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The Box Director Richard Kelly on His Obsession With Ominous Strangers

The Box Director Richard Kelly on His Obsession With Ominous Strangers” width=”560″/>

The director of Donnie Darko returns with The Box, about a couple that’s offered a chance to push a button that will kill a stranger for $1,000,000. He describes the movie’s thematic relation to Darko and tells whether or not he would push the button.

Q: What made you want to adapt Richard Matheson’s short story?

A: I was a kid when I first discovered this story. It was published in 1970, I think in Playboy.

Q: Which of course you were only reading for the articles.

A: [Laughs] Of course! No, I don’t know if I saw it in Playboy or not. But it always kind of stuck with me, and I always thought it had this tantalizing premise that was inherently filled with so much suspense that I just had all these questions I wanted to have answered: I wanted to know who was Mr. Steward [Frank Langella]? More importantly, who does he work for? Who built the button unit? What is their motive, what are they trying to accomplish by approaching these married couples?

Q: The allure of the original story and Twilight Zone episode is that these questions weren’t answered. How do you maintain it after answering them?

A: It really became a question of trying to figure out the who, where, what and why of Mr. Steward and his employers. And once I figured out their intentions and the overall grand design of the experiment, it was about the resolution of what happens in the second and third acts: What happens after they push the button, and ultimately they realize they’ve become ensnared in this chain reaction that involves other married couples. Does Mr. Steward have ties to some government organization? Is there a supernatural entity at play?

Q: Your father was a NASA scientist in the ’70s, which you’ve incorporated into this movie. Why?

A: The way I really solved the movie grounding it in the era of the ’70s and bringing in my parents and their story to give it an emotional grounding Bringing in my dad’s history with NASA and with the Viking program — it almost felt like this button unit could have been some sort of strange thing built at NASA; it made sense to me that it might submerge from a great scientific thought. And then I thought about ’70s conspiracy thrillers and government conspiracy thrillers of this era, and it all kind of coalesced.

Q: Why was it important to set the movie in the ’70s?

A: I considered doing it modern day, and I always just hit a brick wall. With social networking sites and Google satellite maps, the concept of someone you don’t know doesn’t really exist any more — you can find anyone on the Internet, and I didn’t want to have to write that scene where Arthur and Norma go and Google Arlington Steward. In the 1970s you still had door-to-door salesmen who sold vacuum cleaners. Nowadays everyone buys their stuff online. It just felt old-fashioned that way, and I wanted to preserve the integrity of that.

Q: There seems to be a running theme of a mysterious and ominous stranger in your work.

A: I think this obviously relates a lot closer to Darko in that sense where Darko was also a mystery that unfolds in a suburban community with a family visited upon by a stranger that starts to wreak havoc in the community. There are similarities there between Mr. Steward and Frank the Bunny having a similar role in the Joseph Campbell mythology of the story. But The Box is even more classical in terms of the simplicity of the structure. This is really a three character story: A husband and wife and the monster that invades their lives.

Q: You set out to make a mainstream movie that retained your sensibilities. What does that mean?

A: The nature of the story is very simple, but then the motive behind the conceit becomes very complex. Trying to keep the audience on that roller coaster ride with Arthur and Norma, even if the movie pulls ahead of you, by the end it all converges in such a way, moreso than in any of my previous films, that people can walk away with a feeling of closure. There’s still plenty of mystery and ambiguity — it still feels absolutely like it’s from my wheelhouse — but it’s a much more accessible story.

Q: Would you push the button?

A: I think pretty much anyone would end up pushing it out of curiosity. There’s this piece of technology that doesn’t appear to have any function at all. And it’s almost putting the responsibility for the violence into this Pandora’s box. And what the Louis family didn’t count on was an element of the supernatural. But the big message of the movie, the grandiose music is still saying, “Don’t Push the Button.”

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