Back to the Future Darkly

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 Darko and 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.


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 behind Donnie 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.

It is a linear film, but it double-backs. In the Roberta Sparrow book The Philosophy of Time Travel [the book in which Donnie reads about time travel], you only see two of the diagrams, but I went and wrote like 12 of the chapters for the book, and we’re putting it on the Web site. I always wished that we could have delved more into the mysteries the book was helping him solve. It’s cool that we’re using the Web site as kind of the Cliffs Notes for the movie.


What is the mystery Donnie solves?

The mystery he solves is that his world is about to collapse. He sees this crazy image of this apocalyptic time portal, and in seeing that, he sees that there is a God, or that there is an order, and that’s why he’s laughing. He has this great faith now, and he accepts what’s going to happen. Or you could see it as if he thought it was all a dream, and he’s laughing, like, “Thank God it’s all a dream. I’m going to go to bed,” and doesn’t know the jet engine is going to fall on him.


I thought the mystery was that he realized that his girlfriend was the one who was going to die alone, so he rewound everything to give her the opportunity not to die alone.

That’s just as valid and true as my interpretation. When I was going around trying to sell this movie, I said, “He saves the girl. It’s all about saving the girl.” That’s easy for a studio executive to get.

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