“Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut”: The Strange Afterlife of an Indie Cult Film
by Adam Burnett
Despite a devastating box-office performance just three years ago, Richard Kelly‘s debut feature “Donnie Darko” is finding new life in theaters thanks to Newmarket Films, which will release the director’s cut of the film Friday in New York and Los Angeles. The new version of this surprise cult classic will have 20 minutes of additional footage, enhanced sound, more special effects, and an expanded soundtrack.
Traditionally, the career of a first-time filmmaker could be all but ruined by a poor performance in theaters. It is without precedent, then, that Newmarket Films chose to finance a new cut of and distribute “Donnie Darko” so shortly after its initial release. But the simultaneously cursed and charmed life of “Donnie Darko” has never been predictable.
The film, set in 1988, stars Jake Gyllenhaal as an emotionally disturbed high schooler haunted by night visions of a 6-foot-tall demonic rabbit. Taking its cue from ’80s teen films, Ridley Scott, comic books, and David Lynch suburbia, the tough-sell project had difficulty finding financiers in Hollywood until Drew Barrymore‘s production company Flower Films signed on. With Barrymore slated in a minor role, the filmmakers managed to raise a $4.5 million budget and an impressive cast, including Noah Wyle, Mary McDonnell, Patrick Swayze, and Katharine Ross, as well as then relative-unknowns Jake & Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone.
As part of Sundance‘s strong 2001 line-up including “Memento,” “L.I.E.,” “The Business of Strangers,” “In the Bedroom,” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” it received impressive critical notice, but sat on the market for several months as it struggled to find a distributor. “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,” writer-director Richard Kelly told indieWIRE recently. “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. But then Newmarket finally picked it up.”
Newmarket released “Donnie Darko” through a service deal with IFC Films while Bob Berney, now company president of Newmarket Films, was IFC’s head of distribution. Upon release, the film fell victim to its own subversiveness — as a genre hybrid, it failed to appeal to a teen market flooded with gross-out comedies and slasher films — and, ultimately, of bad timing. As “Donnie Darko” was being set for a late October release, the events of 9-11 created a violence-weary marketplace. In addition to the film’s stylized violence, a key plot element of the film involved a commercial jet engine mysteriously falling from the sky. “I think the factor was just the bleak mood and the timing,” Bob Berney told indieWIRE earlier this week. “I also think some critics either just didn’t get it or also weren’t in the mood to accept it. I think the mood filtered through everything.”
With deep-rooted themes of foreboding doom and American anxiety, “Donnie Darko” was marketed as a horror film, but failed to find an audience. It grossed only $110,000 during its opening weekend on 58 screens; in just three weeks it was playing in less than a dozen theaters. By the end of 2001, it had grossed about $420,000. But word of mouth kept it going on a few screens during 2002 (including midnight screenings that would continue through 2004), and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment released the DVD in March 2002, fueling the cult following.
The Pioneer Theater in Manhattan’s East Village, where the film played for a consecutive 28 months (it was pulled only recently by Newmarket for the release on the director’s cut), is the most well-known venue to have supported “Donnie Darko” in its cult revival. Co-owner Phil Hartman explained that he and his 15-year-old son “had been having an ongoing discussion of where the next generation of midnight movies was going to come from. We had shown a lot of the old classics… rock and roll films, but also things like ‘Pink Flamingos,’ ‘Eraserhead.’ We were concerned that that tradition was dead and now that the younger generation was watching stuff at home on video, but not necessarily going to movies at midnight and after seeing ‘Donnie Darko,’ it dawned on [my son] that maybe this was the kind of movie that his cohorts would like to come and see. So we gave it a shot and it caught on relatively quickly.”
Following the success at the Pioneer, midnight screenings popped up across the country, fueling domestic DVD sales to more than $10 million. Released in October 2002 in the U.K., the film received critical raves and did well financially earning the equivalent of $2.5 million. Earlier this year, “Darko” composer Michael Andrew‘s piano-driven cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World,” prominently featured at the end of the film, surprisingly hit number one in the U.K., bringing new attention to the film and to the track’s little-known vocalist, Gary Jules.
Berney brought up the idea of a re-release to Kelly when they both attended the Pioneer’s one-year anniversary of the “Darko” midnight screenings in late 2003. Berney saw the long line of rabid fans that had assembled to ask the director their questions. Once discussions started with Newmarket, Kelly proposed the idea of a director’s cut. Kelly said, “I thought I’d maybe get to do [a new cut] in like 10 years or something further down the road. Yet they decided that they really liked that idea because if would go through the trouble of putting it back in theaters this would give them the opportunity to market something new for people to see. So it became a win-win situation for everyone.”
Originally contractually obligated to deliver a two-hour version of the film, Kelly felt his film suffered from too many loose ends, at times creating plot ambiguity for the sake of brevity. (The original theatrical running time was 113 minutes; several deleted scenes were included on the DVD version.) With the $290,000 invested into the new version, Kelly inserted previously cut scenes, created new special effects, improved the sound quality, and injected the soundtrack with ’80s tracks too expensive for the original release (such as INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart”). “I’d always artistically felt like there was a longer version of the film that I wanted to exist and assemble at some point,” Kelly says now. In addition to the deleted scenes that appeared on the DVD, Kelly withheld select sequences that will come as a surprise even to the most dedicated fans. But as with any new director’s cut, there will be some purists who prefer the original — longtime fans might not appreciate changes such as altering beloved music sequences, explaining formerly cryptic details of the film’s plot (especially the time travel sequences); and generally offering a slightly less esoteric version.
“It’s been a runaway hit on DVD,” explained Berney. “So really in the long run when you look at ‘Donnie Darko,’ it has been a total success financially. Even though it’s kind of backwards, it came about as a cult film. So we thought, given that, it was a combination artistic and financial decision. We felt that there would be some sort of closure by making these finishing touches and re-releasing it.”
The director’s cut premiered to a packed house at the Seattle Film Festival on May 29. Newmarket then used Seattle as a test market to see how the film would perform in the theatrical market. Berney says that in the past six weeks, unlike the 2001 release, the film has done well not only in the urban arthouse, but also in more suburban areas. After the release on Friday in New York and L.A., Newmarket already has plans to release the film in eight other cities including Chicago, Washington, D.C., Boston, and San Francisco later this summer.
For Newmarket, the re-release isn’t a huge financial risk. Whether or not the theatrical release draws a new audience or only fans, it ultimately sets Newmarket up for a deal for a new two-disc DVD and exposure for the midnight screenings.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it is to never have expectations in this business because you’re bound to be disappointed,” Kelly sais. “Nothing in this movie has gone as planned. So who knows — maybe this re-release will be a complete bomb and then maybe it’ll do really well again on DVD and then they’ll re-release it again and it’ll bomb again.”
Whatever the fate of “Donnie Darko” this summer, Kelly is working on his next feature, “Southland Tales,” which he says isn’t just another “dark, twisted, ambiguous, metaphysical science-fiction headtrip.” He plans to start principal photography in late September and hopes to get a distributor signed on by the end of July. Kelly describes the film as a “big epic ensemble comedy” with Kevin Smith, Jason Lee, Amy Poehler, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Seann William Scott. “I just don’t want the perception to be that I’m trying to milk this thing [“Donnie Darko”] for all it’s worth,” Kelly said. “It’s been like a monkey on my back, in a way, but I guess a monkey I’m proud of. But I’d like to have more than one pet monkey.”