‘Darko’ Hard to Sell, Quick to Shoot


An adolescent awkwardness comes over Richard Kelly and the 26-year-old stumbles over his words when he is asked to explain the enigmatic plot of his first feature film, “Donnie Darko.”

It’s a science-fiction coming-of-age tale, he offers. A period piece set in 1988. A black comedy. A satiric portrait of modern life. The story of a teenager with emotional problems and a divine emissary who appears to him as a man in a weird rabbit suit.

While the movie contains all these themes, it is impossible to summarize in a sound bite. Perhaps that’s why it took Kelly more than three years to persuade anybody in Hollywood to let him direct his own script. Ultimately, Flower Films partners Drew Barrymore and Nancy Juvonen agreed to produce it for $4.5 million with Kelly’s vision intact. The film was shot in Long Beach in a whirlwind 28 days--filming began just a month after star Jake Gyllenhaal read the script.


“I just decided to go for it and see what they’d let me do,” Kelly said during a recent interview. “And surprisingly, they let me get away with a lot.”

Kelly’s title character is a 16-year-old boy of intimidating intelligence living in the antiseptic suburban world of Middlesex, Va. In the middle of an October night, the rabbit suit man summons Donnie to a golf course, then warns him that the apocalypse is 28 days away. Donnie returns home to find his bedroom destroyed by a jet engine that inexplicably fell from the sky. This destruction sets off a bizarre series of events involving first love, time travel and the uncompromising nature of fate. Coincidentally, “Darko” filming lasted exactly 28 days and the day the engine crash scene was to be shot, charred engine parts from an Amsterdam-bound 747 rained on Dockweiler Beach.

If that’s not weird enough for you, there’s more.

Kelly--concerned that the audience may need the “Cliffs Notes” to his story--published a lengthy epilogue on the Web site that he said “explains everything,” including the parallel reality, the wormholes and the giant vortex threatening to end life in Middlesex.

Kelly wrote “Donnie Darko” during an intense six-week period in late 1997 shortly after graduating from USC film school.

“I wanted to write a film that pushed the envelope by combining science fiction with a coming-of-age tale,” he said.

At the time, he was preparing to shoot “Visceral Matter,” a 30-minute short that explores the grisly results of experiments in teleportation. In retrospect, Kelly considers that project “a ridiculous sci-fi experimental thing that was just me and my friends goofing off.” However, the short ultimately earned a screening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.


Meanwhile, “Darko” languished until early 2000 when “Rushmore” star and Francis Ford Coppola nephew Jason Schwartzman expressed interest in playing the title role. “It was the challenging script in town that everybody wanted to make, but was too afraid of,” “Darko” producer Sean McKittrick said.

More likely, Hollywood execs feared that Kelly and McKittrick, 26, were in over their heads. (The friends refused to sell the script without the rights to direct and produce it.) Even Gyllenhaal, whose credits date back to “City Slickers,” admitted he checked up on Kelly. He agreed to the role after learning that Kelly would have director of photography Steven Poster and producer Juvonen as mentors as well as a solid cast including Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Noah Wiley, Jena Malone and Barrymore.

Before their first meeting, Gyllenhaal envisioned Kelly as a brooding character obsessed with death. “And then I ran into this preppy college kid,” he said. During a month of script meetings in which Gyllenhaal and Kelly tightened the dialogue, the actor came to appreciate Kelly’s collaborative work style and became intrigued by the philosophical questions the director posed with the film.

“I was questioning all those same things,” said Gyllenhaal, who earned praise for his portrayal of the son of a West Virginia coal miner in “October Sky.” At the time, the actor had completed his sophomore year at Columbia University in New York, where he was studying Eastern philosophies.

Eventually, Gyllenhaal used Kelly’s self-conscious and slouched demeanor and his slow, sometimes mumbled speech as Donnie Darko characteristics.

“I’m a firm believer of the unconscious being the teller of some truth, and I feel Richard wrote the script very unconsciously,” Gyllenhaal said. The issues that Donnie Darko confronts are “metaphors for things in [Kelly’s] life.... They obviously resonate with him in a pretty intense way.... I mean, there must be some stuff going on in Richard Kelly’s mind.”


In an attempt to dissuade inevitable comparisons, Kelly is quick to insist, “I’m not Donnie Darko.” Donnie is a collage of people who symbolize a generation of disenfranchised youth. By contrast, Kelly said his childhood in Richmond, Va., was “very normal.” He grew up the youngest son of a NASA scientist who helped design the first camera to photograph Mars and of a high school teacher of emotionally disturbed students. He developed equal reverence for novelist Stephen King and time travel theorist Stephen Hawking and remembers being the first family on his block to own a PC. “His parents gave him every opportunity to explore art and science,” McKittrick said.

After high school, Kelly received a fine-arts scholarship to USC with his ultimate goal being the university’s acclaimed School of Cinema-Television. “I was totally intimidated by the prospect of film school,” he said. “I assumed you had to know someone.... I figured I’d have a better shot of getting into the fine-arts program.” He changed to a film production major by his junior year.

As Kelly’s script made the rounds in Hollywood, his writing received nearly universal praise.

At different times, Red Hour Films partners Ben Stiller and Stuart Cornfield and director Sydney Pollack tried to raise studio interest in “Darko.” Ultimately, Kelly said, “Every studio said no. It was universally rejected.” Almost everyone suggested he make the story less cerebral and more of a classic teen horror flick.

“They said, ‘Just use it as a writing sample. Give it up,”’ Kelly said. “All of ’99 was just meeting after meeting after meeting of people saying, ‘Thanks but no thanks.”’

In the meantime, Kelly wrote a screenplay adaptation of the award-winning young adult novel “Holes” by Louis Sachar for Phoenix Pictures. But the studio went with another writer because Kelly’s version was too dark and too adult, Kelly said.


Then he sold a TV pilot to the Fox network about a group of comedy writers at Harvard University who befriend a fellow student and bring him to Los Angeles after their pranks drive him to a nervous breakdown. The pilot was never produced.

By early 2000, “Donnie Darko” was considered “dead around town,” Kelly said. All that changed rapidly after Schwartzman signed on. The actor relinquished the role because Barrymore and Juvonen were ready to start filming sooner than he could be available. Gyllenhaal was hired within weeks.

New Market Films, known for its phenomenal success with the time-bending thriller “Memento,” bought distribution rights for “Darko” after seeing the film at Sundance.

Founding partner William Tyrer said he’s banking on “Darko” being a word-of-mouth hit among high school-and college-age moviegoers.

The movie will be released in 75 theaters this weekend and 140 more by mid-November. By comparison, “Memento” was released to just 11 theaters in March, expanded to 650 theaters by fall and so far the $5.5-million film has grossed $25.5 million.

Despite the success of a project so close to his heart, Kelly isn’t quite satisfied that Hollywood has accepted him. He said he already has his next four movies ready to go. They’re all comedies. “I hope I can do this again.”