Jake Gyllenhaal and Richard Kelly talk about how they made Donnie Darko

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Donnie Darko is one of the most popular cult films of the noughties. Its cryptic plot, which never quite gives up its secrets even after repeated viewing, and a breakthrough performance by the young Jake Gyllenhaal, have helped the film gain legions of new fans with each passing year.

But the story behind the making of the film has never been told… until now. The Guardian asked the director and the star how they brought Donnie Darko to life:

Richard Kelly, director

I was 23, just graduating from film school, and in a panic trying to write a screenplay to get my career started. I remembered a news story I’d read as a kid: about a huge chunk of ice that fell from the wing of a jet and hit a boy’s bedroom, but he wasn’t there and escaped being killed. That gave me the seed of an idea.’

‘Donnie Darko’s town was inspired by Midlothian in Virginia, where I grew up in the late 1980s, though Donnie is a little older than I would have been. Grandma Death, the old lady, was a real person and self-help lessons were actually on my school curriculum.’

Once Drew Barrymore signed on, we got the finance we needed: $4.5m.’ 

‘We originally had Jason Schwartzman as Donnie, but he had other commitments. Jake Gyllenhaal had just starred in October Sky and carried the whole movie. Though not a household name, he clearly had talent.’

“We were all really young. I was 25. I was so stressed out that I lost 20lbs on the shoot.’

It looked like it might go straight to video, but then Newmarket picked it up. They’d done Memento – another experimental film seen as a hard sell. Its director, Christopher Nolan, convinced Newmarket to give Donnie Darko a chance.’

‘It got released on the Halloween weekend after 9/11 and didn’t even make $1m. No one was in the mood to see any kind of movie, especially a heavy emotional one. One year later, it started to get a second wind, becoming a bit of a cult on DVD.’

 

Jake Gyllenhaal, actor

I was frantically running around Los Angeles, doing loads of auditions. I remember pulling over to the side of the road to finish reading Richard’s script and being mesmerised. It was clearly influenced by classic directors – Ron Howard, Steven Spielberg – but with this strange psychosis. It beautifully captured the experience of moving into adulthood: the world that felt so solid becoming moveable and liquid. I thought, “This is what my adolescence felt like,” although I don’t speak, and have never spoken to, rabbits.’

‘Richard gave me a lot of room. The voice Donnie uses when he’s talking to Frank, the demonic bunny rabbit, was my choice. As well as being this trippy figure, Frank is Donnie’s only friend, almost like a comfort blanket. So, the voice is how a child would talk to his blanket.’

‘It was my idea to have my real-life sister, Maggie, play my sister in the film. We were going through a competitive phase, which fed into the dinner-table scenes, where she tells me: “You can go suck a fuck.” Maggie was the reason I got into acting and is the more formidable of us. Yet I was the one who started my professional career first. Imagine being in a movie with your obnoxious little brother as the lead.’

‘Donnie’s psychological journey is what’s important. That’s why it’s had this lasting power. Anything psychological has a slower – but ultimately longer – burn.’


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