The fan base that rallied around Donnie Darko has for years been anxiously awaiting the release of Richard Kelly’s second film, Southland Tales, scouring the film’s abstract website and three prequel graphic novels in anticipation of its release. And then came the infamous 2006 Cannes screening, where the film premiered to a near-historic critical harpooning. Since then Kelly has spent a considerable amount of money to augment the special effects and now, more than a year later, he’s revealed a shorter, more distributor-friendly picture. Although cameo sequences with Janeane Garofalo are now on the cutting room floor, the film boasts abundant acting talent and a cache of cultural references that rivals Jean-Luc Godard‘s Histoire(s) du cinema in sheer volume. Kelly calls it “apocalyptic science fiction film noir,” but as he explains, the film reaches ever further than that.
Southland Tales opens in the fascist, media-debased near future. Our navigators through this profligate America are an amnesiac named Boxer Santos (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), and Ronald Taverner (Seann William Scott), a cop who has unwittingly been embroiled in a secret agenda by neo-Marxist rebels. Private Abilene (Justin Timberlake) is the narrator and askew conscience of the film, whose off-kilter prophecies describe a distorted America that bears a pointed resemblance to our own. Kelly’s film is a pastiche of references from many facets of media and culture funneled as if through a funhouse mirror. CNN screens display images of technology that look like Metropolis by way of Mel Brooks. The futurist nightmares of William Gibson and Thomas Pynchon are explored with the snark of Mike Judge (Idiocracy). Philip K. Dick shares the stage with noir classic Kiss Me Deadly, as well as Repo Man, Mad Max, Satyricon, and Brazil. This wouldn’t seem so odd if it didn’t also recall so much of The Gospel According to John.
Literary and pop references aside, what Kelly has built is as much a mythology as it is a fever dream about today’s America. And though it may divide critics and take time to attract new audiences, Kelly is putting forward a work that few would attempt and none could imitate.
Tell me about the flag on the cover of Book 1: Two Roads Diverge. It’s also behind Mandy Moore in one of her last scenes with Dwayne Johnson. It looks like a Jasper Johns cut in half. Is that original art?
Richard Kelly: That is original art by my friend J. Kelly. He did that art as a collage right after 9-11. I was over at his house and he did it over a couple nights. It thought it was pretty powerful. I said, “That’s the movie I’m getting ready to make! That’s Southland Tales! That’s what it’s about. That painting.” So it became an icon to the film.
One of your prequel graphic novels is called The Mechanicals. This is named for the improv group? Tell me a bit about them.
RK: They’re an eight-person comedy troupe that I stumbled upon a few years ago. They used to hang out at Barney’s Beanery and we used to go drinking together. Abby McBride who plays one of the porn star girls — two of the girls are mechanicals, Starla, the girl who stalks Dwayne on the beach with the gun is a Mechanical, the Asian kid who gets shot on the toilet is a Mechanical. They’re spread all throughout the movie. I just thought their comedy was brilliant. I used to run around with video cameras and do little sketch comedy stuff with them over the years and they became good friends of mine and they were all struggling so I thought, I’d give them all parts in the movie and name the third chapter after them.
The toy soldier crawling on the LA street, was that a reference to the toy monkey in Rebel Without A Cause?
RK: No, that’s funny you would mention that. I stumbled upon that toy soldier when I was doing research in Venice and it was raining the morning we shot that and we stuck the soldier on the pavement and we got this great shot and it was absurd, it was trippy, disturbing funny and brought up all these emotions looking at this toy soldier on the pavement. I thought it was emblematic of the futility of conflict or war. It may be Justin’s character a little bit: A mechanical pawn the government is using.
Johnson’s character as well.
RK: Yeah, alone on the wet pavement in Venice. It’s one of my favorite shots in the movie and it’s something we did as a whim that became something significant.
This film is so packed with references. Why did you feel a need to construct your film with such thick references? Do you think that’s become a tool for critical division?
RK: Well, you talked about that painting: Resolved, the American flag divided in two. That’s a piece of collage art. He [J. Kelly] has taken newspaper headlines and images from American history and he’s embedded them into a collage and I wanted this film to be like a big piece of pop art and if you think about the way we use product placement in the movie, the way we use pop culture and music, we sort of put them into this kaleidoscope blender. I think at its base level I see it more as influenced by Philip K. Dick or Thomas Pynchon or Raymond Chandler — apocalyptic, science fiction, film noir. That’s where it’s rooted stylistically. If you go to LA, you’re surrounded by pop culture faces and products and billboards. LA is a collage. It’s like a gigantic messy collage with everything flowing together. And I wanted it to feel like LA. Not only that, the fragmentation you see on CNN and the news screens and quad screens, that’s the way life feels and I thought the movie should be reflection of Los Angeles life and it all came together that way.
When you construct a collage you ultimately affect the modern values of the pieces you cut up to build it. I wanted to ask a question about rewriting the last line of T.S. Elliott’s The Hollow Men. Initially I thought this was about spin but now I’m seeing it differently.
RK: Flip flopping T.S. Eliot’s last line in The Hollow Men was an absurd statement. [The original goes] “Not with a bang but a whimper.” Me, [I think] that’s T.S. Eliot having a premonition about global warming. The whimper is us slowly drowning ourselves over many hundreds of years. This is the flip-flop of that [notion] where it all ends on the fun party weekend before the election in 2008. It all happens just the day after tomorrow — just right around the corner. The idea that “with a bang” is Hollywood blockbuster hero Dwayne Johnson is your guide through that final three days. It felt comedic and it felt like an inversion of the poem was the right way to go.
It also seems to be a good tennis fellow for your Road Not Taken reference. It seemed to me as if you were saying “we took the road more commonly taken, and here we are.”
RK: The Road Not Taken really is the one where we all vote, take a stand, make a difference and try to solve the energy crisis together. That’s the ‘road not taken’, unfortunately.
The aspect of the film I found most challenging was the acting. You’ve wrangled some adept talent here but their performances sometimes broach the realm of camp, which I should qualify can be ambiguous if not easy to confuse for poor performance. As deliberate as I understand the performances were, could you explain Timberlake’s histrionics and Johnson’s Monty Burns impersonations?
RK: (Laughs) It’s funny you say “Monty Burns.” Dwayne was playing Boxer Santeros but he’s also switching into Jericho Kane, renegade cop: The Ralph Meeker character in Kiss Me Deadly. And he studied Ralph Meeker’s lowering voice. That became Jericho Kane and he’s a schizophrenic [living] between those two identities. It was a deliberate discussion had with each actor to understand the role he was playing and the whole greater mystery was a lack in my mind. With Justin it was all about – he’s this doomsday prophet who’s a famous guy who’s been drafted and disfigured by his best friend in Iraq and now he’s been put on this perch in front of this big alternative fuel center to guard it. [He’s] a terrorist in the Santa Monica Bay. And he’s dealing this underground drug. The elaborate mythology the audience has understood, Justin was able to latch onto that, in a way. Like you said, it was all very deliberate. I was just trying to capture the humanity beneath any of these eccentricities they developed.
Do you feel that could be a future vehicle for camp?
RK: Yeah, but the characters are all sincere, even when they’re acting eccentric. What the actors were trying to do was remain sincere in their moments of eccentricity. Dwayne is really terrified when the woman pulls the gun on him at the beach. He had an absurd facial expression but he was terrified and really is schizophrenic and thinks he’s the cop trying to talk her down with the gun. I think one of the more important things to understand about Dwayne’s character is he is schizophrenic and he is playing this ridiculous cop character. He’s researching the role to get into character.
The film involves a lot of parallel texts: TV, news, the plot of the underground, the plot of the right wing, Boxer’s story, the script he’s carrying around. And all these texts blur into each other and share details. Tell me why you felt this blurring was important to involve in your apocalypse satire?
RK: I think that there’s a metaphysical quality to the way in which the news media is scripted and our lives feel scripted. In a way [when] you think about the way the war in Iraq was sold to us, almost as a screenplay. And I feel like there’s “what could have been” and “what we’re living with now.” It’s a very metaphysical thing. It’s hard to wrap it all into one easy explanation but sometimes I wonder if there’s someone out there who’s written a screenplay for our lives. And living in Hollywood, are we all living in a movie? Sometimes I feel like my life is a movie.
Are you talking about destiny?
RK: Yeah. It is about predestination. What is the destiny of our country? Are we going to be able to pull ourselves out of this or are we going to continue [like this]. Are we going to self-destruct?
The critics are really wrestling with this one but I for one hope it’s seen by a lot of people.
RK: I’m proud of it. I can finally sleep at night.