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‘Donnie Darko’ Turns 15: Richard Kelly On Making a Cult Film and Taking a Seven-Year Break

The writer-director of "Donnie Darko" talks about revisiting the cult classic and shares details about his upcoming film projects.

“Donnie Darko”

Arrow Films

It’s been 15 years since “Donnie Darko” first hit theaters, but audiences are still clamoring to see writer-director Richard Kelly’s 2001 cult classic on the big screen. Arrow Films’ 15th anniversary release has sold out several screenings of a new 4k restoration of the film, which began an exclusive run at the British Film Institute in London on Saturday and expands nationwide in the U.K. on December 23. No plans have been announced regarding a potential release in the U.S.

READ MORE: ‘Donnie Darko’ to Receive 4K Blu-ray Restoration, Potentially Revealing the Mysteries of Time Travel

Set in 1988, the movie stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a troubled teenager who’s visited at night by an imaginary friend named Frank, a haunting figure wearing a large rabbit suit. Frank tells Donnie that the world will end in 28 days, six hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds, and manipulates him to commit a series of crimes while sleepwalking. As Frank’s mysterious deadline draws near, Donnie seeks out information about time-travel that he’s convinced is related to his monstrous visions.

Although it eventually became one of the most beloved cult hits of the 21st century, “Donnie Darko” had a disastrous premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

Audiences didn’t know what to make of the movie’s mind-bending mash up of sci-fi, horror and dark comedy, and Kelly was an untested director with just two short films under his belt: “The Goodbye Place,” about children who disappear out of thin air, and “Visceral Matter,” about experiments in teleportation. He made both films while attending USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.

Though financiers and producers were enthusiastic about the script for “Donnie Darko,” the only offers made were contingent upon hiring an experienced director, which Kelly adamantly refused. Things turned around when Jason Schwartzman became attached for the role of Donnie, helping attract Drew Barrymore and Nancy Juvonen’s Flower Films.

With Barrymore also attached in a supporting role, Pandora Cinema made a deal to to make the film for $4.5 million. Schwarztman later dropped out due to scheduling conflicts and the filmmakers cast Jake Gyllenhaal, a young actor who’d appeared in a handful of feature films. The supporting cast included Gyllenhaal’s sister Maggie, Patrick Swayze, and Oscar nominees Mary McDonnell and Katharine Ross.

“Donnie Darko” arrived at Sundance in a strong lineup that also included “In the Bedroom,” “Memento” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” But many buyers were wary of taking a risk on Kelly’s film. “Sundance is a dangerous kind of marketplace because if you don’t strike at the right time and you don’t get an initial interest in your film, all of a sudden, it’s over,” Kelly told IndieWire in 2004. “People like to dismiss it as something that doesn’t work. So after Sundance we sort of deemed it as a failure — an impressive, interesting failure, but as an experimental film that just doesn’t work.”

Released by Newmarket Films through a service deal with IFC Films in October of 2001, “Darko” was a box office flop in the U.S. The film grossed only $110,000 during its opening weekend on 58 screens, dropping to a dozen theaters in three weeks. Ultimately, it took in just $500,000.  The events of 9/11 six weeks prior hurt its commercial prospects due to a plot point about a jet engine falling out of the sky onto Donnie’s house.

“Donnie Darko”

Newmarket Films

“We had that flop sweat on us for months,” Kelly told IndieWire, adding that positive word of mouth from its DVD release eventually allowed the film to have a modestly successful theatrical run in the U.K. and other markets. “I’m very grateful that the movie got a second chance. This was before streaming services in 2001 when, if you didn’t get a theatrical release for your film, it was never going to be reviewed in any of the major newspapers and it was never going to be taken seriously.” The movie went on to take in more than $7 million at the worldwide box office.

In 2004, Newmarket released the director’s cut of the film in New York and Los Angeles. The extended version includes 20 minutes of additional footage, enhanced sound, more special effects, and an expanded soundtrack. Kelly had proposed the idea of making a director’s cut 10 years after the initial release, but Newmarket liked the idea of giving audiences something new to see much sooner, and premiered the extended version to packed house at the Seattle Film Festival in May of 2004. The film went on to play in several U.S. cities, taking in $1.3 million at the box office.

During the five-year period following “Darko’s” release, Kelly wrote several more screenplays, only one of which went into production: director Tony Scott’s action movie “Domino” starring Keira Knightley. Kelly also turned down several directing gigs during the period, including “X-Men: The Last Stand.” He was determined to make the dystopian “Southland Tales,” a post-apocalyptic political satire, once again about the end of the world.

Released in 2006, the film was an even bigger flop than “Darko.” A two-hour and 40-minute absurdist comedy, the movie stars Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott and Justin Timberlake.

“It was such an aggressively political film made in response to the reelection of George W. Bush and both 9/11 and Iraq War pop culture,” Kelly said, recalling how the work-in-progress version that screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival attracted a large round of boos. “There was so much vitriol thrown at the film that all the distributors were really unwilling to support it.”

Kelly’s third film “The Box” fared better, taking in slightly more than its $30 million budget including home video sales, but both films were panned by critics. Based on a short story that was adapted for an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” “The Box” stars Cameron Diaz and James Marsden as a couple faced with a disturbing ethical question when a stranger (Frank Langella) offers them a mysterious box.

In the seven years since the release of “The Box,” Kelly has written several more scripts to direct himself, all of which either went to other directors or failed to get off the ground. These include an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” for Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way and the 2009 sci-fi mystery “Knowing,” directed by Alex Proyas (“I, Robot”) and starring Nicolas Cage and Rose Byrne. A true crime story entitled “Amicus” had James Gandolfini attached to star when the actor died of a heart attack in 2013.

Though Kelly hasn’t directed any films during this period, he had a hand in getting several made, serving as a producer on films including Bobcat Goldthwait’s dark comedy “World’s Greatest Dad” and the adaptation of Tucker Max’s novel “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell.” His production company Darko Entertainment also produced comedies such as Goldthwait’s “God Bless America,” Jason Bateman’s “Bad Words” and the comedic thriller “Home Sweet Hell,” starring Katherine Heigl.

Richard Kelly at the AFI gala premiere of “Southland Tales” in 2007.

Shutterstock

Kelly said he’s “very close” to making another film, which could go into production as early as 2017. “We have been working on a lot of stuff — all of it very ambitious — and I don’t want to jinx anything,” he said, adding that the pre-production phase for certain projects can take several years. “We want to make sure that the next film has a very high chance of success theatrically so it’s not such a challenge to put them together [in the future] and we can do them with more frequency.”

Part of the reason Kelly hasn’t made a film since 2009 has to do with his determination to get the full budget he feels is necessary to realize his vision. “If you’re trying to finance a $12 million independent movie it’s significantly more challenging today than 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s just a question of whether it’s better to do something with half the money you need or wait until you can get all the money that you need.”

While Kelly said there are definitely problems with the Hollywood system, he stopped short of blaming the industry for his inability to get a movie financed since “The Box.”  “I want to come back with something really, really special, and I want to make sure I have all the resources to deliver,” he said. “I wish I could do it for a much lower number, but unfortunately it’s just tough.”

One project that came close to being Kelly’s fourth feature film as a writer-director was the drama-thriller “Corpus Christi,” about an Iraq war veteran who teams up with a wealthy Texas business owner with political aspirations. Eli Roth and Robert Rodriguez are listed as a producers on the project, which Kelly once described the film as “Texas future noir” before the movie ran into budgeting problems. Kelly declined to say whether “Corpus Christi” is the film he hopes to make in 2017.

Whichever film he gets off the ground next, it will almost certainly be shot by cinematographer Steven Poster, ASC, the director of photography on all three of Kelly’s previous features and the President of the International Cinematographers Guild. In an interview with IndieWire, Poster said it’s “criminal” that Kelly hasn’t been able to get a fourth film produced in seven years. “He’s had two other brilliant scripts that haven’t gotten made, and now we’ve got one that is so amazing that we hope to get made this spring or summer,” he said. “He does a beautiful job every time we work together, so I can’t wait for his next movie.”

Jake Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone in “Donnie Darko”

Newmarket Films

Poster developed a strong bond with Kelly during the pre-production phase on “Darko,” when the first time feature director was an unknown USC film school grad in his early 20s. Despite being “in essence a novice,” according to Poster, Kelly had several elaborate montages set to specific music mapped out in his head, frequently requiring technically complicated camera work. “It was extraordinary to see a young man like that in command.”

The 28-day shoot was unlike any other film project Poster had worked on, in part due to the excitement of working with a talented young director with such a distinct vision. “It just had this quality where you raced to work every morning to do this movie,” Poster said, adding that he knew from the first time he read Kelly’s script that he had a special project on his hands.

Adam Fields, a producer on “Donnie Darko,” had a similar reaction to the screenplay, which by the end of 199 had been sent to nearly every producer in Hollywood. “There were literally food stains on the pages because it had been so passed around,” Fields told IndieWire. “I didn’t completely understand it, but he had a magic in his dialogue. It reminded me in many ways of John Hughes.”

READ MORE: ‘Donnie Darko’ Restoration Trailer: The Cult Hit Returns To The Big Screen To Make Us Lose Our Minds All Over Again

While some directors loathe discussing their debut features, Kelly said he’ll never get tired of engaging with audiences about “Donnie Darko.” “I’m honored that people still want to talk about it,” he said, adding that he and Poster did a lot of work on the new 4k restoration and director’s cut of the movie. Though his absence from the film directing world for the past seven years has left an air of mystery around his career, Kelly said he has no secrets, and is very excited for the moment he can finally talk openly about his next movie. “I’m an open book,” he said.

The “Donnie Darko” 15th anniversary 4K restoration is playing now at the BFI and in hits cinemas nationwide in the U.K. on December 23. BFI Tickets can be purchased here.

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