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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 been warned.

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, “Simplify, simplify.”

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 note.

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.


Brett Newski



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