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Six unexpected inspirations behind cult classic Donnie Darko

As a newly restored version of the cult film arrives in UK cinemas, writer and director Richard Kelly reveals some of the weird and wonderful stories behind its realisation

American director Richard Kelly was a 23-year-old film student in his final year of college when he began writing Donnie Darko, the now-cult tale of a troubled teen in suburban Virginia, who finds himself unravelling the mysteries of the universe – aided and instructed by a giant bunny named Frank – and with them the power to reverse destiny. Released shortly after 9/11, the film, which had received a backing of $4.5m when Drew Barrymore joined its cast, barely made $1million at the US box office. But within a year, the offbeat psychological drama, with its outsider protagonist (played to perfection by a young Jake Gyllenhaal), sardonic critique of Reagan’s America and existential overtones, had garnered a devout following – one that has continued to burgeon ever since.

“The story and everything that inspired it is very personal,” says Kelly on the phone from LA. “I don’t know how to write something that isn’t, although I’d probably be a lot more successful if I did!” The first seed of an idea was planted by a local news story he’d read about, he explains, whereby a large piece of ice fell from the wing of a jet plane into a teenager’s bedroom. (“He wasn’t in there at the time,” he adds hastily, pre-empting the obvious question.) The character of Donnie, however, was “an extrapolation of my memory of myself in certain ways,” the director continues. “The biggest inspiration for the film was just 23 years of life, of growing up, and there were various moments from my adolescence that I carried forward into the script in different ways.” Here, as a brilliantly restored version of the film arrives in UK cinemas, 15 years after its original release, we catch up with Kelly to discover just what these were – from the old lady who inspired Grandma Death to the unexpected influence of American football on one of the movie’s most trippy scenes.


“Grandma Death was a real person, although she didn’t write a time travel book! There was an elderly woman in our neighbourhood who would stand at the edge of the road and wave at cars and open and close her mailbox constantly. My older brother and his friend nicknamed her Grandma Death and then I think they might have actually stolen her mailbox – that sounds horrible! But people were really worried that she was going to get hit by a car. There was another incident, also, when my dad had just bought my very first car, a pickup truck: we were driving home on the very same road where Grandma Death lived and instead of Grandma Death this time, a homeless guy was standing in the middle of the road. I didn’t see him until the very last moment and then I swerved and barely missed hitting him by inches, poor man! So those two experiences kind of came together in the film.”


“I had a gym teacher in high school, kind of like Kitty Farmer in the film, who taught us a self-help curriculum based on dividing human motivation into a love and fear lifeline. They were trying to make us choose whether our decisions were based on love or fear, and I got in an argument with the teacher about it. I wasn’t as confrontational as Donnie was in the movie but I remember saying that the system was ridiculous because it was so overly simplistic and reductive.”


“All my English teachers growing up, from middle school into high school, were very influential men and women, and all of the literature that they chose was very informative. One teacher taught us Watership Down, another one taught the short Graham Greene story [that features in the film], and then we read a lot of the existentialist classics – Dostoyevsky, Kafka’s Metamorphosis – all of which really made an impact on me. It’s hard to escape high school, you keep reliving it for the rest of your life and a lot of my films end up having these literary references within them: in The Box Cameron Diaz plays an English teacher who’s teaching her students Sartre. Some might find the books I reference to be very pedestrian or very obvious [laughs] but Hollywood’s a lot like high school so I keep going back to that formative education.”


“When they would broadcast the NFL – American football – on CBS, which is a big channel in the United States, they used to do something called ‘CBS chalkboard’ where the sportscasters would replay clips from a game and draw lines on the screen to show where the players were going to move – to trace their routes through time. While I was watching them do this, I remember thinking, what if you could see that happen in real time as an idea of predestination, of seeing where people were going to go before they went there? So that’s why you see the Redskins football happening on the TV screen during that scene when the intention energy beams appear.”


“I have very specific visual ideas and demands – I tend to know exactly what I want – and a lot of it comes out of location scouting. For Donnie Darko I’d bring a video and a still camera along on every location and I’d just take hundreds of photographs and then fill out the look I wanted based mainly on these location shots. Once we realised we were going to be shooting the film in Los Angeles, it became a mission to recreate a fantasia of a Virginia suburb in the greater Los Angeles area, which was kind of perfect in a way because it had this surreal quality of not being a true representation; it’s my memory of Virginia filtered through the cinematic prism of California. We wanted to find neighbourhoods and environments that could have been on the East Coast; we were very careful about avoiding palm trees and so on. It was meant to have this mystical, fairytale-like quality; to be a suburban world nestled in this idyllic green landscape of mountains and marine layer. I always manufacture the look of my films to be their own worlds.”


“I’m not sure why I specifically focussed on those two directors in my early interviews but I did; they’re two of my favourites but there are many other cinematic influences in the film – Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis and James Cameron. I think I just looked at Gilliam and Weir as being filmmakers who had this incredibly authoritative and specific voice. I remember being very moved and impressed with Peter Weir’s ability to shapeshift from genre to genre and to tell all different kinds of stories, set in different eras and communities – he could do Dead Poets Society then he could go and make Witness or The Fearless. And then with Terry Gilliam, I just saw this absolutely brilliant imagination and this visual design that was so unique. He could build entire universes that felt so otherworldly. They are very different directors but they both had this incredible range in their ability to create their own worlds and to be so evocative. I guess I was trying to find the common ground between them in a way as I worked out my own path as a filmmaker.”

Donnie Darko will screen at the BFI from December 17 and in cinemas nationwide from December 23, including very special Director Q&A in London on December 19. BFI tickets are on sale now.