Donnie Darko (2001) is bewitching, beguiling and nigh-on impossible to categorise. You could describe it as a high-school movie, a sci-fi tale, a psychological thriller, a black comedy or even a horror film of sorts, because it is all of these things and more, a cult film of strange, wondrous beauty.
Set in October 1988, it centres on its eponymous protagonist, a troubled teen who sleepwalks and has disturbing dreams in which he is visited by a monstrous rabbit-man creature who warns him that the world will be coming to an end in 28 days.
Get the latest from the BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
Darko (played with remarkable intelligence and nuance by Jake Gyllenhaal) is beset by family difficulties, bullies and mental illness. Thankfully, he is aided in his quotidian struggle by a pair of great teachers (Noah Wyle and Drew Barrymore, both superb at the moral centre of the film) and new-girl-in-town Gretchen (Jena Malone).
The film is often darkly hilarious but, mirroring the trauma of its titular lead, its atmosphere is one of confusion and paranoia. All of which makes it an apt choice for a cinematic re-release in the age of Brexit and Trump.
Writer-director Richard Kelly, who was only 23 and had just graduated USC (University of Southern California) when he wrote the film, was on fine, relaxed form when we spoke to him on the phone in LA. He laughed frequently, punctuated his answers with “you know?” and corrected the interviewer good-naturedly when the latter mispronounced Jake Gyllenhaal’s surname: it’s Gyll as in Gillian rather than gill on a fish.
Is there anything about Donnie’s story that is autobiographical?
Yes (laughs). All of it. Not literally. I didn’t grow up seeing rabbits. A jet engine never fell on my house, but there’s plenty of me in the character of course. That’s undeniable.
I grew up in a suburban Virginia town not unlike it’s presented in the film: there was a woman named Grandma Death who stood by the side of the road near where I grew up, and she would open and close her mailbox; I was driving in my car with my dad, and we almost ran over a homeless person and I swerved to dodge him at the last minute; I got in arguments with my teachers about the curriculum; I used to sleepwalk when I was a kid. There’s just a lot of stuff from my childhood embedded in the narrative of the film.
It was Jake Gyllenhaal’s breakout role. Can you tell us about his casting?
Originally it was gonna be Jason Schwartzman. He had to withdraw for scheduling issues, and when Jake walked in the room it was clear that he was the one.
It’s an instinctual thing with me, and right away it was like: “You got the part.”
He’s played a lot of tortured men since who could almost be grown-up Donnie Darkos, in the likes of Jarhead, Nightcrawler, Enemy and Zodiac. What do you think of his career since?
He’s had an extraordinary career. He’s one of our greatest actors. I’m incredibly proud of the work that he’s done, and I’m amazed at how he’s continued to evolve as an artist. I continue to be amazed by his evolution.
Drew Barrymore’s production company played an important part in the release of the film. Can you tell us anything about that?
When you’re going to put together a film like this there is always an essential element, and that’s usually a movie star who has enough value to raise enough money for your budget. And Drew Barrymore was the essential element. When she agreed to sign on, with her company producing and obviously her playing the supporting role as Karen Pomeroy, that got us our funding.
What was the atmosphere on set like when you were making the film?
Terrifying (laughs). We shot the film in 28 days, which was obviously the length of the tangent universe [in the film]. We were living in the terrifying reality of this ambitious film, and we didn’t have enough time, and we didn’t have enough money, and I was a first-time director.
I was trying to tell this incredibly ambitious story with limited resources, and everyone was under a tremendous amount of pressure, and we had to deliver it. There was a lot of scepticism. When you’ve got a 25-year-old first-time director with this script that is incredibly unusual and provocative, a lot of people are nervous and sceptical and afraid.
There was an atmosphere of fear but also a passionate desire to pull it off, and everyone had faith that we were doing something that had potential for greatness. That’s filmmaking.
It was an incredibly intense experience. It was not a relaxed environment: high pressured but filled with a lot of passion and love.
The film was released six weeks after 9/11. Did the sombre mood in America affect the box office?
Absolutely. I don’t think anyone was in the mood to just go to the movies, and if they did want to it was probably for something that was happy. I think this is a very challenging, disturbing film in a lot of ways, and that’s not what people wanted to experience in the shadow of such a catastrophic tragedy.
I’m just enormously grateful the film made it to theatres at all, because for a long time that was not gonna happen.
Did Patrick Swayze have any qualms about playing such an unlikeable character?
I think he was really nervous about playing the role, but he was also ready to take a risk. He trusted me and he saw the scope and the ambition of the project and was pretty courageous in taking that role. It was unfortunate that the movie wasn’t a bigger success, because I wish he would’ve gotten a bigger boost from it. He was a really terrific actor and a good guy.
What were you hoping to achieve with the look of the film?
I wanted to seduce the audience from the opening shot. That’s the goal of any filmmaker – or it should be the goal of any filmmaker. I’ve always been a very visual person. That’s the greatest pleasure in filmmaking for me, the visual design strategy. Every shot is very meticulously designed.
Were there any other filmmakers who influenced the look of the film?
Many influences. So many filmmaking influences I can’t even begin to list all of them. I would say growing up it was the holy trinity of Zemeckis, Spielberg and Cameron. Those are the three big childhood influences. When I got to USC I started to expand beyond that holy trinity, but those were the foundational guys from my childhood.
What does Donnie Darko have to say about the world now?
I think the movie continues to resonate with younger people. It seems to be something that’s become like a rite of passage for teenagers now to discover the film. Because a teenager in 2016 is still responding to this film, that’s meaningful in some way.
I’m honoured people are still responding to this film and that they are identifying with Donnie as a character and also the ideas and the complexity of the narrative. You can see that people are still hungry for challenging narratives and that people are OK with mystery.