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Past Article

The Resurrection of Donnie Darko
By Sean Axmaker
July 16, 2004 - 11:48 AM PDT

"Karma and destiny and sacrifice."

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. Or The Swan. Have you seen The Swan, a new reality show?

MM: Oh, yes I did, I saw it one night up in Vancouver. I was absolutely horrified.

RK: It is the biggest sign of the apocalypse we have seen so far.

MM: We are horrified. Put that down: "We are horrified."

RK: They rebuild them on the inside as well as the outside with a life coach, but once they rebuild them, they say, "Now we're going to put you in a beauty contest."

JM: That's so scary. That's why I don't have a television. I haven't had one since I was sixteen.

RK: You look at Terry Gilliam's Brazil. It was all about terrorism, bombs exploding, and then plastic surgery. We're living Brazil; we have arrived.

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 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: How did you decide on Seattle for the relaunch of the film?

RK: You have to give a lot of credit to Bob Berney, who is a wizard of distribution. He's a real visionary guy when it comes to putting a movie out there. They want to see if the film will play in the suburbs, if it will play beyond Laemmle. Originally it was thought that this was just a Laemmle's movie. It was determined by a select group of people after Sundance that teenagers aren't going to get it.

JM: Right, they don't have rich and complex emotional lives.

RK: But it's like Super Size Me. They're shoving fast food at us. It's like: You want fast food, it's what you like, it's what you're going to get, and we're going to get rich off of it. But give a kid a nutritional, viable optional and maybe they'll like that, too.

MM: When this film first came out, my daughter was in the eighth grade, and there were seventh and eighth graders who went to see it in the movie theater who went nuts over it and would stop me in the hallway and talk to me about the movie. They got it completely. It was my contemporaries who didn't get it, and I just went, "Oh, go away." The kids get it; it's their feature.

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.

SA: We're out of time, so I'll toss out the last question: Dukakis or Bush?

[all laugh]

JM: Dukakis.

RK: Dukakis.

MM: Dukakis, without a doubt. You don't have to ask me. That was a good question.

back to past articles >>>

"Destruction breeds creation."
"Karma and destiny and sacrifice."

back to past articles


Sean Axmaker
A film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a DVD columnist for the Internet Movie Database, Sean Axmaker is also a frequent contributor to MSN Entertainment, Amazing Stories, Asian Cult Cinema, Greencine and His reviews and essays are featured in the recently released Scarecrow Movie Guide.

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