Richard Kelly on Donnie Darko’s 15th Anniversary and Why He’s Not to Blame for That 2009 Sequel
Sixteen years after it was released in the shadow of 9/11, Richard Kelly’s haunting cult classic still feels ahead of its time. Here he looks back on its legacy—and its direct-to-video sequel.
Richard Kelly was just 25-years-old when he made his first film, 2001’s Donnie Darko, a melancholy and endlessly mysterious time-travel teen drama about a high-schooler (Jake Gyllenhaal, in only his second big-screen performance) who’s informed by a giant bunny from the future that the world is about to end. Hypnotic, romantic and confounding in equal measure, it’s one of the millennium’s great debuts. And now that it’s been newly restored in 4K, both its original theatrical version and its more expansive, and divisive, 2004 director’s cut are returning to select cinemas on March 31 in New York and L.A.—followed by a rollout to other markets later this year—to celebrate the film’s (belated) 15th anniversary.
Premiering only a month after the 9/11 attacks, Donnie Darko—whose 1988-set story involves a plane engine crashing to Earth—barely connected with audiences upon its initial multiplex bow. In the ensuing years, however, it’s developed a cult following, as well as myriad fan theories about what, precisely, is going on throughout its temporally twisted tale, which involves cryptic teachers (Drew Barrymore, Noah Wyle), combative sisters (including Gyllenhaal’s real-life sibling Maggie), wacko teachers (the great Beth Grant), a creepy self-help guru (the late Patrick Swayze), and a less-than-wholly appropriate dance troupe known as Sparkle Motion. Oh, and then there’s Frank, the time-travelling rabbit who recounts prophesies of doom to Donnie (or is the animal all in the teen’s head)? Bold and haunting, Donnie Darko remains a truly idiosyncratic work, and in honor of its re-release, we spoke with Kelly about its lasting legacy, his feelings about our current Trumpian era, and why he hasn’t made a movie since 2009’s The Box—and what might be on his horizon.
I saw the first showing of Donnie Darko on its October 26, 2001 opening day…
You were one of the ten people in the theater, probably!
Fair enough. But afterwards, I went home and scoured the internet for information about the film, and that’s when I found the in-depth web site you’d created for it. In hindsight, do you feel like that marketing strategy—the site, and also peripheral materials such as the book The Philosophy of Time—was something of a forerunner to today’s world-building, puzzle-box movie universes?
Yeah. My ambition has always been too big for the resources I have. My stories always run too long, with narrative threads that go well over the boundaries of a two-hour theatrical window. So I end up with these additional ancillary elements that I obsess over. In my mind, they’re essential to the narrative, or they’re at least an enhancement of the narrative in some way. To get to do a web site, or graphic novels, or additional short film pieces, which I’ve done for all three films that I’ve directed—I love doing that stuff. I have all this additional footage, and I have all these ideas, and I realize that when you have to play in thousands of theaters across the country, and people are willing to give you two hours of their time to sit in that darkened theater, not all of this stuff can be included. For certain audience members, when they go home at night, they want more. They go online, or they want to explore the plot, or they want to digest more or talk with people about it. This extra stuff is more for them.
That’s why I feel like there can maybe be two versions of a film, that can co-exist. We now have iTunes and Netflix and all these different ways of digesting a movie at home as well. So I’ve become more resigned to the fact that there can be the theatrical version of the movie, and there can be the longer cut—even if it’s not called a “director’s cut.”
Is that where the Director’s Cut came from? And are you still happy with it?
I’m definitely happy with both versions of the movie, and I want both versions to co-exist. We shot—and I wrote—all those additional scenes, and there’s all that stuff from the time-travel book that I needed to figure out, and I did. I’ll never be fully satisfied with either version of the movie, because there’s stuff that I never got to do, or couldn’t afford to do. But I think we’re in a new world now, where there can be longer versions of a movie that might not be as suitable for the theatrical experience.
We’re living in a gray area between television and film now, and people don’t necessarily want to go to the movie theater and watch six hours of content. They’d probably be miserable sitting in a movie theater for six hours. But you put someone at home, and they will be just gorging on junk food and drinking wine and enjoying the hell out of a long-form narrative experience. (Laughs) I feel like it was me taking it a step in a long-form narrative direction, I guess. And with Southland Tales, that’s a film whose finished version would probably be six hours long. But that’s not a film—that’s more of an event series, right? When you’re trying to do something for the theatrical experience, people’s attention spans are getting a bit shorter. You don’t really see three-hour films being released in theaters that often anymore. You don’t see Short Cuts or Magnolia. Occasionally you’ll get something like Toni Erdmann or American Honey, which run that robust running time. But when you’re trying to do a wide-release movie, it’s become increasingly difficult.
What are some of those things you wanted to include in Donnie Darko but, for whatever reason, couldn’t?
There were quite a bit more practical physical effects, and visual effects sequences, that I had planned, that just would have been expensive to do. Very psychedelic and abstract in certain ways, but outside the budget threshold of what we had to work with when we made this. And they’d probably continue to expand the runtime beyond the traditional theatrical window. A lot of the bigger science-fiction stuff.
I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of fan theories about the film’s mysteries over the years. Any favorites—or particularly outlandish ones?
No. I mean, I try to keep an open mind and let people have their theories. I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade. Again, the reason I did a longer version of the movie, with more of the materials I created—that’s more my theory of what the film is about. I’ve put my own longer, more detailed version of the movie out there, and I want to let people have their opinions. Even if I don’t agree with them, or I think that they might be on the wrong track, I don’t want to discount anyone’s passion. If it means something specific to someone, or makes them happy and gives them catharsis in some way, I’m never going to want to take that away, or dismiss it in any way.
So I kind of try to stay out of it a little bit. I’m focused on creating so many new stories that I just can’t go down the Donnie Darko rabbit hole on the Internet. I think I would probably drive myself into some dark place. (Laughs)
You’ve recently stated that you had an idea for a true sequel. Is that going to happen?
First and foremost, I don’t control the rights to Donnie Darko. I had to relinquish all the rights when I was 24-years-old in order to make the deal to direct it. So there was nothing I could do to prevent them from doing the sequel they made [2009’s direct-to-video S. Darko]. I had no recourse to prevent them from doing it. I think if there was ever something new, or bigger, or long-form to happen, I’d be open to creating a fresh story that advances the narrative and advances the mythology and ideas in a way that’s artful, and is hopefully exciting for people.
More than anything, I want to protect the film, and protect all the work we did. That’s why we did this restoration—to get it in a place where it’s going to be preserved for a long time, and people are going to get to see it on iTunes, and see it on blu-ray, and see it on the big screen. I’m trying to keep an open mind. I don’t know if anything will ever happen, but if it should, more than anything, I’d just want to let people know that I would be there trying to make sure it was good.
I assume some of that desire comes from S. Darko. Does that sequel’s existence still bother you?
Yes, it’s been something I’ve had to deal with, because people assume I allowed it to happen, or that I endorsed it, or that I’m profiting from it in some way, or that I sold it off, or that I was complicit in it. I was by no means complicit in it, and I’ve never seen it, and it was done against my wishes. I get exhausted with people asking me to answer for it, and wanting me to take responsibility for it, when I can’t! (Laughs)
It’s not a policy of mine, and it’s not in my nature, to speak negatively about anyone’s work. And I’ve never seen the film. More than anything, I just want people to know that I don’t control the rights. However, if anyone wants me to continue trying to do something fresh, I am open to doing it. I just want to make sure it’s worthwhile and necessary and artful.
There’s a sense throughout Donnie Darko that the main character is sort of a superhero, and there’s also a comic book-y vibe to Southland Tales. Are you interested in today’s current superhero movies—and would you ever want to tackle one yourself?
I created this name—Donnie Darko—and in the movie, Jena Malone’s character says that he sounds like a superhero. That was no coincidence. There are comic books for Southland Tales, and it’s much more of a satiric political film, but it does have comic-book roots in its own way. But I’m generating all of this from scratch, and I think if I were ever able to continue in what might be seen as a superhero or comic-book narrative, I would want it to be in my universe. It all started with Donnie Darko, and all of my films are connected. I see all of my films as being much more connected than people realize. I’m just trying to stay in my wheelhouse because I feel like that’s the only way I can remain honest to myself. If I try to go and play in someone else’s sandbox, I’ll just feel like I don’t belong.
More than anything, I’m just trying to show people that there’s much more connective tissue between all of my films. And I hope to expand upon all of that. In a way, I feel like I’ve already made two sequels to Donnie Darko, and their names are Southland Tales and The Box. I see them as distant sequels in a lot of ways.
As you said, Southland Tales has a strong political element, as does Donnie Darko—not only because of its references to 1988’s Bush-vs.-Dukakis election, but because it came out in the shadow of 9/11. How do you feel about our current Trumpian climate, and will your new work address it any way?
I’m absolutely going to continue telling stories that are political. All my films take place during an election year—either on the eve of an election, in the aftermath of an election, or in an alternate timeline of a political narrative. I’m always interested in stamping my films with a very specific date and time, because the characters are responding to the politics of a particular time. As artists, we’re now having to respond to this profoundly disturbing political upheaval, and I think we all have to respond to it, in order to maintain our sanity and our moral compass. Maybe to maintain our self-righteous sense of indignation in some ways. (Laughs) But we should be making political films, and we should be addressing what is happening.
It’s undeniable, and I’ve been trying to continue making political films for a long time here, and it hasn’t always been easy. But that’s okay—film, and our cinema, is a response to the world. That world has suddenly become very precarious and very disturbing and dangerous in a lot of ways. I’m looking forward to the films in the next couple of years, and I’m trying to put my faith and my hope in that. Because this is all I can do, is make movies—I’m not really good at doing anything else. (Laughs)
It’s been seven years since your last film, The Box, came out—which is a crime. What’s been the hold-up, and are any new projects on the immediate horizon?
I’ve been writing a lot, and I’ve been preparing a lot of different films. Again, they’re all very ambitious, and I want to make sure that the next film has all the right elements in place for it to be successful, and for me to be able to realize my vision. We’ve gotten really close, and sometimes the movies that I want to make are like threading a needle while riding a rollercoaster. (Laughs) It can happen, but it’s a lot of trial and error, and you have to reset the rollercoaster.
We’ve been working diligently, and I think we’re very close. I wish I could tell you all about everything, but I’m very superstitious as I get older. I don’t want to ruin the chances of something happening, if I talk too much about it. I’m so eager to talk about these projects—more than you know—and I wish that I could. Hopefully there’ll be a scenario where I get to direct a lot of movies in quick succession to make up for lost time. That’s what I want more than anything. It gives me stomach pains to think about how many years it’s been—it truly does.