Filmmaking Photo of Richard Kelly at work

Published on April 10th, 2003 | by Nik Huggins

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Richard Kelly

On Monday the 21st October 2002 the Future Movies team had the rare and exclusive opportunity to interview Richard Kelly, writer and director of the movie “Donnie Darko“. Richard Kelly is a 27-year-old first time director who has created a unique and entertaining vision with “Donnie Darko”. The film opens in the UK on Friday 25th October, with a buzz, proliferated mostly by word of mouth, preceding it that seems to grow by the day. The film has already accumulated a large cult following in the USA following its release last autumn and it looks set to do the same on this side of the Atlantic. Richard made time for us during his busy 5 day British promotional tour, and we had the pleasure of asking him about his debut film and his route into filmmaking.

Future Movies: Who are your major cinematic influences?

Richard Kelly: Well, I’d say the two biggest influences when it comes to this movie are: Terry Gilliam and Peter Weir. I looked at this as kind of like a combination of their influences really. Terry being the mad moral anarchist, the brilliant mind behind movies like “Brazil” and “12 Monkeys”; the time travel narrative in that film really was really inspiring. Then there’s Peter Weir who works in more muted existential way; dealing with metaphysics in films such as “Picnic at Hanging Rock”, “The Last Wave” or “Fearless” or even “The Truman Show”. I liked his sense of satire but also the grounded emotional reality, in the way that he often uses young performers to express big ideas, such as the culture clash between the Amish community and a Philadelphia cop in “Witness”. These are two filmmakers who are on different ends of the spectrum, but who deal with a lot of the same arenas. People wouldn’t think of putting them in the same category.

Future Movies: They both seem to look at the human condition from two different viewpoints

Richard Kelly: Yes, they both have profound things to say that are in some ways similar.

Future Movies: In relation to “Donnie Darko” specifically, we thought is was refreshing to see the experience of being a teenager handled in a way that wasn’t patronising, or exploited for laughs. What do you think of the traditional depiction of young people in Contemporary Hollywood? And with Donnie Darko did you actively try and move away from this or subvert it in some way?

Richard Kelly: Yeah well I think a lot of films made about teenagers carry the stigma of the “Teen Film”. You almost roll your eyes at this because you know that everyone is gonna appear at the Prom in the third act, dissing each other and whatever, and it is kind of patronising. I think that 95% of the material geared towards teenagers, whether it is pop music or films or Television programmes is really patronising and really inaccurate. It creates a situation which all points, in many ways, to why those kids shot up Columbine (the high school shootings in the US a few years ago) when they have been patronised for so long and fed these images and ideas that are completely outdated and unrealistic. Smart and relevant films about teenagers are so few and far between and I just wanted to try and turn it around. There are elements of the teen film in “Donnie Darko”; you have some of the archetypes such as the new girl in town, the bullies, the annoying gym teacher. I wanted there to be recognisable signals that viewers would relate to but that existed on a different level to a point where we could poke fun at these plot contrivances. We put the whole package together in a way that is really provocative, that will hopefully speak to young people and will give them a puzzle to try to solve, as opposed to just giving them the Prom, and the dissing.

Future Movies: It was refreshing in that way. Similarly Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World”, although completely different in a lot of ways, was a lot more accurate than 90% of the drivel that is grouped under the “Teen Movie” tag.

Richard Kelly: I thought that “Ghost World” was an amazing film. Terry Zwigoff did such a great job in making the film speak to a lot of people it. It definitely spoke to me and many of my friends. You see in Steve Buscemi’s character an older version of Thora Birch’s character and you see how being alienated and disenfranchised is not something that is specific to any one generation.

Future Movies: Another thing we liked about the film that leads on from that is the way that Donnie is often riddled with doubt, uncertainty and frustration about whom he is, who he is becoming and where his life is going. Did you ever lose faith in your own ability to get this film made?

Richard Kelly: I think you always run into moments where you wake up in the middle of the night and question what you are doing, and come to the conclusion that this is a disaster and that you should go and work on Wall Street and join the herd. But I think that you’ve just got to keep pushing forward every day and be relentless in chasing success and making it in Hollywood. If you look at any successful person coming out of Hollywood in this business, regardless of whether or not they really have talent, because not everyone does, the one thing the all have in common is that at some point they have been relentless about putting themselves out there and making someone believe in them in order to give them an opportunity. It takes time, it certainly doesn’t happen overnight and it although it happened very quickly for me there was a tremendous amount of hard work. Everyone deals with rejection, my way of dealing with it was to just become more confident and more relentless, it’s the only way to deal with it.

Future Movies: Where did the character of “Frank” come from and what or who inspired him?

Richard Kelly: I knew there was a major plot point in the film that dealt with a guy in a Halloween costume who ends up becoming a messenger. When it came to deciding what the Halloween costume would be I immediately thought of a Rabbit, mostly because I was going to make a literary reference to the novel “Watership Down”, which was going to be a subplot in the film (subsequently omitted) where the teacher played by Drew Barrymore replaces the Graham Greene book with “Watership Down” because the former gets banned. It was one of my favourite books growing up and I thought that there was a real irony in a rabbit being this fragile animal, one of natures’ most innocent and harmless creatures. Frank is a monstrous version of this, and it came to a point, where due to the irony, it had to be a rabbit.

Some people said, “Oh you’re just referencing “Harvey” (a film from the fifties starring James Stewart where the main character has an imaginary friend named Harvey who is a six foot tall white bunny who nobody else, including the audience, can see) but I have never even seen the movie, it never occurred to me.

Future Movies: Its funny because before I saw “Donnie Darko”, “Harvey” was the first thing I thought of on learning something about the plot, but when I watched the film I didn’t even think about it. So I don’t think you made too many allusions to it.

Richard Kelly: I was aware of the film “Harvey”, and many critics have come up with the sound bite: “Harvey gone Bad!”.

Future Movies: The visual impact of the film was particularly striking. And one sequence in particular that has stayed with me was the long take which moves through the school in slow motion to the soundtrack of a “Tears for Fears” song.Can you talk about what you were trying to do in that shot?

Richard Kelly: I knew that we were going to choreograph it in a certain way. That was one of the songs that was actually written into the script: “Head over Heals” by Tears for Fears, its one of my favourite songs. I knew that it would suggest this feeling of high school, such an absurd and horrible world. The song had a romantic “lets get through this” quality to it and I knew that I wanted to introduce every character here. This sequence foreshadows the entire movie; showing the relationships between all the pivotal characters and how the mysteries of the plot are going to be solved. It takes you through the whole story, right there; it’s like a mini movie in and of itself. It was a lot of fun choreographing the whole sequence and editing the song to fit it. The movie can be viewed structurally like an opera or musical; there are five musical interludes that hopefully mean something to the story.

Future Movies: The soundtrack was excellent, featuring excerpts of “Joy Division”, “Echo and the Bunnymen”…

Richard Kelly: There’s actually a lot of British Music in there.

Future Movies: As a first time filmmaker how did you manage to get “Donnie Darko” made, and how did you manage to maintain what we conceive to be artistic control over the entire process?

Richard Kelly: A lot of begging and a lot of screaming and yelling! It was a year and two months of meeting after meeting after meeting, and the response was always: “no, you’re too young, its not gonna happen” and then it landed in Drew Barrymore’s office (the films’ executive producer and one of its co-stars) and she and Nancy Juvonen (another executive producer) read it and they wanted to be involved and when that happened everyone said well now we have to give you the money because Drew Barrymore wants to do it. She put it just over the edge when she got involved.

In terms of retaining creative control, there were a lot of fights. Many people wanted me to cut the movie way down, they wanted me to add a voice-over that explains the ending, there were so many things they wanted us to do that was so painful and at times incredibly frustrating. But it’s your first shot, your first movie and if it isn’t well received you may not get another opportunity. I knew that I wanted to make films for the rest of my life and I knew that I would have to fight like a madman to get what I wanted, and fortunately I seemed to survive that.

Future Movies: Were you disappointed with the initial reception in the US?

Richard Kelly: You know at that point I had to practically chop off an arm to get it into the theatres. There was a four-month period where they we didn’t even know if it was going to make it onto the cinema screen because people were so baffled by the film, that the studio didn’t know what to do with it. The fact that it even got released, especially after September 11th, I was just so relieved I didn’t care if only one person saw it. I wish it could have had a wider release but I uses it was always meant to be a cult film.

Future Movies: Are you happy with that cult tag for the film?

Richard Kelly: Oh yeah, I am just glad it came out, and subsequently it has gained a significant following on DVD and stuff. I wish it could have done better in the cinema but I have no complaints. It would have definitely helped my career a lot more if it had made money because I would probably be directing my next film by now, but that has taken a little longer but that’s nothing to complain about. I am just glad it got out there.

Future Movies: Do you think that Hollywood today finds it safer to revisit the same ideas over and over again than it does to make a more original but potentially riskier movie?

Richard Kelly: Definitely, because of the amount of money invested by people who generally try and go for the ideas that have previously worked in the past rather than invest in an idea that might not work. You basically just have to keep working away and hopefully you will get lucky.

Future Movies: Do you have any advice for any potential filmmakers out there eager to follow in your footsteps?

Richard Kelly: Just write a lot, believe in your script, and find a couple of scenes that really work and try to get these shot as a short film. You can do this reasonably easily and inexpensively, and it works. Wes Anderson (director of “the Royal Tenenbaums”), for example, did this for his first break into the industry.

Future Movies: Have you any ideas at this time about future projects?

Richard Kelly: I have several projects in the pipeline, the most advanced of which we will hopefully start shooting early next year.

Interview by Nik Huggins and Mark Salter. Photography by Johan De Silva. Future Movies would like to extend our thanks firstly to Richard for his time and effort, and to Zoë Flower of the EM Foundation for making this interview possible.


About the Author

Nik Huggins

Cinema has fascinated me for as long as I can remember, and when something takes hold of your life so completely it's only natural to want to shout about it. To the relief of everyone who gets bored with me harping on about great movies they'll never see, I started writing for Future Movies in the summer of 2001.


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