When Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko came out in 2002, it was closer in spirit to its 1988 setting than the actual release date. The film plumbed the depths of Kelly’s ’80s adolescence and mixed those experiences (and the great music that accompanied them) with surreal plot points about time travel and metaphysics. In the process, the filmmaker created one of the great cult classics of the modern age. Now, 15 years later, Donnie Darko is being reissued in theaters, this time in a 4K restoration that presents the movie in blazing color and crisp focus. We caught up with Kelly to talk about shooting a motivational video on Patrick Swayze’s ranch, that famous line about Donnie’s mom’s commitment to Sparkle Motion, and the future of his other cult classic, the 2007 dystopian epic Southland Tales.
We’ll get to the 4K reissue of Donnie Darko in a second, but first, the most important question: When are we getting a 4K reissue of Southland Tales? The people demand it!
Nothing is official yet, but there have been a lot of internal discussions about bringing Southland Tales back in a big way and in an expanded way. I think a few more ducks have to fall into place, things need to be solidified, but there is definitely a path opening to much more Southland Tales and we just want to make sure that we’re really doing it properly and realizing the full potential of the narrative. So stay tuned for more on the Southland Tales front, that’s for sure. We’re moving things in the right directions.
So why reissue Donnie Darko in 4K? What was the reasoning?
I was never happy with the transfer of the movie, and it’s never looked right and it’s never had the proper color space or resolution. It was a little painful for me to watch in any home-entertainment space. The guys at Arrow Films, a great company based in the U.K., they contacted me because the 15-year licensing contract on the film was changing hands. The ownership of the library was changing hands and then the home-video distribution licensing was going to expire after the 15-year deal that was inked in the year 2001. Arrow Films was acquiring the rights and they wanted to do a restoration. They’re this great company and they do these really beautiful box sets and artwork and posters and bonus materials, and so they contacted me.
This was just a great opportunity because I was in the middle of a lot of writing, as I have been for many years, and the arduous process of getting my next project off the ground. We had a window to really get in there and bring Steven Poster, my cinematographer, into the lab and go back to the original negative and try and make Donnie Darko look as great as it could possibly look, given all the new technological tools we have at our disposal. And it ended up being quite a bit of work, but we were able to get through it. And we’re really pleased that we’re getting the chance to put it back on the big screen because so many people never saw it there.
While you’re going through it again, did it feel almost like a different Richard Kelly had made it? It’s such a long time ago.
Yeah, It feels like all of these were different versions of me, I guess. Every movie is like — I use the metaphor — they feel kind of like children in a way because you make them in a specific time and you go through the process of delivering them, and then you deliver them into the world and they grow up. The movies grow up and they stay with you, and they outlive you, and you watch your movies grow up. You watch them age, and you watch them decay, and you can give your child a face-lift. You can get your grown child microdermabrasion or fillers. [Laughs.] I’m making really creepy plastic surgery metaphors. But you can go back and you can revisit what’s there. And a lot of times you see the mistakes or you see the thing that you wish you could have done differently or you go, Oh, I wish I had more money or I had more time here and there, but you’ve got to hope you try to feel proud of what you’ve accomplished. In addition to the many more future films I plan on making and I’m working on, I would love to get to do this restoration to Southland Tales and The Box as well. Because all this new technology is really just letting us see movies in a new way. And it can really make the experience pretty magnificent.
I rewatched the movie today and was struck by how funny it was, especially the motivational video starring Patrick Swayze’s character.
That was shot late July, year 2000. It was so much fun. It was the weekend leading up to the first week of principal photography. So it was probably eight or nine days before the Monday of the first day of principal photography. We had to go to Patrick Swayze’s ranch in Calabasas and shoot that instructional video in one day, on a Saturday, at his house. We had to get it out of the way. We had to get it off the plate, edit it, and do the graphics so we had it ready for playback on set. Because we didn’t have time to shoot that during regular principal photography. It was one of those pre-production mini-micro-shoots that you do. And it was the most fun experience. It was just incredible, because we got to go to Patrick Swayze’s house and his amazing wife came out, she brought out all his ‘80s wardrobe! His real ‘80s wardrobe, which he wears in the sequence! And that’s his backyard. We had the three additional actors and we were just doing yoga and calisthenics. It’s just all this improvisation, and it was just the most fun ever. And I think we edited together a rough cut within a day or two.
I remember Drew Barrymore and [producer] Nancy Juvonen had a party leading up to the first day, the weekend before, and we brought the cut of the Patrick Swayze infomercial and we played it for everyone. And I remember Drew just getting so excited because we hadn’t even started shooting the movie yet. I brought the Patrick Swayze infomercial and I showed it to everyone, and everyone was just so excited. Because they could see something, right? I created something already and they could start to see where my vision was headed. It was like this little confidence boost that we had going into the first day of principal photography.
Two of the characters in that video are named Riesman. I have to say, that’s a little eerie. My family’s name isn’t very common, especially in that spelling. How on earth did you conjure up the Riesman clan? Was it just a cosmic coincidence?
It must be. I think the names are Shanda Riesman and Larry Riesman?
Yeah. It’s just not a common name at all.
I don’t know. Names sort of come to me in the vacuum of a dream. They just appear to me sometimes and I’m like, That’s the name. That’s it. I don’t know. Some of these names will come from a memory from childhood or they’ll come from a person I met once at a party or something. But I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you where it came from. I think it’s just a crazy coincidence. Do you have a relative named Larry?
Not that I’m aware of. Speaking of millennial Jews: Donnie has a small role for a young, pre-fame Seth Rogen. What do you remember of casting and working with him?
He came in and he auditioned, and our casting director, Joseph Middleton, had worked on Freaks and Geeks.
Ah, that explains it.
Now there’s a lot of young child and teenage actors in Los Angeles that are really, really experienced and they know what they’re doing and they can deliver. As opposed to if you’re shooting on location in a city that is not so show-business centered. You’re getting a vast number of people coming in to read, even for the day player roles, who are really good people. So Seth came in and he’d been on Freaks and Geeks, and I’d only seen a couple episodes, and it was clear that we were getting somebody who was really, really gifted. It was just clear that he had a lot going on, that he was really smart, and that he was … I remember Joseph telling me, “Yeah, he’s writing scripts.” He was, like, 19 years old at the time. He was like, “Yeah, he’s already writing scripts, and he’s a stand-up comedian, and he’s doing stand-up comedy at age 19. He can’t even drink at the clubs where he’s doing stand-up.” And I’m like, Wow. Okay. This kid’s doing stand-up comedy at 19? That’s awesome. This guy has got a big future. So I wanted him in the movie. We’ve got to put him in here somewhere. So it was him and Alex Greenwald, who was really more of a musician and was the sweetest guy. The nicest, gentlest people you’ll ever meet, and they’re playing the most evil villains in the whole story.
Another thing that sticks out is, of course, the scene where Beth Grant goes to Donnie’s mom to ask her to fly Sparkle Motion to their TV appearance while she defends Swayze’s character, and when the mom is reluctant, Beth yells, “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion!” How did you keep it together while watching her do that bit?
I didn’t. I ruined at least one take laughing. I had to recuse myself from the monitor area. The director had to recuse himself. I literally moved away with my headphones and let Beth Grant deliver with such passion, because it was so funny. Because Beth, she understood that character so well and she didn’t play it any other way than with complete belief and sincerity that this woman will do anything to defend the honor of her motivational speaker and her guru. If you’re ever laughing like that on set, first of all, you hope that it’s accurate laughter and you’re not deluding yourself about the material being funny. But in this case, it was so great. It was such an ambitious schedule and all the challenges of making a film. For the actors to come in and make you laugh, that’s the best part of filmmaking — when your actors are spinning some comedy gold for you.
Do you find it frustrating when some people don’t get that parts of the movie are supposed to be funny?
I’m glad that you said that, because, again, there’s nothing better than laughing on set. Except, perhaps, laughing in a theater filled with other people. For me, being on a movie set is like being at church and being in a movie theater is like being at a super-church. It’s like a church on steroids. So to have a legitimate laugh and to have comedy exist within a larger blend of genres — I’m proud of any of the comedic moments that exist in my work because it’s my favorite part of the process, certainly. And I think every movie needs at least one laugh. Every movie needs a moment of levity. The darker my movies get, I just want to make sure I balance it out with some amount of humor.
What are you working on right now? It’s been so long since we’ve seen a Richard Kelly movie.
I know. It gives me stomach pains to think how long it’s been, but it’s for good reason in the sense that we were planning several movies and several different projects we’re hoping to do in succession. So I’ve just been getting all the scripts ready and we’ve just been making sure we have all the elements in place so that it’s going to be worth the wait and, hopefully, deliver. If people have expectations of me doing something exciting, it will hopefully satisfy the fans of not only Donnie Darko but my other two films. And people who appreciate my work, we just want to make sure we get it all right. There are constant delays in this business, and it’s often like trying to thread a needle while riding a roller coaster, but eventually, it happens. I certainly hope we’re really close, and I wish I could talk about all of it and I would love to talk about all of it. But I just don’t want to risk anything.
Well, if you do another dystopia, it’ll have to be even crazier than the last one, no? You once said, “If, in the news-scroll in Southland Tales, I put in something about Donald Trump running for president, I would’ve been like, ‘Nah, that’s too much. Gotta pull that out. That’s too ridiculous.’” And now, well, here we are.
Every day I wake up and I just … I keep waiting for the simulation to shut down or reveal itself. But I don’t know, we all seem to be experiencing it collectively.
This interview has been edited and condensed.