‘Donnie Darko’ Director Reveals How One Christopher Nolan Tip Made the Film Easier to Follow

Without Nolan, the timeline of "Donnie Darko" would've been less clear.
"Donnie Darko"
"Donnie Darko"
Everett Collection

Donnie Darko” director Richard Kelly marked the 20th anniversary of the film’s Sundance world premiere by participating in The Ringer’s in-depth oral history of the 2001 cult classic. Included in the “Donnie Darko” deep dive is Kelly’s reveal that the film was made easier to follow thanks to one piece of advice courtesy of Christopher Nolan and his wife and producer Emma Thomas, which they suggested to him after a private screening. It turns out the parenthetical title cards that appear beneath each October 1988 date in the film came from team Nolan as a way to keep track of the climactic doomsday event drawing nearer. (“Twenty days remain,” and so on.)

“Chris and his wife, it was their idea to put the parenthetical beneath the title cards,” Kelly said.

Kelly has often spoke about Christopher Nolan’s role in getting “Donnie Darko” released. Nolan and Thomas worked with former studio Newmarket on the production and distribution of their breakout indie hit “Memento,” and they attended a private screening of “Donnie Darko” for the Newmarket executives at a time when “Donnie Darko” was failing to find a distributor. The Newmarket team trusted Nolan and Thomas following the “Memento” release, so their thumbs up for “Donnie Darko” played an instrumental role in the film getting a theatrical release.

“When the lights came up, Chris and his wife both turned to the Newmarket executives, Chris Ball and Will Tyrer, and they both looked over at them and they nodded,” Kelly said. “They were like, ‘You guys should distribute this.'”

Speaking to The Guardian in 2019, Kelly said on the matter, “Sometimes, the wind is at your back. Sometimes, it’s at your front. ‘Darko’ was a disaster at Sundance too. No one remembers that, but it was. I’m grateful for any rosy glow of hindsight. I remember it took us almost six months to sell the movie. It almost went directly to the Starz network. We had to beg them to put it in theaters. Christopher Nolan stepped in and convinced Newmarket to put it in theaters.”

“Donnie Darko” opened in October 2001 and went on to become a cult classic and a key film in launching Jake Gyllenhaal’s career. Head over to The Ringer’s website to read the latest oral history on the film.

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