A couple weeks ago, we had the opportunity to sit down with Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly and talk about his newest film Southland Tales.
I know, I know, we’re a little late in posting this interview, as the film was released in limited theaters this past week. But as much as this is the type of movie that you must see multiple times to understand, this interview should probably only be read or listened to after you have seen the film, or it likely won’t make complete sense. I have posted the audio file from the roundtable interview below, and you can read the transcript after the jump.
Question:Â I understand this movie completely. Why do people have such a hard time understanding your work?
Richard Kelly:Â I don’t know. Did you guys get a graphic novel? Do we have one with us? Have you guys seen it? The graphic novel prequel book… I was holding it as a prop for the TV [interviews] on camera so people would understand there was a prequel graphic novel. I was making sure it got on camera.
Question: Was it something that you wrote?
RK:Â Yeah, well it’s the first three chapters; you see glimpses of it in the doomsday scenario interface. The movie is 4, 5, and 6 the book is chapters 1, 2, and 3. It starts with Boxer waking up in the desert and charts how he meets with Krista at the state line and Roland and Ronald on a houseboat, and the neo marxists and Zora escorting the twins back to LA and then the whole setup and everything that happens in LA. Essentially it’s like a whole other movie… It is the prequel to what’s in theatres and the challenge is to make sure that the movie can sustain itself independently of the graphic novels for those who haven’t read them, which will be the vast majority of people who go to see the film. Also let it work as like a cross media experience, that crosses from graphic novel into film.
Question:Â So wait, you really don’t understand why people have a hard time following your stories?
RK:Â Here it is. I certainly know it’s very complicated stuff and I definitely understand how on the first viewing it can [rush over you] and if people give it a chance on a second or third viewing it will all start to fit together. There’s a real design to it all, everything’s essential…
Question:Â So far in both your films, you have time travel and the end of the world… Can you talk a little bit about that?
RK:Â I think I’m sorta getting it out of my system so I can move on to other topics. But I felt like, for me, everybody wonders how the worlds gonna end, it’s obviously embedded in everyone’s DNA to about their own mortality and the mortality of the planet… So I guess there’s a lot of talk of the planets mortality with global warming and Iraq, there’s obviously a lot of talk of that right now. For me I think of a way in which the world could end immediately, I guess, and obviously there’s the Christian theory of the Second Coming and Revelation and I think of something on a science fiction level, it has to be the collapse of the 4th dimension, I mean come on. When Duane say’s that Bai Ling and kinda kisses her like Ralph [Meaker], throws her against the bar, it’s sort of like a rift in the space time continuum, I guess, I was excited about the idea from the first film and felt like I wanted to explore it on a bigger level. My producing partners have officially banned me from anymore time portal discussion in any future films…He say’s I have to move on.
Question:Â Where did you get the inspiration for the story?
RK:Â Â The initial inspiration I think was written five years ago, the original script for this, right before 9/11 so I think it was right when we got back from Sundance in 2001. The original inspiration I think was the TS Elliot poem, the Hollow Man. The last words of that, “this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper.” And I thought let’s flip that, lets’ do a big LA comedy with a bunch of crazy LA eccentric characters. And then it was like the Hindenburg over downtown LA. I had that image, it ends up with a big blimp and the riots, a big comedy about the city self destructing, and I think in the original draft the architecture was all there with the movie star and the twin and the cop and his brother was an actor and impersonating him. And there’s a porn star and there’s a scandal with these… The neo Marxist were more of an acting troop, they weren’t political and it was like a blackmail attempt to try to humiliate a movie star and then he ends up on a big blimp at the end, and it gets shot by a rocket launcher… And ah, I’m kinda giving away the ending here so ah, if you wanna censor the spoilers… So that architecture was always there but after 9/11 I was like ok I have this apocalyptic comedy that ends with rioting and the city on fire and everything with all these crazy characters I thought ok if it’s really about the end of the world lets try to take it to the next level and make it about something much more then making fun of LA, trying to blow up LA, and I thought about all these ideas about homeland security and alternative fuel and I made it more of a science fiction, near future satire.
Question:Â You definitely have a large cast of ah.. a large array of-
RK:Â Â Yeah there’s like so many actors in this movie I forget that I try to list them all and I at least forget someone… And I wanted it to be that way because some of my favorite LA movies, I mean going back to Kiss Me Deadly which is obviously a big reference for this film, even like the Big Lebowski or Heat or LA Confidential it feels like a lot of film Noir there, a large tapestry of characters embedded in the city, eccentric type people who appear mysteriously and just have a few lines but they’re memorable. Like in Kiss Me Deadly there are so many, even the doctor who shows up at the end, the guy who has the box, he’s great eccentric even cameo almost and I figured I wanted to cast the film with my favorite comedic actors, and actors from different parts of pop culture. Sort of immerge from the creases of the city in a way.
Question:Â How much of an influence was Phillip K. Dick?
RK:Â Oh major, major influence. He’s been a real influence on so many writers, I think, in a sense that he really created some of the best concepts for science fiction I think more then anyone and there’s a film noir quality to his work, a very LA quality to a lot of his work, and I feel like he was always pushing the envelope in terms of political discussion as well in terms of where our country might be headed, and how things could get really bad. Go from bad to worse very quickly.
Question:Â Did you ever think of shooting it like A Scanner Darkly?
RK:Â Â With the paint over stuff? I think it’s a really interesting technique that Linklater has… I’ve seen a lot of commercials now, I think people are really… It’s really fascinating and think ah, with all this cast… You know I think that, I don’t know what the expense of that is… It was never really a consideration.
Question:Â One of the things I liked was it seemed the narrative density was part of the design in the culture where your getting all this news all of the time, just information, some of it vital some of it totally meaningless…..
RK:Â Yeah, it’s definitely information over load, when you watch CNN and you have the news ticker, the headline the sub headline…And planet in peril which is the little logo above the little green CNN logo then you have like four different boxes with four people talking and its like your brain melts just looking at your TV these days…. And we’re trying to mimic that in the news content we created for the film, and even when you go to a news stand you see a magazine for Britney Spears in a magazine with Iraq on it, and its like I can’t take any more Iraq anymore give me Britney. “Give me more, give me more…” It’s sort of like that’s the world that we live in, so its definitely a reflection of our world, that’s kind of why Sara’s character became a sort of obsession for me, I became obsessed with Krista Now, to me she’s like Arianna Huffington meets Jenna Jameson. There are a lot of young female entrepreneurs who use pornography as a means to become multi media moguls in a way. I guess Jenna Jameson would be the best example and I thought what if one of those people became politically active. And that’s where the character came from, I also think of the great femme fatale in any film noir there’s usually multiple women, obviously David Lynch has done a lot there’s multiple women in his films he makes with the brunette the blonde the red head and the shapeshifter. There was a little bit of that with Ralph Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly obviously I think he makes out with 3 or 4 different women he’s always kind of roughing them up, and they still love him. Ya know the macho 50’s private eye. Dwayne studied Ralph Meeker and his character has a schizophrenic break when he’s becoming the Jericho Kane Character, his voice shifts a little bit….The physicality he came up with.
Question:Â Will The Box be more straight forward.
RK:Â Yes. The Box is definitely still in my crazy wheel house of, ya know, but it’s ah, I’m deliberately trying to make…I believe this is mainstream, I could be completely crazy but I still think this film is mainstream, people might laugh at me for saying that… In it’s own way but with The Box I’m trying to see if I can make a film that is easy for a studio to release on like 3000 screens at once, as opposed to platforming it and waiting and seeing how the public digests it.
Question:Â It is a very straight forward premise, so where do you find the opportunity to do your crazy wheel house in The Box.
RKÂ I can’t give away, I don’t want to give away too much, but I think it’s a simple 6 page short story about a married couple that receives this button unit. Theres a glass dome and key that unlocks it, and if they push it, somewhere in the world someone that they do not know will die, but they’ll receive this amount of money so for me that was just this great first act to a film and what we’ve spent a lot of time engineering, is what happens next. What is the payoff, what happens after that? So I’m really trying to make this thrilling, suspenseful, edge of your seat film. And there’s great fun in that for me.
Question:Â So it sounds like the script isn’t finished though, so your not anywhere near shooting?
RKÂ We start shooting on the 17th.
Question:Â Your script is done?
RK:Â If the writers guild is listening, I have finished writing.Â (Laughter) Is the strike happening yet?
RK:Â Really? Oh god.
Question:Â Do you have any plans to continue working with comics?
RK:Â Yes. It almost killed me trying to do this at the same time as the movie, it was so much work. And Bret [the artist] deserves so much credit, so talented. But I wrote each chapter of this, chapter 1, 2, and 3, was a screen play that I wrote. A fifty page screen play, and 60 page screenplay and like and 80 page screenplay, I handed it over to him and he did all the illustrations. And that was so much work trying to do that while editing the film and making the film. But I would love to do it again maybe not at the same time, ya know all at the same time… Who knows if this will pay off, if the book will ultimately end up, whether or not the book will gain traction or not (Will it do well?) I don’t know, the book has literally come off the presses and is going to the book stores this week.
Question:Â It was released al-
RK:Â Yeah, there have been single books that have been out for about a year, just a very limited print and distribution to comic book stores and on Amazon.com. Yeah just for like the fans and the people really love graphic novels, but it wasn’t until we got the collection that we’re gonna get it into a wider release.
Question:Â So it’ll be in like Barnes and Noble?
RKÂ Yes, it’ll be at those book stores, ya know the jury is still out on whether or not this is, if the cross over things will work, so I would never go there again until a little bit of time passes to see if it’s worth it to try and do it again because it was so much work. And the script for The Box is absolutely finished but in general, all through the pre production because we start to film in 3 weeks, but in the past month I’ve been meticulously rewriting it, with my crew and I work very closely with my production designer and our locations as we’re casting and everything. I do a lot of rewriting up until the last minute so…. I had to sort of hand the script over and kind of do this a couple days ago so its like out of fear of “Is this really gonna happen?”
Question:Â Who’s playing…
RK:Â Ah, Cameron Diaz is playing the wife… I’ll probably get in trouble if I say who’s playing the husband write now, the deals still being ironed out. There’s been kind of speculation, but it’s a complicated situation.
Question: Any thought to cutting or delaying the film due to the recent LA fires?
RK:Â That was always part of the film, the fire the rioting and the burning, there’s obviously been many fires in LA. And seeing that footage after what’s happened is obviously troubling and obviously its disturbing but there’s so much of the film that’s troubling and disturbing and it is what is. Given in light to whats happened recently with the fires the horrible tragedy it it definitely… Looking at that footage in the movie is difficult to look at certainly but ah, its painful but it’s all kinda painful ya know its dark subject matter, its dark, darkest of dark black subject matter that’s kinda the nature of the film it just goes there. It goes to that dark place, kind of staring into the abyss and trying to make sense of it, having these really fun people with you, I guess.