On the Scene: Q&A with 'Southland"s Richard Kelly at Cannes

173911__smg_lIn a typical sequence from Southland Tales, writer-director Richard Kelly’s sci-fi-ish follow-up to his cult smash Donnie Darko, Justin Timberlake lip-syncs to The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” in a futuristic arcade, as a chorus line of peroxidized blondes lying in a line of Skee-Ball lanes kick up their heels behind him. Timberlake, as a sniper-narrator named Pilot Abilene, has a dark ring of blood around his shirt and a scar around one eye, and the musical number climaxes when he pours a beer over his head.

So the movie is out there, yeah. The rest of its 160 minutes features Sarah Michelle Gellar and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (pictured), Seann William Scott, and several past and current members of Saturday Night Live in a willfully confusing apocalyptic sci-fi comedy epic that imagines life in 2008, not long after a nuclear weapon has exploded in Abilene, Texas.

The movie premiered here at the Cannes Film Festival last Sunday. It went over badly. People hate it. With a few exceptions, the reviews have been eviscerating, with what seems like an emphasis on the word “incomprehensible.” The movie doesn’t have domestic distribution yet, and, given its reception, Southland Tales seems unlikely to be shown in America in its present form.

Where does the guy who made Donnie Darko — which had its own troubles making it to theaters after its rocky debut at Sundance in 2001 — go from here? We asked him in Cannes.

addCredit(“Sarah Michelle Gellar and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: George Pimentel/WireImage.com”)

What has your week been like?
It’s the exact same thing that happened with Donnie Darko. The film follows the same formula as Darko,only on a bigger scope and scale. That was always the design of it: Itwas intended to be this epic L.A. story, and the complicated nature ofthe narrative — the sense of it being science fiction, a very densecombination of politics and philosophy and science, delivered with areally kind of subversive sense of humor featuring pop stars — was veryintentional. So obviously we’re pushing buttons, and provoking people,and that was our intention. That’s what we wanted to do. The only thingthat’s disappointing or frustrating for me is just that I don’t knowthat the film will be seen in the United States. Maybe it will, butpotentially it could be shown with almost an hour of it missing. Idon’t quite know what that film is.

You surprised at the vitriol of the reaction?
No, actually, inretrospect, not at all. Again, it’s exactly what happened with DonnieDarko. So it’s like we’re used to it. This time, we’re just like, "Beenthere, done that." I just want to make sure that the film is given achance to be analyzed properly and digested. Because the nature of thefilm is that it’s incredibly complicated. Intentionally so, becausethat’s the nature of our dilemma, which is really complicated too. Ifsomeone were to detonate a nuclear weapon in Texas, and we woke upafter that event, we would have a chaotic, challenging puzzle ahead ofus. And that’s the movie. It’s a chaotic puzzle.

So no distributor is going to release the version that played here?
Thatseems to be what I’m hearing, that seems to be the consensus among allthe people I’m communicating with. I just don’t exactly know what’sgoing to happen after here. I don’t know if this version will ever beseen again or what, but I’m proud of this version and I definitelystand by it, and I guess eventually on DVD there could be two versions.I don’t know; we’ll see what happens. We’re still working it out.

Getting the film made in the first place was a struggle. It soundslike you’re not anxious to repeat the experience on your next film.
Ijust don’t know if I don’t have the energy anymore. It took five years,and I don’t want to take five years between each movie. I want to makemore than six movies in my entire life. However long I live, I wanna beable to get as many movies out there as I can, and this whole fiveyears thing, and having to fight and struggle for so long, I’ve kind ofhad it, I’m over it, you know?

So will your films get more commercial from now on?
I think theyalready are commercial. I think people might disagree with me, but Ithink that Donnie Darko is very commercial. It’s done extremely well onDVD, and it could have done extremely well in theaters if it wasmarketed properly. Same with this film. I think this film has greatcommercial viability. I just wish there were maybe people who were alittle less risk averse in the sense of giving it a chance to find anaudience in its existing condition.

What do you say to Donnie Darko fans, to make them keep the faith?
Uh, that I tried. [Laughs] I tried. And hopefully they’ll get a chance to see it at some point.

Comments (23 total) Add your comment
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  • Ceballos

    Wow, “Southland Tales” sounds like a REALLY good movie…for me to poop on.
    Kelly’s work is so pretentious…i watched the director’s cut of “Darko” at a friend’s house and he comes off as so self-important in the commentary…thank god Kevin Smith was there (to kind of deflate Kelly every once in a while as he got full of himself and his work.) By the way, I don’t hate “Darko”…it’s an interesting, but flawed, piece of work…just have more a problem with the man himself.
    So he wants to show what would happen following a nuclear bomb being detonated in Texas…and apparently the answer is Justin Timberlake at an arcade singing “I got soul, but i’m not a soldier” with a bunch of chicks in a kickline behind him lying on a skeeball lane. Gimme a break!

  • Jess

    When I first read the premise of the movie and saw the cast, I was definitely interested. I mean, really, The Rock in a sci-fi musical? Pretty hard to beat that. And I’ll admit that I like Donnie Darko a lot. I wouldn’t rank it among my absolute favorites, but it’s an interesting, original movie in a time when we’re all too often stuck with lame remakes and sequels that nobody really wants.
    I hope this movie can see the light of day somehow, just because I’m curious! And considering all the star power, I can’t imagine that someone wouldn’t pick it up, even if the weird premise does make it a very hard sell. I’m sure it would be an indy theater thing.
    But, really… have the Cannes critics actually liked ANYTHING yet? I’m not saying the movie’s definitely good, but lordy, I haven’t seen positive press on any of the movies yet.

  • Aymen

    I’m sure Southland Tales will be soon critically acclaimed and will turn out a masterpiece after several viewing. It seems to me that this movie is just too intelligent and complicated for the critics to understand. The critics should give this movie another chance!

  • Ceballos

    I love how, when critics or audiences don’t understand something it’s because it was “too intelligent and complicated.”
    Ok…it could be that. Or it COULD be that the filmmaker made an incoherent mess.

  • Heather

    Ceballos, Have you actually seen it? Then who are you to make an actual judgement…you say you have an issue more with the man than with his work, so I guess you may just be a little jaded. Or thinking you’re a little more important than you really are. I myself actually wait to see a movie before I critique it. Frankly, I think with the interesting cast and the premise, that once Kelly gets a grasp on shaping the movie for distribution, it could prove to be a solid follow-up to Darko, which I liked and found thought-provoking but didn’t go over the moon for.
    Is it wrong for a director to feel self-important when criticizing his own work? I mean, he should be proud, it’s his art.

  • Miles

    A movie with Sarah Michelle Gellar. I’m so there!

  • johnathan

    Amen, Miles. I’m seeing anything that Sarah Michelle Gellar does is something I’m gonna see.

  • pink suit perez

    Gellar is really bad in this – she could easily get a razzie.
    The whole thing is razzie-bait.

  • johnathan

    Yo, don’t diss sarah michelle gellar. EW, in particular, LOVES her and so do I. The movie is not even out yet.

  • Mak

    You think Richard Kelly will ever go on record saying what this movie of his is all about? As a commentary track maybe? I know that artist intentionality and “not holding the audience’s hand” are both valuable, but at this point, all we have to indicate that the movie isn’t just a bunch of sound and fury is his word, which, coming from about as biased a source as you can get, isn’t much.

  • Ceballos

    What people keep forgetting that the version of “Donnie Darko” that became a huge cult hit…was the version the studio shaped for him. Check out the Director’s Cut if you don’t believe me. I along, with MANY other people were disappointed with all the differences in the over-indulgent director’s cut. He basically took away all the ambiguity that made the theatrical cut so beloved.
    Bottom line: this guy’s worst enemy as far as his own work goes seems to be himself. Obviously, i haven’t seen the movie, but I’m just going by what i’ve heard so far. And what i’ve heard is that he’s made a nearly three hour “opus” that appears to be even more pretentious than his previous work.
    Heather, I wasn’t judging the guy based on THIS movie…just making an EDUMACATED guess on what i’ve seen and heard from the guy. And if you’re waiting for Kelly himself to get a “grasp on shaping the movie for distribution”…you’re likely gonna be disappointed.
    And when i said people are quick to praise something over sails their heads, instead of maybe criticizing the artist, that wasn’t directed at Kelly specifically…that goes for a number of other directors too.
    I can’t believe i’m about to say this but maybe it’ll be better if someone yanks THIS movie out of his hands and does some judicious cuts (like they did with the theatrical version of “Darko) and this could become a cult hit somewhere.
    I have an issue with the man, so i’m jaded?? What does that even mean?? As far as me thinking I’m more important than I actually am…well i guess you got me there ;)

  • Ceballos

    Wait, so it’s ok for people to speculate in a positive way about a movie without having seen it? But if i say that it looks like crap without seeing it, i get the ol’ “who are you to make an actual judgment”?
    I mean, all we could do at this point is speculate…sorry for not blindly praising the guy (…and instead blindly bashing him) :)

  • aramisx

    I won’t judge or criticize until I’ve seen it. It’s that simple. It seems to be that there’s a huge debate over practically nothing. Unless you were in the viewing audience at Cannes, then you can’t say jack about the movie. Speculate all you want, but to judge positively or negatively about it is completely without merit.
    Now as for “Donnie Darko”…debate that all you want…I for one was entertained by the movie, but not moved by its ideas. However, I do concede that Kelley’s intention was to make those ideas a little less ambiguous with his own version…and to critique one’s own work and try to fix it is nothing more than human. How many times have you done something that you end up going back to over and over because you – to put it simply – are being to harsh a critic on yourself. We all do it, so there’s nothing self-important about it. Than man is just trying to make a film that people like half the readers of PW will enjoy…why should he be stoned if he misses the mark, if even but a little?
    Whatever the case…I only hope this movie makes it to the states so I can judge for myself in its truest form, whatever that may be.

  • Kiyleeee

    I absolutely loved Donnie Darko, and I can’t see why the money men wouldn’t give this new movie a chance to fly in the states. The DVD sales of Darko were huge, and is a movie that can be found in the collection of almost every college student I know…well….every college student who actually uses thier brain to think occasionally. I think they should give it a shot. People are fickle, and I usually never agree with the critics when they bash a movie at Cannes.

  • Ceballos

    aramisx…that’s true…the best we can hope for is that the movie makes it to the U.S. so that we can at least decide for ourselves…well said.

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