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January 2001

'Darko' Falls on Gyllenhaal and Barrymore

Dale Robinette
KELLY GREEN: "There's a huge audience for smart films about young people," says first-time writer-director Richard Kelly (right) with Wyle and Barrymore.

It's the penultimate day of shooting on Donnie Darko, and writer-director Richard Kelly is sprinting back and forth between two sets, setting up shots simultaneously. But the 25-year-old USC grad views the chaos as a luxury. "I'm used to the whole film-school thing, where I'm carrying cable myself," he says. "To actually have a few people working for me is a huge sigh of relief."

Leaving the heavy lifting to others allows Kelly to focus on directing his first feature's formidable cast, which includes Jake Gyllenhaal (October Sky) as the title character, Noah Wyle, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell, Katharine Ross, Patrick Swayze, James Duval, and Drew Barrymore, who is also executive-producing the $6 million movie through her company, Flower Films. Kelly describes the main character as a classic antiauthoritarian, "that kid everyone knew growing up who went a little too far." Donnie is a teenager who communicates with a six-feet-tall rabbit (played by Duval) that only he can see--sort of a latter-day Harvey. This rabbit tells him that the world is going to end in 28 days, and the rest of the story involves time travel, romance, death, and jet engines falling from the sky. (In two bizarre coincidences, Darko went a day over schedule, bringing its shooting time to 28 days, and just before they wrapped, pieces of a real jet engine plummeted onto a Southern California beach from an airplane in distress.) Wyle, who plays Donnie's physics teacher, jokingly admits, "I don't know how to explain this movie. My part is the only part I could understand." For Kelly, the film is "a black comedy-ensemble suburban drama-science fiction thriller-comedy study-80s period piece."

It must have seemed similarly nebulous to the several major studios who passed on Darko before the movie found its home at Flower Films. "We got no after no after no, for a year and a half," Kelly says. Barrymore says she responded to the script's "intelligence without arrogance. I liked the spiritual, thoughtful questions it poses." It was the weirdness, however, that attracted Gyllenhaal, who stepped into the role when Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore) stepped out due to a scheduling conflict with Slackers. "I expected some kind of morbid, dark-haired, crazy goth man," Gyllenhaal says of his first meeting with Kelly, "and there he was, sort of preppy and conservative."

But Kelly admits that anxiety lurks beneath his calm demeanor. "You can't fuck up your first movie, because you won't get a second." However, even if Darko turns out to be "a big mess," the director says, "at least I went for it."

--Alex Lewin

Dale Robinette