Richard Kelly Interview #1
Writer/director Richard Kelly tapped into the zeitgeist of American culture in his debut project Donnie Darko. Critically acclaimed and almost universally loved, Kelly talks to Chris Neumer about the stresses of being an extremely young director, why Drew Barrymore is a life-saver and the challenges of marketing one of the most unusual films in recent memory.
CHRIS NEUMER: How are you doing this morning?
RICHARD KELLY: I’m good.
CHRIS NEUMER: I’m just glad we finally got the chance to talk. Fourth time’s the charm apparently.
RICHARD KELLY: I’ve been really busy, I apologize for that.
CHRIS NEUMER: I’ve got your voice on tape now. That’s the important part.
RICHARD KELLY: Good.
CHRIS NEUMER: I saw a quote of yours somewhere online, it said, “I have very fond memories [of the eighties], but I recognize how screwed up things were.” I liked how that seemed to be the prevailing theme throughout Donnie Darko.
RICHARD KELLY: Well, if you look at it, 1988 was on the surface a very uneventful year in America history. Very little happened other than the Bush/Dukakis election and the summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea. You look back at that year in history and compare it to a year like 1991 or 2001 or any year we’ve had since and something catastrophic or monumental has always occurred. The end of the ’80’s was this calm, tranquil kind of winding down period, I think. There was a lot of stuff brewing beneath the surface that I thought needed to come back to haunt us later. The film isn’t meant to make any specific political statement against a political party or group. It was just supposed to capture the essence that there was perhaps some sort of, something brewing beneath the surface that we were going to pay for later.
CHRIS NEUMER: Can you be any more specific than ‘something brewing beneath the surface’?
RICHARD KELLY: A period of self-indulgence was coming to an end. A lot of teenagers were starting to unravel. I remember a gun that was pulled in ’89 in my high school. A kid pulled a gun during a standardized test and was whisked off to a mental hospital and no one heard from him again and it wasn’t really spoken of ever again except for one little newscast. I see that as a precursor to something like Columbine. I think you’re seeing a lot more kids being medicated, being put on drugs by their parents and therapists, pop psychology and the infomercial culture is growing.
CHRIS NEUMER: I’m taking it then that you’re not a big fan of putting kids on medicine right away then.
RICHARD KELLY: Well, you know, it wasn’t meant to indict medicine as a way of therapy, some people can benefit from medication, I’m not saying that, but I think there is a tendency to over-prescribe. Particularly with Ritalin, for parents to be taken advantage of by a doctor, a greedy irresponsible doctor, who is saying that your kid has attention deficit disorder, which I think is grossly over diagnosed. I think the kids are just lazy.
CHRIS NEUMER: There we go!
RICHARD KELLY: For the parents to just prescribe Ritalin that’s just a way for them to say, “I don’t have to deal with it’. It’s not my fault, it’s ADD. He’s not lazy, he just needs someone to motivate him. You see a lot of that happening. Clearly that pop prescription of that drug became really big in the late ’80’s, so I think that’s a little suspect.
CHRIS NEUMER: You were what, in eighth grade in ’88?
RICHARD KELLY: Yeah.
CHRIS NEUMER: I was right there with you. No one pulled a gun in my school, but–
RICHARD KELLY: Well, it happened just once. It was during a standardized test in a 9th grade homeroom classroom. He held his class hostage for 10 minutes and they talked him down. The cops came, pulled him away and it was like he was never seen or heard from again. It was in the news for that one afternoon.
CHRIS NEUMER: This was out in Virginia?
RICHARD KELLY: Mmm hmmm. If that happened today, people would be flipping out based on what has already happened.
CHRIS NEUMER: Yeah and Extra would try to buy the rights.
RICHARD KELLY: Yeah.
CHRIS NEUMER: But on the same topic. One of the characters whom I enjoyed the most was Cherita Chen. It was like you didn’t treat her with any kid gloves. Here was this girl who was just emotionally brutalized. And every high school had like five of these kids. Everyone knew they were there and if you’re watching some movie with Freddie Prinze Jr. or Jennifer Love Hewitt, you’re not seeing those people. The losers can talk to all the cool people, the cool people just make fun of them behind their backs. This was totally different.
RICHARD KELLY: That was one of the most important characters. I was a little worried that they would make me cut her out. “What’s she doing there? She’s not doing anything.” Well, she’s adding everything. She’s the whole point of this horrific environment that high school creates where kids are so maliciously cruel to each other. There are always 4-5 that are the scapegoats and the targets for everyone. They’re the victims of the worst kind of verbal, psychological abuse you can imagine and it permanently damages these people. Her character was meant to put a human face on that character type. In all these other teen movies, if someone’s an outcast, it’s what’s-her-face in She’s All That–
CHRIS NEUMER: Rachael Leigh Cook? The girl with the glasses and ponytail?
RICHARD KELLY: Nerdy glasses and a ponytail! She’s ugly. But take off the glasses and the pony tail and wow!
CHRIS NEUMER: My God! I never saw it coming.
RICHARD KELLY: I would never have figured it out. Things like that just insults the viewer. The fact that it makes money is just insulting and embarrassing to our culture.
CHRIS NEUMER: I take it you’re not a big fan of the latest N’Sync movie then.
RICHARD KELLY: I didn’t see it. If kids enjoy that stuff, fine. I think it’s just shallow and kind of processed cheese. I have nothing against processed cheese every now and then…
CHRIS NEUMER: Sometimes you just need something deeper. I can’t come up with any cheese examples sticking with your analogy. It certainly came off though. I know you originally had Jason Schwartzman signed on as the character of Donnie.
RICHARD KELLY: Yeah.
CHRIS NEUMER: I think one of the nicest things with this was that, if I was reading the script, I would kind of expect a Jason Schwartzman to play Donnie. But when you got Jake, he was this regular guy whom you could relate to. I don’t know if he was right for the part on paper, but he made it so.
RICHARD KELLY: Jason is an amazing actor, but he had a scheduling conflict and it didn’t work out. I’m so glad that we got Jake. Jason had a lot to do with getting this movie off the ground because when he became involved it really validated me as a director and his agent sent the script to Drew Barrymore so… I worship Rushmore, I think that’s one of the best films of the last couple of years.
CHRIS NEUMER: And you were what, 22-23 when this was going down?
RICHARD KELLY: When I wrote the script I was 22-23. When I directed it I was 25. It took a year or two to convince people that I could direct it.
CHRIS NEUMER: Was there any one little idea or nugget from which this film stemmed? I remember your Madden analogy on the director’s commentary, but wasn’t sure if there was more.
RICHARD KELLY: That was the inspiration for that particular scene, but for the whole film, I think I remember an urban legend where a piece of ice fell from the wing of a jet plane and destroyed some kids house near where I live. He wasn’t home at the time. I just remember that as being this urban legend and it became a jet engine and they can’t find the plane. That became the key event in the film and I built the whole story around that.
CHRIS NEUMER: It worked out well. It seems like a marketing department’s nightmare though. Did that ever cause you any problems?
RICHARD KELLY: I think that it’s a challenge to market, but if you go back on the DVD and look at the trailer and some TV spots that aired very briefly because they didn’t have much money, they did a really good job of selling it. They had it skewed toward the horror film direction, but they were also trying to put it out on Halloween. The release was kind of unfortunate, we got lost immediate in the shuffle. We played for a long time in the art house theatres but we never really got a wide release. I think they did the best job that they could because there’s a lot of visual stuff happening and we had the cast and this freakish quality. Certainly you can cut a great trailer and an unusual trailer where certain people are going to be like “I’ve got to see that” and other people are going to be like “That just looks weird”. So the movie is always going to speak to the more adventurous movie goer.
CHRIS NEUMER: I think that’s precisely because this is a very adventurously spirited movie. Usually when I say this, it’s a bad thing, but I don’t mean it as such here. Most of your scenes seemed like they could have been moved around within the context of the story—like a series of images, only they’re scenes—and still had the movie work well as a whole.
RICHARD KELLY: There is a very, very complicated structure to the film, but there is also a stream of conscious quality to it that kind of has the imagination of a high school kid who is day dreaming. It was designed for that, to have that kind of psychology to it, so there are some dream like transitional moments that happen that are placed for a reason, but also have that feeling that they could have popped up anywhere.
CHRIS NEUMER: I think that’s a compliment to the script. As I said, most of the time floating scenes are bad. But this leads to another question: this was an incredibly complex film with a tight script that was a good damn film. You’re a first time director, how did you accomplish this? I heard you lost 15 pounds during principal photography, so I’m figuring it wasn’t easy.
RICHARD KELLY: It was no picnic. It was a massive work deal. Your first film is just like—you’re on the chopping block, especially if you’re a younger guy because everyone’s like “You just got an opportunity that few people get at a young age so better not screw this up.” Everyone is right there ready to take your job away from you if you don’t fill the shoes. Everyone is ready to be an armchair quarterback or backseat driver, ready to come in and tell you how to do this and give you advice. It can get maddening if you don’t command everything and take control and command the set. I have no problem doing that, but at the same time it was difficult pulling this movie off in 28 days for $4.5 million—that was our budget. We had so much to do and it was such a complicated movie that it was a wild card whether certain things would work and a tremendously ambitious undertaking for a first film. Literally your adrenaline is coursing through your veins and you just start dropping weight no matter how much you eat. That’s just the way my body works I guess.
CHRIS NEUMER: You’d just mentioned wild cards. Were there any specific things you were thinking of?
RICHARD KELLY: They were wild cards in the sense that we had digital effects that hadn’t quite been done in that way before. We had a rabbit appearing. We had a time portal at the end of the film. We had a reverse time travel ending that you had to put together with a specific logic that audiences could piece together. We had a lot of challenges within the narrative that were intimidating, but locked into the script, so we couldn’t just cut out if it didn’t work. So we had to be incredibly meticulous and cognizant of how we designed these elements so that they fit together so that they worked as a whole.
CHRIS NEUMER: Just thinking about it, taking one step back, I’m surprised that anyone actually agreed to finance this script. It was just such a broad scoped script. Making a stupid romantic comedy seems a whole hell of a lot easier than this complex vision.
RICHARD KELLY: The effects were in the script and there were people who were exhilarated by that and there were people who thought it wouldn’t work. Really when Drew Barrymore signed on, one of the first things she said to me was, “Don’t change a thing. Make this script exactly as it is, because it’s so interesting and it’s so original. It would be a shame if this got corrupted.” With her getting involved, because she is such a big star, it gave us protection with the financiers. So they knew that even if it didn’t work they could put her face on a video box in Indonesia and get their money back.
CHRIS NEUMER: It’s nice to be able to count on those little things.
RICHARD KELLY: She really rescued this project. She and Nancy Juvonen and my producer Sean McKittrick–you should really probably talk to him too–he was on the set everyday. He’s my age. I knew him from college and he left his job at New Line to produce this movie and really put it all on the line. He was the lead producer on this film and he’s going to be producing my next feature too. I’ll give you his cell-phone number confidentially.
CHRIS NEUMER: Yeah, you don’t need to worry about me selling this info somewhere on line.
RICHARD KELLY: He could use a date, so maybe put it online somewhere.
CHRIS NEUMER: Did you ever find it hard to keep your name attached to this project as director as well as writer?
RICHARD KELLY: At the very beginning there was interest in buying the script, but they didn’t want me to direct it. Clearly, I’m a 23-year old novice. But I wasn’t going to relinquish it. Never. I was very adamant about this. Sean was adamant about this too because this was his first time producing. We knew that this was our ticket. We knew we were the ones who understood it better than anyone else and we were confident in our abilities to do it. I’ll never step off as director and you’ll never step off as producer. We were just so stubborn and incredibly confidant that eventually people started to believe us. The script never went away; people loved it so much. People kept saying, “What’s going on with that?” and they were like “They still want to direct it and produce it. They won’t step off.” It got to the point where people wanted to see the movie made, it kind of came about that it landed in Drew’s hands and it all came together in that way.
CHRIS NEUMER: Did Adam have anything to do with this process?
RICHARD KELLY: Adam kind of facilitated—his biggest contribution was the finding of the money. He introduced us to an attorney name Paul Mayerson who helped try to put together independent films and he found Pandora who was willing to put up the money. That was Adam’s thing.
CHRIS NEUMER: You sold the foreign rights to them, correct?
RICHARD KELLY: We sold everything, worldwide rights to Pandora and they put up $4.5 million to finance the film based upon what they thought they could pre-sell world wide.
CHRIS NEUMER: What types of filmmaking styles did you base Donnie Darko on? I have a personal affinity for well utilized speed ramps and you definitely had those here. You have a nice eye for someone who hasn’t experiment a lot with feature films.
RICHARD KELLY: I got a visual arts scholarship to USC in the school of fine arts. I’ve always grown up doing a lot of illustrations and pencil illustrations and stuff. A lot of the drawings that appeared in the film I did. I think I’ve always been a visual person first and foremost and a writer second. In terms of my stylistic influence, every stylistic choice I made with the ramps and the camera tilted to its side like that. It is making a statement about your going into the twisted world of education. It’s all turned on its side. It’s off and not right. High school in a sense. Every camera move was meant to have a point and not to advertise. It wasn’t supposed to be, “Look at me, look at how much I can be a show off with the camera”. Admittedly, I am a show off with the camera, but I think everyone of these movements and ramps is meant to have a stylistic ideal that relates back to the story. As far as filmmaker influences, I have many of them, but for this film I think I was influenced by Peter Weir and Terry Gilliam, two of the most polar opposite filmmakers. If you imagine those two guys mixed together, that’s kind of the way I would look at this film. There’s clearly some younger guys whom I have an affinity to, but I’d put those two guys at the top of the list.
CHRIS NEUMER: And Terry Gilliam did 12 Monkeys too.
RICHARD KELLY: 12 Monkeys had a big influence on me writing this film. I was so taken by that film and moved by it that I wanted to do my own time travel movie that had its own sort of poetic circular structure.
CHRIS NEUMER: But where 12 Monkeys suggested almost a time loop, your film gives the audience one circle and out.
RICHARD KELLY: It’s almost like the loop closed itself off and extinguished itself. That’s because the idea–if you go to the web-site you can read the time travel book, The Philosophy of Time Travel. I look at these 28 days as sort of a branch from a tree that breaks off and is gone forever. All that is left from this parallel universe is this artifact. It’s this clue, something was substantial and something existed for a while but it has now totally evaporated.
CHRIS NEUMER: And there’s never necessarily a reason that it happened.
RICHARD KELLY: In every time travel movie you have a paradox. In this film the paradox is the jet engine and where it came from. The movie is this speculative theory that it came from his mother’s plane in this parallel reality 28 days into the future. That’s a complicated thing to put your mind around, but that’s the challenge of the film, to think about how the universe is put together, not just the way Stephen Hawking would think about it but also the way that a sociologist would think about it too.
CHRIS NEUMER: I liked the fact that you didn’t ask the big questions and just leave them hanging there with no semblance of an answer. You didn’t ask “What is the point of life?” and then cut to another scene right away. Not that I’m singling out Waking Life, but—well, Hell, yes I am. And there were a number of different themes running through this that connected to every other theme, which made the material that much deeper. I had never thought of Donnie as a superhero until I heard you say it in another interview. Then I thought, “Hey, he saves the girl, stops the world from falling out of order and gets things right.” Isn’t that what a superhero does?
RICHARD KELLY: The title in and of itself has a superhero ring to it. That ended up affecting the way we shot the film. It has this widescreen kind of comic book tableau to it in a way that the suburbs look like Neverland, a green utopia, the brick buildings and the flower beds and the Tudor houses. It has this idealism.
CHRIS NEUMER: Almost possessing the good times and simplicity that people remember when they look at the past.
RICHARD KELLY: Then the rabbit arrives and things get twisted.
CHRIS NEUMER: Were you ever afraid that you used the name Frank too much?
RICHARD KELLY: Ultimately, it was meant to show that all the characters were being manipulated. They all have some sort of super natural spirit in the air. They are recalling that name. When his sister is looking for her new boyfriend, that’s the real Frank. The kid in the bunny suit.
CHRIS NEUMER: Only he went to get beer.
RICHARD KELLY: Yeah. So they finally tracked down the right Frank here, he’s this messenger for Donnie, to guide Donnie, to set a trap for him to ensure that he pulls this engine off his mother’s plane to ensure that the universe doesn’t collapse. That’s the way I look at the movie in a science fiction context. Though that’s not to discount the dream theory or the schizophrenia theory.
CHRIS NEUMER: I’ll discount them. They’re too gimmicky to work.
RICHARD KELLY: I tried to come up with something more complicated. If you read the time travel book, it lays all the puzzle pieces out for you in the way that I intended them to be.
CHRIS NEUMER: Was that book created specifically for the film?
RICHARD KELLY: It was created specifically for the DVD and the web-site as a supplement to the film.
CHRIS NEUMER: Were you ever afraid that people would miss certain things, little subtle things, like when Gretchen enters the classroom and the music starts when Donnie blinks for the first time? I saw that and had this big stupid grin on my face, I thought that was pretty cool. I don’t think that women in Iowa are necessarily going to get that.
RICHARD KELLY: It had this sweet, absurd 9th grade romance quality about it.
CHRIS NEUMER: Were you ever afraid that people were going to miss a lot of these?
RICHARD KELLY: The reason that this film was made for such a low amount of money, $4.5 million, is because people know that this is a specialized film for a more specialized audience. Because everyone is cutting their price and all the actors are working for scale, you don’t have to have a studio come in and make you dumb everything down. Which is good. It gave us the opportunity to make the film that we wanted to make and make it sophisticated and have these little details everywhere.
CHRIS NEUMER: Were there ever any problems that you ran into in filming? I know you had planned to work with a locked down camera until time necessitated handheld shots.
RICHARD KELLY: There were a couple of situations like that. Like the big Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) auditorium scene. We had so many set ups that day and we had a half day left, we were all flipping out. I just said, “You know what? The only way we’re going to get through this is to put up two cameras and shoot the whole thing handheld with lots of swish pans.” Right when I made that decision, I turned to my DP and he said, “This is best artistically too.” We realized that hand held camera created this tension and urgency in the frame that you don’t get when you’re locked down. And the scene is invested with a tremendous amount of tension because of the hand held camera. So it was a good opportunity where you realize that sometimes you can find a solution… It was a fortunate situation where our limitations helped the art.
CHRIS NEUMER: Were there any other problems that you encountered like that?
RICHARD KELLY: There’s always something that will change, but in this case it all ended up working out for the best. We got everything we wanted visually out of it. Production, despite it being very difficult and demanding was incredibly smooth. It was a happy experience. Everyone got along well. There were very few permanent problems that did any damaged to the film at all. There were temporary problems that happen on any movie set. We lost this, we can’t go to this location so we have to consolidate this, we have to go back to figure out how to combine this scene with that scene. Things happen like that. It made the script tighter though I think.
CHRIS NEUMER: It seemed like you shot a lot of footage on this too. It seemed almost as if this film could have a director’s cut coming out sometime down the road.
RICHARD KELLY: I kind of hope to assemble a director’s cut. I’d really love to be able to do a Criterion double disc for this. If the movie ever catches on and earns a degree of success on home video then maybe they’ll let me do that down the road with a slightly longer director’s cut where I can put some of these scenes back in the film. I’d really love to be able to do that, if they’d let me have my original poster art and packaging–not the lowest common denominator packaging–
CHRIS NEUMER: You mean, starring Drew Barrymore and Patrick Swayze?
RICHARD KELLY: Yeah. In the tradition of Final Destination and Stir of Echoes. The bullshit stuff that they have to put on there for the housewife in Iowa.
CHRIS NEUMER: I think my favorite was the “John Hughes does Scream” that I saw. That doesn’t even make sense! How much longer is your preferred version?
RICHARD KELLY: It’s not too much longer, it’s probably only 5-7 minutes longer, if that. There’s just a few little things that I wish I could put back in the film.
CHRIS NEUMER: Could you specify?
RICHARD KELLY: Not exactly. The most important scene that was cut that I was just so devastated that was cut was a scene with the dad in the end where the dad is giving him this fatherly advice and you realize the connection between father and son and you realize that the dad used to have mental problems, anarchy, the spirit is passed on from father to son. Donnie is repairing his relationship with his father, saying goodbye to each other. It was really upsetting to lose that scene. It was a two minute scene and I was given pressure to cut 10 minutes from the film. It became about a number, cutting a number.
CHRIS NEUMER: That scene even added an extra superhero element to the story because you realize how Donnie was chosen. Where was the pressure coming from to cut the 10 minutes?
RICHARD KELLY: From Pandora, the financier of the film. We were having a lot of trouble getting a distributor and they heard through the grape vine that Miramax still wanted the film, but that Harvey Weinstein would only look at the film if it were 10 minutes shorter. That’s his rule. They made me cut 10 minutes because they heard that that was Harvey’s rule. And it probably isn’t even Harvey’s rule, you know? It was almost like they said, “We don’t know what to do, but you have to cut 10 minutes.” And I was like, “Why not eight minutes?’ And they said, ‘No, it has to be 10.’ It became idiotic and frustrating.
CHRIS NEUMER: It seems like you avoided a lot more of that though by making this outside the studios.
RICHARD KELLY: Anytime your film doesn’t find a quick home, as a distributor, people panic. They think you have to add a voice over at the end. You have to do this, you have to do that. It got really frustrating there for a while just after Sundance because….
CHRIS NEUMER: You didn’t get picked up immediately?
RICHARD KELLY: It took four months to close the deal. That happens a lot more now because people are hesitant to close these big deals at Sundance. They kind of get altitude sickness and then regret it later and dump the film… We ended up with New Market because they were the most passionate about the film. I’m glad it happened that way, but it was a little bit of a rocky road between Sundance and getting to theaters. People started really trying to take control away form me at that point and began to put pressure on me to recut the film because, if it didn’t make an initial slam bang sale at Sundance then it must be too long and the ending must be too confusing. That became the consensus, which was really frustrating for me. The marketplace just should never dictate the final cut of a film.
CHRIS NEUMER: No. So as soon as it didn’t take off as the next Shakespeare in Love, people began saying that it was too smart and that you should dumb it down and cut it.
RICHARD KELLY: Exactly and that drove me up a wall. Luckily I got to be the one doing the surgery on the film and I was able to do it in an elegant way, but there was still some stuff that got cut out that I miss.
CHRIS NEUMER: Was there any talk of trying to put it back on the DVD in the film itself?
RICHARD KELLY: I wouldn’t, because this isn’t a perfect DVD yet. We had to rush this thing out and I worked really hard to put as many extras as I could on it because we may never get to do another DVD. There are still several behind-the-scenes documentaries that we wanted to put on there, but couldn’t.
CHRIS NEUMER: Were there any behind-the-scenes documentaries on there?
RICHARD KELLY: One that the Sundance Channel did about the steadi-cam through the school, the Tears for Fears scene. There was hours of footage shot for the behind-the-scenes making of the film, we were all ready to assemble it into a 45 minute documentary, but we didn’t have the room on the DVD, we’d need to do a double disc set. I hope in the future I’ll be able to do a second disc together with the directors cut.
CHRIS NEUMER: A finalized all encompassing version of the film.
RICHARD KELLY: Yeah. Cameron Crowe did his Untitled cut of Almost Famous and he has the studio cut on there too, but the great thing is that both are there. Sometimes you get the right to be just a little more self-indulgent in the DVD world because there are fans who appreciate that.
CHRIS NEUMER: So you actually couldn’t put things on the DVD because there wasn’t enough room? That’s refreshing to hear that people aren’t bumping things onto two discs because it’s a marketing angle.
RICHARD KELLY: It might be a marketing angle too, don’t put that passed them. Because they can bump up the price then too, Silver Nitrate home video, who is the real company responsible for putting together this DVD—Fox said ‘we’re happy to put this out there for you,’–but Fox didn’t really have any control over the content of the DVD because it was all sent to a intermediary company. So this was a Silver Nitrate DVD that Fox then puts their label on and distributors. Silver Nitrate home video, they’re kind of a bottom feeder company that has no interest in art or artistic merit or the director’s vision. They were a schlock home video company so they fought me about putting a lot of stuff on the DVD because it takes programmer time to do. We had some great programmers who liked the film and wanted to put all this stuff in there and Silver Nitrate just wanted to dump it. They gave it the lowest common denominator packaging etc. It’s just unfortunate that happened because DVD is like the director/filmmaker medium and people respect that. I still hope to be able to go back and do a better DVD where I could sign off on everything.
More Like This
Chris Neumer's Twitter
Inside Stumped Magazine.com