Director Richard Kelly Is Playing The Long Game – Here's What He's Working On Now [Interview]

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Donnie Darko. Although not a box-office success, it didn't take long for the cult film and director Richard Kelly to find a devoted audience. The filmmaker struck a strong chord with his debut, which had an obsessive quality about it. That overwhelming sense of obsession continued to run deep in Kelly's movies, including Southland Tales and The Box.

They're typically dense pieces of work demanding discussion and repeat viewings. Even with only three directorial efforts, we have a strong sense of who Kelly is – an always ambitious and polarizing storyteller. He never goes down the middle of the road, which has led to long waits between each of his movies. It's been almost 12 years since we saw the director's last film, The Box, which was a loose adaptation of a Richard Matheson short story. In that time, Kelly has been writing like mad and trying to push rocks up a hill.

Recently, Kelly told us about the projects he's been developing and his unconventional career.

Obviously making movies is not easy, but with the movies you make, you've taken an especially difficult path as a filmmaker.

Do you mean, do you mean that path also known as the path of most resistance? The path of poverty and frustration?

[Laughs] To an extent. 

I got very blessed at a very, very young age to start doing this, to direct my first movie at 24 years old. So, that's a blessing that few people receive. To get to direct three movies by the time I'm barely into my thirties, that's not something that I'm going to take for granted, and at the same time, I realized that I kind of have to plan for the rest of my life and the rest of my career, and I have to decide how to best spend my time. Whether that's directing a very low budget, traditional genre film, or spending all my resources, investing and just building an arsenal of writing projects and investing my time in writing.

I keep pursuing these original personal films as I'm banking more writing. It's a process, but again, it's an investment in the long-term in the rest of my career and making sure, hopefully, that I'm able to direct into my senior years until I collapsed one day on set.

As you said, it is such a privilege having made three movies, but when you were 24, what were your career ambitions?

Well, I'm always one of those people who feels like I need to be the author of something from the ground up. I felt that way from the very beginning. When you're starting that young, I think you feel like you're going to only get one shot to direct, and if you don't do a good job the first time, you'll never get another chance because it's such a hard opportunity to come by. Back then in the year 2000, movies were very expensive to make. Even the low-budget movies were expensive to a degree. Nowadays, you could shoot a movie on an iPhone.

So back then it was the cost associated with making a feature film was significant. I just felt after all the obstacles we overcame, there was a time after the first movie premiered at Sundance that I thought, it's over. It's going to get flushed down into the streets and video pipeline where it won't even be reviewed by papers and blasted. There was a dark five minutes after Sundance where I thought it was all over. So when I got a chance to do my second film and take another big swing, I figured, okay, well, I've got a chance here. Let me take one more big swing and see what we can do.

So, that's a risk, but at the end of the day, I'm very proud of the risk that we took back in 2005 with Southland Tales. I don't know, I'm just not the kind of person who really knows how to jump into someone else's franchise or something that's preexisting. I'm not sure if I would ever feel happy or content doing that. I'm just focused on trying to build my own universe, for better or for worse, then see what happens with it.

What about as a writer? Have you done much work for hire writing gigs? 

I have done some, yeah. I've done some stuff here and there. I've done work on screenplays that have been made into movies that my name isn't on. I've done a lot of writing on projects that are in the planning stages or the development stages, they are set up at the various studios, and I've been working on a lot of long-form projects, like big, very elaborate long-form stuff. I did a lot of that over the past few years and planning for my future in the sense that with the versioning streaming, I don't want to call it a streaming revolution as opposed to a streaming reality, that's the way. This is the way the world is going to continue.

That's a very Richard Kelly way of putting it.

[Laughs] Right, well, that's our reality. In the past year with COVID, we will still have movie theaters to go back to, but it's childish to think that it's ever going to be exactly what it was, and I think we were always headed down this path, but with these big tech companies and streaming platforms, I'm trying to look at the sunny side of it and the opportunities that it can afford us to tell longer stories to expand the scope of what a feature film is and continue to navigate this gray area between television and film.

I think that is very exciting. I think there's a lot of positive and exciting things that are happening with the way that we can platform stories, particularly my material. It just overflows and it is hard to contain some of these stories in two, two and a half hours. It's challenging and it's hard to navigate the traditional theatrical distribution apparatus. So, I've been sort of just banking a lot of material in this window that we have, this exciting window of streaming, and what the future holds.

What is your relationship with major studios when you have an original project to pitch? How receptive are they?

If the stuff that I've been working on in the feature films side, always, it tends to fall in that budget range that is really challenging, where it's somewhere between 12 and 20 million. It's even the budget for my future films stuff, so that puts me in this very challenging place. That market has been shrinking and shrinking out of existence, and the streamers have been picking up the slack and financing those kinds of films. There's been a lot of that I've been working on and there's been a lot of false starts and roadblocks that have happened. I could have easily taken many, many detours and just done something much smaller in the genre space and something contained.

It's thinking about the long game, as opposed to the instant gratification of something really small and quick, which believe me, that could be fun, and it's been very tempting, but I guess I've just been just preoccupied with the long game of it all. Then, there's the COVID lockdown and all that comes with that.

How many scripts or projects do you have that are ready to go?

Oh gosh, there are probably 10. They're in various stages. Some things I'll leave behind and I'll abandon and then I'll revisit, but there's an enormous amount of material, and that's just on the future films side. There's a lot of the long-form stuff over the past four or five years that's really taking up a lot of my energy because that's more of a rewarding place to be working when you can tell an ongoing story or a story that doesn't have to be contained as the feature film world. So yeah, it's a lot. An enormous amount of stuff.

Have you ever written a novel or considered adapting a script into a novel? 

I have thought about it, but no, the second I think of doing that, I mentally think about readapting it back into a screenplay [Laughs]. The answer to your question is instead of writing a novel, I've been working on long-form multi-episode narratives. So that's my version of a novel, writing eight hours of screenplay material. Eight episodes of something. I still want to write a novel, it's on my bucket list and things to do, but I figure if I make it to my senior years.

I see what Tarantino did, I haven't read what he's done, but adapting Once Upon a Time in Hollywood into a paperback, that that's really cool. On several projects, even with the Southland Tales expanded universe, if that does happen, if we can make that happen, or if on one of these other projects happen, I could definitely see doing a companion book. I love what David Lynch and Mark Frost did with the Twin Peaks books. I can see a lot of that happening, like companion books that have a novelistic or an unconventional novel approach.

When you're not writing scripts or working on projects, what other creative outlets do you have? Do you paint or do photography?

I do an enormous amount of photography with my iPhone. There's actually, on a lot of these projects, there's an enormous amount of pre-production work that's been done. Pre-visualization, there are storyboards, photo essays, there's an enormous amount of visual pre-production and a lot of these projects have been in advanced stages of pre-production. I'm constantly running around with my camera and shooting stuff.

Even with the opportunities to do commercials and music videos, I've flirted with a little bit of that, but it's just, again, when I'm working on all of these things, it becomes more of a distraction. So, my visual eye has been constantly exercised. I'm more excited than ever to actually be directing again, and that's a muscle that remains set and charged and ready to go.

There hasn't been any trepidation on my part. I want to make sure I have all the resources. For me to go and do a music video or to do a commercial, it's a kind of a distraction that seems counterintuitive to all work that I've been doing. So yeah, all the visuals and things, and a vast reservoir of visuals that I've been working on, I'm just trying to stay focused on the war chest.

Your first commercial studio movie was The Box, which wasn't the most commercial movie. How was your experience with Warner Bros.? What were your expectations for that film?

Yeah, we knew that it was going to be a challenge, given I was blessed to have Warner Bros. behind the movie. It was an incredibly responsibly budgeted movie, I think for what we were able to achieve on screen and we knew we had a concept that we could sell and a conceptual hook and everything.

It was very much rooted in my love for The Twilight Zone and my love for Richard Matheson in the original short story. We knew that it was going to be a bit of a mind fuck for people to experience, and we knew that the ending was kind of tragic and upsetting in a way that a lot of episodes of The Twilight Zone concluded. I think that the hope was that conceptually we can sell the concept that Matheson put together.

It wasn't an easy concept to even solve. It was like trying to solve an existential algebra equation. There was the chicken or the egg existential quandary at the epicenter of that story with pushing a button. It was kind of an impossible riddle to solve. So, there were always going to be challenges with that project, but we went for it. I think there were probably 10 to 15 minutes they could go back into that movie and some big elaborate stuff.

I think those minutes make it easier to comprehend it in a way, but it also makes it a little bit more uplifting. It doesn't make the ending quite as upsetting. There's more of a spiritual component to some of the material that got cut out of that film. I think all these years later, people are more open-minded to narratives that are more unconventional. I feel like the world has gone so crazy that the movies are getting a little bit more leeway to be more unconventional and not necessarily as test-marketed and shaped by test screenings. I guess they'll always exist to a certain degree, but I don't know. I feel like the audience is wising up to that a little bit and is ready to take some more risks.

It's been almost 12 years since The Box came out. People have a strong idea of what a Richard Kelly movie is, but with your next projects, how do you want to continue to grow? 

Well, really it's continuing to tell big stories that are big and complex and if you can get lost inside of and where you want to experience them over and over again. Again, I could have done something really simple and just really contained, but I've been investing in the future and it's enormously frustrating that it's taking this long. I'm probably much more frustrated than anyone who's a fan of my work because I want all this stuff to happen immediately, but there are a lot of roadblocks and a lot of hurdles and I try to stay positive. I feel like I have enough writing in the bank for at least a decade. As frustrating as it has been, and as excruciating as it can be at times, I'm hopeful that it will all pay off where I can continue making my personal stories in an ideal situation.

Have you ever tried doing a Phillip K. Dick adaptation? I feel like Southland Tales in its own weird way is a Philip K. Dick movie.

Yes. Well, that's kind of where Southland Tales came from. I was trying to get Donnie Darko off the ground, I was making all the rounds and getting offered writing job and stuff. Chad Hope and Marco Brambilla, the director of Demolition Man and Excess Baggage, and an enormous amount of commercial art installation, they came to me with "Flow My Tears." I was going to adapt "Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said," and I don't think we could get it set up anywhere. I think I got 20 yards off the ground and it never came together.

I had written all these outlines and these pitch materials on that for Chad and Marco. I don't know, there was something about that book and the shifting of identity and just to Southern California, near future, drug-fueled landscape, a lot of that went into my vision for Southland Tales. I even had Jon Lovett in a sequence in the second chapter of the three chapters in Southland Tales, he says, "Flow my tears." So that was my nod, direct nod to that novel in the movie.

Is he difficult to adapt? I recently interviewed Richard Linklater, who also wanted to make "Ubik," but he mentioned that story and other Dick novels have been copied and pasted so many times, making it even more challenging. 

Yeah, his books are just a fountain of overflowing ideas and if anything, I probably should have given him a special thanks at the end credits in Southland Tales. I borrowed a lot from him and I took so much inspiration from him. I loved what Richard Linklater did with A Scanner Darkly, and even what I hope to do with Southland Tales, with the expanded version, there is an animated element and there's a live-action element.

I thought the animation that Linklater did with A Scanner Darkly was beautiful. I think that technology in particular is something that I've been tracking and monitoring, in terms of how you can convert the actors and their performances into animation, and in an affordable, responsible way. That technology is something that has evolved significantly, and I'm really excited by that because it was always in the long-term plans. What Linklater did with A Scanner Darkly is definitely a model, and that was, gosh, that was 15 years ago. So again, technology can be a wonderful gift for filmmakers and it's a whole different world today.


Southland Tales is now available on Blu-ray from Arrow Films.