Donnie Darko writer director Richard Kelly has mixed feelings about the term “cult film”.
“It’s a murky definition but I am happy with it,” he admits to loaded, speaking as the film returns to the cinemas 15 years on from it’s original release with a newly restored 4K version.
“I would love for people to, at some point, refer to my work as being mainstream because that would mean I was more successful but I am very happy for people to say it is a cult film because that means there are a passionate group of individuals behind it.”
For now, though, Kelly is more concerned about the re-release.
“I hope that the film holds up,” he admits. “Over the past six months we’ve been meticulously restoring the images, doing some visual enhancements. I’m very pleased with how it looks. As for how the story holds up? I guess that’s for others to decide. I can’t look at it objectively.”
Largely overlooked at cinemas upon its initial limited release, as with the Shawshank Redemption’s rebirth on VHS, Donnie Darko’s success stemmed from a second life on DVD, which was the fast-emerging video format of the time.
For a mind-bending movie about inter-dimensional time travel, it proved a match made in heaven, allowing the viewer to pause, rewind and view repeatedly, spotting the many subtle nods and easter eggs Kelly left littered along the way.
Even today, rewatching the restored version on the big screen provides plenty of pausable moments – not least when you realise that that is indeed a pre-fame Seth Rogen as school bully Ricky Danforth, in what was his first film role.
Kelly happily admits the casting of Rogen was part luck and part excellent work by casting director Joseph Middleton.
“I grew up with Tears for Fears.”
“Seth was coming off Freaks and Geeks [which had been cancelled] and came in for an audition and immediately we thought he was incredible. We were very blessed with a lot of emerging young talent.”
Joined by Jena Malone, as well as Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal, Kelly’s decision to, as he puts it, “make a movie that was predominantly about teenagers, using actual teenagers” helped him uncover a raft of talent that remains at the forefront of Hollywood even today.
“Our casting director was great at identifying young emerging talent which was important because we had a lot of teenagers to cast in this movie,” he admits.
He enjoyed an especially close working relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal, with Kelly recalling how one joke resulted in an early example of “fake news” in the Donnie Darko universe – that Vince Vaughn had been considered for the titular role.
“When we were recording the director’s commentary, Jake and I were teasing each other,” he recalls.
“At some point the subject came up of the other actors I could have cast as Donnie. I was teasing him about other actors I might have met with that he didn’t know about so started rattling off names of older, more famous actors to try and make him feel inadequate.”
“I started listing off actors – Vince Vaughn, Mark Wahlberg – who were way into their 30s and not very appropriate to play 16 year olds. But I was doing it in such a dead pan way that someone on the internet picked up on it and ran with it,” he laughs.
Watching the restored version of Donnie Darko, it’s not just the images on screen and script that feel as fresh today there’s also the film’s soundtrack – something that was fundamental to its success and enduring popularity.
With songs from the likes of Tears for Fears, Echo and The Bunnymen and Joy Division all featuring, Kelly describes it as a “celebration of British music” with a focus on one group in particular.
“I grew up with Tears for Fears, I loved them they were one of my favourite bands. To get the go-ahead to include the song Head over Heels in the movie was amazing,” he said.
Featured during an iconic, single-shot sequence as Donnie arrives at school, for Kelly, that specific shot was a dream come true.
“I have never seen S.Darko. That was a horrifying experience that they even made it”
“The scene with Head over Heels was designed specifically with that song in mind. It was choreographed in the script.”
But the best was yet to come when the music supervisor Mike Andrews approached him with a soundtrack idea for one of the film’s final montages.
“When Mike had the idea with Gary Jules to cover Mad World that was just a wonderful bonus and surprise that came into the film in post production,” Kelly said.
What he could never have predicted, however, was that the song would go on to top the charts in the UK at Christmas, following a sustained campaign of support from BBC Radio One DJ Scott Mills.
“It was a huge surprise. I never imagined the song would take off like that. Mostly because the film had such a limited release. For a song from an indie film to take off like that, it was just a huge shock.”
Back in cinemas with Donnie Darko and with no confirmed projects on the horizon despite some fine work on films like Domino, Southland Tales and The Box, Kelly appears coy on the prospect of returning to the characters – especially after the experience of S. Darko – the largely overlooked straight-to-dvd follow-up that featured some of characters he created.
“I have never seen S.Darko. That was a horrifying experience that they even made it. I didn’t authorise it. I had no legal recourse to prevent them from making it.”
“I can’t comment on anything in the future but I hope to be in control of my own intellectual property from this point forward.”
DONNIE DARKO 15th Anniversary 4K Restoration will screen at the BFI now and in cinemas nationwide from 23rd December. BFI Tickets are on sale now.
Loaded staff writer Jack Beresford has produced content for Lad Bible, Axonn Media and a variety of online sports and news media outlets.