Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau is a tale of madness. Not madness attributed to one particular person (although you could point a few fingers to an individual or two, in this case). It’s about the madness of film production, how things can spiral out of control and easily discard a director’s singular vision in the process. Here, David Gregory – of Severin Films – hasn’t necessarily crafted an uplifting piece of work like, say, this year’s Jodorowsky’s Dune, another “doomed project” doc but one that embraces the spirit of creativity and drive in the face of failure. Rather, Gregory tells a deeply fascinating and frustrating story from the Hollywood trenches that you occasionally can’t help but laugh and shake your head.
Lost Soul is about the one giant missed opportunity that is Richard Stanley’s adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau. For those who are unaware of its history: Stanley – the director of cult favorites Hardware and Dust Devil – spearheaded an effort to re-tell H.G. Wells’ novel in the ’90s. A few days into production, New Line had him replaced by John Frankenheimer and the resulting film – starring Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer, David Thewlis and Fairuza Balk – is arguably one of the worst movies ever. Stanley hasn’t directed a feature project since.
Gregory’s documentary charts the project from Stanley’s early development days working with Graham Humphreys on concept art, before producer Ed Pressman came on board, to the bitter end when, after being fired, he snuck back onto the set and played an extra. Gregory wisely keeps the narrative balanced, allowing Stanley to tell his side while making room for accounts of the Moreau experience as told by executive producer Tim Zinnemann and Robert Shaye. Those two – Zinnemann especially – paint a portrait of a young filmmaker who may have been in over his head.
And it begins with the attachment of Marlon Brando.
When the legendary actor committed to the film, New Line tried to put Roman Polanski at the helm of Moreau instead. Now, here’s where Lost Soul starts to reveal a bit of Stanley’s spiritual side. Without ruining too many of this doc’s surprises, Stanley says he reached out to a warlock for assistance. Needless to say, things turned around for Stanley and he was back on the project, but what he faced in the following months seemingly could not have been prevented by a warlock’s spells. Cast members (like Bruce Willis and Rob Morrow) were replaced, the shooting location was hit by savage rainfall and Stanley’s shooting schedule was disrupted for various reasons. Stanley recounts these stories colorfully and with an energized “I can’t believe all of this shit went down” nature. If the Moreau experience still stings for him, the viewer won’t be able to tell. It definitely feels like he’s made peace with what happened.
Production designer Graham “Grace” Walker, Graham Humphreys, Fairuza Balk and a few crew members are represented here as Stanley’s allies who understood his ambitious interpretation of Wells’ material which involved sundry button-pushing elements that made the studio very nervous. Humphreys’ concept art is fully on display here in vivid, gorgeous detail; there are also plenty of concept sketches provided by key personnel from Stan Winston’s shop who brought the creatures to life. What’s missing, unfortunately, is any footage from when Stanley was on set, but it appears the makeup FX team was the key provider of much of the welcome behind-the-scenes material that pepper Lost Souls.
When the film shifts gears to focus on Frankenheimer’s time on Moreau, there’s a palpable “the lunatics have taken over the asylum” feel thanks to stories of Frankenheimer’s stern attitude, Kilmer’s diva-like antics and Brando’s peculiar creative decisions. Actor Marco Hofschneider (who played M’Ling) talks about the regime shift in great detail and his amusing encounters with Brando and Kilmer while Frankenheimer’s first A.D. details the logistical production mistakes put in place by Stanley that they had to work around.
Stanley is said to have disappeared once he was let go. He never made his flight home and there were rumblings on the set that perhaps he was going to sabotage the production. But he didn’t need to. It seemed like Brando (who approved of Stanley’s involvement since that fateful meeting that occurred while the warlock was working his mojo) was doing the sabotaging for him already. (Try not to crack up as Balk remembers Brando’s arrival on set in stark white makeup and wearing what looks like cheese cloth for the first time.)
The Stanley interviews drop out of Lost Soul during this section only to resume when he can discuss sneaking onto set. Creatively, it’s a choice I understand on Gregory’s behalf since Stanley could not be found after his firing, but I would have like to have heard more from him about his headspace at the time. Perhaps Stanley didn’t want to delve into that much deeper? Who knows? I’m sure there’s a reason for that just like I’m sure there’s a reason David Thewlis is hardly ever mentioned – talk about a guy who was caught up in a shit storm after Morrow couldn’t handle the production.
Still, Lost Soul is a captivating experience. An analysis of an aggravating time for a filmmaker with a lot of elements stacked against him that left him, more or less, shell shocked. Gregory’s documentary is a must-see.