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's 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 is 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. You look at Stephen Hawking and his astonishing mind, and how he has been physically afflicted. You wonder, is there a connection there? 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. With that placebo scene with Katherine Ross, she knows he's on to something, and that's why she's taking this risk with her reputation. For a therapist to intentionally mislead him like that is a daring risk, but had he really been on medication, we wouldn't have survived the tangent universe. He wouldn't have been able to send that engine back to repair the wormhole. 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.
JM: Is it evolution instead of a disability.
RK: Ultimately, we'll never really know, but with art and science and to a lesser extent religion, we can try to find an answer as opposed to simply dividing people. We can hopefully bring them together.
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...]