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'Donnie Darko' Writer/Director Richard Kelly Interview

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Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone and James Duval Donnie Darko Photo

Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone and James Duval ('Frank') in "Donnie Darko."

Newmarket Films
How much of the little details like the ‘God is Awesome’ shirt were in the script, and how much were added later on in the process?
I’m a real detail fanatic. The ‘God is Awesome’ T-Shirt was actually written into the script. There’s a whole subplot that was cut out with “Watership Down,” with Drew Barrymore showing the class the film “Watership Down” and they replace the Graham Greene book because it gets banned. There’s a whole sequence about the Deus ex Machina and The God Machine and arguing about the rabbits, and the meaning of rabbits. Right in the next scene you see her in a shirt that says ‘God is Awesome.’ At the end, you see this big time machine thing up in the sky. All the details were laid into the script and more details come about in the production process.

It’s a wonderful art of collaboration that the director has with his production designer and his costume designer and with the set dresser, and with all these technicians who are waiting to be directed. If you can give them really specific ideas, they will go and do so many wonderful things for you, like Al Hammond coming up with the Fibonacci spiral in the center of the jet engine. I’m like, “What is that? How did you come up with that?” He’s like, “They do that. They put that in the center of jet engines because sometimes you can’t tell when it’s spinning or not when you have the headsets on.” The Fibonacci spiral ended up being the visual metaphor for the design of the film. The Fibonacci spiral was actually derived from the mating practices of rabbits. All this weird stuff going on, all this bizarro stuff that we didn’t even know about but that’s just because my production designer, I was able to give him all these things in the screenplay and details emerged.

Attention to detail, I think, is what filmmakers I admire the most [have]. They obsess over the tiny things in a film. If you go and see a Terry Gilliam film, you can sit and watch the thing 600 times and you’ll discover something new every time. People who are really meticulous visually, that’s very inspiring to me. I think in the writing process, you need to aspire to that on the page because when people read the script, the language is going to be there. So absolutely I think you need to try and put it on the page as much as possible.

Can you explain the character of Cherita?
I like to call her my ‘Mike Yanagita.’ Remember Mike Yanagita from “Fargo?” He hits on Frances McDormand at the Radisson. They have Diet Cokes at the Radisson and he comes on to her. If the Coen Bros. didn’t have final cut, a studio executive would have demanded that they cut that scene because it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t contribute to the plot. But if you really pay attention to “Fargo,” that scene is really pivotal to Frances McDormand’s character because when she finds out that Mike Yanagita is completely lying about his wife dying, that it was a complete lie, she’s just shocked that she could have been lied to. She’s such a trustworthy person and it makes her go back to William H. Macy’s car lot to question him again. So the Mike Yanagita scene is actually really, really important on a character level. On a plot level, it’s superfluous and it’s just the Coen Bros. just being weird or self-indulgent maybe. But I think it’s a great pivotal scene for character reasons and I think that’s probably what they thought, too. Using that metaphor for Cherita Chin, she contributes nothing to the plot at all. She is extraneous and superfluous, but that moment where Donnie is wearing the earmuffs couldn’t exist were it not for Cherita Chin. That is a very important character moment.

What scene carries the most meaning for you?
I would say the scene where the kids are talking about feces (laughing). Every scene means something to me. I was so blessed with all the actors; they did such a good job. It was such an amazing experience to see these actors say your dialogue. When it comes to life… But it’s the comedy stuff that’s what I love. It’s made me want to direct comedies for the rest of my career because to be able to laugh, like when Kitty Farmer says, “He asked me to forcibly insert the Lifeline exercise card into my anus.” They had to physically remove me from the set because I was messing up the takes I was laughing so hard. To be able to laugh while you’re working is the coolest thing in the world. It’s the comedy that makes it fun, that makes it tolerable, that makes it the best that it can be.

How cool is Patrick Swayze?
He’s the nicest guy. I can’t tell you some of the actors we met with, like really weird game show host-type people that we were considering. We asked Patrick and we knew it was going to be so perfect. He wanted to take a flame-thrower to his image. He was fearless. We shot the infomercials on his ranch. Those were his real clothes from the 80’s. He frosted his hair specifically for the part. He totally got it and was so cool about it.

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