In 2001, filmmaker Richard Kelly introduced the world to Donnie Darko, a peculiar suburban teenager from Virginia, who had a penchant for strong literature, Smurf Theory, and girls named Gretchen. He also had apocalyptic visions that stemmed from a man-rabbit named Frank, who may or may not have been influenced by Watership Down.
Now, over 15 years later, the film is returning to theaters with a new 4K restoration that should once again remind everyone why Tears for Fears is the greatest band of its era. In celebration, longtime pals Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman and Art Director Cap Blackard spent an afternoon with the film and spoke to the mastermind behind it all.
For a more immersive reading experience, stream our specially curated playlist below.
Michael Roffman: It’s tough talking about Donnie Darko without getting too personal, but I don’t think I’m alone. Richard Kelly’s 2001 cult classic is the type of science-fiction film I needed to see as a teenager. Upon its release, the concept of nostalgia was just beginning to take shape in my conscience, and my head was often time traveling back to memories that, to my surprise, had already begun gathering layers of dust: birthday parties at my parents’ first house, lazy afternoons daydreaming in my backyard, late-night walks in a neighborhood I’d never live in again, stuff like that. Seeing a new film set in 1988 was incredibly revelatory for me, and what made it all the more effective was how Kelly naturally painted the time frame, leaning less on obvious ’80s hallmarks and capitalizing more on time-stamped traditions, from humble pizza dinners with the family to urban legends about fringe characters on the edge of town. It felt like my own version of The Philosophy of Time Travel. What about you, Cap?
Cap Blackard: Right there with you, Mike. Every generation looks back to where they came from with mixed results. There’s usually an inclination to distill an entire era into a period piece rather than to paint a simple, honest portrait. Somehow, amidst all the things that Donnie Darko does spectacularly in terms of science-fiction, psychological thrillers, and stirring metaphysical narratives, it’s also a deeply affecting exploration of a specific moment in time. Anyone who grew up in the suburban USA at the end of the Analogue Age can find something of themselves, their friends, their family, their adolescence in Donnie. And even though this aspect of the film seems disparate from all the bleeding over of dreams and reality and existential questioning … all that only serves to better tap into the experience of being a teenager — especially a brooding, artsy one!
Michael Roffman: It’s kind of funny (and maybe even ironic), then, to have a new sense of nostalgia for Donnie Darko. So much has changed over the past 15 years and counting. Jake Gyllenhaal is an Academy Award-nominated actor, who’s since delivered outstanding performances in films like Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, David Fincher’s Zodiac, and Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler. There’s been a surge in ’80s nostalgia that has seemingly eclipsed any such identity for the past decade. And science fiction has become more ubiquitous than ever, what with Netflix’s Black Mirror taking over living rooms and Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival garnering a ton of Oscar nominations this past year. So, it makes sense that Kelly would be keen on restoring and re-releasing his cult masterpiece; after all, it might connect with a new generation of cinephiles looking for an outlet.
Cap Blackard: Every year that goes by we find ourselves in a weirder, nerdier world. Just look at the Twin Peaks resurgence that’s staged a cross-generational revival over the past decade. Donnie Darko is arguably just as essential, and the years haven’t diluted its artistry or relevance. Kelly himself is also positioned on a path for rediscovery. Donnie Darko was a success story of a young auteur, only his following work didn’t connect: Southland Tales carried too large of a story for one film, while audiences slept on The Box. But, his voice and passion for his craft are undiminished, and with several unannounced projects seemingly on the horizon, not to mention the re-release of Donnie Darko, we could very well see a second coming of sorts. At the very least, his brand of storytelling would certainly be in good company.
Interested in going deeper? Listen to further musings between Roffman and Blackard over at Nerdy Show, where they discuss everything from time travel nostalgia to their personal connections with the film and the most essential albums of the ’80s.
A Conversation with Richard Kelly
Where were you on a personal level when you were writing the first draft of Donnie Darko?
I was 23 years old, and I had just graduated from USC Film School with a film degree, a significant expense from my generous family. And I was working at a post-production house in Hollywood called 525 Post Production as a client assistant, which is basically a waiter and a janitor making about $6 per hour. I was replacing the tampons in the tampon machines and making cheese and cracker plates and cleaning up. I was washing dishes, making cappuccinos, and going on food-run errands. I made a cappuccino for Madonna; I made a cheese and cracker plate for her as well. I went on food runs for Puff Daddy and Jennifer Lopez, and I got the order wrong and had to go back and correct it.
And I was just thinking, Oh my god, what am I doing with my career? I had never written a screenplay, I had a couple of short films I had made, and I was finishing up one of my short films. I had all of this education in place, I knew where to put the camera, I knew all my techniques, and I had all my visual design skills, but I hadn’t yet written a feature-length screenplay. I was very frightened of doing that because I didn’t want to finally write a screenplay and have it turn out poorly and be disappointed in it and feel as though I had failed in that endeavor. So, I was waiting and waiting and waiting until if finally felt right to write a narrative, feature-length screenplay and finally, in October of 1998, Donnie Darko came out of me in a 28-day period. I wrote it in the same time period as the movie. And yeah, that was it.
Why did you decide to set it in 1988? Was it the election between Bush and Dukakis? Or was it just a particular time that meant something to you when you were growing up?
Yeah, it had to be that. It very specifically needed to be in 1988, there is no question about it. Donnie is older than I was in 1988, but it felt personal. It felt like a world that I knew, and it felt like a world that I had not seen portrayed like that in a specific way in a narrative film before, and I thought it would be fresh to explore that era. So there was no question in my mind. And when I was shopping the project, the first thing out of people’s mouths was, “Why are you setting this in 1988?” They were kind of dismissive of it and discouraging me from setting it in that time frame, and I think a lot of people passed on it because of that, but I was very adamant about it — the music was so specific. It was definitely a hurdle for a lot of people, but I think it paid off ultimately.
Given today’s obsession with ’80s nostalgia, it’s hard to picture a time when it wasn’t en vogue. Though, what’s interesting about 1988 is that it kind of starts shifting into that weird period where it’s not exactly the ’80s and it’s not exactly the ’90s anymore. Was it difficult to capture that era on paper and film? Or did you lean on your memories?
Well, I’m really, really attentive about details, like I would obsessively talk to my transportation coordinator and make sure all the cars were era specific. I don’t want to see any modern cars, and I obsess over details like that. I mean, even for The Box, I went to great expense to digitally restore the Richmond, Virginia, skylines to 1976 to make sure everything was era specific. And for Donnie Darko, we were doing 1988, but we did not want to go too kitsch with the style and costuming. We didn’t want to put Seth Rogen in the Michael Jackson Thriller jacket. As hilarious as that might have been, and as much as I want to see Seth wearing a Michael Jackson jacket, it just felt wrong.
We didn’t want to put Maggie Gyllenhaal in Cyndi Lauper hair, you know? We wanted to keep it somewhat conservative to the Virginia suburbs. If the movie were set in Manhattan and these were kids running around trying to get into clubs, that’s a different story, and the costuming would be different. But this is a kind of Fantasia of Virginia recreated in Long Beach in the outskirts of LA. We were doing this sort of mythical Virginia suburbs, where you kind of know it’s Los Angeles, but that’s okay because it’s not a real city; it’s a recreation of my memories of Virginia. It’s set in a very specific time frame.
The outfits are perfect. Not pandering at all.
We ended up shooting at Loyola High School in Los Angeles, a Jesuit school, and April Ferry was like, “Richard, it would really be a lot easier to put the kids in uniforms. I don’t have the money to dress the extras in ’80s clothing.” She’s an Oscar-nominated costume designer, a legend in the business, and she said, “Richard, can you put them in uniforms?” And I said, “You know what, it works for the story, because it’s Donnie confronting conformity and the educational system, and it’s a Catholic school. Okay, this make sense. Let’s do this.”
There are a lot of Catholic fans of this movie. My mother is, I guess, Methodist, and my dad was a scientist and worked for NASA and was not particularly religious at all, so I was not raised Catholic by any means, but there is quite a bit of Catholicism in the film that people see. And with Grandma Death being a former nun, The Last Temptation of Christ on the marquee, and the idea of Donnie being a Christ figure, I guess there’s this resonance with the Catholic state that shows up in the film.
A large part of the film’s movie magic, though, is the soundtrack. Seeing that we’re both a film and a music publication, we were curious if you had an album in mind that you feel encapsulates the ’80s best, not just the sound but the state of being. You know, much like how the film encapsulates a really clear moment.
A lot of the artists in the soundtrack, to me, define the greatest of ’80s music, and they’re all mostly UK-based bands, sort of post-punk/new wave bands I guess is the category they exist in. Echo and the Bunnymen. I think that Tears for Fears’ [Songs from the Big Chair] is probably pretty definitive. But then you have Joy Division and INXS and Duran Duran. There are a lot of iconic musicians and again, I believe most of them came out of the UK — a reminder that so much of our greatest music begins there.
How long did you know what songs would be included?
Well, Tears for Fears was in the script. I actually had to fight pretty hard to shoot that big steady cam sequence in the school. The producers were really unhappy because no one’s delivering any dialogue, and it’s just a big lyrical music video sequence. We also didn’t have the rights to the song, we couldn’t afford it, and I was spending a whole day burning through a bunch of money in the first week of principal photography shooting that sequence. But I knew that it was gonna connect with that song, and I immediately called my editor and said, “Once you get the footage from the lab, please cut it together to the song.”
They did, and on the Friday of the first week of principal photography, I brought a take of the sequence to set and said, “Look at this sequence, guys, look at it, Tears for Fears,” and everyone looked back at me and said, “Okay, this is really good. We get it. We gotta send it to the band.” So they sent it to Tears for Fears, and immediately we engaged with them, and they were excited and wanted to help us get the song. It’s a risk to shoot something when you don’t have the song, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, but it’s paid off for me several times. A lot of these musicians have been very generous with me.
How did the Gary Jules version come about?
Michael Andrews, our composer. I was working very closely with him on the score, and we were in his studio in his house in the Hollywood Hills, and the Sundance deadline was looming — it was around the holidays. He said, “You know, my friend Gary Jules does this really lyrical ballad version of ‘Mad World’, the Tears for Fears song.” So, Gary drove up from San Diego, and he laid down the vocal, and Mike played the piano melody, and the whole thing was recorded in one day. And we were like, “Let’s put it at the end of the movie, this is really cool,” and we were able to make a deal for publishing with Tears for Fears because we already had their licensing in such a prominent way. Never in a million years did I think it would become a No. 1 Christmas single in the US and go on to be in commercials and American Idol … it’s just wild. So, I have to give Michael Andrews the credit for having the idea and Gary as well. They knocked it out of the park.
In the film, Gretchen’s life was positively affected by Donnie’s presence in it — that is, until she dies. But Halloween night there was also something horrible going down with her mom and her dad. What was in store for her in the timeline without Donnie?
It seems like her dad had located her and her mother and had potentially done something bad. That was sort of a subplot that I never really realized, that it was unintended to throw the audience off into thinking that Gretchen’s father might somehow make an appearance and complicate matters. It’s a misdirection in some ways. But I do believe he did show up and do something bad. Again, Donnie sort of reverses … a lot of people die in the universe and they are resurrected at the end of the film arguably.
Would you say Gretchen is doomed either way?
I don’t know. I don’t know if she’s doomed. I think that … I don’t know. I would have to think about that. That’s kind of dark; that’s kind of dark to think that’s the case. But, at least she’s not getting run over by a car, you know?
What was the process in designing the principles behind Roberta Sparrow’s The Philosophy of Time Travel? Do you recall what books you read?
There’s Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time; that’s a pretty foundational piece of pop science. There’s a lot of information from that book that you see in the story. I think there’s a lot of world-building or metaphysical stuff that I felt like I needed to solve in my mind or explore. Well, solve is not the right word, because there is a solution to a lot of these mysteries, obviously, but I wanted to kind of start elaborating on logic or design elements, I guess. It’s something I’m continuing to do, and there’s a lot more there, but it was at the very beginning of my career that I kind of started all this stuff.
Well, let’s go down that particular neural pathway. There appears to be a conceptual continuity between all three of your films so far, even though they’re all extremely distinct from one another. We’ve got fourth-dimensional rifts manifesting as a water-like substance, divergent purgatorial timelines, the end of the world, and the human souls’ interactions with such forces. This seems like something you’re carrying around with you at all times. Would you be able to digress on your spiritual background and how your work reflects that?
Yes, you are very accurate.
So you’re thinking about this all the time?
The films are definitely very connected. This is all very much by design. These are interconnected themes that I’m continuing to explore and will continue to explore in future films, and I think that there’s a connection between religion and science that’s of very great interest to me. There’s something that can be very cathartic about trying to illustrate some kind of strategic design to the world — I think it helps. It’s important for me to remind myself, and those around me, that we have the ability to control our destiny and we have free will and that’s part of the reason I set my films in the close vicinity of these Presidential elections. We have the ability to control what happens to our country, and a lot of that you see in our behavior surrounding elections or our regrets or our volatilities surrounding election years. It’s a lot of big stuff, an exploration of free will and religion and science and a lot of big ideas that I could probably talk about for a while.
The outline you’ve created within these three films is one that’s particularly fascinating and one that has quirks that are unique to your work. Are these themes still something that are a major part of your focus in writing since we last heard from you with 2009’s The Box?
Yeah. There’s a lot of new stuff that I’ve been working on — there are a lot of films in the pipe line — and they’re all very ambitious and they’re all different and they all have a connection to my previous works. But I’m trying to make each one different and explore new themes and new timelines and new characters. I’m really hopeful about setting up a work flow where I can make several films back to back and it won’t be a long hiatus as it has been since The Box came out. It’s been a long time, and it’s kind of depressing to think about how long it’s been, but I haven’t been idle. I’ve been working constantly, and there’s a ton of material that has been prepared, and hopefully the new films will be better off because of all the time that I put into the screenwriting process. It’s a lot of writing and I’m definitely looking forward to being behind the camera again. That’s for sure.
With so many filmmakers moving to streaming platforms right now, from Netflix to Hulu to Amazon and beyond, do you think it’s easier to tell stories that are against the grain?
Yeah, I think people are much more open and hungry for unconventional narratives and experimental narratives now with the renaissance of television and also the world has gone crazy. We’ve got Donald Trump in the White House. There’s nothing crazier than that. I think there is an appetite for resistance art and for that type of political story, and people will buy tickets to something that’s making a political statement. I believe that. And I think that’s an important thing for the people who are making films, and particularly the people who are financing films and distributing them, to remember. People will show up to something new as long as they know where to find it and they have proper marketing campaigns about something new. It’s certainly achievable. I’m trying to remain hopeful, and I think that there are a lot of people who are activated right now by our political nightmare, our reality we have stumbled into.
It’s been 10 years since Southland Tales. Donald Trump is running this country into the ground. Social networks have taken over society. Do you want to say, “I told you so?”
More than anything, I just want to finish that movie. There’s a lot more there, and I want to do the big, long, epic version of it, and I want to realize the graphic novel prequel with animation. There’s just a lot more that I want to do with that project. I just want to finish it more than anything. Part of the reason I’m so happy to bring Donnie Darko back to theaters is just to remind people that these stories can be mainstream. I’m very happy to have the word “cult” ascribed to my work; it’s a badge of honor, but I want to push these stories into the mainstream because I think that’s where they can exist. There are plenty of new stories I want to tell, but I would love to revisit Southland Tales more than anything.
Have you ever thought about shifting the medium and bringing the story to television?
I think that the bigger version of it, including the existing film and the first three chapters, would probably be like a six-hour thing. There’s a huge story there, and there’s this script within the movie that Boxer and Christa have written, and that’s almost like people within the movie looking forward into the future. So, there are a lot of layers to it. The perception of failure around that film makes it hard to wage an argument for revisiting, but I think there’s a lot there and more than anything that’s what I would love to do. I don’t know. I think there’s time to get to that hopefully, and if I can have more successes on other projects, that could help maybe facilitate that. We’ll see what happens.
Recently, you teased the possibility of a follow-up to Donnie Darko…
I don’t control the underlying rights to Donnie Darko. I had to relinquish them when I was 24, when I signed the deal to direct the movie. I don’t control them, and I never really have since the year 1999 or 2000, but I am open to exploring something bigger and new in that universe, and I would only want to do it if there were the right people involved and if it were a worthy thing to do. More than anything, I just want to protect the intellectual property and hope that nothing cynical or ill-advised is done with it ever again. We’ll see what happens. There’s an open door there.
Would it be a return to the world with new characters, or would you want to revisit familiar faces?
I can’t get too specific, but there are a lot of possibilities. Again, I want to keep the existing film kind of protected, and if there was ever anything new, if there was ever an additional story to tell, it would definitely be something new. I don’t know what’s ultimately going to happen, so I can’t really get any more specific than that.
Richard, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. We’re definitely looking forward to seeing the projects you have in store for us in the near, near future.
Yeah, well, there’s many of them. I can’t confirm anything until the ink is dry. I’m eagerly awaiting that moment.
Donnie Darko will return to select theaters throughout the year. Click here for a list of locations and showings, and watch the 15th anniversary trailer below.