Jake Gyllenhaal breaking hearts in a grey hoodie, bubble spears coming out of people's chests and a hideous man bunny; Donnie Darko is a film quite unlike any other. It follows the story of Donnie, a misanthropic and troubled teenager, and his movements between an oppressive school environment, a blossoming romance with Jena Malone's character and his adventures with Frank, a strange man in a rabbit costume. Part sci-fi, part teen movie, part psychological horror, since it came out there's been a debate around whether Donnie is descending into madness or has entered into a space where time is fluid and looping, and travelling backwards is possible.
As with many cult films, Donnie Darko was initially an impressive flop. No one wanted to see it in cinemas in the US, in part because it was released right after the 9/11 attacks, and the last thing anyone wanted to do was sit in the dark to watch a weird reverie on plane crashes and metaphysics. But a year later, when it came to the UK, it made half the amount in a fortnight as it had over its entire American run. Young people became die-hard fans, obsessing over plot theories on the internet and putting Donnie and Frank stills in their About Me sections on Myspace. Essentially, it was British teens who made Donnie Darko into a classic.
Fifteen years after it's release it's being shown in cinemas nationwide, so I met with writer and director Richard Kelly at the BFI to reflect on his debut film. He got very excited when I told him there were Frank slippers in the gift shop.
VICE: How deep into the rabbit hole did you get when you were thinking about time travel and researching it? Did you become obsessed with it?
Richard Kelly: Yes. About as deep as you can get. I think I did travel through time at some point. It was a fully immersive experience from the day I started writing the script until today. The movies never leave you; they're with you for your entire life. They're part of your soul. This movie in particular has been a part of my life since I've been alive, really, but since we realised it 15 years ago it's stayed with me.
Do you think you'd ever pick it up again, or do you feel like after this run it'll be put to bed?
There's definitely more I'd like to do with this film. We'll see...
Do you still get people coming up to you asking what the film is about?
All the time. There really isn't a concrete answer. It's about what each viewer wants it to be about. I like to let people come up with their own answers. I see it as more of a science fiction story. I see it as a superhero story, in a lot of ways. Other people see it as a movie about mental illness, or they see it as a film about a dream.They're all equally valid theories, I guess.
You can't escape the unfortunate timing that almost makes Donnie Darko a 9/11 movie. How do you feel about that retrospectively?
There's a lot of melancholy when the credits roll at the end of this film, and that got amplified by the horrible tragedy that happened in real life. It's troubling, but the film was always intended to be cathartic and to be a thought-provoking exploration of a lot of big ideas. Looking at any piece of art in the shadow of 9/11 is going to have new connotations, and in a way all my work feels pretty heavily influenced by that day. Southland Tales was an absolute response to 9/11, and even in The Box we see the twin towers on TV. We are all still in the shadow of that event. But that's why we make films – to work our way through the trouble. I just try to remind everyone that films are supposed to be cathartic and they're supposed to make you feel better about the world. That's always been my hope – that this film makes people feel better about the world, about themselves, and not worse.
I definitely found it miserable. Loving that film was very much a part of being a British teenage emo in the mid-2000s. Were you an emo?
Partially. I was brought up in a very fraternal order of Southern California college students. I see myself as an emo being trapped in a frat house and socialised by a fraternity system that everyone had to go through in college. Now, with social media, there are so many other ways to meet people. So I was kind of trapped in this system where I was trying to break out, and that's why I wrote this script, because I really wanted to be realised as an artist. Do people even use the word emo any more? So it's still a thing?
It is if you're me.
Hasn't the definition shifted a bit? Isn't everyone emo now? Aren't we all having a nervous breakdown?
That's true. Why is Seth Rogen in the film, and more importantly how?
My casting director brought him in for an audition and I thought he was hilarious. He was probably 18 when we shot the movie. He had been on Freaks and Geeks and this was his first movie, and he's playing one of the bad guys, which is hilarious because he's such a lovable guy. Seeing him play a villain is funny. A lot of people see Ashley Tisdale in the corner, too.
Drew Barrymore was a producer and also plays the character Karen Pomeroy. How hands on was she with this film?
I think her agreeing to play the teacher – a big star who carries her own films agreeing to do a supporting role – was something of a gift to the production. It helped secure financing and it helped secure other cast members. She and Nancy Juvoven [the other producer] were great mentors with this project. Beyond that, she was there as a support system, so she was just an essential part of the whole process.
Who was it that came up with Miss Pomeroy's line: "Sit next to the boy you think is the cutest"? That's genius.
It was in the script; I wrote it. Horribly inappropriate for a teacher to say, but then she does get fired. She's kind of a little unhinged, her character, but she's trying to shake up the system.
Did you have any teachers like that?
No. I had a lot of English teachers, mostly women, who had a lot of influence on this screenplay and on this film. In fact, I think I thanked them in the end credits. Some of them were really funny ladies and taught me a lot. So I wanted the teacher to be kind of zany and a little unhinged, but in a good way.
You were only 25 when you made this film. Can you believe, looking back, that you made it so young? It makes me feel very unaccomplished.
Well, don't ever feel like trash – that's not good. I think the film could have only been made by someone that young. We took a lot of risks in making the film, and those kinds of risks are rarely taken by someone with a more seasoned track record of success and failure. The older you get the more risk-adverse you become, because you have family or publications or a mortgage – those kind of things that come with adulthood. So when you're 25 years old you don't necessarily have any of those things and you take crazier risks. Sometimes they can ruin your life; sometimes they can give you a career. I'm lucky that it gave me a career.
What do you think the main risks were?
There was just a lot of really unconventional, stylish choices and concepts. It was a bold science fiction film that a lot of people felt was un-produceable. A lot of people said the script was un-produceable. Then they saw the film at Sundance and said it was unreleasable or incoherent or impossible to market. There were a lot of roadblocks in front of this film that we had to navigate around. Had I not been so young and belligerent or stubborn I don't think I would have been able to overcome those obstacles. I might have given up had I been older. I'm still pretty belligerent, don't get me wrong.
The teenagers' dialogue is so spot on. I love when Donnie and his sister are arguing at the kitchen table. Did that come from your relationship with your own siblings?
I have an older brother, but never in a million years would we talk like that in front of our parents. Never. I've never heard my mother say a cuss word in her life. My family just does not speak in such vulgar terms. But it's not my family; it's a fictional family. There's a lot of me in Donnie and there's a lot of autobiographical stuff in the film, clearly, but the Darkos are a little more unhinged than the Kellys.
Which character do you think you were most like when you were a teenager?
How about now you're older?
Now I feel more like one of the teachers, probably. One of the teachers who's afraid of losing their job or is about to lose their job. But that's fine. There are plenty of schools out there.
The 4K restoration of Donnie Darko is at the BFI, London, from the 17th to the 30th of December, and nationwide from the 23rd of December. Details here.
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