Despite all manner of early distribution problems, fifteen years before “Stranger Things” stunned the world with its own shrewd blend of sci-fi, Spielberg-ian touches, and ’80s nostalgia, writer/director Richard Kelly’s debut feature, Donnie Darko, set the template and emerged as arguably the first cult classic of the new millennium.
To celebrate the film’s 15th Anniversary, Arrow Films is giving the indie cult classic a long overdue big screen return in the UK in the form of a 4K restoration supervised and approved by Kelly and cinematographer Steven Poster. Audiences are currently being treated to the original theatrical version in an exclusive run at the BFI from the 16th December with Kelly in attendance, soon to be followed by a nationwide release from the 23rd December, 2016. The Director’s Cut, which has also been newly remastered, will also be available for screenings.
With Kelly having flown over to the UK to attend a number of screenings of the film for Q&A sessions, Dread Central caught up with him to get a little bit nostalgic, discussing the current zeitgeist of ’80s-tinged productions and how this brand-new 4K restoration has allowed his modern classic to finally receive the treatment it deserves…
Dread Central: You must be feeling pretty nostalgic right now being back in the UK for the screenings as that was where the film originally really started clicking with audiences and gaining momentum.
Richard Kelly: Absolutely. It was really the UK that embraced the film for the first time. We had a really rocky start for a multitude of reasons – less having to do with the film itself but just the timing and the circumstances after 9/11 and various things. But it was a year later when it was really embraced in the UK. It was a modest financial success, but a success nonetheless, so it’s great to be back here fifteen years later; and it’s great to have a really new, pristine 4K restoration. They’ve really done a lot of work on both versions of the film to enhance the quality, and I’m really excited for people to see it on the big screen and then also on Blu-ray. I think it’s terrific.
DC: You supervised the whole restoration process along with the film’s DP, Steven Poster. With Donnie Darko having been one of the first movies shot entirely on Kodak 800 stock, did that bring any additional challenges with it when it came to restoring the film?
RK: I think it might have been the first and only film shot on that stock. It really holds up. It’s beautiful because we needed to go back to the original negative to scan it. The detail is extraordinary. I remember Steve chose that stock you mentioned because we were shooting on anamorphic lenses and we had to make use of the stock that could be intangible in low light conditions. Going back to the 4K scan, I think that the detail, even in some of the night exteriors, is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, which is great.
DC: Arrow Films is releasing both the Theatrical and Director’s Cut together in this new release. When you edited the Director’s Cut, I understand that you found yourself exploring themes that you hadn’t fully figured out the first time round.
RK: Yeah. When it came to the Director’s Cut, there’s a lot more mythology from the time traveler’s book. I was even able to do some visual enhancements on some of the effects work in the Director’s Cut that was never finished properly. It was a very therapeutic process, and people will find a lot more there.
DC: The film was awash with cutting social commentaries that are still very relevant today. Would you agree that has been particularly instrumental in just how well the film has stood the test of time?
RK: The film takes place in 1988, but it was made in the year 2000. Ironically, it was made in an election year, and here we are in another election year (laughs) so I’m happy that there’s something of the film that remains timeless. It seems to connect with people on an emotional level, whether they’re fifteen or forty-five or sixty-five, because people can identify with the themes and the characters. I’m just grateful that people are still interested in the film all these years later.
DC: Coming to the cast, Jason Schwartzman was originally cast as Donnie, but due to schedules, Jake Gyllenhaal was tapped for the role, which ultimately turned out to be his breakout role, and the rest is history. I heard he was instrumental in Maggie Gyllenhaal playing his sister in the film.
RK: I think it was an idea that was suggested, and once I heard that, I was very enthusiastic and thought it would be an extraordinary opportunity to have a real-life brother and sister involved. And then they both brought a whole lifetime of experience to those scenes that they did together. It was a gift to have them both on screen.
DC: I’ve read that they were both quite competitive at that time in their careers. Did that lead to a lot of improvised brother/sister squabbling, or did they stick very closely to the script?
RK: A lot of it was scripted, but obviously they did bring an additional level of energy to the dinner table scene and they were able to play off of each other in a very authentic way. I’m always open to letting actors do improvisation so there was a little bit that was going on between them.
DC: I have to talk to you about Patrick Swayze, who not only put in a fantastic performance but brought so much more to the table than you could ever have expected.
RK: Patrick was great. He was really a lovely guy, and he and his wife were both lovely people. When we shot the infomercials, we actually shot those at Patrick’s ranch when we were in pre-production. His wife brought out his ’80s wardrobe so those are all his clothes and that was his compound there. He was just so generous in bringing in his own resources and letting us pull it off because we didn’t have enough money or enough time to shoot all that stuff so he was great.
DC: It was very much “you against the world” at first when you showed the producers and crew what you wanted Frank the Bunny to look like, but once filming began, they were all eating their hats.
RK: People were really unsure how it was going to look because it was so unusual. But when Steven Poster lit it on set and when people saw the dailies, everyone was so freaked out by it that they knew it was going to get a response. I think that when people read the script, they weren’t sure whether Frank was supposed to be frightening or comical. No one was really sure what the emotional response was intended to be. I knew he had to be very disturbing looking and to be very evocative, and once people saw it, then they understood my intentions.
DC: What you did with Donnie Darko in 2000 has become very much part of the zeitgeist now with many films and TV shows taking inspiration from the ’70s and ’80s. Have any of these recent releases struck a particular chord with you, and would you be interested in writing/directing something along these same lines again?
RK: I try and watch a lot of the new shows. I have actually not yet seen “Stranger Things.” Everyone asks me about that and I definitely plan on watching it as soon as I can. Would I do something similar? I’m so focused on my new projects right now and moving forward. I’m kind of done with the ’80s. I’ve done that and been there so I’m looking forward to other times and future scenarios right now. But I’m excited about people exploring that period, and I’m very happy if people are seeing any inspiration in Donnie Darko obviously.
DC: So, can you shine a light on these projects you’re focusing on now?
RK: I can’t comment on anything specific but we are working diligently on various projects and hopefully next year you’re going to see something really concrete happen.
The Donnie Darko 15th Anniversary 4K Restoration screens at the BFI from 17th December and in cinemas nationwide from 23rd December. BFI tickets are on sale now!
This 4K restoration is also available available now in a limited box set (Region B/2) with the following irresistible bounty:
- Brand new 4K restorations of both the Theatrical Cut and the Director’s Cut from the original camera negatives produced by Arrow Films exclusively for this release, supervised and approved by director Richard Kelly and cinematographer Steven Poster
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations of both cuts
- Original 5.1 audio (DTS-HD on the Blu-ray)
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- Audio commentary by writer-director Richard Kelly and actor Jake Gyllenhaal on the Theatrical Cut
- Audio commentary by Kelly, producer Sean McKittrick, and actors Drew Barrymore, Jena Malone, Beth Grant, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Katharine Ross, and James Duval on the Theatrical Cut
- Audio commentary by Kelly and filmmaker Kevin Smith on the Director’s Cut
- Brand-new interviews with Richard Kelly and others
- The Goodbye Place, Kelly’s 1996 short film, which anticipates some of the themes and ideas of his feature films
- The Donnie Darko Production Diary, an archival documentary charting the film’s production with optional commentary by cinematographer Steven Poster
- Twenty deleted and alternate scenes with optional commentary by Kelly
- Archive interviews with Kelly, actors Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, James Duval, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Holmes Osborne, Noah Wyle, and Katharine Ross, producers Sean McKittrick, Nancy Juvonen, Hunt Lowry, and Casey La Scala, and cinematographer Steven Poster
- Three archive featurettes: They Made Me Do It, They Made Me Do It Too, and #1 Fan: A Darkomentary
- Storyboard comparisons
- B-roll footage
- Cunning Visions infomercials
- Music video: “Mad World” by Gary Jules
- TV spots
- Exclusive collector’s book containing new writing by Nathan Rabin, Anton Bitel, and Jamie Graham, an in-depth interview with Richard Kelly, introduction by Jake Gyllenhaal, and contemporary coverage, illustrated with original stills and promotional materials
- Limited edition packaging featuring new artwork by Candice Tripp
We’ll leave you with the official 15th anniversary trailer: