Richard Stanley: interview

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With ‘Hardware’ now reissued on DVD, we spoke to director Richard Stanley about his memories of shooting in London

There was a time when Richard Stanley was seen as one of Britain’s most promising young filmmakers. Just 24 when his debut feature ‘Hardware’ (1990) was released, South African-born Stanley had already made a name for himself as a music video director, and spent several months travelling around war-torn Afghanistan shooting the extraordinary visual poem ‘Voice of the Moon’.

But after his ambitious, misunderstood second feature ‘Dust Devil’ (1992), everything started to go wrong. Fired from his dream project ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau’ (1996) after only three days of shooting, Stanley's career foundered, though he kept busy making documentaries and short films, and gathering material for what will become his next feature, post-apocalyptic thriller ‘Vacation’, due in 2010.

Hardware’ grew out of a Super-8 film called ‘Incidents in an Expanding Universe’ (now an extra on the ‘Hardware’ DVD). How did that film come about?
‘It was made piecemeal while at a school in South Africa. I must have been about 14 when we started, it’s got that adolescent awkwardness to it. The weirdest thing about the movie is that it’s a nostalgic look back at the future, quite an odd idea. We used a lot of old jazz and blues for the soundtrack and it’s got a weirdly nostalgic vibe. It’s very ambitious, not an action movie by any means. It’s a kind of teenage existential meaning-of-life drama. And pretty much everybody involved got drafted into the army about a year after it was shot, so there’s also a sense of impending doom hanging over it all.’

Was it a tough process to develop the script into what became ‘Hardware’?
‘ "Hardware" came about because I had written quite a few scripts and hadn’t had any luck getting them made. I hoovered up all the comments about what people wanted, you know, a chainsaw, a shower scene, a cliffhanger, a fire stunt. Then I sat down and wrote it in a week, listening to Iron Maiden’s "Flash of the Blade" again and again until my girlfriend left me.’

It was your first professional feature. Were you confident in your ability to direct?

‘I guess I did have an insane confidence that comes with youth. And also the bizarre fact of having been more or less airlifted out of the Afghan War and dropped straight into pre-production meant that I was in a very psychotic frame of mind. Obviously, the movie was not nearly as intimidating as the warzone I’d just come out of. Under normal circumstances you’d go to counselling after something like that. Instead we had pre-production. I think it definitely helped, coming out of one extreme situation into another, but I was in a pretty hellacious frame of mind at the time.’

Is it true that principal photography took place in the Roundhouse in Camden Town?
‘The movie was shot in the Roundhouse, at Spillers Wharf in east London and the opening scene was in Morocco. The Roundhouse was a complete shell. It was absolutely empty, lying derelict for years. It was terrible for sound because it was right next to the railway line, but otherwise it was ideal. We constructed Jill’s apartment in a sort of web of scaffold in the middle of the Roundhouse, and more or less lived in the place for about six weeks.

‘Originally, the movie was set in England, in a futuristic council estate. But when Miramax got involved it had to have American leads, and it sort of migrated into the mid-Atlantic. I tried to confuse people by having the security guards be Caribbean, the people downstairs were Chinese and the character Shades is Northern Irish. I’ve noticed in reviews, some people think it’s Australia, some people think it’s South Africa. It’s hard to know what world or country it actually is.’

Did the studio balk at some of the psychedelic imagery and Holocaust references?
‘I don’t think anyone ever reads scripts. As far as I can tell they generally don’t find out what’s happening until they see the rushes. They did freak at the Holocaust material because I don’t think they understood why it was there. But there was a strong theme of American fascism running throughout. That came out of growing up in South Africa, living in a right-wing police state.

‘One of the intriguing things about the movie is that there is no sense of rebellion or resistance, which is unusual for sci-fi. Normally you’d see rebels fighting the authoritarian regime rather than just simply going along with the programme. Again, that comes from personal experience. Having spent all that time getting away from South Africa, running away from the army, I wanted very much to believe that America and England were actually as free as they were meant to be, not slipping rapidly into becoming police states like the one I’d just left.’

How do you think ‘Hardware’ fits into a tradition of British science fiction?
‘Britain has had a very honourable tradition of literary sci-fi, HG Wells, John Wyndham, JG Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Michael Moorcock, but for whatever reason they have never really been given the time of day onscreen. I can’t understand why we keep getting high-budget Dickens adaptations on television, but we’ve never had an HG Wells adaptation. Why are the Martian war machines never allowed to destroy London? When Nigel Kneale passed a couple of years ago there was nary a flutter on the television, as opposed to the national state of mourning when Dennis Potter died. I’m dying for somebody to give those stories the classic-status treatment they deserve, instead of being treated as a ghetto genre.’

And how are things progressing with your next movie, ‘Vacation’?
‘After many delays, it’s finally set for August. The lead is going to be Dean Cain, the former television Superman, who is certainly iconic enough. He’s got an interesting angle on it, he’s been living in Ibiza for a while. It’ll be something of an image-changing role for him. We’re going to be shooting about 200 kilometres from the Mauritanian border during Ramadan. It’s going to be a proper clash of civilisations, which is how it’s always been intended.’

Hardware’ is on Special Edition DVD now.


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