First things first: I was kindly told not to ask Richard Kelly about any forthcoming projects. It will soon be 14 years since his much-better-than-you-remember The Box, and the writer-director’s cult legend––already considerable by 2009, just eight years since Donnie Darko and two after Southland Tales‘ botched theatrical release (or three from its notorious Cannes debut)––has further bloomed on the basis of what-ifs, almost-weres, the tantalizingly close, and the fear that nothing’s left. But Kelly was perfectly clear he’s working on plenty, just not what, and I wasn’t in any position to disregard wishes of someone who agreed to an interview via Twitter DM.
Richard Kelly has plenty to say, anyway. If each of his films are much bigger inside than they appear on the surface, three of them offer ample room for conversation and revelation. (And, okay: there is a little story here about a project he’s never publicly discussed.) As we met in New York’s Roxy Hotel, whose beloved cinema were hosting screenings of Donnie Darko and The Box, we got right into chatting.
Richard Kelly: This is my first time back in New York since New Year’s Eve 2019. I mean, that was just before the pandemic started, but for some reason I have not been here since then. It was just too long.
The Film Stage: I was in LA just this month. Had never been.
Really. You had never been?
Had never been. As a lifelong New Yorker it can be impossible to leave.
And it was before I knew this would happen, but I was there with a friend who’s a Southland Tales obsessive.
[Laughs] Oh, okay.
And I told him the movie just instantly makes sense when you’re there. Just ahead of you’s a billboard for $12 Botox and then look on your immediate right to see “Parking Only for Hot Yoga” in the same lot as a Whole Foods and…
It’s just a transactional city. I feel like everything is transactional. It’s not a knock on the friendships I have there and the people I respect and love there, but there is a transactional quality to the entire place. If that makes sense. [Laughs]
Nobody tells you half the billboards are FYC ads.
On the Sunset Strip, I’m almost positive, Netflix bought one of the billboard companies that owns at least 70% of the billboards on the Sunset Strip. So they’re all Netflix. I think that was a way––I believe; again, I’m not 100% certain––for them to get their major footprint in billboard advertising, particularly for industry-specific awards-voting. I don’t know what the Netflix footprint is on billboards out in New York because I haven’t looked up.
The programming this week is an interesting balance: it’s the film you’ve discussed most, Donnie…
…and the film you’ve discussed least, The Box. I worry this question sounds a little flippant, but I ask it totally sincerely.
Are there still new things you could say about Donnie Darko?
Well, yes, but I think there’s kind of, maybe, a lot I’m not allowed to say yet because I’ve been… revisiting that world substantially. So I’ll probably be talking about it for the rest of my life [Laughs] unless someone just finally tells me to stop. But yeah: I think that there’s so much going on in these movies that, in a way, I start to discover new things. I surrendered ownership of that film when I was 24, going on 25, so I had no leverage. I was a WGA member when I directed that film; I was not yet a DGA member. But I was persuaded by the line producer on that film to be non-signatory to the WGA, which did not have any bearing on my relinquish to the rights. My rights to the control over that film were relinquished by virtue of selling the script and taking the job to direct it. So I surrendered all rights but I definitely surrendered all WGA benefits connected to that project––which was something that I regret not pushing back on.
I was in the Guild, but had I been more savvy I would have demanded the film was signatory to the Guild. That’s something that happens to a lot of first-time directors: you get strong-armed into doing it non-signatory because it saves the people who pay for the movie from paying out on residuals. So with that said: I have not had control over that film since it was made. And so talking about it––and constantly going around the world, continuing to support the film––is my way of maintaining some degree of control over that intellectual property. [Laughs] At least the court of public opinion. Which does mean something––it really does in Hollywood. [Laughs]
People continue thinking about, watching, discussing them. So it’s paid off.
Well, thank you. I try to stick to my guns, and I have had many opportunities and many offers to do things that are not my own. I just feel like I got my start really young, and got very blessed very young with these opportunities, and I’ve just been very careful and very deliberate with all the stuff I’ve been working on just to make sure that I’m operating in my own wheelhouse––that all the stuff I’ve been working on is still in my operation wheelhouse, still in my purview. It would’ve been great for more things to have happened quicker, you know? And for things to have got off the ground. And there’s been a lot of roadblocks on any project. But there’s been, just, lots of roadblocks and lots of hurdles, speed bumps––all sorts of barriers to the greenlight. There’s been blinking green lights that have turned yellow and stuff, and that’s the business.
But I just sort of forged ahead, and kind of to take a detour just… I don’t know. It just doesn’t sit right with me. I’m one of those Aries. [Laughs] I don’t know if “stubborn” is the right word, but I just feel like I need to be operating in the space that I feel like I started to cultivate when I was 24, 25 with that first film. It’s often frustrating, but I feel like I’m in a really great place with everything that I’m working on. I hate to be cryptic and vague about it. [Laughs] I really do.
No, I want to respect your wishes. As it so happens a friend of mine worked at a production company or agency or something, where he read your script Soulmates.
And he loved it so much.
I’ve never really spoken about that project. That project I worked on for many years, and it was actually set up at Amazon Studios. And I thought we had a greenlight. I was told it was on its way to a greenlight; I spent a year waiting for the greenlight. Then––all of a sudden––it just didn’t happen. That was a real heartbreaker. That was… that was rough. That’s a past project that I ultimately had to put way on the backburner and move onto other things, but that was one of the blinking lights that suddenly turned yellow and then to red.
I think one reason your work endures, why people rewatch and think about them, is that it has what I’d call a willful incompleteness.
You write these things that are compelling but not fully explained; mostly accessible but still sui generis. Even a “cleaner” movie like The Box… I was rewatching yesterday and thinking that the camera is always positioned like so because turning it just 45 degrees would reveal a completely different movie––the stuff that’s most interesting would deflate if you tuned something to a slightly different frequency. Or the Southland Tales comic: I read that the day after seeing the movie and it was shocking how much this seemingly impenetrable narrative just made sense.
So are there consistent, specific practices or approaches or examples for how you build out these films with “willful incompleteness”?
Talking about The Box, bringing it back to something my dad told me when he was working at NASA: something called Mission Creep. “Scope,” “Creep.” “Mission Creep” probably rolls off the tongue a bit easier. But it’s something like [makes circle with both hands] the mission is this and it starts to [separates hands] creep outward and creep outward and creep outward and get bigger and bigger and bigger. That’s sort of the nature of any of my stories that I tell: the scope just starts to expand. The circumference gets bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. Only just because I really love worldbuilding. Growing up as a kid I either wanted to be a political cartoonist or an architect, and then I shifted to focus on filmmaking because I get to be both: I get to build sets and I get to draw political cartoons [Laughs] in how the actors become… I hope more flesh-and-blood human beings. I get to do all those things.
All three films, to me, are still not finished. I would love to go back and do a third version of Donnie Darko with a real visual-effects budget and do some things that we could never, ever afford to do. Southland Tales is the most-unfinished of the three just because we never, ever got to do the real visual-effects worldbuilding I wanted to do. And there’s also the graphic-novel prequels, which I have been rewriting into a whole new, expanded screenplay that I feel like is way better than even what’s there on the graphic novel’s pages. It’s something that’s really evolved and expanded into something much bigger in scope. It weaves into all sorts of new stuff and into the existing film. If it does ever happen it would be like a big, gigantic double feature––a new movie and a bunch of new stuff added to the existing movie. I’d like to keep them existing as two movies so that, at the end of the day, they still exist in the “movie” category: the first half can be a new-new movie, but there’d be a whole bunch of stuff added to the existing movie, should it ever take place. So Southland Tales is the most-unfinished.
And The Box, God, there’s like 40 minutes of deleted scenes––not all of which should ever go back into the movie, should that ever happen. But there’s, I would say, a good 8-to-10 minutes of the movie that I think could be added back into that movie that might now, all these years later, make the film feel a bit more exciting and maybe coherent and maybe a bit more uplifting, ultimately, because it’s a very sad and brutal ending [Laughs] which is not fun for a lot of people. I think there’s a lot more spiritual stuff that we shot that actually makes the ending––while still brutal and deeply upsetting––more emotionally at-peace. So it’s a lot of worldbuilding. I’m much more disciplined, I think, now that I know that if I need to deliver a movie at two hours, I can’t be shooting [Laughs] all this extra stuff. But I also realized that, like, you only have… I’ve never had more than 40 days to shoot a movie.
The Box was in 42 days––that’s because of what snow, weather added. Usually I’ve got 6, maybe 7 weeks to shoot a movie. You never get those 6 or 7 weeks back, and I’m like: if you’ve got the circus and the trucks and the teamsters and the sets and everything’s built, shoot everything you can. Because that footage you’re going to have banked forever. Try to get everything you can. Don’t shoot extraneous stuff. I’ve learned that, not to just shoot extraneous stuff. But I don’t know: if there’s some stuff that can maybe exist down the line for a longer version of the movie? These directors who get to go and do weeks and weeks of reshoots––I’ve never, ever had that luxury. Additional photography is great because you’re adjusting things. If you’re redoing stuff that’s maybe a little troubling, because maybe it didn’t work, but you should have that chance. But I’ve never had the luxury of getting to go back to redo things or getting a bunch of bonus shooting days or anything like that, so sometimes when I’m just on set I’m like, “Let’s just get everything that we can.” [Laughs] Because you never know what’s going to happen to the business.
So I’m always cognizant of what the future can bring. You never know. None of this stuff could ever happen, but I’m a dreamer and I’m trying to be optimistic that, I guess, my intellectual properties will stay alive. [Laughs] I hate using those two words because it’s very cynical.
You said something about being a stubborn Aries. Does interest in Astrology guide your work?
[Laughs] Oh, wow! No, but I can’t say that it’s not fascinating. I’m not some Astrology fanatic; I actually know very little about it at the end of the day. But it is fascinating as I get older. It’s curious, and it’s met with great skepticism and derision, I think, by the scientific community. [Laughs] But I can’t deny that it’s fascinating and kind of romantic and kind of… curious. What our birth dates mean in the grand scheme of things.
I have no interest or belief in it, but that comment made me think I accidentally unlocked the secret to Richard Kelly’s filmography. Guess not.
No! No. But it is something that I find interesting––mainly because of the emotional spell it has cast upon a lot of people. I feel like Astrology’s maybe had a bit of a resurgence in Gen Z and Millennials. Maybe I’ve just been leaning into it because I’m just trying to stay relevant with younger people. [Laughs]
Well, all the screenings here are selling out. I would guess a lot of people at Donnie Darko tonight have seen it, but maybe not in a theater, even less likely on 35mm.
Was the crowd at The Box younger?
Oh, yeah. Definitely younger. I think it was all ages, but it definitely skewed younger. And when that movie came out there was just a lot of head-scratching and confusion about what the movie was because there’s a lot of supernatural elements in the fabric of that movie that, when it was released, I think were not easy for people to digest––for whatever reason. But in my mind we were doing this big tribute to The Twilight Zone and ‘70s paranoia thrillers. It was my parents’ story but also kind of one of the big influences on that film––this might sound like a strange reference––What Lies Beneath, the Robert Zemeckis film.
I love that film. I absolutely adore that film. It was 2000?
Same year as Cast Away.
I love both those films. But doing something about this charismatic, married couple coming into contact with supernatural events, and sort of trying to compose the domestic sequences of The Box in a way that felt very precise and controlled in a way that Zemeckis did. I don’t know. There was a whole myriad of really exciting influences that I brought into The Box, but I guess––for a multitude of reasons––it was not easy for people to digest. But I think narratives have gotten more adventurous since then, and I think people are mixing in fantasy and science fiction, maybe, a lot more now than they were way back in 2009. I can’t believe how long it’s been.
If you made a Donnie Darko equivalent today it would be set in 2010…
…which is a year after The Box came out.
Well, when we shot Donnie it was 2000. Bill Clinton was still President. It was in the final months of his Presidency. W. was gearing up to run against Al Gore. We were headed into a very contentious election that led to… everything that came thereafter. [Laughs] So we were making a film about 12 years into the past––2000 looking back at 1988––so yeah: that would be like looking back to 2011. Which is just insane to think about, because I don’t want to say we’ve plateaued in terms of cultural change––that’s a ridiculous statement to make––but in some ways, when you’re photographing a period piece now, does 2011 really look, if I’m a production designer, that different than 2023? In terms of smartphones and TVs and automobiles. It seems like we’ve kind of settled, in terms of technological devices. An automobile in 1988 looked drastically different than a new automobile in 2000––nowadays an automobile from 2011 vs an automobile from 2023.
No. You’d have to dig deep and maybe you’d uncover something, but I think it would almost be accidental.
Because when we were recreating 1988 in 2000, there was a cost, a concern. “Richard, we’ve got to do ‘80s costumes,” and I was really adamant, “Please make sure the cars all look like they’re from 1988.” Stuff like that. Anachronisms like that drive me crazy. It’s crazy to think how much time has passed. I think COVID, obviously, kicked the shit out of everyone––some far more or far less than others. A monumental experience that everyone on the planet had to endure, and several years where everyone feels like, “Where did those years go?” Working under the hood, in the mechanic’s shop, for all these years––it’ll be nice to have something new to talk about. [Laughs] That’s for sure. But I’m grateful that people still want to talk about my existing work.
And all your movies take place during election years: Donnie is 1988; Southland is 2008; The Box is 1976. And this fact becomes, maybe, less obvious with each movie. Is that a significant creative fixture for you?
Yeah, it really is. In the first two films it was very deliberate, obviously. I chose Halloween 1988 because I needed Halloween for it to work, but I really wanted it to be on the eve of the election of Bush 1, end of the Reagan era tying it all together. Southland Tales it was about looking forward into a speculative 2008 after the fictional nuclear attacks. ‘76 in The Box was much more tied into Viking lander and the history of my dad working on the Viking project at NASA, and the historical accuracy of landing the rover on Mars was tied back into the plot, and then it just so happened to fold into, oh, here we are in another election year––Christmas, I guess, would’ve been right after the election of ‘76. So I put that recording, I think, when James Marsden is driving the Corvette away. I think you can hear Jimmy Carter’s voice. I kind of put that in to acknowledge: “Yep! Here we are in an election year again.”
Looking back, it feels like those years are worthy of being put under the microscope, maybe, more than others. Because the consequences of these elections––which, as time goes on and we all get older––we can see are more and more apparent in terms of the domino effect, going back to that 2000 election. The dominoes have been falling since elections began, you know, but…
You’ve talked about spending times with studios, having things in various states of development. And I see people ask, “Why doesn’t Richard Kelly have Dwayne Johnson produce something,” or Justin Timberlake or whoever.
Well, listen: there are tons of people who I’ve worked with who I’m dying to work with again. Believe me. Pretty much every actor I’ve ever worked with I would absolutely love to work with again, and I hope to. I have so many things in development and have been so rigorously focused on working on all of them, and I’ve been working with studios, major studios on a lot of stuff. There’s so much in the planning stages––and there’s such an ambition to it all––it just takes forever. It’s just so frustrating how long it takes. But I feel like the accumulation of the work will pay off. It’s building this arsenal that I think, eventually, the arsenal gets so big that it edges past the goal line and into the end zone, to make a football metaphor out of it. [Laughs] I just hope we’re getting close, and there’s now the strike, but I am still––as a director––doing what I can. As a DGA member, the one guild that is not on strike.
I’m sure it’s not as easy as dialing Jake Gyllenhaal’s number and asking if he’ll join you in a meeting at Netflix. It’s just this idea that people seem to have.
Yeah. I have maintained contact with a lot of the talent that I’ve worked with. My hope is to get to work with virtually all of them again. I really, really do. We’ll see how things play out. I think it’s just a question of how things emerge––the first horse to emerge from the gate. I’m very optimistic about how things will play out because, again, I’ve put in so much work behind the scenes and am not allowing myself to get distracted by something I just don’t feel like is 100% from a sincere place. I just don’t want to do something that I feel like is going to let down the people that believe in me the most. And I’m really, really grateful for the people that show up for these screenings that really do care about the first three films that I made. Those are the people that I want to satisfy the most.
I got a question last night at the Q&A: “Who are you making movies for?” And I said, “Well, I kind of have to make movies for myself.” That sounds narcissistic, but my 7th-grade English teacher, Mr. Jordan, he said, “Write what you know.” Write what makes you happy, kind of. But as you get older you do have a core group of people who believe in your work––if you’re lucky, and I’ve been very blessed to have that. I do want to continue writing and creating movies for those people; I don’t want to alienate those people who sort of stuck with me over the years. That would feel, kind of, like a betrayal to the people who––again––show up to see my movies, who showed up last night to see The Box. Having a sell-out crowd to see that movie––that was really wonderful.
Have there been any recent discussions with Warner Bros. about an extended cut of The Box?
No, nothing official yet. I’ve always talked about that as something on my wish list to do. There have not been any official discussions as of yet. I would love to get to that––it’s on my priority list, that’s for sure. I think it’s just a question of timing and the arsenal of stuff I have in the works. When––knock on wood, hopefully––the floodgates open and I’m really, actively making new stuff again, I would love if that could ever happen. There’s visual-effects costs associated with doing that; there’s lots of footage.
But some of the sequences that could, hypothetically, go back into that movie, there would be some visual-effects costs. It’s not anything obscenely expensive, by any means, but it’s not just throwing in a couple… it’s a fair amount of CGI and sound-mixing and opening up the edit. I would absolutely love to do that at some point, and I know that, now in the era of streaming, there’s more of an appetite for that.
Something that could stream on Max.
Yeah! Yeah. And again: I know there’s a whole contraction happening, but streaming’s going to be here for a while. People aren’t going to delete everything. I think streaming can, hopefully, find a more stable coexistence with theatrical. I like theatrical. I’m so thrilled that theatrical is coming back in a robust way because I think it can support streaming. These things can co-exist. So I’m very hopeful, but no official conversations have taken place yet. I don’t want to be presumptuous.
Well, I think this is an opportunity to start raising some attention.
Yeah! And it was so great: Evan, last night––he was hosting the event––had cards with shots. In the trailer that they released for that movie there were a lot of shots that are not in the movie [Laughs] that are from the deleted scenes. So he had still images of James Marsden and Cameron Diaz in the padded room, the white and mysterious padded room; Cameron in the NASA hanger. These scenes are not in the movie! And he had [Laughs] cards printed up with color still frames, and he was using them like he was at a NASA presentation or a pitch meeting, and it was so funny: I was walking everyone through all the really cool, exciting stuff that we shot. It’s a lot of big, cinematic stuff. So I don’t know.
It was not easy having to lift those scenes out, but I think now––in hindsight––people would appreciate them more. It was some abstract stuff: transcendental gateways and NASA conspiracy stuff. It’s wild stuff, but the movie is just one big, elaborate experiment––a psychological, transcendental experiment––and it’s not meant to make sense at the end of the day.
But that’s why people come back to it. The movie has aged so well, too; that 2009 digital looks nicer and stranger by the day.
It has a heavy haze that does more to suggest a period piece than a lot of things would be if you just shot straight-ahead on film.
Yeah! We really did a lot with filtration. We used a lot of filtration on the lenses. Because it was digital we had the LUT, lookup table, the monitors on set where we could really see what it was going to look like with the lenses on the filters already, so we were able to adjust everything. A lot of it was baked into the image, but because we could adjust the image on set we felt okay baking it in on-set––as opposed to some people who capture everything completely raw and put it all in in post, we baked a lot of it on set. Kind of like it was going to be a film project, if that makes sense.
It’s practically a 2009 period piece––it looks like things that were coming out that year. You can’t make a 2011 period piece but… The Box somehow seems to come from that exact time. It’s beautiful.
I remember when we decided to go digital on that film it was because I had seen Zodiac. Harris Savides and Fincher’s use of digital in that film was so gorgeous and such a beautiful window into the ‘60s and the ‘70s, in that similar era that The Box took place. I was like, “This can work as long as you’re really careful with it.” The technology has evolved significantly and it’s much easier to do now, but there was a lot of care put into the image-creation with Steven Poster on that.
You made this comment about wanting to change effects in Donnie and Southland. Has any particular tech emerged in the last 15-or-so years which you’re really eager to use?
Obviously cameras and lenses and drones. I think drones can be very exciting if they’re done very elegantly. There can be abuse of drones, I think, [Laughs] but I’m really excited to work with drones. More of the motion-control technology, animation technology, volume––LED screens. Again, used elegantly. All that stuff. But specifically with Donnie: it’s getting to do larger-scale miniatures. The jet engine ripping off the plane and going through a time portal. I’m just thinking of the way Christopher Nolan would do that kind of stuff, you know? [Laughs] That would be so nice: to do it the way he would do it. Having access to a proper CGI budget, and to just do miniatures and practical mechanical effects––stuff like that. We did get to crash a real jet engine through a set on Donnie Darko. That was real; we really did that. That was wonderful.
But to do the climax with all the bells and whistles… I still cringe when I see the movie and the really barebones CGI at the end of the movie with the jet engine and stuff. You know, we only had four-and-a-half million to make that movie in the-year-2000 dollars. Which is a lot for someone my age and everything, but it would just be––hopefully––very elegant in going back to these old movies. So we’ll see what happens. I’ve been working behind the scenes with a major studio and, I hope, getting control of everything in a way that I feel very good about, that I feel like people who are invested in the stuff that I’ve done will hopefully feel optimistic about what can happen in the future.
Unless I win the Powerball lottery I’m not gonna be able to pay for any of this stuff, so I’m just trying to get things anchored with great people, and I feel really good about all the work that’s been done. I really do. I really do.