Back in 2001, a young director Richard Kelly made his first feature film – Donnie Darko. Kelly didn’t envisage that his dark and quirky tale, about a troubled high school student who is visited by a creepy figure in a rabbit costume called Frank to tell him that the world is about to end in 28 days 6 hours 42 minutes and 12 seconds, would have become the critically acclaimed cult hit that it is today.
On the 15th anniversary of its release, Donnie Darko returns to cinemas with a 4k Restoration. Richard Kelly was in the UK to chat about the film’s success and address some of the internet’s weirdest Donnie Darko fan theories.
Did you ever think the film would be as popular as it has become?
“I knew we had something special but never in a million years did I think it would connect in the way that it has. I mean, I’m just astonished every day when I see new people discovering this film and embracing it and wanting to talk about it and all the imagery and merchandise that has come from it is inspiring because the film was, for quite a while, considered a failure. It was not successful at first so we didn’t come bursting out of the gate, we stumbled out of the gate and fell flat on our face and we had to pick ourselves up and keep going but that’s life y’know, so it’s incredibly inspiring. If anything it makes me want to work harder to make sure that the next film that I make lives up to the promise of Donnie Darko.”
What do you get asked most about Donnie Darko?
“Everyone asks me ‘where did the idea come from?’ There’s no simple answer, I like to tell them that the idea came from 23 years of life on this Earth. It’s the first script I ever wrote but I had been writing it for 23 years, right? You spend your whole life writing in your mind and then finally you get around to typing. Most of writing is observation and dreams – the experience that happens inside your mind – and then there’s the typing, which is a chore to be honest. It was life, it was a lot of life lived.”
That’s quite a deep, existential script to write for a 23 year old.
“Yeah, but it’s also very juvenile in a lot of ways, it’s very high school – it’s the product of a high school experience in more ways that one. I still see it as being a very juvenile film but that’s what it was always supposed to be – it was always intended to feel like it had the bleeding heart of a teenager.”
Is there anything you’d go back and change?
“Getting to do this restoration was a step in the right direction because we got to clean up the image and now it looks better than ever. I’ve never had enough visual effects money on any of my films, I’ve never gotten to do all the visual effects that I want.”
Sometimes visual effects can distract from the film though…
“There are still some sequences I never got to put in the film that were just too expensive. This was a really ambitious film and we had four and a half million dollars to make it, which in the year 2000 if you adjust that for inflation to today that’s about 6.3 million US dollars. So that’s a lot of money for a first time film maker, it’s very rare to get that much money.”
Did you feel a little overwhelmed by that at the time?
“Yes, but at the same time we needed a lot more to get what we wanted so we stretched every dollar we could.”
How did you feel when you heard they were going to make a sequel?
“I’ve never seen it – it was horribly violating. It was incredibly painful to think about what they were doing, it made me very angry, filled with rage.”
Where do you think the ‘obsession’ with remakes, reboots and sequels comes from?
“I think people are out of ideas, people are scared and that’s Hollywood – it’s recycling past successes. It’s our job as artists to keep forging original paths and try and tell new stories and I’m committed to doing that and I’m trying my best to continue to do that. It’s like the love and fear lifeline in Donnie Darko, people operate from a place of fear for the most part. You’d be surprised about how many people in the business don’t even really love movies at all.”
And now, to address some of those fan theories online…
“Uh oh… they’re all wrong! (laughs)”
Was Donnie dead all along?
“I don’t have an answer to that question, I think the film argues that life and death can perhaps coexist, that time is not necessarily a purely linear thing.”
Was Donnie hallucinating?
“I don’t have an absolute definition of hallucination, I believe everything in the film is real to a certain extent, but what is the nature of reality?”
Was the whole movie a dream?
“Life could be a dream.”
Was the film essentially an elaborate lesson against drink driving?
“I’m very against drunk driving and if people want to take that away from it, I hope people call an Uber.”
Do Frank and the jet engine exist in a tangent universe?
“Well, the tangent universe is certainly the first chapter from the prologue of the Philosophy of Time Travel so I believe there’s a lot more to that book than meets the eye. I tend to believe that Roberta Sparrow was on to something.”
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 here