Affable young geekboy filmmaker Richard Kelly's strange and wonderful 2001 debut sci-fi/drama indie Donnie Darko spawned a devoted cult following and returns to theaters this week in an extended director's cut. But mainstream Hollywood's come calling, and Kelly's fans have been troubled by his repeatedly stated desire to become more "commercial" with upcoming projects. The following conversation leapfrogs through time, back to the turbulent past that led to this director's cut, and forward, into Kelly's possible futures.
OC Weekly: I understand that on its original release, Donnie Darko didn't earn back its budget. If that's so, what motivated the studio to do this theatrical rerelease?Richard Kelly: The movie earned about half a million in theaters originally; we came out right around Sept. 11, and we really got buried by that. But overseas, we did a lot better, and the DVD has earned $10 million or something like that. The studio looked at this cult audience that's found the film, and they thought maybe there's a bigger audience still out there. So this rerelease is a win-win proposition for everybody, basically; they're risking nothing by bringing it out again. Why was the extra material in this edition cut from the original release?
Well, when I first showed the original cut, everybody was baffled. My financiers were worried the film was too confusing, and when that happens, everybody always decides it has to be shorter. I had to cut 10 minutes, and I really had no choice. Eventually, I turned in a version that was seven minutes shorter, and I talked them into accepting that.
How did you feel about that shortened release?
I was proud of it. It ended up being more enigmatic and esoteric, and I think it works in its own way. It doesn't spell out as much what's really going on—it keeps you guessing more. There are people who would probably argue that that version is better than this one! There have been director's cuts of movies like Close Encounters and Blade Runner, and I'm honestly really honored to have the chance to have a director's cut coming out.
Donnie Darko strikes me as a movie that could have some scary, intense fans. Do you get a lot of weird mail, or do people come up to you and insist all this time-travel stuff has happened to them? Has anybody camped out on your doorstep?
So far, pretty much everybody who has approached me in person has been great. I do get some scary mail; sometimes I look at the envelope, and I'm like, "Should I open this?" There are a few kinda scary people out there who are like, "I've been through a wormhole, too!" I have an unlisted number, and I haven't had any serious problems. I guess if this rerelease gets the film a lot more attention and it brings a lot of weirdoes out of the woodwork, I can always hire some bodyguards or something.
You've been attached to a lot of projects, and I understand you've written a script for Tony Scott of all people. Your fans are having these big arguments online about what you will do or should do next.
I'm writing and directing a thing called Southland Tales.
Oh, is this the sci-fi/comedy/musical/thriller I read about?
Yeah, that's it.
You've repeatedly said your next project will be more commercial. How so? A sci-fi/comedy/musical/thriller doesn't exactly sound like a sure thing.
Well, I don't know what commercial means exactly. When I say commercial, I'm thinking of comedy. I think the two most commercial things you can do are comedy and drama; people go to Titanic to cry, and they go to Meet the Parents to laugh. Comedy travels, and I'd like to do something that will make people laugh.
Now, you're not going to be one of those directors whose first film is really cool and quirky, and then each movie after that becomes more commercial and less interesting, and eventually you end up doing boring action pictures and Reese Witherspoon romantic comedies?
Am I going to lose my soul? [Laughs] I hope not. I don't think so. If I'd wanted to sell my soul, I could have directed another film by now. I've had some offers to do some big things that wouldn't have been artistically fulfilling at all, and I've turned them down. I've been very selective. I'm really trying to hold onto my roots. I'm fortunate enough to have people around me who would probably beat me up if I ever sold out.