Richard Kelly isn’t often spoken of as a political filmmaker, despite the vein of social satire that runs through the three features he has released to date. Donnie Darko, his cult paean to teenage doom, was set shortly before the 1988 election in a Virginia suburb, against a cultural backdrop of vapid self-help seminars, psychotherapy, and midnight movies; the follow-up Southland Tales presented a dystopian future America taken over by trash culture and reactionary politics; while The Box reset Richard Matheson’s classic “Button, Button” to the mid-1970s economic recession. Perhaps most importantly, all three are fantastical—and sometimes even grotesque—stories about the end of the world, destiny, and powerlessness.
With Donnie Darko currently touring in a new 4K digital restoration (you can find the full list of theaters here), Kelly spoke to The A.V. Club by phone about the film’s enduring appeal, its controversial director’s cut, the changing technology of film, and the apocalyptic anxiety of the American political landscape.
The A.V. Club: How did this come together?
Richard Kelly: Arrow Films came to me and said that they were planning this restoration. We were never satisfied with the quality of the transfer that existed. Any time I saw the movie on a home entertainment platform, it bothered me that it didn’t look right. The color space wasn’t what it could be. But we have all of these great tools at our disposal, so [director of photography] Steven Poster and I went in to see what we could do. It was a really wonderful experience.
AVC: When people hear “film restoration,” they picture something from the 1930s or the 1960s—not of a film released just 16 years ago.
RK: We found the original 35mm negative. Celluloid is a very resilient substance. The restoration process is really a marriage of pixels and celluloid. People watch these films on plasma screens or digital projection in theaters. I support digital projection because I think it can be a wonderful way to experience celluloid—you can see the beauty and detail very clearly in a high-end digital projection.
AVC: When I look back on that lost era of 35mm projection, I have a very powerful memory of seeing Southland Tales in what was then the worst first-run movie theater in Chicago.
RK: [Laughs.] Of course it was the worst movie theater in Chicago.
AVC: The projectionist’s window was open, so we could hear the projector running for the whole film.
RK: I do love celluloid, but I will say that, with the projection of film prints, the thing that bothered me the most was reel changes. Even if it was plattered, there was always frame loss. It drives me crazy. For a film like Southland Tales, which has so much information and is such a dense narrative—it’s got voice-over, it’s got graphics—to lose something in a reel changeover is painful for me to look at. In Southland Tales, the change from reel one to reel two is where Justin Timberlake’s voice-over begins over a shot of an ice cream truck. It’s always tough to put voice-over near the edge of a reel change, but we had to. Any time I see a print of Southland Tales, it clips into his voice-over. [Laughs.] It’s why I guess I gravitate toward digital projection. On film projection, you might lose 10 percent or 20 percent of the edges of the frame to the matte, depending on the theater. It gives me anxiety to think about poor presentation.
AVC: With The Box—which I should say I saw in the second worst movie theater in Chicago…
RK: [Laughing.] When I make another film, I’m going to make sure it screens at the ArcLight. Is there an ArcLight in Chicago?
AVC: Oh, yeah. It opened not too long ago.
RK: Thank god.
AVC: The Box was a fairly early example of a studio film that was made digitally. That was a time when 35mm was still the standard. You shot it on the Panavision Genesis, right?
RK: Yep. Steven Poster, my longtime cinematographer, is constantly working with camera manufacturers to road test new technology. He’s on the cutting edge. With The Box, we were making a film set in 1976, and we wanted a photographic style that was very much in the spirit of the 1970s. I wanted to shoot film, but then I saw Zodiac, which has become one of my favorite films of all time. What David Fincher and Harris Savides, the director of photography on that film, were able to do with the [Thomson] Viper camera—they rendered the 1960s and the 1970s using digital cinematography in a way that was so immersive. It brought me into that era in such a beautiful way that it convinced me that digital cinematography could work for a period piece. And it’s always a risk, because it can become a barrier into the world, as opposed to an invitation. It can backfire. It was a risk we were willing to take, mostly because of how beautifully it had worked on Zodiac.
We worked really hard to build in a lookup table and to make sure we didn’t have motion blur issues, and we worked very closely on filtration and our lenses. It was a really, really rigorous and detailed process. And it was also an issue because of what we were doing with Frank Langella’s face. It took an extensive amount of CGI to remove part of his face, and we had to shoot motion-controlled plates for every scene that he appeared in. So that was a long, time-consuming process, and shooting digitally allowed us to keep running.
AVC: I’m sure you know after all these years that the director’s cut of Donnie Darko is controversial with fans.
RK: I never intended it to be a replacement. I wanted it to be a companion—an alternate, more novelistic version of the film. It’s a version for people who want to dig deeper into the narrative. For a lot of my favorite films, there are multiple versions—like with James Cameron’s movies. There’s a way to have multiple versions of a film that can coexist together. The first time you see the film, it’s probably better to start with the theatrical cut. If you’re open to a deeper dive, then you can move on to the director’s cut. That was my intention.
AVC: Is that what draws you to making a film, creating an environment?
RK: Yes. And I do try to get as much detail into every frame as I can, because I know that I’m going to have to watch it hundreds of times and I’m gonna have to live with it forever. So I try to immerse myself as deeply as possible. In my mind, the movies are all connected. They’re all part of a bigger tapestry that I want to continue building on in the new projects that I’m working on. They’re all science fiction films. A lot of it has to do with science fiction’s conceptual set of blueprints. It’s so satisfying to be able to create all of these little details. You get to build worlds. When I was a kid, before I figured out that I wanted to be a filmmaker, I wanted to be an architect. Or a political cartoonist, like Garry Trudeau. [Laughs.] One or the other. For whatever reason, I figured out that being a filmmaker allows you to be both of those things.
AVC: Donnie Darko is set in a very specific political era, in the weeks before the 1988 presidential election. And that’s also true of Southland Tales and The Box. But you’ve never made a film set in the present.
RK: I have this need to set my stories in a particular timeline. I need the time and date stamped on to my narrative, because I need to have context for my characters to exist in a very specific timeline, so that they’re responding to the state of the world in that particular moment. So any film I make will have that requirement. That doesn’t mean that I can’t make a film that’s purely contemporary, but I can’t ever make something that has an undetermined timeline. That’s not how my brain works. I’d have a panic attack if I didn’t know what time it was.
My favorite stories are speculative, so right now I’m working on a lot of things that are looking forward into the future. But I think these moments in our political history that were incredibly essential or controversial are worthy of analysis, because when we look back, we understand how things came to be. We’re currently experiencing the most disturbing and potentially volatile political moment of our lifetimes. We wake up every day and feel like we’re living in some kind of simulation that went off the rails. As a filmmaker, I feel like the stakes have been raised to try and be more political. We need provocative cinema more than ever.
AVC: Can you tell me about what you’re working on now?
RK: I’m dying to, but I guess I’m afraid to, because it takes a long time to put these movies together and I want to wait for it to be official.
AVC: I’ll tell you the truth: In all my years of interviewing directors, I’ve never seen anyone actually go on to make what they told me was going to be their next project.
RK: [Laughs.] Maybe if I announce my retirement, all of the movies I’m working on will be green-lit.
AVC: I’m of the generation where I first saw Donnie Darko in high school. I think I was 15, so about the same age as the main character is supposed to be. It’s a movie that’s really meant to be discovered by teenagers. Its idea of the end of the world is very rooted in the hopelessness of teenhood.
RK: I think adolescence and especially the transition into adulthood can feel apocalyptic. And given the current landscape, where we wake up every morning cringing about what our president has just tweeted, we live with apocalyptic anxiety every day now. I can only imagine what that must be like for a 14-year-old. Maybe these kinds of narratives, these kinds of films, can provide catharsis. A lot of younger people come up to me and tell me that the movie really connects to them on an emotional level. That’s very meaningful to me, and I want to able to reciprocate it. That’s why it was important to bring it back as a communal theatrical experience. At a good theater.