After experiencing post-Sundance funk, Kelly rebounds with 'Southland'

“It’s been a long haul,” is how writer-director Richard Kelly characterizes the making of “Southland Tales,” the follow-up to his 2001 pic “Donnie Darko.”

Kelly is putting it mildly. “Southland Tales,” a 2½-hour, sci-fi-thriller-comedy-musical hybrid starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Seann William Scott, took a grueling five years to make.

“There were many false starts,” Kelly says. “At one point I abandoned the project and I moved on to another project called ‘Knowing,’ which almost got made at Fox Searchlight, but then fell apart.”

“Southland Tales” is a comeback of sorts for Kelly, who didn’t have the most memorable experience at Sundance in 2001, where “Donnie Darko” bowed. Kelly was the 25-year-old toast of the town going into the festival, but his film failed to win over audiences (one critic called it a “brilliant mess”), and it took Kelly and his Darko Entertainment partner Sean McKittrick months to find a domestic distributor. Only later did the pic become a cult classic on DVD.

” ‘Donnie Darko’ got what Richard likes to call the Sundance STD,” McKittrick says. “The film left Sundance as if it had an STD… In everyone in the town’s mind, we had completely failed.”

During the depressing months following the festival, Kelly hunkered down and wrote, and the result was a 150-page script called “Southland Tales,” a darkly comedic pic about the Apocalypse in Los Angeles, circa 2008.

But prospective producers were skeptical. Besides its length and not fitting into any particular genre, the film has an ensemble cast and lots of special effects. And Kelly wanted to shoot in Los Angeles, further driving up the cost of production, which no one thought could be done for under $100 million. Kelly won’t specify the film’s final cost but says it’s somewhere between $10 million and $20 million.

Things accelerated in late 2003, when Seann William Scott agreed to star in the film. Then a few months later at Sundance, Kelly met with Cherry Road Films’ Kendall Morgan and Bo Hyde, who agreed to finance the development of the pic. Cherry Road began shopping the film, meeting mostly with resistance.

“I got this all the time: ‘It’s a huge movie, you’ll never be able to make it for that much money,’ ” says Morgan.

The one believer was Universal Intl., which agreed to handle overseas sales.

The next coup was the Rock. “Once the Rock came onboard, it was like, O.K., the movie is definitely happening,” says Kelly. “That role was the hardest to cast. It required a big, charismatic movie star to deconstruct himself on screen — for scale. There are not a lot of actors who want to do that.”

The rest of the cast followed and the decision was made to pre-sell the pic abroad before going into pre-production. Universal took most foreign territories and Wild Bunch, another investor, took France, Spain and Benelux. Domestic rights will be on offer at Cannes, where “Southland Tales” is in competition.

“It’s been a combination of exhilaration and incredible anxiety melded together,” says Kelly. “The exhilaration is: I can’t believe we pulled this off!”

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