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Washington Post

Hollywood & Vine

Hosted by Sharon Waxman
Post Style Correspondent
Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2001; 2 p.m. EST

Washington Post Style correspondent Sharon Waxman takes Hollywood & Vine on the road and originates live Tuesday, Jan. 23, at 2:00 p.m. EST from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The movie with the hot buzz going on right now is "Donnie Darko," a drama about secrets in suburbia. The movie's title character is played by Jake Gyllenhaal and it's directed by Richard Kelly. Both actor and director are Sharon's guests today.

Waxman's Hollywood & Vine explores the inner workings of the movie industry. There is a whole political universe behind how the movies happen, the tug and pull of egos, financial imperatives, a pecking order for privileges as well as genuine creative impulses.

Waxman is on hand to answer your questions and field your comments on the industry personalities she has met; the movies that are causing a stir and why; trends in the industry and the culture of moviemaking in general.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Sharon Waxman: Welcome to our Sundance edition of Hollywood and Vine. Not to make you all feel bad, but I've seen more good movies in the past five days than most of us you poor folks see in six months. To give you a taste of the high quality films here I'll tell you what I've seen that I've liked (though only a few of the films came here with distribution, and only one, as far as I know, has been sold since the start of Sundance. That's a goofball 'Porky's' style comedy called "Supertroopers," about a bunch of troopers-who-can't-shoot-straight in Rhode Island or somesuch.) Among other films that I've liked has been an elegantly constructed noir crime story with Guy Pearce, called "Memento"; that will be out in March. And there's a great psychological suspense-drama called "The Deep End" starring (the amazing) Tilda Swinton as a mother increasingly enmeshed in the dark side of Lake Tahoe as she attempts to protect her 17-year-old son from involvement in an accidental killing.

A lot of the movies here are hybrids, which brings us to today's discussion, in which I'm thrilled to have first-time director Richard Kelly here at my side at a Sundance hospitality suite, and his star Jake Gyllenhaal who was nice enough to join us by phone from Los Angeles. Hi guys.

"Donnie Darko," which Richard wrote and directed, is a combination drama, character study and dark sci-fi, and the first film ever in Sundance competition to have special effects.

Jake ("October Sky") plays Donnie Darko, an emotionally troubled but very intelligent teenager in upper middle class suburbia who is plagued by visions of a giant rabbit (yes!) who exhorts him to do evil things like flood the school. Mary McDonnell plays his mother, Katherine Ross his Ritalin-dispensing shrink, Drew Barrymore and Noah Wylie his teachers and Jena Malone his girlfriend. The plot also involves, well, time travel.

Ok, guys, we've got plenty of questions lined up, so fire away.

Arlington, Va.: Richard, from your pictures you look quite young. What did you do to get yourself in such a position so early in your life? What advice would you give aspiring directors?

Richard Kelly: I got this position out of film school. I graduated in 1997 from Univ. of Southern California. This is the first script I wrote, and with great fortune and guidance from my producer Sean McKittrick I got an agent.

Once you have an agent, that legitimizes you. And you can get actors and producers and financiers to read your material. I'm 25 and then comes the schmoozing. You have to prove yourself and walk into dozens of rooms and explain to people why you're the best people to direct your script.

Sharon Waxman: People wanted to buy the script but not allow you to direct it?

Richard Kelly: Yes, they were very apprehensive about letting a first time director handle such provocative and hard to describe material. My argument was it should be the writer who is the director of this film because of its provocative and original story line. I'm very, very skeptical of the spec marketplace, and wouldn't allow anyone to buy one of my scripts. I liken the spec marketplace to abandoning your child at the mall on the biggest day of the year. A couple of years later that kid will wander back into your life with a bad haircut and a drinking problem. But you wouldn't recognize your own work anymore.

Sharon Waxman: Jake, you're even younger I believe than Richard is. How did you get so far so quickly in this competitive...

Richard Kelly: cold and cruel world.

Sharon Waxman: ... business.

Jake Gyllenhaal: This is really cool, first of all. And second, it doesn't hurt to have parents already in the movie industry. I was born into a family of filmmakers, so some of my defense to this cruel, cold world was learned early in life from my parents. My father is a director and my mom is a screenwriter. My sister is an actor.

(Sharon Waxman: Faux pas, sorry. Maggie Gyllenhaal ably plays Donnie's older sister.)

Jake Gyllenhaal: Since I was a little kid I always wanted to act, and because of family friends such as Billy Crystal, I started acting in small parts in movies like "City Slickers" in 5th grade. I was the cow... That's what drew me to a rabbit-centered movie like Donnie Darko.

Sharon Waxman: That was my fault. This is a serious discussion. Jake, focus please.

Jake Gyllenhaal: Regardless of the influence of these incredible filmmakers, my parents forced me to stay in school, much to my dismay at the time. At the end of high school they allowed me to get an agent and start auditioning professionally. So it all came about from there. Since I had already made somewhat of an impression on the film industry as a young kid, people had faith in me and took me on.

(Here comes an attempt to plug CAA. We do not allow this.

Richard Kelly: You're the one with the dark last name Donnie.

Jake Gyllenhaal: You created him.

Richard Kelly: You dyed your hair black, dude.

Jake Gyllenhaal: I just showed up and read the lines. Maybe that day I showed up with my hair dyed black, you were really freaking out, but you were calm about the whole thing -- 'Could we make this just a little lighter, please?"

He was

Sharon Waxman: Why freak out because you dyed your hair?

Jake Gyllenhaal: Because it's Donnie Darko, not Donnie Dark-hairo. I'm not a cartoon character.

Arlington 2.0: Sharon and guests,

Are there any films at Sundance (other then documentaries) that were made for less then $100,000? I guess I can be lumped into the "how can you call it independent when they spend $20 million on it" group. Perhaps they should have a salary cap...

Regardless, I am very interested in seeing "Donnie Darko" as soon as it comes to the area. (i.e. 2004)

Richard Kelly: This movie cost around $5 million. That is a fairly high budget for a Sundance film, but that does not make it less independent. We have visual effects and elaborate set pieces and those cost money, but the film is in my opinion incredibly independent in its sensibility.

Jake Gyllenhaal: Everyone in the process of making this film sacrificed time and many other things to make it. That is essentially an independent sensibility, like Richard's talking about.

With material like this you have to take a jump, maybe even a dive, into what looks like a very rocky bottom, but when or if it succeeds, it is extremely fulfilling, perhaps even more fulfilling because of the mystery of it all. And that regardless of price, or time, or name value and all that, is what independent filmmaking is all about. So I would say this is a truly independent film, without having to be called 'arthouse.'

Sharon Waxman: Nothing arthouse about it.

Richard Kelly: Please tell that to the acquisition folks.

Jake Gyllenhaal: It looks beautiful, and that's to credit of cinematographer Steve Poster, who decided that regardless of their limitations they would make it look like something no one had ever seen before.

Sharon Waxman: I just came from talking to the director of another film here called "Enigma," Michael Apted (as in "The World Is Not Enough") and his film did actually cost $20 million. In fact, most of the films I've seen here really do cost in the millions of dollars, and I think that's probably a function of the maturing of the independent film world and the realities of moviemaking today. Thanks for your comment.

Jake Gyllenhaal: More in indie films: Working a lot on studio films, I think everyone including the studio has a say in what the end product is. Sometimes the filmmaker's vision is dictated by the studio's opinion of the product. Whether it's marketable. Whether it can't just reach the coasts.

Sharon Waxman: What about 'October Sky'? That didn't seem to be dictated by marketability, and it was a studio picture.

Jake Gyllenhaal: I think you're right, but at the same time what I've heard from many, many people who've written me about it, that walked a relatively safe line. The accessibility of the story is not your normal blow-it-up-and-run-away mentality, like action mentality, but it is easier to take than Donnie Darko.

Sharon Waxman: Have you had, Richard or Jake, negative reactions?

Richard Kelly: There are some people who are not sure what to think of the film, and I think the film definitely requires a second viewing to see all the clues and messages hidden within it. I think that films should disturb you, certainly not all of them. We need comforting films, but also troubling ones. This film was meant to disturb the comfortable on first viewing, but on second viewing the disturbed is comforted once again.

Jake Gyllenhaal: I'd agree with Richard. This film in all the right ways, regardless of being part of it, is one of those films that - like Richard says - disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed. I had a few comments from people... a wonderful comment from a girl right after the first showing of the film at the Eccles Theater. She said her brother was manic-depressive, and some of my actions in the film and goings on my character talks about, really touched her in a way similar to her brother's experience. On the other side, a guy in the bathroom came up and said, 'Wow man, you play a really nice psycho.' Which seems like an oxymoron, but I guess it's possible. There are people who come up and say, 'I don't get this, or that, but I was really moved.' There's a point in the movie where you have to let your mind go, and abandon what you want to happen, and have faith that what you're feeling is right. And whatever you're feeling it's the right one. That's what a successful film should do.

Washington, D.C.: How come the "Donnie Darko" website is so dull? It's just the poster. No links or anything. Can't you spice it up a bit?

Richard Kelly: Trust me, the web-site will be very cool very soon, we just don't have the money, or haven't yet had the time to spice it up. Nor do we have a distributor, so, things are a bit premature.

Sharon Waxman: Perhaps you'd like to volunteer to help them out?

Arlington, Va.: What films do you think are going to emerge from Sundance and emerge into the mainstream, like You Can Count On Me did this year after winning best film at Sundance last year?

Richard Kelly: I haven't seen anything, I've been busy doing press. But I can't wait to see everything, there are a lot of great films this year.

Jake Gyllenhaal: I too have been really busy doing press, but I think "Memento" will definitely be welcomed by audiences. What's interesting about the films this year making an impression on people is the structure, tonality, concepts of them, are very metaphysical, which is different than some of the films in the past that have shown up. There are films like 'My First Mister,' "The Business of Strangers," incredibly moving, following a classic story line. "Green Dragon" too. With the current mind of the world right now, the movies that stick out, in my opinion, are those that don't follow that classic structure. And I hope they will leave a lasting impression on audiences this year. And probably because 'Donnie Darko' is one of them.

Internet reader: So from what I've read, there is a six foot tall bloody rabbit in the film. huh?

Richard Kelly: Yes indeed there is a rabbit featured prominently in the film. It must be seen to be believed. To describe it without having seen the film would give away secrets to the plot.

Sharon Waxman: Well, he's a nasty rabbit.

Richard Kelly: To give away the visual presentation of the rabbit a twist in the film that we don't want to reveal.

Sharon Waxman: Well, he's a very ugly rabbit. And he's very tall. And I would not invite him to my house. Or this discussion. Is that okay, Richard?

Richard Kelly: Sure.

EraserheadGuy, D.C.: Your movie sounds like my cup of tea. What directors/films have influenced you? How about David Lynch/Eraserhead? I sense kindred spirits here.

Richard Kelly: I've always been a huge Lynch fan. But I think the inspiration here comes more from Spielberg. That may sound kind of weird, given the dark elements to the story, but my intention was to create something a little bit more mainstream and accessible while at the same time preserving the narrative experimentation that David Lynch really pioneered.

Sharon Waxman: Jake?

Jake Gyllenhaal: I'm a huge fan. The scene in 'Lost Highway' where the man with no eyebrows has a cellphone... what's interesting about David Lynch especially, which is very similar to style in which Richard works - the somewhat conventional, mainstream style of camera-work that Spielberg incorporates, Richard incorporated into a totally unconventional and strange world, that is the world of Donnie Darko. So what you get is this very interesting juxtaposition of character and story, and it's very similar to what many directors including Lynch are trying to do, with making 'Lost Highway' and then 'The Straight Story.'

Sharon Waxman: Unrelated, but I don't want the discussion to pass without my noting that Richard grew up in Richmond, Virginia. His dad used to work for NASA and will inordinately happy to see his son's name in The Washington Post.

Re: Internet help: I'm guessing that they do not need help. But I am ready and willing.

Sharon Waxman: They're grateful, they're grateful.

Alexandria, Va.: For someone who is thinking about making a feature in the next 5 years, do you think film school helped you? What are the 5 pearls of wisdom that you would tell someone getting ready to write and direct a feature?

Richard Kelly: I'll add some pearls, I don't know if they're wisdom. I think you have to write something original. I think you have to write something with particular actors in mind that can at least get you foreign money - from a crass business standpoint. There are some basic rules we all have to follow; films cost a lot of money, and the more esoteric and experimental you hope to get, the less money you're going to see.

Jake Gyllenhaal: As an actor, what you look for in material, depending on what kind of material you like - is something that says something you've never heard, but have always thought. There's truth in what we think but choose not to look at. What we feel but choose not to express. If you can write something that does those things in an artistic and well-crafted way, then you will inevitably and most definitely have your film made, and hopefully made with compliments and criticism.

Sharon Waxman: That's a very idealistic way of looking at an often cutthroat world, that - as an observer I can't help but note - has an awful lot do with contacts. Who you know. How did Richard get you that script? Wasn't it through some connection?

Jake Gyllenhaal: Our agency. We're at the same agency. I think that's true. But the thing about material, regardless of the actor who does it, if it's good, it will be good. If it's a good script it will be well-made. Not to say that performance is extremely important, but the first thing is how good and original your material is. Regardless of connections, because Richard comes from an environment that had nothing to do with the film industry - because of the truthfulness of the emotions he talks about, this movie is able to be made. It may be idealistic given the cynicism.... but it's just the truth. Nothing can beat talent. It really can't. Look at what Robert Downey Jr.'s going through; he still has support of the film community, because there's talent, and he's truthful in every performances he gives.

Richard Kelly: I think Jake and I are both still fortunate enough to remain idealistic in this business. We have yet to be corrupted. We both got an opportunity to make this film exactly how we wanted, without studio interference, and I hope to continue to be able to make films in the same manner.

Jake Gyllenhaal: I saw a documentary here called "Children Underground" about Romanian children living in the subway due to the ban on birth control in Romania. The interesting thing about it is it was shot on video, that allowed the filmmaker to get into situations we would never be able to see.

Sharon Waxman: like what?

Jake Gyllenhaal: Like children beating up other children in the subway, sniffing glue, going into a department store in Romania and 50-year-old shopkeepers selling glue to 5, 6, 7-year-old kids, knowing what they're going to do. It's incredibly disturbing.

Richard Kelly: It makes Donnie Darko look like Sesame Street. It is important to disturb people, because that's what changes things. If movies can change things - which is debatable. I think they can.

Jake Gyllenhaal: I think that's what Donnie Darko does. Not just the characters, but the movie itself. And you have to see the movie twice. We all think we're going to understand the whole thing, but you have to see it twice. It fills in gaps after second, third, fourth time that you were never aware of.

Sharon Waxman: How many times have you seen it?

Jake Gyllenhaal: Four times.

Sharon Waxman: Richard?

Richard Kelly: Four thousand times.

Midlothian, VA: Wow. A local boy representin'. Good for you. I think you constitute the Richmond film scene.

Richard Kelly: I'm from Midlothian. I went to Midlothian high school.

Washington, D.C.: I lived in PC for 6 years, really miss it and also miss attending the film festival. I saw some wonderful films, but also saw some really crappy ones. Have either of you been attendees in the past and, if you have, what were the highlights for you.

By the way, the Park City locals call the Sundance attendees PIBs (People in Black). Nothing better than seeing some LA-type trying to navigate the sidewalks of Main Street in 3 inch heels while talking on their cell phone.

Richard Kelly: This is my first time in Sundance. I think it's kind of like Mardi Gras in that every rumor you hear is absolutely true and then some. Regardless of the PIBs and cellphones, which, let's be honest - we all have them.

Sharon Waxman: Actually, we are on cellphones now - a conference call, no less.

Richard Kelly: But I'm wearing (khaki) sweatpants.

Sharon Waxman: Jake what are you wearing?

Richard Kelly: My pajamas. I woke up just for this interview because I got no sleep in Sundance. So for the next few days I'm perpetually in my pajamas. But while in Sundance I only wore black.

Sharon Waxman: What with the hair, keeping it black?

Jake Gyllenhaal: We went through a hair thing with Donnie Darko and it ended up dark brown. I dyed it pitch black, blue-black for my next movie, "The Bubble Boy" (I totally recommend it). I just love dying my hair. Like Guy Pearce in "Memento" - he has beach blonde hair.

Richard Kelly: The depth of this discussion is what Sundance is all about.

Jake Gyllenhaal: You don't understand the plight of an actor. You have to change people's opinions of you, and if it means dying your hair - that's the independent spirit.

Sharon Waxman: You don't get the Hollywood and Vine discussion without a little hair talk.

Sharon Waxman: We've got to wrap this up, Jake has to have breakfast. Thank you guys for coming on, this was really fun and enlightening. Good questions from all you readers out there - thanks for that. Let's hope we'll be seeing Donnie Darko at our local theaters sometime soon. (The Bubble Boy is coming out in August.)

Richard Kelly: Goodbye and good luck to everyone.

Jake Gyllenhaal: I don't normally plug so much, but if you get a chance to see this movie, see it again and again and again. Even being involved in it, in almost every scene, it's an amazing thing to watch. You'll constantly be surprised. It's a f--'in awesome journey. I hope for all your sakes you get to see it. And thanks, good-bye. And the Hollywood Foreign Press too.

Sharon Waxman: Ciao - later.