When Richard Kelly graduated from USC in 1997, he was on a mission. Like so many wide-eyed film school grads, he had a passion project driving him. He’d made two short films, to some acclaim, while in college, but in that way that 20-somethings don’t know any better, he envisioned his next move to be a big budget, major motion picture. His idea was Donnie Darko.
Donnie Darko, released in 2001 starring Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jenna Mallone, Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell and Patrick Swayze, was a smash, earning accolades from moviegoers and critics alike, and making a slew of “best” lists during the 2000s. Now, twenty years since the germ of the idea came to Kelly, he’s spent the better part of the past year revisiting the film, preparing it for theatrical release, as well as 4K home video versions of both the original theatrical version and the remarkably different Director’s Cut.
Quartz caught up with Kelly to delve into why he believes Donnie Darko has such an enduring appeal, and why now was the right time to revisit the film, one that the 42 year old Kelly was just 26 when it was released.
Probably the most amazing thing to me about Donnie Darko is how it continues to find new life with successive generations and how it continues to resonate with people. What do you think it is about it that is the basis for its cross generational appeal?
Well, when we made the film in the year 2000 we were deliberately making a film set in 1988. I was very adamant that it was set in this very particular place and time. All the movies that I make will always be set in a very specific timeline, with a date stamp and a time stamp, because I need that specificity of a world where the characters exist. So, if anything, the fact that the film continues to resonate with contemporary teenagers, to me, is a reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. These things that teenagers have to confront, these painful things that adolescents face – a boy becoming a man and a girl becoming a woman–these thresholds of adolescence, they’re never going to go away. So if the narrative can transcend the timeline, then that’s a function of the narrative, and it means that it speaks to real human experience, that’s complicated and funny and frightening and all those things. But I’m very energized and very happy to continue to play that to a new generation.
The specificity of the timeline is certainly a key feature of the film. I wonder, from a storytelling standpoint and from a filmmaker’s standpoint, especially, if that specificity helps in making it more universal. In other words, the film is so indelibly that time and place that it allows people an entry place that it might not if it was more ambiguous. Is that part of the storytelling device?
Absolutely. And that’s why any movie I make with always have that time and date stamp, and my movies will take place either on the eve of an election or in the aftermath of an election. All my movies have very specific times because I don’t feel anchored as an artist otherwise.
But why 1988 then for Donnie Darko? Also, I remember it resonating with me when Patrick Swayze comes in as the self-help guru, and Donnie became the difficult kid asking the difficult questions. That really was Reagan America to me. It certainly was seen as non-conformist to fly so much in the face of authority and even ask a question, let alone a difficult question, of these people in perceived authority.
Well, it places Donnie as a bit older than I was in 1988, but it was a world that I remembered. I intended it to be at a time of transition, setting it on the eve of an election where Ronald Reagan was leaving office, and you had all these teenagers who were rejecting the war on drugs and seeing censorship and The Last Temptation of Christ being banned from theaters. You know, stuff like that, and the self-help movement and motivational speakers showing up in schools, gave kids something to fight against. And, of course, a new sort of liberalism emerged in those teenagers, who obviously went on to help elect Bill Clinton four years later. I wanted to capture that time and it became an essential part of the fabric of the movie, really.
Where did Donnie Darko come from? Tell me where the story and where the character and the art come for you as a storyteller in your 23 years that lead up to it?
I think it was very much an expression of my internal anxieties as an adolescent, first and foremost. It’s probably much more of an autobiographical film than people realize, and I’ve pretty much been able to reconcile that now that I’m much older. But, at the same time, a piece of ice fell from the wing of the jet plane when I was a kid and smashed into my neighbor’s house. I don’t remember who the kid was but it was something I read about and it stuck with me. That was the plot seed. So whoever that neighborhood kid is I hope he’s alive and well.
Let’s talk about the way you use music… Music can be used in films both to good effect and bad effect; it can elevate a scene, or it can maybe even cheapen it. I was never a big fan of Echo and the Bunnymen, and yet when I heard the song used in the film, it took me back to the time and place, but it also created an intense emotional connection to the film and the scene. How important is getting the right song for the right scene, and do you write with a particular song in your head–do you have a soundtrack as you go along, a playlist–and how do you come to those choices?
Well, an overwhelming yes to everything you just said. Music is everything to me in the filmmaking process. I design and select many songs very, very early in the screenwriting process. I even choreograph scenes to specific songs. I will play the songs for the actors on set, and I will even storyboard to the lyrics. I will hire a composer to start composing the score to the movie before we even start principle photography. Music is a fundamental, foundational element to me as a filmmaker. It’s one of the most exciting elements for me to work with. If there’s a lyricism to it there are also huge risks to it. I’m one of those lunatics who insists on choreographing a scene even if I don’t have the rights to it yet!
So do you ever get turned down and have you ever had to work around that?
Only a couple times. Of course, I always shoot to a back-up, or I always have a back-up plan. The one song we didn’t get for Donnie Darko–in either version of the movie–was the Pet Shop Boys “West End Girl.” We choreographed the Sparkle Motion scene to “West End Girl.” We played it on the set, and the girls were dancing to “West End Girl.” But that was the one song we could not afford. But we were able to replace it with Duran Duran and it worked out wonderfully, and I love how it works with Duran Duran. Musicians, for the most part, are so generous that you’re just reminded of how collaborative and generous artists are if they like how you’re using their song, or if they see that you’re using their song in a lyrical way or in a magical way. So for the most part musicians tend to play ball and I’m very grateful for that. But I’ve been really, really blessed because I do take these risks. I’ll spend a day on set, burning through all this money, basically be shooting a music video where no one is speaking–no actors are speaking and it’s just characters moving through space with a steadicam operator–and my line producer will be looking at me like, “Richard this is going to be 2 ½ minutes in your movie! Is this even going to make the final cut of your movie?” But I always say, “Trust me. When you see it with the song it’s going to be a miracle. Believe me, it’s going to stay in the movie!”
There must have been a ton of those people looking over your shoulder when you were making Donnie Darko. You were basically a kid out of college when you were making it. But when you talk about taking risks with the storytelling and the musical devices, you also took risks with the cast. Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal were not even remotely on the radar as actors yet you cast them in these really significant roles. Talk a little bit about your casting choices, as well as being a director fresh out of college who’s making this massive undertaking.
Well, I went to USC film school where I had a rigorous education at this amazing educational institution. I had my BFA from the School of Television I had that. I had a huge art portfolio–all the drawings you see in the movie, the rabbit and all the sketches that Donnie does–those are all my sketches. And I had written this screenplay that people were very high on. So I had my screenplay and I had my drawings and I had my film school degree. The one thing that I was terrified about was talking to the actors and directing the actors. I felt as though that was my Achilles heel, but I realized pretty quickly, not only with Jake and Maggie but with Jena Malone and the entire cast, that I was fortunate enough to get to work actors who were already were all very, very experienced.
You know, Jake had done maybe one or two movies and Maggie had done a lot of theater, but they had spent their entire lives already acting and they came from a family of filmmakers. In a lot of ways they were more experienced than I was. So I very quickly realized that I just needed to give them enough direction that they understood their character was in a particular moment and their motivation and I could kind of step back and learn from them. Again, I was blessed even with all of the younger actors in the film. They all came out of Harvard Westlake and these great acting high schools where they have these amazing drama teachers. I remember Jake and Maggie’s high school drama teacher was on set three or four days out of our shooting schedule with a big grin on his face. He said, “Richard, you’re hiring eight of my students!” All these LA kids were great, but there’s no shortage of great actors in LA, that’s for sure. The younger ones live in the Oakwood Condominiums, these condominiums over in Burbank, and they live there and they learn their craft. But they’re certainly not hard to find.
Talk to me a little bit about where Donnie Darko comes from emotionally and intellectually for you, and what it meant to you as a writer before it got made, as well as now, looking back, what it means.
I tell people I wrote this script in about a month. I wrote it in about 28 days; the length of the tangent universe in the movie. So I wrote it in that accelerated time frame, but prior to that I’d spent 23 years writing it. It was a script 23 years in the making, and it was my first screenplay, in fact. Working on it almost held up me getting my film degree. But my parents had invested a lot of money in my college education! I was working at a music video post production house making $6 an hour and I though, “I’ve got to write a script or find another way to make a living.” And so it was Donnie Darko. But really it was a combination of fear and many years of preparation and Donnie Darko is what emerged.
It’s such an unusual story, what are some of the things you drew on for inspiration? And when you look back on it now, and how long and how deeply it’s resonated with people, what does it mean to you and signify for you as a creative person?
Well, the fact that it continues to resonate and that we’re getting to bring it back to the big screen is incredibly emotional for me. It’s very inspiring to me and I’m incredibly grateful and appreciative that people continue to embrace the film and want to engage in a dialogue about it. I think, if I’m answering your question here, it inspires me to want to continue to tell complex ambitious stories. It’s why I don’t make many movies: I spend all these years writing all these projects because i want to make sure all of the screenplays are really, really well developed and thoroughly imagined. But this re-release it felt like a moment of opportunity, while I was writing something else, to do the restoration on Donnie Darko because it felt like a good time to get it back into theaters. But really, I’m just grateful that there is an audience for it.
It’s the crutch of any creative person, but it’s also easy: Have you ever considered revisiting that universe or those characters?
You know, there is an opportunity to do something new in that universe. I want to be very careful even saying anything about it, but I would only want to do it if it was something very special, and it would need to be something new–a new story–because I never want to ever remake one of my own movies or regurgitate one of my own movies or do anything for cynical reasons or do anything that isn’t even necessary. But I do feel that there is potentially a bigger world and that there’s a new story that could be explored as an extension of the Donnie Darko story. But we’ll see. We’ll see what happens. But again, I would never want to pursue something unless it was really worthy of that pursuit.
Do you see the cast ever? Making a film is sort of like being in a war together. Do you see Jake or Maggie or Jenna, for instance, or any of the other cast members, and what is that like? Does it remind you of that of moment in time, or is it something else?
Yeah, I do see them, and it’s wonderful to see them. If anything, it just makes me wish I could see them more often. You know, everyone’s off working on their own projects. It’s just the nature of the entertainment business that everyone is sort of a transient vagabond, traveling from project to project and city to city, and we’re all sort of beholden to the wind and the business. We have to navigate that for survival and for happiness. But anytime we get to see each other it’s a wonderful reminder of the work and those fleeting moments we spent together on set, well, they’re imprinted on our souls forever. You know, nobody did Donnie Darko for the money. No one got paid to do that movie. It was really just to have the artistic experience together. And those are the most pure experiences, when people are there for the material and for the inspiration.