Next month sees the 20th anniversary of a movie that has become known as one of the worst ever made with one of the craziest behind-the-scenes stories in Hollywood history.
We talked to actor Neil Young, who played mutant Boar Man in the film, about what it was really like to make ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’ with Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando in that costume.
“He was very interested in spirulina.”
On the list of Top 10 things you never knew about Marlon Brando, his passion for an algae dietary supplement might come near the top.
But this is the kind of stuff you find out about iconic movie stars when you spend a few weeks with him in the middle of the Queensland jungle like Neil Young did during the shooting of infamous flop ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’.
Released on 23 August 1996, ‘Moreau’ has become a legendary cautionary tale in Hollywood.
Adapted from the book by HG Wells, it tells the story of a mad scientist conducting secret biological experiments to create human-animal hybrids.
Originally a low-budget, arty passion project of young, cult director Richard Stanley (above), it became a bloated ego-ridden mess resulting in Stanley’s firing and notorious bad behaviour on the part of Brando and co-star Val Kilmer.
Like the ‘Godfather’ star’s other famously chaotic set ‘Apocalypse Now’ (also shot in a foreign jungle), pretty much everything that could go wrong did, not helped by the idiosyncratic star himself who admitted he hadn’t read the script and engaged in a battle of wills with the then-red hot Kilmer, hot off the success of ‘Batman Forever’.
“There were dozens of extras spending three or four hours being put in prosthetics every morning, sitting by a fan in the shade sucking milkshakes all day, while supposedly either [Kilmer] or Brando were deciding what’s going on,” remembers Young.
Not only that, but Brando’s daughter committed suicide just before filming, the main outdoor set was washed away during a rainstorm and an assistant was bitten by a poisonous spider hiding under a lampshade.
The result was chaos – the studio dumped Stanley during filming and replaced him with gruff journeyman John Frankenheimer (below), whilst original protagonist Rob Morrow quit and was recast last-minute with David Thewlis.
Of course, Morrow himself had been a late choice after Kilmer, having initially signed on as the hero, randomly decided to switch roles to play Moreau’s drug-addled assistant. “He realised if he played the drug-crazed assistant he would be able to spend a lot more time with Brando,” says Young.
Meanwhile Stanley, banned from the shoot and living isolated in the surrounding outback, ended up sneaking back onto the set disguised as a half man-half dog character.
“It all started to go horrible pear-shaped,” admits Young (pictured below). “It disintegrated into this madness in tropical Queensland, with all these people dressed up as weird creatures. Everyone was just going a bit coco, I think.”
Certainly, the cast and crew were surprised to find themselves caught up in the lunacy, with the studio determined to finish production and get something into cinemas.
“I remember one night everyone was called to set, including the minor characters,” says Young.
Frankenheimer sat them down and admitted he was stuck and wanted their input as to how they could complete a coherent film.
“We were woken up in the middle of the night to go and set in the middle of the jungle in Queensland to sit in a circle with, by then it must have been half-a-dozen scriptwriters, to try and figure out how to put this puzzle together,” laughs Young. “It was never going to work.”
The script, especially with the unwanted additions of Brando (which included his infamous ice-bucket hat) quickly spiralled out of control.
“When you get a film script, you get these pink pages in it after a day or two which are revisions,” explains Young. “We’d get blue pages, then yellow…There was hazel and lilac pages. They ran out of colours in the end.”
No-one liked Frankenheimer – Thewlis later called him an “ugly, f***ing nasty, bigoted old git” – and Kilmer was a law unto himself, remaining aloof from the rest of the cast and crew.
“I remember going to one of the first parties where he was and he spent the whole evening behind a video camera going up to people and filming them,” says Young.
While Stanley was in charge, the ‘Top Gun’ star would stand behind the camera smoking a cigarette, criticising his filmmaking decisions.
The star’s imagined friendship with Brando didn’t pan out – on one particular day the cast and crew were informed that Marlon wouldn’t come out of his trailer until Val did and vice versa. Suffice to say nothing got done.
The result was a backstage party atmosphere of epic proportions.
“If you had a day shoot, you’d stop in the van on the way back from the set at the local [off licence] and get a couple of cases of beer,” says Young. “On night shoots that happened in the morning. Then there were no shoots and that still happened. I think it was the first major movie going to Cairns, so it was a carnival come to town atmosphere. The hotel was [full of] a lot of people with nothing to do, getting paid okay. One week, with my per diem, I bought a massive Scalextric set and we spent a day playing with that.”
And Brando himself wasn’t afraid to get in on the action, even if he didn’t participate all that much.
“He threw incredible parties,” reveals Young. “He was a very generous man in that regard.”
The star himself was more interested in the local indigenous performers and their culture, spending time at the house of Aboriginal actor David Hudson (who played Bison Man) with Hudson’s mother.
Somehow, Frankenheimer managed to finish the film on a £30million budget and it was released to worldwide indifference, collecting just £37m at the box office.
Brando never starred in a decent movie again, Kilmer’s leading man career started to fizzle soon afterwards and Richard Stanley became persona non grata in Hollywood.
Young is particularly disappointed about the latter. “[The film] was this magnificent vision from this new visionary filmmaker,” he says. “Through a mixture of bad luck, perhaps inexperience on Richard’s part, Kilmer having just come out of ‘Batman’ and pretty much being able to call the shots…all these dominoes fell at the same time and descended into chaos.”
Nevertheless, he continues reaps the (tiny) benefits of the movie. “I still get cheques for $1.73 once in a while for video sales or if it’s on TV in Korea,” he laughs.
“Too much money and a bit too much power in the wrong hands. When those things collide, something’s got to suffer.”
Image credits: Rex_Shutterstock, New Line Cinema, Severin Films