Richard Stanley on Color Out of Space: “I wish we could’ve done a scratch and sniff”
The suite in the Mayfair Hotel is almost disarmingly ornate, even for this part of London. By this point I’m used to meeting directors at under or over-sized round tables in spectral, completely empty rooms with unknown purposes, and it’s strange to actually come into a space that feels almost liveable.
Homely would be the wrong word – unless your idea of home is the furniture section of Harrods – but certainly occupied and alive, or at least not alien to the idea of living. I suspect Richard Stanley’s house, where he lives in the quasi-mythical commune of Montségur in the South of France, looks nothing like this vaguely modernist collage whose design statement appears to say absolutely nothing, albeit very loudly. Nevertheless, it feels like I’m walking into the man’s home – if only by virtue of the bedroom to my right and his position, relaxing on a…. is that green? I think it’s green sofa to my left.
His is a slightly imposing presence, with a captivating, booming voice and his signature leather sorcerers hat. I think now, all these months later finally transcribing this piece, “was Richard actually wearing the hat?”, and I confess I cannot actually remember. Nonetheless, the hat features prominently in my memory of that afternoon and in that respect may as well make it into the interview – so picture this: Richard Stanley is wearing his hat, slightly reclined on a barely green plush sofa in the Mayfair hotel.
Schrodinger’s headwear notwithstanding, Stanley is an absolute joy to talk to. His enthusiasm about cinema and about his latest film – Color Out of Space – is infectious, and he possesses a warmth and a wisdom that’s truly unique. This same idiosyncrasy, you may recall, saw him largely misunderstood in the late 90’s and ousted off the set of The Island of Doctor Moreau by a particularly anxious New Line Cinema. But times have changed, and the film industry has thankfully maneuvered to be more favourable towards those with unique perspectives and stories to tell – Elijah Wood’s SpectreVision (responsible for Mandy) has produced Color. So here is Richard Stanley, at least semi returned to the Hollywood fold two decades since those legendary events that made him leave, relaxing on a green sofa (or maybe a chaise lounge) with his PR diligently typing away in the corner. It’s good to see him back.
James Witherspoon: One thing I thought was really apparent whilst watching the film was that the stars all seemed to be aligned on this project. You’ve got yourself, Nicolas, Spectrevision and one of the most promising Lovecraft stories all colliding together at once; and I was wondering how this whole thing came about.
Richard Stanley: Because of the way it came together, and it came together very well – we had no bad luck at all and the weather was nice; we made every day on the schedule; we completed it within the budget and no humans or alpacas were harmed – it feels to me like it was one of those accidents that was waiting to happen. It was time that the movie got made, and it just got itself made.
That’s part of the essential weirdness or the trippiness of the Lovecraft universe; ever since Lovecraft died, his work has been gaining in his popularity with some sort of unstoppable momentum. At this point in the early 21st century, for some reason Cthulu and things with tentacles and the Necronomicon have penetrated human culture to the point where people identify with them and know about them in Japan, in Russia, and the French Pyrenees. They all know what Cthulu is and everyone’s heard of the Necronomicon even if they don’t know it’s one of Lovecraft’s inventions. Quite how that happened without any major company or studio deliberately promoting it I don’t know – it’s just done it by itself and some kind of weird energy or karma seemed determined that a Lovecraft adaptation should come about this year and the stars aligned themselves. All the elements came together with a curious rapidity and an odd kind of pre-ordained innateness. I’m not so sure what that was about.
JW: When you read Lovecraft’s work, it’s super formalistic and comes from a really objective standpoint; I think because he never believed that humans mattered that much in the face of some greater, unknowable cosmic truth. But when making a film, that doesn’t really work, right? So you have to take these vaguely defined skeletons of people – barely more than names on the page – and create some really memorable characters out of that. I was wondering what that process was like.
RS: Yeah, I mean Lovecraft is a total misanthrope and has no interest in human beings. Some people say all stories are love stories, not Lovecraft ones – he never has any romance or any kind of normal motivation for any of his characters. My approach was very much to construct a sort of argument with Lovecraft, because he was also a materialist atheist with a very bleak view of humanity. In this case I tried basing most of the victims on my nearest and dearest and next of kin, so Joely’s character is very close to my mother. I was very close to young Jack – the seven-year-old doing crayon drawings of monsters while his parents go crazy and tear each other apart, which was pretty much my experience for the first few years of life. I have a Nephew named Benny who is kind of a carbon copy of the Benny who goes down the well in the movie. I guess I tried to deal with the horror of it by imagining the horror I would feel if it was happening to the people around me and the people I loved.
JW: That’s hard.
RS: *Laughs* Yeah, it helped to connect it to a reality we can identify with, and also it brought out Lovecraft’s issues. His misanthropy has a dark side that may have been more appropriate to the 1920’s. There’s an element of misogyny in his work, and also a clear element of racism, both of which needed to be dragged out and identified in some way – hence the addition of the two leads in the first sequence.
JW: I think that was actually my next question! When I was watching the film, that jumped out instantly as an intentional act of subversion – casting a black man and a woman in the lead roles of a Lovecraft film.
RS: That was indeed an intentional act of subversion, and even Lavinia’s fledgling pagan religious views are an intentional act of subversion because I’m not really a materialist atheist myself and I wanted to find some kind of way of dealing with the essential bleakness of Lovecraft’s universe.
JW: How did Nicolas Cage get involved? Initially, when I heard that he’d been cast in this project, I thought it was super odd, because the whole German expressionist thing he does is completely at odds with Lovecraft; but once the film materialises as something altogether more subjective, you realise that this guy’s mind is literally melting! Nic seems like the perfect character in that light.
RS: He got the script from Spectre. It was floating around for a few years, and in its initial iteration I’d written it as a British family who bought a farm and tried to raise alpacas in France only to get annihilated *laughs*. I think I’d originally written Nathan with Hugh Grant in mind, then on Mandy Nic made a bunch of unguarded statements about being a Lovecraft fan, which one of the producers picked up on.
They remembered they’d seen a Lovecraft script sort of floating around and were able to grab a copy and press it into Nic’s hands, and Elijah Wood and the Spectre partners physically drove to Las Vegas and cornered Nic in a bar. They dialled my phone number and put the handset in his hands, and I got a strange garbled call at about 3am 9 months ago in the French Pyrenees from some guy in a bar in Nevada claiming to be Nic Cage, which I took with a pinch of salt. Nic managed to run up a bar tab in excess of $30,000 in a single evening, which was extraordinary, and by the time the Spectre producers got back to the car, it had been broken into and their laptops had been stolen along with the DCP for Daniel Isn’t Real, but on the whole I thought it worked out pretty good.
JW: How was it to work with the guy?
RS: Nic was wonderful; almost singlehandedly restored my faith in Hollywood. We went through the script well in advance, and he identified various areas within it where he figured he could improvise or bring something to it. He was very respectful in terms of telling us well in advance what he wanted to do and where he wanted to take it, rather than just pulling it out of the bag on the day. So we were anticipating the major ‘Cage Rage’ moments, and he brought tremendous energy to what was usually the first take, which raised the stakes to such an extent that the crew and the other cast members were always on point, and generally we ended up getting it on take two. Most of the takes of Nic in the film are from take two or three, which meant we actually moved ahead of schedule because of the energy Nic was bringing to it. Everybody was on their game, and we finished the movie one day ahead of schedule.
JW: That’s fantastic! I think a lot of people, even now that it’s become more widely accepted that Nicolas Cage is a Great Actor, still don’t seem to get it. It’s like some people really seem to gel with what he tries to do and some people don’t understand, and the audience somewhere like the Prince Charles is really going to be into it but elsewhere you might find a group of people asking ‘what is this crap?’
RS: What I’ve found is that the audience seems to be really enjoying the movie, even from the initial screenings. We’ve been getting pretty continuous laughter and gasps and yelps, and a lot of feedback. Initially, I think, the critics were utterly confounded and had no idea what to think and were mostly floored by trying to reconcile how something can be funny and serious at the same time. To me, though, that’s natural because I’m a huge fan of people like Tobe Hooper and his Texas Chainsaw movies; after you’ve seen Caroline Williams trussed up like a turkey in Texas Chainsaw 2, grandpa trying to kill her with a hammer, one becomes well used to folk trying to crack jokes about things which are totally politically incorrect or utterly unmentionable. In Color Out of Space, the mutation of one’s family or killing one’s own children are just things that shouldn’t be funny.
I think people are gradually finding the movie, and it will find its audience, and Nic’s going somewhere very special in his career and I think he’s hugely brave for it. He’s stepping away from the action hero mold that he’d been pressed into by Hollywood, and he’s playing much more freaky and flawed characters. Nathan in Color Out of Space is nothing like an action hero and is clearly completely incapable of dealing with the various problems that he is forced to face in the course of the movie. I really think Nic has the potential to be a horror star; there’s something of Vincent Price about him at times, in the almost sort of campy relish that he brings to the part, and he’s got a really impeccable sense of timing.
JW: He’s just one of those actors that you see in a cast list and know the film is at least worth watching, even if for his presence alone. *at this point, we’re told to wrap up the interview* Time moves so quickly! If there’s just one more thing to ask, then, I think the obvious question that arises with this film is how did you go about trying to create a colour that doesn’t exist.
RS: Well I took a pretty straightforward, scientific approach. I thought, ‘we’re dealing with an inter-dimensional intrusion into our reality, it’s like dealing with a three-dimensional shadow of a four-dimensional object’.
The extremes of the visual spectrum range from ultraviolet to infrared, so I had to imagine that it would come out something like an ultra-violet blur. I wouldn’t be able to see the real thing, but I’d be seeing it’s ultra-violet or infra-red shadow. The same goes for ultrasound and infrasound, which would be accompanied by very deep bass that’s edging into ultrasound or very high-pitched frequencies which are chipping at the outer edge of the human auditory range. I wish we could have done a scratch and sniff, because there’s an olfactory spectrum as well. I’m sure we’d be smelling either very bitter or very sweet.
Within the film, it does attempt to portray how I imagine we might experience an encounter with an ultra-dimensional force. I also looked at a lot of UFO contact stories – stories where no technical craft were involved but were things like the Skinwalker Ranch story or the Dyatlov Pass incident, and tried to incorporate some of the scarier or freakier elements like space-time distortion and not knowing whether it’s night or day and all those weird bits and pieces that are in there.
JW: That’s very cool. Thank you so much for speaking to us about the movie, and I hope to see you again with another project!
Color Out of Space is in cinemas and On Demand 28th February 2020. On DVD and Blu Ray 6th April.