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Sarah Michelle Gellar

Sarah Michelle Gellar - "Southland Tales" Movie - Richard Kelly Cinema-scope.com Interview

Mark Peranson

Thursday 29 June 2006, by Webmaster

Just as this issue was going to press, word (albeit, still unconfirmed) came that Southland Tales will in fact be distributed in North America without the drastic cutting rumoured to be inevitable after the film’s Cannes screening. Rather than rework both this interview and the analysis on Southland Tales and its ridiculously controversial reception as found in the Cannes summary, let these pieces instead stand as a monument to the general stupidity of relying on overblown reactions from the international press corps for assessing both the aesthetic and commercial validity of a challenging American feature film. -MP

Cinema Scope: Though it’s almost universally loved now, when Donnie Darko premiered at Sundance it was attacked, right?

Richard Kelly: It’s been like Version 2.0 here. But let me describe my intentions: I bring up It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) because I got a lot of really famous people from pop culture together on this film for no money to do something big and political and sprawling. We wanted to comment on the whole scenario of the big dilemmas right now. And what if a nuclear explosion went off in Texas, and you woke up like The Rock three years later, boy, would it be a big, messy, complicated thing, and now... how am I going to deliver a 90 minute version of that?

Scope: Do you have to?

Kelly: I don’t know what’s going to happen. I certainly would imagine that when this movie is seen in theatres it’s going to be significantly different.

Scope: Is that something you want to do, or do you think you’ll be pressured to cut it?

Kelly: I think I have no choice in the matter because I want this movie to be seen, and I want the people who invested in it to recoup that investment, and I want the actors who worked so hard to get the exposure and recognition they deserve. But at the same time I want to make sure that we can hold on to the structure of the film because it’s very, very thought out. We spent months and months-actually years-designing the structure and I think that upon first viewing it rushes over you and leaves you in a daze. We always knew that going in, and the way we designed this story, you’ll want to revisit it, and each time you revisit it the structure becomes clearer, you discover new things. I was hoping to deliver to popular culture a great big puzzle to digest, about the subject of life right now... there’s an issue with civil liberties and homeland security and needing to sustain both of these things and balance them.

Scope: This is a science fiction film that you can imagine happening in the near future.

Kelly: Yeah, it’s all based on real science. Ian Cobb designed the giant dirigible based on real designs. There’s a Russian guy who’s the basis for Wallace Shawn’s Baron von Westphalen who is competing with Lockheed Martin to develop these giant dirigibles, and the Pentagon has a multi-billion dollar contract with him. And there are people talking about renewable energy sources from beneath the Earth’s crust or the ocean being a source for alternative fuel. Obviously, that sounds a lot like science fiction and it might be. I don’t know if ethanol is going to be the saving grace of our “inconvenient truth,” to plug another movie that’s getting better reviews than mine. But the film is intended to put a lot of ideas out there for the people who saw Donnie Darko, to try and bring it into the public conversation. And I think that teenagers can hopefully leave talking about Karl Marx, but after beginning with the laughter, vulgarity, and subversiveness of it...

Scope: You mention vulgarity, and it seems to me there’s a love/hate relationship going on in the film with pop culture. And there’s something wrong with America today, and it’s not simply political, it’s cultural. Or, rather, they’re interchangeable...

Kelly: Yeah, yeah. There’s definitely a lot of vulgarity in pop culture and it’s getting progressively worse and mean spirited. And you think about the internet being regulated and controlled by large corporations, or censorship on radio and TV... there’s a lot of mean-spiritedness going on, and with tabloid culture it seems to be getting more vicious.

Scope: And emptiness, too. I know you’ve cited Warhol as an influence. Kelly: Yeah, yeah, there’s that. But I think you see a relationship between corporations and publicists maybe in terms of manufacturing celebrity now. With Krysta Now, that was something Sarah was passionate and interested about exploring in the character. When she was growing up and doing All My Children there wasn’t someone saying, “You have to have an album, a clothing line, an energy drink,” but now you’re supposed to be a role model, and you’re supposed to multitask.

Scope: Does the film take place in an alternate reality, or has the world itself become a kind of alternate reality that we couldn’t have recognized even ten years ago?

Kelly: I think this has to do with Philip K. Dick and this alternate drug you see everyone injecting into their necks, and the idea of the ocean being this energy source, which is also the root of this drug, “fluid karma.” And I think the perceptions of reality and the dimensions associated with an individual or a collective group, whatever, Dick was always in with that alternative reality stuff. And I think the key to the film, and this is open to interpretation, is maybe the opening is a dream perceived by Boxer Santaros.

Scope: You mentioned Dick, but there’s also Vonnegut, Pynchon, and Gibson in there. Even though there are a lot of movie references, this seems to me a very literary film.

Kelly: And T.S. Eliot obviously, and “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. The film is clearly “what if”-and then the ending of “The Hollow Men,” with the whimper being reversed by a bang. The movie ends with an optimistic point of view in that it’s about salvation. The whole idea of it beginning and ending with Justin Timberlake and Sean William Scott’s characters... it’s about forgiveness, and a friend who accidentally disfigured another one when in Iraq. And the solution to resolving something like that is incredibly complicated. We tried to create a political cartoon to engage people in discussion as to how to potentially solve that problem... so I don’t know what will remain of that that will be seen in the theatres, but hopefully something that will... make sense.

Scope: Do you see time travel as a metaphorical idea?

Kelly: It’s the great mystery I guess, because Dick kept going back to stuff like that. There’s no way to get your mind around it, because if you try, you’ll never, never figure it out. It’s like trying to rewind the clock, to before 2001. Or winding the clock forward and thinking where we’ll be in three years, or two years from now. Will we still be in Iraq? What will be going on with the Patriot Act? Will we have to put our thumb on a little scanner to buy groceries, to get cash out of an ATM machine? How secure will the Mexican border be? There’s a ton of questions we’re trying to ask, and I’m afraid we won’t be able to ask as many of the questions as we hoped to.

Scope: Is part of the problem that people might be scared of asking those questions?

Kelly: I don’t know. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to ask them, and we’ve been trying to ask them with a great deal of humour, and obviously fantasy. It’s a big, epic political cartoon, and the complicated narrative is supposed to be a narrative for, holy shit, someone just detonated a nuke in Texas, what do we do now?

Scope: It’s also classic conspiracy theory literature, with so much stuff going on, all the double-crossings.

Kelly: Yeah, it’s the narrative structure of that, crossed with film noir, Raymond Chandler, Kiss Me Deadly (1955), obviously, which we quote. You can also look at something like The Big Lebowski (1998), which is... Scope: A great movie.

Kelly: It’s like one of my favourite movies ever made. It’s all about a porn star going to Vegas and her angry sugar daddy has had enough! What a great thing to make a detective movie about.

Scope: You’re not from Los Angeles, are you?

Kelly: I’m from Richmond, Virginia, and my mother actually grew up in Texas, in Abeline. We actually shot the opening of the movie in my aunt’s house, and those are my friends and family in that scene. So I was thinking to myself, my God, that’s my friends and family, what would I do if something happened like this?

Scope: It’s like what Nora Dunn’s character, who lost two people in the explosions, says.

Kelly: Right, she still has the ability to think. The Nora Dunn and John Laroquette characters-who will probably be cut out because they’re not the three lead actors-they represent Republican idealism or extremism and liberal extremism... and maybe the meeting of the minds that takes place at the end is a fantasy, or maybe, shit, it’s all going down, is there a place to be found in between, or can one pull the other over just a little bit. I don’t know. But not communicating on either end isn’t working either. So if there’s a meeting to be had, I just hope it lands further to the left.

Scope: Can you talk about the music video sequences, in particular, Justin Timberlake’s fantastic lip-synch to The Killers “All These Things That I’ve Done”?

Kelly: For the most part they are literal, so you see people doing yoga is USIDent or the dance on the Megazeppelin. The drug trip is the true fantasy. That Killers song-and I hope it stays in the movie-but, I actually think that’s the heart and soul of the film. When I heard it I thought, wow, think about that. That song breaks my heart and I don’t even know what they were thinking or talking about when they wrote the lyrics.

Scope: Is Southland Tales a kind of encrypted version of your own Book of Revelations?

Kelly: Absolutely. It’s my interpretation of what I think is going to happen. It’s like if someone took mushrooms and read the Book of Revelations and had this crazy pop dream... that’s the film in a nutshell. And that’s Justin Timberlake’s character, who holds it all together.

Scope: Do you think part of the problem with the film’s reception is that critics, especially American ones, aren’t used to American films being ambitious?

Kelly: Maybe... and it seems as though corporations would prefer them to be less ambitious because then they could put them onto spreadsheets and test them with market research groups and they can be made to be predictable to ensure profit for the shareholders. And that’s show biz-that’s the business I got into, and you have to figure out how to work within those parameters. For $17 million, we got a lot of production value and marketablility. If it were released in a wide release it could easily turn a profit.

Scope: Do you feel a kinship to directors like David O. Russell and Paul Thomas Anderson, who are trying something different within the business?

Kelly: Absolutely, absolutely. To make movies is so difficult. I can see how easy it might be to be defeated by the system, because maybe I’m being defeated by it right now. But at least I got to make two movies the way I wanted to. I can understand the appeal to just join the herd and do it the way “they” want you to do it. But there’s always independent cinema, and I’m honoured Cannes put this film in competition because there’s always been skepticism and confusion about what our intentions were, and I hope I’ve made it clear now.

Scope: Could you have made this film without September 11th? Or, if you did, how would it have been different?

Kelly: The original draft was written just before September 11th and it was just about blackmail and a movie star and a porn star and two cops, and the Hindenburg over downtown Los Angeles, but that never had any context. It was more about just making fun of Hollywood. But now it’s about-I hope-creating a piece of science fiction that is about a really important problem that we’re facing now, and the problem is very complicated, and hence the nature of the narrative. And the delivery mechanism is subversive humour.

Scope: So September 11th changed everything?

Kelly: Certainly it did... and you go through all of the trouble to make a movie, and you put five years of your life into it, and you just want it to be about something.