When you think of Cult Films you think of the weird, the wacky, and the down-right bizarre. Cult Films have a way of working against the norm and introducing us to worlds that feel as if they belong behind closed doors. The term can be described as either a film that has generated a devoted following over a period of time or it can be described in a more stylistic term; one that speaks of the fabric of film and the way it talks to an audience.
One such cult film is about to return to UK cinemas – Donnie Darko. Written and directed by a young unknown Richard Kelly, it was initially unsuccessful on its release. Yet through word of mouth and passionate film lovers the seminal film has garner a following and a reputation few films can boast of. Now to celebrate the films continued success, it is hitting cinemas nationwide from 23rdDecember.
The films revolves around the titular troubled teenager, his family, and his friends. While Donnie struggles through therapy for his mental health he begins to receive messages from a deformed overgrown rabbit who tells him the world will end in 28 days. The rabbit, Frank, continues to appear suggesting that Donnie does erratic things while Donnie also falls for the new girl in town. Yet are these hallucinations real or a product of Donnie mental state?
To promote the films re-release writer/director Richard Kelly is in the UK and, luckily, We Make Movies On Weekends got to talk to him about his defining movie.
I am shown into a room inside London’s BFI on the Southbank. The building, which is always a changing celebration of brilliant films, has Donnie posters and life-sized cardboard cut-outs of rabbit Frank spread around. One is behind the sofa where Richard Kelly sits. Most would expect an older man but seeing as he wrote and directed the film at twenty-five, his youth does not surprise me.
It ‘s been 15 years since the release of Donnie Darko, and Kelly muses over his film and the impact it has had on the film industry. “It feels great for many reasons,” he says in an excitable manner. “The first of which is we got to go back to the original negatives. Arrow Films paid to do this really wonderful restoration which was a gift to get to do. Steven Poster (cinematographer), and I got to go back to the original negative and meticulously explore the image which was never properly maintained. It was really painful to look at the old transfer of this old movie cos it just did not look good. There was so much more there and now we have this 4K technology to scan the original negatives and to go in and meticulously rejuvenate the image and to do some more visual enhancements. Particularly some of the visual effects. The movie to me has never looked better and I’m finally excited to look at it again on the big screen. Even though there are other things I wish I could have done with the movie, I wish I could have done more in places but I’m really happy. I’m really proud to present it to people and it’s great to be back in the UK to unveil it here cos this is the community that resurrected the film and really helped to recharge the course of it. It got off to a kind of rocky start when it was originally released so it’s great to be back here.”
Finding a place for a cult film such as Donnie Darko was tricky back in 2001 yet it found an cult audience, popularity, and eventual critical acclaim. Flash forward all these years, and Hollywood has changed substantially with budgets and technology, which has changed the term cult. “Well, I’m honoured that someone would again want to revisit this film and I’m happy with the term cult. I’ll take it,” Kelly replies, musing on the term in this new film industry and Donnie Darko’s growing fanbase. “I do feel it’s become mainstream in a lot of ways. Which I’m happy about because the further I can penetrate the mainstream the more movies I can make at this budget level which is hard to do. The market place is not kind to mid-budget films, the whole business has transformed. You’re either looking at Marvel or micro-budget, there’s not much room in between but this is where I have to exist in-between. I wish I could figure out how to work at a micro budget but even Donnie, the movie cost in the year 2000 $4.5 million. Adjusted for inflation today that’s $6.3 million and my scope and my vision has expanded since then. I know the resources that I need to dazzle people and to make sure I have the resources I need it’s defiantly a challenge to get all the elements in place. Its takes a long time but I’ve been working diligently. So it’s great to show this new restoration because I think it reminds everyone about the theatrical experience. I want to be making movies for the big screen as much as I love watching movie on my phone.”
Many of us watched Donnie Darko at a young age, fascinated and disturbed by Kelly’s work. There must be some hope that a new generation of enthralled teens would arise due to the re-release. “I hope they enjoy it. To a lot of people fifteen years ago this film was very disturbing, very troubling, very upsetting. But we’re now living in a different world which is undeniable troubling. There are a lot of sinister forces in the world that seemed to barely exist when the movie came out.” Kelly pauses because Donnie Darko’s release was shrouded in equal darkness in 2001. “Now, of course, this movie came out right after 9/11, which was obviously a tragedy that was felt across the whole world and a tragedy we’re still dealing with. We’re still recovering till this day so it’s a new world. I think maybe this film will feel more cathartic, I don’t know if that a correct statement but I don’t know maybe the movie feels a little more innocent than it used to”
With the course of 2016, it is sad to think that maybe real life has over taken it. “We’ve all grown up, I met a young women earlier who saw the film when she was thirteen, now she’s twenty-eight. I can see her processing the movie differently now as a twenty-eight year old as appose to a thirteen year old teenager. I think if the movie is worthy of revisiting and I certainly hope it, we’re just looking at it through a different lense. It’s the same thing now as with Southland Tales, we made that movie ten years ago as an expression of anger, vulgar expression at the beginning of George Bush’s second term. Now you watch it with President Elect Trump, it’s like it’s a whole different world. “”” Sometimes well, sometimes not so well and sometimes they mature in ways and they become immature. I’m grateful if the movie continues to resonate and we’ll see, I could be sitting here ten years from now. People might be like Donnie Darko is the worse movie ever made, who knows what will happen but I’m here now and grateful for that.”
As Kelly mentioned there were elements he was not able to include in the film which makes you question exactly how he could improve Donnie Darko. “There are visuals sequences that I always wished I could do, they were just too expensive. But they gave me $4.5 million to work with when I was 25 years old – which is pretty crazy. We really put the money on screen and I’m really proud of how the movie looks especially now with the restoration. You always wish you had more but that’s Hollywood.”
Kelly cast a young unknown as his lead for the film. Instead of fading after eary success, Jake Gyllenhaal has gone on to be one of the greatest actors of his generation. “It’s amazing, I’m so proud of all of his work,” Kelly gleefully says of an actor he’s watched grow since 2001. “It’s amazing to see how he continues to transform himself, all of his different kinds of characters. There all different, he’s not just repeating himself he puts 110% into everything he does. You’ll never see him just filling something in. I just remember back when we were making this movie. It was a really intense, really high maintenance character for him to play. I didn’t realise until we wrapped shooting he came up to me the last night of shooting and said, ‘you know Richard, I was just mimicking you’. I was like ‘what, what how dare you?'”
I have to ask Kelly if he took this as a compliment. “When I realised he was being serious I was like ‘alright, if I helped, I hope I helped’ -but yeah I could see him transforming over the twenty-eight day shoot. I knew that the actor who wrapped that motion picture was a completely different actor than the one who began it and there was a lot of growth that happened.’
The film featured Patrick Swayze in a rare darker and dramatic role. Kelly achieved something really unique with him and it was arguable his best performance and the director thinks back on the late Swayze’s performance. “Patrick was so wonderful to work with. We actually shot those infomercial that are playing in the classrooms at his home. We went and we shot them the last week of prep before real principle photography was set to begin. We didn’t have the time to shoot those during real principle photography because we had to have the playback ready and we had to get that done. We didn’t have the money to do it so Patrick invited us to his ranch in Canvases. His wife was so kind and brought out all his 80’s wardrobe and clothes and we shot all of that in the backyard of his house. We spent a full day doing all this improvisation. He opened up his home to us. Otherwise we would not have been able to pull that off without him so he was great. That was one of the things I regret the most when the movie did not succeed initially. I was always hoping that he would get a big career boost from that role. He took a huge risk and came and played this really demented character and I wanted him to gain that real boost but when the movie didn’t connect initially. I wish he could have been given more opportunities because he was a really special actor.”
When the film began to connect with audience Kelly re-released the film with a director’s cut. This was a rarity fifteen years ago which must’ve been difficult to champion. “We had the opportunity to re-release the film and there was some incentive too. I thought there’s a lot more here. There’s a lot more footage, there’s a bigger story, the time travel book. There’s a lot of stuff that I’ve created that’s there and I didn’t want to just withhold it from people forever or just have it be in a vault forever. So we did an alternate version of the film that’s longer that’s a little bit novelistic, self-indulgent. A slightly different version of the movie but I knew when we were doing it that it was never going to replace the theatrical cut. It was just gonna be like there are two versions. And so when it came to the restoration we knew we would be doing both cuts we can have two versions and people can go down which ever road they want with it. If people want the deeper more cerebral science-fiction experience they can go down the theatrical directors cut route. If they want the more opaque or however you want to describe it, both version exist. I can see doing that with every film I make and there’s also just the realisation that when you put a film in theatres, wide release, it’s rare that they will allow you to have a movie be longer than two hours. Some film-makers are allowed to do that but sometimes there’s a shorter version that plays wide. There’s a smaller group of people who enjoy the longer more complex version so it’s nice to have that luxury.’
With that my interview with the director is up and I thank him for his time. I get one photo of him next to the cut out of bunny Frank and tell him he has to check out the Frank slippers inside the BFI Shop (which you all do.)
Apparently, I am not the first person to tell him that….
Donnie Darko is released on DVD & Blu-Ray now!