Filmmaker Richard Kelly's initial encounter with Richard Matheson's fiendish little short story Button, Button -- about a cash-strapped couple offered a million dollars to push a button on a box that will instantly cause someone they don't know to drop dead -- came not on the page, but on TV.
``As a bunch of attorneys have informed me, I am not allowed to exploit the name of a certain television program to help promote the movie,'' Kelly says with a chuckle from his production offices in Los Angeles. We, however, are free to state that Kelly first experienced Matheson's devilish little ditty as an episode of The Twilight Zone revival that aired in 1985.
When Kelly later read Matheson's six-page story, he was surprised to discover the show had taken considerable liberties with the source material (enough so that Matheson insisted his name be removed from the episode's credits).
``The story is pretty thin, but it has this absolutely brilliant conceit that was absurd and scary and kind of diabolical,'' Kelly (pictured above), 34, says. ``But it also cultivated so many ideas about greed and morality and a married couple's approach to the dilemma that this device brings into their lives. The story stuck with me for a long time.''
And the dramatically different ending of the TV adaptation sparked an idea in Kelly's mind.
``I realized the story could serve as a wonderful first act of a feature film, where the button is pushed, and the couple realizes it has far greater consequences than they realized, and they're going to be put through a much more extended psychological endurance test of some kind. The question becomes: Can they redeem themselves?''
The Box, which stars Cameron Diaz and James Marsden as the married couple and Frank Langella as their exceedingly odd (you have no idea) visitor who makes the offer, is Kelly's third film after the bona fide cult classic Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, which was so resoundingly booed at its Cannes premiere that Kelly reedited and chopped out a half hour -- and it still made practically no sense.
The early buzz on The Box was that this would be Kelly's grab at mainstream success, with a simple and accessible premise and an easily identifiable genre. But although the film's first half is exactly that -- a thriller -- its second half starts to veer away from anything resembling ``simple.'' So many conceits and complex ideas spring from that innocuous-looking box, and woe to anyone who dares run out for popcorn when the plot kicks into overdrive.
A common critical complaint about Kelly's films is that they simply try to pack in too much, overwhelming the viewer instead of engaging him. Kelly understands that criticism, particularly after the resounding failure of the endlessly imaginative but confusing Southland Tales.
``Southland Tales is an epic tapestry of a film that is about the greatest mystery of all time: How will the world end?'' Kelly says in its defense. ``It was intended to be an overwhelming mass of ideas that requires multiple viewings to decode. But there is definitely a structure to the puzzle there.
``I understand people's complaints about it being too much, though. That's the nature of my personality and the kinds of stories I like to tell. I want the audience to participate with the film and think while they're watching it, and that can alienate some members of the audience. With The Box, I'm making a mainstream film within the studio system, so I am trying to achieve as much clarity as possible.''
The Box is intentionally set in 1976 Virginia, where Kelly grew up, because there was no way to transplant this particular tale to the present day and preserve the mystery and anonymity of the curious Mr. Steward who brings the box only to the homes of married couples under 40 with a single child.
``The whole concept of not being able to find out stuff about someone you don't know doesn't really exist anymore. You can Google anyone today. There are surveillance cameras in every corner of the landscape. In the 1970s, we didn't have access to all that technology. Everyone had a land-line phone and that was it.''
The 1976 setting also allowed Kelly to weave NASA's Viking Mars probe into the story: Like Marsden's character, his father helped design the camera lenses used in that mission. But those brief shots in The Box of President Ford jabbering on TV about the ``existence of life somewhere in the universe'' are not just period details. In a Richard Kelly movie, everything has meaning. Nothing is an accident.
``There were a couple of lines in the short story that really got my imagination going,'' Kelly says. ``One of them was when they ask Mr. Steward who he works for, and he said `The organization is large and international in scope.' Right away I wanted to know `Who does he work for? Why are they contacting these married couples? Where does the money come from?'
``Writing the movie was really a process of thinking logically about why would someone pull this off. And setting the story in Virginia helped to keep it close to all these government entities -- the FBI, the CIA, NASA, the NSA. This button unit started feeling like something that might exist as part of a governmental behavioral experiment. It all started to make sense for me.''
Tomorrow, when The Box opens in theaters, Kelly will find out if audiences agree.