Everything You Wanted to Know About Donnie Darko

donnie darko header

Most of us have seen director Richard Kelly’s time-traveling, supernatural film about a schizophrenic teen who commits a series of crimes, averts disaster, and has a rabbit friend.

The movie was released in 2001, and in 2004, a directors cut, with more information, was released. Find out some of the best theories behind this masterpiece, as well as some fun and little known facts about the actors, a video, and the making of the movie!


What did the actors think of this movie?

donnie darko understand the film

Donnie Darko Doesn’t Get It

Even the actors aren’t sure what the film means, exactly. Jake Gyllenhaal, who played Donnie Darko, has said, “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. “It makes my day every time. Because every time, I answer, ‘I have no idea, what does it mean to you?'”


Who almost played Donnie?

Vince Darko?

donnie darko vince mark

Several actors were considered for the role of Donnie, including Vince Vaughn, who felt uncomfortable playing a 16-year old (he was 31 at the time). Mark Wahlberg was also considered, but insisted that Donnie Darko had to have a lisp, which director Richard Kelly disagreed about. Jason Schwartzman had also agreed to play Donnie but was unable to due to scheduling conflicts. The role eventually went to the hugely talented Jake Gyllenhaal.


How did the actor who played Elizabeth get cast?

Real Sibling Rivalry

donnie darko maggie gylenhaal

Jake Gyllenhaal’s real-life sister Maggie plays his movie sister. Though Richard Kelly was hesitant, he reconsidered because he liked a previous role of hers – where she drank urine in the movie ‘Cecil B. Demented’. Also, it wouldn’t be difficult to create sibling rivalry between the two real-life siblings.


How did the movie do upon release, and why?

donnie darko 9/11

The movie did pretty badly in theaters originally. It made a splash at Sundance, but failed to take off in theater release, despite being critically acclaimed. This is partly due to the confusing sci-fi plot, but also might have to do with the fact that it was released right after 9/11 – a creepy film with two scenes of jet engines crashing into someone’s bedroom felt too raw for the general public


What other things in the film did 9/11 affect?

Arabic Lettering

donnie darko lettering

In another 9/11 related incident, the original poster had to be changed. The poster initially had the words ‘Donnie Darko’ written in an Arabic-style font. With heightened sensitivities toward anything Arabic after 9/11, the lettering was changed to a standard font.


What led to the movie’s eventual succesS?

Theater Release

donnie darko success

The movie managed to turn into a cult success, due, in part, to New York’s Pioneer Theater choosing to play this movie as a midnight showing for 28 months straight. When the DVD was released, the film exploded, making $10 million in sales. You can even see the theater advertising Donnie Darko in the photo above.


What’s the significance of the numbers 28:06:42:12?

Numerical Fascination

donnie darko 28:06:42:12

Why did the theater play this movie for 28 months? A quick watch of this film will reveal a fascination with numbers. Donnie is told that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds (28:06:42:12). Other times we see these numbers are:

  • the flight that Donnie’s mother and sister are taking is Flight # 2806, leaving from Gate 42 at 12:00.
  • the sum of the numbers (28 + 6 + 42 + 12) is 88, which is the year the movie takes place – 1988.
  • The film itself was completed in only 28 days.


Where else do we see rabbits in the movie?

Full of bunnies

donnie darko rabbit

Aside from Frankie, we see a lot of rabbits in the movie.

  • The song that plays when Donnie is riding his bike home is “The Killing Moon” by Echo & The Bunnymen.
  • When Elizabeth Darko is sleeping on the recliner, there is a stuffed rabbit next to her.
  • As Gretchen is waiting for the school bus, a Volkswagen Rabbit vehicle drives in front of her.
  • As Donnie is reaching for the car keys, there is a photo of him and his sister in Halloween costumes on the desk where he is dressed like a rabbit.


Did you notice something interesting about October 2 being the day the world is supposed to end?

October 2, 1904

donnie darko graham greene

The world is supposed to end on October 2, 1988. October 2, 1904 is Graham Greene’s birthday. Graham Greene is the author of “The Destructors,” a short story that Donnie’s English teacher Karen Pomeroy is teaching. This book is the one that is being discussed at the PTA as inappropriate, and leads to Karen’s dismissal.


How did the iconic music get chosen?

Licensing Issues

donnie darko music

Most of the movie in the film wasn’t the first choice and had to be replaced due to licensing issues. For example, the dance performance was filmed to “West End Girls” by the Pet Shop Boys, but was replaced with Duran Duran’s “Notorious” post-production. And the iconic, unforgettable last scene, where Gary Jules covers Tears for Fears “Mad World” was used instead of the music producer’s first choice – U2’s “MLK.”


Notice something about Frankie’s eye?

donnie darko frankie eye

Donnie shoots Frankie in the eye for running Gretchen over. He also stabbed it through the water-mirror. Shortly after, when time is “reset” we see Frankie wiping a tear from his eye.


Who is the antichrist, and why is that interesting?

A Christ-like figure

donnie darko jim cunningham antichrist

Donnie hates Jim Cunningham, and for good reason. When he confronts him at the school assembly, he calls him the antichrist. Interestingly, Donnie dies to save others, making him actually a Christ-like character.


What saved this film from going straight to DVD?

Drew saves the day

donnie darko drew barrymore

We have Drew Barrymore to thank for this dark film. The makers were having a hard time finding a production company to produce (and finance) the film. Barrymore’s company, Flower Films, stepped in and agreed to help make the film. If she hadn’t come in at that moment, the movie likely would have gone to TV or straight to DVD release.


How many feature films had director Richard Kelly made before this masterpiece?

Young and Green

donnie darko richard kelly

Richard Kelly was quite inexperienced when he made the film. A 26 year old film school graduate, he’d never directed a feature film. In fact, he’d barely ever directed anything – just two film-school shorts, ‘The Goodbye Place’ and ‘Visceral Matters’.


How many awards did this film win?

Winning all over the place

donnie darko awards

Donnie Darko, despite its humble beginnings, ended up doing incredibly well. It even ended up as #2 on Empire magazine’s list of 50 greatest independent films of all time. It also won a number of independent film awards, and as of today, has been nominated for 21 awards.


What was working with Patrick Swayze like?

A Class Act

donnie darko jim cunningham

Despite Jim Cunningham being an intolerable character, the actor who played him, Patrick Swayze, was a delight to work with. When asked about working with the actor, Richard Kelly said, “He’’s the nicest guy … 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.”


Ever wondered why the guy on the trampoline was wearing a Ronald Reagan mask?

Inspired By Hunter S. Thompson

donnie darko hunter s thompson

During the house party, one of the guests is jumping on a trampoline with a Ronald Reagan mask on. This is inspired by a famous photo of Hunter S. Thompson (drug aficionado and journalist) doing the same thing.

The drawing of the eye reflecting a skull in Donnie’s room is from a photo by artist MC Escher, who is known for his trippy, mathematically impossible drawings.

The movie is set in 1988 – what book came out that year?

A Brief History of Donnie

donnie darko brief history of time

Interestingly, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was released in 1988. 88 is an important number in this film, for a super cool and crazy reason. Its major significance deals with superstring theory E8xE8, which discusses theoretical concepts like multiverses and time travel. Check out this amazing explanation here that’s sure to blow your mind.


Want to go deep? Check out our next page!

Understanding the Philosophy

donnie darko philosophy of time travel

At first glance, this can seem like a tale of a schizophrenic teen. However, digging deep down reveals a crazy time looping plot, where everyone is an essential element. The philosophy of time travel can be hard to follow, so check out this great guide on Salon.com!


Check out this final video for an in-depth explanation!

Finally, if you want to watch an analysis of this film, try this video clip which goes deep into this movie. Then grab some popcorn, and blanket, and a buddy and get ready for the best re-watch ever!

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