“I like pushing the characters to a place where they are beyond despair and beyond any hope of survival” – An Interview With Richard Stanley

It has been 28 years since Dust Devil was released, the last time 53 year old South African director Richard Stanley made a feature film. Aside from writing the screenplay for the Marlon Brando starring The Island of Dr Moreau, Stanley has largely worked on short movies and documentaries since.

2020 sees the release of his first American made movie, an adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s cosmic horror story Colour Out Of Space. Stanley opened up on how his own personal bereavement shaped the movie, body horror and how Lovecraft is becoming more and more relevant in the modern world.

How did the project first come about?

I’d got as far from the film industry as I could get. I was in the French Pyrenees and I was mucking about with a glow in the dark Ouija board. The Ouija board told us to make a short movie, The Mother of Toads which was included in an anthology film called The Theatre of Bizarre.

The backer of the anthology flew out to talk to me and suggested I write a feature length script based on The Colour Out Of Space, the HP Lovecraft story. I did so but the original backer went bankrupt before I finished the screenplay and there were no takers for a while. The script drifted around and then he was on the set of Mandy, which he produced for SpectreVision. [He] found out that Nic Cage is a big HP Lovecraft fan, and had seen there was an HP Lovecraft script floating around. They shoved it into Nic’s hands.

The next thing you know I get a phone call at 3am in Monségur in France where I live, from this guy claiming to be Nic Cage in a bar in Las Vegas and he wants to do the movie.

What did Nicolas Cage bring to the production that another actor wouldn’t have offered?

An extraordinary energy and an impeccable sense of timing. Nic’s comic timing is something, he’s just a true star. It’s something that is often praised about him. I can’t imagine anyone else inhabiting that role in the same way.

There’s a couple of scenes in the movie where a temper comes out in Cage’s character. Was there a discussion around him taking inspiration from Donald Trump for these scenes?

Yeah definitely. I originally wanted to have Trump in the movie (laughs). There is a certain maggot quality that clings to the white bred Gardner family.

Nicolas Cage and Joely Richardson in Colour Out Of Space – Credit StudioCanal

Was it a conscious decision to change the angle from which the story is told in the book and have it more centred on the family?

Well part of the mission throughout was to try to make Lovecraft relevant. The main change we made in the story was to grab the events and move them from what was really, late 19th century, with the story being written in 1926 and put them into the 21st century. I wanted Lovecraft’s monsters to be a clear and present threat to people now and not something that happened a long time ago. I also wanted to deal with the extermination or the extinction of an American family unit.

Is that extinction of an American family unit something that you see as an interesting concept or something you actually see in the world around you at the moment?

It’s certainly there and this is kinda like my first real American movie. Dust Devil is my love letter to South Africa. I made a devil movie for the South Africans but not a lot of people saw it because it depicts South African characters. I thought next time round, I’ve got to make a movie with Americans and why not the American nuclear family?

Lovecraft has its own world. In the film there are references to Arkham which is part of the Lovecraftian lore. There is also a sense of timelessness about the film. Is that purposeful to fit in with the vision, or is it incidental?

Yeah, I guess it is a conscious part of it because I wanted the initial part of the film to recall a fantasy movie or an earlier time period. When Ward walks into the movie it could be set at virtually any time. The wider Lovecraftian universe like Arkham and the neighbouring towns of Dunwich, I’m hoping to explore in a second movie. Colour is going to be the first in a trilogy.

Are you in a position to say where you’re going to take it next?

I’m pleased to say that first of all SpectreVision have announced they’re making three movies. The second one, which we are now currently prepping is going to be The Dunwich Horror.

Stanley in the Gardner’s back yard – Credit StudioCanal

The movie had various different elements to it, horror, sci fi, comedy. How tricky was it to balance all three of those genres?

For me it’s something that seems quite normal and natural. It seems to bug out a lot of other folk because they don’t see how comedy and horror and all those things can sit together, but I find in real life they flow into each other pretty seamlessly. I think there’s some kind of weird heightened reality that I enjoy in these movies. I like pushing the characters to a place where they are beyond despair and beyond any hope of survival, which is a very black, almost hysterical kind of space to be in. For me, it is just the kind of movie I enjoy watching. I suspect I may have a warped sense of humour.

There are body horror elements in the movie. Was there inspiration from film makers like David Cronenberg or from previous Lovecraft movies like From Beyond or Reanimator?

I’m a huge fan in particular of John Carpenter’s The Thing, which is probably the best HP Lovecraft movie ever made. Well it would be if it was from a Lovecraft story, but it’s from a John W Campbell story. The Thing has always been something that is very much in the back of my mind. Otherwise I was very much drawing on my own mother’s death by cancer. I just invested some of that into Theresa’s arc.

I guess at the end, I ended up reading my Mum HP Lovecraft on her deathbed, which kind of went full circle. She read me Lovecraft as a kid. [With my Mum] I had to make the decision not to hydrate her or put in a feeding tube. These things are pretty messy, but like a lot of things, comments on death and the prospects of extinction, or our loved ones being annihilated places us in a fairly stark Lovecraftian universe.

These tales of Lovecraft can be quite damning. Would you say they are relevant now, which is why the interest in picking up a trilogy of these films is coming to the fore?

Yeah, it’s scarily relevant. For some reason HP Lovecraft is more relevant now than ever. We see his weird world view creeping into elements of uber culture all over the place. We’ve got Jordan Peele doing Lovecraft country, there’s tentacles in The Lighthouse, creepy shadows in Midsommar. Lovecraft is all over the place. It’s clearly having a weird posthumous renaissance.

Maybe it’s something to do with the prospects of mass extinction. Trump era America, Brexit Britain. I guess people don’t really believe in orthodox religion the same way they used to in the prospect of there being an all wise, benevolent, greater God. Most rely on the notion that humanity had been started by accident or they have an alien ultra dimension deity who we cannot hope to comprehend. That seems more relevant than ever.

Colour Out Of Space will be released in UK cinemas on Friday 28th February.

Feature image credit – StudioCanal