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Richard Kelly Reflects on ‘Donnie Darko’ and Finding Catharsis in Apocalyptic Narratives

Written by Andrew Ward on March 29, 2017 

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Last year marked the 15-year anniversary of Richard Kelly’s debut cult curio, Donnie Darko. On March 31st, the film will hit theaters once again in a brand-new, director-approved 4K restoration. While the film’s cult-status has elevated it into its own separate canon alongside other 21st-century indie-cult hits, Kelly’s two other films — the positively delirious and daring Southland Tales and the labyrinthine sci-fi period piece The Box — prove that he is a director deserving of much greater consideration. Sadly it’s been about eight years since a new film of his has been in theaters, but the time is surely ripe. Kelly’s visions of the end-times feel just as urgent now as they did when we were first introduced to them back in 2001. And since we’re living in a time when the formerly reclusive Terrence Malick is miraculously pumping out multiple films a year, there’s every reason to be optimistic that, soon, the same will be the case with Kelly.

Ahead of the re-release, we spoke with Kelly about the making of Donnie Darko, his background, and the challenges of crafting apocalyptic visions in already-apocalyptic political times.

The Film Stage: Donnie Darko has become a bit of a gateway drug into film for a younger generation. While it’s many things at once, it is in numerous ways this perfect film of teen angst for a young, millennial generation. And while it certainly contains many purposeful juvenile qualities, viewing it 15 years later, the film also proves remarkable for how mature it is. I’m interested in hearing about what you were doing at the time of writing Donnie Darko that allowed you to craft such a fully realized work at such a young age, one that established so much of the particular voice you later developed.

Richard Kelly: The screenplay came from 23 years of life experience, growing up in Virginia and sort of escaping the suburban world and the public-education system, then arriving at USC and going to film school and becoming educated as a film student and graduating from film school with this degree and this skill set from this wonderful institution. And then having a panic attack — realizing that I had to write a feature-length screenplay. I had not yet done it. The one thing I had not yet written was a feature-length screenplay. So I sat down, and it was 23 years in the making, and I’m like, “It’s gotta be good!” [Laughs] I put everything I had into this and Donnie Darko is what emerged. So, sometimes I guess the lesson is just wait until you are ready, you know? Don’t ever make a film until you are ready to make it. Don’t ever write a screenplay until you’ve got the ideas properly diagnosed. So I think I was ready, and the film was a look back at a more juvenile time, and it was about a sixteen-year-old — and that was very much by design. You know, it was meant to capture that moment of adolescence where a boy becomes a man.

The cinematographer on Donnie Darko (Steve Poster), the producer (Sean McKittrick), and the editor (Sean Bauer), as well as the production and costume designers (Alec Hammond and April Ferry), all returned in those roles for both of the films you made afterwards. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of maintaining an ensemble crew throughout the making of each picture? Was it all a bit of serendipitous luck that you found yourself working with them on Donnie Darko?

Well, yes, I think we had a very successful collaboration on the first film. And I’m not a person that likes to give up on a relationship unless it’s absolutely necessary. I believe that there is a creative language that exists between artists that develops over time, and I think that if you have a dialogue or chemistry with another artist, if you pick that up two or three years later, it’s like nothing has changed; you know how to complete each others’ sentences. So when you are on a movie set and you’ve got thirty days and you’re spending a lot of money on locations and stunts and extras and vehicles and all of these things, you want to be surrounded by people who can complete each others’ sentences, right? And I’m not interested in starting a new relationship from scratch unless it’s absolutely necessary, or unless the previous relationship has run its course. So that’s just the way I look at it. And again: these are all really, really talented people, and they can deliver on my ambition, which sometimes exceeds my grasp or exceeds the budgetary restrictions. I ask a lot of people and I try to do more than what’s in the cards or on the menu, you know?

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So it sounds like we can expect to see some of them in the future with your upcoming films?

Yeah! You know, it’s been some time. And again, it’s a question of schedules. But I’ve also spent a lot of time writing and developing a lot of different screenplays and making sure all the right resources are in place to do the next film — the next films, plural — properly. I don’t want to pull the trigger on a film unless I know I have what I need and the resources are in the right place. Hopefully we’re really close.

To me, you are a quintessentially American director — and I mean that it in the purely positive sense. Like many things that are quintessentially American, your films are always thoroughly heterogenous in theme, and are also simultaneously operating on two different levels, oftentimes in seemingly opposing directions. And then there are these elements of science and spirituality that infect your work that are similarly American in nature. Can you talk about your influences for this style of storytelling?

I will say I’m very much a product of public education in Virginia. I continue to be a huge, huge supporter of public education. And I’m also the product of a private college education at USC. So I see my high school and college educational experiences as being the formative times in my life that I will… you will always see my high school and college experiences in everything that I do. And a lot of it has to do with the other narratives that I digested during that period, whether it’s Philip K. Dick or Thomas Pynchon or Kurt Vonnegut or Graham Greene or Richard Adams or Sartre or Robert Frost — any of the texts that I’m very liberally plagiarizing, or referencing, in my films, it’s still high school and it’s still college. You never escape high school, and if you are lucky enough to go to college, then that’s another prison that you can just revisit for the rest of your life.

There are primarily literary influences at play rather than cinematic.

Yeah. Well, again, I have Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne reading Stephen King in Donnie Darko. But obviously King has permeated our public consciousness to such a memorable and essential degree that a lot of people probably remember the films as extensions or companions to the books. I think a lot of people have seen the films but not read the books, or vice-versa. So a lot of these artists enter our consciousness through more than just the page.

You are a filmmaker who seems to love intertextuality. I’m thinking of the companion website for the release of Donnie Darko that played into the promotion of the film, but that also contained some helpful narrative clues to the film’s plot. This composite form of making and releasing art seems to have become much more commonplace today, where everything tends to live a second life online, or is gifted entirely new dimensions through the use of multiple mediums, which in turn bolsters the reality of the larger fictional work as a whole. Could you talk about your process of making films this way? Now that it’s much easier to achieve today than it was in 2001, do you see yourself continuing to add interactive elements to your films in the future?

I love those interactive elements. If anything, they can be overwhelming, and they spill over into the different texts, different multimedia texts, different transmedia texts — all of these different new words to describe it. There’s a lot more infrastructure in place now than ten or fifteen years ago in my previous films to do this kind of stuff. So I love it! To me it’s an enhancement and I will always continue to embrace it. What I’m looking forward to is having, again, more infrastructure with social media and streaming services and even bonus features being included on places like iTunes, where you can access this stuff in a much more fluid way. But, again, it is very overwhelming and it can be too much of a distraction at times. But I think I’ve figured out an approach moving forward where I can really have a staff help me create a lot of fun ancillary stuff.

And when you are making a feature film, you usually have a running time of pretty close to two hours, and often times a significant amount of additional footage and material that can be repurposed in different ways. So that’s like the gravy to me – and yeah, I will absolutely continue down that road. And if anything, I think a project like Southland Tales, which was bursting at the seams or needed to be a much-longer-form narrative, I think what I’ve figured out now is how to make sure that the films can exist within a two-hour time frame and all of this additional stuff can be an enhancement that doesn’t become a burden to the existing film, or so necessary to the central film that it becomes too hard to comprehend.

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You wrote the screenplay for the Tony Scott film Domino. Knowing that Donnie Darko was the first screenplay you ever wrote, and knowing how distinctly hyperactive your films are, both in terms of editing and narrative action, it feels like Donnie Darko sort of pulled opened the floodgates of your distinct style of narrative storytelling. Do you think that this new ADD, multi-tasking culture that has developed since the release of those films is more open to receiving your particular style of filmmaking?

I think, in the case of Domino, that was a huge collaboration with Tony Scott, who had developed a style that was very forward-thinking and very ahead of its aesthetic place and time. He was always pioneering new techniques, whether it was a hand-cranked camera or certain editorial styles or pushing film stocks into new color spaces. He was always at the front line of filmmaking and being a pioneer. So as a screenwriter when I was hired to do Dominio, I leaned into that on a level of narrative construction. I wanted to deliver to him a nonlinear, aggressively layered interpretation of Domino Harvey’s life that would play into his aesthetics. So that was very much written into Tony Scott’s brain. I was writing into his aesthetic reach and his goals. And again, Tony was always kind of ahead of his time. And his films often were not appreciated until many years after they were released. And so I do feel that maybe certain aesthetic styles have caught up with Domino, and we’re starting to see it reflected in other films now. I’m very proud of the work we were able to do together; it was an honor. I learned so much from working with him. I really did.

Unfortunately, we live in a time when the idea of the world coming to an end within a matter of days is not all that far off. Throughout all of your films it seems like the idea of the apocalypse is guiding your vision. Given how much closer to the edge we seem to be with each passing day, is it getting harder for you as a filmmaker to conceive of these apocalyptic visions now that reality has become its own vision of apocalyptic farce? Southland Tales now truly plays like a documentary.

I think we gravitate towards apocalyptic narratives as a way of trying to ease our anxiety — or at least I do. I’m not trying to sensationalize the apocalypse. I’m really trying to find catharsis in it. And if we can continue to put together these apocalyptic narratives, or these narratives that result in our species destroying itself, that’s hopefully a lesson, and that’s hopefully a hypothesis for how things could go wrong where we can try to find comedy or find, again, catharsis in witnessing our own destruction, and maybe revisit these narratives as a way of trying to learn the lessons and cope with each other and prevent it from happening in real life. That’s my hope, you know? The more we can illustrate the apocalypse in cinema, the more we can prevent it from happening in reality. We might be moving closer to the edge, but we’ve got our eye on that edge. We certainly do. A lot of people looking really closely at that edge and fighting really hard to make sure that we don’t go over.

Donnie Darko returns to theaters in New York City at Metrograph and in Los Angeles at the Cinefamily starting March 31.


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