Making ''Southland Tales'' -- EW reveals why the creator of ''Donnie Darko'' thought his sophomore effort would be his last

By Jeff Jensen
Updated November 16, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

Two years ago, few filmmakers had more promise than Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly. His trippy 2001 flick — anchored by Jake Gyllenhaal’s star-making performance — made Kelly a cult hero, and hopes were high that his follow-up, Southland Tales, would endear him to the mainstream. But those plans seemed to go train-wreckingly awry when he screened an incomplete version of Tales at Cannes last year. Pelted with boos and bad reviews, Kelly feared his second film might also be his last. ”Right after the screening,” he recalls, ”a friend came up and said, ‘Richard, you’re going to Hollywood Jail.”’

Deliberations on Kelly’s verdict have begun as Tales rolls out nationwide following a yearlong refinement. Burnished with $1 million in new F/X, this version isn’t quite the disaster that was slammed last year — so far, reviews have ranged from rapturous to befuddled. Tales, starring Dwayne ”The Rock” Johnson and Sarah Michelle Gellar, is a sprawling sci-fi satire/neo-noir about the war on terror, environmental apocalypse, and oh, about 145 other things. It’s sprinkled with bravura moments, like a drunken Justin Timberlake lip-synching the Killers’ ”All These Things That I’ve Done,” but the plot is as clear as mud.

”The film is a challenge from the opening scene to the final scene,” admits Meyer Gottlieb, president of Samuel Goldwyn Films. The company decided to take a chance on the project because of Kelly’s commitment to improve the picture, not to mention all that star power. The business plan is smart: Tales will open in 15 carefully chosen cities — hotbeds of Donnie Darko fans — and expand from there. Or maybe it won’t. That’ll depend on the opening-weekend haul and word of mouth. Apart from appeasing Kelly’s impatient acolytes, Team Southland also hopes to entice moviegoers by spinning ”challenge” into a virtue. ”Like it or hate it,” says The Rock, ”it will challenge viewers to think about it and debate it.”

Kelly would settle for just surviving the ordeal. And he deserves to. Having tracked Tales‘ long, labored creation, we can testify that he’s come out of it a humbler, wiser artist. So it’d be a shame to see him punished because he tried to make a masterpiece. ”I feel like I got away with something,” says Kelly, who’s shooting The Box, a thriller with Cameron Diaz. ”I was given the opportunity to make a very ambitious, very experimental movie that expresses how I feel about the state of the world. When you get a chance like that, you have to do it, regardless of what happens.” — Additional reporting by Carrie Bell