Richard Kelly’s no stranger to the mysterious whims of fate. His first feature, Donnie Darko, flopped upon initial release, only to live on as one of the decade’s most beloved cult movies. But his much-anticipated follow up, the difficult-if-memorable Southland Tales, vanished without a trace. This week Kelly will be hoping to change his fortunes with his third film, The Box, a sci-fi thriller based on a short story from Twilight Zone writer Richard Matheson. We spoke with him recently to ask about it.
RT: What interested you in The Box?
RK: This was a short story that I optioned about six years ago, so I’ve been trying to figure out how to turn it into a film for several years now. In 2006, it finally all clicked for me. I figured out how to crack the story. The timing was right, and I felt like I wanted to make this my third film. I felt I wanted to go back and make a film in Virginia, where I grew up. [I wanted] to take my parents and my family and the elements of their lives and merge it with Richard Matheson’s short story, to flesh out Arthur and Norma in a very personal way, and to do an old-fashioned suspense film. It’s kind of an old-fashioned film in the sense that there’s not one swear word in it, there’s very little violence ultimately. It’s a very suspenseful film that I hope we’ve made, in the tradition of the kinds of films that my parents grew up with. I guess it would be Alfred Hitchcock who’s someone that I think of. My parents introduced me to Alfred Hitchcock films.
RT: And like Hitchcock’s work, The Box has a moral quandary buried within a thriller.
RK: Yeah, it has this tantalizing concept of this button that could cause the death of another human being. And receiving a million dollars for it — that’s a question that you could propose to anyone. I think it’s interesting to think about how many people would go through with it (laughs), and to think about why they would go through with it. Arthur’s a scientist, and he looks at this button unit, and there’s no technology in it. It’s a piece of wood. When he opens it up, the button doesn’t do anything. And so, in his mind, push it! There’s no way this could cause the death of another human being. Push it a hundred times. Who cares? It’s just superstition. But then, when you get into the idea of, is there something greater at work? Is there some sort of magic or a higher power at work? That’s when Arthur’s made to believe, OK, this is real. And Mr. Stewart has some sort of greater ability.
RT: Are we speaking in religious terms here?
RK: I think we’re talking about science and religion, and ultimately, some sort of supernatural entity that is kind of controlling all of this that Mr. Stewart has access to. That’s part of the investigation into the mystery.
RT: Do feel like your fans will see this as a “Richard Kelly film?”
RK: I hope so. I’ve taken something that was six pages long, that was Richard Matheson’s creation, and I’ve been very reverential to it. But I’ve definitely brought a lot [to it]. It’s the most personal film I’ve ever made. At the same time, it’s also my first studio film, and [it’s] more mainstream than the previous two films. It feels very much like something that people would expect from me, I guess (laughs). Specifically with Donnie Darko; I think it feels tonally similar to Donnie Darko in a lot of ways.
RT: I appreciate the fact that Donnie Darko doesn’t spell out its meaning. Is that something you strive for in all of your films?
RK: I always like that there’s a degree of ambiguity, and that there’s a lot for people to digest and think about. I hope to always make films that people can watch more than once and continue to see new things, because for me, those are the films that continue to age well. At the same time, it’s also about giving people enough answers so that they don’t feel alienated of confused. It’s about finding that balance in the middle.
RT: I found Southland Tales fascinating. Does that movie still stay with you?
RK: I’m so proud of that film. What I really want to do is to be able to go back and do a longer director’s cut of it at some point. There are still some unfinished visual effects that I’d like to do. And then the whole graphic novel prequel, that will always stay with me, and I hope that one day I’ll get to revisit all of that.
RT: What’s the optimal length you’re thinking of?
RK: I’d love to put an additional 10 or 15 minutes back into the film. Then, I’d love to do the whole prequel saga as an animated motion-capture film at some point. If the actors aren’t all in wheelchairs by that point (laughs).