Some movies are more chaotic than others. Then there’s the legendary development hell of The Island of Dr. Moreau, filmed in 1995.
We’re honoured we were alive during the staggering nightmare depicted in this entertaining 2014 documentary by David Gregory.
You’ll need to brace yourselves for Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau.
For this is a tale of Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer, pomposity, inclement weather, sacked directors, striking crew members, and much more jollification!
Berserk Insights Into The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau
Just a note on the book here, which was by H.G. Wells (1866-1946) and was published in 1896.
Wells was friends with Joseph Conrad, whose Heart of Darkness (1899) bore a lot of similarities to The Island of Dr. Moreau and caused the two to fall out.
Conrad’s book was the inspiration for Apocalypse Now (1979), which starred Marlon Brando during a difficult period of his acting career. It provided him with something of a resurgence.
Cut to the early 1990s and young British director Richard Stanley was revelling in the cult success of his films Hardware (1990) and Dust Devil (1992).
These were significant minor success stories and won Stanley some Next-Hot-Director status. His vision for The Island of Dr. Moreau seemed set to take him from cult auteur to superstar.
Some films are famous for their development hell. Think of Jaws during its 1974 shoot—a notorious nightmare.
Apocalypse Now was also a legendary mess that ran wildly overbudget. Blade Runner also had a rough time of it.
But what took place for Island of Dr. Moreau is on a different level.
Prior to filming, Stanley fought with studio New Line Cinema to direct. They wanted Roman Polanski. Stanley visited Marlon Brando to convince him he was up to the job.
Brando’s influence was such he could essentially demand Stanley direct and the studio would kowtow.
Stanley claims he’d met a friend engaged in witchcraft prior to the meeting to use occult tactics so Brando would let Stanley direct. Indeed.
That effort did work and New Line Cinema, nervously, greenlit the British director.
Still inexperienced, Stanley wasn’t in the best position to handle a major production with a $40 million budget. Especially with stars Marlon Brando (71 in 1995), Val Kilmer, and Rob Morrow to contend with.
Showing his inexperience, he sought out a location for the film and chose Cairns in Queensland, Australia. It’s a region notorious for dense rainfall.
Shortly after the cast and crew arrived on Cairns, the production devolved into total development hell.
Grief, here’s a brief summary of a handful of the issues:
- Brando’s daughter, Cheyenne, committed suicide in April 1995 at the age of 25. Naturally, this led to Brando isolating himself and delayed production.
- One of the crew was bitten by a poisonous spider, causing her skin to melt.
- Another crew member, back home in London, developed a type of radiation poisoning and his bones disintegrated.
- Stanley’s mother, living in Ireland, had lightning strike her home. Three times.
- Val Kilmer, hot property at the time and pumped up on ego, began behaving like a total prick to everybody.
- An enormous storm flooded Cairns and destroyed the set.
- Rob Morrow, fearing for his life, had a meltdown and fled the production.
- Stanley was removed from the production, but refused to follow studio orders and disappeared into Cairn’s local wilderness.
- Rumours began spreading of Stanley’s intent to wreak his revenge. Potentially by the occult, or some other means.
All of the above is chaotic, tragic, and weird. And they put production on hold for months.
New Line Cinema eventually drafted in a new director John Frankenheimer (1930-2002). He was an old-school director, a hard ass, who could get actors into line by yelling at them. But he also wanted to work with Marlon Brando.
Much of The Island of Dr. Moreau production is, in fact, spun out of Marlon Brando’s involvement and how everyone wanted to work with him.
Yet he wasn’t even there to begin with.
And in Cairns, once filming started rumbling on again (and the set was rebuilt), a growing sense of unease spread through the production.
Extras decked out in expensive prosthetics and makeup spent their days getting drunk and baking in the heat. Not much filming was done. Money was being wasted. Val Kilmer was behaving like a prick.
Also on the set was a young Fairuza Balk (of Return to Oz fame), in her early 20s. She’d become friends with Stanley and was very upset when he was sacked.
In fact, she staged a walkout after Stanley’s removal, which involved demanding a driver take her, by limo, to Sydney.
Balk didn’t seem to have any idea of Australia’s scale, as that was a 2,000+ mile journey. But she soon returned to the production.
Just as well, as one day… out of the blue… Marlon Brandon arrived on set. And that’s when things entered a different dimension entirely.
Brando’s Weird Ideas on The Island of Dr. Monreau
Brando was already notorious in 1995, having a contempt for his work and merely riding on his reputation lingering from the 1950s.
For The Island of Dr. Monreau, he famously refused to learn his lines and demanded to have an earpiece fitted.
Someone off set would then read his lines, which he’d repeat.
The problem is the earpiece would also pick up local radio signals, meaning Brando would announce bizarre dialogue.
Due to his status, he turned up and began ordering everyone around. And wanted a total overhaul of the script (even though he hadn’t even read it).
That included a plot twist ending where Dr. Moreau removed his hat to reveal he was, in fact, a dolphin.
Brando then became fascinated by Nelson de la Rosa (1967-2006), the smallest human in the world at 71 centimetres in height.
The Hollywood legend insisted de la Rosa take Marco Hofschneider’s role, resigning the latter to a much smaller part.
And this is what the film has become most famous for.
Stuff like the utterly bizarre scenes of Brando, with de la Rosa dressed exactly like him, as a kind of sidekick.
South Park and the Austin Powers films would later do a skit based on this.
Brando and Val Kilmer also became embroiled in the most ridiculous on set one-upmanship, quickly falling out and refusing to leave their respective trailers until the other had.
And with all this playing out, even hard ass director Frankenheimer couldn’t maintain control and became quite depressed.
But… he did manage to complete the film.
It was a box office bomb that met with mainly negative reviews. Yet at least he managed to finish something.
And we must say, the film really isn’t that bad. Astonishing given the difficulties it went through—there’s a coherent narrative and the acting is okay.
The main issue is it’s just a bit boring. Generic, even.
Having heard Stanley’s ideas, it certainly would have been more interesting had his first script not been torn up by New Line Cinema.
But hey ho, there we go! Studio interference and all that, coupled with a seemingly endless array of bizarre occurrences.
Moral of the story? Don’t ever get the occult to brainwash Marlon Brando!
The Fate of Richard Stanley (and the legacy of Dr. Moreau)
But! What a story! And what a documentary! Highly entertaining.
Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau is quite the film. It revels in the absurdity of the production, but does go to great lengths in explaining how the situation got out of control.
The relentless combination of endless ridiculousness is what produced one of cinema’s all time great production disasters.
And the documentary is well worth a viewing if you want to see just how badly things can go during a cinematic production.
With a story this manic, there was no real way the documentary could be bad. It’s just fair to entertaining in its absurdity.
Well, we guess we should end with a bit about first director Richard Stanley.
Some of his crew members later found him chilling out on the island, having never left. He was dolled up in makeup and returned to the set to observe filming. He even appeared in some scenes in the final movie.
After the disaster of this project, he disappeared from cinema and became a documentarian.
Although he did return in 2019 with Nic Cage in Colour Out of Space.
Unfortunately, since then Stanley has had abusive relationship claims levelled against him. He’s contested these and taken out legal action against them, but for now it’s again curtailed his directing career.
As for the others involved in The Island of Dr. Moreau, as you might expect Val Kilmer didn’t have anything to do with the documentary and his views aren’t expressed.
He did, apparently, later apologise to Richard Stanley in 1995. He also indicated his behaviour was, in part, due to the recent failure of his marriage.
A bit more odd is the total absence of English actor David Thewlis, who was drafted in to replace Rob Morrow for one of the lead roles.
Thewlis isn’t mentioned at all in the documentary. In fact, in the whole thing there’s only one photograph of his performance.
We guess his contribution to the film was just too normal to warrant inclusion.