15 years ago, Southland Tales was laughed at by critics at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. All these years later, director Richard Kelly is the one laughing, and for good reason: His bizarre sci-fi epic is more popular than ever, and he's still not finished with it.
Kelly tells Inverse he's hard at work on a sequel, though the exact form that Southland Tales 2 might take is as murky as the original movie's opaque plot.
"Whether people wanted to watch them in six chapters, or two movies back to back, I think it could potentially exist on a streaming platform," he says.
A science-fiction satire that riffed on everything from reality TV to Bush-era politics, the reception to Southland Tales was so bad — as was its box office revenue of $374,743, against a $17 million production budget — it cooled the career of a director riding high on the success of his cult classic Donnie Darko. After Southland Tales bombed, Kelly directed just one more movie, the 2009 thriller The Box.
But something funny happened over the last 15 years: Southland Tales found an audience. It's not as loved as Donnie Darko, but Tales maintains its own reputation as a glorious, ambitious misfire of epic proportions. There are two different oral histories to the movie, and it still plays to packed audiences in independent movie theaters.
“I would love to expand the project into a kind of a six-hour event series.”
Depending on who you ask, Southland Tales is either a misunderstood gem that bottles the bleak nihilism of the bygone War on Terror or an overly-indulgent satire easily misconstrued for a bad prank. Either way, the one thing it's not is forgettable. Or boring.
Ahead of the movie's re-release on Blu-ray from Arrow Video that includes the "Cannes Cut" (the fabled extended version previously unreleased), Kelly tells Inverse he still has plans to expand the story of his freakish SoCal universe. Ideally, it'll end up somewhere on streaming.
"I've adapted the graphic novels that were published in 2006 into a whole new screenplay that I've made a lot of progress with over the past year," Kelly says. "I've also incorporated a lot of new screenplay pages for new material that could be edited into the existing film."
Such material, Kelly says, could "use animation" that would add to the existing movie. "Ideally, I would love to expand the project into a kind of a six-hour event series."
The director is alternatively kicking around his expansion into "two epic-length feature films." In the brave new world of streaming, Kelly anticipates a number of ways a Southland Tales sequel/expansion can manifest.
"We aren't restricted now by the traditional theatrical model," the director says. "Streaming is letting us tell longer stories and break stories into chapters. Maybe we can make movies that are much longer, but they're still movies. The lines between television and film are getting more blurry. All these rules are changing. And we're gonna see a more expanded definition of what a feature film is."
Kelly doesn't reveal too much about what the new Southland material actually contains, or if it will make his movie's near-impenetrable concept any more clear. But he does say it's "a whole new narrative dimension I've created" that speculates future events in the year 2024.
"It's building upon work that I started in the graphic novels and it's taking all that to a much bigger, more exciting place," he says. "I'm really excited by it."
Over a year after its Cannes premiere, Southland Tales was released in November 2007. Set in an alternate United States where nuclear attacks on American soil kicked off World War Three, the PATRIOT act enables cutting-edge surveillance and censorship of the internet.
In Los Angeles, an amnesiac movie star, Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) nervously guards his screenplay that contains a prophecy to the end of the world. Boxer is aided by his co-writer and girlfriend Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), an ex-porn star seeking to re-brand herself, and Officer Ronald (Seann William Scott), a cop more involved in the bigger picture than he believes. Justin Timberlake, Amy Poehler, Wood Harris, Bai Ling, John Larroquette, Mandy Moore, Janeane Garofalo, Kevin Smith, and more appear in supporting roles.
Kelly's Southland Tales begins with two nuclear bombs and ends with a rift in the space-time continuum. Everything in between, including an erotic dance number with Justin Timberlake lip-syncing to The Killers in a video arcade, makes Southland Tales all the more weird.
"It was the most fun I've ever had," Kelly reminisces to Inverse. "I think of that. And I think of the future. What I'm working on. The dream and the possibility of still getting to finish the film in a big, spectacular way, if that could ever happen."
But even if Kelly doesn't see his dream come true, he remains happy with Southland Tales and the audience it's fostered in the years since its doomed premiere.
"I'm happy with the work I've done," he says. "If we can pull it together and make something work, yeah, I'm optimistic. But I'm satisfied with the work I've done so far."
Southland Tales is available now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.