Actually, there's probably a lot you don't know about 'Donnie Darko.' Like: What the hell happened? Is Donnie a time-traveling teen superhero/Christ figure who must sacrifice himself to save his loved ones and the entire universe, a dying kid having an elaborate dream during his final moments, or just a garden-variety schizophrenic? This is not the place to answer those questions (though we can send you there -- see No. 24 on the list below). It is, however, the place to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Little Cult Film That Could (released on Oct. 26, 2001), the movie that helped make stars out of Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, confirmed Drew Barrymore's canny taste as a producer, gave Patrick Swayze a role that sent his career in a dark new direction, and launched 10,000 late-night bull sessions. The movie's meanings may have been endlessly discussed, but there are still dark corners in the 'Darko' legend that remain to be illuminated. If you don't want us to doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion, read on.
1. Credit for getting the movie made largely belongs to Drew Barrymore. Writer/director Richard Kelly had shopped his screenplay around to various producers without success before it landed on Barrymore's desk. Her willingness to produce the film (and to play a supporting role in it as Donnie's English teacher) opened doors for Kelly, allowing him to raise the budget and to cast such well-known actors as Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle, Jena Malone, and Mary McDonnell.
2. When Kelly made the movie, he was a 26-year-old film school grad who had directed two short student films -- 'The Goodbye Place' and 'Visceral Matters' -- but no features.
3. Kelly has said his two primary influences were directors Terry Gilliam and Peter Weir. Gilliam's films (from 'Time Bandits' to '12 Monkeys') have embraced time travel and alternate realities, and his masterpiece 'Brazil' (about a paranoid man whose apocalyptic visions may be signs of heroism or insanity) inspired Kelly to become a filmmaker. Weir's movies (from 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' to 'The Truman Show') are often full of mysterious portent, existential dread, and big ideas.
4. 'Donnie Darko' wasn't just the movie that put the Gyllenhaal siblings on the map. It also marked the movie debut of Seth Rogen, as high school bully Ricky. Additionally, it was the first big-screen appearance of future 'High School Musical' star Ashley Tisdale, as dorky teen Kim.
5. Why is Donnie's spectral guide a giant rabbit? Kelly has said it's not a reference to 'Harvey,' the classic 1950 comedy where everyone thinks Jimmy Stewart is crazy for conversing with a man-sized rabbit that no one else can see. Rather, Kelly said, creepy Frank was inspired by the rabbit protagonists of Richard Adams' novel 'Watership Down,' which was to be taught by Barrymore after the school censored Grahame Greene from her curriculum (a subplot that didn't make it into the initial release of the film). At the time he made 'Donnie Darko,' Kelly claimed he'd never even seen 'Harvey.'
6. Supposedly, the '80s horror film Kelly wanted Donnie and Gretchen (Malone) to watch on their date was 'C.H.U.D.,' but he couldn't get the rights. Fortunately, Sam Raimi granted him permission to use 'The Evil Dead.' The other film playing at the horror double feature? 'The Last Temptation of Christ.' Cheeky joke or further proof that Donnie is supposed to be a Christ figure, one who has a lengthy dream about an alternate reality before accepting that his fate is self-sacrifice to save the rest of humanity?
7. Barrymore's teacher imprints the key phrase "cellar door" in Donnie's mind by telling him of the author who said it's the most beautiful phrase in the English language. But who is the author? The statement has been variously attributed to J.R.R. Tolkien, Edgar Allan Poe, Ezra Pound, and H.L. Mencken.
8. Donnie seems to be able to see characters' futures via blobs of images emanating from their stomachs. Kelly says he got this idea from football commentator John Madden's CBS Chalkboard graphics.
9. Kelly sought permission from Smurfs creator Peyo to include Donnie's discussion of Smurf sexuality. Peyo granted permission because, as funny and profane as Donnie's comments are, they're also correct.
10.. Score composer Michael Andrews played all the instruments himself; he didn't have the money to hire other musicians. But he did enlist his friend Gary Jules to sing the cover of Tears for Fears' 'Mad World' that closes the movie. After the movie became popular in Europe, Jules' recording was released as a single, and it earned the distinction of being the Christmastime No. 1 hit in the U.K. in 2003.
11. Though the film made a splash at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, it had trouble finding a distributor until indie Newmarket finally picked it up. The poster art was going to display the title in an Arabic font, as it appears in the movie, but after 9/11, the lettering was changed to a less-controversial Trajan font, one commonly used on movie posters.
12. Opening a few weeks after 9/11 certainly didn't help the 'Darko' box office: audiences were not in the mood for a bleak, apocalyptic movie whose key event is a passenger jet disaster. The movie earned back just $515,000 of its $4.5 million budget.
13. How, then, did it manage to develop such a huge cult following? It started at New York City's Pioneer Theater, which started playing 'Donnie Darko' as a midnight movie and kept it running for 28 months. Other theaters around the country followed suit. Then the movie exploded on DVD, where it earned more than $10 million.
14. 'Donnie Darko's successful afterlife prompted Newmarket to allow Kelly to make a Director's Cut. On the initial release, Kelly had been contractually obligated to keep the film under two hours, and the resulting cuts helped give the film the elliptical, ambiguous nautre that had alternately enthralled and frustrated moviegoers. Now, however, Kelly was able to add 20 more minutes of footage that helped tie up some of the loose ends. (Hardcore Darko-heads actually prefer the more mysterious original release.) Kelly also had the money to add some more '80s soundtrack chestnuts that he couldn't afford the first time.
15. The theatrical release of the Director's Cut in June 2004 didn't make much more money than the 2001 release had (just $728,000), but it primed fans for the DVD release of the new cut.
16. British movie magazine Empire rated 'Donnie Darko' as the No. 2 Indie Movie of All Time, behind only 'Reservoir Dogs.'
17. A 2009 sequel, 'S. Darko,' centered on Donnie's little sister Samantha; actress Daveigh Chase, who had played Samantha in the original, was the only member of the first movie's cast involved in the sequel. Kelly, who didn't own the rights to his own creation, had nothing to do with the seuqel.
18. Marcus Stern of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. adapted 'Donnie Darko' into a stage play. It ran for three weeks in 2007, appropriately, around Halloween.
19. Kelly has directed just two movies since 'Donnie Darko': 2007's 'Southland Tales,' a surreal, doom-laden ensemble picture about life in Los Angeles, and 2009's 'The Box,' a surreal, doom-laden adaptation of a Richard Matheson sci-fi short story about a couple whose morality is tested by a mysterious stranger. Both movies were widely regarded as misfires.
20. Kelly has also had a busy career as a screenwriter and producer. He wrote the 2005 Keira Knightley action movie/biopic 'Domino' and produced five movies in 2009 alone, including 'The Box' and the comedy 'I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell.'
21. The director has discussed a number of projects he has in the works. One is an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's classic apocalyptic satire 'Cat's Cradle' (Kelly has written a script but doesn't own the film rights). Another is a thriller set in the near future, which Kelly hopes to shoot in 3D using actors in motion-capture suits. And one is a drama called 'Corpus Christi,' set in the Texas city, and focusing on the relationship between a volatile Iraq War veteran and his boss, an aspiring politician who owns a supermarket chain. No word on whether any of these movies features falling jet engines, kiddie-porn dungeons, or talking rabbits.
22. Speaking of, NECA manufactures a foot-tall talking Frank figurine that utters some of the character's more memorable lines, including "Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?" and "Do you believe in time travel?"
23. The film's official website is even more arty and impenetrable than the film, although if you can find all its Easter eggs, you can see exclusive content (police reports, excerpts from Roberta Sparrow's time-travel book, etc.) A guide to navigating the site is here.
24. As for the film's larger mysteries of plot, character, philosophy, and symbolism, there's a handy guide here.
25. Or you could just accept the film's paradoxes and ambiguities, as Jake Gyllenhaal does. "I wish ... people could spend a day with me sometime. So they could sit at a meal, or walk down the street when a total stranger walks up and starts a philosophical discussion about what exactly 'Donnie Darko' is about," the actor has said. "It makes my day every time. Because every time, I answer, 'I have no idea, what does it mean to you?'"
[Top photo: Everett Collection // Other photos: 20th Century Fox, NECA (Frank figurine)]
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