Richard Kelly hasn't written or directed a film since 2009, but his three features Donnie Darko, Southland Tales and The Box have done plenty to cement him in the hearts of fans forever. And those fans will get a chance to revisit Kelly's challenging and imaginative work with the man himself this weekend, when he makes a rare appearance and conducts a Q&A at the Alamo Drafthouse in Richardson on Saturday.
A double-feature of Donnie Darko and Southland Tales would be warranted for nostalgia's sake alone, but in the context of the election season it has more meaning. The latter is a cautionary tale in the vein of works by Philip K. Dick and Terry Gilliam that presents an alternate version of American history after George W. Bush left office.
It mixes celebrity obsession and political paranoia in a manner far ahead of its 2006 release date. Now we're living in a version of the world he imagined, where politics are part WWE event, part reality series.
Kelly has intentionally set all of his films in election years. He uses science fiction to address social and human behavior, and isn't afraid to make his audience uncomfortable.
"Southland Tales was very much a macro-analysis of a vulgar political circus set in Los Angeles, which is arguably the epicenter of pop culture on planet Earth," he says. "The real world parallels to the film that have developed in the past decade are too many to mention. I don't even know where to begin other than to say that I am very relieved that we elected Barack Obama and that we are about to elect Hillary Clinton."
He's also happy that a few plotlines in Southland Tales didn't turn out to be prophetic. "I am obviously thankful that nobody has set off a nuclear weapon at the Texas border to Mexico," he says.
Kelly also thinks the film was too optimistic to predict the emergence of a figure such as Donald Trump.
"Donald Trump is far too grotesque of a caricature to be aligned with any character in Southland Tales," Kelly says. "Senator Bobby Frost and Nana Mae Frost wouldn't dare endorse him. Baron Von Westphalen would denounce Donald Trump. Actually, he would probably own him more than Putin currently does."
The film originally had a small theatrical run and was not received well by critics. But much like Donnie Darko, which found a cult audience, Southland Tales found fans who cared more about the film's message than its Rotten Tomatoes score. And Kelly found an ally in fellow writer/director Kevin Smith, who experienced the highest of highs with Clerks and the lowest of lows with Mallrats.
"I knew that I had to swing for the fences after Donnie Darko," says Kelly. "I knew I had to do something big, sprawling, epic and ambitious. Sometimes you only have one chance in your career to take a big risk, and for me, that was Southland Tales. It has been a wild ride, and I'm glad that I boarded the roller coaster. The ride isn't over yet. "
That ride will hopefully one day include a director's cut of Southland Tales. "I hope to bring a lot more of Southland Tales to fruition," he says. "The film isn't finished yet. There is a lot more story there. We will have to see what happens, but I am committed to seeing it through until the end."
And that's not the only film of his he'd like to present more of. The Box is on that list, too. "Maybe one day we will get it back in there for a director's cut," he says. "There is a ton of footage that got cut out of that film. A lot of big set pieces."
Kelly isn't worried about the way the movie business is changing, with streaming overshadowing DVDs and even the theater experience. He's grateful for the career boost he got early on, when Donnie Darko wound up being popular on DVD, and he understands that times have changed.
"I am very proud that all three of my films have been released in theaters," he says. "I make films for the big screen. When I eventually direct a long-form television project it will still be meant for the big screen, just a big television home theater screen. In my world there is no such thing as a small screen. I hope my work can still look epic on an iPhone."
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Like many filmmakers, Kelly has been involved with a number of projects that have not come to fruition, but he has remained very busy — he's certainly not finished with his career. He's been helping to get attention for other people's work through his production company Darko Entertainment, which has released a number of films, and he says you will see him behind the camera again soon.
"The challenges are endless, but there is light at the end of the tunnel," he says. "My ideas and ambitions aren't cheap, but I have been working for years to bring a lot of them to the big screen. It has been a fruitful hibernation and my war chest is quite full."
When asked what he thinks about working in TV, where shows like Westworld, Stranger Things and Game of Thrones give filmmakers seemingly limitless room to tell a story, he gives a cryptic, but exciting answer. "I am very excited to embark on a long-form storytelling journey," he says. "Stay tuned. And turn off those awful motion-smoothing settings on your HD televisions!"
Richard Kelly will present Southland Tales and Donnie Darko at 6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. respectively on Saturday, Oct. 22, at the Alamo Drafthouse in Richardson (100 S. Central Expressway). Tickets are $15 for both Donnie Darko (here) and Southland Tales (here).