Donnie Darko: The Enduring Legacy of a Cult Classic

Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly talks to us about why this movie is still an eerie favorite and its theatrical and 4K re-release.

The 2001 Sundance Film Festival was significant for a number of debuts, from Christopher Nolan’s Memento to Wet Hot American Summer, a young Ryan Gosling in Henry Bean’s The Believer, John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Todd Field’s In the Bedroom. It was an abundance of riches in terms of movies and filmmakers that have gone on to create quite a legacy for themselves.

Probably one of the more quizzical offerings that year was a movie called Donnie Darko, written and directed by first-timer Richard Kelly and starring a very young and then-unknown Jake Gyllenhaal and an even younger Jena Malone (The Hunger Games). It disguised itself as a typical high school drama, though there was nothing typical about the title character, his visions into the future, or his “invisible friend,” a malevolent rabbit named Frank.

“I like to tell people that the story was 23 years in the making—that’s how old I was when I wrote the script,” Kelly told us when we spoke to him on the phone recently. “It was my first screenplay. I’d been through public education in Virginia and taken a risk to come out to California and been through film school at UFC and gotten a degree. I had a lot of education and a new skill set under my belt, and the only remaining thing to do was to write a feature-length screenplay, so this is what emerged. It was my lifetime up until that point preparing for it, and a lot of fragments and memories and events from my childhood and my adolescence that was put into it.”

16 years after the film’s initial release, Donnie Darko Remastered is a 4K restoration of Kelly’s influential film that will be released in various HD formats (including theatrically) over the next few weeks.

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Looking back at the film’s history, Kelly had some interesting boosters for his early work including Drew Barrymore’s Flower Films—Barrymore plays one of Donnie’s teachers in the film—and director Christopher Nolan, whose own star was in ascendance that year thanks to the success of his crime-thriller Memento.

“Nancy Juvonen, who is Drew’s producing partner…read the script and wanted to meet with us, and we went to the set of Charlie’s Angels in downtown Los Angeles, and we met in Drew’s trailer,” Kelly recalls about how Barrymore got involved. “In that point in her career, she was very interested in producing as well as acting, and she understood immediately that her currency as an actress would help get the movie made. Her value playing a supporting role would not only validate me as a director, but it would attract other actors and help validate the movie. She took a risk on me, and it’s very serendipitous that we got to work with Nancy and Drew on the movie.”

“He helped us get theatrical distribution after Sundance,” Kelly tells us about Nolan. “We were at Sundance together, and Newmarket financed and then self-distributed Memento, because all the distributors felt that the film was too cerebral and did not have a commercial chance to reach a wide audience. They were proven very wrong by the success of Memento the summer after Sundance.”

No one wanted to distribute our movie and it was on its way to the Starz Network or straight to home video,” Kelly says. “The movie was almost dead, theatrically, so Aaron Ryder, who worked at Newmarket and produced Memento, brought Donnie in to screen for his bosses, and he strategically invited Christopher Nolan and his wife to the screening. When Chris raved about the movie to the Newmarket bosses, they listened, and we were onto a theatrical release.”

Another interesting thing that comes out of looking back at Donnie Darko now is the amount of young talent who were in the movie years before breaking out, not only Jake Gyllenhaal but his sister Maggie, Jena Malone, and even Seth Rogen in a small role.

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“We shot this movie in Los Angeles, and to me, Los Angeles is a big part of the movie. Even though it’s kind of set in a mythical Virginia suburb, it really is to me Los Angeles where I see the outskirts of the city there,” Kelly said about this fortuitous casting. “So all these actors grew up in L.A.–they’d been working in L.A. or had come from families that were filmmakers like Jake and Maggie, and Seth had been working on Freaks and Geeks, so I had this big, deep reservoir of young Los Angeles actors, who were very experienced, and they knew what they were doing. I had a casting directing named Joseph Milton, who knew how to find them and knew how to put them into auditions. I was very lucky to shoot this movie in Los Angeles, because if we shot it in Toronto or Vancouver—those, at the time, were the big tax credit places and the destinations to make movies—this movie would not have turned out the same if we had gone to Canada. That’s no disrespect to Canadians or the acting talent in those cities, but I just know we wouldn’t have gotten a lot of people in there.”

Certainly the appearance of L.A.’s Aero Theater gives away the film’s filming location when Donnie goes to see Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead with Malone’s Gretchen. Kelly told us how he got permission to use a scene from that influential horror film. “We got it for next to nothing, because Sam Raimi and Anchor Bay owned the copyright negatives to Evil Dead, so we did not have to go through the bureaucracy of contacting someone behind at a desk at Fox or Sony or Paramount wanting to license a movie from a big studio and the subsequent bureaucracy and red tape you have to go through. It was literally one phone call to a guy at Anchor Bay who is basically best friends with Sam Raimi, and they just gave it to us for next to nothing.”

In a similar sense, the Donnie Darko soundtrack has gone on to become one of the more memorable ones of the early ‘00s due to its mix of ‘80s tunes from the likes of Tears for Fears, Echo and the Bunnymen, and others, which was especially impressive for a low-budget independent feature. “We were trying to license ‘80s music before anybody else was really trying,” Kelly says.” We were very fortunate, because we had a very good music supervisor, Manish Raval and Tom Wolfe, and we were able to start talking to these bands early on, because I had choreographed scenes to their songs.”

Kelly went on to explain how Tears for Fears’ song “Head Over Heels” set-up the film’s musical tone. “We shot that Tears for Fears hallway sequence on Day 3 of photography and by Day 5, the first week of principal photography, my editors had already cut that sequence together because it’s really only four or five shots cut together with a little optical speed-up, but it’s mostly in-camera slow motion. So we cut together that Tears for Fears sequence, and my editor slapped it on a VHS tape and I brought it to set Friday of Day 5, the end of the first week, which is an essential day for any filmmaker, particularly a first-time filmmaker getting through that first week. I showed the scene to the crew on a little monitor in one of the trailers and everyone just flipped out and it validated the choice of me taking the risk.”

He continues the story: “We were able to send a cut of the scene to Tears for Fears and they watched it and said, ‘Okay, we want to help you. This is really cool.’ It was a risk, because if we had not gotten the song, I don’t know if we could have replaced that song with anything else, because it worked because the band saw the footage and wanted to play ball with us, and then that sort of set a standard of collaboration with other bands, kind of a favored nations situation.”

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“Musicians are really generous people, for the most part,” he concludes. “If they see their song used in an artful way, to refuse that or deny that… I can understand if someone is trying to use their song for a terrible scene or it wasn’t proper usage, but luckily, if the shoe fits, they’re going to want to let you wear it, right?”

It’s interesting to note that the popularity of recent Netflix shows like Stranger Things, The OA, and Sense8 prove that modern audiences are looking for more intriguing and potentially challenging science fiction to watch, so it’s a good time for the remastered version of Donnie Darko to be on iTunes with all the extras and a brand-new documentary.

“I like both equally but I’m probably not 100% satisfied with either version, to be honest,” Kelly said when pushed on which version he thinks people should watch. “I see them as being companions. I don’t mean one to be favored over the other, and I want to great lengths to restore both versions and try to enhance both versions of the film. I think the theatrical cut is probably better to watch for the first viewing, and if you so desire a deeper dive and a bigger, denser, more novelistic science fiction version of the story, then it’s there for you. Not everyone wants that or needs that, but it is there for people who want to go there. My brain tends to move towards the longer, denser version of anything but I also understand there are some versions of movies that are going to play better in thousands of screens across the country and others that are better for your home theater.”

The legacy that’s been created by Donnie Darko is quite undeniable, and we asked Kelly whether he had some thoughts on the matter.  “I’m inspired by it and I’m very grateful for it,” he says. “I feel like, if anything, it’s made me want to continue to tell original stories, to not shy away from doing complex stories with a deep mythology and a lot of layers to them. It proves that if people have time to digest this stuff, they’ll come back to it, and they’ll revisit it, and they’ll want to talk to each other about it, so that’s what I want to do is keep telling these kinds of stories. It takes time, but if something like Donnie Darko can be this successful over this long amount of time and continue to build an audience, I think if I can have that kind of success out of the gate in an opening weekend theatrical situation, it will let me continue to tell more stories like this.”

Of course, the film’s cult status has led to a lot of fan theories about what really is happening in the movie, something that Kelly doesn’t necessarily want to confirm or condemn. “I did the director’s cut which is a lot more detailed, and I put a lot more information out there that I created. I kind of just want to let people run with it and think what they want to think. I know a lot more about the blueprints of this universe, and I feel like I’ve built something pretty complicated, but at the same time, I kind of want people to think what they want to think, and they’re welcome to come up with whatever theories they want. I don’t want to discount anyone’s theater, really. I don’t want to tell someone that they’re wrong even if I disagree with them.”

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With all the attention being put on Donnie Darko over the next month, there’s a question about whether Kelly might be interested in making a sequel. Kelly had absolutely no involvement with the 2009 sequel S. Darko, which focuses on Donnie’s younger sister Samantha.

“There is an opportunity [for a sequel], but again, I don’t control the rights to this,” Kelly tells us. “I had to relinquish them at age 24 when I got the deal to make the movie, so I had no authorship or approval over that other film that they made. It was made against my wishes and much to my discomfort. I had no means of preventing that movie from being made, but there is an open door for me to revisit this world in a new way, tell a new story, and I never want to repeat myself or regurgitate or reboot anything that I’ve done, but there is an opportunity to do something much bigger and new, but we’ll see. All good things happen when they’re intended to happen in time, so we’ll see what happens. My goal is to try and protect it and prevent anything from happening that shouldn’t happen.”

(SPOILER WARNING for the next paragraph if you have yet to see Donnie Darko!)

The fact that the title character dies in the original movie doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve seen the end of Gyllenhaal’s character either, if Kelly decides to do something similar to the recent Trainspotting sequel by director Danny Boyle. “There’s a lot of science fiction involved in Donnie Darko, so I dunno. We’ll see what happens. I always keep an open mind, I try to, and again, people are still talking about the story, so who knows? There might be something more there but nothing definite yet and nothing official, and it could be something that it will be what it is, so we’ll see.”

Before we ended the interview, we asked Kelly about his Donnie Darko follow-up, the ambitious but critically-panned Southland Tales, which premiered at Cannes but barely had much of a release. We asked him whether he has any intention of releasing a longer or remastered version of that film.

“There’s the Cannes version but that version wasn’t finished. It didn’t have the visual FX, and Southland Tales is still unfinished in my mind,” he admitted. “There’s a much longer version that I would love to do, and I’m planning on doing when we can get everything in place. Southland Tales, there’s a lot more there and we’re in a new world where there’s different ways of delivering stories to people, and you can expand upon movies with a much longer running time, and that was always the intention with Southland Tales. There’s the graphic novels, but in my mind, it was always a six-hour movie and it’s still not finished yet, but hopefully someday. There’s just a lot more material there, that’s for sure.”

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The theatrical and director’s cuts of Donnie Darko Remastered will play for a week at New York’s Metrograph and other cities starting March 31, and then will become available on Blu-ray and on iTunes (including all the extras) on April 18.