RICHARD STANLEY AND THE DEVIL
(EXCERPT FROM SEX & GUTS MAGAZINE #3 - 2001)
I saw Hardware about ten years ago. It's mix of sci-fi standards with genuine subversion, perversion, and putrescence left me with a raging curiosity about its director. Richard Stanley. He certainly wasn't easy to find.
Hardware is a post-apocalyptic, sociopolitical, and sociopathic nightmare. Its themes are dually romantic and political, a rarely successful combination of elements. The critics slagged this film off as a Terminator rip-off. The critics were numbskulled sonsofbitches who took the film as a cheap entertainment with nothing to say. The message of the film isn't even a subtext, it's a fucking plot element, so I left them to ponder the artistic significance of the latest Walter Hill blowout and decided to watch the film again. An addiction developed. Hardware was getting me off like some kind of celluloid pharmaceutical. The genius of the film - hear me out now - is restraint. I mean it. Those who know the film may think I'm out of my gourd for using that word. Note, however, I didn't say subtlety. It's nothing if not unsubtle. But it holds back. It introduces a kind of tenderness... then temporarily forgets compassion when the nails come out. It uses a sharp and focused mis-en-scene - then it obscures logic and reality. Although there is a large Argento-influence, unlike the old daughter-obsessing codger's films, Hardware does have logic. You just have to look at it sideways. You have to catch those details and Stanley's debut is packed with details like no other film I've ever seen. You are required to squarely pit your own mind within the confines of a radioactive, real-life-banal, Neo-Hitler enforced HELL. If you make that jump, you are initiated into the ferocious mind of Richard Stanley.
The antagonist of Hardware is the result of a government-funded genocide project, a cyborg called the Mark 13. Mark is named after a particularly creepy bible passage ("These are the birth pains. No flesh shall be spared.") and our boy delivers a clean, shove-shot of precylabin morphate that kills you so fine you enjoy your own death. Cancer sores cover the bodies of those dying in the street. The president preaches a hatred of mud races. The city is a barely inhabitable sewage strewn battlefield. Radiation sickness is a way of life. The sun does not shine. Rain does not fall.
Hardware rips off The Terminator? Think again. Stanley's effort has more brains, balls, and human depth than a big budget pyro like James Cameron could ever hope for. (But sparks DO fly in Hardware, and so do several precious fluids.)
Stanley's second feature. DUST DEVIL, was an altogether terrifying, indelibly haunting travelogue of atmosphere and abuse, preoccupied with both human frailty and human savagery.
Robert Burke portrays Hitch, a white trash traveler eventually revealed as a demon spirit, wandering the plains of South Africa (where Stanley was raised). He preys on desperate, lonely, suicidal women.
The impoverished town of Bethany is a perfect feeding ground. An adulterous white woman and her broken hearted husband become fair game.
Both films, released by Miramax, remain even in their cut forms sensitive to the carnage they portray. His work is anything but shock-art.
In Dust Devil, he emphasizes spirituality. In Hardware, he uses psych-o-delia and a decidedly narcotic aesthetic.
But Stanley wanted to mine some fertile ground. He wanted to go further. He wanted to use other weapons.
Richard Stanley's third and most commercially promising feature, The Island of Dr. Moreau became a circumstantial tragedy. In its cast were prominently featured names such as Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer. The script was harsh. It exceeded even the confrontational realms of his previous films. The producers weren't interested, but Brando's interest green lighted the production. Within a week of principal location shooting in Australia, Stanley had been fired from the film.
His two completed feature films have yet to be released in their intended forms.
Dust Devil in particular suffered a shocking thirty minute censoring which renders the film incomprehensible. The system has not been kind to Richard Stanley. It's up to you to change that.
I talked to the director for over an hour about Hardware, Dust Devil, and his upcoming independent documentary release, The Secret Glory.
Gene Gregorits: Why won't Miramax release the director's cut of Hardware and Dust Devil?
Richard Stanley: Hardware had gotten an X the first time out, but the equivalent of an R really. It doesn't make any sense to release a movie with that age restriction. it's not very commercial. Also, at the time, they liked the publicity of it being an X rated movie, and still being able to cut it, they got free publicity on it.
GG: The cuts were pretty minor.
RS: Pretty minor, in Hardware, yes. I didn't mind most of the changes. The most damaging of the changes were made in script stage, in pre-production, because otherwise I wouldn't have gotten the deal. With Dust Devil, I've been forced to give digital master copies to people before, because in the case of Dust Devil, no one knows who owns the rights anymore. No one knows who owns the rights to Hardware either, but the situation with Dust Devil is very bad. No one can legally sell anyone the rights to the movie because no one can figure out who to buy the rights from. That means that potential distributors to their best to investigate it for 2 or 3 months and then eventually, get discouraged. Pirate video is the only way to see the real film.
GG: That was a huge cut, about a half hour I think.
RS: More than that, in fact. The stateside version runs at 70 minutes, the full version runs at 105. It only achieved 70 minutes because they run the music from the end roll twice, to bring it up from 68 or something. They needed to meet 70 minutes, and they just improvised and brought in an extra two minutes of black screen music at the end, just to meet contractual obligations.
GG: In Hardware there are all these little clues and hints that you drop, as background info. The film has a lot of ambiguous elements, in terms of location, date, political climate, things like that. I know that some critics who didn't like the film said it was incomprehensible, when it fact it's very coherent if you catch all the small details and minutia. For instance the characters will talk about New York, about going to New York, so the film obviously isn't set there. A certain portion of the cast has American accents. Did you intend for there to be a set location?
RS: Not particularly. It could have been Detroit, Philadelphia, or somewhere in the middle of the country. It started off being England, which was the problem. A lot of the script was set in council flats in futuristic London. Once Miramax became involved, they started casting American leads, which I didn't mind, but the problem was, under union rules in England, you can't bring in more than two Americans onto the same project, because then all of a sudden you've got a world where you've got American leads, but the whole rest of the world has to be made of local actors. So you've got the Jamaican security guards and an old Irish astronaut living next door, with a rather strange accent. Then there is the Chinese family downstairs.
GG: Yeah it's a very multi-cultural film.
RS: That's partially because we couldn't set it completely in America due to contractual obligations. I tried very hard to get an American shade.
GG: Could you talk a little about the original script before Miramax got hold of it?
RS: The biggest change was the character of Mo. Mo in the script is basically a junkie, and he's a bit of a burnout, a mechanic who's working for the army, in the script. And he lost his hand in some kind of industrial accident, and got addicted to some kind of morphine-type painkiller. He's also radioactive and has cancer. (Laughs) Also the girlfriend, in the original script, has a thing for his scars, and for his metal hand, and she was busy tattooing him all over his remaining flesh. A Miramax assistant noted that there should be no tattoos, because they'd released a movie called Tattoo with Bruce Dern which made no money. Terrible movie.
GG: Now, "the hand", which isn't explained as an industrial accident or anything like that, is very much fetishized by you in the film.
RS: The hand stayed there, yeah. In the script, it was the reasons for the hand, and how it fit into the relationship, that were fudged. First of all, the heroin had to go, even though the droid retains the needles. And Mo dies of a lethal trip, eventually. He still O.D.'s basically, even though he is no longer a junkie.
GG: Sweet irony.
RS: Yeah. (Laughs) There was a huge fracas over the casting of his part, because I chose Stacy Travis for the lead and she was basically an unknown. They caused a major quarrel, because I had my choice of a female lead, so they had to have their choice of a male lead. They really pinned us down about two weeks before the actual start of the movie, and very much shoehorned us into having to go the way we did, which was go with a choice of three people, and Dylan was the best of the three. When Dylan McDermott arrived on set, he had a crew cut, and I said, "Oh god." He looked very healthy, and he's into Christianity. He brought his bible with him.
GG: In a way, what they forced you to cut only made the film more unsettling. You never know what happened to Mo's hand, and there's a lot of things that aren't made crystal clear but it only makes the characters more interesting. I really enjoyed that aspect.
RS: Yeah. And another macabre part of the process was that they demanded we shoot explanations of things, that me make it pedantic about explaining everything. And they kept faxing us scenes where dialogue needed to be explained. There's a credit at the end for "additional dialogue", the name I can't remember. It was the guy who wrote The Mask. An American chappy. There was a whole long dinner scene that was shot just to please Miramax, between Jill and Mo, where all of their dialogue points of address had to be cut out, just because it was such a massively long dinner scene. That's the reason why you see them without any clothes, and they're making love, then you see them a few minutes later, they're going to sleep with their clothes back on. There was an entire ten minute "alligator steak" dinner sequence which was taken out.
GG: Another great, weird detail that isn't explained, the "alligator steaks" and "reindeer steaks".
RS: Originally the story of "the hand" came up at the dinner table.
GG: Both of your feature films are dominated by female characters. They could almost be seem as feminist stories. What interests you so much about having a woman as the central character in your films?
RS: I guess I've always been dominated by women. I've been surrounded by strong, aggressive pro-feminist characters. I think at the time I was probably entering too much into that point of view, that all male characters are overtly useless in the movies.
GG: The male leads in Hardware and Dust Devil come to rather unpleasant ends.
RS: Yeah. These days I kind of regret being so tough on men. I think the next time around I'll be an equal opportunity offender.
GG: Right. (Laughs)
RS: Actually I was going there at the end of Dust Devil, in a way that I wasn't entirely happy with. It was more ambiguous than I wanted it to be. I would've hoped that Chelsea [Field, Wendy in Dust Devil] would've been scarier than she was.
GG: Hardware is really packed with technological detail, but it still manages to be about people. It's incredibly well thought out, in terms of characterization. How did you play down the tech stuff so well, yet have it so fully apparent throughout the entire film? And also, I was interested in how you made the film look like 25 million on a one million dollar budget.
RS: They're unanswerable questions. Well, the second one's easier to answer.
RS: We worked very, very hard, and people were underpaid. The crew was insanely committed. We storyboarded the whole thing. We worked with a backwards and forwards storyboard. and re-storyboarded everything. And shot with every available thing we had, for as long as we could. We had two crews working, so we were on set shooting for 24 hours a day. So when the main unit clocked off to leave, when they switched off the lights at six o'clock or something, the second unit would move on, and switch the lights back on again and get going with the droid walking around, or anything that didn't involve the principal cast. Which was quite a lot, really. That way I could just go on shooting for as long as I could stay awake. And keep going. I think it was just a matter of taking the time we had, and the amount of money we had, and squeezing it for every insanity we could get. I'd try to take rest dozes, and every time I went to sleep, I'd gone missing. It got to the point where I knew that every time I'd stop and lay down, we'd have one less pick-up shot. One less angle.
GG: That's pretty brutal.
RS: Yeah. It was only six or seven weeks, and to go on shooting like that, I realized what a fucked up life one gets into when shooting a movie. I just had to grab it with both hands, and be prepared to stay awake. A long time.
GG: Hardware seems to be greatly misunderstood in some circles.
RS: In a way, the response was pretty good. It made quite a lot of money, considering. It's the most financially viable thing I've ever been involved with. And I suppose that ultimately, with the Hollywood bottom line, it's a success story, that one. It's partially because of the way the thing was marketed, and also because of the expectation. It was thought right from the beginning that it would be sort of an Alien/Terminator clone, which is kind of the expectation of the backers and the distributors at the time. That's pretty much what they wanted, and I figured, okay, maybe we can take a spin on this standard premise of people creeping around in this dark warehouse, tight industrial type space, being menaced by this monster who pops out once every so often, which was common for those days. Lots of bad movies like The Titan Find. I can't remember the other titles, there are so many of them.
GG: it doesn't seem that it was at all your motive to make a typical sci-fi story. Hardware riifs on political and ecological issues, which you rarely see taken seriously in films of that genre.
RS: It just seems to me that I've always been very scared of the future. There are certainly plenty of things about it that bug me out. There are a lot of things about the genre that I've never bought into, in sci-i movies. And I wanted to address a little about the world we live in. The film is so contained in one location, because of the budget, so it was difficult to get a lot of that stuff. I always imagined that somewhere, in America for instance, central authority would break down entirely, in a kind of Mad Max, post apocalypse kind of manner. I always figured it would be the government's fault, and then still, some kind of civilization going on. On a depleted third world level. I like to imagine when the system dies. I would've wished I could've seen, in a big budget movie, a world in which the [government created genocide] droid was successfully deployed. To see it doing what it was built for in the first place. Instead of a single unit running amok, rather what would've happened if the experiment was successful. And did what it was meant to do.
GG: And that film would've been Hardware 2. How far into production did that film get?
RS: It never really got into production. There are a number of reasons. The main thing is sort of two-fold. One is that the people involved in the first one turned out so badly, in later years. or some just ceased to exist. The people at Palace just went bankrupt, or split up acrimoniously. It was never made clear as to who actually owned the rights. Considering how much money Hardware made, that was because when they released it, they pretended it was a regular sci-fi movie, and tried not to give away the fact that it was made for 800 grand. That's why some audiences felt betrayed walking into something like that, when they expected a 75 million dollar movie.
GG: It was also made for an intelligent audience, not for your typical video renting couch potato.
RS: Yeah, and I hope there's enough in there for them. But there's not much for the video crowd to come back to.
GG: You started your career making music videos. What videos have you directed?
RS: That's a long time ago now. I guess a lot of stuff quite widely across the board, musically. I did one for John Lydon, and Public Image Limited. I enjoyed that.
GG: Which song?
RS: The video was called "The Body".
GG: That's great!
RS: Oh, you know that one?
GG: Yeah, but I never knew you made that video. I like it a lot.
RS: That video... it starred Lydon, and that weird looking guy with the glasses is an associate of Tim Leary's. He's actually been involved in that stuff, in Operation Artichoke and stuff. So we threw him in a cameo with him, as a mad scientist doing experiments on people. I did a bunch for Fields Of Nephilm. Probably the ones most directly relevant to Hardware.
GG: I don't know their music, and never saw the videos. Are they stylistically much like Hardware? Carl McCoy's image is exactly that of your film.
RS: Yeah. I was never wild about their music. They had a spaghetti western/post nuke image. Sort of a goth/horror thing. The first video we did, and then the first album cover, second album cover, second video. And then I had a chance to invent the look of the band which was very exciting. I met them before they were signed, and had a big influence on how they actually looked. I did the album covers, and influenced them across the board. Eventually the lead singer became a character called The Preacher Man, this frightening religious zealot in a post-holocaust world. I did a great promo. He's got a prosthetic hand, dresses in black with a hat and coat. Elements of the radiation contamination, the metal hand, the thing digging itself out of the ground, all that stuff from Hardware appeared in the Fields Of Nephilm videos first. Carl McCoy [Nephilm lead singer] is the guy who comes out of the desert. That was their look. He had the yellow contact lenses in that second promo. He looked like the same guy in Hardware. They are essentially the same character.