Porn star. Severed thumbs. Amnesiac actor. Lip-synching Iraq veteran. Psychedelic drugs. Kidnapped cop. His twin brother. Neo-Marxist anarchists. Republicans. Levitating ice-cream truck. Apocalypse. “This is the way the world ends,” intoned Justin Timberlake as Southland Tales began its catastrophic debut screening at last year’s Cannes . Two hours and 40 minutes later, critics – the ones who stayed – had little clue how the world or the movie had ended. Many were just thankful it had.
A week later, writer-director Richard Kelly left Cannes with no distributor and a head full of bad press. Unquantifiable, unfathomable, unreleasable… Kelly’s follow-up to his genre-bending cult debut Donnie Darko was also, he now says, unfinished. “We were freaking out,” recalls Kelly. “We couldn’t refuse being nominated for the Palme d’Or, but we just didn’t have the movie ready. The edit was a work-in-progress and the visual effects weren’t finished.” But then Sony Pictures tabled an offer of time and money, allowing Kelly and his team to step back into the editing room. Which is exactly where they stayed. For a year and a half.
“Sony didn’t give me a deadline,” explains Kelly, as finally Southland Tales braces for its UK theatrical release. “But they wanted it shorter and they wanted a Blade Runner text-crawl as a prologue. Instead, I did a big animated sequence that sets up what’s happened to America over the three years.”
That was just the start. Kelly duly chopped 20 minutes of subplot (‘Some of the esoteric, hardcore sci-fi stuff’), amped up the special effects (“Burning buildings, thousands of digital people rioting, more shots of the Zeppelin lifting off”) and re-recorded Timberlake’s voiceover (“I had Justin watch Apocalypse Now and mimic Martin Sheen”).
But the major enigma was in the edit: resplicing the miasma of characters, conspiracies, plotlines and ideas that felt like five films thrashing inside a single narrative. “I’ll never, ever, in my career, be challenged in the editing-room the way I was here,’ says Kelly. ‘It was like buying a jigsaw, opening up the box and dumping all the pieces on the table. Putting the puzzle together was a lot of trial and error.”
Scratching heads with Kelly were two editors, an assistant, a Sony exec and producer Sean McKittrick – who went back to basics to reshape the director’s vision. “We actually physically drew up three-by-five cards of each scene on a wall,” explains McKittrick. “We always described the film as a big game of Jenga. You can take things out – but take the wrong thing out and it’s going to topple. As we moved sequences around to make it flow more cohesively, we literally had the whole film moving around on the wall. Several walls!” Where did most of this scene shuffling take place? “In the first chapter,” says Kelly. “Yeah, chapter four.”
Well, quite. Parachuting its audience into a pre-apocalyptic future Los Angeles, Southland Tales has begun well before the film begins – Kelly’s graphic novels (completed post-Cannes) tell the first three chapters and complex websites aim to pour more missing detail into the blanks. “It all ties together, like new media,” says Kelly. “I got the graphic novels finished. I got the film finished. There are multiple websites – which aren’t finished. So we’re pretty far along, but we just didn’t have the money or time to take the websites as far as we’d wanted. It’s very ambitious.”
That would be the word. Ambitious enough, in fact, to flummox its own creator. “The longer the editing process wore on, the more it was like, ‘Are we going to be able to solve this before people just throw in the towel?'” admits Kelly.
“But the subject of this film was the end of civilisation as we know it: it had to be this big and elaborate and puzzle-like. Because that’s the dilemma we’re in right now as a country, as a species or as a planet, whether it’s Iraq or global warming or health care.” Does Kelly’s puzzle now add up? “Absolutely. I’ve done two years of post-production on this film and I finally feel like it’s done. I’m very happy with this cut. I’ve seen it dozens and dozens of times now.” He pauses. “There’s a couple of sub-plots that I might want to extend in a longer cut, but…” Wait, a longer cut? “I think so, yeah. When I’ve finished my new film, The Box, I’ll go back and we’ll do a director’s cut.”
So if the Southland tales are still not over, what has Kelly been left with after 16 months playing jigsaw-Jenga? In truth, much of the same. Opening with shaky-cam footage of a nuclear detonation, Southland Tales sends Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Seann William Scott (twice) into a brain-melting narrative vortex that’s near-impossible to grapple with – despite this new cut’s frontloaded exposition.
Perhaps time and money will some day reveal Kelly’s film as one segment in a new kind of cross-media masterpiece, bigger than the four corners of the screen. Perhaps. But any way you slice it, Kelly’s end-of-days pulp-prophecy – sprawling between sci-fi, political satire and comedy, laced with multi-references to literature, music, media and movies – is a truly flawed, truly audacious spectacle. And ironically, like his director’s cut of Donnie Darko, this bizarre epic might just have been a grander vision in its original state.
Read Jonathan’s original article at Time Out.