Color out of Space hits theaters this week. Get your tickets here!
Richard Stanley is a filmmaker out of time. His breakthrough feature, Hardware, arrived in 1990, bringing not only an intriguing, complex vision for the future, but tremendous expectations to follow up such an auspicious debut. Two other films followed in rapid succession, but it was the notoriously troubled 1996 adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau - where he was replaced by John Frankenheimer - that unfortunately framed his creativity for the next two decades, and made him both an iconoclast and by Hollywood standards, a pariah.
His work as wrangler to Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer on Moreau was eventually spotlighted in the 2014 documentary Lost Soul, vindicating him so long after the fact that it felt too late to make a real impact on what was by then a career that barely existed the margins of the filmmaking industry. But in an extraordinary turn of events, Elijah Wood’s SpectreVision decided to bankroll one of Stanley’s long-gestating projects, an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s Color Out of Space to star Nicolas Cage. Stanley spoke with us about the challenges of bringing Lovecraft’s work to the screen. In addition to talking about making his return to the director’s chair, he discussed the process of finding the film’s unique audiovisual elements that tapped into the otherworldly ideas of the source material, and finally, reflected on the intimate and deeply personal influences that inspired both him and his fearless, dedicated star Nicolas Cage as they explored this story.
How much did the release of Lost Souls galvanize or kickstart the process of developing Color Out of Space and getting you back into the director’s chair?
I think Lost Souls certainly helped clear things up. David Gregory did a remarkable job of interviewing everyone involved in the project so people didn't have to take my word for it anymore. The story was so unlikely and farfetched that no one really believed it until that point in time. And a closer examination of Lost Souls tends to vindicate my decision-making process on Moreau. So that definitely helped. Although it was still a leap in the dark for SpectreVision to be the first people to actually take a chance on going forward with even a medium budget project like this on material that’s this out there.
Lovecraft is sort of notoriously difficult to get right on screen. When you started mounting this adaptation, what did you know you had to get right in order for Color Out of Space to come together?
Obviously it’s a huge challenge, but one thing we did know right from the top is that we had to bring the monster up. A lot of people were saying don't show the creature; try to imply it or look the other way. And Lovecraft himself always brings the monster up, usually in the last paragraph in italics - Cthulhu or whatever it is usually shows up and everybody goes mad or dies as a result. So there was the obvious challenge of bringing something cosmic into the movie. And most of all I wanted to try to skewer the issue of having a protagonist who’s incapable or too weak to be able to deal with the situation, who’s faced with something which is cosmic, unnamable and completely beyond their ability to do anything about, which seems to be the key Lovecraft theme. It's a moment that never quite happens in any of the other Lovecraft adaptations, so I knew I wanted to show that essential thing of having a flawed protagonist forced to, as when Nick goes to try and deal with the Alpacas, forced to deal with something they really don't want to have to deal with, which their minds are not capable of wrapping their heads around. And with this, we had some help from the point of view that Lovecraft's on record about loving the work of artist Virgil Finlay, and Virgil Finlay fortunately for us illustrated Color Out of Space when it was first published. So there is a Virgil Finlay plate of the thing coming out of the well, which gives us a pretty clear idea of what Lovecraft had in mind. So I duplicated that and sent it around to all of the effects people.
Notwithstanding with the title itself, determining what is the right color palette for this seems essential in creating something that feels otherworldly and mesmerizing. Did you just reference Finlay’s work as the way to visualize that on screen? What process did you go through to figure it out?
With the color palette, we ended up like Stuart Gordon with ultraviolet and infrared, which are the kind of outermost edges of the human spectrum. And that also pushes the soundtrack towards ultrasound and infrasound, toward very deep bass tones, high-pitched, whistling whines, which are, again, the very outer limits of what we can hear. If we had an olfactory spectrum, we could have issued the audience scratch and sniff cards. Instead, we've got Nick constantly smelling something bad in the air and not being able to put his finger on what it is, which are the fingerprints of ultra-dimensional interference in our world. I mean, we literally can't perceive the actual color, but what we can perceive is something akin to a three-dimensional shadow of an ultra-dimensional object. So that kind of template to work within.
You talk about the idea of a character not being able to fully process what's going on, and a movie like this certainly lends itself to a beautiful and intriguing ambiguity about what these people are experiencing. For you, how defined is the reality in the film? Did you determine what's happening and what isn’t, or did you let those impressionistic elements come out in the filmmaking and storytelling?
It was worked out pretty carefully, and I admit there's a lot of the time we didn't make any attempt to explain what was happening to the audience. I realized there’s no speech given by any of the characters in the movie about how the human auditory spectrum or the visual spectrum actually works. I'm just assuming the audience will know that or figure it out for themselves. It helps that it's something which is completely from outside the spectrum. If it was a 1950s movie, I would probably have had the scientist character explain it to the sheriff at some point. But that dialogue never quite happens. And certainly in the course of the making of the movie, I was sufficiently submerged in the process that I was dreaming very strongly - the color was getting into my dreams, telling me how it wanted to appear, and telling me, “make me beautiful, so when it takes over Nic, make certain it’s beautiful like the way I'm taking you over now.” And in the dream, I was looking at my hands and seeing the stuff building out of my flesh, and I’d wake up and think, God, I hope that the color is alright with this.
Did you approach the movie from the point of view of how concretely can I replicate that dream experience, or did you approach it intuitively as a storyteller and a visualist?
As a filmmaker, I wanted to make certain that the final film was as much of a ride as possible, and it was thoroughly entertaining for the audience, because first and foremost, I wanted to make certain that the laughs and the scares were all present and accounted for - because I don't think subtext should ever get in the way of a good time. And I wanted it to be something that slips down rather well at night. So there was a limit to how much philosophical discourse and stuff I wanted to actually externalize in the film, but it's pretty well worked out beyond that. Also I have issues with Lovecraft, like most folk. Lovecraft is also a racist and a misogynist, and there were issues which, although we never openly discussed in the context of the film, we wanted to address in the way that we went about adapting it, hence the introduction of the characters and making certain that the family were actually characterized, whereas in the story they’re pretty much ciphers who are killed off without us really caring about what happens to the children or what happens to any of them. I wanted to address Lovecraft’s nihilism by projecting myself into them. Young Jack is very much a young version of myself trying to deal with my parents freaking out and tearing each other apart, and Nic’s very much dealing with his dad in this movie. Much of Nic’s characterization in the second part of the movie was a grim parody of his own father, and most of my issues with my Mum are acted out through Theresa.
One of the things that’s really striking was how patient the opening scenes are in establishing the world that these characters live in, and not rushing to sort of jump right into the supernatural or hallucinogenic elements of the story. Forgive me for drawing a sort of external parallel, but what have you maybe learned if anything from the protracted process of getting projects made that taught you to be patient in storytelling?
That's a rare thing in movies these days, but I'm glad that Color is a feature film and not television because the impetus is always to try to have something happen within the first few minutes. Personally I've always been very influenced by one of my favorite filmmakers, Tobe Hooper. I love the way that Tobe tries in Texas Chain Saw to have things and just keep escalating them from one scene to another, which kind of almost impels you to start somewhere very, very quiet at the beginning, if you've got to keep trying to raise the stakes in scene after scene, and then of course, the last reel is going to be sheer pandemonium. Watching Tobe doing it right is a bit like listening to Jimi Hendrix or something; I just love the way that he tries to build climax upon climax upon climax. For sure, Color is structured in this kind of escalating hysteria, but it's also because it was so important to try and ground it in actual human beings and to try to make the family likable. I find in so many horror movies, the special effects are more believable usually than the family members, particularly in Euro horror, which is an area I’m particularly fond of for sure. But we've often got people with totally different accents and things pretending to be family members.
One of Nicolas Cage’s trademarks is trying accents that seem out of left field but fit into his idea of a character. Was there something that Nic described to you in terms of the way the character evolves? Because once he starts succumbing to the experience, he develops this accent I wasn’t able to identify.
He described it as his father's intellectually abusive voice, which still haunts him; “you'll never be an actor,” et cetera he heard from August Coppola, who had this I guess overly intellectual kind of pretentious English voice, which is something that still haunts Nic clearly. A lot of folk don't recognize that. They just think he's being goofy, but that hits pretty close to home with Nic. In advance, he went through the script very carefully and highlighted the different areas where we knew that this would start to bleed in, and we found four areas which would be ideal for him to really let it go. We also pushed it a lot further in the actual shoot than in the movie, and I'm hoping that one day we might be able to release an extended version where we could see a bit more of that. But people were so frightened of the potential audience response to Nic being completely off the leash that three or four sequences hit the cutting room floor just before we actually released it.
Nic has talked about how relies the director to rein him in, either in the directing or editing process. Are you a director who believes in tightly steering your performers, or can you enjoy the experience of discovery while filming it as much as anybody else?
It's super tightly controlled from the point of view that obviously most of the movie was storyboarded and planned out very carefully. And like I said, Nic and myself already identified the areas of heightened chaos. But at the same time, what I love about Nic, who I think is almost an American Klaus Kinski, it's a bit like creating a perfectly designed work of art and then firing a shotgun at it or setting it on fire - because you need that random element. You need that stench of authentic madness to help bring it to life, because if you just execute the plan perfectly, you've got something which is perfect but effectively dead, whereas certainly Nic is able to bring some incredible energy to it. But it's very focused from the point of view that once you’ve decided on where you're going to go with it, he will repeat that performance with the timing and the same intensity on take after take, and from different angles. It's not totally wild. Once he loses his mind, he'll lose his mind again on this angle and this angle and with the same timing. So it’s something which is very, very controlled in its own right. I would happily work with Nic again. I think that he is super misunderstood, and has within him a great genre star just waiting to get out. Like I think Nic’s perfectly capable of being Vincent Price or Boris Karloff if let off the hook, and I’d love to see him play more of Vincent Price’s roles if given the opportunity.
This film was a long time coming. What are your feelings now that you’ve been able “break the seal” - are you eager to get to work immediately again?
I really enjoyed the process. I discovered the moment I started shooting - it was about day two or three - I realized there was some kind of software in my brain that was telling me where the camera wants to be. It was some directing software which I trusted and gave in to, and it all seemed to go real easily. We seem to have used up all of the bad luck coupons on The Island of Dr. Moreau and this one folded together really well. So I'm very much hoping that I’ll get a chance to bring a couple more things to the table. I've still got a strong hankering to try and do a sword and sorcery movie one day. No one's ever allowed me to do a movie set in the past, but I'd love to do that. But by the same token, with the world in such lousy shape that it’s in right now, I would love to get back into dystopian near-future sci-fi if given the option. So fingers crossed.