By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
What inspired the character of Donnie Darko?
I set out to create an archetype that was hyperdysfunctional on every level, but at the same time he’s clearly a good kid. We’ve explored suburban dysfunction many times in many films, but I was trying to do it within the structure of a science-fiction fable.
It’s a very “written” movie.
Ultimately, that’s why this movie got made. Everyone read it, and I took every meeting in town, and a lot of people were just like, “Listen, this is a great writing sample, but this movie’s just never getting made. It’s unproducible.” They were skeptical that I could direct it, and I wouldn’t sell it unless I could. I knew that I was the only one who really understood all the ideas. To be honest, I was more confident in my ability as a director than as a writer. No one knew that, because I hadn’t directed anything [long] yet. I just knew it about myself.
Where did your artistic sensibility come from?
My parents put me in art class when I was 5 years old — they liked the drawings I put on the refrigerator. I had a totally normal suburban upbringing. I grew up playing soccer. I went to public school. My parents are still together. I have an older brother. I wasn’t in therapy. I wasn’t Donnie Darko. [Laughs.] There’s nothing exciting or melodramatic about my upbringing. There were a few seminal movies that made me want to be a filmmaker. E.T. was probably one of the first. Back to the Future. Aliens. One of the big things that made me want to be a director was the music video for Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun.” When I saw that, I thought, “Whoever directed this is a genius, and I want to see that movie.” It was David Fincher. MTV was a big influence, because I was too young to see a lot of the movies I wanted to.
When did the consciousness behindDonnie Darko develop?
Growing up, I read every Stephen King novel, a lot of Dean Koontz and these pop horror novelists. I discovered The Twilight Zone when CBS started it up again in the mid-’80s. Naturally, from the new Twilight Zone I discovered the old Twilight Zone, which is a big inspiration for me in terms of science fiction and fantasy and big, gigantic ideas in the context of a half-hour series. It wasn’t until later that I discovered Philip K. Dick.
You were really young in the 1980s — where did your awareness of the tenor of those times come from, the reductive discourse of the self-help guru?
When I set out to write the movie, to make it a late-’80s piece, to explore the Reagan era, I just started thinking, “Where was I, and what do I remember from school?” I actually got in a fight with my gym teacher about the love-and-fear lifeline, because we had to walk up to the chalkboard and chart where we were on it. It’s reducing the world to these pop categories. It pissed me off. It made me very skeptical of the educational system and made me realize how one generation can mislead the other.
Patrick Swayze plays the self-help guru.
Yeah. [Laughs.] There’s a perceived danger of playing a character that does horrible, horrible things, but Patrick was fearless. It was the most difficult character, because it could have easily devolved into caricature. My thing with characters is that no matter how horrible they are, you have to still love them as a creator. That was the challenge, making your audience care about someone who is despicable.
Donnie vandalizes a school and sets a house on fire, but does he understand what he’s doing is also wrong?
Donnie’s hyperaware to some extent, but he’s not mature enough to deal with that hyperawareness, and that’s why he explodes. He can’t process it in a responsible way.
So he wants to burn hypocrisy?
Yeah, and he can’t do that without paying the price.
Do you feel that’s as dangerous as hypocrisy itself?
What’s even more dangerous than the hypocrisy is the person who rebels against it to the degree that they put people in danger. We’ve seen that happen now in really horrible ways, people rebelling against the system in horrible ways. Where did this start? Let’s go back and look at where we got off course.
How do you look at this in the context of recent events?
We had to remove an image of a jet engine from the trailer, but this is a period piece, and it does involve an incident with a jet engine. All art is going to be looked at differently after what happened, everything is going to be re-examined and re-evaluated. I hope not too much.
I’ve seen the film twice. The first time had a powerful emotional impact, but I didn’t know what happened. I couldn’t string it together.
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