As the follow-up to his debut feature, the unexpectedly enduring teen-movie/sci-fi hybrid Donnie Darko, writer-director Richard Kelly has crafted an even more ambitious and far-reaching story. Southland Tales, set in the near future, somehow brings together an energy crisis, a withering look at both sides of the U.S. political divide, contemporary surveillance culture, and celebrity as both lifestyle brand and pornography substitute. It’s out there, as they say. Fittingly, Kelly has assembled a discombobulated cast including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jon Lovitz, Amy Poehler, Lou Taylor Pucci, Miranda Richardson, Wallace Shawn, and a slew of cameos.
The 30-year-old director’s ambition doesn’t stop there. There are also plans for a series of graphic-novel prequels to the film, and at the time of shooting, there are at least three websites devoted to characters or corporate entities featured in the film, as well as an official Southland Tales site. The producers are Sean McKittrick, who worked with Kelly on Donnie Darko, Kendall Morgan and Bo Hyde from Cherry Road Films and Matthew Rhodes from Persistent Entertainment. Also returning from Darko are cinematographer Steven Poster and production designer Alec Hammond.
It is only the second day of principal photography, and the series of air ducts which flow out from a dusty warehouse just east of downtown Los Angeles leads one into the “neo-Marxist compound” where preparations are being made for a scene between Saturday Night Live alumni Cheri Oteri and Lovitz. The room is a punk playground covered in graffiti and flyers and packed with weird flotsam like a shopping cart full of bowling pins and George W. Bush masks. Right next to the small warren of chairs and monitors where Kelly and his producers watch the scene is a sex doll with a fluorescent lighting-tube jammed into its obligingly open plastic mouth. It is at once deeply unnerving and rather amusing. Kelly points it out before also noting the video loop projection of an atom-bomb explosion that plays across a wall. He adds that he considers the paranoia classic Kiss Me Deadly a favorite and among the key influences on his new film.
As the director goes over the scene with the actors, Lovitz, surprisingly slim and with a shock of bleached blond hair that contrasts with his dark police uniform, says, “We’re gonna try something. So if you don’t cut, it’ll be after that.”
The director perks up at the idea. “I want improvs,” he says approvingly.
Everyone runs through the scene a couple of times to get a camera move and some lighting cues right, and Kelly asks Lovitz to time a particular action a certain way. Oteri, wearing a white robe and headband in a purposeful nod to Sunset Boulevard, handles the waiting and run through of rehearsals with upbeat gusto. At last, a proper take is underway, and eventually Lovitz comes up behind Oteri and ambiguously moves his hands up to her neck.
“Do you want to fuck or watch a movie?”
Oteri responds with the unexpected punch line, “Let’s watch a fucking movie.”
Kelly’s shoulders shake as he holds in a laugh. He seems quite pleased with this addition to his intricate script, and after a few more takes the scene is done.
A while later, the room has effectively been flip-flopped: the area where the chairs and monitors once stood is now being shot. For this scene, Oteri will open a door to reveal Sarah Michelle Gellar as Krysta Now, a porn star turned mass-market lifestyle entrepreneur. Kelly instructs Oteri to come up with a bit of business involving a peephole in the door that is set too high for the petite actress. Awkwardly, she half-jumps, and Kelly likes it. He tells Gellar to enter, note that skewered sex-doll, and deliver a one-word verdict: “Penetrating.”
A little while after the scene is finished, Kelly is in his trailer with McKittrick, eating and going over the script revisions they’ve been working on between takes. I ask him about his cast and why he loaded it up with so many comedians and SNL alums when the script has such serious undercurrents. It’s as if he cast comedians not to play funny.
“They are all playing it straight,” he says between forkfuls, “but more than anything this is a comedy, a satire. You get moments like earlier today where Lovitz and Cheri improv those lines that are clearly very funny [to us], but not to the characters. To the characters it’s completely serious. By towing that line, it goes to a lot of surprising places. It’s a comedy, but it’s also a very dark, very political film. It’s an elaborate ensemble science-fiction satire performed by people with a pop sensibility. It’s a very specific voice.”
Kelly and McKittrick are off to show Amy Poehler and Seann William Scott some new dialogue for that afternoon’s scene. A short time later Sarah Michelle Gellar’s security guard escorts me into her trailer. It’s more spacious than Kelly’s, impeccably clean and air-conditioner crisp. Gellar is still in costume, with a long blond wig, a pink tank-top over a black bra, relatively modest denim cutoffs, and teeteringly high ankle boots.
Gellar explains how Kelly first intercepted her just days before she left for Japan to film The Grudge. Since then she has seen the role she is playing change and the overall scope of the film expand enormously. She says she is especially taken with the way her character’s story explores the current fame-for-fame’s-sake craze. To illustrate the point, she recounts an on-set melding of reality and fiction: “I show up on my first day of work and Richard says, ‘Here’s your lyrics, and here’s the music. We shoot your music video tomorrow.’ ‘My what?’ So we shot this music video on Malibu Beach singing ‘Teen Horniness Is Not a Crime.’ We’re four girls in these inappropriate outfits saying all these really inappropriate things, humping each other on the sand, and there’s this wedding going on just down the beach from us. I was mortified. Everyone at the wedding said, ‘Hey, look, it’s Paris Hilton!’ Then I thought, ‘Okay, that’s fine—a job well done.’”