By Edward Douglas
It’s been over twenty years since filmmaker Richard Stanley was famously fired from the 1996 adaptation of HG Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” starring Marlon Brando in the title role. Other than a few documentaries and segments in horror anthologies, Stanley has mainly been laying low and not doing much in the horror/genre game.
Now, Stanley is back with “Color Out of Space,” an adaptation of the HP Lovecraft novella that stars Nicolas Cage as Nathan Gardner, an alpaca farmer whose New England farm is ground zero for an asteroid that begins changing him, his family and everyone who comes in contact with it. The movie co-stars Joely Richardson as Nathan’s wife Theresea and Madeleine Arthur (“The Tomorrow People” and the upcoming “Snowpiercer” series) as their daughter Lavinia and the only one who seems unaffected.
Interestingly, Lovecraft’s story has previously been adapted to the screen, most notably with the 1965 Boris Karloff vehicle “Die Monster Die!,” but Stanley sees “Color Out of Space” as a possible resurgence for the author’s work as the first of a trilogy of Lovecraft adaptations that Stanley will be making with producer SpectreVision.
Next Best Picture: I love the story about how you hooked up with SpectreVision, but had you been developing this for a long time beforehand or did you have the rights to the Lovecraft novella? How did you get started on this?
Richard Stanley: The seed has been around for a long time. I think I started thinking about adapting “Color Out of Space” when I was probably about 13 years old, mostly because it’s one of the most accessible Lovecraft stories. It’s Lovecraft’s favorite of his own work, but at the same time, because it’s set on one farm and involves one family, as opposed to being set in Antarctica or on another planet or something, even as a young adult, I could see it lent itself to potential cinematic adaptation. Really, the impetus that drove me forward was discovering that Lovecraft’s material was in public domain, which was something I realized around 2012 that most of the core stories were in fact in public domain. Anyone could adapt them. After experimenting with a short film I made for an anthology movie called “The Theatre Bizarre” a bunch of years ago, which also involved the Necronomicon and some Lovecraftian elements, I finally strapped down and wrote a feature film adaptation of “Color Out of Space.”
So you already had some screenplay written before you met the guys from SpectreVision?
There was already a script floating around before it came into Spectre’s hands, and I was searching for a country in which to shoot it in, and then Spectre was able to connect me with Mr. Cage.
Where did you end up shooting it, by the way?
Crazily, the entire movie is shot in a very strange part of Portugal, in a place called Sintra. We had to fake Portugal for Massachusetts. It’s kind of one of the most South-Westerly points of Europe. This is because the only time we could shoot was at the end of January last year, January through February, and all of the normal locations, would have been under heavy snow. We couldn’t really shoot in rural New England or Massachusetts. England and Northern Europe were all under such heavy snow, we ended up in the most South-Westerly part of the continent we could get to. We had to find somewhere where there were still leaves on the trees, so I could make it look like harvest time in New England and where I could still get alpacas, which were always such a central part of the plot.
Were Alpacas in the original Lovecraft story? I have to imagine that was something you added.
No, they weren’t, but from the very first draft up, the alpacas were always a part of the adaptation. This was partially based on my feeling that the basic premise of a meteorite hitting a farmstead and then some kind of hick farmer in plaid and dungarees comes out and pokes the meteorite, and the idea of having a bunch of cows and pigs standing around seemed really boring to me. It’s something we’ve seen so many times before that I was very keen to try and change it up, so I thought we were not going to have cows or pigs, let’s make sure they’re farming something like ostriches, but we ended up with alpacas because they’re less dangerous than ostriches and easier to deal with. The idea of having some kind of alien animal that didn’t really belong in the landscape was always a part of the premise.
How did the actors get along with the alpacas, especially Nick, who had to interact with them?
Alpacas are actually really easy to get along with. They’re probably one of the most docile and camera-friendly animals I’ve ever worked with. The only problem is that it was really hard to display any kind of agitation or fear or panic or emotion because they’re such serene animals. None of us actually wanted to attack them or frighten them, so trying to get them to panic was quite a tricky one.
Once you had Nicolas Cage on board, what was the approach to casting around him?
Nic came in first, and we were super-lucky in that Nic was familiar with the material and already a Lovecraft fan, so he wasn’t intimidated by the same thing that had stopped anyone from coming on board before, which is the intensely negative arc of the peace. Lovecraft’s characters don’t come out of the stories well, really the only two ways out are death or insanity. There’s never something you can see as a positive learning process going on with any of the characters or any form of positive growth. They generally end up in very, very dark bad places. Nic came aboard, and the two parts that were hardest to fill were the mother Theresa, just because Theresa’s arc is so terrifying and nightmarish that I thought Joely Richardson was incredibly brave to sign on. We had to talk about it quite a while about the way we were going about it. She had never played a creature, basically, before. I think she found the whole process really enlightening and kind of weirdly liberating. I’d love to see Joely doing more mo-cap work after this because she certainly really grabbed the opportunity and ran with it. The Lavinia part, the young daughter played by Madeleine Arthur, in fact, was the hardest to cast. We were literally three days away from principal photography and still didn’t have our Lavinia. I was feeling like the characters in the original “King Kong,” ready to film Skull Island with no leading lady, ready to go ashore and round up the nearest teenager and say, “Do you want to star in a Nic Cage movie starting in two day’s time?” We were extremely lucky to get Maddie aboard at the last minute.
She’s really good in the movie.
We were super-lucky, that’s for sure because at that stage, we were literally climbing the walls and panicking. She flew in from Canada and went straight from the airport into rehearsals with Nic and Joely and the rest of the family. We fit her up for wardrobe during the rehearsal, and then, from the rehearsals, she was sent to the Portuguese horseback school to learn how to handle the stallion before she got to her hotel room on the first day. I give huge kudos to Maddie for essentially saving all of us and then also delivering a tour de force performance that really holds the whole movie together.
I was probably more surprised by Joely since I don’t think she’s done a lot of genre or horror or science fiction before, so it was amazing casting to get her.
Yeah, I’ve always been a fan, and she’s been in borderline cases like “Drowning by Numbers” and the Peter Greenaway movies, which have a fantastical element, but she’d never been in an outright genre movie before. That was a rare pleasure.
Nicolas Cage’s character does go quite mad as the movie goes along, and he also gets less likable in a way, so how much did you discuss how far to take that?
The central premise really was this notion of the way that the family is reabsorbed back into itself, that the kids don’t escape. There’s this real fear of them being reabsorbed by the family and the parents becoming their own parents. This gave us the idea that Nick was suddenly going to be turning into his own father, so the characterization he ends up with is a sort of a nightmare cross between his own real-life Dad, who he was channeling in “Vampire’s Kiss,” and in the last parts of the movie, in a nightmarish way, a certain infliction as you start to identify some of Trump’s mannerisms in Nick’s character as well because we just want the movie to touch on a couple of larger themes about the current lousy state of the world and the world of America in general.
Early on in this conversation, you mentioned Lovecraft being known as needing a big budget, and I’m sure you’ve heard about Guillermo del Toro had been trying to adapt Lovecraft for a very long time. What kind of budget did you foresee while you writing the screenplay for what you ended up having in the movie?
“Color Out of Space” was probably the easiest of Lovecraft’s stories to get at out of the central stories, the core canon. Of course, I pushed it as far as I could on the budget, and we didn’t have a lot of money to play with. The below-the-line budget wasn’t much more than $3 million USD, so there was a constant push to get as many creatures on screen and to make the alien visitation, the alien plague, as biblical and apocalyptic as possible. I think we pushed hard in all departments, and we were particularly lucky with our physical and digital effects departments, who I think delivered some studio-level effects work for us.
So you were able to pretty much do what you wanted to do with the effects?
Pretty much. It was very liberating, that’s for sure. It’s the first time I’ve really been allowed to play with the full range of digital toys available to us. That was very liberating and exciting after all these years. I literally have never had access to a post-production budget before, and we pushed it as hard as we could. I’m really hoping that this will lead to a lot more Lovecraft movies because for whatever reason, people have been hesitating and as you say, del Toro has been talking about “Mountains of Madness” for years but hasn’t delivered on it. James Wan has been going on about “Call of Cthulu” for years but hasn’t delivered on it. Now that “Color Out of Space” has materialized, many are throwing their hat into the arena and doing their Lovecraft movie. Of course, we’re gonna have Jordan Peele’s “Lovecraft Country” any moment now, so I’m very much hoping that 2020 will finally be the year of the Old One, and we’ll see a lot more material actually make it to the public.
Do you foresee that you might adapt any more of his works or being involved with another one of these projects, like the Jordan Peele show?
I’m pleased to say that SpectreVision has already announced that they’re moving forward on two more Lovecraft movies, that “Color Out of Space” will be the first of a trilogy, so we’re already developing the second movie. I can also say that the second movie will be based on “The Dunwich Horror,” which has been filmed twice before, both times inexplicably with Dean Stockwell. This time, of course, we won’t have Dean Stockwell, but it will be set in the same universe as “Color Out of Space,” a few years after the events in “Color Out of Space” and will finally take us back on campus, so we’ll finally go to Miskatonic University and dive a little deeper into the core mythology.
And you’re directing that as well?
Certainly, and I’m currently working on the screenplay and hoping we actually might get started on shooting the thing late summer or autumn this year.
I’m glad that you’re back directing narrative films again after your foray into documentaries, and the fact you’ve been able to connect with SpectreVision and have a good producing partner in them.
Yeah, it comes as a surprise to me as well. I honestly didn’t believe it. At the off, the whole thing sounded so far-fetched that I remained quite skeptical until quite late in the process. The Spectre producer Josh Waller literally had to drive up from Portugal with one of the Portuguese producers and knock on my door in the South of France and told me to get in the car before I honestly believed they were making it. It’s definitely a rare pleasure to be living in a universe where I can actually see some of this material finally make the transition from page to screen.
“Color Out of Space” is now playing in select cities.
You can follow Edward and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @EDouglasWW
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