Today, Arrow Video released Southland Tales — Donnie Darko creator Richard Kelly’s 2006 dystopian satire — on Blu-ray, complete with something that most audiences have never seen before: the film’s original cut, screened at the Cannes Film Festival, where it bombed and the studio requested Kelly make changes. The movie itself was a bit like the original Star Wars trilogy in that it tells a “middle chapter” kind of story, though, and the Cannes is longer, and provides some insight into where Kelly was coming from, and where he wanted to go, with Southland Tales. The Cannes cut has circulated in bootleg form occasionally, but today’s Blu-ray marks the first official release.
It also may be a gauge for whether a Southland follow-up is realistic. Kelly is keen to return to the world of Southland Tales, and while the movie was a critical and commercial disappointment in 2006, its passionate following has remained steadfast in the years since.
Kelly joined ComicBook to discuss the release, which you can find in stores and online now.
Southland Tales has always had something of a cult following, but it seems like that has really increased in its intensity over the years. What do you think of that?
I’ve seen it grow, and I’ve seen it trend in a way where, as things get crazier and crazier in the American political discourse, it comes back around. Just when we think it can’t get any more bizarre, or more like a never ending Twilight Zone episode that seems to have ensnared the human race, the film doesn’t seem as crazy or as maybe outlandish as it seemed when we made it.
I tried to make the film, even back then, as comfort food, strangely enough. That might sound bizarre to people, but [we made it] as kind of like coping mechanism with the anxiety that existed when we made the film. I think now those anxieties have just become so aggravated and expanded. Everything that has transpired in the 15 years since we shot the film…I think maybe it’s just easier for people to embrace it, or to kind of see a reflection in the film.
I just feel now, that I want to revisit [Southland Tales] more than ever. I want to revisit that world more than ever, because I know there’s so much more we can do with it. As sad as the state of affairs are in the world right now, I always approach these apocalyptic movies to try to be some kind of therapy, or therapeutic drug.
Do you have a favorite “crazy fan theory” about what Southland Tales left ambiguous?
There’s been so many. I try not to obsess over analysis. I have my own analysis of the film, and I have my own interpretation of everything that is happening — or even in the expanded kind of version of it in my mind.
I try not to focus too much on theories, but I think there was one that said that the three lead characters in the film — Boxer, the Taverner twins, and then Chris and Christa, are part of a Holy Trinity, or something to do with the Holy Trinity in Christianity. I need to go back to Bible school. The exact definition of the Holy Trinity is the…what is it?
The father, son, and the Holy Spirit.
Right. So they had this interpretation of those three characters being the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit, which was fascinating.
But I also can’t discount that theory in a way, because kind of one of the foundational plot secrets, digging deep into the graphic novels is that the original screenplay,written by Krysta Now for The Power, was the result of reading the Book of Revelation while on Fluid Karma and mushrooms. So there was always a whiff of being sort of a completely bonkers interpretation of the Book of Revelation. So, far be it for me to discount anyone’s bonkers interpretation of my bonkers movie.
You may have been the first person to get Kevin Smith to act in your movie without him actually writing it…
Kevin Smith is an old friend, and so that was it. I loved getting to put him in prosthetic makeup as well, and do all sorts of fun stuff with Kevin.
It’s funny, because one of Kevin Smith’s biggest fans on social media is a podcaster named Matt Westphalen — like Von Westphalen, but without the “Von.”
Well, it’s funny, um, Baron Von Westphalen, who is the chief architect of Fluid Karma and the super villain of Southland Tales played by Wallace Shawn — his namesake was taken from Karl Marx’s wife, Jenny Von Westphalen. And so we created this sort of family lineage, where the Baron and his mother Anga are claiming to be descendants of the Jenny Von Westphalen family, a very reputable German family or Austrian family from Trier, which is the city where they were from.
So we dig into the history of Baron Von Westphalen. And the truth is that he’s completely lied, and fabricated his family connection to the Marx dynasty, the Von Westphalen dynasty, as a way of pumping up his credentials. He’s a snake oil salesman and a fraud, and his Von Westphalen and namesake is not connected to the Jenny Von Westphalen/Marx dynasty. There’s some deep dive trivia for you!
Sometimes there’s these serendipitous things that just come out of the ether that filmmakers don’t realize that they’re doing an homage, or they they’re making a connection or a reference. It just kind of happens in a, in a coincidental way.
The biggest thing in Southland Tales is the levitating ice cream truck. I remember a screening the movie from Moby, who was our composer, and he saw one of the earlier cuts of the movie in the editing room. And the first thing he said to me when, when the film ended is, he turned to me and he said, “It’s Repo Man. You’ve done an homage to Repo Man.” Because of the, the levitating car at the end of Repo Man.
At that point, I had still never even seen Repo Man. So, so clearly when I watched Repo Man, I’m like, “Oh my God, there’s such a similarity with the levitating ice cream truck. Everyone is going to think this is an homage.” But I, for whatever reason, had never seen Repo Man, which is totally my kind of movie, and I love the movie. I’ve seen it many times since, but like sometimes these things just sort of happen — almost like our unconscious mind is referencing things that we haven’t even been exposed to yet.
It’s kind of funny because relative to a lot of your contemporaries from this time in terms of Smith and Linkletter and Tarantino, um, you seem to homage a lot less. You aren’t quite as pop-culture obsessed in your work.
I borrow and I steal from plenty, I want to be clear about that. I’m very guilty — I try to think of it as flattery. I hope people are flattered if I’m borrowing from them, or if I’m referencing them. But I guess I try to embed the thievery deeper into the text of what I’m trying to do, to try and create my universe. I’m trying to claim authorship of the universes that I’m building, but, I’d say the one I’m stealing from the most in Southland Tales is probably Philip K Dick. In terms of the feeling of the vibe — the Southern California, drugs-filled near future, the doppelgangers. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said was a big reference.
I even had Jon Lovitt say “flow my tears” in that one scene after he shoots Dion and Dream, you know, in the sequence in the second act of the film. Thomas Pynchon and Phillip K. Dick were definitely big reference points more than anything. So I guess there’s a lot of literary references that I pack into all three of my films. Books that are clearly referenced in Donnie Darko, and a play, and The Box. So maybe I’m kind of borrowing or paying homage more to literary fiction in a lot of ways, um, as opposed to directly from, from movies. But there’s definitely a lot of influences there that I have to acknowledge.
You said earlier you’d like to revisit Southland Tales. Do you have a format in mind, or is it a general thought?
There’s been a significant amount of work done on revisiting Southland Tales. I’m actually doing a polish on what I’ve been putting together in terms of an expanded version of it, which is using the graphic novel prequels, which I don’t know if you’ve read or even seen anything about them, but there were three, three graphic novel prequels that were published with the generous support of Kevin Smith and his partner, Bob Chapman, who kind of self-published them.
You can see in the existing version of Southland Tales — and again, neither version of the movie is finished; the Cannes version is very raw in a lot of ways, kind of like a work in progress. But you’ll see that the existing film is chapters four through six. So there is basically a prequel companion film and that, if it’s made, could theoretically continue onward into an expanded version of the existing film with new footage. In the most ideal version, it would basically be one big, six-hour films split in two, and within each film, there’s, there’s three chapters, so it’s like a six chapter story, but it would be presented in two epic movies, like a big double feature that could exist on a streaming platform or something that is more amenable to these sort of long form stories.
There’s definitely been an enormous amount of work that I’ve done taking the graphic novels and expanding them and adapting them into new screenplays, which is the first three chapters, and then new material that would be integrated into the existing stuff. So that, that is the most exciting and ambitious version of what I would love to do with Southland Tales.
Obviously there’s all sorts of caveats and questions surrounding all of that. But it’s been very therapeutic for me to do the work, and to try and put it together and have it ready for people to look at and to decide whether that’s something worth pursuing. I’m very excited by it, and I feel like there’s definitely a lot more there in this world, that’s worthy of exploration, and there’s a lot of new, surprising things that I think could really make it a much more satisfying experience. It was never really going to be a satisfying story within the parameters of a single feature film. It was just too much to fit into that, so we’ll see what happens.
When you look at what they’re doing with Zack Snyder’s Justice League, does that make you go “yeah, I think this market exists now?”
Well, we are entering into a new world of digesting narratives. With these sorts of streaming platforms, we have trained the audience into being more open to digesting longer stories that exist in that netherworld between a feature film and a long form television series. You see what Steve McQueen has just done with the Small Ax anthology on Amazon and what Zack Snyder is working on with Justice League. I think that if you have a film that really exists normally in the traditional theatrical distribution space that has these sort of requirements, these running time requirements.
Look at what Scorsese did with The Irishman. Those sorts of films kind of need to exist in a streaming platform, but they still have the authorship of, they’re all directed by the same person and the same screenwriter and the same cinematographer. So that’s part of what’s most exciting about the streaming revolution that we’re experiencing right now, is that maybe we’ll start to expand the definition of what a film is.
I think we could maybe see a sort of expansion of that definition. I think we’re seeing the way that the Oscars are changing their rules in terms of streaming, and accepting for eligibility, that the streaming world can maybe start to expand the definition of what a feature film is.
I’m trying to embrace all the changes with a positive attitude, and if it affords me the opportunity to revisit something like Southland Tales, and we can present it in a way where it’s two companions, that’s very exciting to me and I’m going to lean into that and I’m going to, I’m going to do the work and do my best to try and sell everyone on the idea.
I don’t know how to pitch things. I envy people that know that know how to go into a room, and razzle-dazzle, do the dance and the tap dance. I don’t know how to do that. I feel like a fraud when I try to do that. So I just do the writing.
There’s been basically constant talk since S. Darko about trying to revisit Donnie Darko again. Is that something that you would be personally interested in, or is it something that you feel like you’ve had your say and now it’s in someone else’s hands?
I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about anything Donnie Darko related, but it would be over my cold, dead body that I would ever allow anyone to do anything in that world without my overwhelming contribution and control. And I would be very, very, very excited to revisit that world in a very ambitious way.