Donnie Darko at 15: how a cult classic almost never got made

Donnie Darko

by John Nugent |
Published on

Believe it or not, it’s been 15 years since the world first met Frank the Bunny and a morose teenager named Donald Darko who foresaw the end of the world. To mark Donnie Darko’s anniversary, we spoke at length in the latest issue of Empire with its director, Richard Kelly, on the sometimes painful journey to screen of a mysterious film about philosophy, time travel, and a monstrous rabbit.

“You live with your films for the rest of your life”, says Kelly, now working on a restored 4K release of the film. “In a way, they are like a part of your DNA. They either haunt you or bless you, but they are always with you.” Kelly wrote the film in four weeks (“it poured out of me”) but struggled to find producers or financiers who understood his idiosyncratic script.

Ultimately, it took the intervention of an angel to make the film – specifically, a Charlie’s Angel, Drew Barrymore, who starred as English teacher Karen Pomeroy, and whose company produced it. After an occasionally fraught 28-day shoot, and a “painfully painstaking” editing process, it premiered at Sundance Film Festival to a lukewarm response.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Donnie Darko

James Duval, who played the iconic bunny Frank, remembers an audience member getting up and announcing, “That is the worst movie here at Sundance! It’s a horrible movie!” It seemed destined for a life on home video, had Christopher Nolan – then only breaking through with Memento – not raved about it to Newmarket Films, convincing them to buy it. Nolan “helped rescue the film from oblivion”, according to Kelly.

Donnie Darko

It flopped upon release in America, did slightly better business in the UK, but slowly gained a cult following, which producer Sean McKittrick attributes to “such strong iconography. I remember being so excited that Frank the bunny ended up on The Simpsons. It was like, ‘Holy shit, we made The Simpsons!’”

For the full feature on Donnie Darko’s turbulent journey to cult classic status, pick up the latest issue of Empire, on sale now. Or click here to subscribe to Empire instantly, including the option of an instant digital subscription{ =nofollow}.

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