Interview: Richard Kelly on DONNIE DARKO 15 Years Later

15 years ago, Richard Kelly’s film DONNIE DARKO was unleashed on an unassuming Sundance audience. Though many critics panned the film, Kelly’s idiosyncratic work had its defenders, including future DARK KNIGHT director Christopher Nolan.

Those people ended up being on the right side of history, as a decade and a half later, the weird, wonderful world of DONNIE DARKO continue to dazzle and fascinate audiences. We spoke with Richard Kelly about how he sees the reception to DONNIE DARKO now, plus his thoughts on the future of independent film and breaking down the barriers around art.

ComicsVerse: We’re talking today in part, obviously, because it’s the 15th Anniversary of DONNIE DARKO, there’s the re-release is coming up [March 31st at The Cinefamily in Los Angeles and Metrograph in New York City]. Your film was famously, or almost infamously, a film that the studios kind of had trouble promoting and marketing originally. Did you ever expect that you would be talking about this film 15 years later and that it would be so embraced by audiences that it would become a cult classic?

Richard Kelly: Y’know I had never dreamed that we would get this far. It was such an uphill battle. The movie was so poorly received at Sundance, and it was such a struggle to even get it in any movie theater, even to get it a theatrical release…I remember Christopher Nolan helped us because New Market Films had just distributed MEMENTO to great success, and Aaron Ryder, who produced MEMENTO and was working at New Market, liked DONNIE DARKO a lot and he was screening it for his bosses to try and convince them to take a chance on buying it and he invited Christopher Nolan and his wife to the screening and Chris raved about it to the New Market bosses and helped convinced them to buy it and to put it in theaters. So, it was a real struggle to get it in theaters. This was a time when if your movie didn’t get a theatrical release in the year 2001, it wouldn’t be reviewed in any of the major newspapers or by any of the major critics. It would just be dismissed.

Richard Kelly (far right) on the set of DONNIE DARKO

CV: It’s funny you say that because it feels like, nowadays, it would be so much easier for DONNIE DARKO to kind of get in front of an audience with video on demand and Netflix. I mean, you pull up Netflix these days and you’ll see all kinds of weird titles that you’ve never heard of. Do you think maybe you would have had an easier time with the film getting it distributed or front of people in 2017 than you did back then?

RK: I think it would have been…it would have been a double edged sword because here’s the thing: audiences now are a lot more open-minded to inventive narratives. I think television has had this renaissance of being this risk-friendly place to do inventive, long-form narrative. So there’s a lot more homes, there would be a lot more places and channels to make this viewable, but at the same time, compared to 15 years ago, there are so many more movies being made. There is just so much more product that’s competing for bandwidth. There’s just so much stuff out there. There’s like probably double, if not triple, the number of submissions to Sundance now than there was 15 years ago, right? […] We could easily have just gotten lost in the shuffle. I think these film festival premieres are very important because you’re in this exclusive Sundance selection or you’re in competition at Cannes. I’ve been in competition at both of those festivals with a very high profile launch, but you also can get thrown to the wolves too and come out of the festival with an open wound that’s bleeding out. It’s all part of the process and I’m just happy to still be here and still be talking about the film 15 years later.

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CV: If you don’t mind me kind of opening up that wound a bit. What was your reaction when you first heard about the sort of harsh reaction the film initially got at Sundance?

RK: It was really sad because we were so excited and we were so proud of it and we were just so honored to be there and to be included. I remember we were the first film in competition at Sundance to have CGI.

CV: Really?

RK: Yeah! I mean this was 2001.

CV: [Laughs] It was 2001, yeah, okay, I can almost believe that, but there’s still a part of me that finds that hard to believe.

RK: Well, we had major CGI. We had time portals and liquid energy beams growing out of people’s chests. It was an aggressive statement for competition at Sundance at the time. I think there was probably a little bit of pushback in thinking maybe we didn’t belong there. It was kind of a real wildcard of a film. I have a lot more perspective now looking back and I realize that there’s a lot of films that had really disastrous film festival debuts just because it was either the wrong film festival or the wrong audience or it wasn’t what people were expecting-

CV: Audiences can be very fickle at times.

RK: Yeah, and sometimes just the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, and it doesn’t mean your film is toast. It means your film is damaged, but you can always recover and repair that damage. If your movie gets a negative reception at Cannes, sometimes that’s a bit harder to recover from. There’s kind of an altitude thing at Sundance sometimes where a film gets praised then six months later everyone kinda comes down from the altitude and they realize that maybe it wasn’t what they remembered. Festivals can be tricky. They can definitely be tricky.

CV: It’s funny you say that because you have cited CATCHER IN THE RYE as being somewhat of an influence on the way you wrote and created the film and that was a book that, when it initially came out, critics were pretty harsh toward it, but now it’s taught in high schools and it’s treated like a great American piece of literature.

RK: Yeah, I think that was something I mentioned way back when and I think Arrow Films put it in their description on the back of the new Blu-Ray, so I don’t want people to think I’m comparing my work to something that’s a classic or anything like that.

CV: Well, I’ll do it for you, if that’s okay.

RK: [Laughs] Okay, alright.

CV: But I also bring that up because, in my day job, I’m a high school teacher, and I think that part of the power of the film and part of the reason why people still talk about it and why, especially friends of mine who were in middle school when the film came out, still think about it a lot is because it is a film that resonates so much with young people. Especially young people who grew up in that suburban environment. Not to play armchair psychologist but I was wondering what was some of the personal influence that was put into the creation of Donnie and the world that he lived in?

RK: Well, it’s a mythical suburb that is very much inspired by where I grew up in Midlothian, Virginia. It’s called MIddlesex in the film. It’s a fictional place, and to me it looks like California by way of Virginia. It was shot it Los Angeles; it was meant to be kind of a mythical reimagining of my Virginia suburban home.

CV: It does sort of have that feeling of an “Everywhere, Suburbia.” Not one specific one, but all of them.

RK: Yeah, I was trying basically to recreate a mythical version of my Virginia hometown in Los Angeles, basically. So that’s what it is. It is meant to feel kind of like a dream world. We put Virginia in quotation marks.

CV: It’s funny you say a “mythical version” of it because something that struck me rewatching the film recently is that it it takes place in 1988, and I feel like nowadays if you have something that takes place in the 80’s there’s all those obvious signifiers of big hair and goofy outfits, but the film doesn’t lean too hard into that kind of nostalgia. And because of that, I almost felt like you could release it today and it would still work.

RK: Yeah, we were very specific. Y’know, we shot this movie in the year 2000, so it was only 12 years out from ‘88. So if you do the math today that’d be like doing a period piece about 2005 today. “Let’s get those 2005 period cars and 2005 period clothes out!” We were very specific. We didn’t want to put Donnie in a Michael Jackson THRILLER jacket or BEAT IT jacket. We didn’t want Gretchen to have big, huge Cyndi Lauper hair. Those were more urban, and when I say “urban” I mean “big city,” costuming. You go to Manhattan in 1988 you see, y’know, a teenage girl dressed as Madonna or dressed as Cyndi Lauper. This is the conservative suburbs of Virginia, and we wanted to kind of downplay the kitsch and have the signifiers of the hobie, OP, Ocean Pacific, t-shirts and the specific clothes and the shoulder pads. We didn’t want to go crazy with the 80’s exaggeration or the kitsch value of the 80’s because it would have felt too much, and for a movie that had so many broad stylistic ambitions, we didn’t want to overplay our hand.

CV: Yeah, the 80’s might have just overwhelmed it in general.

RK: Right, like MAX HEADROOM is everywhere and the movie BACK TO THE FUTURE 2.

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CV: [Laughs] Exactly. Getting back to talking about how the world of how high school and being a teenager is portrayed, one of the things that really strikes me, especially now watching the film in my job as an educator, is the love and fear scene, where Donnie has to take the story and put it with the fear emotion or the love emotion, and his frustration kind of makes me feel the same way I feel about standardized tests where you’re trying to take all of human intellect and thought and boil it down to just bubbles on a sheet of paper. I wanted to know was that part of the inspiration for that scene? What did you draw from in your experiences to create that scene?

RK: I actually had a little bit of an argument with my gym teacher that was very similar to that scene. I didn’t tell her to shove a book up her ass like Donnie does, but it was a very similar thing that happened to me growing up. I also just hate how people put art in categories. I hate how we have a website where you have to rate a movie “rotten” or “fresh” and they do a mathematical algorithm based on whether something is “rotten.” I think that’s so stupid and not mathematically accurate. Like Blockbuster video would have these categories like “this movie is a ‘drama’” or “this movie is a ‘comedy.’” I don’t think that storytelling should ever have to be categorized or limited by genre because of marketing. It has to do with putting labels on people and putting people in boxes, putting people in categories that they’re not allowed to break out of.

CV: I’m trying to envision the Blockbuster employee who had to put DONNIE DARKO into a specific category on the shelves.

RK: Or any of my movies! It’s also marketing executives at studios. They will either mis-market or they will refuse to endorse or support projects that don’t fit a certain mold of what has been successful before, so there’s these barriers, these walls that are put up that you have jump over. That’s why I’m so grateful for this re-release and for people to perceive DONNIE DARKO as mainstream and for entering the mainstream because it can prove that something unusual can find its way and then it can create its own category and its own genre in and of itself.

CV: It’s funny you say that you received that pushback because watching this film you see so many actors in it who either were very well respected at the time or would eventually become very well respected. Even in something like SOUTHLAND TALES, maybe I’m misremembering my history, but you had Justin Timberlake in that film…or Dwayne Johnson…and it’s only recently that those two, in particular, have become very potent, box office drawing actors. You had the Gyllenhaals, Seth Rogen shows up, in DONNIE DARKO. You seem to have an eye for actors who will become big in the future, and I wanted to know, what goes into your casting process? What are you looking for when you pick your actors?

RK: Well I love taking risks on people. I love taking someone who has been put in a category and breaking them out of that category. I love doing that. I love it when you can challenge someone’s perception. For SOUTHLAND TALES in particular, the vast majority of the actors in that film had been known for a very specific thing. With Dwayne, coming out of the world of pro wrestling and doing big action films and wanting to prove to people that he had major acting chops. And Justin coming out of pop music and growing up being a singer, and proving to people that he could act. Actors coming off of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE or coming out of stand-up comedy, or coming from doing B-movies in the 80’s. I’ll take a chance on anyone. What drives me crazy is when I see other filmmakers or studio executives when they won’t take a chance on someone because of the work that they’ve done and they can’t see the potential in someone. I love challenging those perceptions. I think there’s a lot of filmmakers that will take those risks now and it’s exciting to see when that happens.

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CV: Do you feel like there are any particular works that have come out recently that you feel like would be mandatory viewing for people who are fans of DONNIE DARKO, that maybe aren’t super well known by the public, should check out?

RK: I don’t have anything that’s super obscure that I’ve discovered. I’m kind of behind on my discoveries; I’ve been working so much. I’ve been watching a lot of TV, probably very popular or well-known TV, but I will say… the show BIG LITTLE LIES on HBO-

CV: I’m a huge fan of that show.

RK: Incredible. I just think across the board, on every level, every artistic level, that film, or that television series. I see it as a seven-hour film.

CV: I think it’s telling that you see it as a film.

RK: Well, it’s all one writer, David E. Kelly, and one director, Jean-Marc Vallee, they’re just at the top of their game. Everyone on that project.

CV: It’s a masterclass of acting.

RK: Yeah, yeah.

CV: My final question for you, so now that we’re looking back on the film and we talked about, DONNIE DARKO, how it took some time to find an audience, we talked a bit about the state of independent film currently, are you hopeful for the future of independent film? DO you think movies like DONNIE DARKO, or even future films that you have will be able to find wider audiences with the release methods we now have?

RK: I am. I am hopeful. It’s almost like an inverse reaction to how I feel about with our current president and the chaos of this administration. I feel like there are a lot of audiences who are activated right now to make political statements. I’ve been pushing to do that for a long time and it’s been hard, but now that I feel like there are real, major things at stake in our lives… that the people who pay for the movies, and finance the movies, and distribute the movies, and market the movies that they are going to see a real need for political art and to support it. That there’s money to be made and that there’s a huge audience out there that wants to resist, and they will resist with their pocketbooks. They will. They really will. The time for complacency is behind us.

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