Nuclear bombs have gone off in Texas, igniting World War III across the globe. The United States passes totalitarian measures to keep its citizens in check through Orwellian surveillance. And somewhere in there, a figure arrives who may very well be the Antichrist.
"Donnie Darko" helmer Richard Kelly's "Southland Tales" is about the apocalypse, but you might forgive the director if he copped to feeling like he went through the filmmaking equivalent, beginning with a long-delayed start and cresting with a disastrous showing at Cannes more than a year ago. But if it's the end of the world as he knows it, well, Richard Kelly feels just fine.
"It was a tough road, [but] I ask for it. I'm a masochist," Kelly laughed. "[It's a] really challenging, crazy movie, and it's hard to get this stuff through the system. ... If you're going to try to make any kind of unusual film that's nonlinear, or that's political, or that delves into issues that people don't want to talk about or they're afraid to talk about, you're obviously going to encounter challenges and resistance and skepticism, and that's just the nature of the game. It's dangerous."
Since the Cannes showing — which Observer critic Jason Solomon said gave him the "sinking feeling that ['Southland Tales'] may be one of the worst films ever presented in [Cannes] competition" — Kelly has made many changes to the film, including, most drastically, cutting roughly 20 minutes. He has also reshaped the intro with a new voiceover from narrator Justin Timberlake.
But while some Internet pundits have called the Cannes screening, and the resulting bad press, a total wipeout, Kelly insists it was in fact the exact opposite, calling the year since vital to making the very best film possible.
"The movie was a very rough work-in-progress when we brought it to Cannes. We realized that even more so after the festival," he said. "It was my first trip, [and] it was rough. But that's OK. Those experiences, you can let it hurt you or you can use them and make yourself stronger. That's a challenge that is put upon any filmmaker. That's the way that it works. I always love a good challenge and I love a good fight, and that's what [this] is."
By Kelly's own admission, part of what makes "Southland Tales" initially off-putting to some audiences is its density, which castmember Sarah Michelle Gellar said means you probably need to watch the movie "five times" to completely understand it.
"We definitely designed it to be something that would be enhanced by repeat viewings, because it is a big puzzle," Kelly said. "[But] that was part of what we were working on [this past year]. We needed to push it in the direction of being a bit more accessible, and getting it just enough on the first viewing so it's not alienating. I don't think anyone can get absolutely everything in one viewing — there's just too much going on. But it's all there."
That meant streamlining the main narrative to focus more on the story's three main characters, a porn star (Gellar), an amnesiac actor (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) and a cop with nebulous intentions (Seann William Scott). That focus, absent from earlier cuts, paid off in a big way, Kelly said.
"We finally felt like we tamed the beast in a way that we know it holds up under the scrutiny of logic and multiple viewings," he insisted.
With the movie now set for release after nearly two years of constant work in post-production, Kelly insisted he has "no regrets" about the bad press or the premiere at Cannes, or the way the film was hounded from the start.
"I'm just glad that we've gotten this movie to the finish line in one piece. I think if you can just cross the finish line in a sprint, and not wheezing and huffing and puffing, then you're going to be OK," he said, smiling.
"Look," he added. "It's the end of the world. I wanted it to be like this great big party!"
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