How Color Out of Space Finally Gets H.P. Lovecraft Right

Director Richard Stanley brings his long-awaited Color Out of Space to the screen at last.

Madeleine Arthur in Color Out of Space
Gustavo Figueiredo/RLJE Films Photo: SpectreVision

Color Out of Space adapts what legendary horror author H.P. Lovecraft considered his personal favorite short story, “The Colour Out of Space.” Although the film is set in the present, it is faithful to the original 1927 narrative, in which a family is both driven to madness and altered physically by the presence of an alien entity that has landed on their farm in a meteorite (the story was also filmed in 1965 as Die, Monster Die!, with Boris Karloff and Nick Adams).

The new film stars Nicolas Cage as the head of the doomed Gardner family, while the director and writer is Richard Stanley, the South African-born filmmaker whose feature career got off to an acclaimed start in 1990 with the cyberhorror thriller Hardware. Stanley followed that with the troubled but still visionary Dust Devil in 1992, and then landed his first Hollywood assignment in 1996 with a third film version of the H.G. Wells novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. But that last one did not go as planned.

Fired from the project just days after shooting began, Stanley was replaced by John Frankenheimer, and the film’s disastrous production–as well as the effect it had on Stanley’s life and career–was chronicled in the 2014 documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. After years away from Hollywood, Stanley was lured back by the independent genre-centric production company SpectreVision, which finally gave the filmmaker a chance to prove himself again and make his long-awaited Lovecraft passion project.

Den of Geek spoke with Stanley recently via phone about returning to Hollywood, how it felt to shoot a horror feature again, bringing Lovecraft into the present, and his plans to adapt two more of the groundbreaking author’s classic tales for the screen.

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Den of Geek: How did it feel to actually get a feature film completed after all these years?

Richard Stanley: It more or less restores my faith in Hollywood. It’s really the closest transition from script to screen I’ve ever been privileged to be part of, and we had a lot less interference than anything else I’ve worked on. So I guess maybe there’s something about the appalling state of the world and the environments, and the 21st century that means that my material might suddenly be coming back into vogue again. Because I’ve certainly had scripts circulating for years and years, but for some reason it hasn’t been until now, until 2020, that I’ve managed to get a dramatic feature film back on general release.

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How has the filmmaking process changed in the interim?

Well obviously this is the first time I’ve been allowed to get my hand into the digital toy box. When I was last working, everything was still 35 millimeter. Clearly there’s huge advantages. We can work a lot faster now, and just the ability to instantaneously see your take, see what you’ve got, on the last shot rather than having to wait a day and a half to see it in rushes is already a huge improvement. Plus we can shoot in lower light conditions.

I guess the negative to that is all the producers and backers of the film, everyone involved in it, gets to see your rushes just as fast as you do. So whoever’s involved in the film gets to see what’s going on on the floor. Every time you go off book or things start to get too strange on the set you can hear doors slamming and people shuffling as far away as Los Angeles or Kuala Lumpur, so there’s no way that you can hide anything anymore.

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That said, it was a completely textbook shoot. We managed to make every day and even finished a day ahead of schedule. So I’m certainly happy to be able to prove that I still know how to turn a crew around and how to actually shoot something like this on budget and schedule. 

That was the official word after the Dr. Moreau debacle–they tried to put the blame on you and say you were out of control.

Yeah. I don’t like to whine about it too much. I think somebody’s got to be responsible, the buck’s got to stop somewhere, and the director should be responsible for what happens on their set. So I wouldn’t like to hedge away from it and say, well, it wasn’t my fault. But Color Out of Space shows what happens when we’re allowed to pretty much execute the plan rather than have to fight tooth and nail to get a shot off.

There was just a huge difference also between the behavior of some of the principals of Dr. Moreau and Color. Nic brought a tremendous energy to this. We usually got his scenes on the second or third take. The level that he was playing it on forced everyone else to really be on point. We usually got it really, really fast, which is something that I’m not used to when dealing with leading men certainly in the past.

On Moreau we lost something like, all told, 44 main unit days thanks to cast members not showing up or actually not leaving their Winnebagos [Stanley famously clashed with stars Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando on Moreau]. So in this case we actually moved faster. Every time Nic was on set we usually completed the scenes in about half the time that we had imagined. So yeah, I certainly take my hat off to the man.

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read more: 5 Essential H.P. Lovecraft Stories 

He’s certainly perfected his own style of acting. How much guidance do you give somebody like Cage who’s got a very specific way of working?

Fortunately, Nic’s style and my own are a pretty good match from the point of view that I’ve always considered everything I do to be essentially very black comedy. So the situation is so grotesque and so terrible beyond a certain point that there’s a surreal dark comedy that I’m always driving at. I think Nic also has extremely good comic timing, even when he’s playing a straight scene. He has a way of balancing it on an edge where it’s slightly tongue in cheek, slightly serious, and slightly horrible at the same time.

Nic went through the script several weeks before we started shooting and highlighted areas where he figured he could really let go and try to push the material a little bit farther. So I knew in advance that we were going to be doing some things like the freaking out in the car or the tomato scene… I think we arrived at something which was a pretty good fusion of where I was coming from and where Nic’s instincts were leading him.

It’s interesting that you mention the black comedy, because I remember a streak of a very dark comedy running through Hardware and I could sense it in this film as well. But then you also have some really harrowing stuff in this movie. How much do you experiment with tone?

My rule of thumb throughout the movie was to keep the extra-dimensional threat itself completely serious, so that you can never really deal with or negotiate with the Lovecraftian threat from beyond, but to keep the humans petty or absurd in their reactions. All the comedy comes at the expense of the human characters, but I hope it doesn’t lessen the terror that they’re actually facing. I think it’s all a matter of laughing with the movie in the right points and not actually making fun of its central premise. I’m very serious when it comes to my Lovecraft, but at the same time, I guess, I’m a little less serious when it comes to my interactions with other human beings.

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Was there a lot of experimentation or development in terms of the color itself, and how it would look and behave?

I was very keen to bring Lovecraft into the 21st century. Ever since coming across the story, which was written in the 1920s, it’s occurred to me that science has actually borne out a lot of Lovecraft’s wilder ideas. I mean a good example is the way that he refers to non-Euclidean alien geometry. I recall when I was in school that the term non-Euclidean, when I used it in an essay, got me marked down. The teacher put a big red ring around it and said there’s no such thing as non-Euclidean geometry.

But in the 21st century we now have fractal geometry and chaos science and we use fractals to not only describe the inherent order within chaos, which is something that Lovecraft drives at a lot, but we will even use fractal geometry to create the computer animation for the VFX. So in some ways we’ve moved on sufficiently since 1926 that we can actually give some kind of form and color to these things. The colors in the movie are based on the outer limits of the human visual spectrum. Human beings can only see between infrared at one end of the visual spectrum and ultraviolet on the other.

The hue that you can see in the movie is what happens when you mix infrared with ultraviolet. So it’s almost a neural bridge between the two. So we’re pushing into the outer edges of the color spectrum, paired with the sound design and score, which is simultaneously pushing into ultrasound and infrasound and into both very, very high pitched sounds and very deep low bass. I’m hoping that we can create the impression in the audience’s consciousness of literally stretching and trembling under the extra-dimensional assault.

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From the start, did you always want to make it a contemporary piece or did you consider keeping it in the 1920s?

That was one of the most difficult calls to make, partly because the intention was always to try and make it as close an adaptation of the original story as possible. That’s coming from the fact that there aren’t any orthodox adaptations of most of the principal Lovecraft stories, which is something that’s always angered me as a fan. I’ve certainly wanted to see this material adapted more frequently than this. So I wanted to do the man justice and the decision to move the material into the 21st century was a way of doing that, because I didn’t want the Old Ones or Lovecraft’s universe to come across as cute or quaint in any way.

With so many role playing games and Cthulhu toys on the market–I curl up every night with my plush Cthulhu in bed–I didn’t want the threat of the film to be reduced to something cuddly. So I thought the one way to do that was to reposition the events in the present or the near future and try to make Lovecraft’s universe and his Elder Gods back in something which we would conceive as a clear and present threat to today’s generations. Part of the brief has been to try and make Lovecraft dangerous and scary again. Now that Color has actually found an audience, I think that’s opened the way for a lot more work. SpectreVision has announced two follow-ups to Color, so it’s now become a Lovecraft trilogy, and we’re already developing the second one.

So you’re directing two more Lovecraft stories for SpectreVision?

Yeah. I’m currently prepping on the second one, which is a contemporary update on The Dunwich Horror. It’s been filmed twice before, but this time Dean Stockwell sadly will not be involved. The brief is to go back on campus and to get back to Miskatonic University for the first time perhaps since the Re-Animator series. The Necronomicon will be the key main prop in this one. The idea is to delve further into the Lovecraft mythos, so I’m very excited about the direction it’s taking.

And what’s the third one?

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That I can’t tell you yet. I think everyone’s holding their breath and waiting to see what happens in the next 12 months because so many people have thrown their hats into the ring now. Benioff and Weiss are doing their Lovecraft movie and Jordan Peele’s Lovecraft Country is about to hit television. We are obviously living in a boom period for Lovecraft fans.

Well, I hope Color does well and I wish you best of luck with the next two.

It’s my absolute pleasure. Happy to spend a couple of years being the press officer for the Old Ones.

Color Out of Space is out in theaters starting Friday, Jan. 24.

Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye