Like his most famous character, Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly’s young career has been about second chances. So it’s no real surprise to see him taking his new picture and its promotion pretty much in stride, three years after his sophomore film, Southland Tales, famously bombed at Cannes and whimpered at the U.S. box office, where it grossed a paltry $275,000. When a fit, T-shirt-clad Kelly shows up at L’Ermitage for a recent chat, there is no humble pie after the caesar salad. He does allow that he’s got a lot riding on The Box, his first studio picture, and after years of scrounging in the independent-film business with his company, Darko Entertainment, the quirky writer-director makes it clear he sees the studio system as his safety net of choice. The Box is anything but the expected “assignment,” however. In fact, the biggest surprise is how personal the movie is.

Before going to Cannes with Southland Tales, Kelly had already optioned Richard Matheson’s 1970 short story, “Button, Button,” about a couple (played in The Box by James Marsden and Cameron Diaz) given a button to push in exchange for a sizable sum of money, the button causing the death of “someone you won’t know.” He then submitted his script to Warner Bros. president and COO Alan Horn before Southland Tales was even released. “He really liked the script,” says Kelly. “He just sat me down and told me he liked the ending, assured me it would not be changed. He also had specific suggestions, like making me change the sum, from $100,000, as I had it, to $1,000,000.” Trust a COO. “But he was right,” Kelly continues. “This is a life-changing amount of money, especially for 1976,” the year in which The Box is set.

Unlike his first film, The Box is not based on Kelly’s experience as a teen growing up in Virginia but rather on his parents, who lived near Langley, where his father (like the film’s hero) worked for NASA, on the Viking Project camera used to photograph Mars. “It is a genre film,” says Kelly, “but it is also about the dynamics of marriage, about what I saw in my parents’ 40-year marriage. Like Cameron Diaz in the story, my mother was the victim of a malpractice that left her foot burned and maimed for life. My father built her a prosthesis out of the same gelatin used for the space program, in circumstances similar to the ones I show in The Box. And it was a wonderful challenge to have, using them for so many details, because it put me on alert. I had to make sure the relations and the story stayed emotionally honest.”

Kelly’s usual production designer, Alexander Hammond, had a field day with the browns and burnt oranges of the mid-’70s, matching kitchen wallpaper to couch upholstery, but they didn’t overdo it: Whereas Kelly showed nothing but aggression and disgust toward the lowlifes of Southland Tales (possibly the biggest migraine ever filmed), he has an obvious affection for these times and their relative innocence — even though he was only 2 in 1976. “There is not one swearword in the entire picture, and very little violence,” says Kelly, for whom the ’70s are what the ’50s were for most of us. The black-and-white corporate logos before the credits also signal that the film will nod toward more innocent times — or pictures like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a film that could have benefited from a figure like Mr. Steward, ideally played by Frank Langella in a non-ghoulish, non-drooling way, despite something of a rad face-lift that kept the filmmakers busy for eight months fiddling with the CGI. Steward, the tall, dignified man who shows up at Norma Lewis’ front door like a traveling salesman with a briefcase full of money, is neither a monster nor a demon — more like a corporate drone with a crappy job to do.

“He’s a complicated villain,” says Kelly, who also likes the fact that the higher order Steward works for is fallible, even sloppy (all those nosebleeds, and victims unaccounted for). “And they have this kind of twisted sense of humor, which I find fitting, because if you look at the conceit of the story, it’s pretty twisted, even mischievous.”

This is probably why The Box doesn’t suffer too much from the feared elephantiasis that is the bane of many short stories turned into two-hour films. Passing from the intimate to the planetary, Kelly added two acts to Matheson’s first. “There was a line from Mr. Steward in the short story which I found fascinating: ‘The organization is international, and vast in scope,’” Kelly says. “I thought about it logically. Who would build such a contraption? This naturally brings us to some government agency. But Arthur Lewis, being an engineer, sees there’s nothing in the box; it can’t function. What he doesn’t count on is that there is magic involved. Empty boxes are all about magic, aren’t they? That Arthur C. Clarke quote about advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic is in there for this reason.”

Kelly also nearly escapes the sappy, very American fascination with the afterlife, when Norma and Arthur have to make a final, personal choice at the movie’s end. Without revealing too much, let us say that Sartre is quoted twice in The Box. Kelly cops to the facile parallel, saying it’s fitting for a high school teacher like Norma to mount No Exit with her students. “The Lewises are three people trapped in a house, in their suburban life, soon to become a box of another kind,” he says. “A lot of people gravitate around that play in high school, because it is easy access to French existentialism.”

For all its genre conformity (it is almost classical in style, with a rather horrid, Russian-influenced and overemphatic score by members of Arcade Fire), The Box contains moments of emotion equal to those in Donnie Darko, and, most of all, a sense of time and place that was so sorely missing in Southland Tales. Clearly, Kelly needs this yearning for other times; today’s mindless, button-happy, greedy world is too much for him. In a way, that’s what Tales was — a rage-infused barf against vulgarity, against celebrity-fueled crap and dirty politics. Still, Kelly is not done with speculative-fiction films. His next project will be about the reconstruction of Manhattan’s Ground Zero, set in 2014, in the new towers. “It will be a much more mainstream thriller,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to make a New York film.”

And what about S. Darko, the so-called Donnie sequel foisted on us earlier this year? “I have never seen it, and never will. I was offered to direct it and I said no. But I didn’t own the rights, so they made it anyway. It was just a matter of easy money.” And what’s with the pecs, and the obsessive exercising? Kelly laughs at the suggestion that what David Lynch achieves through transcendental meditation, he does through pumping iron, and concedes that he does a lot of his creative thinking that way. “It’s just a matter of taking care of myself,” he says. “Making these movies takes a lot out of you.”

The Box opens on Fri., Nov. 6 in L.A. theaters.

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