How Twisted Superhero Movie ‘Donnie Darko’ Became a Cult Classic

Chris Tilly

Donnie Darko recently received a 4k restoration from Arrow Video, the cult classic hitting shelves via special edition Blu-ray and DVD. To celebrate the release, we got the chance to chat with writer-director Richard Kelly about the movie. Which he’s already exclusively revealed to Fandom might get a sequel.

Below, we speak to him about the film’s superhero roots, the pain of cutting material for the ‘Theatrical Cut’, and the lack of a certain Pet Shop Boys’ song in the ‘Director’s Cut’. We also get an update on his talking cow movie Bessie and the lowdown on Kelly being fired from Shia LaBeouf film Holes.

Donnie the Superhero

Fandom: You alluded to this in your ‘Director’s Cut’ commentary with Kevin Smith a few years back, but I want to get your take on it now – is Donnie Darko a superhero movie?

Richard Kelly: I think that’s a valid interpretation if you want to see it that way. I think the ‘Director’s Cut’ probably has a bit more the idea of him clearly having some abilities that are supernatural… There’s a line of dialogue that clearly alludes to that. So, sure – yeah.

Fandom: Do you know who is observing and instructing Donnie?

Kelly: I think that I have my theories about what it all means, but I think that the film is intentionally leaving that question up for debate. I think that there are a lot of theories and ultimately that question I leave up to the viewer to answer.

Fandom: Did you have superheroes in mind when naming him?

Kelly: Yeah, I definitely think the name was clearly designed to have a bit of that alliteration. That slightly absurd alliteration. The name is definitely designed with that intent. And, again, there’s a line of dialogue that Jena Malone has in the film I believe that even alludes to it.

Fandom: The film was made before superhero movies dominated the celluloid landscape – do you think the film would be more of a success if released now, as sort of an alternative take on what Marvel and DC are doing?

Kelly: I think the film continues to succeed beyond my wildest dreams and I’m very grateful for that. I think that the film just seems to connect with people and it continues to connect with younger generations, and I do believe there is some of that DNA in the film that probably speaks to the wish fulfillment of superhero stories. Or the idea of a character who has supernatural abilities that is very intriguing to people. That fantasy.

15 Years On

Jake Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone in Donnie Darko.

Fandom: The film wasn’t a hit in cinemas originally, but do you think in some perverse way that’s helped it become the success it is today?

Kelly: I think it gave people the chance to feel like they were discovering a hidden treasure, and it gave people a chance to spread the word. And we had a lot of word-of-mouth. Maybe that was just the best way for this film to find its way. I know that these kinds of movies take time to marinate, and initially people were just not ready to kind of dig into this narrative. The timing was all off. These kinds of films don’t necessarily play well at festivals. And they don’t initially connect. They just need time. Every movie needs to stand the test of time, for better or for worse, right? Time was on our side, luckily. So I guess it just had to be this way. This was the path it was meant to take.

Fandom: You screened the film in London several times at the end of last year – what was it like watching the film with an audience 15 years on?

Kelly: I’m able to look back at it with a really healthy sense of accomplishment, I guess. I am grateful we got to restore the image quality and clean things up because it really needed it – the film wasn’t properly transferred originally. So, it was a great experience. And getting to watch it in London with audiences is always a pleasure because they are really just committed to the art of cinema and they appreciate it, and it was really the audiences in London that helped resurrect this film from the dead 15 years ago.

Fandom: You released a ‘Theatrical Cut’ and a ‘Director’s Cut’ – are you done with the film today or is there anything else you’d like to change?

Kelly: There’s always stuff that I wish that I could have done. There’s a lot more visual effects and practical effects that I had always wanted to do back when we made the film and it was just too expensive. There’s some bigger things that I had always wanted to include in the film but again, we never had the budget to pull it all off. I always have a pretty big vision. I’ve never gotten to make a film where I get to have all the visual effects tools that I feel like I need. But that’s a problem that most filmmakers share. Unless you are blessed with a huge budget. So, hopefully one day I’ll get there. We’ll see.

Theatrical v Director’s Cut

The Arrow release of Donnie Darko.

Fandom: Which version of the film would you recommend to Donnie virgins?

Kelly: I think they can watch both versions. I’m proud of both versions. I think that the ‘Theatrical Cut’ is probably the best place to start, and if they want more information and they want to dig deeper into the time travel book, the ‘Director’s Cut’ is obviously much longer and more novelistic, and it’s got a lot more information. The cuts aren’t meant to compete with each other – they’re meant to be companions.

Fandom: What was the hardest stuff to lose from the ‘Theatrical Cut’ first time around?

Kelly: Well, we had to drop some of the music out because we couldn’t afford it. I think the scene with Donnie and his dad was probably the toughest to cut – in the backyard, when he’s getting advice from his father. Drew Barrymore and her interaction with the students – which I felt was very charming. Again, a lot of this stuff is a bit more indulgent. It’s just a longer, more elaborate version of the story. But again, I’m proud of both versions and I stand by both versions. I’m probably not satisfied with either version, really. But again, we just did the best we could with what we had.

Fandom: In the ‘Director’s Cut’ you replaced Echo and the Bunnymen’s ‘The Killing Moon’ with INXS’s ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ – which was in the original script. But you didn’t replace Duran Duran’s ‘Notorious’ with The Pet Shop Boys’ ‘West End Girls’ in the Sparkle Motion dance number. Why was that?

Kelly: Yeah, we actually choreographed and shot the scene to The Pet Shop Boys. I think if you were to find the dailies to that sequence you would actually hear the song played in the auditorium. I think we probably just realised that it was going to be too expensive – it was a financial issue. The song was incredibly expensive compared to the other one for whatever reason, and we just decided it wasn’t worth it.

Past and Future Projects

Holes - NOT written by Richard Kelly.

Fandom: I know you wrote an early script for the Shia LaBeouf movie Holes. And that maybe it was a bit too dark for a kid’s film.

Kelly: I was extremely naïve and wrote this very radical adaptation of the book that was not what they were looking for. I was this really naïve young screenwriter who thought that I could convince people that my version was the way to go. It clearly wasn’t what they wanted but I still think it’s a cool script and I’m proud of it. It was probably very irresponsible of me to make all those changes, because it wasn’t what the producers wanted.

Fandom: Am I right in thinking it was post-apocalyptic?

Kelly: My script was very much post-apocalyptic. I think, from what I remember in the children’s book, it sort of just doesn’t say. The problem I had in adapting it is that I need a logical explanation for why and how everything in a story is happening. I feel like I remember in that book – it’s a young adult book, very whimsical – and it just sort of had a bunch of kids digging in a desert camp. And I was like: ‘Why is this happening? Why would they allow this?’ A kid gets sent to the camp for, like, stealing a shoe or a pair of shoes or something. It doesn’t really make sense – why would they send someone to a prison camp in the sweltering desert? It was a very whimsical children’s story and I decided to make some radical changes to it. And again, it was me being irresponsible and I probably shouldn’t have taken the job. So I just decided to do my own thing and then I got fired! I take full responsibility. I didn’t even pursue any kind of writing credit on the finished movie – even though I was the first writer – because I knew it wouldn’t be fair. I didn’t want to try and punish the other screenwriters in any way.

Fandom: And what about Bessie, your script about a talking cow?

Kelly: Again, it’s one of the many scripts that I have in the pipeline. I’ve got a lot of scripts. And we hope to make all of them one day – we really do. It’s just that they’re expensive – they cost a lot of money. When I don’t have a theatrical hit – if I had a movie that grossed $100m in theatres I could make all these movies in succession – I could make one each year. But they just take time. Bessie is very expensive, and it has a giant upright walking humanoid cow, and it has a lot of big action set-pieces, and it’s big and it’s expensive. So, I think one day we’ll get there – I certainly hope so. I would love to make that film.

Fandom: Finally, can I ask about your personal Fandom; who and what inspired you growing up?

Kelly: I remember reading a lot of Stephen King and feeling his influence in a huge way on my life. I remember seeing Twin Peaks as a kid on television and feeling that my perception had been changed by the artistry and the mood and the narrative of that show. That changed my whole point-of-view. And then watching films by Spielberg and James Cameron and John Hughes and Robert Zemeckis. All their films, growing up in the 1980s, in my childhood. They inspired me in a huge way.

The 4k restoration of Donnie Darko is out now.

Chris Tilly
FANDOM Managing Editor in the UK. At this point my life is a combination of 1980s horror movies, Crystal Palace football matches, and episodes of I'm Alan Partridge. The first series. When he was in the travel tavern. Not the one after.
Become a
Pop culture fans! Write what you love and have your work seen by millions.