This year marks the 15th anniversary of cult classic Donnie Darko. Eric Bay-Andersen sat down with writer/director Richard Kelly to discuss the film’s production, impact and enduring appeal…
It’s been fifteen years since Donnie Darko was released, which, strange as that may seem, is a longer gap than between when the film was released and when it’s set.
RK: Wow, really? Wait, we shot the movie in 2000 and it was a twelve year gap then, so … wow, that’s crazy!
I know! 80s pop culture is everywhere now, you can hear it in music and see in it shows like Stranger Things-
Why did you decide to set Donnie Darko in the 80s, and what do think it is about that time period that people have such fondness for?
RK: It was always meant to be a time capsule film about a more innocent time, and I could not figure out how to tell this story in the year 2000. A lot of people were pressuring me at the time to set it in the present day, and I just couldn’t do it. I was like “No, it has to be in 1988! It has to be October of 1988, in the build-up before the Bush-Dukakis election, and I have all this music and all this specific 80s stuff”. It just had to be 1988. When something has to be a certain way, I’m incredibly stubborn that it must remain that way!
And rightly so, because it gives the film its character. For me, a big part of the appeal was how much of the story and the mythology was left open to interpretation. Do you think it’s harder for more ambiguous films to succeed nowadays? Are we too used to being spoon-fed the ‘right way’ to interpret something?
RK: Yes. Ambiguity is frowned upon by marketing departments.
I remember reading they had a hard time figuring out how to market it and pitch it.
RK: Oh, it was a nightmare. No one would distribute it because they thought it was impossible to market. It didn’t fit into one category. Everyone wants to put something in a box, a specific category. And that’s unfortunate, because to me the great films break those barriers, they spread far and wide in their reach. So now we’re blessed- it’s been fifteen years and people now just let the film exist. They let it be what it needed to be, which is its own weird self, its own thing. And luckily people have supported it in such a way that now ‘Donnie Darko‘ can just be ‘Donnie Darko‘, it doesn’t have to try and be something else.
Either when you were writing the film, or after it found an audience, have you ever been tempted to expand the story in way? For example, the way Chuck Palahniuk did ‘Fight Club 2’ as a graphic novel, or maybe a shared cinematic universe.
RK: You know there’s been a lot of thought about what all of this means and why it resonates, and there’s a lot of mythology there. I’m constantly working on a lot of things, and all of my films are far more connected than people realise…
Oh, that’s interesting! Drew Barrymore and (her production company) Flower Films were instrumental in ‘Donnie Darko’ getting made. Has there ever been any talk of you collaborating on other projects?
RK: I love Drew and Nancy (Juvonen) – they’re like sisters to me, and I’ll always want to be able to work with them again. Everyone’s just been really busy doing their own stuff, and I’ve been off writing for a long time now, but I would of course cherish the opportunity to work with them again.
Not only was ‘Donnie Darko’ the first film you directed, it was also, amazingly, the first screenplay you ever wrote. You’ve said before that maybe you were too young, that “no one should direct a movie before they’re thirty”.
RK: I mean, in theory! I’m grateful that I was able to direct two films before I was thirty, which was crazy!
I love Southland Tales, by the way.
RK: Oh, thank you! That’s my baby – that’s the one that I’ll always fight for the most. You know, I said that maybe in a joking way in an interview because I tend to think most people under thirty tend to be reckless in a certain way, but that’s part of being in your twenties – you’re more reckless than you are in your later decades. But that’s fine, but there’s also a lot of life experience you need to go through in order to handle directing a film. I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunities, but there’s plenty of time to get around to directing – you don’t want to wait too long, you also don’t want to do it too soon.
Do you think that if Donnie Darko was an idea that you had put on the back burner and done something else first-
RK: Then it would never have been realised. Donnie Darko had to have been made as first film otherwise I don’t think I would have had the balls to pull it off, because I had to fight a lot to get this on screen! And there were still compromises, I never got everything I wanted. It was not an easy path, getting this thing made.
What would you say was the biggest compromise that you had to make when you were making it?
RK: Well, there was a lot more that I wish I could have done visual effects-wise and practical effects-wise, but no one was going to give us the money that we needed to do it, but we got enough.
For me, the whole ‘spirit path’ effect reminded me of The Abyss, which ties into the 80s again – it totally works.
RK: Yeah, that’s right! The Abyss came out in ’89, right? They shot it in ’88.
The iconic Frank mask design – did you doodle that and someone else realised it? How much influence did you have over the design?
RK: I did the original sketch, we then made kind of a 3D model and I worked really closely with the sculptor to do the mould of the mask. And I worked really closely with April Ferrier, the costume designer, to build the costume. I’m involved with every detail of every part of my films – more so than most sane people would recommend.
Well, it’s one of the most iconic images ever.
RK: Thank you. I recently saw the original at a photo shoot – a friend has it behind UV-protected glass! It’s in pretty good shape too.
Because of the confusing nature of the story, how much did the cast ask you to explain it, or did they just go “you know what it means, I’ll just do my bit”?
RK: You know, this happens on all my movies where most of the actors are unclear about the whole story. They don’t quite understand the whole story, nor do they need to or should they, but I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job of making them understand their character. That’s all I need to do – it’s not their job to understand the whole story, that’s my job! If I haven’t figured it out by the time we shoot their scenes then I’ll sure as hell have figured it out by the time I finished the whole movie – I hope! So it’s mostly a case of they understand their character and their motivation and we get there together.
Donnie Darko 15th Anniversary 4K Restoration will screen at the BFI from December 17th and in cinemas nationwide from December 23rd . BFI Tickets are on sale now
Many thanks to Richard Kelly for taking the time for this interview.