By Amy Nicholson
By LA Weekly critics
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Anthony D'Alessandro
Photo by Jenafer Gillingham
Written by the 26-year-old Richard Kelly when he was fresh out of USC film school three years ago, then directed by him when he was 25, Donnie Darko has nothing going for it by today’s commercial standards. It’s an outsider project by an upstart kid who, following the brazen logic of the uncorrupted, insisted that he direct what he’d written. “I would have never been able to forgive myself if I had sold it and let whatever would have happened to it happen to it,” says Kelly. “I feared that it would have turned into a teen slasher film or a horror film. I think that it’s a delicate piece of work, and it needed to be protected.”
The movie defies easy packaging, mixing romantic teen comedy with biting satire in a 1980s period piece, into which it then injects significant doses of science-fiction fantasy and horror. Think John Hughes with the teeth of perspective or Heathers without the deep cynicism. Complicating matters is the likelihood that some of the first words out of your mouth on leaving the theater may be what happened? “Someone asked, ‘How would you describe this movie or convince friends to go see it?’” says the film’s 20-year-old star, Jake Gyllenhaal. “I would say the mere fact that I don’t know what the hell it’s about is the exact reason why I’d go see it.”
Actually, it’s not that difficult to say why one should see it. Donnie Darko is about digging deep into the mysteries of life, especially those of love, honesty and adolescence at a time when platitudes such as “Just Say No” and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” were the slogans of policy and culture, not unlike today. To combat such fundamentalist lust, the film sticks a pin in its bleeding young heart and suicides right on screen. It is funny, sad and beautiful. And it’s right on time.
Recently, I sat down with Richard Kelly, who is as unassuming as he is earnest. Be warned that in our talk, we give away some of the film’s secrets.
L.A. WEEKLY: How did a suburban kid from Virginia end up in film school?
RICHARD KELLY: I got a partial scholarship from USC’s School of Fine Arts, and after a couple days of sitting in art-history class, I said, “Forget this.” I didn’t want to look at slides all day. I was always intimidated by the film school, because I assumed you had to have Jack Nicholson write you a recommendation or had to have been doing short films since you were 5, but I was wrong. I applied and got in pretty much right away.
Where did the script come from?
I was living with a bunch of friends in this house in Hermosa Beach serving cappuccinos at a postproduction house four days a week — you know, poor, broke and post-college. Like, now what? So I just locked myself in a room for a month and a half and started writing, and when I was finished, I was, like, whoa . . . okay. I kind of set out to write the most elaborate, complicated, ambitious thing that I knew how to write and then try to get an agent off that. It worked.
What do you mean, it worked?
I didn’t know anyone in this town. I still don’t know anyone, really. My dad’s an engineer and my mom’s a teacher in Virginia, you know? I didn’t have that many contacts from film school. One of the producers, Sean McKittrick, was a frat buddy from UCLA. He was working at New Line after college and said the script was good enough that if we stuck by it, we might luck out and get it made, but that I’d definitely get an agent off it. He sent it to three assistants at three of the big agencies. Assistants at studios know all the assistants at agencies, they’re the gatekeepers. The script was read over a weekend. Monday I got a call, and the next day I was at CAA and they wanted to sign me. It was awesome.
Were you trying to follow the formula and beats of scriptwriting?
Well, I wasn’t aware of, like, Joseph Campbell and the whole mythology of the hero’s journey. I read that [Christopher] Vogler book The Writer’s Journey after I wrote Darkoand thought, “Oh, wow, I have a shape shifter and a mentor figure and a gatekeeper.” I didn’t plan on it. I think I had seen so many movies that in my own way I’d adhered to the Campbell formula, which gave me a little more confidence. I took one screenwriting class in college, and it was kind of a joke. Screenwriting classes can be dangerous. You just need to watch a lot of movies.
The story started with the conceit that this engine falls on this kid’s house, and he doesn’t know where it came from and starts to go crazy. It was inspired by Twelve Monkeys, which is a remake of Chris Marker’s La Jetée. Twelve Monkeys is about a time traveler who returns from a post-apocalyptic future as a younger version of himself and sees his death.
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