The M/C Interview: Richard Kelly discusses 'The Box,' 'Darko,' and being commercial
The writer/director considers a turning point in his career
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I first met Richard Kelly standing outside the Eccles Theater in Park City in January of 2001.
Our fates were entangled much further back than that. Years ago, when Harry wrote that now-infamous article on Ain't It Cool where he talked about a screenplay I wrote called "Amusements," he mentioned my project as well as a film by Mike Prosser, another film by Mike Williamson, and a script called "Donnie Darko" by a dude named Richard Kelly. I know people love to theorize that this was all part of a big elaborate shell game on the part of Harry and me, but it's just not the case. Harry had gotten hold of my script from other sources, and when he put that article up, it was a surprise to me just like it was for everyone else mentioned in that piece. Hard to believe that was ten years ago.
Because of that article, by the time I met Richard at Sundance, I felt some kinship to him. The difference, of course, was that "Darko" had gotten picked up and produced, and it was set to premiere at the Eccles that year. I didn't have tickets, but Harry put me in touch with Richard, and we picked them up from him personally. He seemed so young, and he had visible pre-screening nerves. He didn't need to worry, though, because that screening went well, and the film has obviously gone on to pick up an active and engaged audience that is still talking about it now.
I haven't seen a lot of Richard in the years since. I wasn't the biggest fan of "Southland," although I can respect the ambition of it. And the same holds true of "Domino," which he wrote. Because I've felt a disconnect from his work, I wasn't sure what to expect when I walked into "The Box" last Friday. In the meantime, I sat down with Richard to talk about Richard Matheson, Eli Roth, adapting material, and the need to create commercial work in today's marketplace. We do discuss some spoilers in the interview, so be warned. I think "The Box" is not a movie that is about twists and turns, though, and it's so completely spelled out well before the film's end that anything we talk about is not what I would guess would ruin the film for you.
As I sat down, he asked me about a film that my writing partner, Scott Swan, just made and released on DVD, which surprised me a bit. But like I said, we've been running parallel since that 1999 article, so on some level, it seemed like a natural start to our chat:
RICHARD KELLY: Steve was telling me... from Collider? Steve was telling me about a film called “Mad Mask”... or "Mask Man"... something with "mask" in it… that's somehow tied to Masters of Horror…
DREW MCWEENY: "Mask Head."
RICHARD KELLY: "Mask Head"?
DREW MCWEENY: Yes, it’s Scott’s movie.
RK: Right, right. Yeah.
DM: Yeah, Scott started working with the guys from Toe Tag Films, which is… have you ever seen J.T. Petty’s “S&Man”?
RK: The Sandman comic book?
DM: No. J.T. Petty did this film about the underground scene of, like, fake snuff, which is this real bizarre sub-cult of horror where it’s not really story based. It’s all meant to be very hand-held video. And the aesthetic is you’ve found a snuff tape and that’s what you’re watching.
DM: Horrifying. And J.T.’s movie interviews all the guys who really make that stuff and then also interviews a kid who’s on the fringe of the scene who is J.T’s creation. And the kid has his movie that he wants to show everybody and when you see it, you get the feeling this kid didn’t fake it.
DM: And so J.T’s movie kind of plays with the reality of the guys who do this and this kid on the fringe.
RK: Okay, because it’s predominately interviews with real people.
DM: Exactly. One of the guys they interviewed is a guy named Fred Vogel who made a film called “August Underground”
DM: He’s from Pittsburgh and my co-writer Scott is from Pittsburgh and because of Romero and because of that regional Pittsburgh thing, he always wanted to go back and do a horror film there, so when he met Fred, it seemed like an opportunity to go do a little, like, super micro-budget thing, and I think from the moment they started talking to having a DVD in hand was like 4 months. So very quick, very reactive. So I think it was good for him. I think Scott got something out of his system. Truth be told, he scares me. Scott is much darker than I am. We have different taste in how dark we'll go in horror, and what kind of dark we'll take part in.
DM: I play at it. Scott is the guy you should actually be afraid to leave your kids with.
DM: So I’ve got to say... I think “The Box” is your best film, man.
RK: Oh, wow. Thank you.
DM: I do. I think it is the most successful of the films you’ve made so far, and it’s not because I feel you made any concession. It’s still very much your voice and your signature, but it feels like there’s a greater sense of control in this picture than there’s ever been before. Now originally when you were first talking about the material, weren’t you and Eli Roth talking about it as a team?
RK: Yeah, I optioned the short story from Richard Matheson 5 or 6 years ago.
RK: Probably in 2003? I’d even written a spec script called “The Box” based on the short story just in my spare time. Maybe even back in 2002 before I’d even pursued the rights, just because I was kind of goofing around.
DM: I know the feeling, man. Sometimes you just want to try it because you’ve got an ideal about how to handle a piece of material.
RK: I wrote it in like a week and it was like a crazy “Tales from the Crypt”. I could actually probably put that script online because it’s really ridiculous, like a “Tales from the Crypt” episode stretched to like 85 minutes or something. And then I got serious about it, and I was with my agent John Levin at CAA, the guy who has the huge office with all the bookshelves. He’s real good at finding obscure material and stuff. And he pulled the collection off the shelf, and obviously I had remembered reading it as a kid, and he’s like, "Okay, 'Button, Button.' Let’s look this up." He contacted Matheson's estate... obviously meaning his representation... and the rights were available. It was like, alright, maybe I’ll just put some of my own money into this, and I’ll option this thing. I felt like once I optioned it, and I told people I had the rights, all of a sudden I felt like I discovered like a little diamond somewhere out there, and it was because this conceit was really, really terrific. Eli and I kind of talked about it over the years. "Hey, maybe there’s something we could do," ’cause I was just... I really hadn’t cracked it, and we were trying to figure out how to crack it and thought maybe it was something that he would direct and I would produce, and it just bounced around and then I think he was going off to do “Hostel 2” and I... then I was like in the middle of trying to get “Southland Tales” finished after Cannes, and I realized... I realized, like, oh man, I really need to try to find something much more simple and commercial to embrace. Just jump into that as I’m trying to get “Southland Tales” to the finish line, and I called up Eli and I said, “You know what? I think I figured out how to crack 'The Box,' you know? Is it cool if I take a swing at this? I know we’ve been talking, but..." He was like, “I totally understand. I’m heading off to do 'Hostel 2' and stuff,” so I think I started really getting serious about the script and about how to crack it. And really, I tried to approach it from the era in which it was written, from the 1970’s, and to write from that sensibility. And then I decided to try to make it really emotionally relevant to me and make it as personal to me as possible. Try to merge Matheson’s conceit with something that’s somehow routed in historical events.
DM: Well, it’s interesting that you used the word personal, and I’ve heard you say that about this film... that it’s your most personal picture, and it’s funny that it’s something that is adapted from a piece of source material.
DM: But it sounds like you just reached a point where you realized that something was speaking to you, that there was an idea that you had a handle on.
RK: It was so simple. This crazy guy shows up with a button unit and some money, and a 24-hour time period and kind of defining the parameters and getting the rules in place. And there was one line in the short story where they ask who he works for. And he says, "I can assure you that the organization is large and international in scope." And that just sent chills up my spine. I was like, whoa, who is this organization? Like what is it? It felt like something from a 1970’s paranoia film. An Alan Pakula film or a DePalma film or even a Sidney Pollack film. It felt like one of those shady conspiracies, and so you go and do all this research into the C.I.A. and the N.S.A. and all these sorts of behavioral tests and things that were written about and were done, and then start to…. all these ideas started to kind of coelesce, in terms of my dad and his work at NASA and all the autobiographical elements. And certainly, some of it relates to my parents who loved this kind of film. This is their favorite kind of movie. Like my mom… her favorite movie is “Psycho” by Alfred Hitchcock. And “Rear Window” and all the Hitchcock movies. So like I thought here’s an opportunity to just kind of take their lives and NASA and all the stuff in Virginia where all these government entities exist and merge it with Matheson’s idea and try to come up with something that’s this strange hybrid of personal expression and autobiography but at the same time told through this story that Matheson concocted.
DM: It’s funny because Matheson’s story all hinges on a moral question. Would you push the button if you didn’t have to look the person in the eye?
DM: And that’s basically the moral hinge of the thing. But then you bookend it with a second moral question that everything builds to, which is a much more devastating moral question.
DM: It’s a harder one to set up, and you have to make a leap of faith to get to, it but it still puts you in this position where make the hardest choice there is to make. And that seems to be the essence of naked character drama, when you give people these choices and then you just watch behavior.
DM: You... obviously because of “Darko” and because of “Southlands” and the way you sort of told stories in those films, I think the rap on you is that you are almost willfully obscure.
DM: There’s game playing going on, and whether that’s just the nature of how you tell stories, I talked to one guy after seeing this and he sort of dismissed it saying, "Oh, it’s the same thing. Nothing makes sense." I would argue that in this one, though, everything is very linear. I don’t think there’s anything left on the table at the end of the movie. You pretty much have laid it all out and it’s, to me, it feels like “Willie Wonka” meets “The Thing”...
RK: (laughs) Oh, wow.
DM: ... like it’s really this test… and I think we’re going to have to get into a little bit of spoilers here to ask some of these questions... but did Mars pass its test?
RK: Did… did..?
DM: Because it feels to me like this is not the first time these tests have played out.
RK: That’s interesting that you bring that up. Is Mars… did Mr. Steward arrive at Mars and shut it down...
DM: Because I feel like Mars has passed its day.
RK: ... and then move on to Earth? That’s really interesting that you… that in a way Mars used to be Earth and by us contacting Mars, the higher intelligence has now come to us to shut us down.
DM: That’s kind of how it feels.
RK: And then we’ll ultimately end up looking like Mars. Our planet will end up being a big dry ball of cold nothing and there’ll be another planet they move on to test. That’s an interesting… that certainly occurred to me several times, and the concept of some sort of ancient intelligence being awakened by the Viking transmitting from there... we try to make very clear to the audience that hopefully the Viking, that putting a robot on Mars, the historical significance of that, awakens something.
DM: Well, your pre-titles, right away you let us know that there are scientific underpinnings here, that there is something concrete happening. This is not magic. It is not, you know, just random. There is something going on.
RK: Absolutely. And I feel like we worked with a lot of the NASA scientists on this movie. A gentleman named Gentry Lee, who actually has a small role in the film... he co-authored the Rama series with Arthur C. Clarke, and he co-created “Cosmos” with Carl Sagan and he’s a novelist in his own right, and he was our scientific advisor on this and he was one of the original Viking scientists at JPL. Still works at JPL to this day with all the big NASA missions. And he helped coin a term that is used in the film called the altruism co-efficient. Ultimately that’s what Mr. Steward is… the recommendation he’s going to make to his boss is something that’s fundamentally referred to as the altruism co-efficient, which could be something that takes many years and many future kinds of different tests to figure out, but that was a wonderful kind of way of trying to put it into two words. Obviously those are big, you know, 25 cent words. But if you really think about what those two words mean, it felt like the scientific… you know, the algebra theorem that Richard Matheson was hinting at.
DM: But is there a tipping point where there are enough people making the right choice to balance the ones making the wrong?
RK: Yes. And ultimately are they… it seems like they’re going after the nice people and the smart people and the cream of the crop in terms of, like, decent people. They’re not interested in approaching, you know, married couples who’ve got the dirty secrets in their closet who are just jerks, you know?
RK: Who are bad people. They’re interested in trying to see if they can really test and somehow manipulate the really smart decent people into pushing the button. And then it’s all about what do they do after? To what lengths will they go to try to extricate themselves from damnation or from whatever they’re threatening them with or whatever they… it’s all about what happens after the button is pushed. And I think it’s a movie… I think these people are more than capable of forgiving them. I don’t feel like it’s a movie where the test subjects are all going to burn in Hell. I think they try to push them into an incredibly difficult decision at the end of the film that ultimately tests their moral and emotional fiber to a degree of almost unspeakable intensity. I mean, the decision they have to make at the end of this movie is really, really difficult and the consequences of it could be significant in either direction. But I think when you think of the supernatural component of the film, that was so important for me to illustrate... in a way, it provides Arthur in particular some sort of enlightenment or experience that makes him feel like it’s okay to pull the trigger at the end.
RK: And had he not had that experience and not been sort of baptized in whatever supernatural experience he had, then it might feel just too nihilistic to me.
DM: Well, it's the difference between, I think, a leap of faith and simply being pushed into doing something terrible, and here he’s making what he sees as sort of an act of faith. This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what we’re here for.
RK: Yeah, and in a way that it’s almost the higher intelligence asking, like, would you be willing to risk incarceration? And more than that... you’re putting your eternal soul at risk for this act of faith. You're saying, "Hey, I have faith that my son’s senses are going to be restored. I have faith that you showed me that I’m going to be okay for doing this. So, at the end, they take the handcuffs off and they put him in a Town Car.
DM: So the next step… was he walking into the light next? Is he…
RK: I think, if I were to shoot an epilogue to this film, I think they’re taking him back to the hanger… into that hanger... and then sending him off to who knows where, you know? I try to take a more optimistic view of it, that they put you through this insane psychological test but at the end of the day you’re going to be taken care of in the world beyond this if your behavior is sufficiently… I feel like the employers are watching and they kind of say, "Okay, we like these two. We like this couple, and you know what, we’re going to help them out because we’re the jerks who picked them and put them through this. Obviously they didn’t have to push the button but we understand…"
DM: But the button was there.
RK: The button was there.
DM: "We did put the button there."
RK: "Yeah, and we manipulated the situation to make them want to push it." I always try to think about the point of view of the employers, and that’s why we made Arlington almost like a reluctant surgeon or reluctant insurance claims adjuster or someone who has to show up and put on a smile on your face and charm his way into the house, where at the end of the day when he’s alone he’s like… oh man, this job is kind of a drag. You know?
DM: It's funny... with your design of Arlington, this is a film that you’ve been working on for a while, this has been sort of a process. This was not a shoot it and 3 months later there it is thing. So did you have a moment where you saw the Two-Face design from "The Dark Knight" and you went “Oh, damn”?
RK: I went to see Chris and his wife, Emma, and they were like… literally the movie was two months away from coming out. I was pretty far along on this one and I was…. I was five months away from picture lock, while they were two months away from their film being released. Remember... “The Box” has been done since January of this year, it’s been done. So they brought me into the editing room, and I looked a few scenes. Warner kind of called Chris, and I’ve known Chris from over the years, and he was more than cool with me coming by the editing room to look at Harvey Two-Face. The studio was just concerned that there would be a similarity, and we at least wanted to know what we were dealing with. And then once I saw it, I felt okay because I think what they had done is just subtractive and it’s digital but it’s just different. It’s a lot gorier actually, and it’s a lot more raw…
DM: Theirs is meant to disturb. Yours... it’s really interesting that by about the third or fourth really good look you get at Langella’s face, you stop thinking about the trick. It just becomes kind of surreal. And I really like the way you have your one angle where you shoot him and there’s a piece missing….
RK: It’s like a negative space.
DM: Yeah, but it’s turned enough so you’re not getting the straight-on. But even straight-on after a while, it stops being upsetting and just becomes part of the texture of his face.
RK: Yeah, yeah. He almost… the way Langella played it and the way we discussed it, he’s like, "I want to be Fred Astaire. I want to be charming like Fred Astaire and be… almost apologize for my appearance to this woman and have her then…" You know, she then feels so… because she kind of identifies with it because of her own disfigurement. And she all of a sudden just feels so horrible for having even gasped, her gut reaction of doing this when she sees him... she feels so terrible about it that she’s even more inclined to want to invite him in because he’s immaculately dressed and well-spoken and this is the era of vacuum cleaner salesmen and insurance salesmen and Avon ladies and stuff like that.
DM: Well, there’s no sense of him being protective of it or ashamed of it. I mean, Frank wears it like… there it is.
RK: Yeah, yeah. That was a very key decision that we made, because he obviously… it puts you in a weird psychological place, because he’s so well dressed and he’s so confident and he kind of carries himself with this kind of regal quality... the fact that he has half a face is almost an afterthought to him, you know? In a way… you know, when he was on-set he was wearing green stuff on one side and all these Tic-Tac dots. I mean, it looks absurd, but in modern filmmaking now, we’re used to acting with green stuff and…
DM: There are so many new things that you’re asking of actors now with the technology, but I find that it really seems like, for a lot of them, it reconnects them with the most basic form of acting, which is just pure imagining.
RK: Absolutely. And Frank learned to love wearing the green and the Tic-Tacs to the extent where he found it to be wonderful, because he could walk around wearing what is by all practical definition a ridiculous thing on his face. Green on one side and a bunch of dots. It’s ridiculous but in such a way that he owns it, and it’s something he can sort of use. Because that was one of the things... when the studio first saw the dailies, it was like all this wonderful feedback, but I think there was one note where there was a little bit of concern... is he being too subtle in his performance? There was a bit of concern at first, you know... is our bad guy going to be scary? And I’m like, "Just wait. Just wait until the face is done. His understated performance is intended to work in conjunction with the intensity of the face."
DM: The visual, right.
RK: We didn’t… both Frank and I, we didn’t want him to be the mustache-twirling, you know... we didn’t want him to ever lose his temper. I mean, he does get a little snippy with the NSA guy who he kind of can’t stand, you know, when he’s in this wind tunnel. He gets very dismissive and almost wants to glove-slap him or something, you know? But it’s like that’s just when he’s being morose and he’s just depressed and he misses his home or he misses wherever it is he came from, you know? It was a very specific intention. I don’t want people to ever think that Mr. Steward is evil.
RK: Or that this is just all about evil, because it is so not. It’s about much deeper things than…
DM: I’m actually surprised to hear you use the phrase “bad guy” because I don’t think the film has one, or at least not as… even once things start to get crazy, like that scene in the library where everybody gradually realizes…. there's that Hive Mind moment. Even there it’s unnerving. It’s surreal, but they don’t hurt him. It’s not like they’re trying to kill him. There’s no harm intended so much as it is this is the experience we’re wanting you to have. We need to corral you into having this experience.
RK: Exactly. Exactly.
DM: And it's ominous, certainly.
DM: Earlier you said that as you were in post on “Southland” after the Cannes experience and you were realizing, "Okay, I’ve got to make a choice here that is something that I feel is more commercial." This is the reality of the market that we work for. You obviously are asking for a certain amount of money to go do something that is both personal and that you also hope will communicate to people as well.
RK: Absolutely, yeah.
DM: And you did find yourself, I think, in a hard position at the end of “Southland,” and even with “Darko”, even with the cult of “Darko”, it was never a commercial force so to speak.
RK: Right, yeah.
DM: How do you now... I know you've taken some writing assignments like “Domino” that have obviously helped you keep working, to make you viable to the business side of town, but how do you balance the commercial desires of the market and your interests which are undeniably esoteric?The things you’re driven by as an artist simply are not mainstream.
RK: Yeah, right. I think I’m going to come up with a new comic book character called Esoteric Man.
DM: There you go!
RK: He’s got a big E, and it’s going to have all this action, and it’s going to be commercial… no, I’m kidding. No, it’s sort of… it’s one of the biggest little voices on my shoulder constantly. And a lot of the people surrounding me are always reminding me, you know, keep things focused. Keep things simple. Try to keep… try to make it accessible. You know, I’m certainly aware of all of these things, and as I get older and I’m obviously trying to stay within the studio system, maybe it’s getting the esoteric out of my system at the beginning of the career, so hopefully as I move forward, I would just love to stay working in the studio system. I’m very aware of it, and it’s not like I’m ever trying to be esoteric just to be kind of…
DM: No, I don’t think so at all.
RK: …to be like cute or intentially obscure, but it’s sort of like I think it comes from me having an imagination that just keeps going and going and going. And sometimes you need to just focus it on one specific thing, you know?
DM: You've started to produce other people's films now as well.
DM: Does that… if you produce things that are more in line with what the town desires commercially, does that then buy you some room as a director to have more personal tastes there?
RK: Not really. Not necessarily. I think it’s more about… the producing is more about the company, and I’m part of a company with other… I’m part of a company with other partners, so that’s more of a financial decision and also a creative one, but also I’m just one of two other big voices in that, you know? So sometimes… I always try to look at my directing career as my day job and the thing that is going to hopefully... I would love to continue to work in this business for a long time, so I’m definitely aware that I haven’t always made things easy for myself in sort of, the kind of esoteric nature of the films.
But in a way there’s something with “Darko”... the movie just keeps resurging and people keep bringing it up and they keep… it’s connected with so many people. And it’s such a cool thing for me to have felt like something that was very esoteric is continuing to connect with people. So it’s tricky for me because I always want to hold on to trying to be… to use a horrible pun… thinking outside the box or pushing the envelope or something like that, but also to make it something that a studio feels like it can market and sell. Because I have done the indie thing. I’ve done the film festival thing. And that’s becoming a really… that world is not easy. And it was never easy. Now, man? It is tougher than ever.
DM: The last year and a half, we've been thisclose to closing financing on something, and you watch how much that last little piece takes? It's demoralizing right now. It’s a nightmare right now.
RK: Yeah, it absolutely is.
DM: A nightmare. And it is what it is. The market has changed. The market has contracted and it is just the reality of it.
RK: So the biggest answer to your question is I would love to stay in the studio business, and I honestly, even in my new script right now, I’m going through that right now in my own process of writing it. I’m like, "How can I make this more commercial? How can I make this more accessible? How can I make it PG-13?" These are all legitimate questions I’m working to achieve, but also hopefully not compromising. You know? Trying to hold onto my voice and to make it something that I feel has still some of that stuff from “Donnie Darko” that people still love, you know what I mean? So it’s finding that balance.
DM: It’s a trick for anybody. You know, obviously you... I think because your taste….and you can tell the things that excite you, that you’ve read, that you’ve enjoyed. You can see it in your work and I certainly understand the excitement. I certainly know why those things excite you and as a storyteller, then you want to explore them yourself.
DM: But, you know, I think for anybody, they struggle with it. I’m really happy for Quentin that "Inglourious" worked. I love it…
RK: So glad that movie made it.
DM: It was a gamble. It was such a gamble, and I’m thrilled it worked because it now buys him that breathing room to continue to be….
RK: So amazing.
DM: ... Quentin without apology.
RK: It’s so amazing that movie made money. And I’m so glad that it did, because you’re dealing with a 2 1/2 hour movie spoken in five languages with subtitles.
DM: With the craziest ending of the year.
RK: Yes, but arguably the feel-good ending of the year.
DM: I would say that that’s true. I haven’t had any other emotional reaction compared to it.
RK: I walked out of that movie giddy with the joy of cinema. It would have been such a bummer if it hadn’t made money. And it’s such a reminder… like that and “District 9” making money this year, making over $100 million...
DM: It gives you hope.
RK: It really does. It really does, because I mean, my new project is an original. It’s completely original and it’s not based on a video game or a TV show. And I’m trying to figure out a way to make it…
DM: I know you’re excited about "Avatar." I've seen your Tweets. Fingers crossed for Cameron.
DM: Because it’s an original. Because it’s his. I want it to work.
RK: I think it’s going to… I’ve studied the trailer like 80 times.
DM: It’s something else.
RK: I feel like I’m missing out because I didn’t get to go to the theatre on "Avatar" Day. And I got to Comic Con two hours too late to see the unveiling there.
DM: Oh... when you actually see the giant screen 3D stuff, it’s a whole different level of "OhmyGod!"
DM: It’s a little bizarre. The feeling of how real it looks. You’re going to flip, man.
RK: I cannot wait. And I just hope that it revitalizes the industry a little bit. I know that’s a lot to lay on one movie, but 3D is really a big deal.
DM: It is. It’s a big deal for them because I think… well, the thing I think it’s really helped with is getting the digital screens in… which, for me, that could be a really great thing for smaller cinema because a digital print is nothing. A digital print is much easier to automatically transfer or to deal with. It could also change the revival industry because it’s much simpler once you have a digital 4K print of something to just say yeah okay, I want to play that in this town on this night and the studio can loan it.
DM: It’s not the same as having to maintain your film-print library.
RK: I think there’s a saying now among the technical community, you know... you have Before Christ and After Death, BC and AD... well, it’s like BA and AA... Before "Avatar" and After "Avatar." That might be a little melodramatic, but it’s like… eyes open, a game changer in the right direction for filmmaking and for originality.
DM: I hope “The Box” is that for you, sir.
RK: Oh, thank you. I’d love that, too. Thank you very much. * * *
RK: Oh, thank you. I’d love that, too. Thank you very much.
* * *
My thanks to MPRC, Warner Bros. and Richard Kelly for the interview, and I'll have a review up for the film soon.
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