In celebration of its 15th anniversary, a restored, 4K version of the sci-fi drama cult classic “Donnie Darko” is being released on Blu-ray on April 18. The film tells the story of a troubled high school student (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his imaginary friend, a six-foot rabbit named Frank, who tells him the world is going to end in 28 days.
During an interview with director/writer Richard Kelly earlier this week in anticipation of the remastered film, we talked about the cult status of “Donnie Darko,” how he thinks the movie would fare if it was pitched to studios today, and how Kelly feels about the trajectory of his career up to this point.
Back in 2001, “Donnie Darko” only grossed a little over $7 million at the box office, but would later be labeled a cult film because of its success on the video market. Looking back 16 years later, would you rather have had it become a mainstream success at the theaters and evaded the cult label or is its status as a cult film an important element of what the film is today?
Well, I would love to have a theatrical hit. That would mean a lot to me and I think it would make things a lot easier for me to make more films with greater frequency. I think this was the path that “Donnie Darko” was meant to take. For whatever reason, it needed to take it’s time and marinate. I’m really honored that it continues to connect with people. It means a lot to me that people would ascribe cult status to it. I am proud to wear the badge of a cult film. But I also do believe [“Donnie Darko”] has pushed its way into the mainstream to a significant degree. I think it is becoming more mainstream year by year. It was never a theatrical hit, but I believe that because of the digital and home entertainment space, it has become something that has been seen by a lot of people. I’m just grateful that people continue to respond to it.
If you were to pitch “Donnie Darko” to an independent studio today, what do you think would happen? How has the indie side of the industry changed?
I think there’s a stronger appetite for 80s nostalgia now that didn’t exist in the year 2001. I think a lot of people looked at us like we were crazy when we were pitching doing a 1988 period piece in the year 2000 because that was only 12 years in the past. It would be like pitching a 2005 period piece today. People would sort of roll their eyes. (Laughs) But a lot has changed. We have Netflix and Video on Demand and iTunes and streaming services that can deliver movies to millions of households. There isn’t that feeling that if your movie doesn’t get a theatrical release, then it’s invalidated or it’s not legitimate enough. That’s the way it was in 2001. If you didn’t get a theatrical release in 2001, you wouldn’t get reviewed by the major critics and the major newspapers. Maybe to some degree that’s still true today, but you have these streaming services that can deliver independent films out of Sundance very quickly and in a very high-profile way. I’m open to anything and everything, but I do love the theatrical experience and I do think “Donnie Darko” was meant to be seen on the big screen.
What kind of parallels, if any, do you see in the political landscape you include in “Donnie Darko”—the rebellious nature of the teens during a transitional period in the White House—and what is taking place today in Washington, D.C.? Are there comparisons you can make?
In 1988, we were transition from [Ronald] Reagan to [George H.W.] Bush. We had a candidate in Michael Dukakis who was unsuccessful in galvanizing the liberal base and the younger generation that was rebellious against the Reagan-era policies. In the film, you see Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character and her stance with her parents. It was almost like a failure to change the administration. Now, we see the pendulum swinging from one direction to the other after eight years. Back then, we had eight years of Bill Clinton followed by eight years of George W. Bush followed by eight years of Barack Obama. So, you’re looking at three pendulum swings of two-term presidencies. If the pendulum swung in Michael Dukakis’s favor, how would history be different? That’s kind of what we were thinking in the movie. What could the state of our nation have been? We’re obviously in pivotal days in the history of our nation today. There is a lot to think about.
Because you’ve been so connected with this film for the last 16 years and because Frank the rabbit is such a menacing cinematic character, I was wondering if in this last decade and a half you’ve had nightmares about Frank. Has he ever pop up randomly in your dreams?
Never once, no. (Laughs) Never once. I think I got him out of my dreams by making the film. I got it out of my system. I never dream about my own films, perhaps because I live with it every single day of my life. I never dream about a film I already made. But I’ll dream about a film I’m going to make in the future, that’s for sure.
Do you own a copy of “Donnie Darko” on VHS? Also, what would you tell my wife who has been begging me for the last 15 years to throw away my over 300 VHS movies that are taking up space in our house?
(Laughs) I do not own VHS tapes anymore. I think those were sent away to wherever VHS tapes go—VHS heaven. What would I say to your wife who is upset that you haven’t discarded your VHS collection? I think there’s nostalgia to those tapes. I think they’ll probably be worth something someday.
I’m surprised you don’t own at least one copy of “Donnie Darko” on VHS since back in 2001 that’s how most people saw the film. I mean, DVDs weren’t really popular at that time.
Yeah, I remember VHS everywhere in Blockbuster. I just remember I hated the VHS and original DVD artwork they did. It was such a bastardization of the original poster. I hated it.
Last year, Kevin Smith compared you to Christopher Nolan during an interview with The Hollywood Reporter and basically said you’re one of the greatest filmmakers but haven’t been given the opportunity to really break out yet. How do you feel about your career progression? Is it something you think about at all?
I guess I’m constantly just disappointed in myself. (Laughs) I mean, those were very lovely words from Kevin Smith. He’s been a really great friend over the years. I am very flattered that he would say that about me. I guess, if anything, I’ve been working really hard on my screenplays and trying to make sure my next film has all the elements in place to be successful and that I have the proper budget to realize my vision and to try and dazzle people. I don’t want to make a film that disappoints people. I think I’ve been really deliberate and careful. I have written a lot of screenplays. I certainly hope to make many, many more films. I would love to be successful and work with even a fraction of the budget that Christopher Nolan gets to work with. He’s an extraordinary filmmaker. He actually helped give me a career and protect “Donnie Darko” because we had the same distributor back in 2001 when he made “Memento.” He really helped me and supported me and has continued to support me over the years. Yeah, I’m eager to hopefully work at a higher budget level if I can, that’s for sure.