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“It Was a Long Uphill Battle”: Richard Kelly on Donnie Darko

Jake Gyllenhaal in Donnie Darko

midnight movie for those not old enough to stay up past midnight, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko was, for a great number of millennial teens and college students, the ultimate cult classic. Along with Larry Clark’s Kids and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, I remember Kelly’s film being shared on home video like the Holy Grail, a movie viewed over and over again in sheer shock, fascination, and debate. A director’s cut followed three years later and only further mystified the film’s elaborate puzzle; subsequent ephemera  — an explanatory book and an unwarranted sequel — cashed in on the growing fanbase.

In 1988, a troubled suburban teenager (played by then-newcomer Jake Gyllenhaal) with a habit of sleepwalking, narrowly escapes death when a fallen jet engine falls from the sky and through his bedroom. If only that were the worst of his problems: Experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia and severe depression, Donnie is commanded by a demonic man dressed in a rabbit suit named Frank to enact bouts of mischief at and around his school. Why Frank has made himself known at this particular time in Donnie’s life isn’t quite clear at first, but that mystery is only half the fun. A film where death, always accompanied by a killer soundtrack, is implied and turned on its head, Donnie Darko is as much a transcendental hero narrative as it is an appreciation of a specific time in a teen’s life where pop culture and sexual attraction dominate.

In anticipation of a re-release now touching down stateside, I spoke with Kelly about the initial response Donnie Darko received in 2001, his film’s depiction of Middle America conservatism in the ’80s, and an impromptu run-in with filmmaker Sam Raimi on set.

Filmmaker: A theatrical re-release brought about by a film’s anniversary invites a hefty number of feelings for the film’s director, certainly when the film’s beloved and cherished by a great number of people. Over a decade and a half removed from the film’s Sundance premiere, how do you look back on the initial response and theatrical run of Donnie Darko?

Kelly: I just remember it being really stressful and, after Sundance, of just having all of this anxiety trying to get it into theaters. We were really worried that it was going to go straight to home video. There was no such thing as video-on-demand or companies like Netflix in 2001. If a film with a high-profile Sundance premiere didn’t get a theatrical distribution deal and instead went straight to home video, it would be dismissed by the critical community and wouldn’t be reviewed in any of the major papers. It wouldn’t have any kind of legitimacy. I remember being really stressed out about trying to get it into theaters and working really hard to convince Newmarket Films to pony up for some nominal theatrical release. They agreed to a release around Halloween weekend of 2001. We all know what happened on September 11th of that year, and so then it was an issue of if we’d be able to hold the theaters and if anyone would show up. Not too many people did, but we managed to get into theaters and make it to the finish line by the skin of our teeth. It was a long uphill battle.

Filmmaker: You were only in your mid-twenties when Donnie Darko was released. The independent film scene has changed quite a bit since then, and it’s becoming harder and harder for anyone recently out of film school to get their first feature off the ground. That’s as much a knock on rising production costs as it is tuition debt brought about by student loans. How did you make the transition from shorts at USC to going into production on Darko?

Kelly: I was fortunate enough to get a big agent, to get signed by a big agency, and to have this script that I was very stubbornly possessive over. I wouldn’t relinquish control and I wouldn’t sell it to anyone or allow anyone else to direct it. I was fiercely protective of it, and then it became about the process of courting actors. The acting talent is what gets you your money. No producer or financier is going to commit funding to any project unless they know that a movie star is going to show up and work for cheap.

Filmmaker: Did you always wish to shoot the film in Los Angeles?

Kelly: Yeah. I didn’t want to go to Canada, for example, because I wanted the movie to really feel like the American suburbs. The reason why we were able to shoot in Los Angeles was because there was a commercial strike that summer. I’m not sure if it was a Screen Actor’s Guild strike — there was just a lot of people, a lot of crew members, in Los Angeles looking to work. There were no commercials being shot because of the strike. I’d have to go back and do some research to figure out exactly what was happening, but I remember our line producer saying that because of the strike, we would be able to get a lot of people willing to work for scale because they want to stay in Los Angeles for the summer and be with their families. We made the numbers work and got all the great actors and crew that were here in town that summer.

Filmmaker: How long was the shoot?

Kelly: Exactly 28 days, the length of the Tangent Universe.

Filmmaker: How did the collaboration between you and your longtime cinematographer Steven Poster start?

Kelly: Donnie Darko had been greenlit and we had our funding in place. I was going through a stack of resumes and when I saw Steven’s resume in the stack, I was shocked that we had a chance of getting him for this movie. He’s shot so many movies and had worked with Ridley Scott on Someone to Watch Over Me, for example. It was very fortuitous timing in that he was entertaining the idea of doing a small independent film for a first-time director. That was a blessing.

Filmmaker: Set in the fall of 1988, the film was designed to be a period piece, capturing a slice of Middle America conservatism run rampant in an election season in which George H.W. Bush won both the electoral college and popular vote (he was the last Republican to do so). The older your film gets, the more its political asides stand out as one of its most memorable traits. You were a teen at the time this election campaign was taking place, so I assume you were surrounded by talk of Bush and Dukakis on a daily basis?

Kelly: I very consciously set this film at the tail-end of the Reagan era and the lead up to the election of George H.W. Bush. It was definitely in my mind, a time where teenagers were, if not politicized (we didn’t ultimately elect Michael Dukakis…), then wanting to fight back against the establishment of the Reagan administration. I’m thinking about the War on Drugs, the fact that The Last Temptation of Christ was banned from many theaters, the self-help movement [popularized] at the time, and the residual lingering pressures of conformism. Young teenagers wanted to fight and rebel against Reagan. That was built into the narrative from the very beginning, from the opening line of dialogue, “I’m voting for Dukakis,” delivered by Maggie Gyllenhaal. I was a young teenager at the time — younger than Donnie is in the film — but I remember feeling like I was becoming politicized and that there was something to rebel against.

Filmmaker: While the film is set in the late 80s, there’s a timeless feel to its darker elements: book-banning, hiding behind the word of the Bible, ethnic discrimination between students, self-help leaders who turn out to be criminals. By the film’s end, Donnie becomes this unassuming figure of justice who rallies against this. As the marquee of the local cinema Donnie and Gretchen attends implies, it’s the The Evil Dead meets The Last Temptation of Christ.

Kelly: Yeah, that’s a sight gag, I guess [laughs]. Last Temptation did come out in 1988, was banned in a lot of cities and theaters, and there are characters in the story that die and are resurrected. One may argue that Donnie is a Christ-like figure in the sense of him being crucified by the jet engine at the end of the film, or in some way sacrificing himself. Those themes play in to each other. It was an irresistible marquee to put up. [laughs] We shot it at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, and there’s an interesting piece of trivia about that. When we mocked up the marquee with those two titles, none other than Sam Raimi himself drove by in his Mercedes station wagon while we were shooting. He had lived in the Westside, and he and Anchor Bay had given us permission to use The Evil Dead in our film. Anchor Bay was, at the time, a family-owned company, and they were very cooperative in allowing us to use footage from The Evil Dead and put the poster up in the alcove of the theater entrance. And just by coincidence, Raimi happened to be driving down Montana Avenue while we were shooting the marquee, like “what the hell is going on?”

Filmmaker: How did you work to modify Frank’s voice the way you envisioned it?

Kelly: I remember we worked with the sound designer for a long time to make it sound like the voice was being spoken through liquid. There’s a kind of salt water barrier motif in Donnie Darko, and in the director’s cut there’s a more of an exploration of that. The idea of the ocean and salt water as a barrier or gateway of some kind runs through all of my films. The direction to my sound designer was that the voice should feel like it has the power of the ocean, like it was being spoken through liquid. We recorded actor James Duval’s vocals and then had a long process of working with my sound designer to make sure we got the intended effect. That was a big issue on the mixing stage, to make it sound like the voice was coming from underneath.

Filmmaker: This anniversary release celebrates both the theatrical and director cuts of the film. As someone who has had multiple cuts of films released to the public and then re-edited before being released into the world again, are you a filmmaker who disowns a theatrical cut after a version closer to your vision is released? Or does each serve its purpose as a particular moment in time?

Kelly: I stand by both cuts and think they can co-exist together. The intention was never to replace or disown the theatrical cut at all. It was just to have an alternate, longer version for people who wanted to dig deeper into the narrative. I was very specific that we wanted to restore both cuts, to have them both be around forever. I always think that there can be more than one version of a film, and some of my favorite films have released multiple versions. There’s probably two versions of every James Cameron film, and a lot of Ridley Scott’s films have longer cuts. It’s great to have that option. I think it’s better for people to watch the theatrical cut first, and if they do want more, they’re welcome to dive into the director’s cut. Some people just want things to be brief, to get in and out. This is about having both options available.

Filmmaker: How did that restoration come about? Were you approached or did you spearhead it yourself?

Kelly: After fifteen years, the rights had transferred over and Arrow Films acquired them. They came to me saying they wanted to do a restoration, and this is something that Steven Poster and I always wanted to do. We wanted to make the movie look the way it was always intended to look and the technology is now available to us. We were able to scan the original negative, which we found, at 4K resolution and so the movie finally looks like it should. It was never really transferred or maintained properly before, and I was never happy with the DVD or Blu Ray transfers of the movie. This was a great opportunity to have.

Filmmaker: How do you find the process of getting projects greenlit today? Has it changed since you started as a filmmaker?

Kelly: I could have easily made many films throughout the hiatus I’ve been on, but I’ve been very, very specific about wanting to make sure that I’ll be able to do something that’s original, that’s ambitious and special. That takes time. These movies take a long time to put together and they’re really complicated and have a lot of moving parts. They cost a certain amount of money too. There’s a budget threshold where something becomes untenable, where it becomes better not to make it than to make it with the too few dollars available to you. I think it’s just about taking our time to get it right. I wish it was easier, but this is the reality of the market place and the world we live in. At some point, if I can actually have a box office success and have an opening weekend that’s viewed as successful, then that will help. We’re just making sure that we have the recipe for success and hopefully we’re close and something happens soon.

Filmmaker: With the expansive worlds you create, do you ever consider making something episodic or television-based?

Kelly: I would love to move into long-form storytelling, but I want to make sure that I can oversee the whole thing and that I can direct a long-form narrative. When I commit to something, it’s a pretty immersive commitment. I’m not really good at just coming in and being the hired hand, walking in and walking out. I need to be a part of the whole process, and I feel that’s what people want from me. That’s what I want from the experience. It’s a big time commitment, but we have a lot of stuff in the works.

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