One of the surprises at this year's Fantastic Fest in Austin was the first public screening of the recut version of Southland Tales, which will be released in theaters starting in November. The film was written and directed by Richard Kelly, and a longer, unfinished version premiered at Cannes in 2006. Kelly is probably best known for his previous film, Donnie Darko, although since then he also wrote the script for Domino. Kelly attended the Fantastic Fest screening of Southland Tales, and Cinematical was able to sit down with him for a few minutes before he left Austin. (And yes, that's the actual Bone Shack sign from Planet Terror/Grindhouse that he's standing under, in the photo above.)
Cinematical: What made you decide to bring Southland Tales to Fantastic Fest?
Richard Kelly: It was Harry [Knowles, of AICN] -- Harry's been a great friend over the years. This is the first time anyone's seen the finished version, and we wanted to show it to the right audience, and at this festival people are very receptive to adventurous material. Harry had a great way of summing it up: he said it was a "science-fiction noir thriller." I love that description, because it crosses different genres. And for me, it's a comedy. We literally just finished it, and we weren't ready for Toronto -- we didn't know if Toronto was the best place, but Fantastic Fest felt right.
Cinematical: The version we saw here in Austin is the one that will be in theaters in November?
Cinematical: Southland Tales premiered at Cannes in 2006, and now it's September 2007 -- can you give us a quick timeline of what's been happening with the film since Cannes?
RK: Sony bought the movie out of Cannes, when we knew it still wasn't finished. What we brought to Cannes was a work in progress. I worked with Sony on the edit until December, and we were all happy with the edit. And I finished the graphic novels. We then realized we needed more visual effects to make the movie better, particularly for the animated prologue near the beginning -- the doomsday scenario interface, which shows what's happened in America over the three years since the nuclear attack. And we wanted to add more effects that would help transitions and backstory, show what was happening in the world through the news, and improve visual effects overall.
It ended up taking several months to close the deal to get the money from the studio, up until the end of March. We spent all spring and summer finishing the new visual effects and remixing the film -- 600 visual effect shots -- we were working nonstop. We just got the answer print from the lab at the end of last week.
Cinematical: How did you decide what to cut, and can you give us a summary of some of the scenes that were cut after the Cannes screening?
RK: There are a few things I miss, but I'm very happy with it. In the end, I only had to cut 19 minutes. I was scared for awhile that I would have to cut an hour ... but Sony was supportive, they got into understanding the architecture of the film and that it's really delicate. There's a subplot with Janeane Garafalo that I would love to restore in a longer version, with her character and with Kevin Smith. If you read the graphic novels, it's the stuff about the science of the machine and the wave generator, and the ocean tides having an effect on human behavior -- and more about the doomsday game that is being played, and the brother-and-sister type of relationship between Janeane Garafalo and Kevin Smith's characters. There's also a sequence we shot where Boxer [Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's character] is on the beach and he takes the drug -- fluid karma -- and he sees into 1928, meets this fortune-teller woman. It's really trippy, even trippier crazier stuff, that people who really do like this film and get into it will appreciate. Maybe at some point down the road, I'll put together a slightly longer version.
Cinematical: What's the best way for a viewer to go into this movie, to enjoy it the most? Do you need to read the graphic novels first?
RK: You can go into it blind, or you can read the graphic novels. I think it's fun either way. If you read the graphic novels first, you can come into it like serialized fiction. You remember when Stephen King released The Green Mile books? I loved it the way he did that, the first day when the new novels came out -- I loved that experience. If you like the idea of being where you can't wait to get to the next chapter, you can read the books first, then show up to the movie where the story continues. Or you can go into it completely blind, and be overwhelmed, and then go read the books, and then be like, "Okay, okay, I get it" and then see the movie again. I was trying to give the audience an opportunity for an adventurous thrill ride.
Cinematical: Do you think Southland Tales is a movie that should be seen more than once?
RK: I think so. It's very much like Darko in that sense, they've got the same architecture. Everything is there for a reason -- in every shot there's a clue, all the design is very thought out, it's incredibly structurally intricate. We worked for a long time on it. Stuff like that, I think definitely warrants repeat viewings.
Cinematical: The cast is amazing. Every scene brings us another familiar face. Did you plan it that way, were you thinking about that as you developed the project?
RK: Yes. I wanted it to be a very fun movie to watch. It's a wild rollercoaster ride, and you want to be on that rollercoaster with a lot of familiar faces. I think they help ground the movie in pop culture and also in a familiarity. They're all funny, funny people -- Wallace Shawn, Christopher Lambert, John Larroquette, Zelda Rubenstein ...
Cinematical: And I didn't even recognize Kevin Smith, I felt so bad about that.
RK: Our makeup artist did a terrific job of aging him. I wanted the movie to have a pop vitality, and the cast was essential.
Cinematical: I liked the Kiss Me Deadly references in Southland Tales [two clips from the 1955 movie are shown at the beginning and end of Kelly's film].
RK: Oh, that's one of my favorite movies. I'll be happy if one day this movie could play on a double-bill with Kiss Me Deadly. It's a kind of sequel, in a way. And Dwayne (Johnson, aka The Rock) studied Ralph Meeker's performance. He watched the movie and he obviously isn't mimicking him or anything like that, but Mike Hammer, this tough-guy macho cop who's always sleeping with multiple women and throws the woman up against the wall and kisses her ... we tried to play off that throughout the movie. Kiss Me Deadly was a very political film noir for its time, and it was deemed by the Kefauver commission as the most dangerous film to American youth in its day. It was all about the Manhattan Project -- that glowing white box. It was a marvelous piece of satire, and it's been a big influence on me and on this film.
Cinematical: Do you see yourself doing more films with intricate stories like Donnie Darko and Southland Tales?
RK: I think everything I do will be intricate and elaborate, and I'm always going to be seduced by science fiction because I love it. My producing partner teases me, says, "Rich, why is there a time portal in every script you write?" You write what you love, and this is what I love.
But my next movie is a psychological thriller, it's PG-13, has a mainstream concept, and it's something the studio is much more comfortable in committing to right away, telling us they'll put it on 2500 screens.
Cinematical: Are you talking about The Box?
RK: Yes. I'm making my life a little bit easier with this next film.
Cinematical: What's the latest update with that project?
RK: Cameron Diaz is cast, and we're very close to announcing the other actors. But I can't say anything yet.
[For more on Southland Tales, check out Jette Kernion's review of the version shown at Fantastic Fest, or James Rocchi's review of the longer version that screened at Cannes.]