Mournful time-travel fantasy and heady nostalgia trip, Donnie Darko may be the first movie to fully simulate the carnivalesque horror of growing up in the 1980s—a decade it represents as an unsolvable Rubik’s cube of Reaganite spectacle, Spielbergian might, free-enterprise bulimia, nuclear-winter paranoia, New Age narcissism, and New Romantic poses. Writer-director Richard Kelly, a 26-year-old first-timer, etches this landscape with the morbid precision and rueful humor of a battle-scarred veteran. “I’ve been mocked many times for waxing nostalgic about the late ’80s,” says Kelly. “I have very fond memories but I recognize how screwed up things were. We’ve seen stories of suburban dysfunction before—the idea was to do it this time as science fiction, and setting it in 1988, with the presidential election looming, I thought would evoke the grand finale of the dysfunction of the ’80s.”
The film’s brooding eponymous protagonist (whom Kelly has described as Holden Caulfield as resurrected by Philip K. Dick) was given a superhero-worthy moniker because “I wanted to communicate the idea that this is a fantasy, a fable, right up front. But it’s an intense one—a comic-book archetype of a kid who loses it.” Kelly, who grew up in an affluent Virginia suburb much like the one depicted in Donnie Darko, says the film is “in no way purely autobiographical—I had a very normal, quiet upbringing,” but adds: “I think it’s important to explore why a privileged young kid can come to feel that the world should be torn apart.”
Donnie Darko takes place in the month leading up to the Bush-Dukakis contest, a time Kelly remembers vividly. “I was in eighth grade and the student body voted in a mock election. It was a really conservative community, 90 percent Republican.” He hastens to add that he doesn’t define his politics “as being one way or the other,” and when pressed, confesses: “I’m really embarrassed to say, I didn’t vote in the mock election and I have yet to vote in a real election.”
If ’80s politics hover vaguely and uneasily over Donnie Darko, the era’s popular culture is proudly foregrounded. Kelly recites the holy trinity that crystallized his love for movies: “E.T., Back to the Future, Aliens. Spielberg, Zemeckis, Cameron: They were the ones who made me want to sneak out of the house and into R-rated films. I remember going to see Platoon not even being aware of what the Vietnam War was.” Kelly discovered world cinema later, while attending USC film school, but he was an auteurist from an early age. “I remember seeing the video for ‘Janie’s Got a Gun,’ calling up MTV and asking who directed it, and finding out that it was David Fincher. And I was like, that guy’s gonna be huge.”
One of the only ’80s period pieces to resist a comedy-of-embarrassment soundtrack, Donnie Darko seems to have been scored to a dusty, cherished mix tape. The movie opens with the melancholic swoon of Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” and closes with a misty cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” (and its aptly grandiose, positively Freudian refrain, “The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had”). “I actually cut out some of the kitschier songs,” says Kelly (who, for better or worse, found room for Duran Duran’s “Notorious”). “We wanted to pay respect to the music of the ’80s and treat it lovingly.”
Kelly says the major influence on Donnie Darko was a similarly despairing time-travel odyssey, 12 Monkeys, Terry Gilliam’s stricken extrapolation of Chris Marker’s cine-poem La Jetée. “I love both films, but 12 Monkeys floored me—the sense of fate and inevitability, the relativity of time and memory.” A book called The Philosophy of Time Travel surfaces in Donnie Darko, and Kelly has actually written about 10 chapters’ worth “explaining the entire movie” and posted them on the film’s official (and conspicuously hard-to-navigate) Web site.
This self-described “total sci-fi geek” even uses metaphysics to clarify Donnie’s condition, diagnosed in the film as borderline schizophrenia. “There’s a break in the space-time continuum, and a kid was exposed to cosmic forces that are clearly going to screw with his head. I don’t look at this as a pure representation of mental illness.” Which doesn’t make the film’s depiction of teen sorrow any less bleak or serious. “We weren’t going to back down from presenting the pain that I know to be true for a lot of people,” says Kelly, who stresses he’s not necessarily speaking from firsthand experience (“never in therapy, never on medication”). “And that’s when a lot of that overprescription started—people being diagnosed with disorders when there was probably nothing there, just confusion.”
Donnie Darko reserves most of its contempt for quick-fix New Age babble, and its insidious flipsides of self-love and self-blame; its nominal villain is an unctuous motivational speaker, whose biggest fan is Donnie’s gym teacher. “The only truly autobiographical part is the fight Donnie has with his teacher, when she’s talking about the fear and love lifeline,” says Kelly. “That actually happened, but I never mouthed off the way Donnie did. I guess you can always rewrite history. Not that I’m saying that’s how anyone should talk to their teachers.” Kelly’s reading of the film, in fact, is anything but nihilist. “It’s a cautionary tale of what can happen when you rebel against the system—do it responsibly or you will pay the price.”
By his own admission, Kelly hasn’t had much cause for rebellion so far. He wrote the script for Donnie Darko upon graduation in 1997, and not long after it “got passed up the food chain at CAA. They asked if I wanted to sign. I held out my finger and said, ‘I’ll sign in blood right now.’ ” He still had a few hoops to jump through. “People dismissed the script as an unproducible writing sample, and they were very skeptical about me directing anyway.” The financing fell into place only after Rushmore‘s Jason Schwartzman signed on for the lead; Drew Barrymore soon accepted a supporting role and executive-producer duties. (Schwartzman later dropped out due to a scheduling conflict, and was replaced by Jake Gyllenhaal.)
Donnie Darko was shot in 28 days (a period exactly matching the film’s doomsday countdown) and for $4.5 million, a modest sum given the cast and special effects. “I’m officially out of favors,” says Kelly. “I owe people hard labor. It was on the Internet somewhere that it cost $10 million and I got really pissed. If it had, I would’ve lost like five pounds, and not 15.” Pre-festival word of mouth ensured a large distributor presence at Donnie Darko‘s Sundance premiere (on the eve of the Bush II inauguration); almost all were scared off by the strange combination of gloom and glitz. (It was eventually bought by Newmarket, who already have the year’s biggest indie hit with Memento.) “If you don’t have a deal before the festival’s over, the press can be tough,” Kelly says. “You find yourself charted on some stupid buzz-o-meter, like in ‘All the hype going in!’ and then because it didn’t sell right away, ‘Things got darko, really darko.’ It was so lame.”
Kelly says he’s a “pretty obsessive writer—I kinda have my next four or five movies already lined up.” Science-fiction themes will probably recur, and comedy is likely to be a focus: “I don’t always want to be like the dark guy.” He concedes that he has yet to process the whirlwind of the last four years. “You have no career and you start writing a script that pushes every envelope you can think of pushing. Then you somehow get Drew Barrymore to be in the film, and you get to direct it . . . it’s crazy.”
Click here to read J. Hoberman’s review of Donnie Darko.