As one of the indie cult classic favourites of the early ‘00s is re-released in its full 4k restored glory in cinemas across the UK, we had the pleasure of having its creator Richard Kelly reflecting upon the film’s existence, originality in independent filmmaking and film exhibition in the post-digital era, as well as our collective mental health and the American Presidential Elections...
Interview to Eirini Nikopoulou.
Q. What would you hope the Millenial audiences, who possibly haven’t watched your film before, take away from it or what would you expect them to appreciate in the film?
I hope that they can see that even though the film takes place in 1988 and was made in 2000, both election years, that they can still resonate in 2016 which is also an election year. The themes are universal and timeless. Teenagers in 1958 were maybe just as troubled as teenagers in 1988 or 2008 or that teenagers are going to be troubled in 2018. So, there is a universal language hopefully in the movie that transcends geography. There are people who identify with the movie in Japan, in Australia, France.
I also hope that maybe they can see that the narrative risks in the film, the unconventional narrative in the film is something that if they are aspiring artists, they can feel emboldened by in order to take more risks into artistic creation. It is so easy to be complacent and just copy what’s come before, and that’s all fine. But, if you want to break out and forge an identity for yourself as an artist you have to try and take some risks and be bold. If this film can inspire a contemporary millennial artist to do that, then that’s great and I am off with that.
It’s great when a new batch of teenagers discover this film. I feel like that’s really cool. I am grateful that they actually take it in and listen. I was worried that this film would all of a sudden fall off a cliff and it seems to continue to connect. It is like the Energiser Bunny it just keeps going and going. Here we are talking about it again…. Now, we restored it!
I am really grateful that people are so keen on watching this film on the big screen again, because it’s a reminder that these films are made for the big screen. As mush as I love watching movies on one of these (shows his iPhone), the films belong to the big screen. We spent so much time in making the image look like it does, so that you have it overwhelm you in a theatre.
Q. What makes Donnie Darko’s character still relevant today, 15 years after the film’s completion and initial release?
I think a lot of it has to do with Jake (Gylenhaal) and his performance, which was absolutely fantastic. He brings empathy to a character who could have ended up being unsympathetic, because he is running around with an axe and putting people’s houses on fire and so on! I think there is a rebellion to the character and an emotional authenticity and nakedness, which is endearing and I think people could see part of themselves in the character. Everyone has some degree of mental illness. We shouldn’t just put this on a small group of people who feel isolated. It should be inclusive and it should be somewhere we all relate to this character, because he is flawed and enters into a world of fantasy and hallucination, or supernatural or metaphysical. All this is based on human experiences and families and teachers and a community that people recognise. I am grateful that people find him sympathetic.
Q. If a Tangent Universe were to happen now and you had to write and direct Donnie Darko today, how different would your approach be in terms of the story, as you would probably have to reflect the recent presidential election in America, and also in terms of filmmaking?
I would approach the logic of the Tangent Universe and the mythology of The Time Travel book as a pretence to today’s world and try to make it authentic today. I would try to be emotionally honest to what transpires in the story and I would try to be inventive. I never want to repeat myself. There would be a completely new incarnation of it. I would never reboot or repeat myself. I always want to move forward.
Q. How did you manage to pull Donnie Darko, as your first feature film? How much effort and planning did you have to put into it?
It was in 2000 when we shot the film, which is a whole different story compared to how one pulls that off in 2016. It was a completely different world. All my movies have a significant amount of planning, down to every last detail. They are very ambitious stories and you can’t pull them off unless you really know what you want. And you have everything planned down because you only have 12 hours a day, if you are lucky, and you’ll never have the chance to go back and redo it. Not with movies like this. So we need to make sure we spend our time and money wisely. I do a lot of location photography and diagramming camera placement and I am storyboarding certain sequences. And more importantly we have those digital cameras and you can take a million photos and import them into a system and do panoramas and stitch stuff together. There is so much you can do now with the new camera technology and digital technology, that I think it is becoming a photography based thing for me.
People today can make feature films with one of these (showing his iPhone). They didn’t exist in 2000. We had to go get a big expensive 35mm Panavision system and film stock. The business was completely different back then. Now, anyone can make a film on their iPhone and get it in Competition in Sundance and win awards. It’s happened. If you can afford an iPhone you can make a feature film. I don’t know if it’s going to be any good, but you can try.
Q. A lot has been said about your influences in the film and especially about Harvey and Watership Down.
I still haven’t seen Harvey! Mainly because everyone keeps asking me about it, and now I feel this weird aversion to watching it. There is a thematic influence from Watership Down, though. In the director’s cut obviously Drew Barrymore introduces the book into the narrative and we see a clip of the movie on the TV screen in the classroom. But really, I knew there was this Halloween costume involved. This was a logic thing. There was a Halloween costume and for some reason I felt it’s going to be a rabbit. I don’t know why. These things sometimes just appear. I can’t explain any other reason why.
Q. What are you working on at the moment and what can we see coming next from you on the big screen?
I have been working on a lot of stuff and hopefully next year we will see something concrete coming out. It is going to be something brand new, you haven’t heard of before. A lot of stars have to align for any film to be made and especially in those films, which are very challenging and very ambitious and they cost a certain amount of money. You spend so much time on something that you’ve got to get it right and sometimes it takes a lot longer than you thought.
DONNIE DARKO 15th Anniversary 4K Restoration will screen at the BFI from 17th December and in cinemas nationwide from 23rd December. BFI Tickets are on sale now: http://bit.ly/2eww8r3