In the eight years since he made twisty mind-bender Donnie Darko, director Richard Kelly has been through the gamut of emotions.
First Donnie became a cult phenomenon; initially dismissed as arty nonsense on its release, then welcomed with open arms by cultphiles when it scuttled onto DVD.
After that came Southland Tales, cruising a tsunami of expectation and negative reviews. (Genius or ridiculous? Jury’s still out.)
Now, Kelly’s back with what is arguably his most personal film to date. A ‘70s-set thriller starring Cameron Diaz and James Marsden – not to mention a shockingly disfigured Frank Langella – The Box could see Kelly reclaiming his crown as King of Cult.
“This is an unpredictable business and I’m glad to be working,” says the filmmaker. “I’m just happy that the movie is finished and we’re getting a wide release. That’s something I’ve never had before.”
1. The Button
It all started with a magazine called Playboy.
In June 1970, that fine publication ran a short story by suspense author Richard Matheson called ‘Button, Button’.
A contemplative tale that peered fearfully into the future, it featured a young couple who are given a button by a stranger. Pressing said knob will boost their bank account with an immediate $200,000... but somewhere in the world a total stranger will drop dead.
Fifteen years later, a regenerated Twilight Zone turned the story into an episode for its first season. But Matheson, who provided the teleplay, was so miffed when they changed the ending that he used the pseudonym Logan Swanson instead, and washed his hands of the production.
Fast forward to 2004, and Richard Kelly is just putting the finishing touches to his director’s cut of Donnie Darko. Meanwhile, Eli Roth is enjoying success with his gory slasher Cabin Fever. United by their love of Matheson’s philosophical humdinger, the pair decide to co-write a film script adaptation, now with a re-tooled title: The Box.
“The film is going to be a hybrid of psychological thriller, horror and black comedy,” Kelly said at the time. “More than anything, it’s going to be a love letter to Richard Matheson.”
Pages bounced back and forth between the two multi-hyphenates, with Roth all set to direct. “It’s really about greed and sort of losing one’s soul and crazy, dark, horrible, strange things happening,” said Roth mid-scribble.
But the pair were determined to get the screenplay right, and the writing process took longer than they had ever intended. With both Southland Tales and Hostel screaming for the duo’s attention, The Box went adrift.
It wasn’t until post-Southland that Kelly got excited about the script again. But with Roth caught up in his horror dabblings, Kelly decided to take the helm and get The Box’s motor running again.
“What fascinates me is the complexity of the instant- gratification, push-button society we live in today,” says the director.
“We toss off messages without much thought to the consequences or ramifications. It was a little different 30 years ago, when the story is set, and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to keep it in the 1970s, when the story was first published.
Pushing a button was a more deliberate act back then. For Norma and Arthur, it could be the most deliberate act of their lives.”
Next: The Couple