Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly reveals just what's in The Box

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Richard Matheson's 1970 short story "Button, Button" was simplicity itself. A box with a red button under a glass dome arrives on the doorstep of a New York couple, Arthur and Norma Lewis, followed shortly by a mysterious man, Mr. Steward, who tells them that if they press the button, they will receive $50,000. But someone they don't know will die.

The moral and ethical quandary could not be more naked. If it were that easy, would you do it?

In the course of the very brief story—only a few pages in an anthology of Matheson's work—the button gets pressed, and the twist ending highlights the true cost of shirking moral responsibility for material gain.

That diamond-like metaphor for our modern world so captured the imagination of filmmaker Richard Kelly that he chose to use it as the point of departure for his upcoming feature film The Box, a much more grounded, intimate and personal drama after the sci-fi extravaganza of 2007's Southland Tales and his trippy cult debut, 2001's Donnie Darko.

"This science fiction concept that he came up with [was] a crystal-clear statement that this button is going to absolutely cause the death of another human being, [and] it became, to me, something that really warranted further exploration," Kelly said in an interview earlier this month. He added: "I spent several years trying to figure out how to adapt this into a film."

The answer was to use the short story as the first event in a longer, original story that explored who and what was behind the odd little wooden box and how Arthur and Norma could uncover that truth and, perhaps in the process, find redemption.

"Are they next?" Kelly said. "Can they survive this? Can they uncover the truth, and can they redeem themselves and save themselves, perhaps? For me, that became the jumping-off point. ... Maybe expanded into a feature where there's a way to present the setup from the short story. It felt like it could be the first act of an entire film, and it felt like something that was sort of asking to be resolved, in my mind. But resolved in a way that hopefully was still very faithful to the spirit of what I believe that Matheson was kind of trying to say in a nutshell: ... that the pushing of the button, ... it's the key to the downfall of man."

Kelly changed a few things: Moved the location, upped the money to $1 million, made Mr. Steward a bit more menacing. But he kept the story in the same period (1976, to be precise), a pre-personal-computer, pre-Internet era in which the box's mysteries could remain plausibly opaque to Arthur and Norma. (Can't just Google "Steward" and "box.")

In seeking a way to flesh out Matheson's story—which was previously adapted as an episode of the 1985 incarnation of The Twilight Zone by Matheson himself (under the pseudonym Logan Swanson)—Kelly went into his own personal history, he said.

"Even though ... it's the first film I've done that's based on someone else's origin material, it is my most personal film, because when you read the short story, Arthur and Norma, it's only six pages, so there's not much time to delve into their backstory and who they are," Kelly said. "And I decided, ... since I'm setting this in 1976, and I'm setting it in Richmond, Va., where I grew up, I thought, 'How am I going to flesh out Arthur and Norma?' And then my instinct was, 'Why don't I base them on my parents?'"

The married couple in The Box share the same biography as Kelly's parents: Arthur works at NASA on the Viking Mars probe, as did Kelly's father; Norma is a schoolteacher from Texas, like Kelly's mother. The film's stars, Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, spent time with Kelly's folks, with Diaz even adopting the Texas twang of Kelly's mom.

Kelly also gave the couple a son. "The kid, I guess, is kind of me," he said. "I had an older brother, so I wasn't a single child, and I was barely 1 year old in 1976, but the kid is 10 or 11, so it became, all of a sudden, this really personal thing. ... It become a way for me to sort of expand and interpret Matheson's story but also make it very personal to me. And it kind of helped me ... bring some ... degree of authenticity to the story, in the sense [that it] feels like part of the story really happened, in a weird way. ... Because the love story part of it really happened."

The Box also stars Frank Langella as the mysterious Mr. Steward. It opens Oct. 30. Kelly and his stars will be bringing the film to Comic-Con International next month as part of the Warner Brothers panel. (You can read more of this interview and learn more about The Box in an upcoming issue of SCI FI Magazine.)