He was one of cinema’s biggest stars, but Marlon Brando behaved like a “monster” and seemed “hell-bent on sabotaging” The Island of Dr Moreau, one of his last films, according to its screenwriter.
When Ron Hutchinson was asked to work on a film with The Godfather star in 1996, he could not believe his luck. In adapting HG Wells’s science fiction novel about a renegade scientist who creates an island of monsters, Hutchinson would be working with one of his great acting idols, as well as the acclaimed director John Frankenheimer. There was the added bonus of spending a couple of months on the Great Barrier Reef and in the rainforests of northern Australia.
But when Hutchinson joined the production team, he witnessed “one of the legendary movie disasters of all time”, describing it as a “$40m train wreck”.
He was shocked to discover that Brando – who he claims arrived on location “weighing about 300 pounds” – would not recite words written for him: “He wanted to improvise it all.” And Brando would rarely emerge from his trailer: “They were flying in these hapless [studio] executives to try to beg him to come out of his damned trailer.
“Brando was only answering the door when the pizza man came. This was the best news that the pizza-makers of Cairns, this small town, had ever had because Brando was consuming industrial quantities of pizza while ruminating on what the hell he was going to do when he had to face the cameras. I think there might have been an existential terror there.”
Hutchinson, who was born in Northern Ireland, is an Emmy award-winning screenwriter, Olivier-nominated playwright and was writer-in-residence for the Royal Shakespeare Company before making the move to work in Hollywood. His five previous collaborations with Frankenheimer included the Emmy-winning Against The Wall, about the 1971 Attica prison riot, starring Samuel L Jackson.
Next month, Oberon Books will publish his memoir, Clinging to the Iceberg: Writing for a Living on the Stage and in Hollywood. In it he has relived a painful chapter of his career – so painful that he has never watched The Island of Dr Moreau since its completion.
In an interview with the Observer, Hutchinson recalled that he had been working with the director Stephen Daldry on a revival of his 1984 Royal Court hit, Rat in the Skull, when he was contacted by Frankenheimer.
Although Brando revolutionized acting with his mesmerizing performances in classics such as A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, he was known to loathe producers, directors and even acting. Frankenheimer had warned Hutchinson that there were difficulties with working with Brando, sending over some initial footage shot after he replaced the original director, Richard Stanley.
“He [Frankenheimer] said: ‘Take a look at these [tapes] before you actually commit.’ They showed Brando sitting in a hammock with literally the smallest person who’s ever been measured by scientists, the actor Nelson De la Rosa who was just under 28 inches tall.
“Brando absolutely fell in love with this guy. He put him on his chest in the hammock and sang ‘Frog Went A-Courting’ to him. There was 90 minutes of that. John said: ‘This is all I can persuade Brando to do.’ ”
Hutchinson writes in his book: “By this stage of his life Brando, playing the God of Moreau’s island and emerging as the God of the production, was way beyond bored with the making of movies. Overweight, unprepared, mocking, dismissive, on the razor’s edge where caprice becomes malice, the case for the prosecution is therefore easily made. He was indeed here to sabotage this movie.”
He continues: “Brando placed a kitchen colander on his head, slathered himself in sunscreen, fell in love with Nelson, retired to his trailer and refused to leave it.”
Looking back, Hutchinson now notes the irony that, in making a film about an island of monsters, everybody in the movie turned into a monster: “Everybody behaved monstrously to each other.”
He was shocked to discover the “poisonous” relations between Brando and most of the other actors. Careful about mentioning names, Hutchinson refers to incidents including a “prohibition” on one actor being allowed to handle a gun – even one that fired blanks.
There was such intense hatred that the executives eventually “threw up their arms” and asked the actors to film “a one-man show” that would be stitched together in post-production: “It was an island of crazy people – an awful experience.”