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Kelly, Richard

Entry updated 25 October 2021. Tagged: Film, People.

(1975-    ) US filmmaker, son of a NASA physicist based in Langley, Virginia whose home and workplace are recreated in Kelly's third feature The Box (2009). As a young film-school graduate he attracted attention initially as a screenwriter of edgy left-field comedy; an early commission was an unused 1999 script for the adaptation of Louis Sachar's Holes, which took a notably darker spin on the book than the 2003 film. A famous unproduced original script from this period is the Genetic Engineering satire Bessie (circa 2000), a satirical forerunner of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) with a Psi-Powered talking cow, and he has also written an unmade adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle (1963). His breakthrough film as author and director was Donnie Darko (2001), in which a mildly psychotic teenager's world forks from a Jonbar Point into an unstable bubble universe which eventually collapses in a Time Loop; a commercial disappointment on first release, it became a cult success and its maker a briefly hot property in Hollywood. Of his screenplays for others' projects, only the adrenalinized biopic Domino (2005) was filmed, but Kelly was long attached as writer and prospective director of Knowing (2009), though the project eventually went into turnaround before being picked up by Alex Proyas. His second film as writer-director was the polarizing Southland Tales (2007), a hugely ambitious Pynchonesque apocalyptic epic of criss-crossing storylines in a present-day Alternate History, with a Kelly-scripted Graphic Novel series Southland Tales: The Prequel Saga (2007) establishing the novelistically complex world, characters, and backstory. Another longstanding project, The Box (2009), wove together material by Richard Matheson and Arthur C Clarke into a high-aiming period fable of First Contact; though a less total disaster commercially, this still fell far short of making back its production and marketing costs.

Conceptually daring, with a regard for literary sf and for science unusual in the industry, Kelly has struggled to break out of his cult niche into mainstream acceptance, and his films have been notable for their slides into variously unhappy compromises with studios' and audience's appetite for on-the-nose overexplanation – in the Donnie Darko DVD and Director's Cut, the voiceover in Southland Tales, and the progressively less mystificatory drafts of The Box. If his spectacular early promise has sputtered somewhat, he remains a consistently original filmmaker undaunted by the risk of overreach; he has written of his particular admiration for the attitude and oeuvre of Terry Gilliam, though Kelly is the more cerebral and writerly fantasist. All three of his films – as well as Bessie and Knowing – deal adventurously, and somewhat obsessively, with Time Distortion and the End of the World. [NL]

James Richard Kelly

born Newport News, Virginia, March 28 1975


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