The Cult of Richard Kelly
By Joan Tupponce
Ten years ago, Beth Grant shrugged at the thought of putting off her vacation to read yet another script from a young, unknown filmmaker. A prolific character actress who has starred in more than 70 movies, working with big-name directors such as Clint Eastwood and the Coen Brothers, Grant thought the script, for a movie titled Donnie Darko , was just another teen flick.
“I read the first page, the second, and by the third page, my heart started to beat faster,” she remembers. “I said, ‘This is a new voice, a special voice.’ I’ve read a lot of scripts, but by the time I got to the end of this one, I was standing in my bed. He was a genius.”
The genius in question? 1993 Midlothian High School grad Richard Kelly.
“Richard is someone who is a true artist with a unique voice,” says Grant, who went on to appear in Kelly’s first two films. “He is creating myths and legends.”
What the director, now 34, hopes to create with his latest film, The Box , a psychological sci-fi thriller starring Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, is a huge box-office rush when it opens on Nov. 6.
This is Kelly’s third theatrical feature as a director. The first two — Donnie Darko , a massive cult favorite mixing teen angst and alternate futures that’s continuously playing at midnight screenings around the country, and Southland Tales , a post-apocalyptic sci-fi satire that was booed during its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and later tanked at the box office — stirred up mixed reactions among critics, some of whom hailed Kelly as a brilliant young filmmaker, while others just didn’t understand the accolades.
With The Box , Kelly says he decided to “make it personal and make it matter.” The film’s plot, which Kelly reworked from the Richard Matheson short story “Button, Button,” in which a couple receives a mysterious box that presents a moral dilemma — press the button inside, and they’ll receive a large sum of money, but someone they don’t know will die — resonated with him, both when he first saw it adapted for an episode of the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone and later, when he read the original story in school. “It struck me as a fantastic premise that begs to be expanded upon,” he says. “I wanted to give the characters a real heartbeat. I decided to take my parents’ story and merge that with the [Matheson] story so the film would have their sensibility. It’s a tribute to them in a slightly twisted way.”
His parents didn’t understand how personal The Box would get until they were instructed by their son to be on set in Boston for the first day of shooting in November 2007. “It wasn’t, ‘I want you to be there,’ ” his father, Lane, recalls. “It was, ‘I need you to be there.’ ”
Kelly and his parents met for lunch with Diaz and Marsden, who play husband and wife Norma and Arthur Lewis in the film. Diaz was interested in hearing how Kelly’s mother, Ennis, felt when she first met Lane and told him about her deformed foot, the result of an accident during medical treatments for a plantar wart. “She was so generous of her time and her experience, all the things she shared with me, not knowing where the script was going,” Diaz says. “She had full faith in her son.”
Later, when Ennis was watching filming at the Boston Public Library, she heard her words being spoken by Diaz. “I couldn’t believe those were the lines in the movie,” Ennis says. “This was a moment of my life. It was very emotional for me.”
When the scene was over, Ennis wanted her son to know how much she had been touched by it. “I was in tears,” she says. “I gave him a big hug.”
Diaz was the first actor to sign on to the production, but when she initially read the script, she wasn’t sure if it was the right film for her because of its science-fiction aspects. She said yes to the project when she learned that Kelly was directing. “I knew it would be something special,” Diaz says. “The way he sees things is so unique.”
A Darko fan, Diaz thought Kelly’s work in that film made him “stand out as a filmmaker,” and that vision, as well as the film’s love story based on that of Kelly’s parents, drew Diaz to The Box . “When I told some people it was based on Richard’s parents, they said, ‘That is sooo Richard to pay homage to them in a psychological thriller.’ ”
Born in Newport News, Kelly spent his early years in Poquoson, a bedroom community near Hampton’s Langley Air Force Base. His mother, a teacher, stayed at home while Kelly and his older brother, also named Lane, were young. His father worked on spacecraft instrumentation at the base for NASA. “We designed cameras on the lunar lander that went to Mars in 1976,” the elder Lane says.
It was that work that inspired Kelly as he wrote The Box . He used Langley as a backdrop for the film, shooting scenes at the Langley Full Scale Tunnel, a circa-1930s wind tunnel used to test aircraft, and the Reid Conference Center, a multiuse auditorium.
That auditorium is not much different from the room where, years ago, Lane was preparing for a slide presentation when he was interrupted. “I am standing at the podium, ready to give the presentation, and someone called me over to say Richard was calling,” he says, his son having persuaded a babysitter to phone his father. “He had seen an oversized Bugs Bunny coloring book, and he wanted me to get it and bring it home. That was his important message.”
Kelly’s family moved to Midlothian in 1984, after his third-grade year, to a two-story home in Powderham. His father had a new job working for Jewett Automation, an industrial-robotics manufacturer, and his mother started teaching again, at Midlothian Middle School.
During his school years, Kelly flirted with different sports, from soccer and track to cross country and tennis. His brother, Lane, relates that athletic dabbling to an incident from their childhood that he sees as a metaphor for Kelly’s life. Each Saturday, the family would head downstairs so the kids could watch cartoons, and everyone could eat Krispy Kreme doughnuts. One morning, when the box was opened, a bite had been taken out of each doughnut. The family looked at Kelly, then 5. “He was always trying the edge of something but not eating the whole thing,” his brother says. “Once he settled on his interest — filmmaking — he completely committed to it.”
Before he discovered his vocation, though, Kelly’s great passion was art. “A woman who lived down the street from us in Poquoson taught art classes with adults,” Kelly remembers. “I was 5, learning how to draw cubes, spheres and cones with charcoal.” From that point on, Kelly was drawing and illustrating nonstop, later discovering painting.
Writing was another interest, with Kelly winning a statewide competition when he was in second grade at Poquoson Elementary School. “The story was about a boy and his brother and the antics they would use to trick their babysitter,” Ennis remembers.
Kelly calls English his favorite subject in school, and he incorporated one of his high-school reading assignments — Jean Paul Sartre’s play No Exit — into The Box . Diaz, who plays a teacher, assigns it to her class. “In a way, I am still kind of in high-school English class,” Kelly says. “Getting a script finished is not that different than getting a paper finished.”
The Box takes place in 1976 in Richmond, but the Virginia-born filmmaker lost his battle to have the entire movie shot in his home state because of a crippling lack of film incentives. The packages can reach millions of dollars, and most film companies factor those savings into the financing of their projects. “It’s next to impossible to shoot in a state that doesn’t have those incentives,” he says.
So the majority of the movie, everything except some exterior shots and the NASA footage, was filmed in Boston. (“That was a sad moment for the Virginia Film Office,” says Rita McClenny, vice president of industry relations and film.)
Kelly went so far as to have his crew re-create a 1976 Ukrop’s storefront in Boston. “Ukrop’s sent up vintage signage and pictures,” his brother says. Kelly also filmed a wide shot of a residential street in Boston that was dressed to look like Church Hill. “If you put the photos side by side and asked which one is Richmond, it would be tough to get a correct answer,” Kelly says.
He spent time looking at historical photos of the city from 1976 and taking pictures of Broad Street from atop Sanger Hall at VCU Medical Center. For one exterior shot in Richmond, they had to digitally remove the newer part of the complex. “I’m meticulous about every detail,” Kelly says. “If you remember what [Richmond] looked like in the 1970s, you’ll be pleased.”
That kind of attention to detail is a hallmark of Kelly’s work. He embraces the minutiae that others filter out of their minds, something his parents realized the first time they saw Donnie Darko at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2001. “There were so many moments in it that were Richard,” says his father. “We could make a connection with things in the past.”
The inspiration for the jet engine that plummets into the title character’s bedroom came from an incident that Kelly remembers happening in Midlothian, when a chunk of ice from a jet fell and destroyed a boy’s bedroom. “He wasn’t home at the time,” Kelly recalls. “That piece of ice became a jet engine. It began this great mystery.”
The premise for the movie’s Star Search -bound group Sparkle Motion, as well as ostracized teen Cherita Chen’s talent-show dance, came from a similar competition that Kelly took part in at Midlothian Middle, according to his mom. Kelly and five of his friends formed a sketch group called The Minute Men. “They were dressed up in pillow cases with funny faces, and they danced around, a kind of funny, crazy dancing. They did a takeoff of Led Zeppelin,” Ennis recalls. “They were no great talent, but there was this girl that sang before their appearance that really was.”
When The Minute Men won, Kelly felt bad for the young girl. “He always wanted to make sure people’s feelings weren’t hurt,” Ennis says.
That empathy may have played out in the design of the school mascot in Darko . Kelly’s script called for the mascot to be a mongrel. “Richard wanted a semi-inappropriate mascot that would serve two functions,” explains production designer Alec Hammond. “He wanted it a little ominous and threatening, and also he had the image of Cherita sitting alone under it. It had to be a giant protector of her.”
Becoming a Director
The seeds for Kelly’s movie career were planted when his family got their first VCR when he was 8 or 9 years old, enabling him to start renting movies. “It changed my life,” says Kelly, who cites the Kathleen Turner-Michael Douglas vehicle Romancing the Stone and the original Terminator film as early favorites. “I grew up on blockbusters. I didn’t have access to older art films.”
Kelly’s parents, who’d introduced him to Alfred Hitchcock Presents on television, took him to see two of the director’s masterpieces, Rear Window and Vertigo , at the Byrd Theatre. Those outings, coupled with earlier family visits to see classic films in Norfolk, were special moments for Kelly.
But even as his true ambition — to become a filmmaker — was becoming clearer and clearer to him, he was still afraid to share his goal with friends or family. “I never told anyone,” he confides. “I thought people would laugh me out of the room. They would think it was a ridiculous, unachievable dream.”
Kelly’s parents knew that their son had shot a few school-related video projects using a borrowed camcorder — in one he used the family cat for a piece based on Toonces the driving cat from Saturday Night Live — but they were shocked upon learning that their younger son wanted to attend the University of Southern California to study film. “Richard had never been to California,” Ennis says. “He’d only gone as far west as Texas when he visited his grandmother.” Kelly actually started in the school’s art program because he lacked a film portfolio and then transferred at the end of his sophomore year to The School of Cinematic Arts, from which he graduated in 1997.
“USC is a competitive film school,” Kelly says, calling it a tough environment. “If people don’t like your film, they are very vocal about it.” At the same time, plenty of Kelly’s professors were equally vocal about which aspect of the film business he should pursue. After seeing his student film The Goodbye Place , done for a class assignment in which a voice-over was allowed but any talking by the actors was forbidden, one professor told him, “You are a director.”
“It meant a lot to have that reinforcement,” says Kelly, who got more validation when the film took a prize at the James River Festival of the Moving Image.
Right after college, Kelly was living in a “ramshackle house” in Hermosa Beach, Calif., with a bunch of fraternity brothers when he wrote his first screenplay, Donnie Darko . He jokes that he wrote it out of fear. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what kind of ridiculous goal have I set out to do? The hardest thing to do is break into directing. How am I going to make a living?’ ”
The process took less than eight weeks, perhaps helped along by the fact that Kelly locked himself in his room for five to six hours a night to write. “When he gets focused on something, he secludes himself,” says his Darko Entertainment partner, Sean McKittrick. “He writes free-form. He doesn’t second-guess himself. If something doesn’t make sense, he will fix it afterward.”
McKittrick met Kelly during his senior year of college. The two bonded immediately. “We had the same sensibility in the films we like,” McKittrick says. “We admired the same directors — the Ridley Scotts, Peter Weirs and David Finchers of the world.”
After college, Kelly worked several low-paying jobs, including serving lattes at a post-production house in Los Angeles. McKittrick worked as an assistant in development/production at New Line Cinema. When it came time to pitch Kelly’s script to agents, McKittrick sent it around to all of his friends working as assistants at the various agencies. In the process, Kelly got picked up by Creative Artists Agency, one of Hollywood’s premier talent shops.
But even with top-notch representation, Kelly found it difficult to shop Darko’s script to studios. “Here you have two 23-, 24-year-olds walking into a room and saying, ‘This is how much money we need,’ ” McKittrick recalls. “They would laugh, especially with Richard, who still looked like he was 18.”
One studio offered to buy the script and turn it into a teen horror film, but Kelly and McKittrick nixed that idea. “We turned down a lot of money to let other people make the movie,” McKittrick says. “We knew how to make it and were not going to give up on it.”
When the script landed with Nancy Juvonen, actress Drew Barrymore’s partner at Flower Films, it found a home. At the time, Juvonen and Barrymore were busy filming Charlie’s Angels. Juvonen remembers getting a call from an agent who suggested that she read the Darko script. She did and promptly called Barrymore. “Drew loved it,” Juvonen says. “We had Richard and Sean come to the set of Charlie’s Angels , and we met in Drew’s trailer.”
When Juvonen saw how young Kelly looked, she couldn’t believe he had written the script. “It was so profoundly layered with life,” she says.
What impressed her the most, however, was the fact that this fresh-faced novice director knew exactly what he was doing. Even though he shared laughs on set, he remained focused on his work. His style of directing is subtle and nurturing, not flashy and flamboyant, says Juvonen. “That is the amazingness of him.”
The fact that Donnie Darko — the director’s cut was released in 2004 — now has one of the most fanatical cult followings in film history is redemption for Kelly. “It was deemed a failure out of the gate,” he says, recalling the mixed reaction the film received when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. “A lot of people said it was completely incoherent. I also remember the words ‘unreleasable’ and ‘beautiful mess.’ For it to pop up at midnight screenings is gravy. It’s a reward that keeps on giving.”
Grant, the actress who was initially reluctant to read Darko , feels the same way. She recently got a part in a short film directed by actor Al Pacino’s daughter, Julie, a huge Darko fan. She also credits her role in the Academy Award-winning Little Miss Sunshine , which netted her a Screen Actor’s Guild Award, to Darko ‘s popularity. “I have so many meetings with big directors, and they love the movie,” she says. “Richard has been a big part of my career.”
Figuring It All Out
The Box is Kelly’s first studio film, with Warner Bros. purchasing the movie while it was still in preproduction, offering stability that Kelly no doubt appreciates after what he went through with Darko and, to a greater extent, Southland Tales .
Starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Sarah Michelle Gellar, Southland Tales , a near-future science-fiction satire of the “war on terror,” debuted at Cannes before it was finished and was panned by many critics. “I am a man, and I can take it,” Kelly says with a bit of sarcasm as he reflects on that time. “A lot of people said Darko was an incoherent mess; there was a lot of the same at Cannes. It was the same experience all over again.”
Heading into the festival, five different distribution companies were vying for Southland Tales . Afterward, Kelly was given $1 million to finish the visual effects, but the movie still wound up doing poorly at the box office.
After that experience, Kelly is reluctant to bring any future films to festivals. “There doesn’t seem to be much upside to it,” he says, later adding, “Going forward, I would like to stay in the studio business, where you have the distribution locked up.”
In 2006, working with McKittrick and financier Ted Hamm, Kelly formed Darko Entertainment, a feature-film and television production company. Their brainchild has produced three films to date in addition to The Box — Rogue’s Gallery, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and World’s Greatest Dad , which opened in August. The film, starring Robin Williams, was written and directed by comedian-turned-director Bobcat Goldthwait. Goldthwait was impressed that Kelly had an instant vision of the film after reading the script. “Traditionally when you work with a studio or financier, they lack that imagination,” he says.
Along with the scripts for his own films, Kelly has also penned screenplays for other directors, including Domino for director Tony Scott, based on the life of bounty hunter Domino Harvey.
Because his career consumes most of his time, Kelly has yet to establish roots in Los Angeles. He stays busy, eating all of his meals out. At the moment, he’s renting a house in West Hollywood. “He puts things in his personal life on hold because he’s making movies,” his brother says. “He’s not buying a house or cooking or doing yardwork. That doesn’t interest him.”
Kelly is fixated on his work. “There could be an apocalypse happening, and he would not know because he is directing,” observes McKittrick. “It energizes him.”
His persona whether he’s behind the camera or not is unassuming and appreciative. “This is Hollywood, and it’s filled with terrible people,” observes veteran cinematographer Steven Poster, who has worked with Kelly on all three of his films. “When you run into someone who is so appreciative of what you can give them, it’s someone you want to hang on to.”
Even though Kelly has a vision for each of his projects, he is always open to ideas from cast and crew. “He has tremendous ego in terms of a project being good, but no ego in terms of it always being his idea,” production designer Hammond says. “If it’s a good idea, he will love it. He’s out to make a good movie, and he will fight to the death for that.”
Still, Kelly considers himself “a pretty normal, easy-to-get-along-with” guy. “People might have the perception that I am some kind of tormented, dark person, but really I am pretty happy. I don’t necessarily feel that I am an eccentric person, but I try to put eccentricity into my work. Maybe I am still trying to figure all of that out.”
Grant thinks he already has. “He gets the irony and the humor of the universe,” she says. “He just gets it.”