Richard Kelly: The Man Who Created Donnie Darko

June 7, 2016
As the cult favourite, Donnie Darko, re-enters Australian cinemas this week to celebrate its fifteenth anniversary, we look back at the strange and difficult career of its writer/director, Richard Kelly.

“I’m very confident on a movie set,” Richard Kelly once said. “I know what I’m doing. I feel like that’s what I’ve been waiting my whole life to do.” Like contemporaries such as Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Joe Carnahan and J.J Abrams, Richard Kelly is a filmmaker truly roused and emboldened by cinema itself. His films snap and zing with pop cultural references and barely disguised cinematic and televisual homage. Though his canon is a somewhat uneven one (and indeed, his very films themselves often share that quality), Kelly trades only in unusual, highly original fare, eschewing studio bombast for smaller, stranger fare, often delivered with a distinctly personal kick.

Richard Kelly was born and raised far from the bright lights of Hollywood in conservative Virginia. His father, Lane Kelly, worked for NASA on the Mars Viking Lander programme in the seventies, developing the camera that made the first pictures from the surface of Mars. Kelly is on record as saying that he found his cinematic calling after seeing Aerosmith’s 1989 David Fincher-directed music video “Janie’s Got A Gun” on MTV. Blown away by the video’s grand scale and epic-in-miniature brand of storytelling, Kelly knew that he wanted to be a filmmaker.

Richard Kelly

Richard Kelly

Although he was initially accepted into USC on an art scholarship, Kelly transferred to the film school. While a student, he made two shorts, The Goodbye Place and Visual Matter, a thirty-minute riff on the effects of experiments in teleportation. “That ended up hurting me more than it helped,” Kelly has said of the film. “It was this over the top, gonzo, completely absurd sci-fi thing with non-professional actors. It cost $60,000, but it was completely campy, so when people looked at the short, they went, ‘We don’t think that you can direct actors if that’s anything to go by.’ I was like, ‘Give me a good actor, and I can direct.’ It became really frustrating when the short came up and it gave people a reason to pass.”

Following his graduation from USC, Kelly spent a year working in a post-production house, acquiring skills in 3-D animation. He also began writing what would become the film that would put him on the map. “I came out of film school and I was broke, so I started writing,” Kelly has said. “I set out to write something ambitious, personal, and nostalgic about the late eighties. I thought about a jet engine falling onto a house, and no one knowing where it came from – it seemed to represent a death knell for the Reagan era – and I built the story around that.” The result was Donnie Darko, a trippy coming of age drama that worked in themes of time travel and madness. The screenplay initially attracted the attention of hipster actor Jason Schwartzman, who brought it to the attention of actress, Drew Barrymore, and her producing partner, Nancy Juvonen. Schwartzman eventually dropped out and was replaced by Jake Gyllenhaal in the titular role.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Richard Kelly on the set of Donnie Darko

Jake Gyllenhaal and Richard Kelly on the set of Donnie Darko

The experience of making the film, meanwhile, was a particularly taxing one for the writer/director. “I was literally losing five pounds per week on the set of Donnie Darko,” Kelly has revealed. “I was turning into this walking skeleton. I was becoming Donnie Darko! I started channeling Donnie, and Jake Gyllenhaal, playing Donnie, started channeling me. It was a subconscious thing going on between director and actor that I can’t even explain.” Despite its outlandish qualities, Donnie Darko was obviously a deeply personal project for Kelly. Though now hard to believe, the film was actually in danger of never getting a release. “The movie didn’t sell for four months, and all of a sudden, it looked like it was going straight to video, or that it would debut on the STARZ! Network on cable TV.” Donnie Darko did indeed sell, and the resulting film still stands as one of the true cult gems of the new millennium.

Since Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly has found it difficult to find that kind of cultural traction again. After writing the script for Tony Scott’s Domino (and overseeing a Director’s Cut of Donnie Darko), Kelly finally followed up his much loved debut in 2006 with the kaleidoscopic, big budget satire Southland Tales. Butchered by an uncaring studio, the film is an undeniable mess, but it remains perversely fascinating at every turn, with its mix of stunt casting, satirical grandstanding and visual set pieces. “Yeah, it was exhausting,” Kelly freely admitted to FilmInk of his unpleasant experience on the film.

Frank Langella, Cameron Diaz and Richard Kelly on the set of The Box

Frank Langella, Cameron Diaz and Richard Kelly on the set of The Box

After that, Kelly returned to a more modest mode of filmmaking with his impressive 2009 thriller The Box, where he once again effectively worked his own concerns into the narrative, despite basing it upon Richard Matheson’s short story Button, Button. Taking an interesting approach to cinematic adaptation, Kelly layered reams of personal detail (mostly to do with the unconventional life stories of his parents) into his unsettling take on Richard Matheson’s novella about a suburban couple (Cameron Diaz, James Marsden) lured into the middle of a moral and ethical conundrum. “This film is more personal than Donnie Darko and Southland Tales,” Kelly told FilmInk upon the release of The Box. “Cameron Diaz and James Marsden worked with my parents, and their story in the film is a reflection of my parents’ lives. Norma and Arthur’s characters are very closely based on them. My mother had the problem with her foot that Cameron’s character has in the film [four missing toes]; all of that is taken from real life, as is the fact that my father worked for NASA. So this is the most personal movie for me, believe it or not. I feel the most emotionally connected with this film out of the three.”

Disappointingly, The Box failed to, ahem, open well, and the difficult but prodigiously talented Richard Kelly hasn’t made another film since. There have been rumoured projects (namely the more traditional thrillers, Corpus Christi – produced by Eli Roth –and Amicus, which was set to star Nicolas Cage), but as of right now, the story of Richard Kelly – the creator of one of the most loved and debated cult films of the 2000s – looks to be one with an uncertain narrative…just like his films.

Donnie Darko is re-released in cinemas on June 9.

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