January 14, 2017

Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's The Island of Dr Moreau (2014)

In the mid-1990s cult director Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devils) went to Hollywood with a dream of making a stylish film adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel The Island of Dr Moreau. That dream was pretty much shattered immediately, and the resulting film - ultimately directed by Hollywood career helmer John Frankenheimer - went down as one of the most unpopular and critically derided films of 1996.

Lost Soul, a 2014 documentary by David Gregory, recounts the troubled development and production of The Island of Dr Moreau, interviewing key members of the film's cast and crew and putting together the most comprehensive account available on precisely what happened to the film and what occurred to make such a promising project crash and burn in such a spectacular fashion. It is not the best documentary of its kind - that remains Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's spectacular Lost in La Mancha - but it is a fascinating and regularly entertaining account of one of modern Hollywood's most legendarily disastrous movie shoots.

The film essentially tells two stories in a row. The first, which takes up the majority of the running time, is the tale of how an eccentric but talented independent filmmaker came to New Line Cinema with a clearly developed movie project and wound up losing not only control of the film but his job as well. The second story follows what happened to the Dr Moreau shoot after Richard Stanley had been fired. It makes for a slightly uneven documentary, because while the first half gets more attention - due I suspect in large part because Stanley himself was so freely available to the filmmakers to interview - it is the second half that contains the juiciest bits of behind-the-scenes drama. The production cast two disastrously huge egos in actors Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando, and despite all the second-hand information related by extras and crew members about their appalling behaviour neither actor appears to give their own side of the story: Brando is dead and Kilmer was clearly unwilling or unable to participate. The end result of all of this is a documentary that edges at being hugely entertaining, but has to settle for being intriguing instead.

A talking-heads documentary of this kind lives or dies on the back of its interview subjects, and while there are a few gaps the participants Gregory has successfully recorded are roundly entertaining. Obviously Stanley himself is the film's greatest coup. He is a fascinating and slightly off-kilter person, who openly admits to getting a witch doctor to create spells to grant the production success and whose creative concepts were clearly never going to win favour with a typically conservative movie studio. It is a pity that the scale of his film increased by so much once New Line Cinema became involved. From the design drawings and character ideas presented here, Stanley's own vision for Dr Moreau would have been a hell of a thing to see.

A close second to Stanley is actor Fairuza Balk, the only one of the film's leads to participate (like Kilmer, co-star David Thewlis does not appear). Her brutally frank assessments of replacement director John Frankenheimer and co-star Marlon Brando are hugely enlightening, and her passion for Stanley's original vision is clear. Other fascinating participants include actor Rob Morrow, who bailed on the production within a week of it beginning, New Line Cinema President Bob Shaye, and a variety of Australian supporting actors and crew members.

To an extent the documentary feels a little like an over-inflated DVD extra feature, but the picture it paints is an interesting one, and the clues revealed as to Stanley's original ideas are wonderful to consider. It is clear there was a solid and provocative film to be made in Dr Moreau, and it is ultimately a tragedy that such a film never managed to be made.

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