It has been four years since Richard Kelly directed Donnie Darko, the science fiction, satirical comedy starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a borderline-schizophrenic adolescent who doesn’t differentiate between reality and strange hallucinations, that became a cult classic. Kelly is back in the director’s chair with the even more ambitious Southland Tales, a provocative and satirical film for which he wrote the screenplay.Southland Tales was shot in Los Angeles from mid-August to mid-September, using over a dozen Southern California locations. Below the Line contributor Jack Egan caught up with Kelly, who had just turned 30, on the final day’s shoot at the Skirball Center. He later got a first peek at a several scenes in the edit room at GoEdit. Kelly talked about the film and what it was like to shoot in Los Angeles. Cinematographer Steven Poster, ASC and film editor Steve Braun, Kelly cohorts from Donnie Darko, also participated.Below the Line: What is Southland Tales about?Richard Kelly: Southland Tales is a satirical projection of what would happen if our country gets hit with a nuclear attack, which supposedly occurs in Texas in 2008. The film actually takes place in Los Angeles over a three-day period leading up to the Fourth of July of that year. It’s a satirical kind of movie with musical aspects, set in a kind of [science fiction writer] Philip K. Dick-like near future. A lot of the action happens on a mega-zeppelin that’s docked just north of Staples Center, and rides around over the whole city.BTL: Is there an apocalyptic ending?Kelly: Of course the world has to end.BTL: In Los Angeles?Kelly: If it’s going to happen anywhere, it’s going to happen here.BTL: Do you work on the script until you get it pretty much finished, and then proceed to making the movie? How long have you been working on Southland Tales?Kelly: It’s a constant evolution. I rewrote this 30 times, and we were rewriting on the set every day. I had all these brilliant comedians in the cast. In one scene, Amy Poehler of Saturday Night Live and Wood Harris play a married couple, screaming at each other while wearing facial prosthetics; they improvised the whole thing. I couldn’t have scripted that. The producers and the financiers freak out when you change things at the last moment. Some of the finest stuff came out of the improvisation. I would never work any other way.BTL: The plot is really over the top. But from the few scenes I saw it’s very anchored in reality.Kelly: With material that goes to musical, science fictional and comedic places, it is pretty out there, and the film takes a lot of risks. But though the cinematography is stylized, it’s very controlled to anchor the film.Steven Poster: That was also the case in Donnie Darko. It’s not that Richard and I can’t or haven’t done that. After all Richard wrote [the recent release] Domino, and that’s pretty edgy. I’ve done my share of fun stuff. And we have photographic tricks in this, such as the use of the subjective camera, where the camera sees what the character sees.BTL: What, if any, films influenced you on Southland Tales?Kelly: We started with two references. The first was Kiss Me Deadly, a 1950s film made from a Mickey Spillane crime novel, with Mike Hammer as the detective. The Rock plays this thug private-eye character like Hammer who has amnesia but has written this screenplay while he’s holed up with a porn star, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar [the star of television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer]. His character in the film has actually been studying Kiss Me Deadly and the character played by Ralph Meeker. And as an actor, The Rock’s own performance is based on Meeker’s performance. It’s also a nod to 1950s’ film noir. The other influence was Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.BTL: How so?Kelly: While we were shooting surveillance footage around Los Angeles, we tried to compose shots of LA like great postcards. Just like every scene in Barry Lyndon looked like a great painting.BTL: You did the film in 30 days and used over a dozen Los Angeles-area settings. How did the shoot go?Kelly: It was a tough, tight schedule and we were shooting in some very expensive locations such as the Santa Monica Pier, the Venice boardwalk, the Skirball Center, the wealthy yuppie area of Hermosa Beach, an intersection in downtown LA, and a fancy Beverly Hills office building that was originally built by [now defunct] Dreamworks Music. This is a low-budget movie as these things go, around $16.5 million.Poster: That’s one of the reasons we had to shoot it in 30 days, though you would never figure that when you see it. We also paid for a lot of visual effects—about 10 percent of the movie is visual effects so we put everything we shot on the screen.BTL: You must have done a very thorough pre-shoot prep to do in only a month.Kelly: Prep was really rough on this film.Poster: They were able to bring me on nine weeks ahead. I was on the prep longer than the actual shoot. The way Richard and I work together, we sit down privately, along with the assistant director, in this case Mark Katone, a great guy. And in what amounts to a Socratic exercise, we examine every element of the film. This fixes in our heads where we want to go to in each situation. So even when something is improvised during shooting, we know where we’re starting from and where we’re taking it to and we never lose track of the story. As the writer and director, Richard knows more about the connecting points. What I’m able to deliver is the vision that goes on between the connecting points; and able to jump at a moment’s notice because we’re so well prepared.BTL: How did shooting in Los Angeles go? There are often complaints about how tough the permitting process can be.Kelly: We got every location we wanted. The unions were tough but in the end they were our friends.Poster: I’ve shot all over the world, and Los Angeles is the best place to shoot.BTL: Why? Poster: You have the crews, the facilities, the equipment like nowhere else. You don’t just have one Technocrane, you have 50. You don’t just have one crew, you have 50 crews. And they are the most professional crews. Even the former policemen we have escorting around when we do the shooting are so professional. And the city support is terrific.BTL: Still, you only had a month to pull this off once shooting started in August.Kelly: We shot 12 hours a day. You can go into a little bit of overtime, but there’s some point where people collapse from exhaustion. So we shot very little coverage in this film. Steven would yell that we need this or that, but I convinced him we could do without it and we needed to move quickly to the next shot.BTL: Sam, as editor, have you been limited by the amount of coverage shot?Sam Bauer: One key scene was shot over two days, and we realized we had different contrast values. But those limitations and restrictions are what force us to be creative. And at the end of the day we’re going to have a great movie.BTL: How much did you shoot?Poster: I think we came in under 200,000 feet.Bauer: I have about 150,000 usable feet to work with.BTL: Since you haven’t directed a movie since Donnie Darko, there’s been a lot of curiosity over what you’ve been up to—how you spent that time. How was it getting back to directing?Kelly: It wasn’t like I was sitting around moping and being indecisive. I was trying to get Southland Tales made and there were a lot of negotiations, a lot of deals, and many people saying no. This movie is risky on a lot of levels, and when I described it as part musical, part sci-fi, and part comedy, their heads would start to spin like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist and they would vomit all over me. Meanwhile, I did a lot of screenwriting to make a living. I wrote Domino for Tony Scott. I wrote a horror thriller for [Terminator 3 director] Jon Mostow.BTL: You finally go
t financing to start Southland Tales from abroad, and you have foreign distribution?Kelly: Internationally they are more willing to roll the dice. Universal International really got behind the film. We still haven’t locked our domestic distributor yet; they’re all looking to see a cut. I don’t know where we’ll wind up.BTL: How did you and Steven Poster hook up initially?Kelly: We saw Steven’s resume while I was looking a director of photography for Donnie Darko. I thought we’d be so lucky if we could get Steven, and he agreed to do it.Poster: I read the script and thought it was fabulous. I met Richard and overnight I said let’s do it.BTL: And how did you and Sam meet.Bauer: In the 1990s we were both working at 525 Post Production, which was a music video boutique that had been very big in the 1980s. We served coffee and made cheese plates together and cut a student film. The only reason we were there was to use the equipment for free. We’d work for $5.25 an hour and use the Avid at night.Kelly: And I said that when I got my first feature, he’d get a job as my editor. But I had to jump through some hoops to have that happen.BTL: It’s remarkable you got to direct Donnie Darko—you were only 25.Kelly: It was a miracle. It’s a miracle that I have a career right now. It was risky but it happened.BTL: The plot for this movie is even edgier, and you’ve now been able to get that made.Bauer: The audience is getting smarter. Attention spans are getting longer. The ability to process complex plots is getting greater. The proof of this is the popularity of shows like CSI and 24. Meanwhile, studios just keep pumping out formula picture after formula picture, and people have gotten bored.BTL: What you’ve got going for you Richard is the oldest trick in the book: your script, no matter how strange, has good storytelling.Poster: But it’s storytelling on a completely integrated level, with many layers. There is a truly wonderful and bizarre undercurrent of the unconscious in Richard’s work.BTL: What’s the music video we just saw with Justin Timberlake in the center surrounded by all those blonde Gwen Stefani look-alikes pirouetting all around him?Kelly: That’s our Busby Berkeley number. Justin is lip synching to a song by The Killers, another band’s song. He plays a pop star who has been drafted, sent to Iraq, been disfigured, and now he’s back. He works in Santa Monica, on a gun mount guarding an alternative fuel project. He’s a very mysterious character who is a doomsday prophet and has the bleeding heart of a soldier. There’s quite a political subtext.BTL: The Rock also looks like he’s got a real acting role, and he’s pulling it off.Kelly: I think he’s a major actor, with great potential. He’s a trained athlete, a wrestler, and a trained actor. As much as people dismiss pro wrestling as fake, it’s intricate acrobatics. Talk about hitting a mark.BTL: This is a sizeable cast. Besides The Rock and Sarah Michelle Gellar, you’ve got stars like Miranda Richardson in smaller roles, and Justin Timberlake, and all those comedians, including Janeane Garofalo, Jon Lovitz and John Larroquette. With your tight budget, how could you afford all these actors?Kelly: Everybody worked for scale. Everyone wanted to be in on the action.BTL: A lot of the same people who worked with you on Donnie Darko are in this movie.Kelly: Right, we again have Alexander Hammond, who did wonders as production designer. He recently was on Flightplan. And April Ferry did wardrobe.Poster: Everybody was having such a good time during the shoot, despite the pressure, and the crews were integrating in a way you don’t ordinarily see in a picture. The electric and grip crews were having a great time together. They were all crackerjack people. We all laughed a lot.Kelly: A lot was gallows humor. We have all these great comics in the movie, constantly provoking laughter at something that’s very tragic.BTL: When will people be able to see this film.Kelly: It’s probably a release for next fall, or it could be a summer release. But we don’t have domestic distribution locked yet.BTL: What’s next?Kelly: I have four screenplays ready to go. I’m just starting to work on a new film.
Written by Jack Egan