccentric, alpaca-raising patriarch whose family’s members all lose their minds after they’re exposed to an alien meteorite.
Both Stanley’s Color and ongoing comeback would not have been possible without the success of Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, writer-director David Gregory’s detailed and unsparing 2014 documentary about the catastrophic production of 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, which saw Stanley fired as director and replaced with filmmaker John Frankenheimer.
After Stanley’s version of H.G. Wells’ Dr. Moreau — and ascendant filmmaking career — fell through, he retreated to Montségur, a mountainous, secluded commune in southern France. While there, Stanley made documentary features like The Otherworld (2011), as well as fictional shorts, like his contribution to the 2013 horror anthology The Theatre Bizarre (for which he adapted Clark Ashton Smith’s “Mother of Toads”). Now: Stanley’s working on his second feature in a proposed trilogy of Lovecraft adaptations. The Hollywood Reporter spoke with him over the phone last week about a handful of unrealized projects after Dr. Moreau and Lost Soul, as well as his favorite works of Lovecraft-esque cosmic horror.
Your plans to adapt your The Island of Dr. Moreau script into a comic book with [European comics publisher] Humanoids are seemingly still moving forward. But, speaking with ComingSoon.net, you said that project now has an estimated five-year production schedule. Is that still true? Five years?
I’m not going to say too much about that at the moment, because it’s going to get complicated. I think what’s going to happen is, whether I like it or not, The Island is going to reboot itself. Right now, it’s managed to metamorphose from being just a comic book series into a television series, too. I also think somebody would adapt this project even if I wasn’t going to. Moreau‘s time has come. For some bizarre reason, we’re living in a year where talking animal movies are very popular, with Cats just behind us, and Dolittle now out, as well as Baz Luhrmann wanting to make The Master and Margarita, which features literature’s most famous talking cat. I think Moreau is a piece whose time has come.
Would a TV series adaptation take precedence over a comic book adaptation?
They’d come out simultaneously. This project started with me writing something like a six-hour adaptation of Moreau, which was then going to be adapted for comics. But then there was some potential for a television adaptation, so the project became a larger ball of string. This version of the project concerns the events that follow H.G. Wells’ story. So it would contain the original story, but also would go back in time to show us how the island got started, and how the young Dr. Moreau first got this crazy idea of humanized animals. We’ll see the progression, or evolution, of the island up to the point where the H.G. Wells story takes place. Then: I want to go beyond that story to find out what happened to the beast-people following Moreau’s death.
What happened to Dave and James Franco’s proposed series about the making of your Dr. Moreau movie?
It’s continuing on a parallel line of development. They are intending to do a light, comedic take on the shooting of the original movie, in the same vein as The Disaster Artist. I’ve got nothing to do with that, personally, aside from being credited as an executive consultant, and receiving a small stipend for not suing anyone.
There you go.
I’m intrigued to see how my character might be represented (Laughs.).
How does that project make you feel, knowing how they present Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist?
I think I’ll come out of it OK. We’ll see. Watching Lost Soul with an audience, I realized we were getting very big laughs. Lost Soul is probably the most successful comedy I’ve ever been a part of. It’s come up with bigger marks than anything else I worked on, so it’s something I can’t really ignore. I’ve given the Francos my full, unpublished account of the movie’s production. My full confession. Which Lost Soul didn’t fully touch on. I guess I’ll get to see what I imagine is my process.
You also tried to make a couple of other post-Moreau projects. One of them being Vacation, a proposed horror-comedy, which seem like a reaction to the Hostel movies in the sense that it’s a response to that series’ depiction of American exceptionalism and xenophobia. Both Bruce Campbell and Dean Cain were attached to your project. What’s happening with Vacation?
Vacation is currently dormant. It was too much of a political hot potato. We had it up and running for a while when Bruce Campbell was attached, but Bruce backed out after he landed a job at Burn Notice. When we lost him, the project went into turnaround. With Vacation, we wanted to make a romantic comedy about the end of the world. Our characters’ only good chance at falling in love is during the apocalypse. For a lot of us, the end of the world would almost come as a relief.
I’m also very intrigued by what happens in contemporary American financial deals. Bruce Campbell’s character was going to be a Wall Street broker who has abundant money all his life, but suddenly has all his resources cut off. What happens if you’re abroad and your credit card suddenly stops working, and will never work again, and the Wi-Fi will never come back on again, and the cell towers will never work again? In this case, it puts our lead characters in an awkward situation. One hour of his credit card not working could destroy his life. I wrote Vacation shortly after 9/11, so I was a little bit worried about where things were in the world. The script is pretty edgy.
Let’s talk about The Color Out of Space, since that movie also seems to be about the end of an era where Europe and America — or maybe even white people — rule the world. You’ve previously talked about falling out of love with British neo-paganism and the Wiccan movement in England because of what seemed, to you, like an encroaching kind of fascism. That disenchantment pops up in The Color Out of Space, since your version of the Gardners [the story’s protagonists] seems to reflect society’s failure to commit to sustainable utopianism. Are these characters a reflection of what you experienced with real-life neo-pagans and Wiccans?
There is certainly an element of that in Color. The Gardner family are out of touch with the world, just as so many modern neo-pagans are out of touch with the true rhythms of the land. The daughter Lavinia’s interest in the Wiccan faith might ultimately be of little more practical use than her father Nathan’s utopian obsession with raising alpacas or her brother Benny’s retreat into online gaming. The “othala” rune she carves into her forehead is literally a symbol of heritage or family. There is no direct evidence that it helps her survival chances or contributes to her understanding of the implacable, ultra-dimensional threat that opposes them. Even if a meteorite didn’t strike their front lawn, the local government would steal their land and the whole farm end up at the bottom of the dam. Either that or their mother’s cancer would return and the family would be torn apart some other way. Color provides us with a snapshot of a Spielbergian, white-bread family unit at the point of extinction and not all the details it reveals are pleasant. There are certainly elements of 21st century fascism and racism stirred into this toxic stew, clearly identifiable in scenes such as the moment when Nicolas Cage’s character tries to force poor [African American surveyor] Ward to drink alpaca milk.
Tommy Chong’s character in The Color Out of Space is reminiscent of the witch doctor in Dust Devil, in the sense that both characters are essentially telling the truth about what’s happening in the outside world, but are obviously untrustworthy beyond a point. Are supporting characters like that autobiographical, in the sense that they’re based on real people you’ve met?
Completely. Concerning the Tommy Chong character, he’s based on a real person named Urani, from a documentary I shot called The Otherworld, which gives us a good feel of the extremely strange life that Urani was living. He had been separated from the outside world for about 20 years, living in isolation in the middle of nowhere. He hadn’t gotten laid in so long that he started cross-dressing about 10 years before I got there. There was no running water so he couldn’t really wash, and was a very shaggy-looking guy. Nevertheless, he painted his nails, wore a dress and was quite dainty. He was the only person I’ve ever met who actually believed in H.P. Lovecraft’s the Old Ones. He had a battered French-language copy of the Necronomicon.
At the turn of the century, in the ‘90s, Urani became obsessed with analog tape recordings of what he claimed were extraterrestrials buzzing around beneath the floors of the house, which is an element that is tied directly to my The Color Out of Space script. In real life, these analog recordings of the alleged extraterrestrials were eventually played on French television, which in 2012 caused an outbreak of mass hysteria. Which led the French government to declare martial law in the area. I brought some aspects of that into Color. Mostly because I was exchanging some property at the time. But, of course, I couldn’t hear anything on the recordings. It was just enough to put a scare into the public and the French authorities
How else has your time in Montségur influenced your The Color Out of Space adaptation?
This adaptation is partly based on a lot of things that I saw when I was out there. There were many British expatriates trying to move to the countryside; usually parents who had just retired from their city jobs. A lot of them were accountants, or people in advertising agencies, who’d never run a farm before, but ended up buying or restoring a dilapidated homestead. They usually had crazy, bright ideas about settling down and making Angora sweaters, or their own wine. Or raising ostriches. There’s always some pipe dream, and a great many don’t quite work out.
The British expat population in France also usually develop drinking problems after the first year or two, just because of how isolated the region is. The Gendarmerie will also agree that, after two, three years, the police are called up because of frequent episodes of marital violence. So you see a number of different folks settling in the area, and trying horribly to make a go of it. That was definitely at the back of my mind.
In at least one earlier interview, you said that you were futzing with newish models of FLIR cameras, which are basically infrared cameras seen in color. How did your tests with those cameras influence the look of your The Color Out of Space?
I had the opportunity to experiment with the new generation of FLIR thermal imaging cameras on The Otherworld, a documentary concerning paranormal activity in the South of France that I worked on in the summer of 2013. Those cameras are intriguing, obviously, because you can photograph energetic shapes that are beyond the human spectrum. But by the time Color was finally ready to shoot, I realized the look of traditional thermal imaging systems had been used too many times, and was starting to feel stale. I was anxious to present the audience with something they had truly never seen before. We started with the FLIR as a jumping-off point, but the approach we arrived at in Color is a combination of several different visual elements. The film’s visual effects team USER T-38 are basically a warehouse in Madrid full of Spanish computer nerds tapping away at their computers. They were able to combine these elements to come up with the sumptuously psychedelic look you can see onscreen. This was the first time I’ve been allowed to get my hands into the digital toy box, so I used every tool at my disposal.
Talk about working with Nicolas Cage on Color. Based on his interviews, he seems to always ask directors first if he can try a line reading a certain way before he attempts it. What was working with him like?
Me and Nic fortunately share a very similar sensibility. Like him, I see pretty much everything I do as a kind of apocalyptic deadpan comedy. That’s pretty much true of everything I’ve done from Hardware to the present day. I imagine a combination of things which are simultaneously genuinely horrible and also sickeningly funny. Nic also has a fabulous sense of comic timing, to the point where I was thinking that if he keeps doing character actor-style performance, he’s going to end up being the next Vincent Price.
Speaking of deadpan humor and apocalyptic dread: you said, in a recent interview with The Austin Chronicle, that “I’m not quite ready to cave into Lovecraft’s dark nihilism.” That’s interesting, given Color Out of Space‘s necessarily downbeat ending. Without spoiling anything: Does your movie’s ending serve as a jumping-off point for where you’re going to go with your next two Lovecraft adaptations?
It does, because Ward [Elliot Knight] will continue on through the next two movies. The Dunwich Horror adaptation that I am working on now will probably take place seven years after the events of Color, or someday in a future version of the Lovecraftian city of Arkham, which is where I’ll continue to explore the concept of the Old Ones returning to Earth. I think these movies will climax with a battle between humanity and the Old Ones.
I can’t reveal the nature of the third movie beyond that though. All of Lovecraft’s work is in the public domain, so over the next few years, anyone could go forward and make their own Call of Cthulhu. I’m intrigued to see what the next two to three years will bring with Jordan Peele’s Lovecraft Country and other upcoming projects. It seems to me that Lovecraft’s time has come.
In Lost Soul, you say that you don’t really care for Isle of Lost Souls or any of the other cinematic adaptations of The Island of Dr. Moreau. What do you think about other contemporary Lovecraft adaptations, like the Stuart Gordon/Dennis Paoli Lovecraft adaptations, especially Dagon and From Beyond. Or Alan Moore’s Providence comics?
I’m actually a fan of the Lovecraft movies of Stuart Gordon. Like everyone, I loved Re-Animator when it first came out. I’m also an extra in Dagon; I’m the only fish-person wearing a hat, which makes me relatively easy to spot. That said, while I do enjoy Stuart’s work, none of it really touches on the essence of cosmic horror, or ultimately says much about humanity’s place in the universe, which seems to me what Lovecraft was always driving at. With Color, I was keen to confront the audience with that essential Lovecraftian moment, where a lone, wholly inadequate human being is forced to face something they have no hope of dealing with, something indescribably more powerful than themselves.
I think that the best Lovecraft adaptations that have appeared to date are not really direct adaptations. There are two that I would single out. The first is John Carpenter’s The Thing, which might be the best Lovecraft movie of all time. It’s certainly the greatest monster movie of all time and has a gloriously deadpan, downbeat ending. I’m also super-fond of Andrzej ?u?awski’s Possession, which probably has the best tentacle sex scene of all time.
With [E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’s creature effects designer] Carlo Rambaldi’s disgusting tentacle monster, right?
Neither of those movies are official Lovecraft adaptations, but they seem to hit all the right buttons.
To wrap things up: When do you start shooting your next movie?
I’m hoping that we’ll be starting this fall. I’m currently drafting the Dunwich Horror screenplay, and it’s going extremely well. In fact, it seems to be writing itself. There’s something about the current zeitgeist, or the current world that we live in, that is very favorable to H.P. Lovecraft. I don’t know why, a hundred years after his death, that Lovecraft’s material has become so relevant, but I’m just going with the flow. I’m hoping we’ll have the next installment in our Lovecraft trilogy ready by 2021.