Why The Island of Dr. Moreau became one of the most notorious film shoots ever
25 years later, let’s revisit the troubled production of the 1996 H.G. Wells adaptation.
Few films have achieved the same level of notoriety as The Island of Dr. Moreau.
This 1996 sci-fi adventure destroyed the career of its once-promising director and tainted the legacy of an all-time Hollywood great. Adding insult to injury, it dominated the following year’s Razzies after underwhelming at the box office.
Had its $40 million production process gone smoothly, perhaps The Island of Dr. Moreau — which turns 25 this month — would be considered little more than an overly ambitious curio. After all, to recap the movie’s strange premise, at its center is a man (David Thewlis) rescued and brought to an island where a doctor (Marlon Brando) experiments on animals and transforms them into humanoid hybrids.
Yet, by the time the film crawled into cinemas in August 1996, the much-publicized drama that had erupted behind its scenes cemented the movie’s reputation as an unmitigated disaster.
The third big-screen adaptation of H.G. Wells’ mad-scientist novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, isn’t entirely without merit. Special effects creator Stan Winston’s array of monsters — a by-product of Moreau’s determination to tinker with the evolutionary process — are some of the most impressively disturbing ever to appear in a PG-13 film. When Thewlis’ castaway Douglas witnessed a horse-human hybrid delivering a mutant baby, such a moment likely scarred the Blockbuster generation for life.
Then there’s Brando’s divisive performance as the titular megalomaniac, an individual prone to slathering his face in sunblock, wearing metal bucket hats, and playing piano with a two-foot Mini-me (inspiring Mike Myers in the process). To some, this was a fittingly eccentric portrayal that cleverly leaned into the film’s fever-dream quality. To others, it seemed like evidence the Oscar winner had taken leave of his senses.
As reported by the 2014 documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, the shoot made even Apocalypse Now’s notoriously troubled production look like a picnic. And Brando was at the center of its storm, funnily enough.
The movie’s original director, Richard Stanley, claimed to have once called upon the powers of a warlock in an attempt to get Brando cast. Yet whatever spell had compelled Brando to work on The Island of Dr. Moreau also appeared to unleash a curse that struck anyone in the film’s orbit. The home of Stanley’s mother was hit by lightning no fewer than three times! A poisonous spider bit his production assistant. Even said warlock found himself in hospital after contracting a bone disease.
Not everything can be blamed on the supernatural, though. Stanley, who’d dreamed of tackling Wells’ sci-fi classic since childhood, didn’t exactly make things easy on himself. No doubt aggrieved to learn New Line Cinema had previously courted Roman Polanski for the gig, the then 29-year-old director repeatedly failed to attend production meetings. Stanley’s first 24 hours on set were so calamitous that the movie’s original leading man — Northern Exposure alum Rob Morrow — pleaded with execs to get him on the first plane home. And as if any further proof of Hollywood’s gender inequality was needed, actress Fairuza Balk was informed she’d never work again after making a similar request.
It was co-star Val Kilmer who proved Stanley’s real downfall. Living up to his hot-headed reputation at the time, the reigning Batman had already caused trouble by negotiating a 40 percent decrease in his work schedule. Kilmer had been hired over Stanley’s first choice, Bruce Willis, to play shipwrecked UN agent Douglas, but this decrease forced the director to recast Kilmer in a less prominent role, as the sinister vet Montgomery.
That still didn’t appease Kilmer, who arrived two days late for his first scene, refused to speak Ron Hutchinson and Stanley’s dialogue, and generally is reported to have acted like a grade-A jackass.
Rather brutally, Stanley’s inability to placate Kilmer was apparently integral to his firing by fax just three days into filming. Despite having significantly more experience than Stanley, replacement director John Frankenheimer (known for The Manchurian Candidate and Birdman of Alcatraz) didn’t have much more luck.
“Even if I was directing a film called The Life of Val Kilmer, I wouldn’t have that p**** in it,” he reportedly once remarked.
Frankenheimer also contended with Brando’s unruly conduct, although his behavior was more excusable than that of his wayward co-star. Brando’s daughter Cheyenne had committed suicide right before production started (lending a surprising poignancy to the heart-to-heart Moreau has with his feline ‘child’ in the movie), and the grieving actor continually left the crew on tenterhooks as to his whereabouts. When he did show up, Brando spent most of his time in an air-conditioned trailer hatching bizarre ideas about his character. (This includes a twist that the doctor was a dolphin man all along?!)
Brando’s reluctance to learn his lines meant he was ultimately fed them via earpiece during filming. In addition, his refusal to enter the set before Kilmer (and vice versa) made production as complicated as the unpredictable North Queensland weather.
Stanley should have thanked his lucky stars he’d been relieved of his duties. But just when you thought things couldn’t get any weirder, the ousted director plotted his unusual comeback. New Line Cinema had been so concerned about the prospect of Stanley seeking revenge after The Island of Dr. Moreau they had him escorted to the airport.
Somehow, though, the British helmer managed to give his minders the slip and headed into the secluded Cairns region area of Australia, recuperating from the mental breakdown brought about by his hasty exit. Although Stanley had previously joked about torching the set as payback, he ultimately decided on something more playful: He returned to the set disguised as an extra in a full dogman costume.
Stanley later claimed this secret gate-crashing was therapeutic. However, the whole experience still deterred him from stepping foot behind a camera for another 23 years. Color Out of Space, an equally barmy Lovecraftian tale starring another notable maverick, Nicolas Cage, was a fitting return to filmmaking for Stanley. However, recent allegations of horrific domestic abuse make it clear that comeback was short-lived.
The fact The Island of Dr. Moreau made it into cinemas at all is an achievement. And while it is no misunderstood classic, it’s certainly less of an abomination than that other massive anthropomorphic flop.
The Island of Dr. Moreau is available to rent or buy on VOD platforms.