The cult director discusses his long-awaited return to mainstream filmmaking with Color Out of Space.
Richard Stanley achieved cult status with his first two features, Hardware and Dust Devil, in the early 1990s. Poised for breakout success with an adaptation of HG Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau, the British-South African filmmaker was kicked off the project following a series of altercations with leading man Val Kilmer (an incident described in jaw-dropping detail in David Gregory’s 2014 documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr Moreau).
More than two decades in the wilderness followed, before Stanley returned with his most commercial prospect to date, an adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s ‘Color Out of Space’ starring Nicolas Cage. The filmmaker gave us a call from his home in France to talk about his new acid horror and what he’s been up to in the intervening years.
LWLies: Color Out of Space is your first commercially released fiction feature since the Dr Moreau tragedy back in the mid-’90s, but you’ve been making short films and documentaries in the intervening years.
Stanley: Yeah, I kept myself busy. I didn’t really expect myself to be back in the film industry, but every now and again stories present themselves, and while I couldn’t afford to make them into multimillion dollar feature films, I wanted to document them just the same. A lot of the documentaries are sketches, perhaps, for movie projects that never happened.
You’re now living in the south of France, which forms the backdrop to your 2013 documentary The Otherworld. Can you talk a bit about what led you there?
I took a very unlikely career turn after Dr Moreau. I walked away from the film industry and for whatever reason went looking for the Holy Grail, which ate up a good ten years of my life. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. To an extent, Montségur, the Cathar citadel in the south of France, was a place that caused me to question my atheism. It budged me from my habitual cynicism and opened the door a bit more to making me a believer in the supernatural.
The research I was doing was into the history of Montségur and the cumulative events that have taken place there over many centuries. There was a level of coincidence which bugged me from the very beginning. It seemed off the scale, or very unlikely. I had to do a lot of fact checking and found that things were stranger than they ought to be. Then in 2007, I basically witnessed an apparition on the mountain, and it forced to me to start looking at the local folklore more seriously. In fact, I moved to the mountain and spent the next 10 years living as close to the castle as possible, because I figured that history was the survival of consciousness after death and this needed to become my priority.
Are you still working as a guide there?
I’m still living in the mountains but haven’t been doing a lot of guide work this year. It’s looking like with the success of Color Out of Space, I’m going to be doing a lot more work on Lovecraft.
As someone with a deep interest in the occult, do you think film – as a tool or a medium – has particular mystical or communicative properties?
Film lets us see things from another person’s point of view, which is one of its most valuable aspects. It’s the one medium that allows you to put someone else into your mind for a while. It’s a kind of shared dreaming. As a result, you can introduce people to concepts that are very alien to their normal thinking. Movies reflect the mass-dreaming of the public. The world has displaced its dreams into its entertainment. One can definitely sees what’s going on in the mind of a culture by examining its movies, its visual output. There’s a reason why the work of HP Lovecraft is now more popular than ever. This period of Trump’s America and Brexit, the fact that we’re now facing the possibility of mass extinction, has led to Lovecraft being given a bumper year.
Is there an underlying nihilism in his work that people are now connecting with?
I think so. It’s a weird combination of people suddenly facing up to the notion that we might be wiped out as a species and simultaneously realising that we don’t really have the certitude of orthodox religion to retreat to. Very few people are able to buy into the existence of an all-wise, all-loving Christian creator, given that those concepts are falling away. The rather more terrifying Lovecraftian take on humanity being created almost by chance, by inhuman, extraterrestrial forces we can’t comprehend seems to be speaking to people’s hearts more loudly than ever.
Can you talk about your journey back to mainstream filmmaking?
Everything in my life has been a complete fluke. It was a series of ridiculous coincidences. Post-Moreau, I hung around the peripheries of the film industry for 10 years, writing screenplays and doing odds and sods, turning up in cameo parts. I’d basically completely given up, and started making a living taking people up the mountain, retreating further into the Pyrenées. I probably would have stayed there had it not been for me and two friends mucking about with a glow-in-the-dark ouija board from Toys R Us. The ouija board told us to write Mother of Toads, a short film based on the work of Clark Ashton Smith. In fact, it dictated most of the script and the structure, and as a joke we did it. This 20-minute short then became an episode in an anthology film called The Theatre Bizarre that the US-based producer David Gregory put together; we did it for 20 grand.
The backer of the film, a man named Darryl Tucker, who was the CEO of the West Virginia Concrete Company, really dug our segment and flew out to Montségur to see the location. He said he’d throw down $10,000 if we’d write a feature-length script based on ‘Color Out of Space’, which I was initially reluctant to do because I thought, ‘How the hell are we going to create a colour that doesn’t exist?’ But being shy of a few pence, I wrote the screenplay, and by the time I’d finished it, Darryl and his concrete company was already bankrupt. So the movie wasn’t forthcoming but the script floated around. During the shooting of Mandy, Nic Cage let slip that he was a Lovecraft fan, and the producers were keen to work with him again. So they grabbed my screenplay, pressed it into Nic’s hands and it suddenly came into being.
I got a phone call from a guy claiming to be Nicolas Cage, calling me from a bar in Las Vegas at about 3am Montségur time. The whole thing seemed pretty bizarre and I remained sceptical for a long period of time, it just seemed too far-fetched. The producers had to drive up to the Pyrenées eventually, and banged on my front door. I gave them coffee and they told me to get in the car, where they drove me south to Portugal and into pre-production.
You once said that on a $75m film, “You can’t trust your own mother.” After your experiences on Moreau, were you nervous about questions of trust and control when it came to re-entering the sphere of commercial filmmaking?
It was definitely daunting, but it helps that Color is a much smaller movie. The operational budget of Color was probably around 3m Euros, and as a result there was a lot less pressure. We had six weeks to prep it, and six weeks to shoot. Color probably made the transition from page to screen much more smoothly than anything else I’ve ever written. The finished film is very close to the original script.
You made your 1999 documentary Voice of the Moon in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan war when you were just 22. There’s various stories about how you got into the country to shoot the film, from joining up with a fundamentalist group to travelling in with heroin smugglers…
They’re both true. The first time I went in with the United Nations, with the UN food convoy, delivering flour to Nangarhar province. Then we got into trouble with the UN for deviating from the path, because they were very strict about going in and dropping off the flour on the agreed route. Of course, the whole point of being in Afghanistan was there was all this stuff that I was desperate to see. The UN got really pissed and wouldn’t let us do it again. Determined to get back in, we went with one of the guerrilla parties. The deal was fixed for us by a guy who was later implicated in heroin smuggling, which we didn’t know about at the time.
We then joined the Hezbi Islami under Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was this terrifying, black-turbanned guy who looked likes the bad guy from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. I liked them because initially I thought they were against smoking, and if we were with them we’d be forced to give up. It didn’t really work that way in the field. It turned out they were all hypocrites. The moment they were out of sight of civilisation they were all smoking, wearing leather jackets and trading Leonardo DiCaprio videos.
But it was an interest in lycanthropy, rather than political journalism that first drew you there?
Partly, yeah. I was interested in shamanism and shape-shifting in general. There had been a shamanic pagan culture in the Hindu Kush until 1910, which is incredibly recent, as pretty much everywhere else in the world the traditional pagan, shamanic cultures were wiped out thousands of years ago. The fact that this had a fully functional pagan society – an ecstatic, dance-based religion – up until less than a hundred years before we arrived made me feel very optimistic that, in a place where most people can’t read or write and information travels very slowly, it was a good place to look for a truly primordial, dark age experience.
Instead you were hit by rockets and your producer was killed by the CIA.
Yeah, well, we didn’t see that part coming. We were young and naive, the point being that when we went in everyone was on the same side. At that point, the people who were going to become the Taliban, ourselves, the CIA, England, America – everyone was united against the Russians. We didn’t see 9/11 coming, and never thought things would get as tricky as they did.
“I ran into Harvey Weinstein, who was coming right at me with his hand outstretched – but from my twisted, drug-laced perspective he seemed like a huge, grey ogre.”
And yet your first instinct, when you thought you were about to get caught after the siege of Jalalabad, was to swallow all the LSD you had with you.
I credit that with getting me out of there. For some reason I was the only one out of the bunch of us that wasn’t killed or badly injured. I’m not particularly tough, so I credit the fact that I was tripping balls at the time for my ability to get through it. I was a lot more relaxed, didn’t take things too seriously and developed this stupid idea that I could telepathically tell where booby traps were. I hitched my German friend who was injured in both legs onto the back of a donkey and took off across the mine fields without worrying about it too much. I think if I hadn’t been tripping, I would have frozen and panicked.
Didn’t LSD play a part in an early meeting with Harvey Weinstein?
Yeah, that was a bad call. I’d made Hardware just after getting back from Afghanistan. Under normal circumstances, these days people would have counselling, but Hardware was what I had instead of PTSD. I was in a pretty strange frame of mind during that production, but I didn’t touch alcohol, soft drugs or psychedelics throughout the entire production, I was on the straight and narrow. Then we did the damn movie, and it turned out alright; we premiered the thing at Cannes. Then there was a second one, which was a sold out midnight screening with a predominantly young audience. So I thought, ‘Okay, everyone’s seen the movie, I’ve done my job, now I can let my hair down a little.’
I took a bunch of psychedelics for that midnight screening, for the first time in about a year. I’d been walking the line pretty good, and it was the first time since working on the film that I was able to see it from a new perspective. I really enjoyed the experience, but unfortunately the movie is only about 95 minutes, so by the time it ended and I came out of the auditorium, I was still pretty messed up. The first that happened was I ran into Harvey Weinstein, who was coming right at me with his hand outstretched – but from my twisted, drug-laced perspective he seemed like a huge, grey ogre. I remember seeing beads of sweat clinging to his flesh, and I just panicked. I pushed past him and ran.
Color Out of Space is kind of structured like a trip.
Yeah, I always try to structure my movies that way. Hardware is also structured like that. Color takes that little bit of time coming up at the beginning, then once it does start to get weird it continues to do so.
Color Out of Space is released in cinemas on 28 February, and Blu-ray, DVD and Digital on 6 April. Read the LWLies review.
Published 27 Feb 2020