‘Donnie Darko’ at 20: “We were scared it was going to go in the straight-to-DVD wastebasket”

Writer and director Richard Kelly on the cult film's car-crash Sundance premiere, Christopher Nolan's essential backing and the current plans to "expand this universe"

It was a fight to get Donnie Darko made, a scrap to get it released and an almighty brawl to get anyone to actually see it, but in the 20 years since 2001 Donnie Darko has become one of the most revered and beloved independent films of all time.

Speaking to NME from a picturesque North Carolina waterfront, Donnie Darko‘s writer/director Richard Kelly is disarmingly honest about the beauty, horror and wonder of his hallucinatory time travel saga. Soundtracked by the likes of Joy Division, Duran Duran and Echo & The Bunnymen, the film’s depiction of angsty teens, apocalyptic visions and prophetic scenes of terror tapped into the milieu of a world that was about to be irreversibly changed by 9/11.

Unlike most Hollywood types, Kelly does not hide away from the tribulations of getting Donnie Darko out into the world. “Sundance Film Festival was a rough ride,” he recalls about the 2001 event. “No-one wanted to buy it, no-one wanted to distribute it. The financier didn’t understand the movie, and we were scared it was going to go in the straight-to-DVD wastebasket. We got into cinemas by the skin of our teeth.”


A big reason why Donnie Darko did eventually creep into cinemas was because of Christopher Nolan, whose movie Memento was screened at the same year’s Sundance to critical acclaim. “Aaron Ryder [an executive at Newmarket Films, which produced both Memento and Donnie Darko] strategically brought Chris to a screening so after it finished he could turn around to the rest of the executives and go, ‘Purchase this film’,” Kelly remembers.

By that point Memento had already been a financial success for the studio, and Nolan’s enthusiasm persuaded them to give Donnie Darko a full theatrical release. On having Nolan’s backing, Kelly says: “It’s a huge, important gift whenever you have the support of your fellow filmmakers. I would always do that for others if I could.”

Donnie Darko
Jake Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone in ‘Donnie Darko’ (Picture: Alamy Stock Photo)

Another important figure in getting Donnie Darko on the big screen was Drew Barrymore, who has a supporting role in the movie. Sandwiched between blockbuster appearances in the Charlie’s Angels movies, Barrymore leveraged her A-list fame to help get a unique film made after first becoming involved in the project in early 2000.

At that point, Kelly had finished shopping the script around Hollywood, but found that, while there was big interest in his screenplay, no-one was willing to let him direct. “[Barrymore] was essential to the financing element,” he says now. “Her star power helped raise the $4.5 million budget.”

The film also stars the late Patrick Swayze as local motivational speaker Jim Cunningham.  “Patrick Swayze was such a sweet, kind and generous actor,” Kelly says. “The infomercials that you see in the film, we shot those at Patrick’s house – a big, beautiful ranch out in Calabasas. His wife brought out his real 1980s wardrobe and was like, ‘Patrick, let me put you in this shirt’. The sweetest people, it was an honour to work with him.”


One of Donnie Darko’s most famous and shocking scenes is the sequence that features a jet plane engine crashing through the roof of a house. Remarkably, the scene took inspiration from some very real events. “When I was a kid, there was someone in my hometown where a gigantic piece of ice fell off the wing of a plane and destroyed this house,” Kelly says. “I just thought: ‘What a terrifying, disturbing thing to happen.’”

Unfortunate timing meant the scene was overshadowed by the horror of 9/11, and US movie audiences in October 2001 just did not want to be confronted with Lynchian horror – especially Lynchian horror that involved falling airplanes.

Luckily for Donnie Darko and Kelly, the UK and Europe were not as burdened by the shadow of 9/11 when the film was finally released over here in the autumn of 2002 – over 20 months on from its Sundance premiere. “The UK started to get its hands on the US DVD [of Donnie Darko], word started to spread and a cult fanbase started brewing before the theatrical release,” Kelly recalls. “When I flew to London, I was blown away by the enthusiasm and support for the film.”

Donnie Darko
Donnie Darko (Picture: Alamy)

He’s genuinely grateful to the UK for accepting his debut after it was shunned at home: “It was a hit in the UK and it was so gratifying. To have that resurgence in the UK was such an emotional moment. An important milestone, for sure.”

A lot has happened in the two decades since: Donnie Darko went from oddball curio to cult classic, and Kelly went from wunderkind to outcast. Admittedly burdened by the success of his debut feature, his ambitiously warped follow-up Southland Tales crashed and burned before 2009’s The Box starring Cameron Diaz came and went. Kelly’s twisted visions went unloved by the mainstream, and he hasn’t released a film in 12 years.

But Kelly remains optimistic for the future, and has even teased an extension of the Donnie Darko universe. “Hopefully we’ll have something to show people soon that will really blow everybody’s minds,” he tells NME. “I hope to expand this universe.”

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