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Interview: Writer/Director Richard Stanley on the Method and the Madness Behind ‘Color Out of Space’

January 30, 2020Ben MK

To understand the degree of cosmic alignment necessary for Richard Stanley's latest film to make it to the big screen, one needs to first comprehend the unique situation of the South African-born writer/director. A talented filmmaker who made an impact with his 1990 feature debut, Hardware, Stanley largely disappeared from the movie scene for over two decades, after being infamously ousted from the set of 1996's The Island of Dr. Moreau. With Color Out of Space, however, Stanley is making his triumphant return to filmmaking — bolstered by a literary icon and one of Hollywood's most recognizable stars.

I caught up with Richard Stanley to discuss the making of Color Out of Space and his nearly lifelong obsession with the works of legendary author H.P. Lovecraft, as well as what the one and only Nicolas Cage brought to the project.

Color Out of Space is a huge passion project for you and took 7 years to finally bring to fruition. Can you tell me about the genesis of this film, the long journey of getting it made, and how it evolved?

Stanley: I've been wanting to make an H.P. Lovecraft homage/adaptation pretty much all of my life, just as a way of tipping my hat to the man. I was indoctrinated into his weird universe as a child by my mother and, to some extent, I've been borrowing elements from his universe all my life, creatively. So a part of me really wanted to put his name up front and do a legitimate adaptation of one of his stories. I've always been irritated by people's assumption that the stories are unfilmable, and after waiting for [Guillermo] del Toro to come forth with At the Mountains of Madness or James Wan to deliver on Call of Cthulhu, I got impatient and we figured we needed to do it ourselves.

Part of it came out of the fact that I've been living for the last 15 years, more or less, in a remote village in the French Pyrenees, which looks exactly like Dunwich from one of Lovecraft's stories. I basically moved into the creepiest place I could find. People over the years kept saying, "You should shoot a Lovecraft film here. It would be really easy to make this up as backwards Arkham or Dunwich." So eventually I did just that; I made a short film called The Mother of Toads that became the first segment of an anthology film called The Theatre Bizarre that came out a bunch of years ago. In a way, The Mother of Toads acted as proof of concept for the idea; then the film's original backers encouraged me to write a feature-length film from "The Colour Out of Space" set on a single farm in this backwards, rural location.

The script then floated around Hollywood for a couple of years and fortuitously found its way into Nic Cage's hands while he was shooting Mandy. Josh Waller, the Mandy producer, was in conversation with Nic, and Nic's super well-read and a huge Lovecraft fan. The moment Josh realized that he was keen on doing something of Lovecraft's he put the Color script into Nic's hands. And the first I heard about it, I got a phone call at 2 in the morning at my house in France from some guy in a bar in Nevada claiming to be Nic Cage, saying he wants to do the movie. I was initially a little skeptical, but it turned out to be so.

Since the character of Nathan Gardner wasn't initially written with Nicolas Cage in mind, how did the role change once he joined the film?

Stanley: In a way, I possibly leaned further into the insanity and black comedy [of the situation]. Nic's actually a pretty perfect match for my natural style as a filmmaker. I think everything I do is kind of apocalyptic, deadpan comedy. The more appalling the circumstances the more I find [within it] a sense of sick humor; I'm probably heavily influenced by folk like Tobe Hooper and all his Texas Chainsaw movies and Don Coscarelli as well, the man who gave us Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep. Nic is just ideal for that kind of part, because he brings with him this very innate sense of comic timing, even in scenes that shouldn't normally be played for laughs.

I think Nic has within him [the makings of] a truly great horror star. There are some aspects of him that remind me of Vincent Price. If he keeps going this way — and leaning further into the character roles and stepping away from the action hero parts — I think Nic's going to be giving us some very entertaining movies in the next few years. He turned out to be a dream to work with. He brought a tremendous energy to the set.

The story has been — albeit loosely — adapted for the screen several times before. How did you balance those black comedy elements with the desire to make your film a more faithful adaptation, while at the same time also modernizing the story?

Stanley: One of the basic rules [regarding] the black comedy elements was that the script itself was never funny. The humans can be trivial and ridiculous in the face of annihilation or inevitable extinction, but the thing that's coming after them — the implacable Lovecraftian force — is completely unfunny. It's more likely to do with the nature of humanity that so many of the things we try to do and say in the face of extinction are ultimately ridiculously and foolish. Every attempt to say, "Everything's going to be fine, I love you guys, everything's under control" just becomes increasing ghastly as the movie goes along.

And in adapting the story I wanted to do the best I could for [Lovecraft] by, in some ways, being a little unfaithful to him. That entailed moving the story into the present day or the near future, mostly because I wanted Lovecraft's mythos to become dangerous again. I didn't want people to feel it was something quaint or part of the 1920s or the 19th century, or something that we're in any way safe from. I think [of the] generations of role-playing games and cuddly Cthulhu toys and Cthulhu fridge magnets and I couldn't wait to step away from that and reimagine the Old Ones in a way that is still terrifying for the present day and for generations to come.

I wanted to see the Old Ones as a clear and present threat to the continued existence of humanity on this earth. So that, in some ways, entailed bringing this to the present and reconnecting the themes to the current problems going on — our present-day anxieties about the environment, the sense that the world we're living in at the moment is pinwheeling out of control in ways that none of us can really wrap our heads around. Because I don't think Lovecraft would necessarily have been writing about the past. His work inhabits a weird slight area between horror-fantasy and sci-fi, but it's still, ultimately, forward-looking.

And a way, of course, in dealing with that horror and confronting it was to imprint my own loved ones onto the characters. [Brendan Meyer's character] Benny, for instance, is closely based on my own nephew Benny, who I try to kill in every script I write. [laughs] So a lot of the humor and horror arises out of positioning one's own family in harm's way and thinking, "What would my mother do or say?" or "How would my dad have handled this?" — the answer generally being, "Pretty poorly." But some kind of black humor naturally arises out of that equation.

Can you speak a bit about your approach to the look and feel of the movie, in particular the creature design? What were some of the challenges you had to overcome, in terms of translating the story from the page to the screen?

Stanley: A lot of folks were always saying that you can't show the monster, or that you should never show the unspeakable. But Lovecraft himself usually brings the monster on, even in the original short stories. Usually it arrives in the form of an italicized final paragraph, but Lovecraft generally knows that you have to show the monster eventually; that the audience is gonna feel cheated if they don't ever get a clear look at the thing. You can only play peekaboo with the creature for so long before you have to bring the critter out of the bag, which was an enormous challenge.

With the main creature, we wanted to create something which was completely ultra-dimensional — that was neither a gas nor a solid nor a fluid. The very substance of the Color needed to be completely ultra-dimensional and it had to feel not like anything we have on this earth, so I guess was looking for a sweet spot between practical and VFX. I didn't want to have to go over into fully-blown VFX; as much as possible we were trying to do stuff which was physically present on-set and then using the VFX to push it a little bit further.

What are some of your favorite cosmic horror films — are there any in particular that you would recommend viewers to check out after seeing your film?

Stanley: I think the first answer is a very obvious one. Possibly the greatest Lovecraftian movie ever made is The Thing, by John Carpenter, which ticks all the boxes despite the fact of not coming from a Lovecraft source material. The creature in The Thing is possibly the greatest movie monster ever, the way that it also challenges our sense of humanity or individuality.

Otherwise, I've found most of my cosmic horror thrills over the years have come more from the arthouse. I'm a big fan of Andrzej Zulawski's Possession, with Isabelle Adjani, which probably has the best tentacle effects of all time. I've also found elements of cosmic horror sometimes in Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky movies. It's hard to beat the scene in Bergman's Winter Light, where the girl has the vision of God as a huge spider which has come down to eat her, which retains a sense of dread and horror that runs deeper than much of what's been achieved in the actual horror genre so far. And I think Takovsky's Stalker and Solaris both contain a fabulous sense of an alien or an unknowable off-the-screen presence, force or entity.

Last but not least, I understand you're planning on turning this into a trilogy. Can you speak briefly about that and what you're working on next?

Stanley: I'm currently in the process of completing the first draft of The Dunwich Horror, which is a new adaptation of one of Lovecraft's most popular stories. The idea has always been to take three of the most popular Lovecraft classics and to bring them into the 21st century — to try and make them relevant and appropriate again. And Dunwich, which is something I've been wanting to get my hands on for pretty much all of my life, will take us back on campus for the first time since Reanimator; we'll finally go back to Miskatonic University.

It also deals very squarely with the Necronomicon, the black book that contains the true secrets of mankind's creation that lies at the center of Lovecraft's stories. For the first time, we'll hear the dread names of the Old Ones — Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth and his other creations. Of course, Dunwich also gives us the Whateley family, which is possibly one of Lovecraft's juiciest creations, the backwoods family that have interbred with ultra-dimensional beings.

It’s set in the same world as Color, maybe a few years later — so we're talking an apocalyptic near-future, sort of MAGA period Arkham County — and will set up the apocalyptic third movie. I'm very much hoping that we get a little bit more money to do it as well, given that Color Out of Space's working budget really wasn't much more than 3 million USD. So I'm very much hoping that by the third movie we'll be able to widen the reach of the story.

Color Out of Space is now playing in select theatres.

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