The Resurrection of 'Donnie Darko'

To many people, Donnie Darko was simply a flop that quickly dropped out of American theaters in the fall of 2001 with a paltry $515,000 in earnings, a fraction of its under-$5 million budget. But then something curious happened. It became a minor hit in Britain and a staple on the midnight movie circuit, and was discovered by a whole new crowd when it was released on DVD, where it has rung up over $10 million in sales and remains a top seller on Amazon. The dense, demanding, imaginative and elusive tale of a contemporary Holden Caulfield in a grim and glorious world of nightmares and dreams and alternate realities took hold in the imagination of teenagers and high school kids.

Its post-theatrical success led an almost unprecedented experiment: Donnie Darko may be the first "flop" given a new theatrical life by a director's cut. Director Richard Kelly and stars Jena Malone (who plays Donnie's girlfriend Gretchen) and Mary McDonnell (who plays Donnie's mother) came to Seattle to host the May 29, 2004 world premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival and bless its subsequent test run in seven Seattle-area theaters. I had the opportunity to sit down with Kelly, Malone and McDonnell just hours before the sold-out screening to discuss the film, the new cut and the film's rediscovery on DVD.

Sean Axmaker: The obvious question is: Why a director's cut? Why a new cut of the film?

Richard Kelly: Bob Berney (of Newmarket Films) came up to me after one of the midnight screenings in New York where I appeared and said, "Richard, I think we should re-release the film." I said, "That would be great, but will you let me do the director's cut? There's a longer version of the film, a more complete version of the film that I'd always hoped to make." We talked about it and decided we could do it in ten years or we could do it now. And they wanted to do it now. They could have waited ten years, but it just made sense that if they wanted to re-release the film, do a director's cut, don't just throw the same film out there. I'm proud of the theatrical cut and I think that the two films can co-exist. A lot of my favorite films exist in two versions. There's the Special Edition of Close Encounters, the director's cut of Blade Runner, Brazil has Terry Gilliam's extended cut, and then there's the "Love Conquers All" cut. I love that he put it on its own DVD. It's the greatest Criterion Collection [release] of all.

SA: That's the 90-minute version that the studio recut against Gilliam's wishes.

RK: Yes, it is priceless. The fact that they gave it its own DVD, it's like it has an STD and is not allowed to touch the other DVDs. It has its own package. Its pretty classic. Anyway, I think that both versions can exist. I wanted the director's cut to operate on a more logical, fluid level, a bit more as the science fiction film that I always intended it to be. I think a lot of it has to do with the time travel book [the fictional Philosophy of Time Travel that Donnie reads in the film]. Right as we were finishing shooting, I had written the book as a way to justify what the film meant to me and I realized quickly when my rough cut came in at 2 hours and 40 minutes that I was never going to be able to add more material to this. I had to just strip it down, strip it down, strip it down. I think the film became a bit esoteric and inaccessible. That's one of the great strengths of the theatrical cut, I think. But there was always a version that had a bit more logical sense in my mind and I thought, Let's let that version be out there, too. If people want to experience that version, then they can see it. If they want it to remain an unsolvable riddle, then let it remain so in the theatrical cut.

Jena Malone: Yeah, but the script is so cool. There must have been lots of revisions before the one I read, but every single moment that was in that script, the lines, how certain things came together at the end, was so important that I think anyone who likes the original is going to be so stoked to see your intention, to see where it came from. You had such a clear and precise vision of what kind of film you wanted to tell that I could just tell... I mean, I was bummed when there were certain things that were cut out.

RK: Two of the biggest misconceptions that I want to clear up are: The rabbit is not evil. The presence of the rabbit is not evil. It has that mask, but that's why I cast Jimmy Duval. Because even if he's playing a serial killer, you're gonna love the guy. The other misconception I want to clear up is that the film is not about mental illness. Donnie is not mentally ill. One of the greatest misconceptions, I think, about mental illness is that these people are disabled when I think they are actually enabled in a way I think we aren't, where they have access to more information and it's an information overload. I think schizophrenics have access to things we don't have access to and I think it's difficult for them to function. It's just trying to look at mental illness in a different light and, by applying the science fiction elements in the director's cut, I'm hoping to clear up that misconception. When you see the new cut, the idea of it being a science fiction story really emerges.

A lot of the deleted scenes on the DVD, they were just sort of slapped on there in a rough, unedited form. The way that I reconstituted them into the narrative, the whole thing with the time travel book and some of the visual effects shots, they all operate together in a way that I hope is a more tangible guide through the story. It's a roller-coaster ride, but I hope it's a more logical one now. The intention was never to lead people into a cul de sac for no reason. The cul de sac has, I hope, more meaning now.

SA: I see elements of Philip K. Dick's fiction and ideas in your film. Was his work an influence on you?

RK: Oh yeah, he's been a huge influence. He's just as big an influence on Southland Tales, the movie I'm going to make next. Absolutely. He, along with Stephen King, are, as writers, the two biggest influences for me.

SA: I've been seeing the influence of his ideas in a number of recent films, not just in the adaptations of his books. He was so far ahead of his time that it took years for us to accept the way he would look at the universe and question the reality we see in front of us.

RK: It's as if Stephen Hawking is doing the nonfiction version and Philip K. Dick is doing the fiction version. It's also sad to think of great minds like that being afflicted with "mental illness," and it's also sad to think of a physical affliction. You hope that someone with that kind of imagination is at a peaceful place and not one of great anxiety.

JM: But maybe because of the afflictions you strive to use your mind even more. We are given so much that we take it for granted. It's awesome to see someone with so many things already against them achieve much more than I could ever imagine.

RK: It's also exciting to think of autism or schizophrenia as perhaps being potential evidence of something beyond our world, and that can possibly provide hope as opposed to despair.

SA: The character of Donnie is someone who – I don't know if he's a genius, but his mind is working on a different track than other people's. At the same time, he's struggling with all the same frustrations and problems of other teenagers.

JM: With adolescence, totally.

SA: He's a pretty angry kid; you can see it in the family situation when he tries to rile things up at the dinner table, and when he tells Gretchen that he's been arrested and that he burned down an abandoned house.

RK: But he's painting now. [all laugh]

SA: All through the film there is talk of destruction, in the fiction, in the book he's reading, and in his own past. But at the very end, his act is sacrificial. It's a very giving act for someone who is considered by everyone to be a destructive person.

RK: That adds the idea that if there are things broken in the public education system or in the mindset, you need to break something. It's like breaking a bone before you reset it.

JM: Destruction breeds creation.

RK: It's like that Graham Greene story [that Donnie's English class reads in the film]. My eleventh grade English teacher taught us that story and it changed my life; that's why I put it in the movie. Graham Greene is the man.

[The interview is interrupted as Mary McDonnell, who has just flown in from Vancouver, arrives. She catches up with Richard and Jena in a flurry of small talk and sits down to join the group...]

Sean Axmaker: This would be a great time to talk about the interesting history of Donnie Darko.

Richard Kelly: The film that won't die.

SA: It was a critical success and had hard core fans, but it wasn't a popular success. And then when it came out on DVD, all these people who missed it in its brief theatrical run had a chance to discover it. There are over 1,000 comments on the IMDb page for Donnie Darko and the last one was posted today. People are still discovering the film and inspired to talk about it. And in many ways you found your audience when it came out on DVD.

Jena Malone: It's interesting: Audience wants versus studio needs. It only came out briefly and it wasn't about box office or how many theaters it was in, but there was a want for this film and once it came out on DVD, anyone and their mother could go out and buy it or go on the Internet and order it.

RK: The way the distribution process is set up, there are a small number of people speculating what the audience wants to see. It's very corporate. It's all about spreadsheets and numbers and graphs and quadrants and this nonsense. Right after Sundance, a small group of people decided the movie was inaccessible, it's not commercial, it's not marketable. It had all these strikes against it...

Mary McDonnell: Were they Republicans? [all laugh] Sorry, I shouldn't have said that. Strike that. No, don't. [laughs again]

RK: Combined with the environment right after September 11, right after any kind of big cataclysm, art always becomes a little bit dangerous, not something people are comfortable with. Then when it's out on DVD, it's there, it's out there, and the public can decide if they want to engage with it or not. Something like Super Size Me or any film that is not governed by a multinational corporation has the ability to connect with the American public. It sends a message. I think he [Morgan Spurlock, the director of Super Size Me] should win the Oscar for what he did. Here you have one citizen who puts his body on the line to make a satirical point that could have a big impact. No domestic distributor, other than Samuel Goldwyn Films, could allow themselves to buy it because of the way fast food does product placement in their studio films. And yet it's going to make a fortune. This little company that isn't tied to a corporation, that doesn't need product placement in it. It's a bit like how Michael Moore's film [Fahrenheit 9/11] is going to make a fortune. Corporations have their hands tied by the special interests. I don't know how I got onto this subject, but I think it has something to do with voting. You can vote for a movie that the powers that be determine isn't marketable, or doesn't fit in to a definable category. We're obsessed with categories. Everything needs to be [in a whiny voice], "What genre is it? Well, if it's not a comedy, then it's not marketable." Why do we need these categories?

JM: It also sucks living in the black hole of Tahoe where you get absolutely no film, and you realize that there are people all across America that want to see films like this, regardless of whether they know a lot about films or not. What's being bought and sold to them is not necessarily what they want, it's just what they get fed. The idea of huge multiplexes versus DVDs is like our government versus the people, in a way. You can go out, you can go online, you can do whatever you want. You can find almost any film you could possibly imagine being out there and it's yours to watch over and over and share with your friends. It's a really incredible time to be in film as an actress, as a director and a writer. It's fucking rad that people are actually going online and seeking out that weird Kurosawa film and weird things like that. I think the next five years are going to be really, really exciting.

RK: Back in the early nineties, when I was in high school, DVD didn't exist yet. In Richmond, Virginia, I didn't have access to The Bicycle Thief. People ask why I put the Blockbuster card in the end of Donnie Darko. It started in 1986, but still even Blockbuster Video in its infancy didn't have access to art. You were restricted only to the blockbuster films in a small town. If you don't have access to The Bicycle Thief, you're never going to know that it exists or be enlightened to a piece of art like that. But with DVD, technology has allowed art out into the country, out into the most rural areas. And I think that's a great thing. It's an important thing.

MM: I noticed immediately the change in the movie when it came out on DVD because my children's friends at school knew who I was. That's a ridiculous way to evaluate it, but it was very real to me. People stopped quoting Tatonka [from Dances With Wolves] and started saying, "Ooooh, Donnie Darko!" That's a huge thing, I've done a lot of movies between then and now, you know what I'm saying, and suddenly, everywhere I go, it was, "Donnie Darko's mom, omigod!"

RK: They're appreciating your commitment to Sparkle Motion. We never doubted your commitment.

MM: I was a little bit of a bitch about it, but I was committed.

RK: We all knew you were going to get on the plane, but did she have to be so insulting? You see, in the director's cut, had you not gotten on that plane, the world would have potentially ended and mankind wouldn't have survived.

MM: When I read the script, it was clear to me that this was about a destiny and it had to happen the way that it happened. Otherwise, a very negative occurrence would have birthed itself, and it was in this one boy's experiences.

RK: And also like the idea of bringing in the time travel book and the text that I wrote for the time travel book in the director's cut. I wrote it right when we started editing and I thought, "Shit, my rough cut's two hours and 40 minutes, I'm never going to be able to get in the content of the book that everyone in the movie is obsessing over." It ended up on the website, but I always wanted it to be more in the text of the film. The idea of the manipulated living and the manipulated dead and Frank and even Gretchen, to a certain extent, being killed in this tangent universe, and how that's somehow connected to the idea of them being resurrected ultimately, and the idea of their resurrection as part of some sort of experiment that is happening, perhaps, that this whole tangent universe is an experiment being conducted way in the future and that them being brought back to life is proof of great things. If we had technology that could break the space-time continuum, that would be, to me, proof of an afterlife or proof of something beyond our world. A lot of what Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking are writing about, it's not religion – it's science approaching big religious ideas, and that's what I was always trying to do with this movie. But with the restrictions of getting all those ideas under two hours, I think some of them got muzzled or hidden in the shadows. With the director's cut, getting some more of those ideas foregrounded, this is exciting to me. Kids show up to see this movie and maybe they're talking about Stephen Hawking instead of Britney Spears.

SA: What would you say were the most important additions that you were able to put back into your director's cut?

RK: It all ties together: the time travel book, the eye representing the God machine evolving, and questions of where this God machine is and when it is. Maybe there are elements in the director's cut that don't place in 1988; maybe they take place far, far away. More than anything, though, I'd have to say it's restoring a moment between Mary and Holmes [Osbourne] in a restaurant. It's four in the morning and we've thrown together this set and you [to Mary] threw the script away and I said, "Two lines and you guys improvise." And it's a quiet moment like that between the parents, and all the actors, giving them time to shine a little bit more, particularly Holmes Osbourne; his role is restored a lot. It was so frustrating to have to cut some of that stuff. I think each supporting character now has a complete arc. You really get where they're coming from. And even the airport van scene, with you [to Mary] and Donnie, where Donnie gets to say to you, "Mom, there's nothing broken in my brain." Before you go to get on that plane, you get to say goodbye properly. It's the poignant moments like that that complete the film; the design of it was always there.

SA: It's the only time that Donnie is nice to his little sister; he gives her the hug before she goes.

RK: To me, it's a very emotional scene. I felt there were always some plot holes in the theatrical cut, and I thought, "Damn it, they don't need to be there." It's just a luxury. I'm very lucky that I've gotten to do this. Believe me, I would have loved to have made a second film already, but it always comes back to haunt me. In the first sentence, anytime someone describes the movie, it reads "box office bomb." It's like, "Aaargh!" "It grossed a paltry $500,000 at the box office..."

SA: What is it about the characters that you played that attracted you to this project and what do you think you were able to express through them?

MM: When I got the script, I'd read ten pages, then walk around the house – the top floor of my house; I don't have a big house – and when I finished it, I started crying. And I thought, "Damn, I have to do another film for no money!" And I told Randall [her husband] I had to do it, and he said, "Are you sure?" I had to leave while we were on vacation. I had to leave my family at the lake. But I had to do the film.

I wasn't at the premiere, I was on location for another film, but Randall went and I called him, from the middle of a pasture. I called him and said, "What did you think?" And he said, "Ah... ah... ah..." I said, "You didn't like it," and he said, "No, no, I liked it, I liked it a lot..." "But?" "I don't think I understand it."

I felt very excited about the possibility of playing a suburban mother that had a presence and an aliveness and I also felt excited about supporting a story about karma and destiny and sacrifice. And I thought that Rose taught me something about being a mother, when I read the script. Because her ability to listen with no solution I found kind of gifted and I thought it would be a good exercise because I like to talk.

JM: When I first read it, I was basically like, "Give me any part I can play." I read a lot of scripts that are about young people, people my age, and I don't really know these people. I've never met them before, or I've met aspects of them, but they don't show all the aspects of what it is to be young, which is important. I loved that it wasn't important for Gretchen to be exceptionally beautiful. She just sort of had to come into this town. She had her own identity and not your average back-history of a young person. She didn't have the perfect parents or the perfect life and she's just trying to deal with it. There's a lot of reality there. And she's also a bit awkward in trying to figure herself out. And I also loved that she loved Donnie, that she was interested in this boy that was out there and who opened her mind about things. And that she was open to that experience. She wasn't looking for the typical high school boy. She was drawn into his ideas and they were able to have this connection that was beyond what I've seen in most films about teenagers.

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