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‘My ideas get bigger and bigger’: Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly on The Box, trauma and finally returning to cinema

The man behind ‘Donnie Darko’ talks to Adam White about his polarising 2009 masterpiece, what he’s been doing in his decade of cinema exile, and his planned return

Thursday 12 December 2019 08:00 GMT
‘If there’s any psychological trauma associated with my work, that tends to get minimised over the years’: James Marsden and Cameron Diaz in ‘The Box’
‘If there’s any psychological trauma associated with my work, that tends to get minimised over the years’: James Marsden and Cameron Diaz in ‘The Box’

Like every self-respecting and preternaturally moody pre-teen at the turn of the millennium, I fell in love with Donnie Darko – the directorial debut of 20-something wunderkind Richard Kelly. I adored its puzzle-box quality, its bunny rabbits and time travel and romantic trauma, all soundtracked to Eighties hits I hadn’t heard back then. I think I also loved Kelly’s sprawling, political and deliriously confusing follow-up, Southland Tales, too – even if few others did. But it was The Box, Kelly’s third and, as of 2019, final film, that has lingered in my mind far more than his others in the decade since its release.

Built on a tight, intimidating moral conundrum, The Box slowly spirals into something far grander. It begins simply enough: Norma and Arthur Lewis, a suburban couple in 1970s Virginia and played by Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, are visited by a mysterious stranger with half a face (Frank Langella), who proposes an unusual game. He has a box in his possession, and if the Lewises press the button inside of it, they will be given a million dollars in cash. The catch? Someone neither of them know will die.

But then Kelly spirals outward. There are interdimensional gateways, aliens, God, and Diaz peeling off her sock to reveal a clubfoot – and all of it played so ambiguously that it’s not too surprising that cinema audiences found it infuriating at the time. CinemaScore exit polls at certain US screenings produced an “F” grade overall, landing The Box in the company of outright disasters like the Lindsay Lohan amputee thriller I Know Who Killed Me (2007), as well as notoriously polarising experiments like Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! (2017). The Box also wasn’t the cut-and-dried, easy-to-follow mystery it was billed as. If anything, it was even more confusing than Kelly’s previous work. After The Box’s release, and its underwhelming box office gross of $33m, Kelly effectively disappeared.

“If there’s any wounds or psychological trauma associated with the films, that tends to get minimised over the years. It becomes a part of your life,” Kelly tells me from his office in Los Angeles. Speaking to Kelly is akin to speaking to a millennial, filmmaking JD Salinger, both men finding fame as authors of singular masterpieces about grouchy teenage loners, yet cloaked in mystery ever since.

Kelly isn’t quite as self-isolating as Salinger, happily indulging finickity questions and open about where things went awry, but he remains an ambiguous figure all the same. Kelly last did press in 2017, for the 15th anniversary re-release of Donnie Darko, and hasn’t talked about The Box since 2009. And for those who adored his inarguably distinctive voice in cinema, it’s been frustratingly absent for the past decade. There have been projects in development here and there, aborted directorial gigs and rumoured collaborations (including a true-crime mystery with Nicolas Cage) but nothing concrete. It would be ludicrous to get time with him and not ask him where he’s been hiding all this time.

“I didn’t expect things to take this long,” he says with a sigh. “I wish it would have happened faster and I could have got another movie off the ground much sooner, but I have not been idle. I’ve worked on a whole lot of movies that my name isn’t on. There have been opportunities that I’ve turned down, that I just didn’t think were right for me. But I’ve just been focused on a large volume of writing and putting together a bunch of projects. There’s a massive amount of stuff in the works, and hopefully at a scale that will let my imagination get on screen, with all the bells and whistles and the detail that people will hopefully want and expect from me. I don’t want to come back and underwhelm people. I want people to feel like it was worth the wait.”

First, however, he is looking back. “I have great affection for all three of the films that I’ve directed,” he tells me, his voice upbeat and swaggering. “I have this paternal love and affection for them, and that doesn’t go away over time.”

The Box, released in the UK 10 years ago this month, is the least probed of Kelly’s three movies. Donnie Darko has long been shorthand for cult filmmaking in the early 21st century, its following developing over time, and its plot endlessly dissected and analysed. Southland Tales has grown in recognition since 2006, too. An end-of-the-world epic with a large ensemble cast that included Dwayne Johnson as an amnesiac movie star and Sarah Michelle Gellar as a porn mogul, it was booed at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, savaged by critics and recut for a minuscule theatrical release in 2007. Today, however, it seems alert, distinct and creepily prescient. Kelly was warning of the uneasy, terrifying collision between Hollywood, politics and pornography years before Kim Kardashian and Kanye West were palling around in the White House, after all.

Cameron Diaz in the theatrical trailer for 2009's The Box

The Box, in comparison, has earned little of the same legacy, perhaps because it is assumed to be a much more minor creative endeavour. And at least for its first half hour, it very much is. As a film about a box, a button and a tantalising sum of money, The Box initially resembles a kind of genre spin on Indecent Proposal, inspiring the murkiest of questions in everyone watching. The film’s source material didn’t go much further. Loosely adapted from a 1970 short story titled Button, Button by I Am Legend author Richard Matheson, it was appropriately turned into an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1986. In Matheson’s original story, it ended with a twist: Norma presses the button and Arthur dies, the mysterious stranger informing her that she never truly knew her husband.

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But Kelly subverted it, unfurling the fundamentals of Matheson’s story until it resembled a complex labyrinth about faith and fate, free will and destiny. Kelly says he was fascinated during the writing process by “panspermia” – the theory that all life on earth began from microorganisms in outer space – and duly wrote it into his script. There are additionally allusions to the Garden of Eden, the discovery of microbiotic life on Mars, and a secret society monitoring humanity. Who may also be aliens.

“As I tend to do,” Kelly laughs, “my ideas get bigger and bigger the more I develop something. But at the centre of this movie I did have a very simple conceit. I appreciated it, and after doing Southland Tales I did really want to just do a story about a husband and a wife – a story that focused on two characters who are brought this gift that completely transforms their lives. It’s a very specific and linear story, unless you really want to dig deep into the metaphysics of what you’re seeing. So I started with the simplicity, and then I just went in like a painter, and started painting in all these little details.”

It means The Box endlessly oscillates between horror and sci-fi, marital drama and conspiracy thriller. There are glimmers of The Parallax View, a dash of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Arthur steps into a giant blob of floating liquid in the basement of a library, and steps out into a flood of water that smashes down from above his marital bed. Things got even “deeper and crazier” originally, Kelly says, having shot between 35 and 40 minutes of additional footage that has never seen the light of day.

‘I was just grateful to be working at a big studio’: Kelly alongside Diaz and Marsden at the 2009 premiere of the film (Getty)

“There was a whole teleportation sequence and chase sequence,” he says, “and a sequence in the third act where James and Cameron are taken to this massive nuclear facility, where there’s more tests and experimentation and it gets really wild.” He admits, though, that much of it was “definitely superfluous”.

“It was me playing and experimenting,” he explains. “I was continuously making revisions to the script as we were shooting. Which is not something I would probably do [now]. I’ve spent the last decade writing and prepping tons of huge projects, so all my new scripts are really, really polished and they’re really put-together. I think on Southland Tales and The Box I was constantly coming up with and exploring new ideas and adding stuff. I’m known to just keep adding things in, because I just get so caught up in all the ideas that I’m trying to explore. My mind kept spinning and spinning and spinning.”

What is funny about all of this is that The Box was endlessly promoted as something far more conventional than it is, and certainly not one of the most daring studio movies in recent memory. In a New York Times feature ahead of the film’s release, The Box is described as “mostly straightforward [and] linear” and “deliberately calculated to be commercial”. Kelly confesses today that Warner Bros, the studio behind the film, indeed bent the truth a little.

‘We had a movie that they knew had a huge logic that I understood’: Cameron Diaz in ‘The Box’

“We had a movie that they knew had a huge logic that I understood, but that they knew that general audiences were gonna struggle with,” he says. “I think their mandate was pretty simple, it was just, ‘Cut it as short as you can.’ I was contractually obligated to deliver it as 1 hour and 50 minutes [long], I think. So literally the mandate was: ‘Richard, we’re gonna release this just because we know we can sell the concept.’”

Along with the runtime stipulations, Warner Bros also refused to screen the movie at any festivals, despite invites from “some prestigious ones”, Kelly says. He says today that he didn’t have any problems with its decision-making. “I was probably still a bit traumatised about Southland Tales and everything I went through on that film,” he says, “so I was just grateful to be working at a big studio.”

He adds, however, that “there was this question mark lingering over the movie, like ‘What is it?’ None of my movies are easy to market, let’s put it that way. But this at least had that conceptual hook – of pressing the button and someone will die. They knew they could sell that in a 30-second TV spot, and that was what gave the studio confidence to go ahead and give us a wide release for it – for such an unusual art film.”

Even the film’s biggest defenders will concede that The Box is often too ambitious, that it feels like the work of a visionary still exploring and building his world, rather than something made with slick confidence. Roger Ebert loved it, but freely admitted that Kelly’s plot went “from A to Z using 52 letters”, while The Independent’s Nicholas Barber wrote that its “loopy ideas” meant it travelled “a long, long way from its original quandary”. It’s also a film that only becomes richer and more rewarding through multiple viewings – not inherently a bad thing, but asking a lot of your audience.

‘I think the audience has sort of evolved’: Richard Kelly with Jake Gyllenhaal on the set of ‘Donnie Darko’

What can’t be denied is that it embodies Kelly at his most directorially confident – he shoots on hazy digital, lending everything the look of being trapped in a snow globe, directs Diaz and Marsden to brilliantly human and warm performances, and recruited Owen Pallett and Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Regine Chassagne to craft a paranoid, terrifying score reminiscent of late-night black-and-white horror movies.

That aforementioned score cruelly remains unavailable to buy or stream, and adds to a feeling that The Box has been unfairly forgotten. It’s especially frustrating when you see its influence on so many of the films we today recognise as modern horror classics. In its wake, a number of Twilight Zone-esque thrillers began populating cinemas, with Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us) launching an entire cottage industry of spooky and socially relevant horror movies, and Ari Aster’s Midsommar and Hereditary proving there is space in the marketplace for incredibly long and complex chillers. The Box, with its heightened mystery, surrealism and genre-bending, seemed to miss the boat.

“With everything that’s happened in the past decade, I think people are more amenable to disturbing and unusual puzzle-type movies,” Kelly says. “I think the audience has sort of evolved. Maybe we were just a little bit ahead of the curve?”

You also can’t help but think it proves that now, 10 long years after Kelly last brought one of his visions to the big screen, is the perfect time for him to make his comeback. He promises, with absolute certainty, that it’ll happen soon.

“Once the first project officially has its green light, then I think you’re gonna see me directing a lot of stuff for quite a long time.” He pauses, with characteristic ambiguity. “Barring any further catastrophe.”

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