When “Donnie Darko,” writer-director Richard Kelly’s ominous sci-fi tale of teen angst, premiered at Sundance in 2001, its oddball ambitiousness was generally dismissed. When it was eventually picked up for distribution, it had a weak theatrical run, but grew into a massive cult hit on DVD, paving the way for a double-disc director’s cut and Kelly’s even bolder follow-up, “Southland Tales.” Similarly panned at its 2006 Cannes premiere, that pitch-black sociopolitical (and yes, sci-fi) satire about the end of the world was edited down, but still polarized critics and audiences, which proves that you can’t set out to make a cult classic — only the test of time has that power, meaning the film might still find new life in years to come.
In a fascinating career leap, Kelly has taken his penchant for logic-bending science fiction from Indiewood to the Big Show, as Warner Bros. has produced “The Box,” his enigmatic adaptation of Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button.” In Kelly’s 1976-set thriller, a NASA engineer (James Marsden) and his high-school teacher wife (Cameron Diaz) are financially strapped Virginia parents who have been gifted with a curious wood box, topped by a cherry-red button. Soon after, a man named Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) arrives unannounced, missing half his face due to a burn and some killer CGI, and imposes a moral dilemma on the couple: push the button, and they’ll earn a million dollars in cash, tax free. The catch, however, is that a complete stranger will also die as a consequence. Less than an hour after seeing this dizzying new film, I spoke with Kelly about his favorite movie of 2009, why most Philip K. Dick adaptations suck, and what I believe is his one criminal misdemeanor against cinema.
Come on, admit it. You’d push that button.
[laughs] Listen, it’s easy to be self-righteous and say, “Oh, I would never push it.” I look at it more from the logical point of view of a scientist. I’d see this little contraption and be like, “Okay, this thing has no technology in it. Whoever built it is playing a trick. If they want to give me a million bucks to come into my life, annoy me, and freak out my wife, I’m going to push it as an act of defiance, to call their bluff.” The violence isn’t on me unless this thing has some sort of computer chip that’s going to shut down someone’s pacemaker, you know? I’d push it out of curiosity.
It’s appropriate that this is a period piece. In this age of instant gratification, it seems like people are far more inclined to push a button for the sake of ease today.
Absolutely. Now we have all this technology that we didn’t have in 1976, the way computers and the internet have transformed our way of life. We’re so much more cynical today. That was one of the reasons why I couldn’t set the movie in present day. I didn’t want to have that scene where Norma goes onto the computer and Googles Arlington Steward. For half the movie, the characters would be sitting in front of laptops. That wasn’t really dramatic for me, and it made it implausible. It’s an absurd premise. Part of what I love is that it’s mischievous.
There’s a rug-pull in the film’s second half that’s far more otherworldly and ambiguously plotted than the naturalistic chain of events leading up to then. Were you ever concerned that mainstream audiences might find that maddening?
We tried to set the film up as science fiction. There’s a text crawl at the beginning that refers to NASA and the Mars project, and we tried to lay the groundwork. There’s discussion of the potential for intelligent life on another planets, so we planted the seed pretty clear to people. My hope is that audiences will take the ride, be intrigued by the mystery and try to put the pieces together. The magic in this movie, in reference to the Arthur C. Clarke quote about an advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic, that’s the button unit. This little contraption that appears to be just a piece of wood has some sort of magic attached to it. When you deconstruct the movie, it doesn’t work without that component.
Your father was a NASA engineer, your mother had a similar physical affliction to Diaz’s character, and you grew up in the area where the film takes place. What was most exciting about recreating the 1976 of your youth?
Obviously, my production designer Alexander Hammond and my set decorator Tracey Doyle deserve so much of the credit for reaching back into the past, not only in the home décor, but the laboratories, and what the communication scientific technology looked like then. Big mainframe computers that helped send the Viking to Mars. You know, your Blackberry has a hundred times more power in it nowadays then those computers had. I tried to put in a few sitcoms and programs on the TV, Johnny Carson and stuff, because this is a story that has its root in serialized science-fiction, where Richard Matheson got his start. It’s an old-fashioned film, and I wanted it to have that nod, like the slight absurdity of seeing a promo for “What’s Happening?” That’s a bit of an inside joke: it’s a question a lot of people ask while watching one of my movies.
I know you were born in 1975, but do you have any memories of that decade?
I barely remember the ’70s at all. I have a few memories of moving to my new house, but I think my cognitive memory switch didn’t get flipped on until 1981 or ’82. [laughs] It’s all kind of a blur.