Utterly revealing, and at times hilarious, the documentary Lost Soul: the Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau uncovers the missteps and ridiculous bad luck that plagued the 1996 remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau.
It all starts out normally enough: an energetic and slightly twisted indie director, Richard Stanley, who has always been passionate about the H.G. Wells novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, hooks up with New Line Cinema, an ambitious Hollywood production company on the rise. As the film crew prepare to shoot in one of the most remote corners of Australia, there are problems. A tiny trickle at first, but they build and build until a river of troubles rages through the production—and after four years of preparation, director Richard Stanley gets fired after only four days of filming. And to add insult to injury, he is replaced by his polar opposite: John Frankenheimer, a talented, old-school director who hated Stanley’s entire approach to the film and rewrote the script to his own taste.
There can be something disturbingly alluring about watching someone’s dreams getting crushed, and director Richard Stanley lays out every step of the tragic demise of his movie, from magic spells gone wrong to the surreal nightmare of working with Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando, the two mega stars who crash through the project like Godzilla and Mothra wreaking havoc on the city of Tokyo.
With financial backing from New Line, Stanley had hired the legendary Stan Winston to create amazing makeup for the beast people and proved his mettle by convincing the coveted actor Marlon Brando to accept the role of Dr. Moreau. With an edgy script written by—as he liked to put it—the writers of The Wild Bunch, Apocalypse Now and The Time Machine, the film looked like a classic in the making. But before a single image was shot the production had already begun to unravel. The indie director floundered in the Hollywood world of moviemaking and the film’s ballooning budget, $40 million, encouraged executives to look for excuses to get rid of their untested young director.
By the time Marlon Brando, the actor with a “legendary contempt for what he does for a living,” walked onto the set, he was dropped into a chaotic mess: the director who had hired him was fired before Brando ever set foot in Australia. And the new director hated the script that had lured Brando in the first place. It’s not surprising that Brando may have decided to ‘mess’ with the filmmakers a bit. And Kilmer, who was a mega star at the time, was used to throwing his weight around for the first few days of a movie. But he was apparently unaware that his actions would get the director fired, torpedo the entire production and earn him a Razzie nomination for worst supporting actor (ironically, his co-star Brando actually won that award). In an interview with VICE, Richard Stanley later said that Kilmer did apologize to him after the film had wrapped, but it was too little too late for the deposed director.
The documentary features a charmingly eccentric lineup of interviews from those involved in the making of the film, you feel a bit like you’re watching Spinal Tap, except that every insane tale they tell is real: from the tiny, 2-foot 5-inch tall actor who Brando insisted always appear at his side in a matching outfit to Frankenheimer’s level-headed assistant director, who describes his bewilderment as he discovers the film’s shooting location on the rainfall map (the more rainy days you have, the less days you can film) and Moreau was shot in the one spot with the most rain on the entire Australian continent.
So sit back and enjoy this amusing and tragic tale of a film that lost tens of millions of dollars, forced a devastated Richard Stanley to leave Hollywood and whose claim to fame is that it wound up in The Official Razzie Movie Guide, a compendium of terrible movies.
All in all, I think we would have been better off if The Island of Dr. Moreau had been never been completed: then it would have become the mysterious “unfinished” film starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer—and in that alternate reality you could imagine that it would have been spectacular. But, alas, our reality prevails, and 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau does exist, and the best thing about that sorry film is this documentary about how it was made.