'Southland Tales' Director Richard Kelly Revisits His Infamous Cult Curiosity [Interview]

Southland Tales debuted almost 15 years ago at the Cannes Film festival. All of these years later, love it or hate it, the Richard Kelly film remains something movie fans keep talking about. The conversation around the ambitious science fiction film continues as Arrow Films has released a limited edition Blu-Ray, including the infamous "Cannes cut," which runs longer than the theatrical version. This version remains unfinished, without all the effects work complete, but nonetheless, Kelly's pop culture-infused surrealist epic gets more breathing room. It's fuller yet more relaxed compared to the theatrical cut.

Over the past few years, the lunacy and nightmarish imagery of Southland Tales came to mind more than once or twice. We spoke to Kelly about the movie's mirror of the world, his Cannes experience, and his plans for future stories in the Southland Tales universe.

How's it feel for people to finally see the Cannes cut? 

I'm glad it's finally seeing the light of day, the Cannes version. We did a restoration of both cuts, just like a polish to the image quality, but as of yet, there have not been any new visual effects. Officially, there have been no cosmetic changes beyond the enhancement to the image quality, but at least people can finally see it, for multiple reasons.

One, to see the additional themes in the bigger story mythology that we were attempting to accomplish, but also just to see that it was never finished. Neither version has been properly finished to this day. And that the raw work in progress quality of the Cannes cut can hopefully give people an idea of the potential for something that could happen in the future.

And for me, it's just nice to have it out there as this historical curiosity of what we were perhaps foolish or crazy or desperate enough to bring to the Cannes film festival, which was to this day, I'm enormously grateful and honored that they included us, despite what happened.

You were 30 when that happened. Were you zen about the experience at the time, or were alarm bells going off in your head?

It was a rollercoaster ride, is the best way that I can describe it, because again, I was 30 years old, and it was the biggest honor in the world to get into competition there with my second film. The three Americans in competition that year were myself, Sophia Coppola with Marie Antoinette, and Richard Linklater with Fastfood Nation. So, we were the three Americans in competition. Ron Howard was there with the DaVinci Code, too.

A lot of boos that year.

Everyone got the shit kicked out of them. We all got beaten up in different ways. I remember a very prominent French newspaper called us the unidentified flying object of Cannes that year because we just sort of came out of nowhere. It was such a wild, risky, provocative film of that time, this is 2006. So, this was the beginning of Bush's second term. This is right after the Katrina disaster, the Iraq war was raging on, and Afghanistan. It was a dark time, and we go through all sorts of dark times in our culture, in our political rollercoaster ride that we are all trapped on.

I'm very grateful they invited us to the festival, but it did kind of turn into a nightmare, but at the same time, part of why it felt like such a nightmare is, I think, because I was so young and I didn't understand that that's the way it goes at Cannes. If you get included and you get that honor and that invitation, you're going to have to accept the baggage that comes along with that, which is, they're going to walk out of your screening and they're going to hiss and they're going to boo. That's part of the rite of passage, I think, at that festival, especially if you're a young brat going in with your second film as I was.

So, it was traumatizing, and I think part of why it was traumatizing is because we were all there for the first time. With the exception of a couple of the financiers associated with the film, everyone involved, it was our very first time there at the festival. We had never set foot in the South of France before ever.

In hindsight, I think I knew we were going in there with an unfinished film. We just did not have the money, or we didn't have the confidence of the financiers' or of any kind of domestic distributor yet to finish the film properly. So even if we had the money to finish the version of the film, I still don't think the reception would have been that much better.

When did you start noticing this movie finding its people?

I think it took a few years. With Donnie Darko, we had a really bad festival hangover after Sundance, almost 20 years ago. It took us five months to get distribution for Donnie Darko. And then we went into a very unsuccessful theatrical release, the following fall. So, this was sort of history repeating itself.

We got bought by Sony before the end of the festival, which was a bit of positive news by the end of Cannes, as we were just exhausted licking our wounds, we had a distribution deal with Sony. We'd got bought. [Producer] Sean McKittrick and Sony screened the film back in LA, outside of all the hysteria of Cannes. Scott really loved the film and he could tell it was not finished and he's like, "Listen, let's figure it out. You're going to have to cut it down, but we can try and get you some more visual effects money." We ended up getting a very tiny little theatrical release not even until 2007.

I saw it on opening day in DC.

Oh, thank you. You were one of the three people in the theater.

I was. Georgetown during a morning show. 

That's amazing. I'm from Virginia, so I appreciated the Washington DC connection. So, it's not until the DVD release when the cult following started to build. I think with Southland, it took longer than it did with Donnie because it's so much more to digest. It's such a bigger, more complex story. And again, people don't remember the mid to late aughts were a much different time and it was a much more conservative time in a lot of ways. Obama had not yet been elected when we made the film.

It was a much more conservative time overall, and I feel like the response to the film didn't really start to accelerate until the world started to kind of explode with the backlash against the Obama administration. I think that it probably started to begin in 2012 when Trump really started gearing up his presidential ambitions for means of publicity or brand enhancement or whatever his initial motives were.

I remember in 2012, when Trump started to get serious about a presidential bid and the world started to head in these provocative new directions, things about the film started to feel more grounded and maybe more prescient. The movie didn't feel as crazy. The world was getting crazier than the film in a lot of ways, and different things had started to happen in the world, whether it was all the surveillance, the Edward Snowden stuff, and then it was revealed how much we were being spied on with our phones and the internet companies, all the shootings or police brutality, and just all the different dystopian facets that are threaded together in the film. All those things seem to come into sharper focus with each passing year.

Or week.

Yeah, each week. I mean, every day. I remember doing this really long interview with Vice. It was this feeling that people were really gravitating towards the film, trying to interpret all of this collective anxiety we were feeling. Our intentions with the film were maybe starting to finally be understood or appreciated in a certain way. And that's when I started to feel like, "Okay, maybe the tide is turning and people are coming around to Southland Tales."

I think it's only increased every year. Each year, it seems to have just kind of grown. I'm just feeling a sense of rebirth, like all this work that I've been quietly doing on Southland Tales and trying to resurrect it, there's maybe a light at the end of the tunnel. I'm trying to feel hopeful and excited that maybe the film can have this new life and if it can be a much bigger and greater incarnation of the whole thing.

Who knows, too, how time will continue to influence how we look at this story. Dwayne Johnson has talked about running for president. There's something very Southland Tales about that idea. 

Well, I think that everything is a possibility in this new world that we've entered into. Imagine if we were to build a time machine and go back to 2006 and go to the Cannes Film Festival when we're there presenting this crazy film and say, "Hey, 10 years from now, Donald Trump is going to be about the President of the United States." We would be crazy time travelers from the future who would be thrown into a mental hospital like Bruce Willis in 12 Monkeys. It would have been, put straight jackets on those time travelers who would give us that news. We're just living in this unhinged new era where anything is possible. If they confirmed that aliens have been in communication with the United States government, it's almost like, I think a greater part of the world would sort of do a collective shrug. Like, "Okay. All right."

Just another day in the world. 

Yeah. We are living in this reality television news cycle that our president has just cultivated. And he was just shoveling coal into that reality TV news furnace every single day, one tweet at a time. We've been inflamed.

You've mentioned continuing the story of Southland Tales. When might we see that? 

There's been a lot of work. I've been working diligently on all this Southland Tales stuff. I'm really, really excited about it. I'm actually doing another kind of polished one, a new screenplay that would basically expand Southland Tales into kind of a six-hour double feature is ideally what it would be, where it would be an expanded six-chapter version that would be included in an adaptation of the graphic novel. In an ideal world, it would include new footage integrated into the existing film.

And there is a whole other kind of reality layer to the story that if you're familiar with the film and the graphic novel, is the screenplay that they're working on within the story that they're researching. There's the world of his screenplay, which is set in the year 2024. I have a big ambitious plan for what we could do with it. It involves animation for the 2008 element, additional 2008 elements of the story, and then potentially live-action for the 2024 elements of the story.

Should that ever come to fruition, there would be time to put the whole thing together because it's such a complex project with a lot of moving parts and different methods of production mixed together. I've also discovered a lot of new story material that even goes beyond what I wrote in the graphic novel that I think is exciting, and I think it's all working, and I think it would even be very surprising to people who are diehard fans of the film, who think they've seen everything. I think it would be a worthy endeavor to do something big with it.


Check back next week for part two of our interview with Richard Kelly.