“Southland Tales” is an ensemble piece set in the futuristic landscape of Los Angeles on July 4, 2008, as it stands on the brink of social, economic and environmental disaster. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson stars as Boxer Santaros, an action star stricken with amnesia whose life intertwines with Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), an adult film star developing her own reality television project, and David Clark (Seann William Scott), a Hermosa Beach police officer who holds the key to a vast conspiracy.
Shooting began early August on the project in and around the Los Angeles area under the helm of Richard Kelly. Kelly is the 30-year-old genius behind 2001’s much acclaimed black comedy/sci-fi drama “Donnie Darko” and ‘Sotuhland’ marks his first follow-up project. The man himself has a reputation as a bit of a party going wildman and took time out from working and playing to speak with friend and part-time correspondent Brad Miska on the set the other week to speak about the film.
Question: What the hell is this movie about?
Richard Kelly: This movie is about the end of the world.
Richard Kelly: Many other influences, but more than anything it’s a comedy.
Question: But generally your view of the end of the world is that it’s going to be funny?
Richard Kelly: Unfortunately not. It’s probably going to be anything but, if and when it does end. But I think the point is that we wanted to make a film that’s sort of conveying the feeling of frustration and unease that, I guess, a lot of my friends are feeling about a lot of things that are happening in the world. And to try to tell it in the most entertaining, fun way possible.
Question: Could you elaborate on your story?
Richard Kelly: It’s really, really, really complicated in a way that’s sort of intentional. It’s a metaphor, I guess, for the situation that our country is in right now. (Pause.) It’s really complictated. (Laughs) So, to make a movie about that and to try to oversimplify it or try to say it’s about one thing would be the wrong way to go about it. I mean, you’re trying to make a piece of social satire; you want it to not draw everything down to a simple conclusion. I think we’ve been very careful with this film to try to create a really elaborate tapestry. It’s much bigger than Darko; it’s much more elaborate. But at the same time it’s different in that this is much more of a comedy.
Question: Is this the same apocalypse?
Richard Kelly: There could be many ways in which the end of the world could occur, and I think this is another variation. Ultimately, I think Darko dealt with it more from the vantage point of a single person and some observers. This is more from the vantage point of many characters. We have three leads. This is a three-actor above-the-title movie, and then about a twenty-actor below-the-title movie as well.
Question: How does the time travel in Southland Tales differentiate from Donnie Darko’s time travel?
Richard Kelly: Who said there was time travel in this script?
Question: The Rock did.
Richard Kelly: I didn’t realize that there was. Did you read that on the internet?
Question: We also read that it was a musical.
Richard Kelly: Listen, there are a lot of influences. There definitely are musical influences in it. I think the whole musical thing got blown out of proportion in the sense that people were like, “Please, god, no! Don’t let him do that!” But it’s really nothing to be worried about. In my opinion, I like to say it’s a musical because I don’t like the way people put films into one category. It drives me nuts. I hate it because I think it stifles the creative process. It’s all about corporations wanting to put everything in one category so they can package it and sell it and put it into their little computer programs, and say “This is what 18-24 year-olds want to buy”.
Question: Is that why you’ve turned down so many opportunities to work on other projects?
Richard Kelly: Oh, yeah. With my second film… I’ve got to try one more on my own wavelength, on my own terms, completely for me, written by me. If this one doesn’t work, if it completely bombs and doesn’t make any money, at that point I’ve got to seriously consider maybe doing something a lot more mainstream, or taking a studio assignment or something like that.
Question: Can you tell us why Los Angeles? Why was [Southland Tales] set here?
Richard Kelly: We’ve always been throwing around this quote; I don’t know who said it, but people always talk about it. “If the world’s going to end, it’s going to happen in L.A. first.” I’ve lived here for, like, twelve years now. I went to college here, and I definitely have a lot of stories to tell in and about Los Angeles, but this is the first. I think it’s a great town, I think it’s my favorite place to live, and I think it is kind of the epicenter of culture, media and entertainment. The business here is the obsession not only of the country – US Magazine culture sort of emerges from this city ultimately, or the convergence of the obsessions of what goes on in this city in terms of newstainment – but also globally. It’s a sort of global melting pot. There is no more diverse city on the planet – correct me if there is. I don’t know; maybe there is. Trends are started here, things tend to happen here first. And it’s a much-derided place; a lot of people bag on L.A. The movie is definitely a love letter to L.A., but it’s also a bit of a… people who dislike this town will also enjoy this movie because of what we do to it.
Question: The Rock referred to it as a love letter and a bitch slap.
Richard Kelly: A bitch slap, yeah. I love that. Quote him, not me. That’s better.
Question: Will this movie still play in 2009?
Richard Kelly: I don’t know. It’s a time capsule. Some of the big influences, clearly, are Philip K. Dick, film noir, certain musicals. But really Philip K. Dick, and maybe a bit of Vonnegut, too; these guys who create near futures that don’t exist. You create a speculative alternative future as a way of speculating on where we’re going. It’s clearly been exaggerated, our future, on some levels, but it’s still grounded in reality. We’re shooting on all real locations for what they are. The beach cities and the geography of the streets that the characters travel on, the camera angles are all presented so that if you live in this town, you’ll be like, “I know where that is!” We aren’t cheating anything. You won’t see someone driving down Sunset Boulevard, and all of a sudden they take a right turn and they’re in Venice Beach. We’re being accurate to the geography of this town. Meticulously.
Question: Is there an attempt to make this timeless in a sense?
Richard Kelly: Yeah. There are a lot of influences from the past in terms of wardrobe and costume. A lot of influences from the fifties: the cold war paranoia and film noir of the fifties. Influences from other past cultures, some German kind of stuff. Bauhaus stuff.
Question: Like German Expressionism?
Richard Kelly: A bit. But also in the technological designs that Ron Kopp(?) has done. It has a bit of a theatrical quality to it as well, a bit of a pop quality. You can think of Andy Warhol as an influence. These influences sound all over the map and everything, but that’s kind of what I’m trying to do is siphon a lot of things and then spew out something that doesn’t feel like a patchwork. It actually feels like it’s from me.
Question: You’ve brought in all of these 80’s pop cultural icons: Zelda Rubenstein, Jon Lovitz, Curtis Armstrong. Is that just something you like to do, or is there some greater significance to it?
Richard Kelly: No, you think of them as 80’s, and definitely Better Off Dead and Porky’s and–Revenge of the Nerds! How dare I get that wrong! I corrected myself instantaneously. I think that they were right for the part. It’s not about 80’s because I’m done with the 80’s. After Darko, I have no interest in ever revisiting the 80’s ever again. But I wanted to cast this film with a certain pop value. I wanted to make a big art film with actors you don’t normally associate with art films, because I think that’s interesting to all of a sudden see these faces in a different light. It’s exciting for me – and for them, too – because I’m asking them to do things that they’ve never done before. I’m altering their appearances so that they’re significantly… I’m taking people who you wouldn’t expect to act or perform in a certain way, and I’m pushing them in that direction. I hope that every actor surprises you.
Question: You have this whole invented universe, too – the website, the comic book, etc.. What’s that about?
Richard Kelly: It’s all about the story being bigger than the film, and me just wanting to tell the whole thing and just get it out of my system. And the graphic novels and the website serves as a great way for me to have that outlet. The film noir exists on its own; you don’t need those things to enjoy it. They might deepen your understanding of it, and they might expand your understanding of it, but they are mutually exclusive if you want them to be. You don’t have to look on the website, you don’t have to read the graphic novels, and you can still enjoy the film. Vice versa, if you read them, it doesn’t mean the whole film will be ruined. We’re trying to make that balance.
Question: What are you shooting here today? You said you’re shooting real locations for real locations.
Richard Kelly: What are we shooting today? Oh, yeah. It’s been a tough shoot. Not a tough shoot in terms of [bad]; it’s been wonderful, but it’s been long hours. We’re shooting Manhattan Beach. We’re shooting at a beach house which is owned by the character called Fortunio Balducci played by Will Sasso. And we are shooting scenes that take place in his luxury beach house.
Question: When you were trying to raise financing for this movie, was there ever someone saying, “It would be better if we shot in Canada”?
Richard Kelly: Oh, yeah! You get that suggestion: “Have you thought about doing it in Canada?” And my response was, “There’s just no way”. That would be so depressing. You also get the suggestion, “Just do the interiors in Canada.” Or, “Do the interiors in Louisiana or Alabama or Texas or somewhere, shoot your exterior shots and go fly everyone to…” It’s just depressing, because it is very expensive to shoot here. They need to do something about that because runaway production–Oh, god, I don’t want to go into a rant about that. That’s part of the reason why we only have thirteen days to shoot this movie is because of the expense of all these locations. We’re doing things in some locations that no one’s ever been allowed to do before.
Question: Like what?
Richard Kelly: Fire off some very loud, dangerous weapons. (Laughs) Things like that.
Question: Domino’s coming out soon; was that not a mainstream writing assignment?
Richard Kelly: It was a model turned bounty hunter. That was the one-liner. Based on real transcripts and real people. Tony pitched it to me, and I just jumped at the chance; I was thrilled to get to write something for him. I think we took a mainstream idea and presented it in a really unconventional, punk rock, non-linear way as a way of representing how chaotic her life was. Do it as sort of a fever dream biopic. I don’t call it a biopic – I guess, technically, it is a biopic – but a fever dream. You get the experience of kind of the essence of what she was all about, and her view of America, and sort of the tragedy of her life. I don’t know if that’s mainstream or not. I have no idea if that movie’s going to make money; I have no idea how it’s going to be received. I’m really proud of it, I’m really proud of Tony, and I hope it’s a big hit. But if, for whatever reason, it doesn’t do well, I hope it will age well. I can’t get worked up about box office and stuff.
Question: Are you saying that you don’t consider Donnie Darko a success in that way?
Richard Kelly: Here’s the thing about Darko: everyone said “bomb”, “failure”, “bomb”, “failure” in any description of it. And then finally they start to put it in the context of being a hit. Finally, with DVD and… in London it was a big hit. That sort of had an uphill battle in reversing [its] perception. That’s one thing: films do get tagged. After that opening weekend, it’s always “bomb”, “failure”, “box office failure”. You get that sort of stigma attached to it. It’s been tough to raise money for this because they run your numbers. It’s like your credit rating. It’s literally like that. They plug your name into the foreign financing equation: they plug in the cast and they plug in the director. And my numbers are cruddy because Donnie Darko, in its initial release, made $500,000 at the domestic North American box office.
Question: But that’s the film that made actors like The Rock want to–
Richard Kelly: That doesn’t matter. They have their formula. Their formula is perfect. They know everything. Don’t doubt them.
Question: Is anything happening with The Box?
Richard Kelly: We’re still trying to get the script right. I hope we make it early next year. I think [Eli Roth] wants to do it next. We’re dying to do it; it’s just us getting the script just right. I mean, I have the option for the short story, I’ve had it for many years, and I just have so much respect for [Richard] Matheson’s work. There are so many horror movies that just get churned through, and we don’t want it to be in any way like a conventional horror film. We really want it to be something special. But it’s definitely very high on the priority list.
Question: What’s The Box?
Richard Kelly: It’s a film based on a Richard Matheson short story called “Button Button”. It was the basis for a Twilight Zone episode in the Night Gallery years. ’86, I think, it came out.
Question: You had said that Donnie Darko was the apocalypse from the point of view of observers. From what we’ve heard about the three main characters in this, they seem unlikely to be people who could bring about the apocalypse, so this is the apocalypse from the point of view of…?
Richard Kelly: I think Darko was maybe a single person’s projection of it, whereas this is more a communal, global experience. Darko is about this enclave of Middlesex, this fictional enclave; this is the enclave of Los Angeles. Both films are kind of fairy tales, but this is placed in a literal, geographically accurate Los Angeles, but it’s a fairy tale because it’s 2008 in quotation marks. You’re going in with the subjectivity of several characters, if that makes sense.
Question: But do any of the main characters catalytic to the apocalypse?
Richard Kelly: Every character is. That’s why it’s so complicated: everyone is responsible on some level in the end. Some are much more responsible than others, but, in the end, everyone has a little something to do with it. It’s like the Ray Bradbury story about the butterfly fluttering causing something else, causing something else…
Question: Is there something top secret going on today that they wouldn’t let us go on set to check it out?
Richard Kelly: I don’t know anything about that. That might have had something more to do with the fact that we have, like, thirty-two setups to do, and it’s a small [space]. I didn’t know about that. But top secret, I don’t know.
Question: What’s your favorite aspect of making this movie?
Richard Kelly: The best thing about it is… (pause) god, that’s a tough question. It’s all been really great. The best thing about it is looking at dailies, I guess. Which is then the result of having gotten to work with a lot of people I really love and care about on this film. That sounds very sappy, but I got to employ a lot of my friends and family. I feel like it was worth the wait. It took a fucking long time to get this off the ground. I just cussed in a church. Sorry, lord.
Question: But you didn’t blaspheme.
Richard Kelly: I did not blaspheme, but maybe this film will be blasphemous. Getting to do it the way that I wanted was worth the wait, because it all came together in the best possible way. There’s not a simple answer, but the dailies, because, in the end, all the work, you’ve got this book of DVDs that you pop in, and at the end of the night you’re looking at all your takes. All from that little book of DVDs.