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‘Southland Tales’ Richard Kelly doesn’t give up

When “Southland Tales” premiered at Cannes, critics ravaged the sprawling movie as incoherent and pompous.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Richard Kelly has made an art form of sticking with his films.

The writer-director created “Donnie Darko,” a collage of high school alienation, giant bunnies and the Gyllenhaal siblings, when he was 26 years old. He thought his nascent film career was over when it bombed at the box office in 2001, earning well under $1 million.

Fans turned it into a cult hit, though, which allowed the former USC film student to craft a director’s cut released in 2004. DVD sales of “Darko” have since passed $10 million.

Now 31, Kelly has just completed his second reclamation project, “Southland Tales.” The film opens Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles, and on Friday in other cities.

“Tales” premiered in competition for the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Popular actors like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Seann William Scott star.

Like “Darko,” it is a pastiche of a film — this time incorporating government surveillance, porn stars and a “mega zeppelin.” Oh, and gun-wielding neo-Marxists, wave-powered alternative fuel and T.S. Eliot. And little people, John Larroquette, Los Angeles and the apocalypse.

‘I would’ve been cutting my throat with a steak knife’Critics ravaged the sprawling movie as incoherent and pompous. Kelly came back from France stung by the response.

“It was a brutal, hostile thing, no one laughing at anything, people sneering,” Kelly said of the Cannes industry screening. “I was not there. I would’ve been cutting my throat with a steak knife, probably.”

Even Johnson is less than ebullient about the first, unfinished cut of the film.

“I knew somewhere in that movie, there was a pretty good, entertaining movie,” Johnson said. “I felt bad for Richard, because as a director, as an artist, it’s your art. ... At times he got an unfair shake with critics.”

Still, Sony picked up the film for domestic distribution. (They beat out, Kelly and producer Sean McKittrick say, four other bidders.)

Kelly went back to the editing bay to trim the over 2½-hour film. By last summer’s Comic-Con in San Diego, where Kelly showed off a musical clip in which Justin Timberlake lip-synchs to the Killers, he expected a November 2006 theatrical release.

Instead, Sony decided that the film needed a money infusion to bolster and add special effects. Several months went by while Sony and Universal, which had international distribution rights, argued over which studio had to pay.

Eventually, Kelly got a few million dollars and went back to work.

Timberlake re-did his voiceover narration, Kelly chopped a plotline involving Janeane Garofalo, and nearly 100 visual effects shots were added or tweaked, some by graphic arts students at a Southern California college. In all, 19 minutes were excised.

“There’s intentional confusion and there’s confusion,” McKittrick said. “And we were trying to get rid of the confusion.”

Ambition on a budgetKelly says his final budget was around $18 million, kept low by actors and crew who worked for union scale.

“That was why we could to this crazy, ambitious, self-indulgent thing is because we were on this very tight budget,” Kelly said.

Yes, he acknowledges that “Tales” is self-indulgent, and that he may never be able to make such a movie again. “I think I got away with something very mischievous in a way,” Kelly said.

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That is, in part: Making a movie that even his own cast can’t exactly grasp. Wallace Shawn, who stars as Baron Von Westphalen, describes the film as “a dream.”

“It’s just not ever going to make sense in a simple way,” Shawn said. “It’s a very, very confusing dream, in a way and you have to accept that.”

Johnson said he hasn’t even tried to figure out how all the disparate plots tie together. “I realized that I couldn’t,” he said. “I think it’s impossible. Only Richard could and only he still can.”

The day after “Southland Tales” had its U.S. premiere at the AFI Fest, Kelly ate lunch at the Sidewalk Cafe in Venice Beach, where he had filmed several scenes. Reflecting on the movie, he looked tired and ducked out of the California sun.

“It became a challenge to me to try to prove to myself and everyone else that I could make another film that could play at the same level as ‘Darko.’ I felt like I had something to prove or something to live up to,” he said.

This month, the Virginia native heads to Boston to shoot his third movie, a psychological thriller called “The Box” starring Cameron Diaz and James Marsden. He calls it his first “adult” movie.

“There was a childlike quality to the first two films that I had to get out of my system,” he said. “Maybe it’s time for me to try to make things a little easier on myself, to not fight the system so much. It wears you down. The key is figuring out how to work within the system but still turns it upside down, in a way that sells tickets.”