An Oral History of 'Donnie Darko': Richard Kelly on the Film's Initial Failure and Ascension to Cult Classic
With the development hell and massive box office flop of 'Donnie Darko,' director Richard Kelly learned that 'any film is going to ultimately be judged in eternity.'
Do you believe in time travel?
I remember two things from the year 2001: the moment Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center (after which I got a stress-induced nosebleed), and the moment, just months later, that I discovered Donnie Darko. I was 11 years old. Both events cracked my mind wide open. The former showed me the end of the world, as wrought by the human hand; the latter showed me the end of the world, as conjured by the human imagination.
Donnie Darko is a portal—in the film's own terminology—into 1988 America, a time roiling with the tensions between the Reagan era and its children, the reformed neoliberals and social progressives who would go on to elect Bill Clinton four years later. (The film's first line of dialogue is "I'm voting for Dukakis," announced confrontationally at the dinner table by Elizabeth Darko, a young and fantastic Maggie Gyllenhaal). But, like its protagonist, Richard Kelly's directorial debut is also timeless. It tells of rising tides of anti-intellectualism, of ideological hypocrisy, of complacency, of sacrifice, and of tyranny. It's a story of adolescence, of family, of compassion, and of thinly-veiled hate. The fact of its re-release in 2017 seems exquisitely in line with the film's narrative logic: wormholes that loop infinitely throughout the universe, saved from destruction only by the morally enlightened.
"When we finally brought the rabbit on set and lit it, everyone got really quiet. It was almost like everyone had taken mushrooms and was starting to hallucinate."
"They just want to see what happens when they tear the world apart," says Donnie, discussing Graham Greene's 1954 short story The Destructors in class. "They want to change things."
Ultimately, Donnie Darko is a story of nonconformity, and its original path to Hollywood is one of the same.
One day, everything's going to be better for you
If "some people are just born with tragedy in their blood," as Gretchen intones in Donnie Darko, so are some movies. When Richard Kelly's cult classic debuted at Sundance in 2001, "no one knew what to do with it," Kelly told No Film School. "The knock against this movie coming out of Sundance was that it was impossible to market, unreleasable, or incoherent. It was unique, bizarre, and disturbing. Also, it was right after the Columbine massacre. [In the movie,] we have a teenage kid who fires a gun. That was not something that made people feel comfortable."
Donnie Darko left Sundance sans distributor. In March, Christopher Nolan's Memento hit theaters. It was a similarly unique, bizarre, and disturbing film, but it resonated deeply with audiences nonetheless. Aaron Ryder, who produced Memento, screened Donnie Darko for Memento's distribution company, Newmarket; after Nolan raved about the little Sundance film, Newmarket picked up Donnie Darko for a small theatrical release in October.
Then, planes fell from the sky on September 11, 2001. Understandably, no one wanted to go to the theater to contemplate death. Audiences didn't want to watch a movie in which a jet engine falls from the sky, signaling a narrowly averted apocalypse. Thus, Donnie Darko flopped at the box office, taking in no more than $1.3 million, against its $4.5 million budget.
"It was destined to fail," said Kelly. "And it did fail. But time heals wounds."
Over the years, Donnie Darko found its way to a rapturous audience: precocious adolescents, whose existential angst could only be summed up in the line, "Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?" The film garnered over $10 million in DVD sales, prompting a director's cut in 2004 and a theatrical re-release in 2011. It was crowned a cult classic.
"I wanted Donnie Darko to seduce the audience."
"Any film is going to ultimately be judged in eternity," said Kelly. "It's going to be judged far beyond the lifespan of the filmmaker who made it. I think this film just needed time to marinate. People needed to take their time with it, and discover it, and tell their friends about it. It was the path that it needed to take."
Cellar door is the most beautiful
At one point in Donnie Darko, Drew Barrymore's character, a progressive English teacher in a generally conservative school, says, "Of all the phrases in the English language—of all the endless combinations of words in all of history—a famous linguist once said that 'cellar door' is the most beautiful."
This is one of many instances in which Kelly's script, packed to the brim with incisive dialogue, literary and philosophy references, and callbacks, reveals its carefully orchestrated design. Geoff Nunberg, the aforementioned linguist, argued, against the ideology of his field, that the phrase "cellar door" was beautiful not only phonetically, but also semantically: in literary fantasy, cellar doors are often portals into other worlds. A cellar door literally figures into the plot of Donnie Darko to serve this function later in the film. For Kelly, the cellar door is where it all began.
"The most satisfying part of the art form of cinema is building worlds," said Kelly. "I wanted Donnie Darko to be memorable, and I wanted it to be immersive, and I wanted it to seduce the audience. I wanted it to be worthy of revisiting over and over again. My favorite filmmakers build and design worlds that you want to live in forever, even if it's a world that is horrifying or frightening. You look at David Fincher, for example, and a film like Seven, which takes place in a decaying city with gruesome murders...but I still want to live there."
Kelly wrote Donnie Darko at age 25 while working at a music video post-production house, earning $6/hour. He had just graduated from USC's film school; like every bright-eyed graduate, he wanted to make an uncompromising feature debut.
"I had written a very ambitious script, and there were a lot of people who thought I should relinquish control of it."
"I remember being very frightened," Kelly said, "because I had written a very ambitious script, and there were a lot of people who thought I should relinquish control of it and let someone else direct it. I was very, very stubborn and adamant that I had to direct it. I felt protective of the material."
This possessiveness of his vision almost cost Kelly the film. "I felt like I was never going to never get the film made," he said. "Everyone turned us down. There were people that thought I was very foolish for not letting someone else make it. But I knew that they would rewrite it, and they would not set the movie in 1988—it would be a modern-day piece—and they would probably change a lot of the story. I just could never let that happen."
It was Drew Barrymore who ultimately saved Donnie Darko, agreeing to produce it under the banner of her production company, Flower Films. "Nobody did Donnie Darko for the money," said Kelly. "No one got paid well to do it. It was about the artistic experience. Those experiences are the most pure—when you're there for the material."
28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds
Kelly shot Donnie Darko in 28 days—exactly the length of the film's Tangent Universe.
"The first film is a rite of passage," he said. "It's a big deal to get to direct a feature film, especially at the age of 26. I knew I had one shot, and I had to get it right."
However daunting, Kelly was up to the task. "I was very confident standing there on the movie set," he said. "I think the one thing that was intimidating was directing the actors, because I had this wonderful cast—very experienced, talented actors. I didn't want to disappoint them, and I didn't want to embarrass myself. I learned pretty quickly to be very focused and attentive, but at the same time, you need to give the actors their space. You can't smother them; they'll see through you. You need to find the balance of giving them just enough, and then at the same time letting them do their job and letting them breathe."
"That's the biggest thing that a director has to solve: communication with the actors," continued Kelly. "It all comes down to the performances."
"That's the biggest thing that a director has to solve: communication with the actors."
This a humbling sentiment coming from a director whose world-building skills extend far beyond his cast's nuanced performances. To watch Donnie Darko is to marvel at a fully realized vision lifted from a singular mind; the film's production design, cinematography, sound design, and music converge to create a hypnotic mise-en-scène, evoking at once the unbridled passion and possibility of adolescence and its inverse, despair. Even Donnie's sketches of the rabbit, which appear throughout the film, were hand-drawn by Kelly.
"I like to put the money into the locations and the production design and the extras," Kelly said. "I like to put the money on the screen. It's very important to me. It's why I do this—so I can create these immersive worlds with a lot of detail."
Of course, this strategy necessitates some compromise. "If you want to make movies like that, you're going to have to make a sacrifice when it comes to time and schedule," Kelly said. "You're not going to have as many days as you might have if you want to distribute the money into a longer schedule. The longer you have the whole circus up and running, the more it costs."
"All of my movies have tight schedules," Kelly continued, "and I kind of like it that way. I think it keeps everyone on their toes. You're not wasting a second. You have to plan and map everything out. It's tough, it is stressful, and I lose weight. Usually, I'll lose 10 to 15 pounds when I direct a film because I have all this adrenaline pumping through my veins. It's the most exciting, magical thing, to be on a movie set."
I can do anything I want, and so can you
"I remember walking in, and Richard [Kelly] was pacing back and forth," Steven Poster, cinematographer of Donnie Darko, recalled of his initial meeting with Kelly. At 26, Kelly was 31 years Poster's junior. Poster was a seasoned DP, having worked with Ridley Scott and on numerous other large productions. "It was obvious he was kind of nervous to meet me," Poster continued. "I said, 'Richard, from this point on, you and I are the same age. Don’t think of me as being more experienced than you. My experience is yours.'"
Hiring Poster was one of the best decisions Kelly made for Donnie Darko. Kelly's ambitions for the film's cinematography would require much technical ingenuity, especially given the relatively small budget.
"He was a big part of the process and the reason why we were able to pull this stuff off," said Kelly. "He had great resources at his disposal, and he knew how to build a team. He knew how to bring on an amazing camera crew that is nimble on their feet, and precise, and innovative. You can't make films by yourself. You have to build a team. You have to communicate, and you've got to inspire each other."
"Richard was fully formed from birth as a filmmaker—I agreed to do the movie based alone on the first day of prep," said Poster. "We read every word, every sentence, every page, every scene in the movie. I made him justify what each scene was going to tell the audience."
Donnie Darko is the only film shot entirely on the Kodak 800 ASA stock.
To realize Kelly's vision, Poster had to translate somewhat esoteric concepts into a visual language achievable by the resources they had at their disposal. When Kelly insisted on shooting anamorphic, which is significantly more expensive than a regular lens because it requires twice as much light, Poster suggested they use Kodak 800 ASA stock, which would cut their light needs in half. According to Poster, Donnie Darko is the only film shot entirely on the Kodak 800 ASA stock. They decided on a Panavision PanaStark camera package with Primo anamorphic lenses.
Lighting Frank the Rabbit was one of the seemingly insurmountable challenges that Kelly and Poster faced in their collaboration. "The designers [and I] all thought it was terrible, too evil," Poster said. "Richard insisted. Once we saw it, we knew he was absolutely right. But it was impossible to light. It scared the hell out of me. I was so angry. But we ultimately used a long lens and took some of the glare off. It was shocking on set, because I hadn’t thought of the way the silver would catch the light."
"On the first week of shooting of Donnie Darko," Kelly remembered, "when we finally brought the rabbit on set and [Poster] lit it, and everyone saw it, the set got really quiet. It was almost like everyone had taken mushrooms and was starting to hallucinate. He walked over to me and he said, 'Rich, I wasn't sure about the rabbit, but now I get it. I get it.' Ever since, whenever I want to take a big risk that people are nervous about, like doing the arcade sequence with Justin Timberlake in Southland Tales, Steven always says, 'Well, you pulled off the rabbit, so I'm with you.'"
Donnie Darko's aesthetic is in direct conversation with its narrative. True to the film's themes and name, many shots were dark. "I don’t remember any front light in this movie," said Poster. "It was all heavily backlit." Kelly also wanted to use slow-motion and fast-motion, known as ramping, liberally throughout the film as visual poetry relating to the manipulation of time. Since this was pre-DSLR revolution, ramping had to be done by hand. "It was difficult," admitted Poster. "We had four remote heads and there was also a Dolly move in that shot. It took 5 hands to operate that shot, one turning the camera, two panning and tilting, then there was a handoff to another operator."
"Sometimes you have to fight for moments of lyricism."
To make matters even more complicated, Kelly was determined to shoot every scene exactly according to its corresponding music, which he had written into the script. "A lot of the songs were built into the script," he said, "and we choreographed Steadicam sequences to songs. They're part of the blueprint for the movie. I like to create moments of lyricism—moments that feel like music videos, I guess, within the film, because it adds a magical element to the narrative. Those are the moments I look forward to. It's tough, because it adds length to the running time, and it takes half a day to shoot some of these sequences, and there's no dialogue being delivered. It's usually just characters moving through a space and a Steadicam moving through a location."
Some of the most memorable moments in Donnie Darko are indeed these euphoric sequences in which the music elevates the narrative. Who can forget that Dutch angle that kicks off Tears for Fears' "Head Over Heels," as we're introduced to Donnie's high school world? Or Gary Jules' "Mad World," as everything comes to an end?
"The people distributing the film are like, 'Your film is too long, and this song is really expensive. Let's cut this out,'" said Kelly. "But I'm just so passionate about leaving [these scenes] in. Sometimes you have to fight for moments of lyricism."
Fear and love
In adolescence, the simplified, black-and-white categories of our childhood dissolve. Vast swaths of gray area emerge in their stead. Viewed through the lens of a coming-of-age tale, Donnie's journey involves reckoning with this moral ambiguity in a world that seems to favor the easy answers. When Kitty Farmer (rendered brilliantly by Beth Grant), an insufferable member of Donnie's suburban community, gives a lecture about a hokey self-help concept termed the "fear and love timeline," Donnie indignantly stands in opposition.
"The fight that he has with [Kitty] is this idea of trying to put people into categories, in boxes, labeling someone," said Kelly. "It has to do with this idea of conformity. Part of being an artist is fighting against conformity, breaking convention, painting outside the lines. I think a lot of the system in place—whether it's the educational system, or it's a system of Hollywood and filmmaking—is all about restrictions and labels, genre classifications, trying to emulate past success, sequels, remakes, reboots. The spirit of the character of Donnie Darko s about fighting against that conformity."
Kelly thinks young filmmakers can do this by using cheaper technology to tell specific and original stories, but he cautions against complacency. "The luxury that today's young filmmakers have that we didn't have in the year 2000 is all these digital cameras, and all this technology is now affordable," he said. "You can make films with very, very little money. But you can't be lazy with all this technology because these are just tools. You have to light your scenes. You have to design your sets. You have to have an apparatus in place, and you've got to build a good a team."
Kelly views his career as one long fight against conformity for the opportunity to tell unique stories. He acknowledges that this steadfastness has stymied his box office potential. "I've never really had success," Kelly said. "I look at my career as a series of ambitious efforts. I've never had a successful box office opening weekend. My movies do very well in the home entertainment space. It would be nice to have big box office success and to have an opening weekend with a really high per-screen average. That's never happened to me, but I'm still working away here, and hopefully, maybe on the next one, we'll have it, so I can make more movies in quick succession, and there won't be years that go by."
"Listen, I'm grateful for these opportunities," Kelly added, "and I don't take it for granted. If anything, I want to tell more original stories. All these movies are connected, in more ways than people probably realize yet. I'm excited to continue on this path."
While Kelly is open to the idea of a Donnie Darko sequel, he wants to steer the ship. The problem is, he doesn't own the rights. "I had to relinquish them when I was 24 years old when I signed the deal to get to direct the film," Kelly lamented. "It would be very upsetting to see someone [else] remake or reboot this film. I don't want anything to happen that's going to be done for the wrong reasons, or outside of my control. That's why I have to keep an open mind to doing something new with it, that's artful and fresh, and not allowing conformity to win."
Dear Roberta Sparrow,
I've reached the end of your book and there are so many questions that I need to ask you. Sometimes I am afraid of what you might tell me. Sometimes I am afraid this is not a work of fiction. I can only hope that the answers will come to me in my sleep. I hope that when the world comes to an end, I can breathe a sigh of relief, because there will be so much to look forward to.