AN INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD KELLY, DIRECTOR OF DONNIE DARKO
by Leah Churner
I talked with Richard Kelly in a roundtable with
two other publications, The Accent and El Mundo.
The questions of the other publications have been paraphrased. This
is an edited version of the interview, and it contains spoilers. You’ve
Leah Churner: About setting the movie in October of 1988—a lot
of your audience has a really nostalgic reaction because many identify
in age with one of the Darko children. Do you think that nostalgia
is really important for the success of the story?
Richard Kelly: Yeah, I think for the people who remember the ’80s,
it definitely registers—they snicker at the Hungry-Hungry Hippos
and Bush/Dukakis [presidential campaign] and Smurfs
and the Hobie t-shirt. That’s definitely nostalgic for them.
But I think if you have a 14-year-old go see the film, he may kind
of glaze over and might not pay attention that much but there are
other things in the film—maybe some of the other ideas, like
you see the Bush/Dukakis election, and you have the same thing happening
here pretty soon in a different incarnation. It’s weird how
the more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess. In the
1980s in the suburbs... everyone wasn’t running around doing
coke on a glass table, it was very innocent. And we tried to capture
it in a really subtle way, like shoulder pads and big phones.
LC: What about setting the movie in October of an election year? You
said in the DVD director commentary that it wasn’t supposed
to be especially political, but it seems you hit on the idea of this
collective anxiety that happens every election year, and that seems
like a really great time to set this film. What led to that?
RK: The film has always been a science fiction story to me and when
I wrote it I knew it had to end right around Halloween night because
there was this car accident with this kid in a Halloween costume.
And this kid has to be killed because he is somehow a reverse ghost
who contacts [Donnie Darko] and warns him, and it all becomes kind
of a cycle. Lo and behold, I thought, ’88 is the year I wanted
it to be, because the jet engine was supposed to be symbolic of the
Reagan era coming to an end. So I thought, I’ll
put it in an election year, and hey, it’s October, logically
there would be a debate on the air. So it just all sort of fit together.
When you’re a storyteller and you’re really detail-oriented
like I am, you have to know the location, the year, the season...
everything about where my story takes place. And it just fit. I could
use the idea of it being an election year. There’s something
amusing—well at the time it was amusing to think of this jet
engine being the harbinger of the end of the Reagan era, but then
when the movie was released it wasn’t quite so amusing any more
to see that jet engine. We made the film in the summer of 2000, and
it was written in 1998, so we didn’t think the idea would ever
make people cringe, but it happened. Now, looking back, the film is
being re-released in 2004, another election year, with another Bush,
who perhaps might end up being a single-term president, or maybe not.
The Accent: How is the story elaborated in the director’s cut?
RK: You can look at this film with two different interpretations.
It’s either a dream that he has of this freak accident, or it’s
actually some sort of parallel universe, a break in the space-time.
In the director’s cut, the original source material, I put together
this elaborate science fiction logic. This rupture has happened, and
it needs to be corrected, with the idea of the jet engine of being
a life-line of some sort. This kid is the person who is contacted
and invested with these supernatural abilities so that he can assist
the rest of the town. The voice that contacts him is pulling him out
of bed because he’s got a job to do. The Frank character has
to die, logically, to be able to be manipulated by whoever is doing
the manipulation. It’s this idea of the “manipulated dead.”
When I wrote the time travel book it was like, here are these rules,
maybe it’s just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, but I’ve got to
logically complete this story in my mind so I can sleep at night.
Believe me, no one knows this film better than me. I don’t
care if you have seen it 80 times, you don’t know it better
than me. It’s not about mental illness or your grandma’s
hysterectomy that she had and took some drugs... Gretchen is not a
mystical re-creation of Rose as a young girl, Cherita Chen isn’t
a spy for the Chinese government. My intention was this: Either it’s
an elaborate parallel universe or it’s all a dream. Maybe those
are the same thing, or they’re interchangeable. But I always
wanted to do a comic book sci-fi fable about this kid so I picked
the name Donnie Darko. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a tremendous
amount of ambiguity added to this new version of the film if you start
to digest it. I like big science fiction authors: Carl Sagan,
Philip K. Dick, Tolkien... I was like a little wannabe here
saying, I want to concoct something with a really elaborate mythology,
like any comic book story. I was never trying to be esoteric. It’s
always going to be an ambiguous story because you’re dealing
with huge ideas that wouldn’t dare try to answer, like “this
is what god means to me, fuck you.” No.
TA: Why release a director’s cut?
The director’s cut is a lot closer to what premiered at Sundance
Film Festival. Then the movie didn’t sell for four months, and
all the sudden the movie is STV, going straight to video, and it’s
going to debut on the STARZ! Network. So you have to cut ten minutes,
you have to add more voice-overs to clarify the ending, take half
the music out, reshuffle the music so we don’t have to pay for
as much of it... at this point I was just desperately trying to salvage
the film before they take it away from me and it debuts on the STARZ!
Network and my career is over. It was difficult but we were able to
maintain the story and I’m proud of the theatrical ending, I
think it’s beautiful. But there is a longer version of this
film, a version that I need personally as the author of this film
to clarify my intentions.
TA: When did you actually write the text of the time travel book?
RK: Right when we started editing the film, I was like, I’m
just teasing everyone with this time travel book—we’ve
done the diagram, but there’s so much more here that I have,
I feel like I’m taunting the audience with an incomplete idea.
I didn’t want it to look like some masturbatory tease. So I
started writing it—my rough cut was well over two hours at this
point—and I realized the last thing I could do was add more
stuff to the story. All I was getting from everyone around me was,
When you’re a first-time director, there are a lot of backseat
drivers. That’s okay because you need to listen, but you also
need to know when to be like, “Right, zip it. Let me do it.”
Being a first-time filmmaker is not an easy thing because you’re
at the wheel of a very expensive automobile. And the people who purchased
the automobile for you to drive don’t want anything to happen
to that car, so they’re telling you where to drive it and where
to park it.
TA: Writing this screenplay, were you grappling with questions about
whether or not you personally think that all the occurrences in the
world are predetermined?
RK: Yeah, I got really stoned when I was writing this movie and
I was watching football with my friends—you know “CBS
Chalkboard,” with John Madden? They freeze
the play and then they draw where people go, and then they replay
it. I was like, whoa, what if there was someone upstairs doing that
to us all the time, like, okay, now he’s gonna have to pee,
or she’s gonna get really pissed and walk out of this interview
and throw her book down. I had a total stoner moment and was like,
“I’m gonna write that in the movie.”
TA: And that’s where the imagery of the chest-spear came from?
RK: Yes, although ideally you go back to literature... I thought a
lot about my high school English class, the idea of predestination.
All the stuff in this movie is very “senior thesis,” and
I say that in a very loving way regarding my English teachers. It’s
all about stuff that was available to you in high school.
LC: I heard you actually got in a fight with your high school gym
teacher about the “Fear and Love Lifeline.” It’s
hilarious to me because I remember that exact curriculum from school.
RK: You mean the lifeline is still alive? (laughs) I plagiarized it
completely. Somebody who writes those self-help books is probably
sitting there about to sue me—I shouldn’t say that! But
it was something very similar to that, I had to go up to the chalkboard
and make a mark on the line. I got in a little bit of a fight with
my gym teacher, but it was nowhere like what Donnie does. It was kind
of a wishful film fantasy.
LC: The film deals a lot with self-help. What do you think about the
effects of the self-help taught in schools and in general?
RK: I don’t want to completely condemn self-help. You see
somebody like Dr. Phil or Dr. Laura,
and if they’re helping people, great. It’s like public
therapy. It’s a little manipulative, and it’s a little
trashy at the same time to parade all that stuff out and force-feed
people answers that might not be valid just to sell books. I mean,
does Dr. Phil really need to be giving people fitness advice? I mean,
are you rich enough? At some point you’re being sold ideas that
are just great oversimplifications. Life isn’t all about categories.
At the same time, some people need that, they need to be given a guide
or a map, and self-help can be beneficial. But I think it’s
good to have a healthy skepticism of it. It’s kind of like embracing
one religion and dismissing every other one. Not having an open mind
kind of sucks.
LC: What are your comic book influences?
RK: I’m not a super-educated comic book guy, but the design
of this film always lent itself to what I grew up on, the Superfriends,
DC Comics. There’s an absurdity to comics—a guy running
around in a bat suit is absurd, if you think about it. A guy running
around in tights with a big S on his chest and a cape is absurd. That’s
why there’s an absurdity to this film. The imagery of it, and
the text of the time travel book was supposed to have this old-world
quality to it, and Grandma Death, I wanted it to be kind of funny
and operate on a satirical level. It’s more of an overriding
conceptual thing. I would probably embarrass myself to hardcore comic
book fans by misquoting something, and I don’t want to do that?
El Mundo: Do you actually believe in time travel?
RK: Well, to me, that’s like saying, do you believe in a higher
power? I think that if it were possible, the world would either collapse
and completely self-destruct or a bunch of gremlins would come out
and be like, “All right, you found us.” (laughs) Something
like that would happen... It’s always been a fascinating thing,
when I saw Back To The Future, when I saw Terminator,
it hit me like a ton of bricks. It was about something beyond our
grasp, which is why anyone loves science fiction.
Ultimately the big conclusion of the film was restored in the deleted
scenes, in the parts about Watership Down. It’s the
idea of deus ex machina, something I’ve been obsessed with since
I was a little kid, the God Machine, and I thought, wow, that’s
the best way to describe a time machine. I wanted the thematic imagery
to be a lot about technology because I wanted to contrast all this
religious talk with science. It’s about both things coming together.
That’s what it’s all building to, the car accident, the
mom being on the plane, I wanted that to be the completion of it all.
Everyone in the town was part of building it, and it ends on a positive
But then again Donnie makes the decision to burn down the house, it’s
a conscious choice that he has to make to set things in motion. All
the other people in the film are kind of unaware, sort of operating
like puppets, they’re kind of like, “What am I doing?”
“Why am I giving this kid this book, or why am I writing ‘cellar
door’ on the wall?” But Donnie is really conscious of
this stuff—that was part of the mythology of calling him “living
receiver.” So I wrote all this I had to come up with mythological
concepts that would hopefully help make sense of it all.
Or maybe it’s all about your grandmother’s hysterectomy.