Catching Up With... Richard Kelly

Movies Features Richard Kelly
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Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko went from a flop at the box office to cult hit in just a few short years.

That feature's eventual success lead him to funding for his next film, Southland Tales, about an energy-cartel conspiracy that's causing the end of the world.

The film received decidedly mixed reviews at its premier at Cannes in 2006, and since then, Kelly has been working on re-editing the picture and finishing its effects shots. As of last week, Southland Tales is in theaters, though like Darko before it, in a very limited initial release. Paste spoke with Kelly about the backlash from Cannes, why he likes to do sci-fi films and his problems with the music industry.

Paste : What exactly happened at Cannes? What's the difference between what you showed there and what will be seen in theaters?
Richard Kelly: What we had at Cannes, which was not finished and not ready, was 2:43 and the end running time now is 2:24. So it was only 19 minutes. I’m very happy with where we have it now.

P:So will there be a director's cut coming that incorporates the removed material in the same way you did Donnie Darko?
Kelly: Yeah, I’ll do a longer cut. It probably won’t be that much longer, maybe 10, maybe 15 minutes back in. But it’ll be good that I’ll have time to digest it. Janeane Garofolo’s part unfortunately got cut as well a lot more stuff with Kevin Smith. The really trippy sci-fi stuff that definitely would not connect with a more general audience, that would be for hardcore sci-fi fans, some of that stuff got cut out. I think I’d put a bit more of that back in, and I’d love to get Janeane’s subplot back in. Her character’s in the graphic novels and she’s in Santa Monica Pier monitoring the machine in the ocean and what the machine is doing to the ocean, what effect it’s having on the environment. She’s basically freaking out, figuring out what’s happening on a metaphysical level. She’s on her earpiece with Kevin Smith throughout a lot of this and it got cut. There’s a couple other really cool scenes. I’m OK with it because I think the movie operates well the way we have it now, but we’ll see down the road.

P: So why did you show the incomplete cut to Cannes in the first place?
Kelly: We sent them a rough cut DVD thinking that there was a 1/1000 chance of ever getting into the festival because the movie was in such rough shape. They came back, “We love it, we want to nominate you for the Palm d’Or.” We were like, “Holy crap. This is such a huge honor...we can’t turn this down." So we just stopped editing, had to go with the cut we had and tried to finish the visual effects and we couldn’t even finish those on time. In the end it was a very painful experience on a lot of levels. It was scary — we thought maybe the movie wouldn’t survive it, and we’d have to cut like an hour out of it or something crazy like that. But in the end, the movie was better off because of it, because we did our best to cross the finish line in a sprint. We spent over a year working on it since Cannes. Not just editorial - we added over 100 visual effects since Cannes that weren’t finished. Sony gave us more money; they believed in it.

P: Has switching from working independently to working with a studio affected your work?
Kelly: We’re in advanced negotiations with a studio on The Box right now. I would love to be able to work within the studio system within my parameters — as long as they get me. Darko made a lot of money on DVD which helped me, Southland Tales can hopefully make a lot of money in the theaters. I hope it can be with the studios like, “OK his stuff is weird, and maybe a little bit inaccessible, but enough people like it so we’ll give the guy X amount of money.” So long as it’s enough for me to keep doing what I want to do. I don’t know if I ever want to make a really, really, really, big budget film, because the bigger the budget, the more restrictions they put on you to try to reach a wider audience. So, a long-winded answer to your question, but I’d love to work with the studios because you have guaranteed distribution and you have a massive corporation that can put your movie on 3000 screens.

P: How important is it that this movie be an immediate success in the way Darko wasn't?
Kelly: Everything nowadays is the per-screen average on opening weekend. The arthouse distribution game is tougher than ever because there are so many distributors, and if you don’t get a high per-screen average that first week, you’re toast and they don’t expand it. It’s all about that opening weekend, and we’ll see what happens. I would love it if this would connect in theaters and stick around, and Golan’s really excited and they’re optimistic and Sony’s obviously supporting Golan in doing this. Either way, DVD is a great thing because people watch movies on their laptops now, people watch them on their iPod. I can’t imagine watching a movie on your cell phone; that’s kind of depressing. I can’t wait to see it on Blu Ray, too.

Paste : Do you plan on incorporating time travel into your next feature, The Box, as well?
Kelly: [laughing] I’m leaving that subject behind now, moving on to other subjects.

P: But your next film is still science fiction?
Kelly: Certainly there is an element of science fiction in The Box. Sometimes I think that there will always be an element of science fiction with me… Even if I do a romantic comedy, I’ll have someone teleporting or something.

P: Why is that? It's a genre most serious directors don't work with.
Kelly: I’m kidding about putting it in every movie. I think it’s a fascination with the unknown and my favorite writer growing up — Phillip K. Dick. I’ve always thought David Lynch is a science-fiction filmmaker. I think all of his films are science-fiction films, even The Straight Story, which is arguably his least science-fiction film. There’s a metaphysical thing going to the way he tells stories, the metaphysical relationship between people and dimensions - I feel that it’s science fiction. I think science fiction is also a great outlet to delve into speculative fiction, which gets into political satire. What Philip K. Dick was doing was pontificating on where we might be headed in this country, where the world might be headed.

P: Why did you decide to make Southland Tales a satire on the future?
Kelly: They say never talk about religion or politics at a cocktail party because you’re going to ruin the fun and everyone’s going to get into an argument and it’s going to turn nasty. Which is a fairly accurate assessment - you know everyone has that one friend who when he gets a few drinks into him wants to talk about religion? And you’re like, “Enough, change the subject.” I figured if you’re going to do that in a movie, use humor as a delivery mechanism. I’m a liberal and I’ve always voted Democrat, when I finally got my head out of my ass and started voting, but I try to look at extremism on both sides and make fun of myself as being a liberal extremist, a neo-Marxist.

Having all these great comedians from SNL to come in - to me that kind of Venice Beach Bohemian spirit of the struggling stand-up comedian. I feel that these are all people who are my kin. I used to live in Venice Beach for like five years so I could have become any of these people. I definitely identify with the neo-Marxists and feel like I’m one of them in a way. I don’t own a gun though - at least not yet.

P: How did you come about casting Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as the film's lead?
Kelly: That was the hardest role to cast. The role is basically a movie star who self-destructs and becomes schizophrenic and gets involved in this elaborate conspiracy. For a long time we couldn’t figure out the right person for the role and there’s no money in the role, and a lot of big actors aren’t interested in deconstructing their persona on the screen. It’s a little dangerous to trust a filmmaker to allow you to deconstruct yourself and split you in two. Dwayne was like “Sign me up.” He was just ready to go. It was the right moment, the right time and the film needed him. Now I’m like, "God, no one else could’ve played this role because he’s such a charismatic guy." He’s so smart and such a nice person. He sort of fit the bill as this perfect specimen that everyone’s obsessing over.

P: Very specific music plays such a strong role in Southland Tales. Did you decide on the songs before you started filming?
Kelly: Yeah, when I heard the surf rock version of "Wave of Mutilation," I was like, “That’s in the film.” I’ve always been obsessed with "Three Days" by Jane’s Addiction, and it’s like the last three days. There’s a pull quote from that song, “we saw the shadows of the morning of light,” they keep repeating. To me, when shadows and light are one, that’s the universe collapsing. And then, “Oh My Angel” in that diner scene with Shawn and Dwayne, you realize that it’s talking about the second coming and the messiah in that way. Obviously my first lyric credit on a song was “Teen Horniness is Not a Crime.” Sara was a good sport doing the lyrics for that. Because she doesn’t want to be a singer (she has no aspirations to sing), and she came in and did it, and it was like a 14-year old getting a root canal.

I’m so excited that we got a soundtrack deal. Today the music industry is in the toilet, and pretty soon these are not even going to exist anymore [gesturing to the copy of Southland Tales’ soundtrack Kelly received right before the interview], and the fact that we got Elan Records to make it — they’re a great company. If the movie does well there’ll probably be a disc two, because there’s a lot of stuff that didn’t make it onto here like The Killers, Muse and stuff.

P: I'm surprised The Killers aren't on there for instance, since their song plays such a large part in the film.
Kelly: We got to like the five-yard line and there was a record label dispute. I think if this does well it’ll be on disc two.

P: The film is parts IV-VI of a series. Do you expect many people to read the comics that comprise parts I-III before seeing the film?
Kelly: My hope is that over time, if the movie builds any kind of an audience the way Darko did, that people will keep discovering the books. Then they’ll rediscover the movie. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, making those books while trying to do the movie. It almost killed me, but that which does not kill you makes you stronger, I guess. I pushed myself to the edge of my own sanity, but luckily I’m still here. I don’t know if I’d ever try to do that much again, in terms of books and a movie tied together.

P: Have you considered writing other comics not related to your films?
Kelly: Brett Weldele deserves credit. I wrote movie scripts. I delivered a 50-60 page movie script to him and said, "Hey, let’s interpret this into a graphic novel." I was hoping that they read like movies.

P: What made you turn Southland Tales into such an ensemble film, after the extremely personal Darko?
Kelly: It was the subject matter. It’s about the end of the world and the fourth dimension collapsing and maybe there’s something on the other side and maybe that’s salvation or something—it’s maybe the biggest story you can tell. You’ve got the liberal extremists, the neocons, the alternative fuel people, and then the people all caught in the middle of the conspiracy. To service that story, I felt like there needed to be that many characters. Some of my favorite film noir, like Kiss Me Deadly, which I obviously love, have all these weird loopy supporting characters that come in. The Big Lebowski, which I saw again on cable the other night, I thought, “this film ages like the best wine.” It is so brilliant, probably the best thing they’ve ever done in my opinion, one of the great comedies made. There are so many characters in The Big Lebowski. So many characters. And that’s L.A. L.A. is filled with characters, and I wanted the movie to have that deep universe you can get lost in, all of which to service this gigantic story about the end of the world.

P: Do you worry about the possibility of a sophomore slump with this film?
Kelly: Yeah, that’s why I was so ambitious with this one. I made this movie like I’d never get to make another movie again. If this is my only chance to do something big and crazy and ambitious and some might say self-indulgent, which is fine, if this is my chance, I’m going to go for it and I’m going to give it all I’ve got because I may not get this chance again. I almost wanted to prove to people that I do have a lot more to me; you never want to be perceived as a one-trick pony. It’s good for me to be starting the third one while this one is coming out, because at least I get to do a third. There might not be a fourth, but at least I get to do a third. When you’re in this town, actors are the same way; you feel like this might be the last movie you ever get to make. You might not get another chance. If not, I’ll move to Venice Beach and become a graphic designer. Or sell automatic weapons out of an ice-cream truck.