What’s harder than making a first movie? Making a second one.
After the colossal cult success of Donnie Darko, idiosyncratic filmmaker Richard Kelly followed it up with a massive swing. Southland Tales, released in theaters in the summer of 2007, is a sprawling, complicated, genre-hopping, star-studded story of dystopia, conspiracy, political activism, Hollywood satire, and just maybe the saving of this dang world. The eclectic cast, including Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott, Justin Timberlake, Mandy Moore, Wallace Shawn, Bai Ling, Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, Nora Dunn, Jon Lovitz, Christopher Lambert, Zelda Rubinstein, John Larroquette, Wood Harris, and Kevin Smith in some surreal makeup, commit hard to the film’s sci-fi shenanigans, violent screwball setpieces, and scarily prescient comments on how modern society’s dysfunctions.
Its response was… interesting. Kelly premiered an admittedly unfinished, 160 minute-long cut at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, where it was greeted with massive boos and immediate notoriety. Sony bought the distribution rights and threw it into only 50 theaters nationwide the following year, where it failed to recoup its budget and earned some pretty damning reviews. Since then, Kelly has only directed one other theatrically-released feature film, 2009’s The Box (a similarly strange, personal take on otherwise familiar genre tropes).
Despite all this — in fact, more likely because of all this — Southland Tales has become something of a beloved cult object itself (I loved it then; I love it more now), with Kelly himself continuing to expand the universe with a series of graphic novels, and a public desire to finish the world in a cinematic setting again. In fact, it’s so beloved and so worth paying attention to that Arrow, the producer of many a beautiful Blu-ray package, is putting out a special edition of the film on January 26, including the longer (and in my eye superior!) Cannes cut for public consumption.
In celebration of this home video re-deification, I spoke with Kelly over the phone to unpack all things Southland Tales — or at least as much as we could over 20 minutes (to get into every nook and cranny of the film would take longer than its runtime). We talked about the inception of the film’s many storylines, how it metatextually comments on his career post-Donnie Darko, the need to play absurdity straight for comedy, the joys of working with such a wonderful cast (especially Johnson), how he reckons with that horrid Cannes screening now, and much, much more.
COLLIDER: In Southland Tales, there’s a lot of different storylines, a lot of different threads, a lot different subplots. What was the first idea or the first spark that came to you? What inspired you?
RICHARD KELLY: Well, it was all the way back to 2001. We had premiered Donnie Darko at Sundance almost 20 years ago to this day, which is insane to think. And no one wanted to buy the movie. It was a very poor reception at the festival, and things were looking really grim. We had not yet been rescued by Aaron Ryder and Christopher Nolan and his wife [Emma] who helped us get distribution with Newmarket Films. I was feeling really depressed and I thought my career was over. And so I started writing two comedy scripts to cheer myself up. The first one was Bessie, a script about an upright, walking, genetically mutated cow. And the second script was Southland Tales.
The first draft of Southland Tales was kind of like a Big Lebowski-type LA crime caper about a group of struggling actors in Venice Beach who plan to extort money from this deranged movie star by staging a shooting while he’s on a police ride along research trip. And then they were going to extort money from him, and then it all goes to hell. And it ended with a blimp exploding over Los Angeles like the Hindenburg. That was the original draft, basically. The kind of basic architecture of the plot was there. And I think that the Hindenburg explosion was me feeling like, “That’s my career, and the Hindenburg is Donnie Darko, and the distribution and apparatus of Hollywood just shot my movie down with a rocket launcher.” [laughter] It was a fun script. It was a very angry, kind of an absurd comedy about Los Angeles people and Hollywood.
So then I think after 9/11 and Donnie Darko being released and then having its second wind, and me getting some second wind in my career, I worked on a project called Knowing. It almost went forward at Fox Searchlight, but it fell apart over budget and foreign distribution rights, and people just thought it was too expensive. So I had to back away from that project that went on to get made with Alex Proyas and Nicolas Cage at a much bigger budget several years later. I moved on to revisiting Southland Tales and I started injecting a lot more dystopian politics, religion, and science fiction into this caper story that I felt didn’t quite justify its existence without more ambition injected into it. So I just set upon really doing something much, much bigger, this magnum opus. It felt more inspired by Philip K. Dick and Thomas Pynchon and Raymond Chandler and Kiss Me Deadly, all the kind of references that you see littered throughout the film. And it just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and it kept evolving and blossoming.
There’s one key component to the Hollywood satire of the movie; I wondered if it was autobiographical, or even self-loathing or deprecating. The way you characterize The Rock, having written this mad genius screenplay that tells the tale of how the world ends in this serious manner. Is that you clowning on yourself, talking about yourself?
KELLY: [laughter] Yeah, maybe, yeah. I think I knew when we were making the film, I knew I was very cognizant of the fact that I had bitten off more than I could chew, and that was why I started working on the graphic novel prequels as kind of a contingency plan. [I was] thinking, “If I never get this finished, and I know I’m really never going to get enough visual effects money, I’m never going to probably get this to the finish line.” [I] was sort of in the back of my mind thinking, “This project is probably doomed to failure.” We had raised $17.8 million and we had this enormous cast and we had Dwayne Johnson and we had all of these actors. So I was like, “You know what? No one is going to lose their house or go bankrupt if this movie fails. We’re being pretty responsible, I think, for the quality of what we’re putting on the screen with all of this talent, and it’s a long shot.” I was kind of aware of the likelihood of failure while we were making it, but I was still, as I’m prone to do, [trying] to push against the grain and [trying] to prove maybe we can pull off the impossible or that we can achieve something that people are skeptical about. So yeah, there was definitely an awareness of the screenplay, the meta-screenplay within the story, being maybe not only self-referential, but also it’s actually a quite important part of the expanded Southland Tales universe, should it ever be fully realized. Boxer and Christa’s screenplay is actually significant to the whole thing. It’s a whole new futuristic reality beyond the 2008 events in the story.
Let’s talk about this deep bench of talent, this cast you acquired. It’s wild. It’s surreal. Walk me through the process of securing this cast, of describing it to these actors. Did people audition for it? Were there offers? Did you show people Donnie Darko?
KELLY: I had a wonderful casting director in Mary Vernieu and Venus Kanani, her collaborator. They’re some of the very best in the business, and Mary has a very wide palette. She can cast any kind of movie, she’s not afraid of any kind of wild risk-taking. I saw our concept [rather than types] in casting this movie; I was so excited to work with all of these people. The mandate almost was like that no one is off limits, or no one should be left off any list, for any role. We were aggressively reaching out into the world of pop culture and sketch comedy and eighties cult films, anyone who had established an identity in cinema or in television or in pop culture as sort of a defined personality, or someone who made you laugh, or made you giggle, or make made you feel a warm sense of nostalgia for something from your childhood. Those were all the things we were reaching for, and I knew that bringing all of them together under this sort of tonal blanket of seriousness — I mean, it is a bonkers comedy film, but the mandate was for everyone to play it straight, to play it as though all the characters had dignity, and they were all trying to achieve something very specific, and they all had an agenda. They were all passionate about their agenda; they all were kind of political activists. All the characters, in their own way in the story, were struggling or pursuing something.
I just said to all the actors, “I know you might not understand what I’m trying to do and you can’t maybe put together the crazy big picture, ’cause I’m still figuring it out, but this is what your character is trying to achieve. This is what your character wants. You take it seriously. You’re passionate about it. And if it’s funny, it will be because you’re taking it so seriously.” That was kind of the mandate to all the actors. So I was trying to get them all on the same wavelength, because I wanted the project to have [a] kind of dignity in the sense that as absurd or pathetic or ridiculous as some of the characters’ motivations are, part of the comedy is that all the characters believed in what they were trying to do. I felt like the project would work if everyone just believed in it.
Everyone was coming in and out. It was such a crazy set where you’d have a new, exciting face show up on a certain day, and then you’d have another exciting face showing up. It was just such a whirlwind. We shot the movie in like 27, 28 days, you know? Everything we did, every stunt or squib or action piece that we did: One take. [laughter] One take and that’s it. We were in all these really expensive locations all over LA. And we just had $17.8 million, so we knew what we were doing was a once in a lifetime chance, and even at the risk of failure, I just felt so excited that we had gotten the opportunity to do something so wild.
There’s one performer I want to touch on: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He’s so good in this movie, so committed.
KELLY: Yes! Yes.
I have a general question about him, and a specific question. My general question is, how do you feel this performance fits in with his overall screen legacy? My specific question is, who came up with that delightful “fingers tapping together” motion that he does throughout the film?
KELLY: With regard to the fingers, I remember that being all Dwayne. I think when he did it for the first time, I just lit up and I was like, “Keep doing that!” That’s the signifier for when Boxer is edging into a potential schizoid embolism, and he’s becoming Jericho Cane. [laughter] Where he switches from the Ralph Meeker, Kiss Me Deadly macho detective into a very childlike 10-year-old boy, almost like he was terrified. That was Dwayne doing all of his wonderful, very laser-precision physical acting, because any physical acrobatic thing that you ask him to do, he will figure out how to do. Any tiny, minuscule movement of part of his face, he can do so much without even saying a word. I think of Jim Carrey, I think of all kinds of people who can push the limits of acting. And so, that was all Dwayne, and me pushing him and figuring out architecture for all of it, and the complexity of the character and the schizophrenic nature of his character.
As to how it fits into his whole body of work, I’m biased, obviously. I love so many of his performances, but I’m just so proud that we were able to kind of push the envelope and get him to take all of these risks. There was a definite architecture and planning to all the risks that we were taking, and I was with him. I think that he has such great comedic chops in so many of the comedic roles that he’s played throughout his subsequent career. I think of any of the roles where he can become more unhinged, or where he can play in a much bigger emotional sandbox and do crazier stuff, he can manage it. He’s really good at managing extremes because of his physical presence. And I think it comes back to all the work and the training he did in the pro wrestling ring. Going back to 2006 when we went to Cannes, there were people who would be condescending or not take that kind of training ground seriously, but I thought it was a wonderful training ground for Dwayne as an actor. I think all of those years in the pro wrestling ring prepared him to do anything. It’s like the best sketch/improv you can imagine mixed with precision acrobatics. I can’t imagine a better training ground than a wrestling ring. There was no one who could have played Boxer Santaros and Jericho Cane, the dual split personality, except for him. The movie never would have happened without Dwayne. It was just a wonderful opportunity.
You brought it up; I did want to touch on the Cannes screening of Southland Tales. I’ve heard it didn’t go so hot, to put it lightly. Looking back on it, can you put yourself back into the emotional place of seeing how the audience reacts? What is your reflection on that? What did it feel like then versus now? How are you reckoning with that?
KELLY: I joke with people that Cannes was like the first Alien, and sometimes I wake up like in Aliens, the James Cameron sequel, when Ripley wakes up from the nightmare and she calls Burke and she’s like, “You’re going back to wipe them out, not to study, but to wipe them out.” [laughter] I feel like Ripley in Aliens, like I have to go and wipe those memories out because, yes, it was traumatizing like the first Alien, but it was also a great thrill ride to get to go to Cannes at age 30, to get included in that competition, to see Dwayne Johnson on the red carpet. I was so proud that we got the movie in competition. They included us. We were probably doomed to fail, it was not finished, we did not have enough money to even come close to finishing it. We went with the best we could. But even if we had, like, another million in visual effects and more time to work on the edit, I don’t know if the reception would have been any better. I think it was the best thing to ever happen to a movie and the worst thing to ever happen to it, and I’ll just take it. But when I have those nightmares where I wake up like Ripley in Aliens, I think there’s still another great movie to potentially be made. I don’t know. I’ve been working on a lot more, there’s a lot more material, the graphic novels, and there’s a much bigger version of Southland Tales that could exist. I think I’ve really cracked a really exciting kind of plan for pulling it off. Maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t happen, but I feel really good throughout the whole lockdown and this past year at all the work I’ve done on it. I think there’s something really big and exciting that we can pull off with it. But either way, I’m at peace with it, and I feel really proud of what we’ve accomplished with the film. It still is not finished, anywhere close to being finished in my mind or fully realized, but that’s true for a lot of movies.
If you could get a blank check for any film or television project tomorrow, what would you want to tackle?
KELLY: Well, first I’d want to finish Southland Tales. [laughter] Honestly? That’s my answer. Beyond that, I’ve got about 10 projects in my warchest that I’ve been working on. I’ve been so busy writing. I could have directed a lot of movies over the past, God knows how many years it’s been, but I’ve come close on a lot of things. It’s a challenging market to do the kind of things that I want to do. I feel like I need to be operating at a scale that’s at least at the level of my first film, and the ambition and the complexity of my first film. It’s just the sort of benchmark that I have set for myself, and what makes me excited and what makes me feel like I’m confident, that I’m challenging myself and I’m challenging the audience. I think that we’re entering into a whole new world with the streaming revolution, and the landscape is changing, and the floodgates are finally starting to open. If one of these things that I’ve been working on moves forward, hopefully I’ll figure out a way to just continue to be directing. Then all just writing will have paid off. ‘Cause there’s [been] a lot of writing and a lot of work. I have not been idle. I haven’t just been sitting on my ass staring at Twitter all day. Maybe part of my day, but not all of it.
Southland Tales comes to a special edition Arrow blu-ray January 26, 2021.
“There was always a happy ending planned.”
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