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Thursday, August 27, 2020

‘Hardware II: Ground Zero’: Richard Stanley Revisits the Sequel He Still Hopes to Make [Phantom Limbs]

phantom limb /ˈfan(t)əm’lim/ n. an often painful sensation of the presence of a limb that has been amputated.

Welcome to Phantom Limbs, a recurring feature which will take a look at intended yet unproduced horror sequels and remakes – extensions to genre films we love, appendages to horror franchises that we adore – that were sadly lopped off before making it beyond the planning stages. Here, we will be chatting with the creators of these unmade extremities to gain their unique insight into these follow-ups that never were, with the discussions standing as hopefully illuminating but undoubtedly painful reminders of what might have been.

For this installment, we’ll be taking a look at filmmaker Richard Stanley’s unproduced sequel to his 1990 debut feature Hardware, the cult classic sci-fi/horror film starring Dylan McDermott and Stacey Travis. Joining us for this discussion will be Mr. Stanley himself, who will take us through the story’s inception, describe its story and characters, and weigh in on the possibility that the film might yet be made. In addition to this chat, Mr. Stanley was kind enough to provide Bloody Disgusting with some concept art from the as yet unmade film.

For those unfamiliar with Hardware: In a dystopian near future, ex-soldier Mo Baxter (McDermott) and his friend Shades (John Lynch) run across an intriguing item – a military robot, broken into pieces and sold as scrap by a mysterious nomad. Mo purchases the droid’s head for his girlfriend Jill (Travis), a reclusive artist who sculpts with metal. Jill uses the head in her work, not realizing its ability to self-repair and use the metal from her work to rebuild itself. Before long, the reconstituted “M.A.R.K-13” droid attacks, killing Jill’s lecherous neighbor and even Mo, before a final, bloody battle with Jill sees the droid defeated. Jill and Shades stand as the sole survivors of the tale, before a final report in the closing moments reveal that the Defense Department has approved the mass production of the M.A.R.K-13…

Jill (Stacey Travis) and Shades (John Lynch) in Richard Stanley’s ‘Hardware’ (1990)

Though the sequel must have seemed an inevitability, given the first film’s reception, sadly it never came to pass. Nevertheless, rumors abounded for years about a follow-up, alternatively reported to be titled Hardware II and Ground Zero. Mr. Stanley explains: “The initial title, pre-9/11 obviously, was meant to be a joke. A score. ‘Hardware – 2, Earth – nil.’ It was going to be Hardware II: Ground Zero.”

So how did this project originate? Was there interest in a sequel when the first film came out, or did Mr. Stanley write it entirely on spec? “Hardware always kind of belonged to a larger shared universe of scripts. The central characters of Hardware, particularly Shades, Jill and Moe, appeared in a bunch of other screenplays that I had punting around at the time. There was always a desire to try and take it out of the apartment and show more of the world. The official Hardware II screenplay was written right after the release of Hardware. That must have been around 1990, 1991. A real long, long time ago, now. One of the scary things about the Hardware sequel script, one of the reasons I haven’t let it go all these years, is that it’s still relevant. Thirty years further on. There were a lot of ideas in the sequel script which, I think, were pretty close to the bone which I would still like to see addressed at some point.”

So how would the sequel have begun? Would we have picked right back up with the survivors of the previous film? “Well, that was always a tricky thing, because even after Hardware coming out, I was aware in the summer of ’90/’91 that I couldn’t really write a script which was entirely led by either Shades or Jill, by John Lynch or Stacey. The Hardware II script displaces the two leads of Hardware slightly by introducing a new character. The protagonist in the Hardware sequel script is Lyle, who is a phony war veteran who turns out to be a federal agent acting under an assumed identity in order to infiltrate the “Destructuralist Movement”. There’s a quasi-hippy, back-to-Earth movement in Hardware II called “the Destructuralists”, who basically don’t believe in any social structure beyond the extended family. Lyle is a federal agent who has deliberately infiltrated a Destructuralist commune as part of a complicated future government sting operation.

Hardware II is set a few years down the pike from Hardware. It assumes that the M.A.R.K-13 cyborg has been mass produced and deployed. I always assumed that drone soldiers are not terribly bright, like guard dogs. They’re great at detecting movement – they have motion detectors, incredible sonic range and are essentially heat-seeking. Initially, they’re deployed along the US/Mexico border. Hardware II imagines not only a border wall, but hunter-killer war drones that are patrolling the Rio Grande. So Hardware II opened with a Mexican family trying to find their way north, who manage to get across the river and wall but are cut down by the hunter-killer cyborgs after becoming trapped in a minefield. So we realize that, upon entering the future America in Hardware II, that things have changed fucking drastically. The whole border wall/Texan setting was also a move to take it out of the city. I didn’t want to do another movie in a Blade Runner-esque, Mega-City One type environment. I thought the best way to give Hardware II its own unique identity was to take it out into the land and, to some extent, make a Tex-Mex border Western out of it.”

Given that the film would have found a new lead in Lyle, how would Hardware survivors Jill and Shades have figured into the sequel? “Shades comes in after the opening credits. It started with the pre-title credits sequence with the Mexican family falling prey to the droids, then we connect with Shades. The idea was to have it as many years later as the script got made. So if we shot it now, it’d be thirty years later. Shades always hated being on Earth, and preferred being in orbit, being out in space. After the traumatizing events of Hardware, Shades has tried to stay off-world as long as humanly possible. By the beginning of Hardware II, he’s grounded as a health risk. It’s a health and safety thing. They can tell from his in-suit telemetry that he’s starting to get anemic. He’s losing red-blood platelets, he’s losing long bone marrow and muscle. For health and safety purposes, Shades is grounded after the opening credits, and tries to pick up the pieces of life on Earth, [which has] continued to change horrifically and dramatically in the period of time he’s been off-world. He’s also hyper-sensitive, and has a hard time with loud noises and light, and walks strangely because he’s used to being in zero gravity for long periods of time.

“He goes looking for Jill, who in the interim has sued the electronics company [responsible for the M.A.R.K-13], and is now technophobic and has left the city. She’s sought a new life in The Zone, in a Destructuralist commune, which is where the Destructuralists come into the story – basically this sort of neo-Luddite, grassroots movement trying to “green the Zone” and return to the land. Shades seeks out Jill. On some level, he’s still in love with her. I think Shades has always been secretly in love with Jill.”

The upgraded M.A.R.K (concept art courtesy of Richard Stanley)

Surely the most iconic figure in the original 1990 film was the M.A.R.K-13. Would that character or model number have returned for a second outing? “I wasn’t ever going to try and bring back the original M.A.R.K-13. With the various legal problems surrounding the Hardware franchise, which unfortunately was owned by Miramax, I’ve kind of even stepped away from idea that they would’ve been called M.A.R.K-13s. By the time you get to Hardware II, I imagine they’d have been the ‘M.A.R.K-18’, and they would have improved the fucking design considerably. I thought you could still give them individual identities, a la Hardware, in the same way the military gives individual personalities to bombs or aircrafts. I still imagine they have their own spray jobs. I was keen to have a ‘Peace’ droid with the Peace logo on its face. I wanted to do a Kubrick homage with a ‘Hi Mom!’ droid. I think it was ‘Hi Mom!’ that was the droid that kills the Mexican mother in the opening sequence. They were all going to have individual paint jobs so they can vaguely track them. The main problem is that they’re now fully deployed and also working as a tightly controlled unit, supervised at a distance by M.A.R.K-13 drone operators who have been trained up on M.A.R.K-13 simulation software. The main deal is that they’re now weaponized. In Hardware, the one that they had in their apartment fortunately was not weaponized, otherwise it would’ve killed everyone in the first five minutes. These [new M.A.R.Ks] cannot only see through walls because they can see heat, they can also fry you from the other side of the wall because they have microwave weapons. That’s something that comes from DARPA, and some of the ideas from what they call non-lethal technology. On a broadband, it’s microwave energy that creates a stinging sensation, a burning sensation on the skin which they think would be good for riot control. But on a tighter band, it can cook someone from the inside out. I don’t think I’d ever seen characters microwaved from the inside out before, and I was keen to do that to a few folks. [laughs]”

With the now weaponized droids, it sounds as though the sequel had the potential to be every bit as violent as the original film, and possibly even more so? “I wanted to go way beyond. Way, way beyond. The microwave weapons, and the cooking people from the inside, was the starting point. When it came to killing the male lead – spoiler alert, like Hardware, the male lead doesn’t make it – like nobody fuckin’ makes it in the Hardware II script. I was determined not to make any more sequels. But I wanted to give him a longer and worse death experience than Dylan McDermott‘s in Hardware. We were going to take this to the next level. Lyle had a particularly terrible end. By the time it comes down to the very tail end of it, Lyle is trying to hold off the droids, and has a detonator for some sort of nuclear device taped to one of his hands. Before he can press the button, he has his hand snipped off by one of the droids. He can’t get to the severed hand fast enough, and the other droids literally tear him apart. But when he has his head snipped off, I wanted to go into the whole brain death, six-to-twelve minutes thing. I figured from the moment that Lyle lost his head, he probably would still have another five to six minutes of being able to see and hear, which then propels us into a POV shot from the severed head’s point of view. The severed head ends up laying upside down on one end of the assembly line, and he can still see his own body being torn apart by the droids. Eventually one lollops over to where his head is lying as if it’s remembered him, picks up the head and crushes it. Splat! Would’ve been a lot of fun!”

In addition to being every bit as violent as the prior film, it sounds as though the sequel would have had the same vein of dark comedy present in its predecessor. “I think pretty much everything I do is some form of black comedy. I think I’ve generally portrayed the human beings in my films in a comedic light, and much of [the Hardware films] is a kind of splatstick. It definitely goes pretty far over into dark comedy.”

Mr. Stanley notes that, in addition to seeing out the storyline he’d begun with the first Hardware, Ground Zero would have also acted as the conclusion to two other tales that he’d started as well. “In the existing screenplay, it also ties up plot threads from Dust Devil, [and] it ties up some In a Season of Soft Rains plot threads – [another] screenplay that never even got fucking made!” According to Mr. Stanley, Soft Rains was a project that languished in development in the UK for around a decade and was ultimately never made, and was meant to be “a UK-based near future thriller about a shapeshifting American assassin who is sent into a future, post-greenhouse flooded London, which is now a fascist Republic/satellite arm of the United States, to find and kill the last surviving member of the British Royal Family – a child that’s been hidden by mutants in the flooded remains of the city. [And Hardware II] was meant to be an all-purpose sequel [to Hardware, Dust Devil and In a Season of Soft Rains] that would round it all out.”

Mr. Stanley goes on to explain how Hardware II would have brought closure to Dust Devil and Soft Rains: “The controller for the assassin character from Soft Rains gets killed in the Hardware sequel script in a fairly minor aside. But I wanted to avenge the characters [from that film] by killing off the spook! Lyle in Ground Zero is another one of these programmed government assassin types – the same sort of people I imagine are sent in to kill the people at, say, Waco, Texas. So Lyle was a government agent who poses as a war veteran who uses Shades to infiltrate the Destructuralist commune for a cynical, spooky purpose. I was inspired a little by Timothy McVeigh, and Lee Harvey Oswald is kind of in that territory as well. Characters who you can never quite fucking figure out whose government they’re working for. Whether they’re part of the Army, or not part of the Army. Lyle was cut from that same evil cloth. Which is why I saved such an extraordinary death for him.” And how would Dust Devil have figured into the narrative of Hardware II? “I’d like to imagine that the nomad from Hardware, the Carl McCoy character, is another iteration of this demonic ‘Man with No Name’ devil figure who’s been trapped in our world for some arcane reason and has been searching for release for countless centuries. So I wanted to reprise the nomad and bring him back in Hardware II.”

With all of its potential and the goodwill enjoyed by the cult classic original, how is it that this sequel has never made it to the screen? “Sadly, Hardware was murdered by its own success. By the rapacious greed of the film industry. The title has been controlled by different, scary corporate powers ever since 1989. Trying to harness those forces around a single table has proved impossible. Basically, the initial rights were split between Miramax in the US, and Palace Pictures in the UK. Palace was subsequently forced into receivership and their back catalogue became part of Polygram. Polygram then collapsed, and the back catalogue was again broken up. Since then, Miramax’s back catalogue has gone elsewhere. So by now, the rights to Hardware … some are controlled by MGM, and some are controlled by Buena Vista. Which means that you’d have to get MGM and Buena Vista to agree to make the film, if you were going to make an official Hardware II.”

Could the film possibly be made as a standalone feature, removed from its connections to the original? “I’ve been exploring that possibility at this stage. Thus far, I’ve mostly been defeated by the absurd situation where – everyone wants Hardware so badly, that the moment you change the title and call it anything else…I mean, I think calling it Hard.Ware would be too cheeky. That thought had occurred to me. Hardwired. Something which is almost the same, but not quite. So far, it’s scared people off. They’ve usually gone, ‘Hang on a moment, let’s see if we can clear the rights.’ Then they’ve disappeared down the black hole of attempting to try and get the different official rights holders to agree on anything. At this stage in time, in the last thirty years, we’ve never been able to persuade the powers that be to license Hardware for comic books, video games, even a M.A.R.K-13 model, let alone a reboot or a sequel. It’s been super hard.”

Why should it be so difficult for the right holders to see that they could all benefit from licensing out the property? “It’s always seemed perverse to me. At one point, I got mail from the head of MGM’s filmed entertainment division, who said that he thought there was still tremendous revenues inherent in the title. There’s a sense that on some level, they know it’s valuable, so they don’t want to give it up and license it out to anyone else. But at the same time, nobody’s actually ever moved forward on anything. It’s been super frustrating.”

So after all of these years, what would it take to get the film made? “Under the official title, it would take some kind of agreement between MGM, Buena Vista and the British independent producer Paul Trijbits, who also owns some rights. You’d have to get all three to actually agree to make the movie, which would be super hard. You would be coming into an incredible number of notes and conflicting ideas about how they would like to change or present the movie. Otherwise, to get the same movie with a different title, there may be an opening.”

In a version of the film that divorced itself from the first Hardware, would we still have Shades and Jill, with John Lynch and Stacey Travis, or would those characters have to be somewhat modified? “There is a certain element of market ecology in there. You would still have to have casting which would basically make the backers comfortable with footing the bill for allowing us to build and blow up so many droids. The crazy part is that Shades is actually under my copyright control, thanks to Hardware not being the first screenplay set in that creative universe. There were already two prior screenplays involving Shades. Because I didn’t want Miramax to own the unmade screenplays, there’s a clause in the original contract which says that Shades is exempt from the contractual arrangements, so I could have him. I think you could probably have an older version of Stacey Travis, provided nobody called her ‘Jill’. I think if she’d been living with the Destructuralists for thirty years, we could give her a nickname, like ‘Turbo’. Or something which they just refer to her as, and you can see she’s this traumatized older lady who’s got a past, but we don’t ever have to actually explain to the audience what that past is.”

Of course, no matter the iteration of this project, the murderous droids would surely have to return in some form. But if this screenplay was meant to round out all of the stories in Mr. Stanley’s shared universe of early screenplays, what would that have meant for the M.A.R.Ks? “In Ground Zero, the droids are destroyed as well. The droids meet their ultimate nemesis. I figured they’d be waterproof, because that’s just the malfunctioning one in Hardware that’s got a problem with the shower. By Hardware II, they’re fully waterproof, but they meet another implacable nemesis: they’re wiped out ultimately by ants, by a form of fire ant, which starts to infest their systems from the moment they’re deployed in the Zone. They creep in through the cracks in their body armor. They’re in fact drawn by the waxy substance used to line some of the wires inside of them. This leads the fire ants to start eating the wiring inside the droids, which initially causes random insect signals to go through their nervous system, and they start to develop epileptic tics and little dysfunctions. The ants, over a period of time, decimate the droids, who eventually lose their abilities. I think Hardware II was almost optimistic in some way. I didn’t want to go towards a Skynet/Terminator-style future where the droids are running the Earth. I always figured these things were so ill-adjusted, and Mother Nature is ultimately so strong and so full of variables. So there’s certainly a sense by the end of Ground Zero, if there’s a message to it, that human beings really have to sort out their shit, otherwise they’re going to become extinct and other species will take control of the planet.”

Indeed, the dystopian world described by Hardware, seemingly so far removed from reality in 1990, now seems terrifyingly plausible in present day 2020, and it sounds as though Mr. Stanley’s sequel would have been even more timely than its predecessor. “I think it’s partly down the fact that, unfortunately, worst case scenarios tend to be closer to reality than best case scenarios. I mean, in terms of science fiction, I would’ve loved for faster than light travel, or first contact with an alien species, or teleportation, or jet packs to have been a thing. But one’s darkest suspicions are always that technology is going to malfunction and that things aren’t going to go smoothly.”

Even for the darkness and grim realities portrayed in Mr. Stanley’s films, this writer does seem to find them all to be strangely hopeful in their own ways. Would Hardware II: Ground Zero have followed suit in this regard? “Yeah, I would say so. The ending was going to be a parody of All Quiet on the Western Front. I wanted to see the last of the droids collapsing and becoming part of the landscape, then storm clouds come and it rains acid rain on them. Flying ants hatch out from their remains. I wanted to see a big mutant flying ant sitting on the corroded hand of a droid, which dries its wings a bit like the mantis in The Color Out of Space and eventually takes off. A kind of a version of the butterfly on the finger from All Quiet on the Western Front.”

With Mr. Stanley currently working on two more Lovecraft adaptations to follow up his well-received The Color Out of Space (The Dunwich Horror and an as yet unnamed third film), would he be interested in returning to Hardware II: Ground Zero in the future? Is it possible that we may yet see the film produced some day? “Well, I think I’ve got a sort of moral obligation to pursue Hardware II. As I often told people in the past about Hardware and Season of Soft Rains – ‘If we don’t make the film, it will happen’.”

Very special thanks to Richard Stanley for his time and insights.

‘Hardware II: Ground Zero’ concept poster (courtesy of Richard Stanley)


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