When Richard Kelly started to build the eventual template for the Southland Tales universe, be it intentional or not, he borrowed a huge play from the old school Star Wars playbook. The story consisted of six chapters, and much like George Lucas had in his heyday, Kelly started telling the story of Boxer Santoros, Krysta Now and Ronald/Roland Taverner’s whacked-out world with the final three installments. But the big difference between that galaxy far, far away and this particular universe was that, from the beginning, those first three episodes did exist on paper. And thanks to filmmaker and all-around geek Kevin Smith, this trilogy of graphic novels was printed, allowing for the foundation of Southland Tales' ultimate version to be built.
I didn’t even expect to talk about Kevin Smith during my conversation with Richard Kelly, but as we were discussing the legacy of Southland Tales shortly before its new Blu-ray release through Arrow Video, it wasn’t that much of a surprise. Playing the enigmatic character of General Simon Theory, Smith was part of the impressively eclectic cast that Kelly had put together to show audiences how the world would end in an alternate 2008. It was a story so large, it has to sprawl out into graphic novels to be told at the time, and as Richard Kelly told CinemaBlend, Kevin Smith himself was instrumental in getting those comics into the world:
Getting to publish those books, it was like a contingency plan. I really wanted to get the books published, and Kevin Smith, Bob Chapman, and his partner were very generous to help get those books published, because it was like this weird trans-media experiment that we were doing at the time, and no one was really enthusiastic about it back then. In terms of trying to do graphic novel companions, it felt like a failed experiment at the time. But I’m glad we did it because we have that material to build off of today, and I’m very grateful that they exist.
The first three chapters told in those graphic novels, Two Roads Diverge, Fingerprints and The Mechanicals, comprise Southland Tales: The Prelude Saga. Events from those stories are alluded to throughout both cuts, and the theatrical cut of Southland Tales even has a timeline/narration sequence that somewhat lays key pieces of information out as prologue. While important to what happens in Richard Kelly’s film, you can basically watch it without having read any of the previous stories, which were published by Graphitti Designs about a month before the movie came out.
Kevin Smith’s connection to getting Southland Tales’ prequels into the world is through that publisher and its president Bob Chapman; parties that have also expanded Smith’s View Askewniverse through Trade Paperbacks like The Mallrats Companion and Tales From The Clerks. Obviously, being a universe builder himself, Smith saw the opportunity to help Richard Kelly get his six episode opus out in some form, as an opportunity to one day go back and complete his ultimate vision. In the years since 2007’s release of Southland Tales, Kelly hasn’t just let his passion project go by the wayside, as he told me why those prequel graphic novels were still so important to this very day:
...those graphic novels are very much the foundation of what I’ve been working on. And I think I’ve advanced the narrative from the graphic novels to a whole new level. I think I’ve really built it out to a much more cinematic and exciting place.
Hearing Richard Kelly talk about his “transmedia experiment” frustrated me for one key reason: the timing. Southland Tales was released in 2007, which was literally on the doorstep of another transmedia experience that would knock on the doors of Hollywood, since Marvel Studios’ Iron Man would be released the following summer. Perhaps that’s why Kevin Smith had so much faith in the overall vision of Southland Tales, as his comic geek pedigree saw that in the case of the graphic novels and the film they were born from, it could have resulted in a handshake to start a universe, rather than to end one.
As we eventually saw with Disney’s treatment of the Star Wars IP, studios would have been tripping over their feet if Southland Tales was a project offered in a post-MCU boom. But even in this late stage of Richard Kelly’s vision, there’s an inkling of hope that could see Southland Tales third iteration, which is supposed to span two films and six hours, become a reality. See if this approach described by Kelly sounds familiar at all:
My hope is if we can do the expanded universe of the film, it will be much more accessible to the brand new audience members who’ve never seen it; but also to people who’ve seen the movie 20 times, they’ll be surprised, and they won’t know exactly what to expect with the new story and where and how it all plays out. I’m hopeful that there’s a chance that we could figure out how to pull it off and it’s going to take us some time. But a lot of these movies can be made on a much longer timeframe, when they involve different style of animation techniques and stuff, that these things can be made in an unconventional way.
If HBO Max can allow Zack Snyder the chance to complete his vision for Zack Snyder’s Justice League, then surely a streaming service could let Richard Kelly finish up Southland Tales as an end-all/be-all experience of that very story. Kelly even admires the way that streaming services have been able to revive and “replatform” stories like his that require quite a bit of time to really tell the tale. Not to mention that with Richard Kelly also talking about his expansion of the Donnie Darko universe in his own proposed sandbox of sci-fi ideas, there’s a good chance that whomever controls the Southland will get a crack at that story as well.
As the story of Southland Tales draws to a close, the film and its story also approach a potential beginning. While it was maligned by critics and underseen by audiences in its time, Richard Kelly hasn’t let it stop him from working on expanding that world he dreamed up over 15 years ago. And thanks in part to Kevin Smith’s auspices, we just might have another chapter in this wild and rewarding story, which is perfect considering the high praise he once gave when speaking about Southland Tales to THR:
He is insanely creative and is not unlike Christopher Nolan. But Nolan wound up in the Warner Bros. system where he got special handling, and he got a lot of money to make huge art films like Inception. Richard can be one of our greatest filmmakers. He is right now, but just a lot of people don't realize it. He's still a kid, and someone needs to Nolan that kid.
Like the man himself said above, someone needs to “Nolan” Richard Kelly, because he has miles before he sleeps, and a grab bag of wild and weird stories this world needs to see for themselves. Which is why now is the perfect time for Arrow Video to re-release Southland Tales, in both its theatrical and Cannes cuts, on Blu-ray. Though if you want to take the full ride, those first three chapters are still in print through Graphitti Designs. Even if version 3.0 never happens, the building blocks are there for curious audiences to piece together for themselves.