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Meant To Fail Before It Could Succeed

March 18th, 2009 · 10 Comments

Donnie Darko (2001)
Written by Richard Kelly
Directed by Richard Kelly
Produced by Sean McKittrick, Nancy Juvonen, Adam Fields
Running time: 113 minutes (theatrical version)/ 133 minutes (Director’s Cut)

donnie-darko-2001-poster.jpg Donnie Darko: Director's Cut

So, What’s This About?
Teenaged Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes to find himself in the middle of a road overlooking “Middlesex, Virginia.” Donnie bikes back to his suburban home, where his older sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) stuns their father (Holmes Osborne) with news that she’s voting for Michael Dukakis. Brother and sister start bickering and she urges Donnie to explain to their mom (Mary McDonnell) why he’s stopped taking his medication. Mom later questions her sullen boy about where it is he goes at night. “What happened to my son? I don’t recognize this person today.” That night, a supernatural voice wakes Donnie and lures him outside, where he encounters a six-foot tall figure wearing a demonic-looking rabbit costume.

Answering to the name “Frank,” the rabbit shares some vital information with Donnie: “28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds. That is when the world will end.” While Donnie is out wandering Middlesex in his sleep, a jet engine plummets out of the sky and crashes through his bedroom. Federal officials are at a loss to explain this; they can’t seem to locate the plane that the engine belonged to. At school, Donnie’s English teacher Miss Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) pairs him with a bright transfer student (Jena Malone) whom Donnie becomes smitten with. There is no love lost between Donnie and a gym instructor (Beth Grant) who forces her class to watch the cheesy self-help videos of a local guru named Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze).

Donnie Darko 2001 Jake Gyllenhaal

Cunningham preaches that all human decisions fall on a lifeline between love and fear. Donnie refuses to believe that life can be lumped into two categories at the expense of everything else. Meanwhile, his nocturnal encounters with Frank continue. When Donnie asks the rabbit where he comes from, Frank replies, “Do you believe in time travel?” Donnie’s science teacher (Noah Wyle) gives him a book called The Philosophy of Time Travel, written by a neighborhood spinster the kids call Grandma Death. The book appears to corroborate the mind bending visions Donnie has been having. His psychiatrist (Katharine Ross) believes that the boy may be a paranoid schizophrenic. Donnie keeps marking the days until the end of the world.

Who Should Be Held Responsible?
A native of Midlothian, Virginia, Richard Kelly became interested in movies due to a music video that made an impression on him as a teenager in 1989: Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got A Gun,” directed by David Fincher. Accepted to USC four years later on an art scholarship, Kelly ultimately applied to and was accepted into the university’s popular film school. Graduating in 1997, he found work at a post-production house, but had larger ambitions than 3-D animation. Kelly recalled, “I came out of film school and I was broke, so started writing. I set out to write something ambitious, personal, and nostalgic about the late ‘80s. I thought about a jet engine falling onto a house, and no one knowing where it came from — it seemed to represent a death knell for the Reagan era — and I built the story around that.”

Donnie Darko 2001 Mary Mcdonnell Daveigh Chase Holmes Osborne Maggie Gyllenhaal

The resulting screenplay was Donnie Darko and it was written over a six-week period in late 1997. With the help of Kelly’s producing partner — an office temp at New Line Cinema named Sean McKittrick — the script was passed around and generated enough buzz to get Kelly representation by Creative Artists Agency. Meetings with potential buyers did not go very well. Kelly recalled, “A lot of people were responding to the script, but when they heard I wanted to direct it, they were like, ‘No.’ It was, ‘This is a great writing sample. This is un-producible. Come rewrite Valentine.’ They wanted to me write 13 slasher films. ‘Great writing sample, come write I Know What You Did Last Summer 3.’ That kind of thing.”

Donnie Darko was dead for about a year, until Kelly and McKittrick heard that actor Jason Schwartzman was interested. McKittrick recalled, “And we finally just heard through the grapevine that Schwartzman wanted to do it. So we immediately called his agent and said well listen, if he wants to do this and we attach him, it’s going to get made. He just came off of Rushmore. Obviously, he is very talented. When Jason came aboard then out of nowhere Nancy Juvonen and Drew Barrymore — they were obsessed with Jason — they wanted to know what Jason was doing or what Jason was planning on doing, because they just thought he was great. So Sharon Sheinwold, Jason’s agent at UTA, sent the script over to Nancy, and Nancy read it and just flipped out for it.”

Donnie Darko 2001

As producer Nancy Juvonen recalled, “I read the script that night, was riveted, and Drew read it the next day. The part of Karen Pomeroy was originally written for a 46-year-old woman, but she felt like a teacher with such passion and conviction to change the system that she must be younger, at an age where she still thought those changes could occur. So Richard quickly rewrote her as a 28-year-old character and we had our first piece of talent attached. By the end of the week we met with Richard Kelly and Sean McKittrick, his producing partner. They also brought along a guy named Adam Fields who was later asked to step aside from the project, although he took money and arguably a part of our souls with him upon his exit. During that meeting we were convinced Rich should direct his own story, and from there we set about getting financing.”

Adam Fields had landed $4.5 million from Paris-based Pandora Films — a specialty division of Gaylord Entertainment — but Barrymore’s schedule necessitated Kelly be shooting in three months, by July 2000. The accelerated time frame came into conflict with Schwartzman’s availability, and a frantic two-week search for a new lead commenced. 19-year-old Jake Gyllenhaal won the role of Donnie Darko. In no particular order, Jena Malone, Noah Wyle, Mary McDonnell, Patrick Swayze and Katharine Ross joined the cast. Kelly explained, “All of the other actors, because of Drew mostly, felt comfortable working with a first-time director. She kind of stepped up to the plate. It takes one actor to break the ice or to RSVP to the party, then everyone feels comfortable RSVPing.”

Donnie Darko 2001 Jake Gyllenhaal Drew Barrymore

In the hunt for a director of photography, A-list cinematographers were rejected due to budgetary restraints, while promising novices from the music video industry were passed over by Pandora due to the inexperience that Kelly was already bringing to the table. Going through resumes, Sean McKittrick found journeyman Steven Poster, who stood out because he’d shot Someone to Watch Over Me for director Ridley Scott. The producer commented, “Steven’s a brilliant guy and he’s one of the main reasons why the movie looks like it does. Right now he’s actually the President of the ASC … He’s just kind of like this living working legend within the cinematography community and he just did a brilliant job. He’s the nicest, sweetest guy you’ll ever meet in your life. He was just a Godsend. Sometimes things just completely work out and that was the biggest of them all.”

As Richard Kelly put it, Donnie Darko was equally blessed when it came to hiring a composer. “I was very lucky that I didn’t have a crew forced upon me by the financiers. A lot of times they force you to hire people because they want the music to sound like music from ‘that’ movie. But with $4.5 million, you can’t afford Thomas Newman or Danny Elfman or any of these guys. You’ve got to just go find somebody who is young and hungry, and really talented. Nancy Juvonen’s brother recommended Mike Andrews. He’s from San Diego, actually. Gary Jules, who did the ‘Mad World’ cover with him, is also from San Diego. Jim Juvonen, he’s really good at knowing who’s the shit before anyone else knows who’s the shit. He said, ‘This is the guy. This guy is a genius; you’ve got to work with this guy. No one knows about him.”

Donnie Darko 2001 Jake Gyllenhaal

Filmed in the Los Angeles area — where Loyola High School stood in for Donnie’s alma mater — in 28 days, a hastily edited cut was playing at the Sundance Film Festival just a few months later, in January 2001. The traditional lack of special effects oriented films at the indie film showcase and the picture’s buzz combined to make the screening much anticipated. Those in attendance were muted in their response; gossip columnist Jeffrey Wells reported the mood “subdued (if mostly respectable)”. Donnie Darko would leave Park City without a distributor. Kelly mused, “Sundance is a dangerous kind of marketplace because if you don’t strike at the right time and you don’t get an initial interest in your film, all of a sudden, it’s over. People like to dismiss it as something that doesn’t work. So after Sundance we sort of deemed it as a failure, an impressive, interesting failure, but as an experimental film that just doesn’t work.”

Production executive Aaron Ryder of financing company Newmarket offered a slightly different perspective on the film’s Sundance verdict. “We saw the movie and we really liked it. Everybody thought, ‘It’s a good film but it’s going to be hard to market. It’s too long and it’s got problems.’ So we didn’t buy it at Sundance, nobody did. At this time we hadn’t yet released Memento. However our aspirations were to build a distribution company so we put an offer on it saying that we needed to talk about re-cutting the film with the director as it was well over two hours. We spent six months editing, allowing Richard to have the cut he was proud of.” Through a service deal with IFC Films, Newmarket agreed to distribute and promote Donnie Darko. In turn, Kelly was obligated to cut 10 minutes from the running time and make do with ‘80s pop tunes whose clearances would be less expensive.

Donnie Darko 2001 Jena Malone Jake Gyllenhaal

Opening October 2001 in the United States, Donnie Darko notched plenty of positive reviews. J. Hoberman, The Village Voice: “The events of September 11 have rendered most movies inconsequential; the heartbreaking Donnie Darko, by contrast, feels weirdly consoling. Period piece though it is, Kelly’s high-school gothic seems perfectly attuned to the present moment. This would be a splendid debut under any circumstances; released for Halloween 2001, it has uncanny gravitas.” Kimberly Jones, The Austin Chronicle: “Donnie Darko is an unnerving, electrifying debut film from 26-year-old writer/director Kelly, one that elucidates the universal traumas of growing up, but does so with a startling uncommonness. So much here is equally baffling and beguiling; I caught myself leaning in toward the screen repeatedly, trying to somehow get closer to the gorgeous impenetrability of the story, of the boy.” Andrew O’Hehir, Salon: “Donnie Darko is a stunning technical accomplishment that virtually bursts with noise, ideas and references, but it’s fundamentally a gracefully crafted movie that’s about human beings and not images.”

The critical raves fell on deaf ears. Donnie Darko failed to expand beyond 58 screens in the United States, where it grossed $515,375. Aaron Ryder admitted “We put it out at the wrong time as it was just after 9/11. We thought we could make an alternative Halloween movie, which is a bad idea. I think that we learned a lesson. If you have a film starring a young protagonist or young people in it, it doesn’t necessarily mean that film will attract a younger audience. The core audience for Donnie Darko is the same as Memento, which is an older audience. We probably should have released the film in February. There were just too many films out at the time and people weren’t going to the movies at that time … Everybody loved that movie and they think, ‘Wow, he’s such a good filmmaker, but boy did they fuck up the distribution of that movie.’”

Donnie Darko 2001

In January 2002, Phil Hartman – co-owner of the Two Boots Pioneer Theater in Manhattan’s East Village – was looking for a movie to program at midnight screenings. He stated his criteria: “You need something that is a visual trip, that works on repeated viewings and is open to reinterpretations, something that you can watch in altered states.” His son recommended Donnie Darko. Far from a blockbuster – filling on average half the theater’s 100 seats – the late night engagement ran for 28 straight months. Revival houses in Washington and Boston caught on and when the film opened in England that fall, it was a modest box office hit, grossing $2.5 million USD. The Mike Andrews/ Gary Jules cover of “Mad World” even cracked the U.K. top ten pop charts. When released on DVD, Donnie Darko would sell $15 million in units.

Popular demand prompted Newmarket to approach Richard Kelly for a “new and improved” version of Donnie Darko. An investment of $290,000 enabled the filmmaker to restore 20 minutes of footage, substitute new musical cues, touch up the sound mix and add chapter headings from The Philosophy of Time Travel, which were inserted to enhance the science fiction aspects. Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut opened in limited theatrical release July 2004. Kelly mused, “The first release just wasn’t meant to be. I feel like the film was meant to fail before it could succeed. It was meant to be this cult item before it could be more mainstream. There are always people who want Donnie Darko to be the cult film, the one they discovered. If there’s any way this film could ever cross over a bit more to the mainstream it would just allow me to continue to make these kinds of films. I think any time a counterculture piece of art infiltrates the mainstream, that’s a good thing.”

Donnie Darko 2001

Why Should I Care?
Of all the ways you can approach Donnie Darko – as a portrait of teenage angst, a psychological horror movie, a nostalgic trip through the ’80s, a science fiction tale concerning time travel, or a satire of all of the above – what’s most exciting about Richard Kelly’s debut is how the audience ends up being empowered to give the movie its form and definition. It doesn’t barrel its way down any one genre or crib from other filmmakers for its inspiration. This is a movie truly in a class of its own. The screenplay is teeming with wonderful details – a Bush/Dukakis debate, a dance troupe called Sparkle Motion, a debate over The Smurfs – that may be part of a larger puzzle, or might not mean anything at all.

The writing features much sharp wit – laced with barbs toward the public school system – while engaging all sorts of cool ideas about time travel and alternate universes in the process. An alternate title might have been It’s A Miserable Life, as the novel approach could be summed up as It’s A Wonderful Life in reverse. The cast is stronger than any first time director could possibly hope to ask for, particularly the Gyllenhaals, Patrick Swayze, and Holmes Osborne and Mary McDonnell as Donnie’s sympathetic parents. Steven Poster lends the cinematography a vivid, dreamlike feel, while the original music by Michael Andrews compliments that mood as well. I doubt that Kelly has any better fucking idea what’s going on in this movie than anyone watching for the first time will, but your guess will be at least as good as the person sitting next to you.

© Joe Valdez

Donnie Darko 2001 Jena Malone

Where Are You Getting This *&#!?
“Interview with Sean McKittrick”
By Chadwick Clough. Script P.I.M.P., 19 July 2002

“Richard Kelly” By Jason Korsner. BBC, 21 October 2002

“Interview with Nancy Juvonen”, 25 May 2004

“Getting Inside Donnie Darko with Writer/Director Richard Kelly”
By Rebecca Murray., 27 May 2004

“The Resurrection of Donnie Darko
By Robert Levine, 18 July 2004

“How Donnie Darko Refused To Die”
By Nathan Lee. The New York Sun, 20 July 2004

“Richard Kelly’s Second Chance” By Jennifer Soong. Moviemaker, 21 June 2004

Donnie Darko The Director’s Cut: The Strange Afterlife of an Indie Cult Film”
By Adam Burnett. indieWIRE, 22 July 2004

The Guerilla Film Makers Handbook
. By Genevieve Jolliffe, Chris Jones. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004

Tags: Ambiguous ending · Brother/sister relationship · Cult favorite · End of the world · High school · No opening credits · Paranoia · Psychoanalysis

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mrs. Thuro // Mar 25, 2008 at 7:34 pm

    I watched this after having a high recommendation from one of those avid fans. I just didn’t get it. I tried really hard, maybe I was trying too hard, but I was completely lost. I may need to watch it again, now that I’ve read more on the film. It’s not that I need my movies spelled out for me (The Fountain is one of my all time favorites), but I just couldn’t connect on any level here, and like you said there were plenty of levels to choose from. However, it’s been 3 years or so, but I can still remember parts of the movie vividly, and that’s saying something.

  • 2 AR // Mar 25, 2008 at 9:47 pm

    I agree very much with the Movie Cynics review (thanks btw), though I would probably go so far as to give it a 9 out of 10.

    I haven’t seen the director’s cut or listened to commentary, but viewed on its own terms, I think I pretty much “got it.” Mostly, I think the film suffers from an overload of ideas and detail that don’t add anything to the overall structure. It’s interesting that he saw the script as being about the 80’s, since that aspect worked the least for me.

    I sound very critical, yet I do like the film very much. It’s possible that the ravenous young fanbase, convinced that the film is so utterly deep or unfathomable, just turns me off.

  • 3 Adam R // Mar 26, 2008 at 7:08 am

    Great take, Joe. I think you’d enjoy reading Jim Emerson’s exhaustive essay on the subject, it’s an interesting analysis on the film’s themes and story.

    More than the story, I just love occupying Middlesex as a viewer — like how the theater is showing Evil Dead, and the little moments with Donnie’s parents. So many great details that keep me coming back.

  • 4 Hedwig // Mar 26, 2008 at 12:20 pm

    “what’s most exciting about Richard Kelly’s debut is how the audience ends up being empowered to give the movie its form and definition”

    Exactly! I could not agree with you more. That’s also, I think, why the director’s cut didn’t work: the director’s own vision interfered with your own way of looking at the story, and it’s bothersome rather than helpful.

    I must’ve seen this film about 15 times. I was 17, I think, when I first saw it, and just like The Catcher in the Rye did two years earlier, it connected me on an incredibly strong level. Now, at a bit more of a remove, I can see some of the flaws, and I no longer think it’s the greatest movie ever made, but it remains close to my heart.

    As for Southland Tales, I just saw it last weekend and loved it, but it is totally out of control, and can’t measure up to Donnie Darko. I greatly enjoyed it, and I’ll definitely watch it again, but for all its sprawling detail, it has no emotional depth. Nothing to compare to the sharp depiction of ‘the Pain of Puberty’, in any case.

  • 5 Marilyn // Mar 28, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    A Korean friend of mine who was taking a class in adolescent psychology for her doctoral course work was given a choice between reading (not watching) The Virgin Suicides or watching Donnie Darko. She chose the latter and asked me to help her make sense of it. I had seen it once before and related to it more on a scifi level. I connected strongly with the airplane motor because in 1980, a DC-10 jumbo jet crashed and burned at my home airport (O’Hare) because an engine fell off. It was indeed the stuff of nightmares, at least for people living in Chicago at the time.

    Watching it a second time with her, the adolescent longings and philosophy came to the forefront–perhaps because that’s what I was told to look for. Still, there were so many things that seemed right about that “interpretation,” from parental behavior ,to taking behavior modification drugs (wasn’t every kid on Ritalin by then?), to looking for wisdom from an old person (something people tend to lose when they reach adulthood). I was a big fan of Jena Malone from her gut-wrenching turn in Ellen Foster, and it seemed that her role in that TV film helped tinge this one with its luminous tragedy and hope. The film was Catcher in the Rye to a great extent, or at least referenced unconsciously that seminal work on adolescence.

    Donnie Darko seemed less complicated to me on a second viewing. That didn’t destroy its magic for me, however. To me, the film was like a scenic tour through an adolescent mind–crazed, mixed up, omnipotent, romantic, doomed. It’s really a great achievement.

  • 6 Daniel // Apr 7, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    Great review of a movie that I’ve been meaning to revisit for a while. I think I was sucked in by the cinematography that you mention more than most people. It really is “dream-like.” If you’re not hooked in by the first 15 minutes of this movie, you’re not really going to get much more out of the rest of it.

  • 7 Elena // Apr 19, 2008 at 5:04 pm

    I loved Donnie Darko to death. Is my favorite movie now. I would definitely recommend it. I’m suprised that I actually understood it. It is a very complicated film. Time travel movies always are. I had to pause it and think about what was happening about ten times! To understand the whole movie you cannot miss one line or else the rest of it will be impossible to figure out. People should make more movies that are hard on your brain!

  • 8 Marc // Jan 21, 2009 at 1:47 am

    The beauty about this movie is that those who watch it once don’t understand it at all, those who watch many times claim that it makes the utmost sense, and those that watch it several times and truly analyze agree with the first group. This movie actually doesn’t make sense, and it’s laughable that so many people have their heads stuck so far up their asses that they can’t realize it. I remember falling in love with this movie like all of you did. I also remember pointing out all the crucial flaws in this movie such as, but not limited to, why does frank save Donnie in the beginning only to lead him back to his death? Frank can time travel. hindsight is 20/20, sure, but for him there is no hindsight. First logical answer wins a prize. (On a side note, having gone down this path before, I know what the first responses to this are going to be. I only wish I cared enough about this message board enough to respond to them (I probably won’t)).

  • 9 Joe Valdez // Mar 18, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    Mrs. Thuro: There is definitely a David Lynch and/or comic book vibe to Donnie Darko, so if neither one of those genres are your cup o’ tea I could understand you feeling there was nothing for you here. You might want to give this flick another shot, ignoring the cultists and attempting to enjoy the movie for what it is. I can appreciate it just in terms of the performances. Swayze rules.

    Amanda: I guess I’m able to pay attention to idiot savants and people who ramble for two minutes before making their point, so when movies do the same thing, I can just accept them for that. However even David Peoples says he watches Blade Runner and wishes the story had the clarity of the visuals, so I think you make a strong point about cohesion as a necessity in movies.

    Adam: Thanks for issuing that link. Emerson’s essay was long but I did enjoy it. What was interesting about is that he chose to highlight the teenage angst aspects of the film, which I glanced over in favor of the science fiction/fantasy elements. How cool would it be to spend Halloween in Middlesex as a teenager. Get to live across the street from Mary McDonnell & Maggie Gyllenhaal, see a jet engine fall on their house and have Drew Barrymore as your English teacher. This would make having to sit through Jim Cunningham videos worth while.

    Hedwig: Check out the Jim Emerson article that Adam linked if you haven’t already. He responded to the growing pains of Donnie Darko much the same way that you did. Your teenage years must have been more tempestuous than mine because I responded to the film as a Twilight Zone episode more than I did Catcher In The Rye. That’s one of the cool things about Donnie Darko; two film lovers can walk away from it having seen two completely different movies. Thanks for commenting.

    Marilyn: Too often I put people into boxes where movies with science fiction or horror elements are not received well by women, just like movies where actors suddenly break into song or dance are not suitable for men. Thanks for reminding me that great movies are great and can be enjoyed by everyone. Unless they are from Korea. I cannot imagine Donnie Darko making any sense to your friend!

    Daniel: I don’t hear filmmakers really giving it up for their DPs nearly as much as they should. Whatever you want to say about Richard Kelly and Sean McKittrick, they don’t try to take credit for the film’s visual sheen. I’m glad the film’s visual palette met with your discerning approval. Thanks for commenting!

    Elena: Thank you for submitting that cool comment. I would be curious to know if a year later, this is still your favorite movie. At any rate, let’s hear it for the people with brains.

    Marc: For someone who says he doesn’t care much about message boards, you sure devoted a lot of space to commenting on Donnie Darko. I agree that any crowd who loves a movie too much is easy to ridicule. I also agree that this movie doesn’t really make sense. None of that really mattered to me though. I don’t know why someone looking for something that made sense would watch a movie called Donnie Darko anyway. Thanks for contributing though.

  • 10 Mrs. Thuro's Mom // Mar 19, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    I’m not sure why you are rerunning some of your older posts. I must have missed that blog. I watched this movie after reading this post last time. I actually liked it! I didn’t expect to after hearing what my daughter had to say about it, but I thought it was quirky and fascinating. See you can influence me.

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