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Exclusive Interview: Richard Stanley on “COLOR OUT OF SPACE” and adapting—and refuting—H.P. Lovecraft

Monday, January 20, 2020 | Exclusive, Interviews

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

With the release this week of COLOR OUT OF SPACE (special showings on Wednesday night followed by its opening in theaters only on Friday, January 24), director Richard Stanley finally has a new feature out, nearly three decades after DUST DEVIL. We spoke to Stanley about how he brought H.P. Lovecraft’s tale to the screen—and what he felt the need to change.

COLOR OUT OF SPACE, which Stanley scripted with Scarlett Amaris, stars Nicolas Cage as Nathan Gardner, head of a rural farm family whose lives—and bodies—are altered after a strange meteor plummets to Earth on their property. For Stanley, who saw DUST DEVIL hacked up by distributor Miramax and was famously dismissed from THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU in the mid-’90s, COLOR represents a purer expression of his cinematic vision. (It’s one he’ll follow up with another Lovecraft movie, THE DUNWICH HORROR, and possibly a series version of ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU; he discusses those projects here.) Yet the filmmaker’s take on COLOR took a while to get out of his head and into theaters…

I remember seeing the COLOR OUT OF SPACE promo trailer you showed at the Fantasia festival’s Frontières co-production market back in 2013.

Yeah, it seemed farfetched back then, and it’s nice to see that it’s actually out there and in release.

How has the project changed since you first put that reel together and started conceiving the film?

I think COLOR OUT OF SPACE marks the smoothest and the closest transition from page to screen that I’ve ever been privileged to be a part of. The completed movie is much closer to the original script than anything else I’ve worked on. Working with [production company] SpectreVision has obviously been a delight compared to what it was like working for Miramax under Harvey and Bob back in the old days.

I guess the question that gets asked of everyone who adapts Lovecraft is, how did you put the terrors he described nebulously on screen in more concrete form?

That was one of the challenges of adapting “Color”: bringing something completely unimaginable, unmentionable or indescribable to the big screen. Working in our favor is the fact that Lovecraft was something of a prophet; a lot of things he was writing about in 1926 are a lot easier to understand now, almost 100 years later. Lovecraft talks about, for instance, non-Euclidean geometry. I recall when I was at school, using the phrase “non-Euclidean geometry” in an essay, and my teacher put a big red ring around it and said there’s no such thing. Now in the 21st century, we have fractal geometry, we have chaos science. Fractal geometry attempts to describe the natural patterns or order within chaos, which is something that Lovecraft is very much driving at. In fact, we even used fractals to create our visual effects. So some of Lovecraft’s ideas are a lot less inconceivable now than they might have been, and throughout COLOR, we used concepts like ultrasound, infrasound, the human visual spectrum, the way that ultraviolet and infrared mark the outermost edges of the human visual spectrum, and if you mix the two together, you end up basically with magenta, which is kind of like a neural link between the two. So we were almost able to arrive at a lot of our visuals through essentially applying that kind of science to Lovecraft’s text.

In past film adaptations of “Color,” the families have tended to be dysfunctional or damaged in some way, and in your film, the family unit is more stable. Was that an intentional part of your approach to the story?

Yeah, I felt that in order to show the damaging effects of the color, we needed to show what it was like before the color got there. Part of the challenge for me, really, was creating a believable Gardner family. This was also a way of having an argument with Lovecraft, because although I’m a huge fan of his work, and have loved his stories all my life, I bitterly disagree with him on almost every one of his ideas. I’m personally not an atheist, I’m not a nihilist, I’m not a racist, I’m not a misogynist. I wanted to make his ultradimensional threat cogent again by imagining what would happen if it was my family instead—what would happen if it was my parents or my children who were being consumed and annihilated by this thing.

On that note, Nicolas Cage is known at this point for going over the top, so what led you to cast him, and how did you modulate his performance, keeping the crazy out of the first half of the film?

I was very fortunate that Nicolas is extremely well-read, and a huge H.P. Lovecraft fan. He’d been looking for a Lovecraft project for some years, and moreover, we both have a very similar sensibility, a point of view in that I ultimately see most of my work as a form of deadpan, apocalyptic black comedy. And Nic has a tremendous sense of comic timing that he brings to all his scenes, even when they aren’t inherently funny, that I think works with my overall view of the human race. We went through the script in advance, and Nic highlighted various areas he felt he could run with and improv. They were all things we discussed early on, so we knew by the time we arrived on the floor that, for example, in the tomato scene, or the scene where he wigs out in the car, we were looking for something extra. These moments appear like spontaneous eruptions of insanity within the film, but they were definitely weird choices we were expecting in advance. Nic brings a sort of unpredictability to his scenes, in a way that enlivens the entire movie. I like having wild dogs or alpacas in my films for the same reasons.

Yeah, I was wondering what was up with the alpacas.

Well, they’re the animal of the future, but mostly it’s because in every single iteration of the “Color Out of Space” theme, you expect a meteor to strike a remote farm somewhere, and for a guy in dungarees and a plaid shirt to come out from the farmhouse and poke it with a stick, and to see a cow or a pig around. So I thought, OK, this time around we’re not going to have a cow, we’re not going to have chickens, we’re not going to have any scenes where we actually see the meteor hit the ground. I was very keen to change it up a bit, and alpacas were one solution. At first I was thinking ostriches, but they’re kind of dangerous.

You mentioned Lovecraft’s racism; did that make it important to you to cast black actor Elliot Knight as part of your ensemble?

I think it’s super-important to address those themes. I mean, we can’t ignore the fact that Lovecraft was, in some respects, probably a pretty unpleasant person, or someone who was quite hard to get along with. That very much informed the casting, particularly of that part of Ward Phillips, who is essentially the voice of Lovecraft. Phillips was Lovecraft’s mother’s maiden name—Sarah Phillips was his mum—so Ward Phillips from Miskatonic University gets to be the narrator of the film, and also the sole continuing character through my next two Lovecraft movies.

How did you find the proper setting in which to shoot COLOR?

In point of fact, we had to fake the entire movie. COLOR OUT OF SPACE is meant to be set in Massachusetts, but Arkham County was recreated in the center of Portugal. That’s because we had to shoot in late January 2019 thanks to Nic’s schedule, and the whole of New England was under snow, and the story really wanted to be set in late summer, or harvest time. So we ended up in the most southwesterly point in Europe, to try to get a place where there were still leaves on the trees, where the flora and fauna were roughly in keeping with Massachusetts, and where I could get alpacas.

So you’ll be doing more Lovecraft and, if the ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU series goes through, H.G. Wells; are there any other authors you’d especially like to adapt?

Well, for now I’ve got my hands full with those boys. I hope one day to get back to my own material, but in the meantime I’ve still got a debt to pay to the Old Ones.

You mentioned how much easier it was to work with SpectreVision than it was with Miramax years ago; do you see the film scene today as friendlier in general to your kind of moviemaking than it was back then?

Yeah, I think we’re going through an absolute golden era of the genre, and there are more great horror movies getting made now than ever before. So many of those films straddle the gap between what we’d call “art-house” and horror, in a similar way to, I guess, we were driving at in the early ’90s. I don’t know whether it’s symptomatic of some kind of crisis in culture as a whole, because the genre always tends to do well when the human race is in trouble, but I’m super-excited by the level of work that I’ve seen these days.

For much more of Stanley talking COLOR OUT OF SPACE, grab a copy of RUE MORGUE #192, now on sale!

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.