David Gregory's Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's The Island of Dr. Moreau is going to end up drawing a lot of comparisons to Frank Pavich's Jodorowsky's Dune, and that's totally understandable. Both docs tell the same unbelievable (and curiously inspiring) tale: a brilliantly unhinged director attempts -- and ultimately fails -- to wrestle a classic sci-fi novel onto the big screen. Both combine storyboards, concept art, and behind-the-scenes footage with a barrage of frequently-hilarious talking head interviews to great effect. And both leave viewers longing to visit another reality, one wherein Alejandro Jodorowsky and Richard Stanley actually completed the insane films they set out to make.
Beyond those basics, however, Lost Soul is its own thing.
And that thing is awesome. Here's the setup: half a decade after putting himself on the map with 1990's Hardware, director Richard Stanley finally convinced someone to finance his adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau. Originally, Stanley was aiming for a $7-8m film, something that'd update the setting and timeline of Well's source material while leaving its themes (science vs. morality, man vs. animals, man vs. god) firmly in place. It was also designed as a bit of an SFX extravaganza, with a small army of actors adorned in elaborate makeup and cutting-edge prosthetics. If the storyboards and pre-production sketches are any indication, it really would've been something.
But right off the bat, one can't help but wonder: was that version of the film ever possible given the extremely limited budget Stanley had to work with? Eh, probably not. And that's just the first in a long line of problems and uphill battles Stanley would have to fight during his incredibly-brief tenure on the film. There were also doubtful executives to deal with, an unfamiliar crew to wrangle (the direct result of an enormously questionable decision to shoot the film in a remote area of Australia known for its natural beauty almost as much for its rainfall), the relative inexperience of Stanley himself, studio disagreements over the script's more disturbing elements (see also: man-on-cat-lady boning), and on and on and on. These issues were all readily apparent before the first frame of film had been shot, and when cameras did finally start rolling there were new problems to contend with.
Just about everyone interviewed for Lost Soul has a "Richard Stanley story", but for the most part these stories are built around Stanley's charming eccentricity or his infectious passion for the material, for the SFX, or for the act of filmmaking in general. He's undoubtedly weird (at one point, Stanley describes enlisting a warlock (!!!) to perform a "blood ritual" to help him navigate a potentially problematic script meeting), and he definitely comes across as intense and outspoken. But overall, it's clear that -- for as crazy as things got with Stanley on set -- a far greater number of the production's issues were caused by forces beyond his control.
Namely, Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando.
Again and again, Kilmer is described as a chain-smoking "prep-school bully" who seemed to delight in undermining Stanley's authority at every turn, preferably in front of as many crew members as possible. Brando comes off just as poorly, scheming with crew members to derail the production even after Stanley's replacement, John Frankenheimer, arrives, and holding up production for hours -- if not days -- at a time with his shenanigans. At one point, both Kilmer and Brando refuse to come out of their trailers until the other guy's on set first. I'll leave the rest of the Kilmer/Brando anecdotes for you to discover on your own (listing 'em all off would be akin to spoiling some of the film's best jokes) but trust me when I say that you won't walk away with a good impression of either actor. To say the least.
And really, the same could be said for much of Lost Soul: the film's a treasure-trove of tell-all salaciousness and insidery info, and the various twists and turns the story takes really should be the film's to tell. All you really need to know upfront is that Lost Soul is about a big-budget Hollywood film's spectacular, nearly-total implosion, and that it delightfully tosses some big names under the bus while championing a genre director who -- troublesome or not -- feels long overdue for another at-bat. It's just as entertaining as Jodo's Dune, even if the former's a little less polished in terms of editing, design, and structure, and it's one of the best things I've seen at Fantastic Fest this year, hands down. I'm very confident it'll hit hard with the film geek crowd upon release. See it as soon as you can.
Oh, and keep your fingers crossed for Richard Stanley: if what he's been saying is true, there may still be hope that we'll see his version of The Island of Dr. Moreau someday.