When The Rock and a Porn Star Tried to Save the World


Donnie Darko is one of the most auspicious—and rightly heralded—directorial debuts of the new millennium, so naturally there was intense anticipation and excitement for filmmaker Richard Kelly’s follow-up, Southland Tales, an ambitious story about the End Times that concerns a complex mystery involving porn stars, marquee actors, police officers, politicians, revolutionaries, perpetual-motion energy sources, and quantum entanglement. With great hype, however, comes great potential letdown, and there was plenty of disappointment to go around when the satiric sci-fi epic premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival.

Though a few notable voices (like The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman) rallied to its defense, Southland Tales was largely slammed by critics and viewers alike upon its maiden bow along the Croisette. And when a re-edited version arrived in American theaters more than a year later, the quasi-comedic apocalyptic tale—headlined by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a savior with amnesia, Sarah Michelle Gellar as an adult film actress, and Seann William Scott as both an Iraqi War vet and a cop, alongside Justin Timberlake, Mandy Moore and numerous Saturday Night Live stars—landed not with a bang but, alas, with a whimper.

Nonetheless, in the ensuing years, Southland Tales has attracted a cult following, and on Jan. 26, Kelly is releasing a new blu-ray package that includes both the 144-minute theatrical cut of the film, as well as the previously unreleased 158-minute Cannes Cut. It’s the beginning of a major revival project, as the former wunderkind director—who hasn’t helmed a feature since 2009’s The Box—has plans to get behind the camera for an unconventional Southland Tales prequel (based on his 2006 graphic novel series) that will marry live-action and animation, and eventually merge with the original film to create a six-chapter, six-hour magnum opus.

It’s a bold course of action for the filmmaker, given that it hinges on audiences wanting more of a sprawling end-of-the-world drama that they largely didn’t respond to the first time around. Still, Kelly is undeterred by such concerns, and in an in-depth conversation ahead of Southland Tales home-video release, he spoke with us about his complicated ideas for the saga, the headaches and pitfalls he encountered while making it, and the enduring prescience of its satiric vision of an America wracked by environmental crises, tensions between a fascistic government and neo-Marxist revolutionaries, and election-fraud conspiracies.

You recently announced plans to make a live-action/animated Southland Tales prequel—based on your graphic novel series—that might eventually be merged with the original film. What is it about this story, and world, that so grips you?

This project is always going to hold a special place for me, because in my mind, it was never finished; it’s still this unfinished, unresolved piece of art that I fought really hard to put together many years ago. I knew I was never going to get all the resources I needed to finish it. Even when we got to Cannes, and all the struggling we did to get the movie slightly more finished and into a better place after the festival, I always knew it was going to take many years. And there was this uncertainty of: How would the film continue to marinate as time wore on and the world continued to get crazier and crazier? As the world continued to get crazier, I’ve mentally been revisiting Southland Tales. Obviously, I published these graphic novel prequels many years ago, but the more I mentally revisit it, the more I see a story to tell. I’ve unlocked some new secrets within the story, and a way to expand it, that I think are really exciting. I think it’s almost been a therapeutic piece of art that I created that, again, was never finished to my satisfaction. It’s almost been trauma therapy, trying to revisit it, as we’re all coping with the latest insanity that unfolds on the news.

Is part of what’s drawn you back to Southland Tales the fact that so many of its ideas—about celebrity, politics, fascism, election fraud, protests, and police brutality—remain relevant today?

All the politics and religion and celebrity is swirling around, and it has this relevance today. But I’m also looking at this thing as a science-fiction storyteller. In my mind, this was a big, elaborate, science-fiction story, and one of the things that I’ve been decoding—it’s always been there, but I think I’ve figured out how to really make it work—is this idea of a screenplay within the film. There’s this meta-layer inside the film. Boxer Santaros and Krysta Now, played by Dwayne Johnson and Sarah Michelle Gellar, have these doppelgänger characters within their absurd screenplay that’s discussed throughout the movie. You see copies of it laying around, and people are trading copies of it and downloading it on computers, and you have Boxer constantly having these schizophrenic moments, and characters who are given a drug and fall unconscious, and they’re waking up from dreams—you have all these moments.

What I’ve discovered is you have an opportunity to bring that screenplay to life. The screenplay is called “The Power,” and I see it as this really glossy ‘90s action film, like a Jerry Bruckheimer-type or a Tony Scott film from the early ‘90s—those movies that I really love and have this wonderful nostalgia for. The story in “The Power” is set in 2024, which is beyond the 2008 world you see in Southland Tales. What I’ve unlocked is this opportunity: were this all to happen, and move forward—to tell not only the prequel story about how the characters came into Chapter IV (which is the beginning of the original movie), which would concern the three days coming back from Las Vegas and Lake Meade into Los Angeles, but also the world of “The Power,” where Boxer is playing this mysterious detective named Jericho Cane in 2024. It’s adding and opening up a whole new world within Southland Tales that I’m really excited by, and I think it’s going to add a lot of new twists and turns to the story, even for people who’ve seen the movie 50 times and know it by heart. In an ideal world, it’s two films—the prequel film that also has the new world layered within it, and then there’d be all this new footage inserted into the existing film that would carry forward. So you’d be looking at two very big films that would basically coexist as an epic six-hour miniseries, but in my mind it would be two feature films.

So you’d be looking at two very big films that would basically coexist as an epic six-hour miniseries, but in my mind it would be two feature films.

What stage are you currently at with the prequel?

The screenplay is pretty much finished. It’s a new screenplay for the prequel film, but it’s also script pages for the new content that would continue into the existing film. So it’s one big screenplay and then I have all these storyboarded images from the existing film and from the Cannes Cut of the film to illustrate how and where the new scenes would integrate into the existing film. It’s just this massive script bible with blueprints—a roadmap to illustrate to everyone how I would pull it off. Because the 2008 prequel storyline footage would actually be animation, and it would be rendered through a new style of animation. Then, potentially, the 2024 elements would be live-action. So it’s a checkerboarding back-and-forth between animation and live-action. And once you get to Chapter IV, where the existing film begins, the animated world of 2008 would coalesce into photographic reality. Believe it or not, there’s a logic behind all of that [laughs]. In my mind, it makes sense. It’s this incredibly big, elaborate expansion of the story, but I do feel there is a real science-fiction logic to the whole thing.

Would you incorporate any unused footage you have from the original shoot?

There’s actually a fair amount of footage that’s never seen the light of day, in either version of the film. And without spoiling too much, there is a Dungeons & Dragons element [laughs]. There’s a little bit of it in the Cannes version of the film—believe it or not, we actually had a Dungeons & Dragons consultant on-set on the film [laughs]. As if it wasn’t wild and complex enough, we had started to bring that element into it. The producers are very engaged and excited, and I’m getting all the materials ready, and I’ve spent a lot of time on it. I’m just legitimately very excited and feel like I’ve unlocked a whole new level of a game. It’s been therapeutic for me, during all the lockdowns and the anxiety of this year, to have something like Southland Tales to work on. Even if nothing ever comes of it, I’m glad I’ve done the work.

At six hours, this ultimate Southland Tales sounds like something fit for a streaming platform. Is that option on the table?

There have been lots of discussions with the producers about that very thing. I think they’ve been digging into all the underlying rights, and how the film could be re-platformed as a big double-feature, and whether the chapters are accessible. You think about how the world has changed, and how we’re digesting stories, and it’s just completely changed since 2006. I think it’s a very exciting new world that we’re living in, in terms of all these streaming platforms, and the way people are embracing new modes of storytelling, and more complex layered stories that don’t necessarily have to fit into 2.5 hours. I think if this were to happen, we would very aggressively be trying to lean into the streaming opportunities. But at the same time, I’d love to see these movies on the big screen too, for people that want to see them that way. I think one of the great things about the streaming platforms is that they can also give people the chance to go to the theaters. And if there’s a boutique theatrical element to a lot of this stuff, that’s fantastic too.

The new Southland Tales blu-ray features both the theatrical cut and the Cannes Cut. Were you surprised by the vitriolic reaction to the film at Cannes?

We were at Cannes in 2006, and it was just a whole different world back then. We knew we were this crazy wild card that came out of nowhere. We got into competition at Cannes that year, and in terms of the Americans, it was me, Sofia Coppola with Marie Antoinette, Richard Linklater with Fast Food Nation, and I think Ron Howard was there with The Da Vinci Code. We all kind of got the shit kicked out of us in different ways that year [laughs]. It was a rough year. I was thirty, and I was very naïve. It was my first time ever at the festival, and it was this overwhelming experience. I think for all of us, we knew it was going to be a wild ride over there, but I don’t think any of us were prepared for the intensity of it all.

It was tough, because I knew the movie was not finished. Again, there are a lot of things I love about the Cannes version, and there’s a lot of material there that I want to continue using. And there are things I definitely prefer about the Cannes version. But it’s still very, very unfinished in my mind. Like, the visual effects are nowhere near finished, particularly in the third act of the film. It’s rough around the edges, and there are some editorial things that, even in the Cannes version, I would want to do-over a little bit. I look at the Cannes version as a workprint, and I’m glad it’s been preserved for posterity so people can see it. But I also want to add the caveat to everyone that, if people are expecting a brand-new polished version of the movie, that’s not what the Cannes version is. It’s almost like getting in a time machine and going back to the festival in 2006 and imagining that yes, this is what we showed there.

… I was just going to have to beg for pennies and nickels and whatever pocket change they could come up with to try to get the movie slightly more finished.

We did not have the resources to finish all the visual effects. It was a $17.8 million movie, and we needed several million more dollars to even get close to making my full vision come to life. But that money was never really going to materialize. Especially after the hostile reception to the film at Cannes, it became even clearer that I was just going to have to beg for pennies and nickels and whatever pocket change they could come up with to try to get the movie slightly more finished.

Did you think critics and audiences misunderstood it?

I feel like the movies made during a decade are often a reflection of the presidential administration we’re living under. In 2006, we were just entering into the second Bush presidential term, Katrina had just happened, and we were embedded in the Iraq War and Afghanistan. Even the iPhone had really not come into existence yet, and that was a big deal. When we made the film, people were still using Myspace! Kim Kardashian had not yet usurped Paris Hilton—it was still Paris’ town [laughs]. So it was a different world, and a strangely conservative environment. If you remember, at the Oscars in 2006, they would not give Brokeback Mountain Best Picture. And a couple of years prior to that, they booed Michael Moore at the Oscars. It was, I think, a much more conservative time than we even realized; not just conservative in terms of who our president was, but conservative, perhaps, in Hollywood, and Harvey Weinstein being king of Hollywood at the time, and determining what kind of movies you were or were not allowed to distribute.

I think everything about Southland Tales just felt unmanageable to distributors. It was so crazy and long and sprawling, and it had chapters and prequel graphic novels, and I’m trying to do transmedia storytelling, and I think it was just too much for people to even deal with or digest. And instead of embracing it and everything that was crazy about it, I think the response was to just shun it, put it away and bury it. After Cannes, it was almost like nobody wanted to throw good money after bad [press], when you’ve invested in something that all of a sudden feels like it’s been mortally wounded. It’s like, we’re not even going to spend any more money finishing this or even marketing and distributing it.

Was that difficult?

It was very sad in a way, because I was struggling, and I had to bring in art students and interns. I had to go down to Chapman University and find these two 21-year-old kids who’d help me finish the visual effects for free. Like, “I’ll invite you to the premiere, and I’ll have you wave to everyone for helping us.” Because no one was going to give us any more money, and I was begging and pleading and trying to Scotch Tape the film together and cut it down to try to make it work.

There’s a line in the film, toward the end, where Sarah Michelle Gellar says to Dwayne Johnson, “It had to be this way,” and he says, “I know.” That line has a new kind of poignancy to it, because it’s almost like, this is the journey that the film had to take. It had to be this way. And in looking at the insanity that we’re living through, and have been living through now for at least four years, did it have to be this way? I don’t know. Were we meant to have to endure the insanity of Donald Trump becoming president? I don’t know. Is there going to be some sort of rebirth or cleansing on the other side of this nightmare that so many people have experienced? I don’t have the answer to that. But revisiting this film and trying to unlock a whole new level and bring it into existence has been therapeutic for me, especially this year, given what we’ve all gone through in 2020. That was always the intention with this film. It was never meant to celebrate the apocalypse. It was more meant to be, okay, if this stuff is happening or might happen, let’s try to make sense of it, and find some humor and therapy in it. I guess that’s what I was intending to do with the film.



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