Every director worth his or her salt is chasing the hot spotlight of buzz, and the movie gods choose a select few to stand in that glow – think Damien Chazelle with Whiplash, Gareth Edwards with Monsters and Darren Aronofsky with ∏.
Hollywood thence bestows upon them its mightiest honour – a career, with offers coming in from studios that put former nobodies in the drivers’ seats of some of the biggest franchises around. Just ask Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) or Edwards (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story).
Sometimes it turns out it was just lightning in a bottle that’s hard to recapture. Neil Marshall never really shone as bright as he did with Dog Soldiers, nor did Neill Blomkamp after District 9.
The tale of Richard Kelly’s ascent is a little bit different. Initial buzz about his teen angst sci-fi drama Donnie Darko from the 2001 festival circuit was extraordinary, but the initial box office reception was a bust – maybe because the distributor stripped out so much of the scenes that stitched the time travel mythology together, and maybe because it appeared in cinemas just a month after September 11, when few people were thinking about movies (and when a movie about a plane engine crashing through a house was probably a harder sell than ever).
But like Office Space and The Shawshank Redemption, home viewing and cult status convinced the powers that be that Donnie Darko had life left in it. In 2004 Kelly was given money to recut the film for release in a DVD director’s cut, and today it’s as financially successful as the movie is beloved. He talked to Moviehole.net in LA about what all this hindsight has taught him on the eve of the re-release.
Was the period of the initial release painful or frustrating for you because you knew what you had and it was subject to so many cuts?
I’m fine with both cuts of the movie. I mean if I had to choose I probably say I prefer the director’s cut but I mean I see value in both versions. But we got to show the movie in theatres and it almost never made the theatres at all. I was just grateful that we got there.
The movie was never going to be a financial success because there was no marketing behind it and there was no energy or enthusiasm for anyone to go see it. After 9/11, you were lucky to get anyone to show up. We were lucky to even be booked in 50 theatres, that was the best we could do.
So I was just grateful that we even got a theatrical release at all. Back in 2001 if you went straight to home video and you didn’t get a theatrical release no major newspaper or critic would review your show at the time. You wouldn’t have the legitimacy of being reviewed and covered by the major media outlets and critics.
So I felt we made it to the first lines with our dignity intact and then time would repair the wounds eventually and here we are 15 years later. I’m just astonished at the continued interest in this film. I’m very inspired by it.
If you could go back to the young Richard Kelly who’s just starting preproduction on Donnie Darko and tell him Kelly one thing, what would it be?
Try not to have an emotional response to everything. Sometimes someone is telling you to do something that you don’t want to do or saying no and putting up a road block or not doing their job or all the kinds of things that would get me emotionally raw and upset.
In hindsight you should sort of just try and figure it out, without letting your emotions come into play. Because they can be really draining, emotionally draining, you know. And it’s also just the fact that sometimes there are people you just need to fire.
They say a work of art is never quite finished, just abandoned. Do you watch Donnie Darko and cringe because there’s stuff you wish you’d done differently even now?
I wish had more visual effects and I wish I could’ve done more practical effects work. There’s some sequences that I always wanted to do but we couldn’t afford. But you know, I thought we did a pretty damn good job with the resources and time we had.
A lot of directors also say movies like Donnie Darko that have complicated themes for adults just don’t have a place in the system anymore. If you were starting out now how different do you think it would be?
I think it would be much, much harder because this movie cost $4.5 million in the year 2000. We adjust for inflation to 2017 and that’s about $6.3 million. So a 25 years old in today’s market raising $6.3 million for a first time directing endeavour, that’s not easy to do. I’d be lucky to scrape together a few hundred thousand dollars, maybe a million bucks given the way the business is structured.
But at the same time we made this film there were no real digital cameras, we had to shoot on film and it cost what it cost. But yeah, we were very lucky to get, to get the resources we had and the actors too. The actors we got were phenomenal.
Do you think the fact that Netflix and Amazon are spending so much money nowadays makes it different again?
Yeah, in those models, sure. Those companies and the way they’ve emerged into the market in the last two or three years, yes, they’d be the companies that would probably take the risk of something like this. But still a first time film maker, it’s very rare for a first time film maker to get that kind of budget. And particularly when they don’t have a track record. I didn’t – I’d made a few short films but nothing of note. It was just me and the script.
What can you say about the big sequel you’ve talked about elsewhere in the media?
I don’t know what would happen with this intellectual property because I don’t control the underlying rights. I had to relinquish them when I was 24, when I signed the deal to direct the movie. But if someone wanted me to do it I would be open to doing that.
But I don’t want anyone to remake it or reboot it against my desire, that would be a bummer. I want to protect the intellectual property and make sure if anything is ever done with it it’s done for a good reason and it’s a new worthwhile story. So we’ll see what happens.
Is that a little scary or frustrating to know you had to sign away the rights to it to actually direct the movie?
Well, someone was offering me a huge directing opportunity at age of 24 and I had no reference to get anything out of the equation other than the job they were offering me. So I mean, I wasn’t a WGA signatory, I don’t receive any residual income on the movie of any kind. It was just the opportunity to get direct input. When you’re at that age and you’re a first time director you don’t have any leverage. I was very lucky.
You haven’t been very prolific as a director. Is it because they take so long to get off the ground?
Movies take a long time to put together. They’re really complex and it’s just a really time consuming process. I mean I think I could’ve have made several movies over the past few years but I don’t know if I was happy with the outcome or the thing was even worthy of pursuing.
So it’s working for you to be a bit choosier?
Yeah, I never want to make a movie for the wrong reasons or with the wrong resources or the wrong people. Sometimes it’s better just wait till everything is in the right place. But it has been too long – I’m more aware of that more than anyone. I feel it every day.