Documentaries about troubled productions hold a special spot in my heart. Namely because they remind me how a film’s creation is a sort of miracle. To complete a movie, so many little elements have to come together. So many people have to work as a team and do their damn jobs. And then there’s a certain level of luck you need. And when you don’t get any of these, you get the hell on earth that was making 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Perhaps, like me, you’re a fan of the podcast How Did This Get Made, which means you’ve likely listened to the latest ep where they discussed the insane production problems the film ran into. Well, per host Paul Scheer’s suggestion, I watched the documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, and oh good gawd. HDTGM just scratched the surface.
Here is a list of the truly bonkers things from Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau:
• When emerging indie director Richard Stanley heard he might be thrown off the project during pre-production, he employed the help of a British warlock called Skip to help him convince Marlon Brando to fight for him. Which he believes worked. Stanley kept his place at the helm…for a little while.
• Val Kilmer was an egomaniac and “prep school bully” who fucked with the production for fun, undermining Stanley consistently. This contributed to Stanley’s being fired before Brando ever showed up to shoot.
• Kilmer wouldn’t have been involved if it weren’t for Bruce Willis and Demi Moore’s divorce. Willis had signed on, but had to bail when lawyers advised he stay in the country while the proceedings went on. (The Island of Dr. Moreau was shooting in Australia.)
• Kilmer swapped from the Willis role to one promised to James Woods, because he wanted 40% less shoot days.
• Kilmer had German actor Marco Hofschneider’s role slashed to ribbons because he didn’t want the Europa Europa star to pull focus.
• Hofschneider’s screentime was further cut down because Brando became obsessed with the world’s smallest man, Nelson De La Rosa. So he insisted the script be revised, and with some Hofschneider’s scenes being given to De La Rosa.
• At 27, De La Rosa was susceptible to Brando’s contagious ego. He started acting up too, lashing out (physically) at Hofschneider, and using his sister to translate pick-up lines to the female extras who described him as “very sexual.”
• Flooding, Stanley’s firing, and diva behavior from Kilmer and Brando stretched out the production window grotesquely. Paid well but bored, the extras who played Moreau’s “children” descended into debauched revelry—complete with sex, flaming shots and drugs.
• When hired gun John Frankenheimer demanded more extras, some homeless hippies living in the nearby rainforest were brought in.
• A production designer attacked a peacock in the wild to appease Marlon Brando’s request for feathers in this shot.
• The fired Stanley retreated into the rainforest to lick his wounds. Then he came across some of the film’s new extras, and convinced them to sneak him onset. There, he covertly played a bulldog man in several scenes, without the producers ever realizing.
• Brando refused to read the script or learn his lines. His assistant would read them to him via earpiece. He also wanted the script to be revised so he could be a dolphin in the end. Seriously.
• Fairuza Balk may have threatened to cut out her own heart over Stanley’s firing. She definitely ran away from set, causing her driver to get fired from the production. But it’s cool. He got rehired when they were desperate for extras.
• Rob Morrow is interviewed about the days he spent on set as the protagonist, before bailing in a dramatic fashion. Not a single mention is made of the actor who replaced him, David Thewlis. Not a one.
I absolutely recommend you watch Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau. It’s one thing for me to tell you how insane this production was, but to see its producers, crew, ex-director and stars talk about what went down is another thing entirely. Going in, I expected the film to take Stanley’s side. After all, it was his passion project lost because of studio greed, right? Not exactly.
Because of Brando and Kilmer, this became a make-or-break moment for the emerging production company that was sinking tons of money into a sci-fi film meant to redefine the genre. But Stanley was cracking under the pressure. Of course, when you see the kind of bullshit he was putting up with, it’s hard to blame him. Basically, this is a disaster where everyone is a little bit to blame. But especially Val Kilmer.
Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau is available for rent on Amazon.
Kristy Puchko also recommends Lost in La Mancha and any doc about the making of Jaws. She does not recommend you bother rewatching The Island of Doctor Moreau before Lost Soul.