Richard Kelly Talks ‘Southland Tales’, The Time Travel Prequel & His James Cameron-Inspired ‘Donnie Darko’ Sequel [Interview]

2020 was a weird year, you’ll recall. Is 2021 going to be weirder? In the week that The Playlist talked to filmmaker Richard Kelly about “Southland Tales,” his 2006 cult film about the end of the world, a group of conspiracy theorists and militant insurrectionists tried to take over our nation’s Capitol – which seemed in a way like something Kelly had tried to warn us about 15 years ago. That in itself recalls Krista Now, the porn star played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, who used a screenplay to forecast future events. (You have to see this movie.) Kelly’s sprawling, paranoid vision, with its portrait of the extreme left and right butting heads, as well as libertarian tech, celebrity politics, domestic surveillance, and racist cops caught on camera, feels very 2021 in the here and now.  

READ MORE: ‘Southland Tales’: Richard Kelly Wants Dwayne Johnson To Appear In Planned Sequel

“I’m not worried about my political satire pushing the envelope, because the envelope has been pushed in reality,” Kelly said. “If we got in a time machine, went back to 2006, and told our younger selves that Donald Trump was going to be President, we would have laughed. Never in a million years would we have believed that was possible. So much has changed, and not just in the political landscape.”

Fifteen years have made a big difference. So does 15 minutes, especially when you’re talking about the critical estimation of “Southland Tales.” Those who saw it as a work-in-progress getting booed at Cannes in 2006 had one impression of the film; those who saw the theatrical release in 2007 had another. (Some early viewers called the film a disaster; others thought it a maddening masterpiece.) Now, Kelly is giving fans both versions of the movie – the more polished theatrical cut and the unfinished Cannes cut (with 15 minutes of restored footage) – on one Blu-ray DVD. And soon, the writer/director hopes, he’ll finally be delivering a long-gestating prequel, now that the screenplay for it is finished: “The materials are finally all ready.”

READ MORE: ‘Donnie Darko’: Director Richard Kelly Says Christopher Nolan Helped Make The Film Easier To Understand

Both the restored version of the original film and the upcoming prequel project should help long-puzzled viewers who never read the three-part graphic novel to finally make sense of the movie. (The movie’s actors are among those viewers: “I still don’t know what that movie was about,” Justin Timberlake once famously said.) Kelly promises that the expanded version will be more cohesive, adding more of the fourth dimension, time travel, teleportation, and sequences within “The Power,” the prophetic screenplay within “Southland Tales,” which foretells the end of the world in 2024. “Even people who already know the work or who have seen the movie a dozen times will still be surprised and see it all in a new light,” Kelly said.

“Southland Tales” was really meant to be six chapters, Kelly explained, and it was naïve of him to release the latter chapters first, putting the audience at a disadvantage. Whether the prequel material turns “Southland Tales” into a double feature – or maybe six chapters on a streaming platform – has yet to be determined. “Fifteen years ago, there was a lot of pushback against taking these sorts of risks,” Kelly said. “But it’s almost like now that the world has gone so crazy, it’s given us license as artists to tell more unconventional stories and expand the scope of our storytelling.”

Even as Kelly plans to expand the world of “Southland Tales,” never doubt his commitment to Sparkle Motion – he hasn’t forgotten his classic first film, “Donnie Darko,” nor does he plan to let the lamentable “S. Darko” remain as its failed sequel. Kelly says he’s completed a “significant amount of writing” on a real sequel — which was inspired in part by a query made by James Cameron.

READ MORE: Richard Kelly Teases New ‘Southland Tales’ Film As Well As Two 4K Versions Of The Original

When Kelly met Cameron at a Visual Effects Society awards show in 2010, the “Avatar” director – who had watched “Donnie Darko” twice and found it “very disturbing” – took Kelly aside to quiz him. “What happened to Donnie?” he asked. “I started explaining it all to him,” Kelly said, “ and he pointed at me and said, ‘You should keep working on that.’” Given that Cameron helmed what Kelly considers two of the greatest sequels ever made – “Aliens” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” – he took the older director’s advice into serious consideration. “It made me think there was really something big, something epic that could be done,” Kelly said. “So that’s what I’ve been focusing on.”  

Well, among some other projects, like the Rod Serling biopic he’s been working on with Anne Serling, adapting her memoir, As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling. “It’s a really complex, challenging film,” he said. “There is a very ambitious fantasy approach to telling the man’s life, and so we have to have all the elements in perfect synchronicity. We want to make sure we have enough money to do it right, and all the right casting, because we don’t want to make that film with one wrong element that throws it out of whack, because we have such enormous respect for the astonishing footprint that Rod Serling left behind.”

Kelly also has a few other feature films in development — “Amicus,” “Corpus Christi,” and “Soulmates.” “I’m excited about all of them,” he said, adding that he wants to start directing films back-to-back, to “open the floodgates.” It’s hard, though. “Making movies can be like making a house of cards in a windstorm,” he noted. “One element can make the whole thing fall apart, you know?”

Lest anyone think Kelly’s just been taking a long sabbatical since his last film – “The Box,” in 2009 – he said that he’s been “writing, writing, and writing” ever since — and doing some of his best work, too, if he says so himself. “It’s exhausting,” Kelly added. “And as difficult as it has been not to be directing, I’m hopeful that all of this writing is going to pay off so that I can be directing at a higher level, until someone puts me in a mental hospital or I drop dead from exhaustion.”