Twenty-one years after The Island of Dr. Moreau began its march into the pantheon of notorious screen debacles, its original director Richard Stanley looks to get another shot at the story. Plans are underway for Stanley, whose firing three days into production of the movie he’d developed for years was just the beginning of Moreau’s troubles, to helm a new adaptation of the classic H.G. Wells novel.
The catastrophic production of Moreau—on which Stanley was replaced by John Frankenheimer, the script was rewritten daily and stars Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer caused endless problems—was recounted in David Gregory’s 2014 documentary Lost Soul (full disclosure: this writer appeared briefly as an interviewee). That, Stanley tells BMD, has led to a potential return trip to the island. “At this stage, I can’t say exactly by who, and how long it will take, but the project does live again, largely thanks to David. We’re currently scripting and designing the thing. It’s going to be an all-new screenplay and an all-new cast of beast-people; the original creatures are copyrighted by Warner Bros. [parent company of New Line, which produced and released the ’96 film]. I wasn’t particularly happy with them anyway. The final designs of the creatures in the Frankenheimer version were disappointing, and I think there’s huge room for improvement.
“That’s something I’ve been talking about with the project’s backers at some length,” he continues, “because that was also their concern, to reinvent the mousetrap in terms of the beast-people. This time around, they seem to understand the film a bit better, and realize that the creatures are the stars of the movie, not the humans. That was the essential mistake made in the New Line version. They didn’t realize just how much mileage they could get out of those characters if they actually foregrounded them.”
Not yet decided at the moment, Stanley adds, is whether Moreau’s mutations will cavort across the big or the small screen. “I’m hoping it will metamorphose into three feature films or six television hours,” he says. “I’m actually pushing it toward the latter. I would prefer it to be on TV rather than as a theatrical movie or movies, because a) we would have less interference from the studio, and b) we could have an R-level product. I believe that going for the multiplex, it would have its teeth pulled and its nails cut again [New Line’s Moreau was PG-13], and going to television, we could be pretty unrestrained in the way we approach the material. There are a lot of scenes I’ve always wanted to do, including those with the sexually charged dolphin people [laughs], that have fallen out along the way, which I would like to get back into it.”
Stanley hasn’t helmed a feature since the Moreau disaster, though he did co-script Norbert Keil’s new Barbara Crampton-starrer Replace and direct a segment of the horror anthology The Theatre Bizarre, as well as a number of documentaries (his latest, The Otherworld, comes out on Blu-ray and DVD August 29 from Severin Films). And he feels vindicated by Lost Soul’s revelations of the truth about the Moreau experience.
“It confirmed a number of things I thought were just paranoia before,” he says. “It was good to know that Tim Zinnemann, one of the executive producers, was actually out to get me from the start. I had always kind of assumed that, but in David’s documentary, where he talks about putting aside a fund from the very beginning to try to replace the director, confirms that he was working on that for about a year before he actually got rid of me. Having a lot of that stuff on camera certainly helped my cause, and established what had really gone down. Part of the irony of The Island of Dr. Moreau is that I never really did anything they could actually get me for. I don’t think I ever cursed anybody out, used bad language; I certainly didn’t throw any punches, I didn’t climb any trees. The stories that I had gone completely insane were easy for New Line to peddle, but the reality was simply the set of horrific corporate circumstances meeting climatic circumstances.”
He’s also aware that, given his troubled history with Moreau, many eyes will be on his attempts to resurrect it. “The fact that it may now come back to life and happen all over again, after a 21-year period of lying dormant, feels a little bit like Evel Knievel trying to jump the Grand Canyon a second time, because there will be a built-in expectation as to what the fuck will happen this time [laughs]. Considering that the last one is legendary as one of the worst location shoots of all time, up there with Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, it’s difficult to imagine what else could happen.
“But I’m ready for it, and I’m praying that this time around, it will come out right, and a definitive Moreau can finally reach the screen. Of course, that will come down to a huge amount of insanely hard work, and I’m thoroughly aware of the odds, and the fact that it has kind of ruined multiple careers by now. I was talking to someone who had been on the  Don Taylor film as well as the Frankenheimer version—he had somehow been on the set of both movies—and he said that the earlier shoot was exactly the same. The same level of chaos and insanity was at play, and the experience was just as brutal and discouraging. I now realize that I’m part of a history that will probably never be over, and that what I thought was the end for me was simply the conclusion of the first chapter.”