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A Journey Into A Film-maker's Mind...
on 13 September 2005
In as far as breaks go, a film like Donnie Darko would certainly be classed as wish fulfilment for any film-maker. A top notch cast, a compelling story... How did writer/director Richard Kelly do it?
The Donnie Darko Book goes some way to offering further insight into how this modern cult classic came about. More accessible than the typical 'Making Of...' volume that often accompanies a film's release, this is a book that's suitable for both those who want to discover more about the film and those who want to know more about the journey of film-making.
Accompanied by the original shooting script and lavish artwork from the film, it is the first part of the book which unravels Kelly's journey from inspired creative to first acclaim at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, as conveyed in the form of an interview conducted by Kevin Conroy Scott. As you read on, you can't help but get the feeling that Kelly's experiences in life have been leading up to this point. Maybe it's the influence of the film, or is it true that life mirrors art?
"In eighth grade I was asked to do a book report in science class and I picked A Brief History Of Time [by Stephen Hawkins] because I thought it had a cool title," says Kelly. "Even though I could not comprehend it, it inspired me to try... and, as a result, that book has been at the back of my mind ever since."
For fans of the film, that's one of the first series of revelations that Kelly offers into the genesis of Donnie's world, whether he directly acknowledges them as contributory or not. For those keen on the subject of story creation and film-making, there are plenty more. Kelly's influences in these areas are more down to Earth than the gurus that film enthusiasts would normally expect to turn to or study. He cites his high school English classes and author Stephen King as being the means through which he learned how to craft a story. David Fincher's music video for the Aerosmith hit Janie's Got A Gun inspired him in terms of film-making ("I had never seen a video that told a story. It was better crafted than most movies I had seen and I was taken aback by it").
Film school beckoned, where Kelly cut his teeth on student projects. These films gave an early indication of the direction Kelly was heading for - a demonstration of audacity and ambition, handled by a bit of an outsider. Nowhere is this made more clear than with The Vomiteer, a self-explanatory piece that was one of Kelly's first efforts. He refers to it as a 'reaction to the pretension' he experienced through his peers, who seemed focused on solving the world's problems or making people weep through their work. As Kelly notes, sadness is very much self-absorbing, whereas laughter is something to be shared with others. "Comedy is so undervalued and looked down upon, but it is so needed... the hardest thing to do is get a good laugh out of someone."
As you'd expect, The Donnie Darko Book is not a technical guide to film-making, but regardless, there are many gems of advice that Kelly imparts, especially for the writer. Surprisingly (or not as you get to find out more about him), Kelly is not a big fan of screenwriting rules. "I wouldn't have even bothered writing Donnie Darko if I'd had a bunch of screenwriting rhetoric pushed on me," Kelly says, "because I would have thought, 'I'm not allowed to do this, I'm not allowed to do that.'" If he has anything good to say on the rules of writing observed by the masters, it's reserved for Joseph Campbell and his exploration of mythology and story archetypes. "It should be embraced in the sense that you learn the formula," he states, "then you learn how to corrupt that formula."
This book comes in particularly valuable with Kelly's experiences in touting the Darko script and eventually, the completed film. In short, it's a nightmarish scenario to rival the image of Frank, Donnie's otherworldly guide. Despite signing to major talent agency CAA on the strength of the script, Kelly found himself taking one step forward and two steps back with development executives. No doubt due to his insistence that he, appearing a first-time film-maker, should be the one to direct it. The hell of pitching is well documented here, but even down the line with the first public showing at Sundance, Kelly's troubles are nowhere near over. He recounts a sneaky ploy used by distributors that certainly comes as a nasty surprise. Festival film-makers, be warned.
There is much to be learned from this book, for even though it has an original and compelling script, Donnie Darko was almost a film that never was. Kelly is honest and frank in his appraisal of his journey to date, which certainly makes the book an educational experience as opposed to a promotional tie-in. The book is worth the cover price for the interview with Kelly alone, although screenwriters will no doubt take great enthusiasm in seeing how he brought his vision from thought to page with the accompanying screenplay.