Last year marked the 15th anniversary of Donnie Darko, and Arrow Films is making sure that the film celebrates in style. They've teamed up with director Richard Kelly for a 4K restoration of the beloved cult movie, and following its UK theatrical release that began late last year, the 4K presentation is now coming to big screens in the US (and on a new Blu-ray release this April). Recently, I had the great pleasure of speaking with Kelly to reflect on the making of Donnie Darko, restoring it in 4K, potentially returning to the world of Southland Tales, and the intriguing multiverse connection between his movies.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today, Richard. How did the restoration and the theatrical re-release of Donnie Darko come about? Did Arrow Films approach you, and was this something that you had been wanting to do anyway?

Richard Kelly: Yes, I'd always wanted to do a restoration of the film because it was never properly maintained, and it never looked as good as it should. Arrow acquired the rights and approached me about doing the restoration and I had a window where I could devote some time to supervising it, and it worked out perfectly. They found the original negative, and [Donnie Darko cinematographer] Steven Poster and I went into Deluxe and we really did a meticulous restoration of the film. We were able to do some more visual effects enhancements in the director's cut, specifically at the end. It was a real joy to do. It was a great experience. I'm just really happy with the image quality now. It's on a whole new level than it was before.

So you were pretty involved with the restoration itself? You were able to be a little more hands-on this time around in getting it out there?

Richard Kelly: Yeah, absolutely. Steven and I were very involved in the whole process, and Arrow is very collaborative with filmmakers. Films are going to be around long after their makers. These films are going to be around forever. I'm always going to be a caretaker to any film that I make. I want to make sure that these images are maintained with this new technology that we have. It's important to be involved and to stay involved. I'm one of those people who really needs to have my fingerprints on everything that I do, it's just my nature.

It is your baby, so you want to see it taken care of. It's awesome to see that Arrow is also going to be releasing the Blu-ray box set and that they are about to kick off their US theatrical release, and I know they had a UK re-release late last year. When Donnie Darko originally came out, it seemed to resonate more initially with the UK audience. What was it like for you to bring it back to Europe and see it on the big screen?

Richard Kelly: It was great. The UK audience is so supportive of the film. It's really inspiring, because the film is very much about the American suburbs and teenagers in a very American story. To see this movie resonate in other countries so deeply is just really encouraging, and maybe a signifier of how universal it is in its themes. You can make a very specific story set in a very specific moment in time in America, but it can resonate around the world. We aren't necessarily divided by our cultural definition. We can be specific about our stories and where and when they take place—it doesn't need to be an impediment to translation around the globe. A lot of big-budget studio films get homogenized to translate internationally. I think audiences are clearly open to experiencing specific stories.


Richard Kelly: When we made this film, there was a lot of pressure initially to not set it in 1988, and to set it in the present day. I was very adamant that it needed to be set in that specific timeframe. A lot of it was thematic and the political landscape that existed then, but it was also the music, Echo & the Bunnymen and INXS and Tears for Fears and Joy Division and all of these musicians, they were so specific to that era. As it turns out, almost all of those musicians are UK-based post-punk new wave I guess is the category that they exist in. All of those songs came out of London, really. Maybe that's part of the reason why the film resonated so deeply over there as well.

It definitely is encapsulates that time period. Did you have any specific songs in mind when you were writing the scenes? Was Duran Duran in your head when you were writing the Sparkle Motion dance scene? Did you write anything specifically with those songs in mind?

Richard Kelly: Yeah, Tears for Fears' "Head Over Heels" was written into the script. I designed that whole thing around that song. The opening was choreographed to INXS and we had to switch things around, and very successfully, with Echo & the Bunnymen, putting that in the front of the movie because of money issues after Sundance when we premiered it, but I was able to kind of rearrange things for the director's cut with those songs.

I would say a third if not half of the songs were written into the script. Then the rest were discovered and placed with the assistance of my music supervisors Manish Raval and Tom Wolfe, who were really, really great and strategic in helping us secure all of that music. As far as the Sparkle Motion sequence, that one we actually shot to the Pet Shop Boys. It was choreographed to the Pet Shop Boys, but we could not afford to license "West End Girls," so we ended up replacing it with Duran Duran in post-production, but it worked out well for us.

Patrick Swayze's performance as Jim in Donnie Darko has always stood out to me because it's so against the type of character that people may have expected him to play. You really brought him into new, dark territory in Donnie Darko.

Richard Kelly: Yeah, that was definitely a challenging role to play because he's one of the big villains of the piece. The reveal of the character was thematically tied into the idea of children being exploited in Sparkle Motion and the hypocrisy of the community putting these teenage girls, sending them to kind of the Star Search competition and child beauty pageants and the whole subculture. The character was sort of tied into that theme of exploitation.

Then, casting Drew Barrymore in the role [of Karen Pomeroy], and she had been a young child actress and had to endure a lot. It all kind of tied together. That was definitely a challenge to cast the role [of Jim], because no one wants to play that kind of unpleasant character. It's not fun to play that kind of character, but Patrick was willing to step outside himself and take that risk. I think he gave a terrific performance. I'd always hoped it would lead to a bigger career renaissance for him. That was always my hope. The film just didn't connect with people initially.

To me, Donnie Darko is such a re-watchable movie because when you watch it at different stages of your life it seems to have different meanings and you notice different things standing out that you maybe hadn't before. Why do you think it has such a re-watchable factor to it? It has this dedicated following that has only increased over the years, and it's really become this phenomenon.

Richard Kelly: I feel like it's two things. One is the aesthetics. I feel like aesthetics trump everything in cinema in the sense that the gateway to any story is the aesthetic presentation, which includes the performances by the actors, the cinematography, the production design, the music, the sound design—everything encapsulates the aesthetic presentation. If that works in synergy, you are connecting with people. If that gateway is opened, then they get to digest the story and the themes and the characters and the design of the narrative. Then, for whatever reason, we had this alchemy where the aesthetics were working and they were connecting with people, and then we had this really intricate story that is hopefully worthy of revisiting. It just all came together.

I feel like there's a lot of humor and it's funny in a lot of places, too, which helps. I'm proudest of that, because there's nothing better than laughing on set when Beth Grant is emotionally pleading to Mary McDonnell at a house in Long Beach, and I was laughing so hard I had to walk away from the monitors because I was ruining the take. That's a great feeling, when actors are delivering dialogue and it's connecting and it's funny. It's been really encouraging. If anything, the fact that the movie continues to resonate is just making me really focus on my writing to make sure it's up to the standards that people may have or the expectations that people may have moving forward.

Is there any specific type of story that you want to tell in the future?

Richard Kelly: Yeah, I would say that moving forward hopefully people will start to see that all of my films are connected, and they all kind of exist in these connected worlds. There's a bigger kind of science fiction narrative that I'm trying to build. I'm encouraged to continue to do that. I have been working on a lot of projects that are all different. I don't want to just keep repeating myself.

I definitely want to continue making science fiction films. I also want to make political films. I want to tell original stories and I want to explore history. I want to look into the past, but I also want to look into the future, and I want to really think about where we're headed as a society. There's a lot that I want to do. I definitely see it all kind of connecting in a lot of ways to my first film, and really all three films that I've made, definitely.

Is it safe to assume that Donnie Darko and Southland Tales and The Box could really exist in the same cinematic universe, or is it more just their shared style?

Richard Kelly: I would say that they're tangent universes. I think they're connected in a multiverse way, but I definitely think there is a thematic connection and there's definitely a science fiction mythology to connect all of them. I think there's stylistic connection, but there's definitely narrative connective tissue as well.

That's great to hear, because Southland Tales, just as much as Donnie Darko, is starting to get that same word of mouth, "you've got to check this out" vibe to it. It's also very relevant today, just like Donnie Darko. It's amazing that these movies, years down the line, seem to be increasing in relevancy. More people seem to be tuning into Southland Tales, and that's really encouraging to see.

Richard Kelly: Yeah, that's the film that I want to revisit, and I want to finish it more than anything. I see it as an unfinished endeavor, really. There's a lot more there and there's a bigger, longer story there to tell. These films definitely stay with me and I often shoot so much additional footage that they can't be contained in a proper two-hour theatrical release window. I work on them in a new world now of people digesting narratives in different ways and longer structural presentations.

I'm encouraged to continue pursuing the completion of Southland Tales—that's very high on my priority list, so we're definitely hoping to do that. Given our current political landscape, it almost feels strangely understated compared to what we're looking at right now. Never in a million years would I have even considered a Donald Trump presidency being a reality when we were making that film.

If possible, would you like to bring back some of the characters from that film if everyone were game to do that?

Richard Kelly: I want to realize the graphic novel prequels [to Southland Tales]. That was always my plan, was to do this sort of animated prequel of the first three chapters to realize them with animation. There's actually an opportunity to incorporate live action as well. The full Southland Tales is kind of like a sequel and a prequel for a meta narrative in the sense that Dwayne [Johnson]'s character, Boxer Santaros, has co-written this screenplay within the movie with Krysta Now [Sarah Michelle Gellar's character].

In this screenplay within the movie, it takes place in the far future, or further into the future. There would be a way to realize those elements via live action and then the rest of it via animation. Again, it's still in the planning stages. There is a chance it could happen. We'll see. I have ambitious plans for Southland Tales. Everything has to happen organically and it has a price tag attached to it. We'll see what happens. I'm encouraged by the support that people seem to be expressing for that film, and I'm grateful for it, certainly.

Before I let you go, are there any projects on the horizon that you can tease?

Richard Kelly: I wish I could talk about them. I wish. There's tons of stuff that I've been working on. It's all big, ambitious stuff, and it takes forever to put these things together. I'm excited to get Donnie on the big screen again to kind of remind people that it's mainstream. I'm trying to push this into the mainstream. I'm appreciative of the word "cult," believe me, I take that as a badge of honor. The more mainstream people can see that this is, the more it can help me move my projects further into the mainstream, and hopefully get to realize Southland Tales as well, which has real potential. There's more there for audiences to embrace. I have lots of stuff in the planning stages and I wish I could get more specific, but I would get in trouble if I confirmed anything and I don't want to jinx any of it either. We are very close to hopefully many projects happening in succession. So stay tuned.


To see if the 4K restoration of Donnie Darko will be playing in a theater near you, visit:

  • Derek Anderson
    About the Author - Derek Anderson

    Raised on a steady diet of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books and Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Derek has been fascinated with fear since he first saw ForeverWare being used on an episode of Eerie, Indiana.

    When he’s not writing about horror as the Senior News Reporter for Daily Dead, Derek can be found daydreaming about the Santa Carla Boardwalk from The Lost Boys or reading Stephen King and Brian Keene novels.