Inside "Donnie Darko" with Writer/Director Richard Kelly

Richard Kelly Photo
Writer/Director Richard Kelly in San Diego for a Special Q&A Session. Photo By Rebecca Murray

Madstone Theaters and the San Diego Film Critics Society hosted a special Q&A session with “Donnie Darko” writer/director, Richard Kelly. Just how popular is “Donnie Darko” two years after its very limited theatrical release? Popular enough that special screenings across the United States draw near-capacity crowds, and that a Q&A with the director is considered a hot ticket.

“Donnie Darko” continues to be one of the most searched for movies on the Internet (currently #48 on IMBD’s list of 290,000+ titles).

Why does Richard Kelly’s debut effort still spark so much interest? Maybe because it’s a rarity for a film to emerge filled with intelligent dialogue, realistic characters, and a storyline that’s so fascinating you are compelled to see the movie time and again. And not only see it over and over, but talk about it with others.

Talking to the man behind the movie (a young guy with looks that rival most Hollywood heartthrobs) is quite an experience. His commitment to meeting with “Donnie Darko” fans now, even a couple years removed from the film’s theatrical release, is admirable, and his humility is refreshing. Fans have been waiting for Kelly to make his next film, and it sounds like that may be happening in 2004.

Another treat for “Donnie Darko” fans: Richard Kelly may be putting together a Director’s Cut of “Donnie Darko,” which would be released in theaters during the first half of 2004.

Kelly says the Director’s Cut will contain at least seven minutes of new material (some from deleted scenes available on the DVD, some scenes that have so far gone unseen). There are also plans in the works for a Todd McFarlane Movie Maniacs Frank doll.

Disclaimer: Spoilers abound in this Q&A so do not read it if you haven’t seen the movie or if you’re still trying to figure out the message on your own.

When Donnie shoots Frank in the eye and tells Frank’s friend to go home and that everything will be okay, does Donnie know everything that’s going to happen? Did he have a choice at that point?
I think that Donnie had an indication; I don’t think he knew that there was going to be a car accident. He was rushing to the house because he knew that something was going to happen. He was trying to stop it and ultimately ended up causing it to happen by trying to stop it, I think. And I think that after the realization of the accident and him firing the gun, I think he realized that it was all going to wrap itself up somehow. I think it was all starting to come together in his mind at that point.

How about Frank? What did he know and when?
I think that when you see Jimmy Duval at the end coming out of the car, I think you are seeing just a teenaged kid. I think that the image of Frank that you see prior to that is a different entity altogether, right? In other words, it’s open to interpretation as to what you think that might be. That’s part of the design of the film, to allow people to come to their own conclusions about what the rabbit means.

Was it all a dream of Donnie’s or did it happen in a different reality?
I think that ultimately both of those things could be true.

At the same time, I think the film could be looked as if it was another dimension, another reality, another world that temporarily existed. Or was it a dream? Or are both of those things one in the same?

Did Donnie make the choice to go back into his room and die when the airplane engine hit?
Well, the film is about what happens when he decides to get out of bed. You saw what happened when he got out of bed. I think that’s part of the experience of the film. There’s an old “Twilight Zone” episode called “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which I might be mistaken but I think it’s about a guy in the Civil War. He’s got a noose around his neck and all of a sudden the noose breaks. He escapes and he’s chased through the woods. He goes and meets a woman or something and then he realizes that that whole experience was like this instantaneous moment/memory that he has as he’s being hung.

I think that this film is sort of, I guess, similar to that idea – or I’m just ripping that off (laughing).

Where in America is the movie set?
The movie is intended to be Virginia but we shot it all around Southern California. If you’ve been to Virginia, you can tell that’s not Virginia. But we had to put something on the license plates. I get annoyed sometimes when I see a movie and you see the license plate and it’s fake looking or they just don’t put anything on there. It’s meant to be a stylized, satirical, comic book, fantasyland version of what I remember Midlothian, Virginia to be, I guess.

How long did it take you to shoot “Donnie Darko?”
We shot the film in 28 days - coincidence (laughing), 28 days.

What was Donnie’s journey supposed to convey?
I think in the end it’s all about meeting the girl, getting laid, saving the girl, sacrificing yourself to save the girl (laughing). Studio executives can understand that.

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When you started shopping the script around, who came on board first and how did it get out to other people?
The biggest thing that happened was that I got signed by a big agency from the script. Creative Artists Agency signed me as a writer/director so right away the script was put into a lot of people’s hands. Everyone in town was all of a sudden aware of this new script.

A lot of people were responding to the script, but when they heard I wanted to direct it, they were like, “No.” (laughing) It was, “This is a great writing example.

This is un-producible. Come rewrite ‘Valentine.’” They wanted me to write 13 slasher films. “Great writing example, come write ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer 3.’” That kind of thing. Then Jason Schwartzman, we heard that he liked the script. We got a meeting with Jason and he attached. When Jason became attached Drew Barrymore – someone sent the script to her and her partner Nancy Juvonen at Flower Films. They kind of accosted my agent at ShoWest in Vegas and said, “We love this script. We want to help this guy. We want to help get this script made somehow. We love Jason Schwartzman. Can we be a part of this?” My agent tells me that and I’m like, “Get me a meeting with these people.” I met them on the set of “Charlie’s Angels” and asked, “Drew, would you like to play the English teacher who gets fired, Miss Pomeroy?” She’s like, “I’d love to if you let my production company produce the film with you guys.” (Laughing) I’m like, “Let me think.

Of course.” We just shook hands there in the trailer and all of a sudden that allowed us to get $4.5 million, which was the bare minimum we needed to make the film.

All of the other actors, because of Drew mostly, felt comfortable working with a first-time director. She kind of stepped up to the plate.

It takes one actor to break the ice or to RSVP to the party, then everyone feels comfortable RSVPing. A first-time director 9 times out of 10, they end up being a last-time director. They don’t get another chance because they can’t hack it or it doesn’t work out.

How did you get the bigwig agency to read the script?
My producing partner Sean McKittrick at the time was working at New Line Cinema as an assistant. All the assistants at all the studios, they spend the whole day on the phone and they talk to all the other assistants at the agencies. He’s like, “Okay, I’m going to send it to the assistants.” Beth Swofford at CAA, [etc.] - three of the biggest agents in town. He’s like, “This is like the longest of long shots, but I’m going to beg their assistants to read it. If they like it, I’m going to beg them to give it to their boss.” Endeavor and UTA, they just said, “Yeah, sure we’ll read it,” and they just threw it in the trash. Beth’s assistant at CAA was a friend of Sean’s. He’s like, “Okay, I’ll read it, I’ll read it.” He read it and was like, “Whoa, this is really good. I never do this but I’m actually going to go into Beth’s office and I’m going to make her read this because I really like this script.” And he did and she read it over the weekend and at a Monday morning staff meeting, she gave it to four other agents and looked out for it.

That never happens – I got really lucky – but it happened to me.

What inspired you to write this?
I think Stephen King was a huge influence on me growing up, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Graham Greene was a big influence. My high school English class, really. I stopped reading after high school. I don’t read (laughing). Who has time to read? I think just watching a lot of movies and trying to think of an exciting new story to tell.

I had an idea about a jet engine falling on this house. I remembered an urban legend about a piece of ice that falls from a plane and kills people. Wasn’t there an episode of “Six Feet Under” where something like that kills? Frozen urine or something? It became a jet engine and it became this mystery of they can’t find the plane, and how do I solve the mystery, and it has something to do with time travel.

And this coming of age story and do it about the 80’s and make the jet engine become like a symbol, like the death knell of the 80’s. It’s all coming to an end. I spewed out this story – and here we are.

What message did you intend to have people get out of this film?
Ultimately the film is critical of the public school system. That’s probably me saying the public school system sucks. It does perhaps a lot of unnecessary damage to kids that it doesn’t need to do. Maybe something about suburban communities and suburban life can be suffocating. I think also trying to create a lead character [who] was an archetype for anybody who feels alienated or feels different or feels they don’t fit into the system.

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Can you talk about your approach to directing?
I got very spoiled with a lot of really, really great actors. I feel like they’re doing 90% of the work. There’s only so much you can do in directing someone. They need to come to the table really prepared, and then I look at it as 90% of the job is theirs and 10% is you coming in and not getting in their face too much. I think a lot of first-time directors get in there and they overdo it or they overcomplicate it. I think they can annoy the actors, to be honest. I mean, you have someone like Mary McDonnell who’s been doing this for a long time and has been nominated for Oscars. I don’t need to explain to her how to prepare for a role. I just need to answer all the questions that she has. If she wants to alter a piece of dialogue, allow her to do that. If she wants to improv, allow her that opportunity. Then explain to her who the character is and what the story means.

Having written the screenplay, I think, is also half of the battle in communicating with your actors because you’re not trying to go through the middleman – the screenwriter – because that’s you. You don’t need to bring out the translator. It all comes from you.

How did you decide on the music for the movie?
Mike Andrews did the score. I was very lucky that I didn’t have crew forced upon me by the financiers. A lot of times they force you to hire people because they want the music to sound like music from ‘that’ movie.

But with $4.5 million, you can’t afford Thomas Newman or Danny Elfman or any of these guys. You’ve got to just go find somebody who is young and hungry, and really talented.

Nancy Juvonen’s brother recommended Mike Andrews. He’s from San Diego, actually. Gary Jules, who did the “Mad World” cover with him, is also from San Diego.

Jim Juvonen, he’s really good at knowing who’s the shit before anyone else knows who’s the shit. He said, “This is the guy. This guy is a genius; you’ve got to work with this guy. No one knows about him.” I met with Mike and I just knew right away that he was really, really talented and that he could come together with a really original score. He would also collaborate with me. He would allow me to be in there and be really kind of editorial with how I wanted the score to be.

Did you purposely write the faculty to be good and evil, with no middle ground?
The movie has this kind of comic book title. We’re sort of delving into archetypes of suburbia, the bullies, the gym teacher... There are definite archetypes – points of satire. Clearly the gym teacher and the principal are nitwits. Let’s not pull punches, clearly I’m mocking curriculum that I remember. The ‘Love and Fear Lifeline’ was all stuff that I was taught. It was plagiarized from personal experience. It was just like that. I guess unless you grew up in the 80’s and experienced that, it might seem like bizarro.

Drew and Noah [Wyle’s] characters were intended to be kind of the liberal, new guard, progressive teachers that I remember.

I had great teachers like the ones that I asked Drew Barrymore and Noah Wyle to portray. It was definitely a criticism of the educational system, but also showing that there are great people there. There are the nitwits but there are also the really progressive people who often find their voices stamped down and suffocated.

How closely does the final film match what was in your head when you wrote the script?
You write the script and you see it in a particular way, then it all changes when you figure out, “Oh, we can’t shoot this.” You write a script that takes place in Florida and then you realize that you have to shoot it in Toronto. You thought you were going to cast Dustin Hoffman and it ends up being Martin Lawrence. How sudden things change and you have to just roll with it. Sometimes that’s exciting when it’s all of sudden not what you thought it was, but it’s something better.

How close did you stick to the script?
There’s some stuff in the screenplay that was never shot. In the very first draft, he woke up from sleepwalking in a shopping mall. There’s a couple of other scenes were never shot. What you saw on the screen is pretty damn close to what I wrote when I was 23 years old in 1997 or 1998, whatever it was, when I wrote the script. There are changes here and there and things are slightly different, but it’s pretty close.

I don’t think any film I ever make will ever match the script perfectly because I think things evolve on set. You don’t need this scene, or all of a sudden you need a new one, or the dialogue’s going to completely change because the actors want to re-tool it. What’s exciting is to see what comes out different. It’s cool to compare the blueprint versus what you saw up there. I think filmmakers who are slaves to their own screenplays – it’s the Bible, you can’t change a syllable – I think that’s really limiting and a dangerous thing to do. I think you’ve just got to keep it loose and make sure you’re not limiting yourself.

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How much of the little details like the ‘God is Awesome’ shirt were in the script, and how much were added later on in the process?
I’m a real detail fanatic. The ‘God is Awesome’ T-Shirt was actually written into the script. There’s a whole subplot that was cut out with “Watership Down,” with Drew Barrymore showing the class the film “Watership Down” and they replace the Graham Greene book because it gets banned. There’s a whole sequence about the Deus ex Machina and The God Machine and arguing about the rabbits, and the meaning of rabbits. Right in the next scene you see her in a shirt that says ‘God is Awesome.’ At the end, you see this big time machine thing up in the sky. All the details were laid into the script and more details come about in the production process.

It’s a wonderful art of collaboration that the director has with his production designer and his costume designer and with the set dresser, and with all these technicians who are waiting to be directed. If you can give them really specific ideas, they will go and do so many wonderful things for you, like Al Hammond coming up with the Fibonacci spiral in the center of the jet engine. I’m like, “What is that? How did you come up with that?” He’s like, “They do that. They put that in the center of jet engines because sometimes you can’t tell when it’s spinning or not when you have the headsets on.” The Fibonacci spiral ended up being the visual metaphor for the design of the film.

The Fibonacci spiral was actually derived from the mating practices of rabbits. All this weird stuff going on, all this bizarro stuff that we didn’t even know about but that’s just because my production designer, I was able to give him all these things in the screenplay and details emerged.

Attention to detail, I think, is what filmmakers I admire the most [have].

They obsess over the tiny things in a film. If you go and see a Terry Gilliam film, you can sit and watch the thing 600 times and you’ll discover something new every time. People who are really meticulous visually, that’s very inspiring to me. I think in the writing process, you need to aspire to that on the page because when people read the script, the language is going to be there. So absolutely I think you need to try and put it on the page as much as possible.

Can you explain the character of Cherita?
I like to call her my ‘Mike Yanagita.’ Remember Mike Yanagita from “Fargo?” He hits on Frances McDormand at the Radisson. They have Diet Cokes at the Radisson and he comes on to her. If the Coen Bros. didn’t have final cut, a studio executive would have demanded that they cut that scene because it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t contribute to the plot. But if you really pay attention to “Fargo,” that scene is really pivotal to Frances McDormand’s character because when she finds out that Mike Yanagita is completely lying about his wife dying, that it was a complete lie, she’s just shocked that she could have been lied to. She’s such a trustworthy person and it makes her go back to William H.

Macy’s car lot to question him again. So the Mike Yanagita scene is actually really, really important on a character level. On a plot level, it’s superfluous and it’s just the Coen Bros. just being weird or self-indulgent maybe. But I think it’s a great pivotal scene for character reasons and I think that’s probably what they thought, too. Using that metaphor for Cherita Chin, she contributes nothing to the plot at all. She is extraneous and superfluous, but that moment where Donnie is wearing the earmuffs couldn’t exist were it not for Cherita Chin. That is a very important character moment.

What scene carries the most meaning for you?
I would say the scene where the kids are talking about feces (laughing). Every scene means something to me. I was so blessed with all the actors; they did such a good job.

It was such an amazing experience to see these actors say your dialogue. When it comes to life… But it’s the comedy stuff that’s what I love. It’s made me want to direct comedies for the rest of my career because to be able to laugh, like when Kitty Farmer says, “He asked me to forcibly insert the Lifeline exercise card into my anus.” They had to physically remove me from the set because I was messing up the takes I was laughing so hard. To be able to laugh while you’re working is the coolest thing in the world. It’s the comedy that makes it fun, that makes it tolerable, that makes it the best that it can be.

How cool is Patrick Swayze?
He’s the nicest guy. I can’t tell you some of the actors we met with, like really weird game show host-type people that we were considering. We asked Patrick and we knew it was going to be so perfect. He wanted to take a flame-thrower to his image. He was fearless. We shot the infomercials on his ranch. Those were his real clothes from the 80’s. He frosted his hair specifically for the part. He totally got it and was so cool about it.

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How much of the Donnie character is you?
(Laughing) I’m not schizophrenic, I don’t see rabbits, [and] I don’t travel through time. I think that you make stuff up for a living. That’s what we do, we tell stories. But at the same time, it is personal. I think good art should be personal.

The lead character in a film is often a variation of the filmmaker. Certainly there’s probably a lot of me in that character.

I got in a fight with my gym teacher about the ‘Fear and Love Lifeline.’ Yes, that happened. There really was a Grandma Death. My brother and his friends stole her mailbox because she used to wave to the cars. I think you tell stories and I think that the intention of the film was to create a character based on people I remember who were friends, who were put on a lot of medication. I was never on any medication but I had a lot of friends who were – Ritalin and who knows what else. “Attention Deficit Disorder” – the plaque of our time.

How did you get to use “Evil Dead?”
In the script, they went to see the movie “C.H.U.D.” But our friends at 20th Century Fox Archives told us it would take 8-12 weeks before they could process the paperwork to begin to tell us whether or not we might be able to use the footage from “C.H.U.D.” We needed to know in a week, and it wasn’t going to happen. Linda McDonough at Flower Films is close friends with Sam Raimi’s producing partner.

Sam Raimi and his partner own “Evil Dead.” They own the negative so there isn’t a sludge of bureaucracy associated with getting “Evil Dead.” You’ve got to call up Sam’s partner, and he’s cool. He’s like, “Yeah, sure you can use it.” We could get it and it became so much more appropriate.

There’s a whole thing with “The Last Temptation of Christ” on the marquee.

There was originally a scene written where Donnie goes to see that movie and a woman behind the counter tells him that the film is evil. The film was banned in my town when it came out. It’s like relating to the censorship of the Graham Greene book. Then it became, “Well, if we can get ‘Evil Dead,’ Donnie’s going to go see ‘Evil Dead.’” (laughing) Sam Raimi gave it to us for free. He let us do whatever we wanted.

Do you want to hear a real freaky coincidence? There’s actually a lot of these. When we were shooting that marquee on Montana Street in Santa Monica, Sam Raimi drove right by – completely coincidentally – with his kid. His kid was like, “Daddy, is your movie playing with ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’?” It was completely a coincidence, right when we were shooting that. It was really bizarre.

Are you working on anything right now?
Yes, I’ve been in prep on my next movie for about 600 years. It’s never getting made (laughing). No, it is. We’re going to start shooting early next year. There’s still some legal entanglements that have to be worked out before we can begin production. It’s called “Knowing” and I can’t say anything else because I’ll jinx it. I’ve written a lot of scripts for a lot of other directors in the meantime.

I’m excited to see what another director will do with one of my screenplays. That’s exciting to me.

It’s definitely been harder for me to get my second movie off the ground because it’s at least a $15 million film. The more money you’re asking for, the more control they don’t want to give you. It’s tough, but you’ll get there if you stick it through.

I’m really excited to direct again. I would have already directed another film if this had made money when it was initially released. It’s hard to ask someone for $15 million when your first film that cost $4.5 million grossed a whopping $500,000 at the domestic box office. There are a lot of people in this town who all they care about is the bottom line. They can’t recommend to their stockholders that they invest $15 to $20 million in a filmmaker whose first film made less than they spend on their dog food.

But it’s done well; it’s made a lot of money. I’m very excited to try to make a film that can stand alongside this. Maybe I’ll never make something that people will like as much as they like this film, but I’ll certainly try – until they run me out of town and I’ll just direct infomercials.

As for other directors directing my material, I don’t sell my material that I’m going to direct. I don’t relinquish control of it until there’s a guarantee that it’s going into production. The scripts I’ve written for studios for hire are jobs; those are jobs. A script for Tony Scott, a script for Jonathan Mostow – I’m happy to do that. I love their films. I love these filmmakers. The great power that you have as a screenwriter or as a filmmaker is your ownership of your material and not relinquishing control of it. Once you do, once you take a dime for it, it’s not yours anymore. They own it and they can do anything they want with it. They can cast Carrot Top, and you’re f**ked.