The Carcrash of Dr. Moreau

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The motorway of film is full of wrecks at the side of the road. There are often disasters and more often than not there is an innate fascination on behalf of the viewer to want to rubberneck and see where and when it all went wrong. The most bewitching examples are usually the ones in which all is not well. Extending the road metaphor slightly, the best examples of a film car crash are usually the ones in which the back seat passenger has reached forwards and attempted to wrestle control of the vehicle from the driver. Peter Sellers tried it with Casino Royale in 1967 and that film is only really interesting now to marvel at how much of an unwieldy, patchwork, Frankenstein’s monster it is. Given that it had six directors, this is no surprise. Sometimes star power can do real damage. As was the case in 1996 when Val Kilmer expressed an interest in playing the lead role in Richard Stanley’s soon to be shot The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Stanley had made a bit of a name for himself with his breakthrough cult-classic film Hardware in 1990. The film showcased Stanley’s unique visual style and incorporated his music video roots by including cameos by musicians Iggy Pop, Carl McCoy and Lemmy. Shot for approximately £960,000, it was eventually picked up by the Weinstein brothers and released theatrically in the United States through their early Millimeter Films division. Stanley followed Hardware with another cult classic; Dust Devil.

Stanley had written a new adaptation of the classic H.G. Wells book The Island of Dr. Moreau and this was to be his first studio film.  His first foray into a new world, which was quite apt as Stanley is the grandson of legendary explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley who uttered the infamous line “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”. Stanley was a lifelong fan of H.G. Wells and was excited to bring the story to the big screen. His script was good and Stanley pitched the idea to veteran producer Edward Pressman (Wall Street, Conan the Barbarian, Judge Dredd, The Crow). “I was impressed by a number of things about Hardware” Pressman told Fangoria. “We got to be friends and talked about projects that he was interested in doing. The first one he mentioned was Moreau, which I thought was a great idea, and he had a terrific take on it“.

With Pressman on board Moreau could attract big stars. The first to sign on was Marlon Brando. He would play the title role (the doctor, not the island). While twenty years before this would have been seen as a major coup, in 1996 it was more of a risk. However he was still a big name.  Brando had a great deal of personal trauma at that time. His son had murdered his daughter’s boyfriend and his daughter had then hanged herself. It was not a happy time and probably not the best time to have someone as potentially disruptive and volatile as Brando around – particularly for your first major film. However he could still draw a crowd.

Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) Marlon Brando

Hey. Little guy. Take that hat off you look ridiculous

Next up was Val Kilmer. Kilmer was hot in 1996. He had just wowed critics with his brilliant performance as “Doc” Holliday in Tombstone and wowed the box-office with his turn as the eponymous hero in Batman Forever. He had also gathered a teeny-weeny bit of a reputation of being “difficult” to work with. Which means he was a major pain in the arse. Kilmer expressed an interest in playing the lead role, Douglas, and was very excited about working with his idol, Marlon Brando. Fairuza Balk (The Craft) was cast as Moreau’s daughter Aissa and Rob Morrow (Quiz Show) rounded out the cast as Montgomery – Moreau’s vet on the island.

Things were looking good for Stanley. A strong cast, a major studio, and a dream project. Then one day the phone rang.

Stanley was in Queensland , Australia preparing to begin shooting Moreau when he received a call from Val Kilmer. Kilmer asked Stanley to come to Tokyo and meet him. Upon arriving Stanley was told by Kilmer that with his divorce from Joanne Whalley-Kilmer and an imminent custody battle looming, his part would need to be cut by 40%. This created a huge problem for Stanley. It was far too late to rewrite the script. However the only way Kilmer could stay onboard would be to reduce his screen time. The project needed Kilmer if it were to stand any chance of making it. Stanley then hit upon the idea of swapping Kilmer and Morrow’s parts. Kilmer could play Montgomery and Morrow could play Douglas. This would probably be a better fit for Kilmer anyway. Kilmer agreed, however he said he would be unavailable for rehearsals. It was a solution, but not an ideal one.

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The last director ended up in here.

The shooting schedule complicated matters further as it allowed no time for any in-depth rehearsals anyway. “The first time I’d seen Fairuza in a number of months was in the middle of a hurricane on a beach at Cape Tribulation, and it was like,’Hi, how are you? Action!‘”. Kilmer then didn’t turn up for two days of scheduled shooting. When he finally did turn up it was pretty clear he hadn’t learnt any lines and had no idea what scene they were shooting. According to other actors on the set, Kilmer recited “lines written for other characters, in other scenes”. The weather also didn’t help. There were gale force winds of thirty to forty knots that cause their fair share of problems. The production was stalling and the studio (New Line) were getting nervous. Stanley felt that Kilmer was testing him,”I think maybe Val does it the whole time, that he might always automatically throw his weight around the first few days“.

At least we gave a f*ck.

At least we gave a f*ck.

Stanley was fired after four days of fruitless shooting. Stanley felt that it was more the studio’s fault than Kilmer’s. New Line head Michael De Luca later said,”I didn’t give Val a strong director and that was my fault“. That statement seems to back Stanley’s view. Rob Morrow left the project next. Perhaps he could sense that the car was soon to be completely out of control. English Actor David Thewlis took over the Douglas role (someone Stanley wanted but was not allowed to have as he wasn’t a big enough name) and veteran film maker John Frankenheimer agreed to step in at short notice – on the proviso that he was allowed to rewrite the script. After extensive rewrites shooting was set to commence once again. Shortly afterwards Kilmer and Frankenheimer clashed. Frankenheimer stated afterwards, “I don’t like Val Kilmer, I don’t like his work ethic, and I don’t want to be associated with him ever again“. Frankenheimer also reportedly clashed with Brando and the studio, as they were concerned with the direction he was taking the film.

According to Thewlis, “we all had different ideas of where it should go. I even ended up improvising some of the main scenes with Marlon.” Thewlis went on to rewrite his character personally. The constant rewrites also got to Brando’s nerves and having no motivation to keep rehearsing new lines, he was equipped with a small radio receiver – a technique he’d used on earlier films. Thewlis recollects: “[Marlon would] be in the middle of a scene and suddenly he’d be picking up police messages and would repeat, ‘There’s a robbery at Woolworth’s.‘” Even Brando clashed with Kilmer, who didn’t make any new friends with his continuously erratic behavior. According to Film Threat magazine, Brando pointed out to him: “You’re confusing your talents with the size of your paycheck“. Even Kilmer stated that the time filming on-set was “crazy.” Upon completion of Kilmer’s final scene, Frankenheimer said to the crew “Now get that bastard off my set”.

The finished film is a total and utter mess. Incoherent, rambling, boring and downright surreal at times. The performances of both Kilmer and Brando seem like they are both being left to their own devices and given no direction at all. In fact one could go as far as to say they both seem indulged and even encouraged to deliver these strange performances. It is a shame as there is some excellent creature effect work done by the Stan Winston studio and the actors playing the creatures really bring something extra to the table. What we are left with is two lost and frustrated actors becoming drunken bores and ruining the party for everyone else. A real shame.

The other shame is that Richard Stanley was never allowed to complete his vision of Moreau. It must have been better than the final version. Mustn’t it? Let’s hear what the man himself says:

Originally posted 2013-02-05 18:13:08. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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