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Interview: Richard Kelly on the 15th Anniversary and Re-Release of ‘Donnie Darko’

While it’s been 15 years since Donnie Darko first premiered at Sundance Film Festival, the film has been anything but forgotten, earning its status as a cult favorite. Long before the success of 80s nostalgia pieces a la Stranger Things, after all, there was Donnie Darko, a troubled teenage boy whose only confidante comes in the form of a giant rabbit named Frank, who warns him of the end of the world.

To celebrate the film’s 15th anniversary, director/writer Richard Kelly teamed up with Arrow Films for the film’s 4k restoration, which will make its way to theaters with a limited, yet highly anticipated run starting today. We spoke to Kelly himself on what inspired him when he started making the film at 23, and what’s inspiring him now as he plans his return behind the camera.

For details on if the 4k restoration of Donnie Darko is playing at a theater near you, click here.

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Cut Print Film: Congratulations on Donnie Darko‘s 15th birthday, with the release of the 4k restoration. 15 years later, why do you think the film still resonates so strongly with audiences today?

Richard Kelly: Well, I like to kind of think it starts with the aesthetics. Aesthetics trump everything in cinema. It’s all about the gateway to the audience, [which] is the presentation. And that includes the performances by the actors and the cinematography and the music. All of the design elements have to come together, so fortunately, the design elements for [Donnie Darko] came together in a way that was very memorable and the story connected [because] of the design. And the screenplay translated into people’s minds. The story was pretty complex and people can revisit it over and over again, and so it’s led to a lot of conversation for a long time.

CPF: What about for yourself? All this time later, what does the film mean to you today?

Kelly: All of my films are very personal. They all make many years to make and you have to maintain it, because we constantly have new technological advances. I feel very grateful that Arrow Films reached out and decided to do this restoration because it needed to be done. Steven Poster [Darko‘s cinematographer] and I mapped out some time in our schedule to really oversee this process and to use the tools at our disposal to do the restoration. It was a very positive, therapeutic experience.

CPF: When you put Donnie alongside “teen” films that came out in the 90s or early 2000s, it kind of feels like an outsider, a rebel. But I’m noticing today that creators are — intentionally or otherwise — following the precedent you’ve set in creating darker, more complex, young protagonists. What do you think makes those characters so much more captivating today, than perhaps when Donnie first came out?

Kelly: I think we live in darker times. When we made this film, it was in the summer of 2000, and we were about to elect George W. Bush. We were in a time of transition and in a still much more innocent time. We had just been through eight years of the Clinton administration and 9/11 had not happened yet, so I think we’re living in much more apocalyptic times. So I think there’s a cynicism and an innocence that has been long lost, particularly in our younger, millennial generation. That’s for sure.

CPF: As the director and writer, what informed the creation of a character like Donnie?

Kelly: It just came from inside of me. All the characters are a product of my imagination. I mean, I guess Donnie was definitely a culmination of 23 years of life. A reflection, [or] a fantastical, wild interpretation of my adolescence in a lot of ways.

CPF: The film is a genre-bender in so many ways. Can you talk about what influenced your creative outlook at the time when you were making this? What films or directors were inspiring you?

Kelly: It’s a lot of my adolescence. My high school education, high school English teachers. Some of the work you see in the film, like Graham Greene and Richard Adams’s Watership Down. And then Stephen King, reading a lot of [his work] growing up. Watching Stephen Spielberg, James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis, and all these big filmmakers I grew up with.

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CPF: Jake Gyllenhaal himself has said in interviews that he doesn’t feel like the role of Donnie was ever rightfully his because of the original casting of Jason Schwartzman. How would you respond to that, and what do you think Jake ultimately made out of what came to be such an iconic role?

Kelly: Ultimately, it ended up, he made the most of it. I think that he was able to rise to the occasion. I [myself] was a very new, first-time director and I had a handle on the technical [aspects], but I was nervous about how to talk to actors. Because that was what was new to me, and I was lucky to have some really experienced actors. Jake rose to the occasion. He certainly delivered. I mean, I saw him transform into that character and it was just amazing to watch. He really helped me do my job everyday.

CPF: When you look back on that 28-day shoot, what memories stand out to you?

Kelly: I remember just being so overwhelmed with stress and adrenaline that people were having to bring me food. So I would keep eating, because I was just losing weight. I think I lost over 20 pounds.

CPF: Recently, you said that you were very close to making another film. Can you tell us a little bit more about that if you could?

Kelly: I don’t wanna get in trouble [laughs], so not too much. I have a lot of ambitious projects in the works and they take a long time to put together. We’re really close on several of them. I certainly hope [that] this year, I’m back behind the camera. It’s been a long time and it’s been frustrating, but again, these movies aren’t easy to make. They never have been [laughs], but we’re really close. And again, I want to deliver something really special to people. I want it to be worth the wait, so we’re just making sure we have all the elements in place. Once things are official, I can talk about it. But I don’t wanna get in trouble, and I don’t wanna jinx anything [laughs].

CPF: That’s exciting, though! We’ve been hearing some talks about a new addition to the Darko universe. What about it do you think has been left unfinished after all this time?

Kelly: I think there are a lot of big ideas there. I think there could be a new story; a much bigger, longer story. I’m keeping an open mind, and I would only want to pursue something like that if it’s worthy of pursuit, and if it were something new. But at the same time, I don’t control the underlying rights to Donnie Darko, I never have. I had to relinquish them when I was 24 years old, when I got to direct the film. So more than anything, I just want to protect it and make sure that if something is ever done with that property, that it’s done well and that it’s something fresh and new and exciting. Because I am so honored that this material connects with people and that people have embraced it, I just want to make sure that it’s protected moving forward. Part of why we wanted to do this restoration is to make sure that the integrity of the film was maintained. So I don’t know, we’ll see what happens. There’s plenty of time to figure all that out.

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CPF: Since you seem to really embrace longer-format work, would you ever consider doing TV?

Kelly: Yeah, I’m very interested in doing a long-form narrative, but I still see them as movies. I see them as big, longer movies. So I think it’s just a question of the timing and budget, and I have a lot of projects in the pipeline, but I would love to make a long-form film. I feel like television and film are sort of merging into this new narrative that doesn’t necessarily have to have the constraints of selling detergent and diapers and having commercial breaks. There are a lot of restrictions that have to be put upon in a narrative presentation, but I think we’re moving past that with the streaming services and people are digesting long-form content in their homes now. There’s a lot of possibilities in that arena.

CPF: How does it feel watching the industry change so much since the release of Darko?

Kelly: It’s inspiring, I guess, but I think there have been some dry times when I remember all the independent distributors [that] shuttered after the financial collapse. It’s a rollercoaster ride. So I feel like there’s a lot of exciting things happening. I also want to make sure the theatrical experience has been preserved, because I like to think I make movies for the big screen and Donnie never really made it to that many screens and a lot of people never saw it on the big screen. So it’s important that we have this theatrical rerelease, because it really does play to an audience. I’m very excited for people to see it on a big screen, I really am.

CPF: It must feel amazing to have so many people excited for it to come back.

Kelly: When it came out in theaters the first time, it was in the shadow of 9/11 and no one wanted to go to the movies at all. Nobody even wanted to think about going to see a movie. To have this release, all these years later, and with our new technical presentation — our 4k [restoration] — it is really exciting, because no one has seen it look this way before. So I’m excited for people to get to experience it again.

CPF: As you continue working on your many projects, what are you inspired by now?

Kelly: I’m actually obsessed with Big Little Lies on HBO. [laughs].

CPF: It’s such a good show!

Kelly: [laughs] It is so good. It is incredible. Everyone involved in that project — from the actors, Jean-Marc Vallée, the director, the cinematographer, the music, the editing, the cinematography, the sound design — everyone is doing off the charts great work. I’m just blown away by that show. It’s so good.

CPF: That’s awesome.

Kelly: Yeah. I watch every episode two or three times and I just study it. It’s inspiring. It’s like a seven-hour movie, you know?

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Nix Santos is a writer based in Los Angeles. You can find her on Twitter @_nixsantos.

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