A mysterious man presents a couple with a box, telling them that if they push its button they will receive a large amount of cash but someone in the world will die as a result. Such is the simple premise of the Richard Matheson short story "Button, Button," which has been adapted by writer-director Richard Kelly into "The Box." Opening Nov. 6, the film stars Frank Langella as the man and Cameron Diaz and James Marsden as the couple.
"It was always this kind of great blueprint for an act one of a film," said Kelly of adapting the story, "and then it was like, 'Where do we go after this has happened?' I wanted to know what happens to that couple, and ultimately who is [the man] and who does he work for. . . . ?"
To expand the story, Kelly modeled the couple after his parents, setting the story in Virginia, where he grew up, in 1976, when his father was working at NASA, and even incorporating a medical accident his mother suffered.
"It's one of those what-if scenarios like you hear at a dinner party -- what would you do? To ground it in reality, it was like, let me go to the people I respect the most, my parents, and not make it the kind of couple who would just push the button carelessly. To think even the kindest, least violent people with great moral values might still push it, all of a sudden it made the story real."
Kelly's parents visited the set several times, allowing the actors some insights. "Obviously, it's an interpretation, not a facsimile," said Marsden of drawing from them. "But the more I could get into Richard's head and see what he was seeing, the easier it was."
When "The Box" shifts from its elegantly simple premise into a sprawling conspiracy of indeterminate origin before reaching a startling finale of emotional intimacy, Kelly finds a way to meld incongruous parts into a cohesive whole.
The film nevertheless paints itself into some outrageous corners, hinting at who may be behind the man's mission. Diaz set off a brief skirmish of online discontent following her Comic-Con appearance when she perhaps revealed too much about who might be behind the box and its button. "The funny thing is," she said, "I don't think even Richard knows. And that's OK. That's humanity. There is no answer."
Though he'd asked his parents about details of their lives, it wasn't until a lunch with the actors that Kelly's parents came to understand just how much of their lives were in the movie.
Richard's mother, Ennis Kelly, started to choke up a little in a call from their Virginia home. "It just means so much to me and Richard's dad."