To argue there’s been a Southland Tales renaissance over the past decade is hardly controversial. Widely derided at its 2006 Cannes premiere—famous out the gate for being the disastrous sophomore effort following one of this century’s most promising debuts—Richard Kelly has spent the last fifteen years watching the world catch up to his vision. And people have been taking note. Once famous as the director of Donnie Darko, godfather of the indie cult hit in 2000s American cinema, time has certainly come to point to Southland Tales as his most accomplished achievement. With its anticipation of TikTok influencers, the complete specticalization of modern politics, and the film’s ability to embody the uncanny feeling of our hypermediated times, it certainly best represents his apocalyptic vision of our times.
2021 marks the fifteenth anniversary of that Cannes debut, and to celebrate the occasion Arrow Video have finally released the original cut on Blu-ray alongside its theatrical iteration. I spoke to Kelly about Southland Tales‘ legacy, its future, and what he’s been up to since we last had a chance to catch his work in cinemas.
The Film Stage: As a filmmaker whose body of work speaks to a large thematic preoccupation with apocalyptic events and the end times, can I ask you what your thoughts are on 2020? Did you have a good year?
Richard Kelly: Well, I want to say I’m very lucky and I’m very fortunate to have been healthy and productive and occupied throughout 2020. It’s been, you know, a huge challenge for everyone. So I’m just counting my blessings for my health. But also I’ve had a lot of material to work on. I’ve been working on multiple projects and I’ve been employed writing a bunch of exciting stuff. I’ve been writing for the greater part of the last ten years and building a sort of arsenal. There have been a lot of projects I’ve flirted with or that have almost come to pass and that started going into production, and I’ve also turned down a lot of opportunities to direct smaller films because I just wanted to focus on writing.
So I think, during the pandemic, I’ve been lucky enough to actually have been employed to write some really, really exciting stuff. But also I’ve gotten to work on more of Southland Tales, which thematically has felt more relevant and prescient than ever. To get to revisit the world of Southland Tales and expand upon it and to develop a whole new timeline in the story has just been very therapeutic for me in 2020. And I’m very excited about the material I’ve been preparing.
It sounds like right now is a real pivotal time for you in a lot of ways with the release of Blu-ray and the Cannes cut and all of this writing you’ve been doing on new Southland Tales material. As a sort of cult filmmaker who’se built up a very devoted following, would you be willing to shine a light on some of the time that’s passed between now and the release of your last film, The Box, in 2009?
Well, I’ve had four different films that have––to use a football analogy––gotten to at least the five-yard line, in terms of a touchdown being the green light. And for various reasons the films have all run into some kind of roadblock over the course of the past decade. Again, there have been just a lot of different complications and roadblocks––and that’s just the nature of the business. These movies have a certain price tag, and they are complex and they are ambitious, and they are not easy to get made. So for a multitude of reasons the projects haven’t gotten to that touchdown point. And I guess—instead of reverting to a much safer, lower-budget strategy and just directing something on a much lower budget, on a much more contained scale—I’ve chosen to devote my time to additional writing endeavors and expanding into the television space and focusing on a lot more longform storytelling. Really just for my financial security and my career security going forward, to sort of bank a lot more writing so that, when one of these projects finally scores a touchdown and we get a greenlight, I have just a whole arsenal in place to be directing for a long time.
So it’s just a strategy and it’s been frustrating to not be directing, but for me to go spend a year, a year-and-a-half directing something that I’m not really that passionate about, I’ve chosen just to focus on more writing. So hopefully the rewards will pay off on that strategy. I’m very, very excited by all the stuff I’ve been working on. And I think when people can finally see it realized, they will see the big picture.
Given that the film, shot in the mid-2000s, held such a fascinating allure because of the way it employed various multimedia that still felt very new (e.g. documentary-style footage, surveillance tapes, music videos, the internet, etc) to tell its story, and given how even more hypermediated and diverse our virtual reality has become since then, can you say anything about how you expect to approach this aspect of your filmmaking in the upcoming prequel films? It’s quite exciting to think about how you will approach the pre-2008 events of the multimedia tools of a post-2020 world, to say the least.
Absolutely. I’m very excited to revisit Southland Tales with the technological tools of today, the tools that did not exist in 2005 when we shot the film. Certainly we could never have afforded certain visual effects. And also the animation technology that exists now, because what I’ve been working on with Southland Tales to render all six chapters involves the sort of prequel timeline in 2008 and the events that take place preceding the existing film, which begins at chapter IV. So chapters I, II, and III have a prequel timeline that can be rendered using animation and animation technology, adding a significant world expansion that would’ve been extremely difficult and cost-prohibitive to achieve back then.
But I’ve also unlocked a whole new timeline in the story of Southland Tales, which is Boxer and Krista’s screenplay within the film, which is set in the year 2024. If I’m able to achieve the big, expanded six chapters, it would integrate the 2024 into the entire narrative in a way that I think is very exciting, that could potentially give the project a scope that maybe you haven’t quite seen before in terms of sixteen years of travelling backward and forward in time into two dimensions over the course of so many years. There’s an explanation for all of it, and there’s a logic to all of it, and there’s a big science-fiction language that I’ve created, and there’s a lot more world-building and so, again, I’m very excited to push the envelope and utilize this new streaming-platform infrastructure that exists. I think audiences are much more attuned and amenable to digesting narratives that are longer and that have a more experimental quality to them. So I’m really leaning into all of that and really very excited to see what we can do with it.
It seems like the shifting landscapes of media consumption these days are much more conducive to your style of filmmaking than, say, in 2006 or 2007.
Watching the Cannes Cut the other day, I was struck by how much more the film jumped out at me as explicitly an Iraq War film. It leaves out a lot of references to a larger World War III-like event and focuses more directly on the conflict in Iraq. The category of Iraq War films is not exactly rich and varied, which I think has a lot to do with the way that few critically engage, on a macro level, with the narratives that were being sold to us at the time. Most tend to be a bit more generic in the way they focus on an individual soldier dragged into a chaotic international conflict, etc. This seems directly critical of the conventional Iraq War narrative of the time by putting this hypermediated reality directly under the lens. It’s hard to pin down any of your films as just one thing, but how do you feel about it being among this genre of Iraq War films? Coming out of the gates as this idiosyncratic filmmaker with an out-of-left-field success, were you ever worried about making a film that was too explicitly political?
Yes, I was very aware when we were making the film in 2005—and then as we headed into Cannes for the premiere with an unfinished version in 2006—that I was taking a big risk, and I knew that whenever you are going to talk about politics and religion and you are going to take a really bold and provocative swing by incorporating all of these elements with a big pop-culture kind of tapestry and using a complex story, I knew I was definitely inviting trouble. I knew I was inviting a significant pushback. So I thought: it was my second film, and I think I had the opportunity to take some big risks. And I was still only 29 or 30 years old when we made the film and going into Cannes, and I felt like I was still at the beginning of my career where I could afford to take some big risks.
And you know, hindsight is always 20/20, but I don’t regret taking those risks. I’m proud of what we achieved and I’m hopeful for what we can still achieve. And, you know, we’ve still got troops over there and we’re still embedded to a degree, maybe to a lesser degree. But so many things happened in the aftermath of 9/11. We’re still dealing with them. We’re still dealing with the aftermath. We’re still living in the aftermath of 9/11 twenty years later. It’s something that’s always going to be worthy of exploration, to my mind.
I’d like to ask you about a section I really love: the opening documentary-style footage of Abilene, Texas, right before the nuclear attack, which is most directly evocative of 9/11. It always really struck me as so eerie and powerful–and I found it all the more so watching it all these years after the timecode displayed on the video camera you used to record it. Knowing that you are a filmmaker that was sort of forged through your experiences with 9/11, this has the same eerie quality of home-recorded footage from 9/11. It feels really straightforward and sincere in a way that is in contrast to much of the rest of the film. Can you talk a bit about filming that section? Did it always begin there?
Yeah, so the prologue was an idea that I had early in pre-production. We had a window of about one week where I thought I could figure out how to pull it off. And so I flew to Abilene, Texas, with my cousin and one of our production assistants, and we went to my aunt and uncle’s house in Abilene and we staged a barbecue, a party. This was probably in May in 2005. And so we told everyone it was for a major motion picture, we’re staging a July 4th barbecue, we invited like a hundred to two hundred people from the neighborhood and had them all sign clearances. We found two local Abilene, Texas, child actors. We hired them. We taught them how to use the Sony digital camera, the same camera that Dwayne Johnson operates in the film.
And we staged this barbecue. We set up monitors in my aunt’s house and then we sent the two child actors out with the camera to capture about four hours worth of footage. Everyone at the barbecue knew we were going to do an apocalyptic event at the end of the barbecue, but they weren’t aware that the children were actually capturing essential footage for the prologue. So there was no boom operator, there were no crew members. It was just kids goofing around. So we were able to achieve authenticity because there wasn’t the filmmaking artifice involved. And everyone had signed clearances and everything, so we were able to create this sense of authenticity of this sort of peaceful, joyful barbecue in the Texas suburbs just before the nuclear attack happens. Between the producers and the financiers there was no way to pay for this, to make it officially a part of the production, so I basically paid for it out-of-pocket.
And then we edited it together as a short film and then I licensed it back to the production as a short film. So I had to get really creative to figure out how to pull it off because doing it as a proper shoot would’ve been prohibitive. And also, if we had the whole filmmaking artifice and craft services and a truck and it was like a proper shoot, people wouldn’t have been authentic on camera and it wouldn’t have had that feeling of authenticity. I would’ve had to have gotten those two kids into the camera union or something, you know? [Laughs] So it was like this art project that I financed out-of-pocket and then licensed to the production, so I had to get really creative with it. I think when people saw what I was trying to do they saw that it was a really effective way to open the film. So that’s one of the risks that you sometimes have to take, where you just go out on a limb and do it yourself and hope that it works out.
Thinking about 2007 American cinema, I feel like there was this stark divide between dark, serious American releases—No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, Zodiac, Michael Clayton, We Own the Night, The Assassination of Jesse James, Paranoid Park, etc.—and then this was also a big year for big American studio comedies Blades of Glory, Superbad, Walk Hard. The tone of Southland Tales is none of those things. It really stands on its own among the filmmaking emerging at that time. Were you able to read the writing on the wall back then and look at the stuff coming out during that year and say to yourself, “This is not the time for this film”––or rather, “The audience is not here for this film?” Did you always feel that it was going to be a film that would find its audience years down the road?
Well, I think back then, after the Cannes premiere, the writing was clearly on the wall that we were in trouble and that it was just trying to survive and get the film to some degree of completion. And it’s still not finished. Even the theatrical version is not anywhere near finished in my mind. But we just wanted to make it slightly more accessible, cut it down as much as we could, get some more visual effects work, try to reference some of the backstory in the graphic novels. And just get it to the point where someone would release it, and so we could just get it into a few theaters, and just survive that. And that’s what we did. So I knew this project was never going to be successful and I knew it was never going to be fully realized.
But I just wanted to get it to a point where we could send it off into home video and Blu-ray and let it be discovered down the road. I was just resigned. I never had any expectation of success after the Cannes premiere. And even going into the Cannes premiere I knew we were probably going to face a lot of resistance and that the marketplace was not going to accept Southland Tales for what it was, and that was OK! I was resigned to just say, that’s the reality we’re facing. I was just proud we got as far as we did. And so, with respect to today, with everything that’s happening in the world, and having experienced 2020, and having survived it and being grateful to have survived it, and now we’re in 2021, I’ve just tried to really put in the work to really expand Southland Tales.
I’m thinking about the future, looking forward to 2024 and looking beyond to see where the world could still be headed and how the story could be expanded and surprise people and resonate on a much bigger scale in this sort of new universe of streaming and the new platform opportunities we have. I’m just trying to look forward, and I’m grateful for the footage that we have and the performances and the raw materials that we still have access to, which in my mind are still as exciting as they’ve ever been. And to my mind I’m grateful for all of these performances and all of these actors. I’m just trying to remain hopeful, you know?
Southland Tales: The Cannes Cut & Theatrical Cut is now on Blu-ray.