• Film

Forgotten Hollywood: The Making of “The Island of Dr. Moreau” (1996)

There are many reasons why some movies have had difficult productions – lack of preparedness, budget overruns, incompetent directors, script problems, clashing of egos, and plain bad luck. Sometimes, successful films can still come out of the chaos – films like The Bourne Identity, World War Z, and, most famously, Apocalypse Now and Titanic. Unfortunately, many more bad movies come out of disastrous shoots. Sometimes, the making of the film becomes more interesting than the film itself. One such movie is The Island of Dr. Moreau.

In the story, Dr. Moreau is a mad scientist who has hit upon a way to manipulate genetics and create beast men – hybrids of humans and animals – on a South Pacific Island. His experiments are discovered by a UN diplomat, Edward Douglas, who is rescued from a plane crash and brought to the island. Moreau works with a neuroscientist named Montgomery to create his vision of a perfect life form but, after the endless abuse of the beasts, they ultimately revolt with disastrous consequences.


Moreau’s production was so notoriously difficult that, 20 years later, in a documentary directed by David Gregory called Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, the cast and crew are still aghast about what they went through.

It was South African director Richard Stanley’s years-long passion project to bring H.G. Wells’ classic to the big screen in its third iteration. The young Stanley, based on the “esoteric witchiness” of his horror films Hardware and Dust Devil, sold his vision of Moreau to New Line Cinema.

He got the green light from the studio’s head, Bob Shaye, to make an $8 million horror sci-fi film to be shot in Cairns, Australia, with Jurgen Prochnow in the lead. At the time, New Line was an edgy studio that actively solicited new directors. Edward Pressman and Tim Zinneman, veteran producers, came on board.

Then, New Line decided to bring in Marlon Brando to play Moreau. The movie turned into a big-budget production. Stanley was replaced by Roman Polanski. Furious, Stanley demanded a meeting with Brando. He also decided he needed some spiritual help. Enter Dr. Edward James Featherstone, otherwise known as Skip, a ‘warlock’ Stanley enlisted to ‘fix’ things, as he explained in Lost Soul. “At the exact same time I went into the meeting [with Brando],” Stanley says in the documentary, “on the other side of the world, Skip convened his coven, cut his arm, drew a sigil, and did some sort of routine to make it all, all right.”


Stanley showed Brando his research and convinced him to let him stay on as director. “There’s a very strong possibility that it may have been voodoo or some kind of magical interference on Skip’s behalf,” Stanley continues. “But the next thing I knew was that Polanski was out and Brando was only going to do the movie if I was on board.”

With Brando leading the cast, Bruce Willis (as Douglas) and James Woods (as Montgomery) joined the cast. A young German actor, Marco Hofschneider, was cast as Moreau’s assistant. Stan Winston Studios was hired to design the special makeup for the animal people.

Background footage was shot in Los Angeles. Writers were brought in to improve the script and tone down some of the out-there ideas like the cat lady (the love interest played by Fairuza Balk) with the six nipples and “pubes that grew all over her thighs and up her chest.”

At that point, Willis decided he had to stay in the US for legal reasons. He was divorcing his wife Demi Moore and dropped out of the production. Val Kilmer was brought in to replace him. Kilmer was at the height of his career with Batman Forever and had arrogance in spades. He peremptorily summoned Stanley to Tokyo, where he was premiering his film, and informed him that he was too busy to devote much time to the movie and wanted 40% fewer shooting days. He was also upset upon discovering from TV news that his wife, Joanne Whalley, had served him with divorce papers.

After losing Willis, Stanley couldn’t afford to lose Kilmer as well and came up with the idea of swapping him into the smaller role that Woods was supposed to play. Woods left the production. Rob Morrow, popular at the time due to the television show Northern Exposure, was cast as Douglas. Nelson de la Rosa, the smallest man in the world, was also cast as one of the monsters.

Production moved from Los Angeles to Australia. All the animal people and extras had had weeks of studying with an animal behaviorist who had worked on Gorillas in the Mist. Then, Stanley started hiding out in his house and skipping meetings, communicating only through the storyboards he was sending to the department heads. Everyone suspected that he was overwhelmed by the production.

It was at this point in time that Brando’s daughter committed suicide. He was so distraught that he retreated to his private island to grieve. The production tried to figure out a way to shoot around his scenes, waiting to see if another actor was cast. Stanley, convinced that he would be fired if Brando was out, got even more despondent. Kilmer added to Stanley’s insecurities, denigrating the script, undermining him at every turn, and throwing his weight around by picking fights with everyone. He would question every scene, demand to know how it was going to be cut together, and refused to take Stanley’s direction.

Morrow said in the documentary that he got no clear direction from anyone. After toughing it out for two days he wanted desperately to get off the picture. He called his agents, and then Shaye, begging them to be sent home. He felt he couldn’t stand the insanity of the set. Shaye let him out of his contract. He was replaced by David Thewlis.

Then, a hurricane hit Cairns. The entire set and equipment were lost to the Pacific Ocean. Production stopped. Stanley seemed at a loss. He didn’t know how to salvage the shoot. New Line, with a lot of money on the line and a star to keep happy, decided to replace him. The director was fired. Via fax.

The story goes that he had a mental breakdown and started shredding all the production documents, including his storyboards. He had been offered his full fee if he got on a plane and stayed away from the set. The thing is, he didn’t get on the plane. He disappeared into the rainforest, and the studio was terrified he would sabotage the set in some way.

Balk, who was on Stanley’s side, decided to run away from the set. She got in a studio car and ordered the driver to take her to Sydney, 2,500 miles away, clear across the country. Eventually, she had to come back because her agent said she would never work in the industry again if she walked off the picture.

A new director, John Frankenheimer, was hired. He reluctantly took on the job after negotiating a hefty fee and a three-picture deal with New Line. Frankenheimer had a reputation for working well with difficult actors. The studio hoped for the best.

But he was under a lot of stress as he only had a week to prep. He brought in a new writer to do rewrites, which came in thick and fast and were very different from Stanley’s vision. In a few days, the screaming started, according to Balk. She said in the documentary that Frankenheimer was rude and dismissive of her: “This man hated my guts.” He turned out to be a tyrant, denigrating the Australian crew as the worst he’d ever worked with. He disrespected the aboriginal actors.

Brando did show up a week after he was due on set. He appeared in a peculiar getup: white face, swathed in a gauzy muumuu, wearing gloves, sunglasses on his nose. It was later surmised that the white face was so that his stand-in would do most of his work. He demanded an ice bucket filled with ice to wear on his head to keep cool as part of his costume.

Every day was an effort to get Brando out of his air-conditioned trailer. Once he did, he argued with Frankenheimer about everything. He never read the script and didn’t learn his lines – they were fed into his ear by his assistant through an earpiece. Then, he took a shine to de la Rosa and demanded that he be in every one of his scenes. He got the script changed so that Hofschneider’s role was cut and de la Rosa took his part. De la Rosa was even dressed like Brando (the character of Mini-Me, in the Mike Myers’ Austin Powers movies, was based on him).

Kilmer never stopped his shenanigans. He even burned the focus puller’s sideburns during a scene with his cigarette. He and Brando did not get on. Frankenheimer got on with no one, especially not with Kilmer. He said to some of the actors: “If I was directing a film called The Life of Val Kilmer, I wouldn’t have that prick in it.”

Brando and Kilmer played power games. Neither wanted to be the first to come out of his trailer. The cast and crew would sit around for hours waiting for work to begin. They got drunk and high every night just to alleviate the tedium.

Stanley, who hadn’t left the area but was hiding out in the rainforest, came across some extras from Moreau.  They smuggled him onto the set as a dog-man extra, his face covered with a mask. Despite the heat, Stanley was the only one who didn’t take his mask off during breaks, eventually leading to his discovery, but not before he was filmed in several scenes. “I had completed the full arc from creative person to dog,” he said in the documentary.

Moreau was finally released and was a disaster. On a $40 million budget, it has grossed $27 million so far. Critics were brutal, audiences stayed away. Roger Ebert described it as “perhaps [Brando’s] worst film.” The film was nominated for six Razzies including Worst Picture, Worst Director, and Worst Supporting Actor, for both Kilmer and Brando. Brando won.