DONNIE DARKO is, in many ways, the definition of a cult movie made good. The film was first released right around the time of September 11th, 2001, and barely found an audience in theatres. Drew Barrymore helped bring the story of the disturbed Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose new friend is a large bunny named Frank and who is deeply interested in the concept of wormholes and time travel, to life, but at the time the film went unfairly unseen. The following year, DONNIE DARKO would find its audience on DVD, one that became so devoted that director Richard Kelly was able to go back and create a director’s cut of the film, which screened in 2004 and made efforts to be a little more literal and less obscure in its storytelling. Depending on your opinion, that version is either a masterpiece or a bit too on the nose with its explanations.
This spring has seen both version of DONNIE DARKO remastered and released in a new Blu-ray set from Arrow Video, along with screenings of the film across the world. We had the chance to talk to director Kelly about the movie’s roots, his collaboration with his lead actor, and much more, .
Andy Burns: DONNIE DARKO is such a unique film. Where did it come from?
Richard Kelly: I like to say that it came from 23 years of life. It was my first screenplay, I’d been through a rigorous education at USC and I had a film degree. I was looking to write a screenplay and this is what emerged.
Andy Burns: The film deals with universal fears – the idea of death and dying alone, time passing and what we can do with our time. How much of you is in that story? Were those concerns of yours?
Richard Kelly: Well, there’s a significant amount of me, my adolescence in the film. They’re all personal stories. I don’t really know how to tell a story that isn’t personal. At least not yet. There’s plenty of that in the DNA of the story. My high school English teacher who taught us Watership Down, he said to us, “Write what you know.” Everybody should be writing something that’s emotionally true and that’s authentic. Otherwise, you risk writing into cynicism or into the market place, and people can see that. Emotional authenticity is what I’m aiming at.
Andy Burns: How much of the character of Donnie Darko was on the page versus how much was collaboration with Jake Gyllenhaal?
Richard Kelly: There was definitely collaboration between Jake and me. He was very hands-on with the scripts. We would sit down in my house and go through every line of dialogue. He would want to make adjustments to phrases and sentences. It was a collaboration because that’s what great actors do, and it was clear he was up for the task. I’m very open to actors wanting to make adjustments, as long as we’re on the same page about the characters. I had the blueprint for the whole story in place. He just wanted to make sure that the lines of dialogue were structured exactly as he wanted to say them.
Andy Burns: Was that idea of collaboration something you were always open to?
Richard Kelly: I had to be open to it. I was very confident in my abilities, in knowing where to put the camera, and my visual sensibility, the aesthetics. But I knew all of these actors had a lot more experience than I did when it came to creating a believable performance, so I was going to let the actors have a lot of room to breathe and give them plenty of space to be honest, and if they wanted to change something, change something, because at that age, I was in no position to give someone a mandate. That would be the most obvious example of insecurity or me being fraudulent, if I was refusing to let them bring their wisdom and experience to the table, which is significant.
Andy Burns: The family scenes are so real and natural. Where they as natural to create as they appear in the film?
Richard Kelly: Well, it helps having Jake and Maggie (Gyllenhaal) there. Having the real siblings there was just a blessing. Maggie’s role is pretty small, but her contribution was significant, because the opening scene is at this dinner table, and you have real siblings there. I think there’s a cohesion and authenticity to it, which was very helpful.
Andy Burns: You have both cuts of DONNIE DARKO released together. Not every director wants that. Is it easy for you to have both of them co-exist?
Richard Kelly: I want them to co-exist. I don’t intend them to compete with each other. I’m not intending for one of them to replace the other. I look at it as, the Director’s Cut is an extended remix of a song. There’s more there, the songs have been rearranged, there have been some new songs added. You get Echo and the Bunnymen later, at the party, rather than the opening. There are some new story threads and elements and texture. I would always advice people to watch the theatrical first. If they want more, a deeper dive, there’s a longer version for them to digest, if they like that kind of thing. Not everyone wants a longer version. Some people like a brief mystery and they want it to remain that way and they just want to walk away from it. I intentionally preserved both cuts because I just want to give people the option.
Andy Burns: Today, you can feel the influence of DONNIE DARKO on things like 10 Cloverfield Lane or Stranger Things. Does it surprise you to see the lasting effect the movie has had?
Richard Kelly: I think the influence, I hope, is a positive one. I’m just grateful that it continues to resonate. I know that people didn’t know what category to put it in when it first came out. If the film has become its own category and given me a wavelength to operate in, or given me a bit of my own genre or my own place in this large community of filmmakers where I can operate in my own space, that’s what I’m hoping. That people can see this film as a wavelength I can operate in to continue to tell new stories, and do original work, and tell my own stories.
Thanks to Richard Kelly for his time, and to Justin Cook for making this happen. This interview originally appeared at Rue-Morgue.com on April 26th, 2017.