Richard Stanley on Faithfulness to H.P. Lovecraft & Psychedelics of ‘Color Out of Space’ – Exclusive Interview

Richard Stanley is a modern visionary director with unparalleled eyesight. The South African born filmmaker has been hard at work since the ’80s, now boasting numerous films that have since risen to cult status. Titles such as Hardware and Dust Devil instantly come to mind, though they are recently joined by another niche yet incredibly imaginative hit. Color Out of Space, starring Nicolas Cage and Joely Richardson, premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and was quickly picked up for a wider release in January 2020. The adaptation of the short story by H.P. Lovecraft was praised for its blend of psychedelic visuals with dark yet somehow comedic horror.

The film may have quickly been accredited as a righteous gem, but the story goes far beyond that. Stanley has a long history with his personal love of Lovecraft’s tales. He was originally set to direct and write 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, but left the project over creative differences shortly after production began. Nevertheless, he persisted by establishing a name for himself in the horror community in the years to come. SpectreVision, the production company behind Mandy and Daniel Isn’t Real, came together with Stanley to finally fulfill his aspirations of faithfully adapting Lovecraft’s stories to unforeseen limits.

We were lucky enough to have Stanley for an exclusive interview. He dives deep into the creative process of Color Out of Space‘s many cinematic features. Further, he gives insight on his relationship with leading star Nicolas Cage and teases of even more Lovecraft adaptations to come. Be advised, he rightfully takes the conversation to unexpected territory.

Stanley on the set of ‘Color Out of Space’ courtesy of StudioCanal

DF: How did you first get into filmmaking?

RS: I grew up in South Africa at the time when television didn’t exist. So my first encounter with the moving image was when my dad brought home a 16mm projector and a print of King Kong when I was a four year old. That put a sense of awe in my heart. I ended up becoming one of those creepy kids that had lots of toy Gorillas, Super 8 cameras, built miniature sets and did things with Claymation dinosaurs. When I got older I started persuading human beings to appear on these things to dress up as cavemen and gradually guess I started making movies.

DF: So this leads into your recent film, Color Out of Space. How did you first get involved in the making of this film?

RS: I’ve been a lifelong Lovecraft fan. Lovecraft was my mother’s favorite author. As a fan, I would always be a little disappointed by the adaptations and felt that someone needed to do the material justice. I had a similar feeling about HG Wells. With Lovecraft, they both deal with the same themes essentially, which is humanity’s share of smallness, left face of the cosmos, and deep time. But I didn’t feel that any of the movie adaptations had already secured that. So there was, I guess, a lifelong urge to try and somehow bring Lovecraft to the screen – and then a series of fortuitous circumstances came about whereby suddenly that possibility was placed within my grasp.

DF: Has adapting an H.P. Lovecraft story always been a thing you wanted to do? Or was it just more recently, had you ever considered making a film like this, like Color Out of Space?

RS: I hadn’t specifically considered Color. I thought about it when I was making Super 8 movies as a 13-year-old simply because it’s set on one farm and concerns one family, hence it’s a lot easier to get out than a lot of the other Lovecraft stories. But really the circumstance only came about more recently thanks to the short, the 20 minute short I made for the anthology movie, The Theatre, which was essentially a Lovecraft homage. The backer of the anthology film suggested that I should write a feature-length Lovecraft movie that’s in a backwoods location and if I did that – they might be able to put up the money for it. By the time I finished writing the adaptation, the original financer had lost their money and was in rehab. The script floated around for a few years. Then, SpectreVision had the good sense to get it into the hands of Nicolas Cage.

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DF: We remember the teaser that was released years ago in 2013. How was it working with SpectreVision more recently on this project?

RS: It was very lucky for me that they were on the same page about trying to do a more hardcore, faithful Lovecraft adaptation. Going after one of his more famous stories and the obstacle of getting the film made in Hollywood previously, Lovecraft characters don’t have very positive dramatic arcs. They don’t learn in a positive way from their experiences and they aren’t seen as better human beings because of what they’ve gone through. All of the arcs spiral down into madness, disintegration, and death which is a hard sell and it’s not really what agents seek out for their clients. To SpectreVision’s credit, they believed in the darkness and the original vision – realizing the film had to be that way for a bunch of reasons and stuck to their guns. This was probably the smoothest transition from page to screen of anything I’ve ever written or worked on.

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Nicolas Cage and Joely Richarson courtesy of StudioCanal

DF: You mentioned that the project was given to Nicholas Cage at one point. How was the process of collaborating with him on this film? Also apparently, you were very close to working with Cage in the past, can you tell us more about that?

RS: Nearly years ago in Dust Devil, there was a period of time when he was in the frame for the film. So the thought of working with him had come up. Fortuitously, I think we’re a pretty good match in terms of our taste – very dark comedy or apocalyptic black comedy. I think Nick has a special kind of comic timing that he brings to everything he does. That is very in tune with what I like to do and I can see that pretty much all of my work has been very, very deadpan comedies.

DF: Color out of Space boasts this strange sort of color, or entity within the film. How was it working with your cinematographer, Steve Annis, in creating this world?

RS: Steve is definitely one of the real heroes of the production. It was a real step off the deep end because I found out only after we had hired him, Steve had never done psychedelic drugs of any form. He has never had a psychedelic experience. Okay, now you want to shoot a psychedelic film. It was fascinating watching that. We realized that we couldn’t show the audience something that’s completely outside the human spectrum. So the answer was to take people right to the edge, or to the outer limits, of that spectrum. To infrared on the one end and ultraviolet on the other, which are really the limits of what we can perceive. We know animals can perceive more than us and in a Lovecraft universe, we’re presupposing that there are things that exist out there completely beyond our own abilities.

We tried to reinforce that with the sound editing, sound mix, and Colin’s score – which also pushes into infrasound and ultrasound, into very high-pitched and very deep bass frequencies. You have to imagine if an ultra dimensional force entered one’s reality. We can’t perceive the thing itself, but we can perceive its imprint or its shadow like a two-dimensional object casts a two-dimensional shadow. Steve Annis had to actualize that in the actual color scheme of the film. I think it evolves at a very organic pace. It makes it appear sometimes that the first part of the film is super slow, but really the whole thing is just amping up incrementally, piece by piece. The color wheels are very much part of that.

DF: You talked about Colin Stetson’s work on the film, his score is another element that really pushes into almost unknown areas. Did you have an idea before or was that working with Colin that you came to this final conclusion of what it was going to be?

RS: That was always a part of where we were going in trying to visualize what Lovecraft was attempting to describe in his prose. I was drawing a lot from UFO contactees and different paranormal reports. I found that there’s a lot of similarities between say UFO contactees and religious experiences, like people who see visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at shrines. People tend to report a sweet smell like roses or lilies on the one hand or a smell like brimstone on the other. These are really the outer limits of the human olfactory spectrum, just like infrared and ultraviolet. Throughout as was the infrasound and the ultrasound. Infrasound is something that we can’t actually hear. Nonetheless, we can sense and it can cause a creeping sensation in your skin and a faulty extractor fan can cause people’s eyeballs to vibrate at a certain frequency. You can get blurring at the edges of your eyes or sense tiredness and a crawling sensation in the back of your neck. So yeah, there’s a strong connection between ultrasound, infrasound, UV, and paranormal experiences.

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Courtesy of StudioCanal

DF: With all of this talking about the cinematography, the sound, the score, and also the VFX. The VFX plays a part of this all, were you also involved in that, because it seems like you had your vision and did it come out exactly as you planned or did things change over time?

RS: Inevitably things change and you’ve got to work with what you get, but you lose a few things. When you’re lucky, you pick up a few things on the way. We were helped by a lot of good luck with this movie. The location was very weird. The entire movie was shot in Central Portugal because we had to shoot at the end of January in order to fit Nick’s schedule. This meant that the whole of New England and most of Northern Europe was under snow. We were forced into this very creepy, gothic location in Southwestern Europe that just proved to be absolutely ideal for the film. As we would be setting up a shot, automatically, a creepy mist would start to come in through the trees and the wind would start to come up in just the right way.

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So we were given a lot of things which I couldn’t have asked for in the script, just by the location and also by the performers. Nick encourages a lot of improvisation and the younger members of the cast, like Julian who was just 7 years old, caught onto the idea of how this could work. There was a lot of playfulness with the cast, which brought me other things. I think while at some points it’s subtly different maybe from the film I started off with, I’m very happy with the results.

DF: Amazing. Are there any upcoming projects you would like to make our audience aware of?

RS: One answer for both those questions, which is Color Out of Space is now being positioned as the first part of a trilogy. As the first panel, in a Lovecraft trip-edge. Right now I’m busy prepping on a new adaptation of The Dunwich Horror.

DF: So you’ve got these planned for the next however many years and that’s going to be your next project, right?

RS: Yeah, a post-COVID Dunwich Horror. It’s going to be a faithful adaptation of Lovecraft, but at the same time, it’s set in the same universe as the first movie. So it’s set in a Trump era, Arkham County approximately 13 years after the end of Color Out of Space.

Color Out of Space is available to rent/buy on Prime Video!

Follow writer and editor Ben Rolph on Twitter: @TheDCTVshow

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