It’s been 15 years since the cult classic Donnie Darko was first released and the world has witnessed some seismic events in between; a litany of wars and conflicts, the financial crash and, of course, the emergence of Kim Kardashian’s derriere. Director Richard Kelly has unleashed two sci fi oddities in that time, but it’s the tale of a troubled teen and a 6ft bunny rabbit that really captured the hearts and minds of a generation (including the editors of this website.) Reflections sat down with Kelly to learn about the new restoration, the perils of Hollywood and the lyricism of Tears for Fears…
What’s it been like revisiting the film after 15 years?
It’s been great. Arrow Films contacted me and they said they wanted to do a 4K restoration. That was music to my ears because the film has never been properly maintained. I was never happy with the transfer, the Blu-ray or any of it. It just never looked right. So they gave us this great resource to go back to the original negative and use all of today’s technology to present the film in a whole new way. It was a lot of work and I had a window of time available with Steven Poster (Donnie Darko’s DoP) to go and do it. It’s great.
When the film first came out it took a little while to take flight. Do you think it caught on in the zeitgeist?
I think it really caught on here (in the UK) for whatever reason. It caught on in the US but not as quickly. When it came over in 2002, I was blown away by the response. I was overwhelmed, it gave me a second wind, you know. I can’t say why it was here. I think maybe it might have something to do with the music being all UK based pop songs. It’s an American story, but it’s universal and it translates into many languages and crosses many cultures. There is something universal about being a teenager and confronting big metaphysical ideas.
You use a lot of musical scenes, was there a big inspiration behind that?
I love incorporating music into my films, and it’s always by design. It’s often planned ahead of time, written into the script, choreographed into the script. The lyrical moments for me are the most cinematic. I always want to protect the lyricism. It’s sometimes a challenge to do because, like that Tears for Fears sequence in the movie, that’s at least two minutes long and no one is speaking dialogue. There’s a lot of story, there’s a lot of narrative in that sequence and it’s completely essential to the film. But when you’re dealing with financiers and with the studio and people want the running time shorter, they’re looking at that and thinking it’s superfluous, self indulgent lyricism and I’m like, ‘That’s why I’m doing this!’ For the lyricism, right? It becomes a real fight to protect this stuff.
How did you know that sequence was particularly precious to you?
From the very beginning. It was written in the script that when they jump out of the bus and Jake’s feet hit the pavement that the piano note begins. I was like, I saw it. That was it. It had to be this way. Like in Southland Tales with Justin Timberlake lip synching to The Killers, and there are all these dancers and he’s got a Budweiser. That guy (Timberlake) saw it. Then you’ve got to convince the producers to let you take a day of filming, when you don’t have the rights to the song and the producers were like, “We don’t have the song, we don’t even know if we can get the song, the song might cost up to $200,000 and this is crazy”. You’ve got to pick your battles, and those are some that I picked.
In all of your films you really portray the dark side of humanity. What draws you to these kinds of films?
I think the first three films that I have made are obviously dealing with some big apocalyptic themes. Literally apocalyptic themes. There is definitely a disturbing confrontation with a lot of dark stuff. For these three films they almost seem like a part of a bigger story. All my films are connected in ways that people don’t completely realise yet. I think they are more compelling stories. I don’t want to only make films that are dark, so to speak. I would love to make films that are more optimistic, that have a happy ending. I am capable of doing that! (laughs). I don’t always plan on killing everyone or blowing up the world. I’m not looking to continue being ‘apocalypse boy’.
How do you feel about the theatrical cut at the moment. Is it important to you that everyone understood how the parallel universe plot worked?
I don’t favour one cut over the other. The Director’s Cut is much more novelistic, sprawling and it’s got a lot more science fiction logic to it. I think both cuts have their virtues and I’m not really satisfied with either of them completely but they are what they are. With this restoration I was really grateful that we were able to go in and make the image look better. There is a lot of people who have never seen this movie on the big screen. It’s a significant improvement.
Re-watching the film I was really intrigued by the Patrick Swayze character. In light of some of the recent high profile sex scandals I wondered if you had any thoughts about his role in the film?
At the time we were trying to satirise the self help (gurus). When we made the film in 2000 there was never really any big high profile sex scandal involving big celebrity or whatever. I think we were just thinking, ‘OK we’re going to deconstruct this self help guy who sort of shows up in the town and is sort of a snake oil salesman’. He’s clearly full of shit and we kind of thought, ‘what could be the worst possible secret or sinister back story for this character?’. OK, well if he’s a child pornographer, let’s go with that. Then it really became just a twist in the movie and he became one of the multiple villains.
In regards to Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance, what were you looking for in Donnie?
I think that you know that a film is connecting if you can’t imagine anyone else in the lead role. It had to be Jake. We both spent a lot of time with the script going through every scene and he would ask me to make adjustments to the dialogue. It was a really delicate, emotional balancing act trying to modulate Donnie’s arc. So yesterday Donnie yelled at his gym teacher, tomorrow he’s going to be burning down a house. We had to map out the timeline to figure out where he was emotionally on every day of shooting and where he would be in the calendar of 28 days. So it was a big undertaking. We had to be very meticulous with mapping it all out.
If you had control over the timeline of your film career would you have liked the success of Donnie Darko to have come a few films later?
Hindsight is always 20/20, you know? I think the order was what it was meant to be. It was not a success until it came to the UK. It was actually a disaster at Sundance, it was a flop in the US. So all the movies take time. You can’t really control the wind. A movie, when it gets released, the wind is either blowing at your front or it’s blowing at your back. You can’t control the wind. I just try to follow my instincts. On the next film we’ve been really careful to make sure all the elements are going to be in place. I hope the wind will be at our back.
Are you going to change to another genre in future?
Yeah. I’m working on a lot of new stuff and I’m going to be moving in a lot of new directions. I don’t ever just want to be repeating myself. I don’t ever want to get complacent or surrender to the marketplace or become cynical. I just want to keep moving forward and exploring new kinds of stories and new ideas. You’re going to see me move in a lot of new directions.
DONNIE DARKO 15th Anniversary 4K Restoration will screen at the BFI from 17th December and in cinemas nationwide from 23rd December. BFI Tickets are on sale now: http://bit.ly/2eww8r3