Q&A: Richard Kelly

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Six years ago, Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko seemed to come out of nowhere. I happened to see The Onion AV Club's review, was blown away in a mostly-empty theater, and then heard nothing about it for years. Its blend of suburban satire, family tragedy, humor and time travel was too weird for multiplexes, but God, it was good — pitch-perfect in its late-'80s setting, rich with the terror and absurdity of adolescence. Far from the glib teen movies that flattened it at the box office, it captured teenagers honestly, in all their cruelty and compassion. In retrospect, the cult following it developed seems inevitable.

Kelly's fans — this one included — waited years for a follow-up. Buzz surrounded the production of Southland Tales, said to be a post-apocalyptic satire starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott and Justin Timberlake. But when the film premiered at Cannes last year, it was savaged. Kelly returned to the lab, cutting twenty minutes and adding a million dollars of special effects. Southland Tales follows Boxer Santaros (Johnson), an action star who wakes up with amnesia after being lost in the desert. He's been rescued by Krysta Now (Gellar), a dippy porn star; together they cook up a screenplay that seems to predict the end of the world. Meanwhile, Roland Taverner (Scott) impersonates his twin brother Ronald, a group of "neo-Marxists" (including Cheri Oteri and Amy Poehler) plot an overthrow of the repressive government, and an evil German baron (Wallace Shawn) does… something. Watching over all is Pilot Abilene (Timberlake), who provides narration, including the fifteen-minute block that opens the film.

There's more — a lot more — but it's never clear why; I saw it last week, eager to love it, and I hated it. It is astoundingly misguided, a muddle of half-baked ideas, undeveloped characters and plots that go nowhere. I hated it so much that I almost think you should see it. This is the kind of movie that divides people. Its defenders will be as loud as its critics will be plentiful.

Kelly took such a pummeling in France that he seems to have developed a thick skin; he took my hostile questioning without batting an eye. "Just don't make me look like an asshole," he told me, and he is anything but — gracious, funny and thoughtful. But between Southland Tales and the 2005 Director's Cut of Donnie Darko, which spells out everything the original cut left evocative and mysterious, Kelly may not know his strengths. On the phone with me, he's almost blase about what he, to my mind, does best. That makes his work frustrating, but also pleasingly unpredictable. Whatever my feelings about Southland Tales, I'm eager to see what he does next. — Peter Malamud Smith

This film got a brutal response when you first showed it. Do you feel it's successful?
I'm very happy with it, and very confident that it'll stand up over time.

You've talked about being influenced by Peter Weir, the way he combines satire with grounded emotional reality. I felt that emotional reality was missing from Southland Tales.
Well, it's a heightened reality, and it's certainly an absurd kind of fever dream. I had all the actors playing it straight, playing it with dignity.

Which of the characters do you feel most sympathetic to?
Seann William Scott — he accidentally disfigured his best friend, and his living with that torment, that's central. Ultimately the idea at the end of the film is the idea of salvation, and if Seann William Scott's character can't learn to forgive himself, then the world won't be saved. It's trying to take this pop sci-fi dream and ground it in the central idea of one of our Iraq veterans becoming a messiah.

So you see him as the central character.
In a way. Dwayne is like the decoy for the fact that Seann is the key to the apocalypse.

What's your philosophy on casting? You could probably have worked with anyone in Hollywood after Donnie Darko , and I doubt this is the cast anyone would've predicted you'd seek out.
It's the darkest of dark subject matter, but I wanted it to be like a party. If your birthday was July 4th and the world was going to end the next day, who would you want at your birthday party? And this was sort of the group of people I came up with. I love Saturday Night Live.

You sometimes cite David Lynch as an influence, and he's often vague on plot, but very concerned with emotional ambience. I got a lot of emotional ambience from Donnie Darko, and less from Southland Tales.
There's a very elaborate plot orchestration in this film. Moby is sort of the beating heart of this movie in terms of his score. It all weaves together in my mind, I think cause I've seen it so many times. Maybe because my colleagues and I, who've worked on the film for so long, have seen it so many times, we can see the film in hindsight, as opposed to seeing it in the immediate aftermath of a first viewing.

Do you think the prequel comics are necessary to fully appreciate it?
I think they certainly help, but I think it can exist on its own. Basically it's this mystery of what happened in the desert to Boxer, and to Roland and Ronald, and even to Krysta, and the first three chapters are all about what happened out in the desert.

The movie expresses a lot of anger about contemporary politics and culture, but the leftist characters seem just as misguided as the rightist ones.
I created the neo-Marxist characters to make fun of myself. I'm the angry liberal who feels disenfranchised and frustrated, and I didn't want to be critical of the right until I could be critical of myself first. Part of the problem is that we can't engage in a diplomatic discussion between the right and the left — it's all vitriol and personal attacks and stuff. I'm delving into dangerous territory in this film. When you talk about politics and religion and pop culture, you run the risk of alienating people, and I'm just trying to do it with as much humor as possible.

Let's talk about Donnie Darko for a minute. What I love about it is the charisma of the characters, the honesty of the characterizations — this is not a sappy-sweet family, but not a glibly dysfunctional one either. Donnie's smart and well-meaning, but he's not perfect. That was very well balanced, very carefully done. But in your commentary, you seem very focused on the time-travel cosmology. That was the genesis of the story, not the interpersonal dynamics.
Well, the interpersonal stuff is sort of like a no-brainer. I'm always going to try to make it be that way. I'll always attempt emotional authenticity. But it's the plot mechanics that I'll start with.

Do you think the audience can infer the time-travel mechanics from what's actually on screen in Donnie Darko?
In any time-travel movie you're dealing with a paradox, you're dealing with something that's beyond comprehension. The human brain can't wrap itself around the fourth dimension. That's what's so endlessly fascinating about time travel. I could make a hundred movies about time travel, but my producing partners said no more. Two is enough, we need to move on. [laughs]

Do you prefer the "Director's Cut" to the original cut?
I do, and I know there's people who prefer the original, but for me, I need to know what's in the time-travel book, and I need to see what it all does, and I feel like it was always my intention to make a more optimistic version of the film.

Where are you going from here?
You'll probably like the movie I'm about to do better, because it's much more rooted in family dynamics and emotional dynamics, like Donnie Darko was.

Thanks for being such a good sport.
[Laughs] No, that's all right! It's all good. I'd love it if you'd give it a second look at some point — maybe you'll see more of what I'm talking about.


©2007 Peter Malamud Smith & Nerve.com