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Director Richard Kelly And DP Steven Poster Give “Donnie Darko” 4K Restoration Treatment

By: Marjorie Galas

Rarely does a film get a second chance at theatrical distribution, especially if it failed to rake in cash the first time around. Yet cult classic “Donnie Darko” – a box office flop during its 2001 release – will once again be projected on the big screen.  Sporting a brand-new 4K restoration, the film kicks off a week-long engagement at the Cinefamily Theater in Los Angeles and the Metrograph in New York on March 31st.  From there, it will travel to venues around the US, including Denver, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Phoenix and San Francisco.  Recognizing a new generations of fans will encounter “Donnie Darko” in full-screen, cinematic glory continues to dumbfound its writer and director, Richard Kelly.

“This film was beautifully shot by Steven (Poster) and deserves to be seen on a big screen,” said Kelly. “It is hard to believe fifteen years later it is getting a wider release than the original.”

The road to the big screen for “Donnie Darko” was littered with obsticles. Then a 26-year-old USC School of Cinematic Arts graduate, Kelly only had two short film credits to his name when he sought funding for his self-penned, darkly comic mind-bending feature.  Beginning and ending with a dramatic plane crashing into Donnie Darko’s (Jake Gyllenhall) room, the film weaves themes regarding self-worth, bullying, love, mental illness and angst through a heady, sci-fi mix of time travel and alternative universes. His script was often well-received during his early quests for financers, but his insistence on directing it was a funding hurdle.   Once made, the film premiered at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival and had an impressive, and award-winning, festival circuit run, but fell short of cementing a distribution deal.  Kelly feared “Donnie Darko” was destined to a straight to DVD fate when Flower Films, the company co-owned by Drew Barrymore who also has a minor role in the film, assisted in securing the film’s theatrical release.   The stumbling block for “Donnie Darko” was the film’s unfortunate release date: October 26, 2001.   The nation was still overcoming the horrors of the September 11th terrorist attacks in NYC, and a marketing a film with a pivotal plane crash was a hard sell.

Once the movie was released to VHS in 2002, however, it became profitable, earning a place on the top shelf of cult film classics. Kelly recalls its DVD transfer as “prefunctary, without a lot of oversight.”   The quality of the film was never maintained for the subsequent Blue-Ray transfers that followed.   In essences, what the majority of “Donnie Darko” fans have seen is nothing like the film Kelly and his DP, Steven Poster, shot.  When Arrow Films, the company who acquired the rights to “Donnie Darko”, contacted Kelly in 2016 proposing a 4K conversion, the director was shocked.

“They wanted me to oversee the restoration,” said Kelly. “I talked to Steven, I wanted him to be involved.”

The shooting of “Donnie Darko” was rather unconventional for its time. It’s 35mm film format was a standard choice for the late nineties.  What was unusual was the fledgling director’s instance that the film be shot in anamorphic widescreen – a stylistic choice virtual unheard of for independent films during that period.  Poster recognized one potential hurdle in using anamorphic for 35mm: it typically requires a lengthy lighting set up.  The “Donnie Darko” production was on a tight, 28 day schedule with no flexibility.  Shooting with a Panavision Panaflex Millennium camera, Poster decided to use a high speed film stock – along with an assortment of filters – to help reduce the amount of necessary light exposure.  Poster, who’s been involved in remastering some of his other projects, was excited to reconnect with Kelly and the film. But first, they had to find the master.  Rarely do directors get the master: it falls into the hands of a bevvy of the financiers, producers and distributors.

“Up to 15 entities can own pieces of (a film) so who knows where they go,” said Poster.

Poster’s main hope was that the original be well archived. With a clock running on their restoration timeline, a furious search for the original negatives began. Kelly ultimately tracked them down at the Deluxe studio in London, where they benefitted from appropriate archiving. The negative was scanned and the meticulous process of restoring the film began.

“We had a tremendous amount of creative control,” said Poster, who noted Arrow, like many smaller companies, wants to ensure they get everyone’s creative input when remastering or restoring a title. “I work quickly, but had plenty of time to correct the entire movie.”

For Kelly, returning to the editing suite with Poster was a unique treat. Kelly had stepped away from directing to focus on writing for the past several years. The last feature he’d directed – which also featured Poster as DP – was the 2009 release “The Box.”  He found the process to be a bit of a home coming.  He was particularly grateful to have Poster’s expertise in handling the restoration process.

“The tools at our disposal were a significant and wonderful gift to any artist. Steven knows how to use these tools artfully,” said Kelly. “He utilizes restrain, you don’t need to overuse them or push the color space.  It was important for us to maintain perspective, a sense of naturalism and to be authentic.”

Kelly did take the liberty of enhancing some visual effects in the 4K version that he felt were never fully realized. However, his main focus when converting “Donnie Darko” to 4K was “more about the restoration process.”

“We were able to preserve what was there,” said Kelly.