Richard Kelly: “I always knew that Donnie had to benefit from some sort of cryptic guide”

The director of Donnie Darko talks time travel, never-ending adolescence and mental illness for the film’s 15th anniversary

When Donnie Darko was released in 2001, its themes of time travel and mental illness, set to a new wave soundtrack, captured a generation of angest-ridden teenagers in need of catharsis.

≥ It all comes back to high school; you spend your whole life trying to graduate

Its director, fresh out of film school, was Richard Kelly. He wrote the script – drawing from complex theories on the space-time model, as well as Kelly’s own childhood – at 23 and completed the film three years later.

The plot follows Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), a supposedly schizophrenic high-schooler, haunted by visions of a giant rabbit named Frank. After Frank saves Donnie from a jet engine that crashes into his house, a warped ‘tangent’ universe opens that will destroy its real, ‘primary’ counterpart in 28 days.

Navigating problems familiar to adolescents around the world, as well as those rather more supernatural, Donnie discovers he has the power to save his family, girlfriend Gretchen, and the rest of the universe, by travelling back in time and fixing the glitch.

If you search “cult film”, Donnie Darko is Google’s fourth recommendation. But, like its list-mates, its popularity came after it left cinemas, despite a $4.5m budget from Drew Barrymore’s Flower Films and a cast of stars including Patrick Swayze, Barrymore and Mary McDonnell.

After several Blu-ray releases, the film has now been restored in an ultra-HD 4K resolution. Following a selection of UK screenings, the new version arrives on 9 January. To mark its release, we caught up with director Kelly to explore the film’s resonance 15 years on.

You said at a screening recently that no one ever escapes their adolescence. Is that true in your own life?

What I said sounds a little dark I guess but I was trying to be productive. While high school is a prison, and we spend our whole life escaping it, that doesn't mean we can't evolve. At that end there are lessons to be learned. Those are the formative years of any human being. You can either grow and learn or you can stay trapped.

Anyone has the potential to drift into the category of mentally ill

Or, I guess, the prison can just get bigger and bigger – you can walk around and let other people into it. It's just owning that experience and trying to make sense of it.

If you make the films that I make, which are very personal, it's going to be an extension of that adolescence. Any time you make a film, you're hoping to grow, to become more of an adult, more efficient and more enlightened. To me, for whatever reason, it just all comes back to high school in a lot of ways. You spend your whole life trying to graduate.

I feel the same connection watching Donnie Darko now as when I was a teenager.

Donnie is a character that continues to connect with people – whether your 15 or 35. It's an individual trying to challenge the system and survive it. Those are all universal desires that people have.

I watched The OA on Netflix recently and felt, following your film, it powerfully paired troubled adolescence with the supernatural. Why do the two work so well?

If you're going to use supernatural elements in any story, you want it to relate to the human experience. It needs to be grounded in some way, so it can act as an extension of a character’s anxieties and emotions. For me, this is what makes supernatural elements in cinema successful.

** For the film, how did you come up with Roberta Sparrow's Philosophy of Time Travel?**

That was always in the back of my mind. I had to figure out what the fundamentals of the book needed to be and always knew that Donnie had to benefit from some sort of cryptic guide.

There is a lot more to the book that I haven't ever revealed to people but the component that I did present is more of a storybook with chapters [released with Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut]. I had to illustrate that part of it because I didn't want people to always ask, what's with the book?

Were you formulating these theories away from the film?

There was always this bigger mythology that the film was exploring. If I'm going to open the door, I need to know what's inside the room. I just can't have the room be empty, I need to know what's in there. That's just the way my brain functions.

Your dad worked for Nasa. Do you have a deep interest in physics?

On a creative level, through the prism of fiction. But I could never do what my father does. I don't have that kind of mathematical mind.

Can kids benefit from engaging with such complex theories through fiction?

Absolutely. Young teenagers coming to understand these great concepts through narrative fiction is really rewarding. That's how I discovered a lot of big ideas. It was through Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut or Stephen King. This type of reading augments the education you receive at school. It's an essential part of our adolescence.

The greatest science fiction should be able to take legitimate scientific theories, sometimes so advanced that they are outside the realm of ordinary comprehension, and make them more accessible.

Are abstract scientific theories another way out the prison?

Expanding your mind through these narratives can help us become more enlightened but also be an escapism. They can provide us with a plan to find a way out when reality is too hard to bear.

I wanted to clarify one thing. Because Donnie finds out he’s taking placebo pills, does that mean his mental health issues don't exist?

I wanted to include that scene to create an option for the supernatural occurrence. The standard definition of mental illness is incredibly broad and, I think, inclusive. Anyone has the potential to drift into the category of mentally ill.

I am not a doctor or in the position to diagnose anyone, but it is a spectrum and a grey area. It is not necessarily as defined as some might tell you. For Donnie, instead of mental illness, perhaps his symptoms were simply otherworldly.