What if someone gave you a box containing a button that, if pushed, would bring you a million dollars…but simultaneously take the life of someone you don't know? Would you do it? And what would be the consequences?
The year is 1976. Norma Lewis (CAMERON DIAZ) is a teacher at a private high school and her husband, Arthur (JAMES MARSDEN), is an engineer working at NASA. They are, by all accounts, an average couple living a normal life in the suburbs with their young son…until a mysterious man with a horribly disfigured face appears on their doorstep (FRANK LANGELLA) and presents them with a life-altering proposition: the box.
With only 24 hours to make their choice, Norma and Arthur face a momentous moral dilemma. They soon discover that the ramifications of this decision are beyond their control and extend far beyond their own fortune and fate.
"The Box" is based upon the classic short story "Button, Button" by Richard Matheson. It was written for the screen and directed by Richard Kelly, whose 2001 sci-fi mystery thriller "Donnie Darko," a cult classic, earned a Grand Jury Prize nomination at the Sundance Film Festival. "Donnie Darko" went on to screen at film festivals around the world and brought Kelly Independent Spirit Award nominations for Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
"There are always consequences."
"At the heart of 'The Box' is a moral dilemma," says writer/director Richard Kelly. "What would you do if offered the opportunity for great wealth but it came at the cost of a human life, someone you don't know?"
That is the question posed in the original short story Button, Button, written by master of suspense Richard Matheson, which captured Kelly's imagination and serves as the basis and inspiration for "The Box." "I've always admired Matheson for his ability to create stories that both haunt and entertain," he says. "I was immediately taken with this deceptively simple tale and I wanted to know more. Where does the box come from? What does it mean? Could the people who push that button ever hope to redeem themselves…and how? It had a tantalizing, cliffhanger of an ending that made me want to jump to the other side to see what happens next."
Producer Sean McKittrick, whose first feature film collaboration with Kelly was the director's acclaimed debut, "Donnie Darko," sees "The Box" as "a classically told suspense tale and character study--with a twist. Any time you're dealing with money, it can affect people's morality or ethics. But you have to remember there are always repercussions."
Cameron Diaz, who stars as Norma Lewis, takes a similarly analytic approach. "It's a question we all kept asking ourselves. I feel that no one really knows what they would do until they're faced with that kind of decision. On the surface, it's easy to say, 'I know exactly what I'd do.' But circumstances could be different at any given time, for any person. It's not as simple as it seems."
Norma and Arthur Lewis are an average couple, with the same concerns and aspirations as anyone. Says Kelly, "The idea is that the people faced with this fate-altering dilemma are just like you or me, our parents or neighbors. There is nothing fatally flawed about the Lewises, nor is there anything special about them. They're good, hard-working, loving people who are raising a child, trying to get by, and living a little bit beyond their means--a situation as relevant today as it was when the story was written."
As the story opens, Arthur receives the bitter news that he has been denied the promotion he was expecting, meaning that their bright young son will no longer be able to attend the area's best school and Norma will have to forgo reconstructive surgery on a lifelong, painful injury. It's at this vulnerable point that they receive a visit from Arlington Steward and his bizarre proposition, in the form of a modest wooden box with a red button.
What Steward offers them, says Kelly, "is the possibility of an escape." In a larger sense, the director notes, "What fascinates me is the complexity of the instant-gratification, push-button society we live in today, with our handheld devices, TV remotes, computers, and all the ways in which we effortlessly solve our problems or meet our needs, large and small. We toss off messages without much thought to the consequences or ramifications. It was a little different 30 years ago, when the story is set, and that's one of the reasons why I wanted to keep it in the 1970s, when the story was first published. Pushing a button was a more deliberate act back then. For Norma and Arthur, it could be the most deliberate act of their lives."
It's a theme James Marsden immediately picked up on, commenting, "We live in a world where we can achieve almost anything with the press of a button. And I know it's supposed to be making our lives easier, but something tells me we may be paying a higher price for it in the long run." Marsden, who stars as young husband and father Arthur Lewis, also sees their intimate story having larger implications. "It's a story about one couple's experience but it could have a societal reach."
Or, it could possibly reach far beyond than that…
Another reason Kelly timed "The Box" to 1976 was to tie it to a milestone human achievement that year: NASA's landing of the first robotic research unit on Mars, the Viking Mission. "Maybe our landing on Mars was a significant enough accomplishment that some greater intelligence 'out there' decided it was now worth taking our measure as a species. Embedding our story into this historic setting introduces the possibility that there could be forces at work behind the Lewis' morality test that are beyond anything they can imagine--and that we can only speculate about," he suggests.
This, in turn, raises deeper questions about who, or what, is Arlington Steward.
"'The Box' isn't big on violence or gore; it's more of a thriller in the retro style of the movies I grew up on as a kid, and that kept me on the edge of my seat," says Kelly.
Producer Dan Lin says, "It's scary on a visceral level, because this family is being pursued by a mysterious man who seems to be watching their every move, but it's also scary on a psychological level because of the provocative issues it raises. To what end will you go to save your family? How well do you know the people around you? How well do you know your own family, your husband, your wife? As a fan of 'Donnie Darko,' I knew Richard wouldn't make a typical couple-in-jeopardy scenario; he would find a way to expand and elevate it with his own unique style and point of view."
"What I love about Richard's work is that he asks the questions you don't ask yourself because you're afraid of the answers," notes Diaz. "He knows a lot about human nature and the lies we all tell ourselves."
"His is a mind that thinks outside the box, if you'll forgive the expression," offers Frank Langella, who stars as the enigmatic Steward. "The story has a delicious premise with a 'what if' factor that I like very much. To borrow one of Steward's lines from the film, when someone says, 'This is all so mysterious,' he responds, 'Well, I like mystery. Don't you?'"
Like their previous work, McKittrick acknowledges, "There are some things left intentionally unanswered, open to interpretation. It's an intriguing idea that Matheson introduced and we've hopefully made that into an elegant and scary tale that will take audiences into unknown territory."
Ultimately, Kelly believes, "It's about responsibility. What would you sacrifice for your loved ones and what responsibility are you willing to take for your actions? What does it mean to be responsible for another human being and what are the parameters--where does it begin and where does it end? I like to think that I wouldn't push the button but I don't know. Maybe I already have. Maybe we all have.
"Richard Matheson's story stirred my imagination and set my mind abuzz with the kinds of questions we've all pondered at one time or another," he continues. "My intention with 'The Box' is to put audiences into Norma's and Arthur's shoes, so they can ask themselves, 'What would I do?'"
In developing the short story into a feature film, Kelly needed to expand the characters of Norma and Arthur Lewis and personalize them in a way that would make their crisis of conscience really hit home. And home is exactly where he went for inspiration. "It was important that Norma and Arthur are decent, likeable, honest people, the kind of people audiences can identify with. That being pretty much the definition of my own parents, it seemed natural to integrate parts of their lives into the characters."
Langella's elegant portrayal of the enigmatic messenger Steward contrasts sharply with Steward's hideous disfigurement.
"As the victim of a lightning strike, his face is a vivid reminder of what he's gone through," says visual effects supervisor Thomas Tannenberger, whose recent credits include "2012." "On Arlington's face there's a lot of scar tissue. You will actually be able to see through his teeth into his mouth because his left cheek is missing. Production designer, Alexander Hammond, and his team did a great job researching lightning survivors and our make-up department head, Louis Lazzara, designed the make-up." Read more
Shooting the film
The filmmakers recreated Richmond, Virginia, circa 1976, a looming part of which was the NASA Langley facility where Arthur worked--and where, they eventually discover, Arlington Steward has set up his base of operations.
For Kelly, who grew up in Langley's shadow, "Embedding our story in the historic setting of the Viking Mission meant presenting Langley in what some would call its glory days. A lot of it hasn't changed significantly from the way it looked in the 1970s: the same interesting architecture, the gantry, the rocket sled, the wind tunnel where they tested parachutes, the media briefing room. We tried to photograph as much of it as we could in a way that felt organic to the story while also paying tribute to what happened there. We were granted unprecedented access and wanted to make the best of it."
"As much as it's based on larger concepts, in many ways it's the most personal of my three films," says Kelly. "My parents were the ones who introduced me to these kinds of films, the Hitchcock-style psychological thrillers that are still my favorites. Those are the movies that they loved, and they became the movies that I love."
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
RICHARD KELLY (Director/Producer/Writer) and SEAN McKITTRICK (Producer) launched Darko Entertainment in late 2007 with financier Ted Hamm. Kelly and McKittrick solidified their relationship with Hamm on Kelly's second feature, the sci-fi thriller "Southland Tales," on which Hamm was an executive producer.
Based in Los Angeles, Darko finances modestly budgeted director-driven films. Their goal is to support filmmakers with a unique voice and bring Darko's brand to help independent films reach a wider audience.
Kelly and McKittrick first paired on Kelly's short film "Visceral Matter," in 1997. That partnership generated Kelly's feature writing and directorial debut "Donnie Darko," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to achieve international cult status. It also earned three Independent Spirit Award nominations, including two for Kelly for Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay, and one for Best Male Lead (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Kelly and McKittrick most recently served as producers on the comedy drama "World's Greatest Dad," written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, which debuted at the San Francisco International Film Festival in April 2009, and the comedy "I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell," directed by Bob Gosse from the Tucker Max best-seller, starring Matt Czuchry, Jesse Bradford and Geoff Stults. Among Darko's upcoming projects is the comedy "Rogue's Gallery," featuring an ensemble cast which includes Zach Galifianakis, Rob Corddry, Joe Anderson, Ving Rhames, Odette Yustman, Ellen Barkin, Bob Odenkirk and Jeffrey Tambor. Darko is producing with Infinity Media. The company has also attached screenwriter Adam Prince to adapt the popular novel Fade, a gripping and dark tale by late young-adult fiction writer Robert Cormier. Darko will finance and produce the project.
A graduate of the University of Southern California film program, Kelly's other credits include the screenplay for "
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