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An interview with Richard Stanley

by Roger Young / 16.07.2011

– Part One –

In 1988 a young South African, Richard Stanley made a low budget apocalyptic triller called Hardware that went on to make the distributor a fortune, and himself nothing. In 1991 he shot a South African serial killer movie in the Namibian wastelands with John Matshikiza. While shooting, the distributor Palace films went broke. Dust Devil never saw the light of day. Then in 1995 he found himself directing a Bruce Willis, Marlon Brando epic The Island of Dr Moreau, but he was removed from the project over a disagreement with the producers. He has not made a feature film since. He was recently in South Africa introducing screenings of his completed films and documentaries. We spoke to him about his past, future projects and lazy, shape shifting demons.

Mahala: The first time I heard your name was when I went to Cape Town Film School.

Richard Stanley: You too?! Oh My God, they all went.

A lot of people in Cape Town went.

Maybe it’s not our fault. Maybe it was the school that was not that good.

Yeah. And when I got there the director, John Hill had this whole sort of thing about you which was that he had thrown you out.

He did.

But you had gone on to do good things.

Yeah, that really upset him.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, it really upset him. And then the next time I encountered your name was when I was in London in 1992 and Hardware was playing somewhere. Then I was back in Cape Town when you were making Dust Devil.

Ah, really? OK.

And I heard this story of how you had gone to make Dust Devil with one script but were shooting something else and I don’t know if that’s true or not?

It’s probably a simplification of what happened.

So between Dust Devil and Doctor Moreau and Cape Town Film School, you seem to have an authority figure problem?

Yeah, I’ve got a bad rep, which is unfortunate.

Richard Stanley

But is that a function of just trying to make the films you want to make?

Yeah, I think it’s similar to the state of a monster. The kind of things I want to do tend to rub people up the wrong way for all kinds of odd reasons. I certainly didn’t set out to pick fights with those folk. I think it’s just the sort of weirdness the endeavour kind of comes from . It’s so far left of field that people don’t really know which box to put it in.

But it’s kind of strange that they choose to engage in the beginning. You go to raise money for a film or you get hired for a project and then, you expect them to know what’s happening.

They don’t really. I think movies happen from the top down, not from the bottom up. So generally movies happen because somebody has x amount of money trapped in such and such a place or in the case of Doctor Moreau Newline got involved because they were making a Marlon Brando, Bruce Willis movie originally. They weren’t making a Richard Stanley movie. People get involved in the project for the wrong reason. And then at some point further down the line, as in the case of Doctor Moreau, when Bruce Willis dropped out and Marlon Brando wasn’t going to turn up either, all of a sudden they realize Oh My God, we’re sinking all this money into this! They usually get involved on the wrong pretences to start off with. I think they seldom are there because they actually want to make that story or because they give a damn about what I’m trying to do. It’s usually the political circumstances that they’re after. Dust Devil, Miramax got involved because they wanted a quick serial killer movie to capitalize on Silence Of The Lambs I think. Dust Devil had already been floating around for about ten years, I think, and it just happened to be there.

Richard Stanley

And you wrote Dust Devil?


So they just grabbed it because it was out there and they’d seen Hardware?

Hardware had done well. The Dust Devil script was already on the shelf. In fact, the Dust Devil script was already in the hands of another British independent producer who probably hadn’t read it either and he saw the moment. It was like Hardware was doing well and Miramax were looking for a serial killer movie and he was like here I have this and all of a sudden funding fell into place for it even though at no point Miramax wanted to make a South African movie directed by me. That was kind of an accident.

What happened during the shooting? Because Dust Devil was basically not seen for a long time after?

It’s hardly ever been seen. For some reason that movie has been totally cursed. Really that came down to the tail end of it. The production company making the film, Palace Pictures in Britain got forced into receivership by Polygram which was nothing much to do with us. It was a corporate takeover by Polygram which destroyed the parent company that owned the movie.

Did you meet Claire Angelique in Grahamstown?

Yeah I did.

She had the same sort of thing happen to her movie, My Little Black Heart.

Yeah, she left me with quite a big bar tab.

I could’ve warned you about that.

Yeah, but unfortunately the production company owned the thing and went into receivership before we finished shooting it which was just bad luck. But we also ended up with essentially a South African movie that was uniquely South African in its characteristics so it was quite hard to watch if you’re not South African because of the subject matter, not to mention the cast, Zakes Mokae, John Matshikiza… it was local. And I find that Americans and British people have a hard time even understanding the accents apart from anything else, let alone the subject matter. We had a South African movie entirely funded by American money which the Americans didn’t really want. It didn’t make any sense in the market.

And there wasn’t a South African market.

Yeah, there wasn’t a South African market. Ster Kinekor didn’t want it and it was banned in Namibia so where else to show the beast? I don’t know. It’s largely down to Trevor Taylor’s efforts that it’s been screened out here to begin with. Plainly it belongs here.

And the screenings you had at Grahamstown?

Pretty good. At the end of the day I’m glad the thing got made because it’s a contorted monster. I would never make that movie now. All the things that went into it have lead to a film which is a deeply strange movie. Dust Devil is not what anyone expected it to be. Apart from anything else, it’s a fusion of about four different genres.

Which always throws people.

Yeah, I mean the movie’s narrated by a mad drive-in projectionist. It’s a fusion of a horror movie and a western and a police procedural movie and a love story and a South African film. It’s about four different drive-in genres. None of the characters in the film quite connect. None of the scenes develop properly. Every time there is an attempt of a shootout it turns out the gun hasn’t got bullets in it so things kind of disintegrate. It does play like a dream though, I do like that. It plays a bit like a bad dream.

And how much of that was intentional? You say it was a deeply, deeply weird movie?

It started out obviously because it’s dealing with folklore and mythology. It was originally a fusion of a bunch of different folkloric stories that were going on, a series of unsolved serial killings in Namibia. Local Sangoma mythology and a suicide from Cape Town. A girl who had driven up from Cape Town and parked her car, left a suicide note on the dash and walked into the desert. The movie kind of pulls together a bunch of things that were floating around in the psyche. It was towards the end of apartheid. It was shot between the time that Namibia became independent and the release of Mandela. So it was kind of looking forward to the apocalyptic demise of apartheid. Already the subject matter was strange but when we were shooting it, the collapse of the production company meant that about a third of the budget vanished which meant we couldn’t do the action set pieces that we had in mind so other solutions had to present themselves, which forced the whole thing more left of field than had originally been intended.

And with the finance gone how did you string it together? How did you edit it?

The editing was a nightmare. I worked really hard and we prepped just to the end of the shoot and shot every bit of film we had and literally the film ran out.

The film ran out in the middle of the desert?

Yeah, well it was shot until the last bit of film had been exposed. There was nothing more we could shoot. Then it took about three, four years to edit the thing because of the legal problems arising from Palace being taken over by Polygram. Palace went under owing millions. Not on our movie but as a company. As a result Palace’s assets were attached, including our movie. So the sound was held onto by one company, the negative was held onto by another and the cutting copy was attached by someone else. I had to first get authorization from the other backers, Channel 4 television and the bank people, to act on their behalf and I had to laboriously go around and cut deals with the various sub-creditors to try and get back the sound, get back the picture, get back the negative and eventually marry the pieces, cut the thing , cut the negative, make the married print, strike the positive and finally transfer it to digital. So it took a few years of floating around to basically get the movie back to the developers.

To realize the asset.

Yeah and another problem set in along the way and obviously doing it that way we were unable to reunite the principle cast members to do ADR and to sync parts, so some scenes had to be dropped because of the generator sound or things we simply couldn’t get around. There weren’t any post-production opticals. The music that was meant to be in the film had dropped out because of license agreements. There were numerous problems to try to put Dust Devil together into a place where we could actually screen the thing. It was a long and winding trail.

Richard Stanley

So why didn’t you just simply give up?

I did for a couple of years. There were about two years in the beginning of it where I just didn’t have the energy to go on and just wanted nothing more to do with Dust Devil and I think the key turn of events was when I went to a triple-bill, it was actually four movies I went to see at The Brixton, I went to see Ride The High Country, Once Upon A Time In The West, Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid. Four big fat long movies and I was young, I took a tab of acid and had a decent come down by the time I came out of the cinema and I remember raging out of Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, I think was the last one, I went straight across the street to the telephone booth and started trying to get my movie back. I was fired up by the Wild Bunch’s stand against overwhelming odds in the general sense of the word, one shouldn’t back down. Billy the Kid’s sort of plea against the enclosure of land.

But it’s interesting, especially Wild Bunch and Billy The Kid, out of those four movies, they had budgets but they had kind of a handmade aesthetic as well.

I just love Sam Peckinpah as well but they certainly teach one to make a stand in the point of honour. One shouldn’t back down even if you know you’re going to be defeated. If you know you’re up against Bueno vista or Polygram or some kind of corporate giant and you haven’t got any money and it made sense just to pile in there and just start going after the beast again.

Buena Vista actually sounds like a Mexican villain.

Yeah, they own Hardware now.

Oh really?

Yeah, with the same series of corporate mishaps.

So Hardware doesn’t get screened?

It’s got the same problems. It’s totally lock jammed by a disagreements between Miramax, Buena Vista and MGM or whoever owns the rights to that movie and it’s irresolvable.

– End Part One –

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