Southland Tales: Richard (Donnie Darko) Kelly’s Folly

“It’s a comedy about the end of the world,” states writer/director Richard Kelly. But summing up SOUTHLAND TALES as merely a comedy is a bit of a simplification. Like Kelly’s debut feature, the critically acclaimed 2001 cult favorite DONNIE DARKO, the film defies categorization. SOUTHLAND TALES might be part comedy, part action satire, part thriller, part drama and even part musical, but it is definitely all one thing: the singular vision of Richard Kelly.

A Richard Kelly Movie

“It’s a Richard Kelly film. I think that’s the best way to describe it,” explains Seann William Scott, who plays twins Ronald and Roland Taverner in the film. “With DONNIE DARKO, I think everyone has their own interpretation of what it’s about. And I think the same will go for this movie.”

Origins of Southland Tales

Kelly first began writing this apocalyptic ensemble piece, set against the backdrop of a 2008 Fourth of July celebration in LA, in 2001, shortly after DONNIE DARKO premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and had left without a domestic distributor (Newmarket Films eventually released the film that fall).

“We were re-cutting and going through this struggle and pressure and I was really frustrated and angry. And I felt like my career was probably over, or ending, or in the process of ending because our movie didn’t get picked up and it didn’t seem like it was going to,” recalls Kelly. “And I wanted to write something about Los Angeles and my frustration with Los Angeles, even though it’s a town that I really love and continue to love.”

Getting Drunk

Kelly wrote the initial draft of SOUTHLAND TALES in about three weeks before showing it to his producing partner Sean McKittrick. “I gave it to Sean and he immediately called me and said, “We have to go get drunk,” remembers Kelly. “And we went and got drunk at Hinano, this bar in Venice Beach, and he said, “We have to make this. This is like, my favorite thing you’ve ever written. And it was basically the shell of the story that exists four years later.”

The original draft of the script featured several characters who would make it into the final incarnation, including Boxer Santoros, the action star stricken with amnesia played by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson; Ronald and Roland, a cop and his twin brother, played by Scott; and Zora Carmichaels, a tempestuous neo-Marxist played by Cheri Oteri. What began as a futuristic satire of Los Angeles, however, soon took on a more political bent.

Embedding Politics

“In subsequent years, 9/11 happened and then the Patriot Act and the war in Iraq. I started embedding all these sort of layers of political subtext into the script, and took on more of the influences of Phillip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, Andy Warhol and film noir,” explains Kelly. “So, it evolved over four years into something more significant and meaningful.”

Love-Hate Letter to Los Angeles

Another member of the ensemble is the key role of Krysta Now, an adult film star developing her own reality project. Sarah Michelle Gellar was cast, against type, as Krysta, and believes that the film ultimately became “a love letter and a hate letter to Los Angeles.” It was in this spirit that Kelly turned to a variety of cinematic influences. “Certainly, you look at something like THE BIG LEBOWSKI, which is an influence on this film in terms of looking at some of the bottom feeder elements of Los Angeles culture,” he says.

Decadent Underbelly

“But I think that any movie about L.A., any film noir that takes this town to heart is gonna be filled with some kind of decadent underbelly.” The screenplay actually features a scene from one beloved noir, Robert Aldrich’s 1955 KISS ME DEADLY, in which Ralph Meeker’s character encounters numerous shady characters on his way to discovering a box that triggers the apocalypse. “There’s something about those kinds of L.A. stories being just a means to kind of weave your way through the underbelly of Los Angeles, to arrive at some grand revelation. And this is designed in that kind of style and is a tribute, I guess, to those kinds of films.”

Graphic Novels

In order to set the stage for SOUTHLAND TALES, Kelly wrote a series of THREE GRAPHIC NOVELS with illustrations designed by Brett Weldee that serve as a prequel to the film: SOUTHLAND TALES BOOK I: TWO ROADS DIVERGE, SOUTHLAND TALES BOOK II: FINGERPRINTS and SOUTHLAND TALES BOOK III: THE MECHANICALS. SOUTHLAND TALES, the film, functions as the FINAL THREE CHAPTERS in Kelly’s saga.

The three graphic novels will be released as a compilation for the first time in conjunction with the film’s release. They can be purchased at, and at comic specialty and traditional bookstores everywhere. These novels set the tone and portray the events of the days prior to where the movie begins.

Cinematic Influences

Where THE BIG LEBOWSKI and KISS ME DEADLY took place in the present, SOUTHLAND TALES needed to create a futuristic world on an independent budget. “I always hoped that this would be in the league of something like BRAZIL or BLADE RUNNER, not that it’s as futuristic as BLADE RUNNER or as design-heavy as BRAZIL, in the attention to detail, and what, I hope, is a really great visual accomplishment in terms of the production design and cinematography,” says Kelly. “But, to do all that stuff with 30 days and not too much money is a real challenge.”

To face the challenge, Kelly assembled a skilled below-the-line team including cinematographer Steven Poster, costume designer April Ferry, and production designer Alexander Hammond, all of whom the director worked with on DONNIE DARKO. To compose the film’s score, Kelly turned to award-winning contemporary music artist Moby.


Despite the month-long shooting schedule and budgetary constraints, Gellar believes there was a genuine camaraderie on set. “Everyone was so enthused to be here,” the actress believes. “Obviously people were not, including crew members, making what they’re used to making. It was a very, very tight schedule. But, we had some of the best people in the business. All of these people were here because they loved it.”

One of the real challenges for the SOUTHLAND TALES crew and cast was that many of the scenes and visual concepts imagined by Kelly weren’t necessarily in the script. “I hope that visually and with the editing and the music, when audiences see the film all put together, that it will make a lot more sense on screen than it does on the page. Because of some of the ways in which we’ve had to physically make this film, the script got pared down to 90 pages. But the movie we made is not 90 pages long.”

The editing of the script and Kelly’s desire to re-insert scenes during shooting was often a daunting experience for the actors. Dwayne Johnson jokes that he even began to give up on fully comprehending the final product. “I’ve been close to this project now and close to Richard for over a year, and I stopped trying to completely understand everything that’s happening in the movie because there are so many stories that are taking place, all which, by the way, wind up being connected. So I thought the best thing for me to do is to completely understand and have my interpretation of Boxer Santaroswhere he comes from, where he wants to go, what he believes in and things like that. Because there are a lot of things that only Richard Kelly could tell you.”

There’s Lots Going On

“I think that it is probably overwhelming,” Kelly agrees, “in the sense that the script, to the actors, is probably a little confusing and, what is it all about in the end–I think it’s about where our country is going, our current dilemma when you’re talking about alternative fuel, terrorism, our civil liberties being taken away from us, and the potential effects of environmental degradation on human behavior, neurological responses, global warming. You know, there’s a lot going on here.”