Sunday, July 26, 2015


As part of my ongoing Everyone's at Gen Con so why bother series, where I relax the tone and content of the Blog, I am going to discuss two documentaries I recently watched on Netflix. 

Released in 2013, Supermensch was directed by Mike Myers and Beth Aala. Before watching it, I had no idea who Shep Gordon was. The only reason I checked this one out was because of the title (I was curious who was worthy of the moniker 'supermensch') and Mike Myer's involvement. 

The film opens very promisingly with a plethora of celebrities from Sylvester Stallone to Michael Douglas to Alice Cooper basically saying "what a guy". Then Shep Gordon speaks. He looks a bit nerdy, with receding curly hair and glasses, but then he says: 

"I instituted a set or rules. And one was, when I was signing an artist I would sit 'em down, take my glasses off, look 'em in the eyes and say: You need to really listen to me. And listen seriously, this isn't a joke. If I do my job perfectly, I will probably kill you."

This grabbed my attention right away. Shep Gordon is basically a manager, and this is what he says to every artist he begins working with. From this I expected to see some serious rising star horror stories, instead we get a much different film. Supermensch is really just a biography of Shep Gordon, with the first half of the film focusing on his friendship and business relationship with Alice Cooper. The second half of the movie is about other artists he's managed (Teddy Pendergrass, Anne Murray, etc) and about his semi-retired life in Hawaii. The most entertaining portion of the documentary is the part dealing with Alice Cooper. In my view, that would have been a better movie: just make it all about Alice Cooper and Shep Gordon. The two were apparently really close and continue to be friends, and the stories about their early days are just fascinating (for example we learn that Shep Gordon was the one who placed the infamous chicken on stage at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival). That part of the movie really held my interest. It was also interesting to see how he dealt with other acts and I think that could have been explored a bit as well. What I didn't enjoy as much was when the film shifted to his place in the culture of celebrity, where he sort of functions as a social hub and protector. Don't get me wrong, he seems like nice guy and probably one of the better rich and famous folks out there. But there is something about listening to celebrities talk about exclusive parties, villas, playboy mansion excursions, that feels very out of touch in this day and age. 

Shep Gordon
We also see a bit of his personal drama and learn about his relationship with the Dalai Lama. I found the exploration of his marriages interesting, but his spirituality was something I really didn't have interest in. When celebrities and the rich and famous talk about God, Karma, or the meaning of life, I have a lot of trouble taking them seriously because so often their beliefs are clearly self-serving or an outgrowth of a skewed point of view. It is just a little hard to watch someone talk about the virtues of Buddhism or Jesus from the marble floors of their mansion without rolling your eyes just a little bit. 

Still this was a good movie, with some moving developments later in Shep Gordon's life. I just couldn't help but be turned off a little by the celebrity interviews in the second half. I do recommend it, since it still manages to engage even when it annoys slightly. There are also some genuinely funny moments. 


In high school one of my favorite books was The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells (I was a big H.G. Wells fan in general). I also was a fan of the 1932 adaptation with Charles Laughton. When they announced that a new Island of Doctor Moreau film was being made, I was beyond excited. For me this was big news. When word spread that Marlon Brando was going to be in it, that just clinched it for me. Then I went to see Dr. Moreau with my friends. I wanted to like it; I think I spent about a day after trying to convince myself it was a good movie. I never hated it as much as the general public did, I could still find something to like about it here or there because I enjoyed the book so much. But this was indeed a terrible film, one with numerous cringe-worthy moments and an overall tone that just doesn't work. It was so bad that everyone just agrees on that fact (at least, judging by its freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes, 77% of the population concurs). 

So I was curious when I saw Lost Soul listed in the documentary section of Netflix. Released in 2014 and directed by David Gregory the movie attempts to explain why The Island of Doctor Moreau became an iconically bad film. 

It begins with Richard Stanley, a promising young director in the early 90s. He was originally hired to direct and write the movie by New Line Cinema. He was artsy and experimental, known for his interesting use of color in his previous movies Dust Devil and Hardware. After some cast changes (Bruce Willis and James Woods were originally to appear in the movie) and increasing tension between Val Kilmer and Stanley, the producers started to get nervous. There are conflicting accounts in the documentary, and it doesn't look like a 'two sides to every story' situation. It appears like he was either incompetent and needed to be replaced, or he upset the wrong people and got booted for that reason. Whatever was going on, there was clearly a pro-Stanley camp and an anti-Stanley camp emerging during the early stages of production. Ultimately he was replaced by John Frankenheimer. As presented in the documentary, Frankenheimer didn't particularly care for the project and was basically there because he was consistent and good at managing difficult actors. With Brando and Kilmer testing everyone's patience, he seemed like a good choice at the time. 

What is fascinating is how much more bizarre the story of the film's production is than the film itself (and it is a very weird film if you've ever seen it). 

De la Rosa and Brando
Some backstory is important here. When Stanley was still involved in the movie he met with Brando to talk about him playing Doctor Moreau and the two really hit it off (at least according to Stanley's account). He also earned the loyalty of a few other key cast members (in particular Fairuza Balk and Marco Hofschneider) and the crew. Before filming began, Brando's daughter committed suicide and by the time he arrived at location, Stanley had already been fired. 

When New Line fired Stanley, the agreement was he would still get paid but he had to stay a certain distance from the production. It was filmed in North Queensland Australia and New Line bought him a plane ticket back home to make sure he didn't cause any trouble. However he never got on the plane and instead it seems he just went and lived in the forest somewhere. He eventually snuck back onto the set and disguised himself as a dogman extra so he could see how badly the movie was going (he had heard rumors that his script was being butchered). Apparently he appears in the movie as a dogman. 

Many of the things critics attacked the film for, were products of Brando's antics on set. He famously made a number of questionable decisions for his character and refused any suggestion to do otherwise, like wearing white face paint or placing an ice bucket on his head as a cooling hat. His most well known contribution to the movie was his miniature sidekick, played by Nelson de la Rosa. Originally De la Rosa had a much smaller background part in the movie, but when Brando spoke fake Spanish to him and he pretended to understand, Brando insisted that he must appear in every scene beside him, saying de la Rosa was the star. The documentary suggests, though interviews with other actors, that Brando was deliberately sabotaging the movie because he was angry that they fired Stanley. It is also just possible he didn't care anymore and that his daughter's death, combined with his son's arrest, may have its toll. Either way, it is clear he was intentionally messing with the new Director, John Frankenheimer, who pretty much let him get away with anything. I do think there is something to the idea that he did these things out of a sense of loyalty to Stanley, because his behavior on Moreau, was particularly outrageous and it seemed he was knowingly damaging the movie's potential success (at least based on what others reported). 
Richard Stanley

Lost Soul is sympathetic to Stanley's point of view, and I can't say one way or another if it is accurate. It is certainly intriguing and if true, it explains an awful lot. It also raises a lot of interesting questions like what the movie would have been had they kept Stanley on. I'm not really sure how the movie would have turned with him as the director instead of Frankenheimer, but it does appear that he at least had a clear vision, so I think it would have been a more striking movie. For all we know it may still have been terrible or perhaps more terrible (I guess one can't totally exclude the possibility that Frankenheimer elevated the project from an even worse state). However the documentary does ring true and I think you really can't get much worse than what New Line ended up releasing in 1996, so I am inclined to think Stanley would have produced a more interesting final product. 

Worth watching, especially for those of us who remember the release of the 1996 Island of Doctor Moreau

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