A recent documentary, Lost Soul, depicts the unhinged madness that was the 1995 filming of The Island of Dr. Moreau, easily one of the worst movies ever made. The location shoot redefined disaster on set, the David Lean of calamitous productions. I was drawn to the story of Lost Soul because of my love for another film’s catastrophic shoot: that of Apocalypse Now.
I thought of Francis Ford Coppola’s taxing shoot almost immediately, the one where he lost over 100 pounds and threatened to off himself more than once. That shoot, the clusterfuck in the jungle that was scheduled for six weeks and swelled past a year, immortalized in its own behind-the-scenes doc, Hearts of Darkness, was top of mind when I hit play on Lost Soul. And then the similarities began adding up.
Before celluloid was even a thing, The Island of Dr. Moreau and Apocalypse Now’s source material, Heart of Darkness, shared a kinship of jealousy and spite. H.G. Wells accused Joseph Conrad of aping his story, saying his portrayal of the insane Colonel Kurtz was a clear mimic job on Moreau. The two authors were not tight.
A century later, Apocalypse Now was spiraling down the toilet, seemingly lost to uncooperative weather, an alcoholic Martin Sheen, a drug-addled Dennis Hopper, and a morbidly-obese Colonel Kurtz in the form of Marlon Brando, who arrived on set having rehearsed not a thing. The strife between Coppola and Brando — ever the aloof antagonist –- is as legendary as the film somehow managed to be in the end. That Apocalypse Now turned out to be one of the finest achievements in all of war cinema is a testament to Coppola’s fortitude.
The Island of Dr. Moreau had one major connection to Apocalypse Now, one that spelled disaster for the shoot in many of the same ways: Brando. Somehow, someway, the cosmos aligned to bring in Brando, the very man who had portrayed Conrad’s version of Moreau, to play Moreau himself. What could possibly go wrong? Once again, Brando had no intentions of learning his lines or motivations for his portrayal. He insisted on wearing strange white makeup and having his character complain about the heat, and he brought along an extra, the smallest man in the world at the time, to appear with him in every scene. Beyond this, Brando also managed to see through the thin façade, which had been cobbled together by weak studio execs and a director less competent than Coppola.
I mean, Brando was clearly trolling the set…
If Brando’s defiance wasn’t enough to unravel the picture, the studio absolutely had to have the mid-‘90s star power of Val Kilmer to sell the thing. His attitude and general dickish behavior made Martin Sheen look like Ned Flanders. Unfortunately for those involved, The Island of Dr. Moreau could not overcome its chaotic birthplace, unless you consider it a modern classic in the genre of so-bad-it’s-good.
The two films shared many similarities — weather, drugs, reshoots stacked on top of reshoots. But the biggest problem with both was the biggest actor on set, both in stature and physical presence. It seems now, after the odd connection these two stories shared going back to the days before Brando, that he was the only actor who could have and would have taken on Moreau after tackling Kurtz. One just happened to occur when he was still a formidable acting presence, and the other when his star had faded into some bizarre reclusive arena of oblivion. The horror. The horror.