Richard Kelly on ‘The Box’: ‘It’s the most personal film’ he’s made

July 26, 2009 | 7:28 a.m.
Cameron-diaz-the-box-poster

In his relatively brief career, writer-director Richard Kelly has seen plenty of controversy. His 2001 debut, “Donnie Darko,” played the Sundance Film Festival, flopped at the box office and then went on to find a massive and loyal cult audience on home video (not to mention bolster the career of star Jake Gyllenhaal). His follow-up, “Southland Tales,” was a wild, sprawling narrative set in a futuristic version of Los Angeles that drew a decidedly mixed reaction when an early cut screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006; it was more than a year later before the movie saw a very limited release in the U.S. 

Now, the Virginia-born filmmaker has crafted what might be his most conventional outing yet, the Warner Bros. thriller “The Box.” Based on the short story “Button, Button” by Richard Matheson, Cameron Diaz and James Marsden star as a married couple who receive a strange visit from a man, Mr. Steward (Frank Langella) bearing a fairly nondescript-looking contraption. He tells them that if they press the button on top of the unit, they will receive $1 million, but a stranger will die.

Just before Kelly debuted new footage at Comic-Con on Friday, he told Hero Complex contributor Gina McIntyre in an interview that “The Box” is the most personal of all his films. It opens Oct. 30.


What made you want to adapt this particular Richard Matheson short story?

This story just stuck with me. I read it as a kid and I went and optioned it about six years ago from Mr. Matheson himself. I wanted to know who Mr. Steward was. Why does he show up with this button unit? Who does he work for? Why is he doing this to people? What does it all mean? Like a kid in Sunday school, I had all these questions and I felt like I wanted to be the guy to have a crack at answering some of those questions and playing this six-page short story out. The short story is the framework for Act 1, then Act 2 and Act 3 become all about Arthur and Norma [Marsden and Diaz] and their journey of redemption and discovery and salvation, dealing with the consequences of having pushed this button and then discovering why have they been chosen. 

How was it to work with material that was originally created by someone else?


This is the first time I’ve made a film that isn’t a 100% original screenplay, but I feel OK with it because it was only six pages long and it was almost begging to be revisited. It’s such a tantalizing concept that it sort of deserves feature-length treatment. It warranted that — if anything I just wanted to make sure to kind of thoroughly investigate the premise and really do it properly. It took a while to figure that out. Sometimes you find that the best way to go about something is to go back to your family. I imagined what if this were my parents. What if my parents got this button unit back in Virginia in 1976 and my dad having worked at NASA. I thought about NASA and the nature of the experiment, the government and everything that exists in that area of Virginia in terms of the CIA, the FBI in northern Virginia, all that infrastructure there. All of a sudden it started to click in my mind and become something really interesting and complex, a big kind of conspiracy. 

You were a writer-director and producer on this film. How important is for you to have that kind of creative control?

I’m definitely a control freak. To do your job properly as a director you have to be a control freak, so I’m really happy to be a part of all those processes. If I’m ever lucky enough to find someone else’s screenplay that I really identify with and would want to direct, I’m sure I would always do a little bit of rewriting of it, just because that’s the nature of my control-freakishness. I’m getting more open to doing other stories and other people’s stories, but at the same time I’m writing two original screenplays right now. I feel like I need to be the person controlling the idea.

Will one of those two scripts be your next project?
 
I hope so. I’ve got my new script done. 

Can you reveal any details about that completed script?

It’s a thriller and it’s about 35% motion capture. To be able to create a world from scratch is an exciting idea and seeing what all these amazing filmmakers like Jim Cameron and [Robert] Zemeckis and Peter Jackson — I’d love to be able to use some of the tools that they’re pioneering. That would be really exciting for me. 




After everything that happened with “Southland Tales,” was there less pressure on you with this film?

The third film is maybe a little easier than the second one. I didn’t make my life so difficult with this one as to try to do something so incredibly ambitious. “Southland Tales” was a huge challenge. This was also a challenge, but it’s a much simpler story with three characters and certainly something that’s quite a bit more commercial in terms of a studio being able to market and release it. So there was less pressure in that. It was great to have a studio on board from the beginning. That was a relief. 



You didn’t have any problems working within the studio system?

It actually was a pretty easy experience making the film with the studio. I actually kind of enjoyed it, just the security of knowing it’s going to get release, that you have them have a vested interest from the beginning. I got to make exactly the film I wanted. “Southland Tales” was such an ambitious film, just getting it finished. I knew that after Cannes it was going to be a very small release with no marketing money and I was just grateful that Sony gave me some more money to finish the visual effects. The cut wasn’t finished at Cannes. We had so much unfinished visual effects work to make stuff look right. It was frustrating, it was difficult, but I bit off a lot, and it took me a long time to chew it. I’m so proud of what we accomplished with that film. If anything I would love to be able to revisit it down the road, do a director’s cut, maybe one day when I’m in my 40s, who knows. It feels good to have the third film done because maybe the first act of my career is sort of over and I can move into the second act. In the same way, “The Box” is my first grownup film. The first two were certainly adolescent in the sense of being really provocative and aggressively unconventional. Now, “The Box” is a much more conventional story, but I will say it still is idiosyncratic. I don’t feel like I’ve sold out or watered myself down. I still feel like it has my sensibility. It’s the most personal film of all the three ironically. 

– Gina McIntyre

Photo credit: Warner Bros.

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