Richard Kelly’s Second Chance: The Director Reflects on How Donnie Darko Became a Cult Hit

Movies that barely net a half million at the box office are generally written off as duds in Hollywood.

But Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly’s promising 2001 debut as a writer-director, does not follow your typical trajectory. In fact, this summer, Newmarket Films is releasing Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut, which will feature 20 minutes of unseen footage, as well as new music and visual effects.

Certainly, there was a time when the rookie moviemaker didn’t believe he’d ever get another shot. In the summer of 2002, Kelly was strolling through New York City’s East Village when he overheard two people discussing a crazy movie they just saw with this rabbit and Patrick Swayze as a motivational speaker. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute,’” he recalls, “‘are they talking about my movie? My movie that just bombed and got the unceremonious dump to DVD?’”

He glanced to his left and sure enough, the Donnie Darko poster was hanging in the window of an art-house theater. “What’s going on?” he wondered. “I thought it played for two weeks and disappeared. But here it was, six months later. That’s when I realized that maybe this isn’t over yet. Maybe this is going to have a second wind.”

Maybe was an understatement. Donnie Darko, Kelly’s apocalyptic ’80s tale of an adolescent misfit with visions of an overgrown bunny named Frank, has steadily gained a rabid following at midnight screenings and on DVD, where it has grossed more than $10 million domestically. Zealous fans have now turned the movie into a bona fide cult phenomenon as they churn out theories about time travel, wormholes and how an eccentric sleepwalking youth could save the world. It may be tempting to draw comparisons between Kelly and his protagonist, but the 29-year-old Virginia native is quick to point out the differences. “I didn’t grow up delusional, on medication, seeing rabbits,” he jokes. “And I don’t travel backwards through time.”

Kelly, who attended USC on an art scholarship, realized on his second day of class that he didn’t want to spend the next four years committing to memory slides of Mayan architecture and Aztec engravings. Instead, he transferred to the film school and found his true calling—one that is keeping him on his toes today. He has a slew of projects in the works: an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle for Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company; Domino, the story of a bounty hunter, to be directed by Tony Scott (True Romance); and House at the End of the Street, with director Jonathan Mostow (U-571). Kelly’s own production company, Darko Entertainment, will produce “The Twilight Zone”-inspired The Box, which Kelly is co-writing with Eli Roth (Cabin Fever).

Jennifer Soong, MovieMaker Magazine (MM):Why didn’t Donnie Darko catch on when it first came out in the fall of 2001?

Richard Kelly (RK): It was just a victim of bad timing after September 11. Any time there’s a big cataclysm or a national crisis, it seems that art becomes dangerous or unnecessary to a certain segment of the population. And to others it becomes even more essential. I think our country is at a place right now where art is definitely under fire and intense scrutiny. Just the fact that this movie is getting re-released is a sign that there are still people out there who want to see provocative material and aren’t just ready to digest processed corporate material that so frequently comes down the pipeline.

MM: Do you feel like you’ve been given a second chance to reach a broader audience on the big screen?

RK: The first release just wasn’t meant to be. I feel like the film was meant to fail before it could succeed. It was meant to be this cult item before it could be more mainstream. There are always people who want Donnie Darko to be the cult film, the one they discovered. If there’s any way this film could ever cross over a bit more to the mainstream it would just allow me to continue to make these kinds of films. I think any time a counterculture piece of art infiltrates the mainstream, that’s a good thing.

MM: So what new material can we expect with the director’s cut?
RK: Fans love to speculate and debate the true meaning of the film. There’s some new stuff that, without spoiling anything, is really going to expand and deepen the interpretation of the film. Some of the mystery will be resolved and there’s an additional layer of mystery that’s been added.

Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone and Frank in Donnie Darko

MM: Will viewers walk away with a different sense of the ending to the story?

RK: They’re in for a pretty significant new twist. Even someone who has seen the film 30 times, watched every deleted scene and perused the Website ad nauseum will still walk out of the director’s cut surprised. And I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. It emerges as much more of a science fiction film. If people would prefer more of an esoteric puzzle that can’t be solved, then they might prefer the theatrical cut. If you’re going to do a director’s cut, you have to risk potentially pissing some people off.

MM: How in hell did you come up with the idea for Donnie Darko?

RK: I’ve always had a love for science fiction and fantasy. I grew up reading Stephen King and Rod Serling, and became obsessed with “The Twilight Zone.” Then, in college, I began to read Philip K. Dick. Having a really hyperactive imagination, I needed an outlet. I started out doing a lot of illustration and drawing. Then I started writing short stories and essays and felt I had the potential to be a writer. I was very frightened and intimidated by the idea of writing a screenplay—it scared the hell out of me. So I finally sat myself down and said, “I’m going to try to write the most ambitious and crazy screenplay—to push the envelope.”

When I set out to write Donnie Darko, I wasn’t trying to please anyone but yours truly. It was a completely selfish, egomaniacal endeavor. I said, “I’m going to write something I love and try to overcome any despair I’m feeling as a post-film school guy who’s making six bucks an hour with no future at the end of the tunnel.”

MM: Were you concerned at all that you would be forced to tailor the script to suit commercial interests?

RK: We’re obsessed with this word “genre,” where the ghetto-ization of science fiction, fantasy and horror are too “genre”—as if that isn’t worthy of being held up in the same vein as drama or period this or that or historical drama. Why isn’t Howard’s End a “genre” film? I don’t understand these categories that have emerged. It prohibits filmmakers from taking artistic leaps and bounds, because they feel like it has to be in a certain category at Blockbuster.

Everyone wanted to know, “What kind of movie is this?” And they wouldn’t greenlight the film—they would pass on it—because they couldn’t explain to anyone exactly what it was. And I kept saying, “That’s the reason why you [should] make it.” Because, hopefully, it’ll be debated and thought about simply because it defies easy categorization.

MM: Some critics have compared your sensibilities to David Lynch. Which movie­makers have influenced your work?

RK: Well, the two that I give most credit to would be Terry Gilliam and Peter Weir. The two films that changed my life in that period of arriving at college were Brazil, which I saw on laserdisc at the cinema library when I was 19, and then Fearless, which I happened to catch at the Universal City Walk when my parents first came out to visit. Those two films crystallized something for me in my desire to become a filmmaker.

MM: When your script was making the rounds, a lot of studios weren’t biting because you were attached to direct. What made you stick to your guns?

RK: Yeah, that made me angry. Some development executive is out there telling you, “You can’t do this. You’re not allowed to do this. You’re too young. This doesn’t fit into a specific genre. It’s not a horror film. It’s not a thriller. It’s not a teen thriller. It’s a mish mash. It’s just a good writing sample. You’re never going to get this produced.” All these people whispering these things in your ear. I feel like it’s the same voice of this high school gym teacher from my adolescence saying you’re not allowed to do this. And it made me angry. It made me want to fight and dig my claws in even further and say, ‘No, I’m doing this. I don’t care how many times you tell me no. I’m doing it whether you like it or not.’

If the material stands up over time and you own it and won’t give it away and you’re persistent and a stubborn, arrogant little bastard (like I was), eventually a Drew Barrymore will show up on your film sheet and a kind of guardian angel will emerge. If your material is good, it’ll eventually sift to the top of the food chain and some powerful, rich, famous person will decide to take a chance on you.

MM: You make it sound simple. What’s your advice for aspiring moviemakers?

RK: There are miracles that happen, certainly. But they also require a lot of hitting the sidewalk every morning and knocking on doors and asking for signatures and asking, ‘Will you sponsor me?’ I had many, many doors slammed in my face. We walked into many meetings with executives and producers and people who would immediately roll their eyes and nod their heads and say, “Yeah, great, okay, see ya.” The meeting would be over before it started. And you know, stuff like that, it just made us more confident.

The only way to respond to that is to believe in yourself even more and have an even greater desire to prove those people wrong. So, honestly, the only way I know how to deal with rejection is to become more confident.

MM: You’re juggling a bunch of new projects. What’s coming up next?

RK: My next film is going to be a project called Southland Tales. We’re prepping to start shooting later this summer. It’s an epic film. I say, it’s 30 percent comedy, 30 percent musical, 30 percent thriller and 10 percent science fiction. So interpret that as you wish. That’s the only way my kind of brain works. MM

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