Interview: Richard Kelly on the Making and Restoration of Donnie Darko

The filmmaker discusses Arrow Video’s two new restorations of his seminal debut feature.

Interview: Richard Kelly on the Making and Restoration of Donnie Darko
Photo: Arrow Films

Richard Kelly makes films that are often appreciated retrospectively, due to initial studio mishandling and to their own inchoate natures. There’s a sense in Kelly’s cinema of a struggle to adequately express ineffable cultural alienation, as exhibited by the films’ intense emotionality and by labyrinthine plots that are hard to understand even with, say, on-screen expositional text and supplementary comic books. Donnie Darko, Southland Tales, and the greatly underrated The Box are all marked by a fascinating aura of frustrated earnestness. Appropriately, then, Kelly was similarly earnest when we spoke last week about Arrow Video’s two new restorations of Donnie Darko—of the film’s theatrical release and its director’s cut. Kelly scanned as thoughtful, idealistic, and quite interior-minded, given to pauses and to voicing sentiments that sometimes doubled back on themselves, which is understandable, as we attempted to gingerly parse the contemporary political fallout that was eerily anticipated by Donnie Darko and Southland Tales.

There’s a nostalgic element to Donnie Darko, your first film. What’s it like to revisit such a milestone 16, 17 years later?

It feels really good. Mostly because the cinematographer [Steven Poster] and I were given the technological tools to go in and restore the image to its full capacity from the original negative. It was always a struggle for me to look at the existing transfer of it, even on Blu-ray, because it didn’t look as good as it could have. It was murky, and the skin tones were just not up to the quality level of the original negative. It’s great to be able to go in and make these enhancements. That’s where it all started for me. And then to allow people to see it on the big screen—so few people ever saw this in the theater when it was originally released. Donnie Darko was always designed as a big cinematic experience.

I recently watched the restorations of both cuts of Donnie Darko, and the improvement in visual detail reminds me of Criterion’s refurbishing of Mulholland Drive.

Oh wow. Mulholland Drive is one of my favorite films, if not my favorite film of all time.

I’m with you. And now Donnie Darko has this gorgeous, epic sheen that I don’t remember back in the day.

Yeah, well, again, it’s sort of the wonder—not only of this 4K technology that we have, and of these great flat-screen televisions that we have in our home-entertainment systems, but also of the film, the original negative. The grain, the texture, the color space, and the celluloid. Celluloid is a very resilient substance. This restoration is a reminder of the power of celluloid. I’m a big believer that we can [fashion] a marriage between digital and celluloid, and that they can remain co-existent in a wonderful way.

It seems to me that digital technology is like CGI, in that both should be thought of as tools with their respective place and purpose, rather than as end results unto themselves.

What celluloid can capture in terms of color space and contrast—those things are hard to manipulate with digital tools. We always try to utilize as much restraint as possible and try to preserve a sense of naturalism.

Returning to Donnie Darko, is there an emotional element for you when revisiting the film? A kind of “Ah, memories…” as you reflect on yourself as a younger man working with these tools and on this canvas for the first time?

Yeah, with any film I make there’s going to be a huge emotional sense of nostalgia as to what it was like to be on the set. That’s an expanse of time that you will never get back. You’re there with all these people, and it’s a magical moment. It’s a magical experience being on a movie set. There’s nothing better. There’s a nostalgia to that, and there’s also anxiety: the stress of finishing a film, getting the final cut the way you want it, and hoping and praying that the release date and the marketing will work. The stress dissipates [upon reflection] and the nostalgia rises to the top of the surface. Ultimately, there’s nothing you can really do about the release date, and you can try and influence the marketing, and try and hope that you get the right film festival audience, but a lot of that is out of your control. So, all these years later the film can still hold up, and you can focus on what the film is. That’s what makes me feel…best.

In Donnie Darko, you seem to be riffing on the tensions inherent in what is now thought of as the “Reagan-era horror film.” How do you see present political tensions informing the horror film in the future?

It’s interesting that you bring that up, because [Donnie Darko’s political backdrop] was very intentional. I had to fight really hard to keep the film set in 1988. And bear in mind this was the year 2000, so we’re only talking 12 years into the past. And, by comparison, that would be like fighting, today, to make a film set in like 2005. That’s crazy to think about. [laughs] 1988 was really essential for me because the film was, on a metaphorical level, about this transition at the end of the Reagan era. And this shift, this generational divide between teenagers, who were becoming very liberal, and parents, who were losing their hero, Ronald Reagan. These Reagan-era parents, those old-guard Republicans, today, are probably pretty horrified to see what’s become of their political party. It’s interesting to think about that political dichotomy today. I think everyone was talking about that when they went home to have Thanksgiving dinner [last year] with their parents. There were memes about it, and Saturday Night Live sketches about like, you know: You love your parents, but there’s this very polarized political spectrum in this country right now, and how do you talk to your parents if you’re on the other end of that spectrum? None of this stuff is going to go away, and, if anything, this [tension] is only going to become more divisive and heated. So if cinema can help us detonate that, then I’m all for it.

It’s a nice touch in Donnie Darko that the parents, particularly the father, who we know is voting for Bush, are otherwise hip and culturally liberal.

Yeah, growing up in a conservative environment, I knew a lot of people who were Republican, but, at the same time, they were pro-choice, very pro-environment, and had a lot of liberal social views, and a great sense of humor. I’m a card-carrying liberal, maybe even a neo-Marxist, as I kind of tried to satirize in Southland Tales, but, at the same time, I try to keep some kind of understanding of where the other side is coming from, you know, on certain issues that have merit. Now we’re dealing with a whole different political system from 1988.

In our present day, it’s easy to vilify people you don’t know, especially conservatives. I lean to the left, but, like you, I grew up in Virginia and under a conservative father, and it’s important to find the humanity under the outer differences.

Well, again, I want to go home for Thanksgiving dinner and have a civil conversation. We’d all benefit from trying to maintain a sense of civility, particularly with social media and the way people can attack one another from behind these digital screens. There’s a heated, nasty rhetoric in social media, and it’s unfortunate, because I think: “If people looked each other in the eye, person to person, they’d realize that they’re more alike than they seem to be.”

Southland Tales was prescient in that regard. That film has such a chaotic sense of people not being able to communicate. It’s a film that people should re-explore.

Yeah, more than anything, doing this restoration for Donnie Darko has emboldened me to want to revisit Southland Tales and do a much bigger, more expanded version of that film. I make these films almost as therapy for myself. If they’re too complicated, or too long, or too difficult to market into the mainstream, my hope is that, if they stick around and people can discover them, all of the elements are still there, and so I can have a chance to go back and revisit them in some way. I’m always open to doing that. I believe that movies can really be a helpful, guiding force in troubling political times. I hope that we’re going to have a lot of great political cinema coming up.

Last summer I wrote a piece for The Guardian, asking if there was a new John Carpenter for the present-day political climate. I wondered if someone would step up to deliver the next They Live.

There might have been a sense of complacency in Hollywood during Obama’s administration, where we saw a lot of the art house divisions shuddered, with superhero movies taking over. I think, now, people are going to be galvanized to buy tickets to political films, and you’re going to see more of them being greenlit, and you’re going to see people not as afraid to take risks because there’s a lot at stake. Listen, no matter what side of the political spectrum you sit on, I think it’s good that artists have a fire lit inside of them. There’s nothing else that I know how to do. I can make movies and, other than that, I’m pretty useless. [laughs]

Believe me, I can write about movies, and, after that, it gets tough.


As a director, what do you think of platforms like Amazon and Netflix, which are becoming more involved in distributing independent cinema, though outside of theaters?

I’m all for any company that’s going to provide a healthy budget to any filmmaker making an original story, a political story, a story featuring a female protagonist, featuring a person of color as the protagonist, or any story that a traditional studio is going to suppress or ignore. Any new company that’s going to enhance and provide those opportunities, I think that’s a great thing. At the same time, I love the theatrical experience, and I hope that it stays very healthy and continues to flourish. Not to support abusing alcohol, but it’s very interesting to see how many theaters are serving alcohol.

I’ve noticed that too.

And you know what? I think it’s helping to drive people back to the theaters.

Makes movie-going more of an all-encompassing evening, I suppose, for people who need that.

Alamo Drafthouse helped set the stage for that.

Before you go, do you have any final words about the theatrical version of Donnie Darko versus your director’s cut?

I don’t think people should view them as being in competition. I wanted the director’s cut to suggest an extended remix of a song. I’m not entirely satisfied with either version of the film, but I like both of them equally. People should approach them however they like.

Chuck Bowen

Chuck Bowen's writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The AV Club, Style Weekly, and other publications.

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