Between Droids and Devils:
Talking With Richard Stanley and Simon Boswell
by Matty Budrewicz
For Tees Valley area horror nuts, the Film Club at The Forum, Darlington has been nothing short of a godsend. Not content with already having spoilt us rotten with triumphant and guest packed Barker-friendly screenings of Nightbreed: The Cabal Cut and Hellraiser, on Monday 2nd December those bastards and their Fearless Leader James Watson let loose their mighty trump card: an exquisite double whammy showcase of Hardware and Dust Devil.
Wildly imaginative and filled with the kind of go- for-broke hypnotic verve all too seldom seen in the genre, the two flicks from writer-director Richard Stanley proudly rank as two of the very best shockers of the nineteen nineties. Thrillingly, Stanley was on hand to present both movies and, in a UKHS exclusive, very kindly agreed to put up with this slightly awestruck babbling yahoo to wax lyrical about his work…
“Well, the killer robot in Hardware arrived late,” the enigmatic South African auteur explains as he settles down with a cuppa between films. “There’s originally a Hardware which began life as a one hour Super 8 called Incidents in an Expanding Universe, which I began making when I was fifteen. It was basically Hardware without the M.A.R.K. 13.”
Ah yes, the M.A.R.K. 13- the murderous droid at the centre of Stanley’s cyberpunk gothic feature debut. A junked government experiment discovered as scrap by post-apocalyptic soldier Mo [Dylan McDermot], the M.A.R.K. 13 robot ends up on a bloody apartment-based rampage after being inadvertently re-assembled by Mo’s artist girlfriend Jill [Stacy Travis] one particulary bleak, future-shock Christmas Eve. “Incidents starts very much the same way: Shades [Mo’s best friend] comes back from space, him and Mo are wandering around town bitching, Mo’s girlfriend is a scrap metal sculptress… Basically, the whole Super 8 is the same except nothing happens. They just go back to the apartment and are all very depressed, the joke being that they’re all dreaming about the future but they’re already in the future and the future sucks! It’s not a horror-action movie, just a very depressing look at a despoiled tomorrow!” Stanley laughs.
So what did prompt the ‘bots arrival? “After getting my material rejected by numerous different production companies, obviously Terminator and Aliens happened and the general wisdom was to ‘make a monster movie’- put a monster in it and turn it into an action horror film. It just then made a kind of sense to me to do it.” Indeed, it’s an aspect that dovetails perfectly with the rest of the plot, something Stanley puts down to practice. “I think the reason the films’ world is so well developed was because it’d been rehearsed in the Super 8 and in a few of my music videos [for the Fields of the Nephilim]. We just made things even worse by dropping a malfunctioning droid into their lives!”
Similarly Stanley’s sophomore feature Dust Devil also has roots in earlier material, this time in the form of an aborted 16mm attempt. Finally coming to full fruition in a serial killer obsessed post-Silence of the Lambs cinematic landscape, the 1993 creeper tells the diabolical story of ‘Hitch’, a supernatural murderer [played by RoboCop 3’s Robert Burke] prowling the Namibian highways for the lost and the desperate- the eponymous Dust Devil.
Exchanging the claustrophia and brashness of Hardware in a favour of a bigger, more evocative canvas, Dust Devil is a handsome and more refined work, paradoxically both classical and experimental.
Don’t believe me? Just check out Stanley’s lush compositions and sweeping camera manoeuvres, straight out of any classic western, and then look at the unorthodoxly structured, esoteric and surreal screenplay; it’s The Searchers by way of art-horror. “It’s certainly not a linear narrative,” says Stanley. “It’s nothing like a modern day, Robert McKee three act structure, it doesn’t really follow the Hollywood wisdom on script structure. It’s kind of like a spiral, with all the characters spiralling round each other and, very often, they don’t even meet.”
Though Stanley describes the somewhat difficult shooting of the film as “a thousand miles of rocky road”, things got a whole lot worse during editing when one of Dust Devil’s co-backing production companies Palace Films went belly up. “Yeah, Palace were forced into receivership. Their parent company basically went bankrupt and we were never really able to finish the film,” Stanley explains. “At that point the lab held on to the negative and the sound lab held on to the sound part- all the different pieces of the film were held on to by the various creditors who Palace were owing money to.”
Stanley’s struggle to get the film back is a well documented and almost legendary affair, the long and the short of it being him investing countless amounts of his own time and money into finally getting it out there in his intended version.”After about three years, I managed to get back in with David Orkin at Channel Four and some of the original investors,” he says. “I was then able to go and gain access to the original neg and the materials. I was finally able to put the film together as it was meant to be. The original [UK released] Polygram VHS was my cut of it- my original version- it just wasn’t graded very well. It was a lot darker. I don’t think they actually bothered to tell any of us or talk to the DP about it- I think they just rattled it off in one sitting at the telecine, probably at about three in the morning when it was cheap! By the time the DVD came around, we were able to go in and grade it properly.”
It should be noted, however, that this wasn’t the first time Stanley had experienced what some would politely term ‘production problems’, and nor would it be the last, as any quick Googling of 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, starring Marlon Brando, and its notorious calamity-ridden production history will explain. “It seems to happen on almost every project I work on. It happened on my student film and I’m always waiting to see what’ll happen to the master or the DCP nowadays,” Stanley chuckles self-deprecatingly. “The issue of having the print taken away or having things taken out of it has been present ever since I first picked up a camera. Things are always threatening to fall into the fire or get taken over by someone!”
Thankfully, Dust Devil seems to have found its audience in the last few years, Stanley’s ‘Final Cut’ becoming something of a cult favourite. “I think it’s finally managed to triumph,” he says. “I’m hoping the old version will eventually die out. The Miramax version is under seventy minutes.” Of course- the infamous, butchered US cut. How in the hell did that happen?! “Miramax held on to the cutting copy and at some point they must’ve struck a new interneg and then continued to edit a film out of that copy. They were cutting without access to the rushes and without access to any of the other material.”
Talk soon turns to two of the director’s long mooted projects, Hardware 2: Ground Zero and Vacation. The former is an epic that would serve as both a Hardware sequel and an expansion of the ideas and inner mythology found within Dust Devil, effectively creating and closing a grandiose Richard Stanley trilogy. Whilst Hardware 2’s brilliant script is readily available to read online, getting it made is something else entirely: “Legally, it’s still tricky. I’ve thought that maybe if we could get away with it, maybe make a movie called ‘HARD.WARE’-just change the title slightly as it’s largely that that stops it happening, though ‘property’ is really the word,” Stanley explains.
“I’ve tried pitching the same script to different companies under different titles and people seem a lot less keen on taking the movie if it’s called something like ‘Droid’ or ‘Final Assembly’! Any alternate titles I’ve put down, they’ve always wanted it to be called ‘Hardware 2’ so as to have that instant connection with the franchise.”
Sadly, the inability to get Hardware 2 made is sadly mirrored by the similarly tech-phobic Vacation. “Yeah, I’ve tried for ages to get it off the ground. It’s very frustrating, that one,” sighs Stanley. “I guess maybe the politics were too extreme. It’s about an American couple holidaying on a remote island in the Middle East at a point in time where a global calamity takes out the West. America and Britain go offline forever, the tourists discovering their cellphones and credit cards won’t work anymore and people no longer have any reason to do anything they’re supposed to do anymore. Things start to slide back to a Year Zero situation.”
Interestingly, the idea of returning to savagery- be it in a post-apocalyptic sense or a more primitive one- is something of a recurring theme in Stanley’s work. What is it that makes that particular notion so appealing? “It’s something that seems sort of sickeningly inevitable to me,” the filmmaker offers. “I’m scared of the fragility of civilisation- one big magnet surge, one big solar storm and they’d take out the internet, the whole of cyberspace. Shut off cyberspace, shut off the computers and I’d imagine something like eighty five to ninety per cent of people in the cities would probably die in a matter of months. Once the basic surfaces have been shut off… I think that’s always lurking there, that fear that we might trip and fall and lose all the gains we’ve made and just explode in a fireball of violence.”
As our chat draws to a close, there’s just enough time to ask about one more once-announced movie of his, Bones of the Earth- a fantastic sounding Scottish-set piece about a brain damaged terrorist type out to execute an American officer during a Highland deer cull. It’s a film that Stanley describes as “an action movie on one level, Deliverance the next and at the same time a State of the Nation address.” It’s just a shame that it too fell apart, as Stanley explains: “Well, along with Hardware 2, it’s undoubtedly the best fucking screenplay I’ve got. It’s really, really good- it still grabs me by the throat and puts tears in my eyes when I read it.
It’s just a number of extremely sad things happened on it. I was asked by the producer at that point in time to write a part for Richard Harris so I did- a huge, towering part of a two-fisted, ageing, drinking Gaelic character. He was such a brutal, doomed working class hero I was thinking ‘Fuck! We’re going to get the Oscar for this!’ and Harris himself was so happy with it… Then he fucking dies playing Dumbledore! I had such a good death lined up for him too, just such a good way out!” he laughs. “I liked the fact the script had a lot of sympathy for the terrorist character and that both he and the Harris part are essentially righteous really…
It was the last thing [director] Donald Cammell worked on, probably right before he topped himself, and I found a copy on an agent’s shelf. It was just sitting there and I just went ‘what the Hell’s this?’ and pulled it out. It was fifty pages and then just stopped, incomplete. All the work I did on it worked out extremely well too.” The thoughts of what could’ve come from a Stanley/Cammell match up are obscene, especially considering the similarities present between the two distinguished helmers. “Yeah, I only discovered that after he committed suicide.
I hadn’t actually seen Demon Seed but I went back and watched it and thought how weird it was that he’s also made a ‘girl trapped in an apartment with a killer robot’ movie and he’s made a quasi-mystical, desert-bound serial killer movie [the excellent White of the Eye]. He also had a disastrous project with Marlon Brando too, Jericho, which kind of almost destroyed his career. However, he did make a solid gold masterpiece in the form of Performance which I haven’t done… Yet. But I’m still alive!” Stanley chuckles.
So, finally, what’s next for the idosyncratic helmer? First up is L’Autre Monde (The Other World), a feature length documentary that, at the time of talking, had just won the Director’s Award at Mórbido Fest 2013 in Pátzcuaro, Mexico. “It’s shot in the place I’ve been living the past four years, up in The Pyrenees. It’s edited down from about forty eight hours of material, basically spinning around the idea of a space-time portal or some kind of portal to another world being in the area,” says Stanley.
“Originally I was alerted to this by one of the people living up there trying to warn people about it by sticking the covers of Lucio Fulci movies to trees, trying to keep people away! It was pictures of The Gates of Hell and The Beyond hanging from things!” Beyond that, however, lies the promise of something that’s impossible to resist: Stanley’s full blown return to the horror genre, his Mother of Toads segment of portmanteau The Theatre Bizarre notwithstanding. “We are, actually, finally on the way to shooting a new one next year,” he teases. “Let’s just say it’s a metaphysical science-fiction horror movie based upon the works of HP Lovecraft… The Colour Out of Space. Fingers crossed.” Fingers crossed? I don’t know about anyone else but I’ll crossing my entire body, dammit!
Also present at the screening was Hardware and Dust Devil’s composer, Simon Boswell. In the evening’s undisputed highlight, the Saturn and BAFTA award nominated muso treat the intimate crowd to a live twenty minute set of some of the choicest cuts from the more genre-friendly items on his extensive filmography. From the serene acoustic seduction of Santa Sangre right up to a full blown Demons 2 rock out with Hardware and Dust Devil naturally represented in between, Boswell’s video-accompanied solo show was superb.
“I’ve been wanting to do ‘live’ for a very long time,” Boswell explains when I sit down with him. “It’s just kind of a chicken and egg thing at the minute, like whether to do it just me- which would be OK- but I’d rather do it with a full band. It’d be a bit more magical.”
“It’s great to do. I always thought most film score things are a bit insipid and reverential, sitting there watching the score being done live to a movie,” he continues. “I don’t want it to be like that- I want it to be more like a rock club! I want it to be like The Velvet Undergound with blood! That’s my goal!” It’s a wonderful idea, a notion chock full of the mischief and punk rock derring-do characteristic of Boswell’s musical beginnings in various rock and roll bands. Well, at least until a certain Italian terror titan set him on a new career path…
“I didn’t intend to be a film composer at all, let alone one that works in the genre!” he laughs. “It was very strange for me, kind of an accident. I just happened to be in Italy producing Italian pop stuff- I was a record producer then- and Dario Argento had seen my band Livewire, an English rock band, play in Rome. He really liked us so a friend of mine set me up with Argento and I ended up working on Phenomena, being sort of forced onto Goblin!” Boswell’s association with the mighty Argento soon led to a whole slew of assignments from the rest of the spaghetti splat pack, effectively turning the genial Brit into the poster boy for late eighties Italian horror scores thanks to his sterling work for the likes of Michele Soavi and the prolific Lamberto Bava.
“Yeah, Lamberto certainly churned them out! There was one point where I did seven in a year or something like that,” Boswell says. “He was literally getting me to do something every two or three weeks… A lot of them weren’t very good I have to admit but they do have a sort of cheesey charm!” So does Boswell include Delirium: Photo of Gioia- Bava’s batty ’87 giallo trashterpiece and a personal favourite of this humble scribe- in that bracket? “Yes!” he smiles. “That’s quite a good score of mine, I think actually. I listened to it again recently and I quite liked it, yeah. I’m actually preparing to do some of it live too. I’m going to do it all eventually, Richard’s stuff, Santa Sangre, Demons 2, StageFright, Lord of Illusions, Perdita Durango…”
Performing aside, Boswell’s future plans also include becoming part of what is arguably the collecting vogue for horror addicts lately: soundtrack reissues. “Yeah, it’s a real growth area at the minute,” he says before divulging the details of his maiden voyage- a mighty repackaged remaster of his staggering Hardware, naturally. “I’ve thought it was about due for a re-release for a while and I really, really wanted to do it on vinyl, so now’s great because it really seems like people are collecting these things again.
There’s the regular double vinyl LP edition- limited to one thousand copies- and a few other cool variants, like the special boxed set which contains the vinyl, a CD copy, USB stick and a blu-ray of the film. There’s some new stuff on the soundtrack too, by the way, not just my score. There’s a lot of voice pieces and things, with Richard’s voice on the re-release new tracks. He’s doing some of the stuff that’s in the actual script for Hardware 2!” Collectors take note- Boswell’s wonderfully lavish Hardware package can be ordered now from the maestro’s website, www.simonboswell.com
So what about the soundtracks beyond Hardware? “I’m going to start working my way through them,” says Boswell. “I’ve got them all on digital tape and most of them are intact so I’ve been transferring them. I’ve got about ten ready to go so the next one may be Richard’s L’Autre Monde. I might however, just before that, do The Turn of the Screw, the one I did that starred Patsy Kensit. That soundtrack has never been released and it’s an interesting score. I’m quite proud of it, actually.”
Before leaving him to enjoy his beverage in peace, Boswell was kind enough to offer a bit of insight into the secret of his and Stanley’s fructiferous collaborations. “We trust each other, I think that’s what it is mainly. Plus, Richard always comes up with really inspiring things for me and leaves me to give my own spin on it which has, I think anyway, produced some of my best music,” he says before pausing. “Yeah, it’s certainly trust though. I think that’s a good thing, you know, especially for directors- trusting me enough in a situation to bring something new to it without ruining it.
It must be quite ordeal; I mean I’ve worked with a lot of directors and I can see their insecurities and how difficult it is for them to go through a lot of shit to get their film made and edited… Only to hand it over to some musical dickhead who could potentially fuck it up!” Boswell laughs. “There’s a lot of paranoia there! Has to be! So, I’d say that’s why we work; you find someone you trust creatively and you hang on to them because it’s one less thing to fucking worry about!”
Richard Stanley and Simon Boswell, I thank you.
Once again, Simon Boswell’s Hardware soundtrack is out now and available at www.simonboswell.com
For more information on The Darlington Film Club, please visit www.theforumonline.co.uk
Special thanks to James Watson, LG White, Bish, Miss H. and, of course, Richard Stanley and Simon Boswell.
For more ramblings, follow Matty Budrewicz on twitter: @mattybudrewicz