Fifteen years after the film fizzled in cinemas, we speak to actor James Duval – who plays Frank – to discuss his role as a demon bunny that continues to smile dementedly from pop culture’s shadows
You all know the face – this demonic, imaginary bunny is now a regular fixture in Halloween celebrations. The costume is based on Frank, the anti-hero from 2001 teen sci-fi drama Donnie Darko. Typically, the skull-faced mask shields the wearer’s face with Frank’s deranged smile and hollow white eyes. You can buy a version of it here. It’s terrifying, but equally amusing, that a nightmare-inducing mask has become emblematic of such a striking social commentary on American society.
There was much pulled from the wreckage of Donnie Darko, a box office flop that battled its way out of obscurity and into the bleeding hearts of angsty suburban teens and smart adults the world over. On a budget of $4.5 million, it made back only $1.2 million. It received a “thumbs down” from veteran critic Roger Ebert. The film did everything wrong: it opens with a politically-charged family dinner that strangely echoes the political turmoil we find ourselves in now; it attempted to tackle a time-warp storyline that was impossible – even by the director’s own admission – to coherently explain in 90 minutes; and the story hinged on the premise of a jet turbine falling from the sky, meaning that when it debuted scarcely a month after 9/11, the Arabic-style font used for the film’s title had to be replaced with the anodyne choice of Trajan font on its poster.
What the film did so, so right overshadowed its faults. Director Richard Kelly didn’t let anybody pervert his vision. “I thought, ‘I’m going to write exactly the movie I want to see.’ It was all about, ‘If no one else likes it, fuck ’em,’” he explained in the book The Mind of the Modern Moviemaker. What he kept intact became a blunt cross-section of suburban America, dismantling generic teen problems (girls, parents) while weaving larger philosophical questions into a black comedy. Donnie Darko is hilarious. How genius to ferry intangible theories about life and its meaning through gallows humour.
Take, for example, this memorable exchange between Donnie and Frank.
Donnie: Why are you wearing that stupid bunny suit?
Frank: Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?
Frank has often been interpreted as a spiritual guide of sorts. He is telling Donnie that nature is divine. Another interpretation would be that we are not all that we appear. It’s similar to an exchange Donnie has when he meets Gretchen (Jena Malone). She makes fun of the name “Donnie Darko”, saying it sounds like a superhero name, to which he replies, “What makes you think I’m not?” Besides the onion-layered philosophical mumbo jumbo, Frank is literally “just my character’s Halloween costume,” says actor James Duval, who plays Frank in the film. “What I am in true essence is Donnie’s sister’s boyfriend, and we are linked because he is the manipulated living and I’m the manipulated dead – that becomes our link in the alternate universe.”
Whether simply a costume or philosophical signpost, this menacing human bunny struck a nerve with viewers. Maybe he worked because emo was still a subculture on the up; maybe his representation of an outsider physically, mentally and emotionally was what made Frank so intensely relatable.
For Duval, the man behind the mask, it didn’t sink in until years later that his character had become symbolic in virtually every corner of counterculture. It was his character’s mask on every poster, after all. Duval was exiting a Staples office supply store in Los Angeles in 2004 when someone first recognised him.
“I was walking out and this guy walked by me,” says Duval, now 44. “He gave me this kind of wicked smile and he just went: ‘Fraaaank’. I was like, ‘Excuse me?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, you’re Frank. I just saw Donnie Darko – it’s a great movie.’ I thought, well that’s fantastic, thank you… You and the other 50 people that saw that. (laughs) This was maybe three years after the movie came out, and that was my first experience getting recognised. Then people started to respond to the film, so yeah, it did take a little while but it definitely grew exponentially from there.”
Donnie Darko was originally meant to star Jason Schwartzman, the name on the lips of casting directors all over Hollywood after a brilliant performance in Wes Anderson’s 1998 hit Rushmore. He was attached to the script as Donnie. Although he’d already enjoyed success as the breakout star of Gregg Araki’s teen apocalypse trilogy, James Duval’s main motivation to audition for the role of Frank was to work with Schwartzman. “It was like, ‘God, I have to work with this kid.’” Even though his character would be wearing a mask, the script described Frank as being over six feet tall and blonde. Despite not matching the physical criteria, he auditioned anyway and scored the role. Next, Schwartzman dropped out due to scheduling conflicts. “I was crestfallen, absolutely,” says Duval, “and I have still never met him, but that’s whom I have to thank in a very bizarre way, because that’s how I ended up getting involved with the project.”
“I remember finishing the first scene and taking the mask off and just looking at him and saying, ‘You are Donnie Darko. You’re creeping me out Jake’” – James Duval
Mara Wilson, the child actor who starred in Matilda, was up for the role of the youngest Darko, Samantha, but “I had done a lot of kids’ movies and my dad wasn’t sure he wanted my first line in a movie to be ‘fuck-ass’,” Wilson told me on Twitter. It didn’t just scare her off, the film was so difficult to grasp that hardly anyone would touch it. Director Richard Kelly found funding only after meeting with Drew Barrymore on the set of Charlie’s Angels. She was taken with the idea and poured money into the film. The deal they struck allowed Barrymore to play the role of Donnie’s English teacher, Miss Pomeroy.
Schwartzman was replaced with a young actor who had a breakout role in 1999’s October Sky: Jake Gyllenhaal. “The very first day on set with Jake was magical,” recalls Duval. The first scene they shot together was a face-off on the golf course, where Frank tells a possessed-looking Donnie when the world will end. “He was creeping me out! He had this otherworldly intensity about him. I remember finishing the first scene and taking the mask off and just looking at him and saying, ‘You are Donnie Darko. You’re creeping me out Jake.’”
Seeing Frank’s mask for the first time sparked a similar reaction in Duval. “I was completely taken aback. My reaction would be the reaction that most people thought when they first saw the mask. It opened up a whole different world for me of what Frank was at that moment when I saw the mask.” Frank was actually inspired by Richard Kelly’s love of the Richard James novel Watership Down, about a group of rabbits in search of a home. It was even name-checked in the movie. In Donnie’s English class, Miss Pomeroy discusses Watership Down with the class. It prompts Donnie to go on a relentless tirade weighing the value of human lives against animal lives. “Watership Down is such an integral part of the storyline for Donnie Darko,” says Duval. “It’s this manifestation of the bunny who actually comes from something that everybody knows.”
To get the soft, tantalizing whisper of Frank, Duval had to record all of his dialogue in a studio. When delivering his lines on set, he would have to yell through the mask, which muffled his voice. “I’m screaming through the mask and half of it you can’t really understand,” he says. “So you’ve got to give Jake a lot of credit for knowing what I’m saying without being able to hear me clearly.” He would first record a line in a whisper, then re-record the same line in a gentle voice. Both recordings were then split into five different voice tracks that were layered to achieve this raspy vocal sandwich.
The total package came together with the haunting music. Donnie Darko’s acerbic wit was underscored by an unforgettable 80s soundtrack. “I’m like, ‘Rich, you got Echo and the Bunnymen and you have Tears for Fears and you have The Church – that’s everything I listened to in high school, everything! You just captured my high school years!’” Duval remembers. Plus, Gary Jules’ somnambulant cover of “Mad World” defined an entire generation after the film came out, when its cult following spurred it to #1 in the UK in 2003, making it – for better or worse – unavoidable. The lyrics of “Mad World” were furiously scribbled over middle school notebooks, tattooed on lower backs, and copy-pasted in MySpace bios alongside quirky DeviantArt interpretations of Donnie Darko’s most visceral character: Frank.
Fifteen years later, and despite marginal screen time, most of which is spent in a bunny suit, Duval still gets asked about his role as Frank. How does he feel being so well-known for a role where we hardly see his face? “It’s an honour,” he says. “I’m so absolutely flattered beyond belief that anything that I’ve done is a part of something like Donnie Darko.” Although as you can imagine, the role didn’t exactly take it out of him. “I don’t know how to say this, (but it was) probably one of the easiest jobs I’ve ever had in a sense,” he adds, laughing. “I would put the suit on, show up on my mark, turn my head to the left, look straight, turn my head to the right, look straight, look up, look straight…”
“I don’t know how to say this, (but it was) probably one of the easiest jobs I’ve ever had. I would put the suit on, show up on my mark, turn my head to the left, look straight, turn my head to the right, look straight…” – James Duval
At the heart of this film, Donnie Darko is just about fucked up adolescents trying to make sense of who they are and how they fit in society. More T-shirt ready quips like “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion!” are offset by deeper self-exploration, such as when Donnie is asked by his therapist whether or not he feels alone. He answers, “Oh, I don’t know. I mean, I’d like to believe I’m not, but I just... I’ve just never seen any proof, so I... I just don’t debate it anymore, you know? It’s like I could spend my whole life debating it over and over again, weighing the pros and cons. And in the end, I still wouldn't have any proof. So I just... I just don’t debate it anymore. It’s absurd.”
The social commentary is stirred together with humour and a near-impenetrable time travel plot. Still, the more you watch it, the more you see. Only one theory remains debunked. Pay close attention to when Elizabeth Darko gets dropped off at home in the beginning of the film. It’s Frank, her boyfriend, who drops her off. As he pulls away, the jet engine crushes Donnie’s bedroom. “I always loved the idea, which is not confirmed because I’ve never tried to confirm it, but I love the idea – did Frank actually see the engine dropping?” asks Duval.
What remains endlessly fascinating about Donnie Darko is how it is so open to interpretation. If, once the credits roll, you don’t “get” it, you’re not alone. Jake Gyllenhaal and Seth Rogen (who makes his film debut as one of the class bullies) allegedly agreed at the film’s wrap party that they had no idea what it was about. In one interview Richard Kelly gave, he revealed that the real message behind the film was that the public school system sucks and does damage to kids. “That’s another reason I love him,” says Duval, laughing, “Richard’s a champion for our cause.”
So how does Frank – the film’s most enigmatic, endurable character who has been idolised both as a faceless outlier and a Halloween costume – interpret Donnie Darko’s underlying message? “I have always felt that Donnie Darko was a love story,” Duval admits. “I can’t imagine that Donnie knew what was happening to him until it was over, and all that he knew at the end was that he was okay with it,” says Duval. “If you could give your life to the ones you love, to save the universe, wouldn’t you?”