By Mark Bell | September 12, 2006

When filmmaker Richard Kelly announced the follow-up to his cult film “Donnie Darko” would be called “Southland Tales,” it registered a strong level of underground expectation. Would it be as brilliant as his first film? Would it be as confusing? Would it be more mainstream? Would it continue to explore the same themes? What the Hell was it about?

As days turned into months, very little information about the film could be found, outside of its casting announcements. First Sarah Michelle Gellar and Seann William Scott were in the cast, then the Rock, then filmmaker Kevin Smith. There were rumors of musical numbers, and of six graphic novels setting the story, while the plot was explained to be something of an Armageddon for Los Angeles, an “end of the world via SoCal” epic. At the 2005 San Diego Comic-Con, during Kevin Smith’s panel, a brief animatic was shown from the film depicting cars having sex, and the graphic novels were officially announced, with parts 1-3 being straight-up prequel graphic novels and parts 4-6 being the film itself. But no one really had any idea what the film really was. Until the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, that is.

Chosen to compete for the coveted Palm d’Or award, the international stage was set for the first unveiling of “Southland Tales.” And the experience was a poor one, at best. Before the film even screened, Richard Kelly was stuck at the airport as a passport mix-up threatened to stop his trip to France (turns out the filmmaker shared the same name of a terrorist on the international watchlist). Upon getting to Cannes, the 160 minute film was not as well-received as you would’ve expected for a Palm d’Or contestant, with word of a number of critics walking out of the press-screening for the film and a number of the ones that stayed taking their best shots at the film ( critic Andrew O’Hehir called the Cannes cut “about the biggest, ugliest mess I’ve ever seen.”). At the time, Kelly was quoted by Entertainment Weekly as saying, “I don’t know what’s going to happen. Now I’m going to go to Monte Carlo and lie on the beach and figure out what really commercial, mainstream movie I’m gonna make next.” It seemed like those that believe in the theory of a filmmaker’s “sophomore slump” would have a new poster child.

But then Sony Pictures bought the film, and Kelly returned to the editing room. Once again the rumors began, some being largely negative about Kelly being unable to find a focus for the film and completely dismantling it, to Kelly being forced to make editorial changes resulting in a full hour being eliminated from the film.

Recently Hot Dog Magazine published an interview with Kelly regarding his film, and quoted the filmmaker as saying “What’s disappointing, frustrating is that now I don’t know that “Southland Tales” will be seen in the United States. Maybe it will, but potentially it could be shown with almost an hour of it missing. I don’t quite know what that film is. It was intended to be this epic LA story. I just don’t know if I have the energy anymore. I tried. I tried. And hopefully they’ll (the fans) get a chance to see it at some point.”

So is all hope lost? Not necessarily. shortly after the Hot Dog Magazine interview made its way to the masses, Richard Kelly came out in defense of his film, claiming he was quoted out-of-context during the Cannes Film Festival. The graphic novels are beginning to make their way to stores, and for this writer, the first one is aces. Once again a buzz is building from the fans, maybe because no one wants to accept that the film is as bad as a bunch of critics at Cannes say it is (because, really, who understood “Donnie Darko” without repeated viewings and real intellectual investment). Could this film, in the end, wind up conquering the naysayers or, if the audience built for this film due to the success of “Donnie Darko” embraces it, show how out-of-touch critics are with the films they’re watching? We’ll see.

In the meantime, I was able to speak with Richard Kelly briefly at Kevin Smith’s Movies Askew Film Festival. Richard had been asked to be a juror for the event, and was gracious enough to answer a few quick questions about the current state of “Southland Tales”:

People have taken a rumor about the editorial situation of the film and kind of blown it out of proportion, that you’re unhappy. What’s the real situation?
Well, the real situation is that everything’s great. Sony bought the film right after the Cannes Film Festival and there was some old quote that was taken out-of-context and made in passing about how there was something bad happening with the film, and quoted as being recent news. But actually everything is great. I’m almost done with my final cut of the film. It looks like they’re setting a release date and we’re going to have a great release for the film. I’m actually incredibly happy to have had the extra time, breathing room, to finish it. You know, it’s been a long haul with this movie and so the film is in the best possible shape I think it’s ever been in, and I think it’s been like a Rubix cube, and I just needed time to solve it, and I’ve definitely solved it. Just exciting to finally show a trailer to people, just get the concept of the film out there, have them advertise and market it. It couldn’t be better, I couldn’t be happier. I think I’ve been fortunate to finally land at a big studio and have them kind of take me in and say “we believe in this film, and we’re going to let you finish it” and so… keeping my fingers crossed. You never know until that weekend, but so far it’s been amazing so, yeah, that article was, unfortunately, not accurate. It was old information and old out-of-context information. It’s all good.

The comic book so far, and I’ve only read the first one, is awesome. I can’t wait for the actual film…
If you like the comic books, the second one comes out in about a week, it’s the movie. It absolutely is the movie. If you want to have the six-part experience, it begins with the book and then continues into the film. It’s a six-part story so if you like the books you’ll absolutely, I hope, love the film. It’s a set-up that delivers you right into the film.

Do you think there’s an unfair expectation, since “Donnie Darko” became such a cult hit and therefore that you’re a cult director, that you have to try to create films aimed at, or that fit, that niche audience?
Well, listen, if there is, that’s fine. I’m just lucky to be able to do this and I have nothing to complain about. I think if anyone has any expectation it’s a good thing, because to even have people aware of your film is an honor and I’m glad there isn’t some deafening silence. The fact that people are excited, if they are excited, is great and I know that in the end it’s going to live up to expectations. I think the graphic novels will prime people’s appetities for exactly what the film is and the kind of film that it is so I think people who are really fans of “Donnie Darko”… I tried to do these graphic novels as a way to really whet their appetite for the kind of film that it is. So hopefully that will set the story in motion for the people who are ready to experience it and then when the movie is marketed and put out there, whether they read the graphic novels or not, the dialogue will be in place about the kind of film that it is. I’m lucky to be able to do this so I’ve got nothing to complain about.

So there you have it, Richard Kelly is excited and happy with the film. And whereas with some directors I’d have the bullshit detector beeping constantly were they saying the same things, talking with Kelly is entirely sincere. If he really was being screwed by the studio into cutting the film drastically, if the film was a mess he didn’t understand, he’d tell you. Considering the adventures at Cannes, the overall mystery of the film, hearing Kelly in such good spirits is soothing, and at the same time makes you want to see the film already. Unfortunately, “Southland Tales” is not out yet, however, I was able to track down a press clip from the film for you to view below. If this clip, and graphic novels, are truly an indication of the type of film we’re looking at, it’s going to be brilliant.

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