Southland Tales: A Transmedia Experiment Gone Awry
Part III: All These Things That I've Done
The musical sequence above featuring Justin Timberlake dancing to The Killers' 'All These Things That I've Done' acts as both a core set piece of the film, a flashback element in the graphic novels, and as a unique example of the film's haphazard attempt at pulling itself together. As revealed in the new extras in the current 15th anniversary rerelease, Richard Kelly wasn't entirely sure they could secure the rights to use the song for the film but they proceeded with the hope that they could. That entire sequence was also shot in one day. Kelly explains,
"We had him for one 16-hour day at the Santa Monica Pier, and it was our longest day and night.......
We brought the dancers onto Santa Monica Pier. We rehearsed the whole thing, knowing that we didn’t have access to Justin until the day of the shoot, but we had all the dancers and we mapped it out with the steady cam shots. And then when we had Justin in the day, it was four hours and we didn’t even have a costume for him. So I just painted fake blood all over his white T-shirt at the last minute. He just stepped into it like a true professional who’s been doing this since he was a kid. He’s been singing and dancing, and he just nailed it. He lip-synced the lyrics. He did all the choreography and he navigated it all. We did the emotional change at the end and everything. And then I decided to make Justin the narrator."
And just like that, Timberlake became the omnipresent narrator of the entire movie. Now on one hand, all of this is great. The level of adaptability and innovation at play is fantastic, and it legit created a very memorable scene. The trick is that this also highlights a systemic problem with the entire production. There's a certain level of chaos happening due to letting the production form too organically when you should probably have a little more structure at play. It's like when you need to give some plants that your growing a pole or stake to help them as they grow without becoming too wild. Your still letting it grow, but your also giving your plant some structure and support.
The nature of the production of Southland Tales is one of constant mutation and uncontrolled growth, and this is also highlighted in the casting. A large chunk of the cast consists of comedians and actors who know how to improv, and Kelly knew when to let them fly free. One of the constant impressions you get from behind the scenes video and interviews is that while many actors didn't exactly know what the story was about or how they fit in the grander scheme of things, they generally knew how their scenes worked and had excellent direction from Kelly. There was a level of trust and passion present in his direction, and that allowed for a lot of really great performances. And as you watch the film you sort of experience each sequence as if it was its own little biosphere.
Jon Lovitz plays evil cop Bart Bookman, and I love his performance. I don't entirely believe his character needed to be in the film though, and there's an odd disjointed sense of reality as he meets with Dwayne Johnson and Seann William Scott. I like that odd break in reality myself, but it's just one more example of the film being disjointed and chaotic. From a film and story point of view none of this is great, but as an experience? It's quirky, memorable, and sticks with you. And that's one of the reasons I love this movie.
Wallace Shawn plays an eclectic D&D corporate wizard masterminding the events of the film.
Cheri Oteri is a hyper-violent radical extremist.
Christopher Lambert is an arms dealer working out of an ice cream truck.
Miranda Richardson is an evil Disney queen and Big Brother all rolled up into one.
John Larroquette is, well he's kinda just John Larroquette but that's great in itself.
Zelda Rubinstein is there too, and while she technically has a role she's sorta just used as tonal decoration and that's probably the greatest crime of the film.
From Dwayne Johnson's mental breakdowns to Sarah Michelle Gellar's ditzy but sincere attempts at social relevance, I believe that everyone turned in an engaging performance. Some may have been more wooden than others and some felt like a satire of themselves, and I think that's partially due to the nebulous nature of the film itself as it tried to be too many things. When Dwayne Johnson explains that he's a pimp, and that pimps don't commit suicide, that's definitely a farce of the action hero and the bloated egos that play them at times. But at that point in the film, you're also not entirely sure it's supposed to be a joke or a straight line just to sound cool, because what the hell is even happening at that point in the plot?
While the actors are one thing, some of the characters and their relevance (and how much screen time they eat up) is a whole different beast to tackle. At a certain point the character Bing pops up, hanging out with the other Neo-Marxists but essentially having no real purpose. Eventually we do get a great scene with him, but overall his character could have been written out. When you read the graphic novels he has a little bit more purpose as his role explains some of the political ideas of the film, such as the Neo-Marxists cutting off people's thumbs to use to rig elections as we all vote with fingerprints now.
It's a good example of the comics filling in the blanks, but the question remains; did we really need Bing Zinneman at all? In a different medium with more time you could have done more with him, but within the constraints of the film and even the comics? He's just one more example of the wild growth of the project that needed stronger cultivation. There are over 30 named characters of some inferred importance in this film. Major trimming needed to happen, and a graphic novel was only going to contain some of that spillover.
There's an element of information overload inherent in the entire narrative as we cut from scene to scene, camera to camera, genre to genre, and even medium to medium. Even within the graphic novel we jump to the screenplay sequences, and those sequences are often reflections of scenes of the film but reflected through a time displaced prism. You're left trying to interpret all of these dual scenes that are themselves buried in cryptic symbolism, and in the end the concepts at play aren't really that nuanced. The heavy handed use of Revelations and the mix-mash of pseudo quantum mechanics feels like two slabs of meat being slapped together in an attempt to create some sort of turducken meal, but it all gets distracted in its own flavor juices. And granted, the casting and atmosphere are tasty juices, but then you realize you're eating turducken.
And despite all of that criticism, I still love it because it's rife with fun supplementary ideas. In some ways it feels like a college paper that you were really passionate about but had trouble reigning in the concepts. And as I mentioned in the graphic novel review, there are a lot of great ideas and character interactions. They all just sadly find themselves in service to a messy plot. When it came time for Kelly to separate all of his ideas among the film and graphic novels, it feels like he tossed too much of the interconnective tissue to the graphic novels. And there are some decent chunks of the graphic novel that just would have made the film seem more coherent overall.
If we conclude that the graphic novels are a necessary element to understand the film, then I feel like the transmedia narrative has failed. A theatrical release can have supplemental material to enhance it, but you should not have to absorb that material to complete it. And while I feel that the graphic novels are not needed to enjoy the film, that's a different type of compounding failure because my enjoyment of the film is generally derived from the performances and the train wreck aspect of the production and not from the actual plot or story.
At best the Cannes cut works as a proof of concept. The problem is that Southland Tales had a budget of $17 million (and it only grossed $374,743 worldwide). That's an exceptionally expensive proof of concept. I think what it all really needed though was time and space to grow properly, without the constraints of Hollywood expectations and timelines. First they needed time so that the scripts could be fleshed out and reweaved into one coherent creature. And secondly, they needed the space of a medium better suited to the natural sprawl of the story. As I mentioned previously, it feels like there's at least two or three seasons to a streaming series gestating within the film and graphic novels, and I would love to see a lot of the tertiary characters given the actual space they needed to grow into the relevance that was inferred to them.
In general my transmedia consumption is pretty light because I presume that prequels and sequels in the comic format are unnecessary, even if well done. To me, Watchmen is a self contained and finished work, so I can easily compartmentalize its run off material regardless of quality. The same can be said for the Star Wars comics that are supposed to be in canon, or any franchise properties produced by IDW such as Star Trek, Ghost Busters, and so on. The Southland prequels are unique in how fundamentally necessary they are to understanding the framework of the film. Working my way through the book, the website (for how little it mattered), and the film gave me a number of takeaways:
1) You shouldn't assume an audiences will partake in an experiment, and therefore you need to make sure all aspects of a transmedia narrative can stand firmly on their own.
2) Less is best. The four issues of the Fury Road prequel comics from Vertigo were generally ok but unnecessary. Four issues of unnecessary supplementary media is much easier to digest and move on from than three entire graphic novels of necessary reading.
3) Marketing is key. The whole product was cursed in that regard, but if you're going to push the transmedia narrative you really gotta drive that sucker home.
4) Fill in the gaps. If you want an immersive transmedia experience then you gotta fill every nook and cranny of your social media outreach with fictional history and content. Create mysteries that people want to solve so that you have an eager audience ready for the main course.
5) If you're going for meta material (say, a screenplay that foretells the future) you should probably lean harder into it in all parts of your narrative, otherwise you'll come off as uneven and your tone will be confusing. Basically just make sure your MacGuffin's relevance is consistent across all media.
6) Finally, if you have a giant sprawling story with tons of characters that you can't part with, you probably should just pick one medium and stick with it. Splitting up your character's relevant scenes between comics and film isn't doing anyone any favors.
Is Southland Tales, the entire transmedia creature, good? Mmmmmmmmmneh? Do I recommend it? Yes, because of my own affections to its inherent weirdness, and also as an educational tool. It's a great way to learn how to avoid making a train wreck, and it has enough charm and heart that it's not torture to watch. And hey, how many film train wrecks feature two trucks having sex? Even Michael Bay can't make that claim and he's had plenty of opportunities.