What happens — really — in the movie "Donnie Darko," and what's it all supposed to mean? If you must know the answer, you won't get it in this interview with writer and director Richard Kelly. Frankly — to bring a certain man-sized, demonic bunny to mind — a definitive answer would ruin the fun.
The sometimes creepy, sometimes hilarious and sometimes frustrating movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal was something of a failure when it was released in 2001. It bombed at the box office and, as Kelly recalled, caused people to "recoil" at film festivals. So why is he still answering questions about it a dozen years later? Because it has a huge cult following and continues to inspire countless late-night debates on time travel, alternate realities, suburban paranoia, high-school hellishness, mental illness, fate and, yes, even God.
On Oct. 12, Kelly visits Sun-Ray Cinema in Five Points as part of the theater's ongoing series The Talkies, for which filmmakers offer live commentary during screenings. So when Grandma Death whispers in Donnie's ear, "Every living creature on Earth dies alone," Kelly's there in real time to relate how there was a real "Grandma Death" who lived in his neighborhood when he was a kid.
Folio Weekly: You wrote "Donnie Darko" when you were 23. What's it like looking back on a project of yours, created when you were so young?
Richard Kelly: I guess it's therapeutic in a lot of ways, because I don't think anyone who is 23 years old really knows who they are. That's obviously still a very formative time in anyone's life. … I'm proud of the resolve that I had at that age. I don't know that if I were just starting out at the age I am now , I don't know if I would have had that crazy sort of willingness to take so many risks.
F.W.: What kind of movies and TV did you enjoy growing up, and how much do you think that influenced "Donnie Darko"?
R.K.: I'd say "Twin Peaks" was a big game-changer for me. It was that show that introduced me to David Lynch, and then led me to discover his films. … It blew my mind — the aesthetics, the music and the vision in the pilot episode of that show really led me to not only discover his work, but to appreciate cinema as an art form on a whole different level.
F.W.: Tell me a little bit about your fascination with time travel.
R.K.: As a science-fiction trope, as a concept, it certainly is a very tantalizing thing. It's also a huge challenge to tell a good time-travel story, because there are always logic issues that can't be completely solved. It's this unsolvable riddle.
F.W.: "The Philosophy of Time Travel" — you actually wrote a book for that element. [In the film, Donnie Darko reads a book with that title. The text is available on the director's cut DVD.] Did you write that after the movie was finished or before?
R.K: I wrote it when we were editing… I didn't feel like I was telling the story honestly unless I wrote that book and understood what [Donnie] was reading. I wanted to know what was in that book, so I went out and wrote it.
F.W.: The director's cut adds a lot of details that take away some of the ambiguity in the original. Why did you decide to make those details available?
R.K: I felt like there was actually an operating system for the movie, and that there was a science-fiction story at the heart of what the film was trying to say. I wasn't just trying to be willfully obscure. But I feel like the director's cut still has many layers of mystery. … I'm a very logic-driven person. I'm not just trying to frustrate and confuse people.
F.W.: What's your response when people ask you, flat-out, to explain what happens in the movie and tell them the meaning behind it?
R.K: There are a lot of people who are obsessed with clarity and closure, and they want to understand everything. That's fine. That's just certain personality types. Other people are more open to embracing mystery and more open to embracing ambiguity and obscurity. … I can only understand so much of the story myself, even as the person who created it. I don't have the solution to time travel…
F.W.: There are dozens of interpretations out there. Have you heard one that you felt was just plain wrong?
R.K.: I mean, maybe, sure. It's anyone's right to interpret my work however they see fit. If anything, I find it amusing if someone has a really wild interpretation. … As long as it's a healthy interpretation and not a destructive interpretation, I'm cool with it.