Why Donnie Darko is still as relevant as ever
“It’s so easy to be complacent… take some risks and be bold”
Following it’s 4K restoration exclusive to the BFI Southbank Cinema, we interview Richard Kelly on his noughties cult classic Donnie Darko. Wearing a smart navy suit, it’s hard to believe that a man so calm and collected could have made a film so psychologically thrilling. But after sipping on a glass of water that features a peculiarly half squeezed lemon wedge, he tells me that it’s 23 years of experience to which he owes his genius.
How did the concept of Donnie Darko come about?
(Laughs) Ah god! I had twenty three years of life experience and then I just started writing. Literally, I was in construction for twenty three years and then I just started typing it up. It was just life really, this is what came out. I don’t know why, but it did.
A lot of people find Donnie a highly relatable character. What makes him so accessible even after 15 years since the film’s first release?
I think a lot of it has to do with Jake (Jake Gyllenhaal). I think he gave us an absolutely fantastic performance. He brings empathy to a character who might otherwise be unsympathetic. He’s running around with an axe and lighting people’s houses on fire. But there’s a rebellion to the character, an emotional authenticity and an emotional nakedness which is endearing. People could see part of themselves in the character. I think everyone has some degree of mental illness, we shouldn’t just put that on a small group of people and isolate them. It should be something where we all relate to this character because he’s flawed. Whilst he does enter into a world of fantasy and hallucinations that are supernatural or metaphysical, all of this is based on real human experiences; our families, our teachers. People are able to recognise that. I’m really grateful that people are able to sympathise with him. That’s a good thing.
What would you hope the new generation of teenagers would take away from Donnie Darko? What would you expect them to appreciate?
I hope that they can see that even though the film takes place in 1988 and that it was made in the year 2000 (both election years), that it can still resonate in 2016 – also an election year! The themes are universal and timeless, right? Teenagers in 1958 were maybe just as troubled as teenagers in 1988, or 2008, and teenagers are still gonna be troubled in 2018. Hopefully there is a universal language in the move that transcends geography and time. I’d hope that if they’re aspiring artists that they could also maybe see the narrative risks in the film or the unconventional narrative in the film. I hope it would embolden they’re artistic creation. It’s so easy to be complacent and to just copy what’s come before. That’s all fine, but I think if you want to break out and forge an identity for yourself as an artist, you’ve got to try and take some risks and be bold. I don’t want to get complacent or surrender to the market place. I want to keep exploring new ideas. If this film could inspire a contemporary millennial artist to do that then that’s great. I’m all for that. It’s amazing when a new batch of teenagers discover this film. I’m just grateful they don’t look at it and are like ‘Argh’! They actually listen and take it in. I was always worried that this film might just fall off a cliff. But I joke that it’s a bit like the energiser bunny, it just keeps going and going and oh my god, here we are again talking about it!
If you had to write Donnie Darko in 2016, how different would it be?
I think I would approach the logic of the tangent universe and the mythology of the time travel book as it pertains to today’s world. I would try to make it authentic to today. I would try to be emotionally honest to what transpires in the story. I would try to be inventive. I would never want to repeat myself. There would be a completely new incarnation of it. It would never be the same. I would never want to reboot myself or remake myself, I always want to move forward.
What is your main creative output at the moment and what can we see coming from you next?
I’ve been working on a lot of stuff and it’s been a very painstaking process. We’ve just been trying to make sure that all the elements are in place for what we need and for the film to be worth all this time. You spend so much time on something and you’ve got to get it right. I’ve been working on a lot of stuff and next year we finally might see something concrete happen. A lot of stars have to be aligned for these movies to be made, especially because they’re so challenging and ambitious. They cost a certain amount. I wish they could be made for cheaper, but alas, I don’t control these things. We spend so much time getting the image to look the way it does so you can enjoy it overwhelm you in a theatre. As much as I love watching films on iPhones, films belong on the big screen.
Any advice for first-time filmmakers?
As to how one pulls this off in 2016 is a whole different story. When we shot the film it was the year 2000 – a completely different world. Now people can make feature films with their phones. But iPhones with filming devices didn’t exist in the noughties, we had to go and get a big expensive 35mm Panavision system and film stock. The business was completely different back then. As to now, anyone can make a film with an iPhone and get it to a competition at Sundance Festival… it’s happened. So that’s the method I would at least consider. If you can afford an iPhone, you can make a feature film. I don’t know if it’d be good, but you can definitely try.
How about the planning?
Twenty three years of life experience led to the writing of the script. All of my movies have a significant amount of planning down to every last detail. They’re very ambitious stories and you can’t pull it off unless you know what you want. Everything has to be planned down to the T because you only have twelve hours a day if you’re lucky and you’ll never get that time back. They’ll never pay for you to come back and do it, not with movies like this. So we just have to have it together. Make sure you’re spending your money and your time wisely. I also do a lot of location photography. I also do some diagramming, camera placement, and I storyboard certain sequences. But it’s definitely becoming more of a photography based thing for me
Lastly, why the rabbit?
I don’t know why! For whatever reason I just thought it’s gotta be a rabbit. Sometimes these things just appear, but I can’t explain any reason why.
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 now: http://bit.ly/2eww8r3