The apocalyptic sci-fi drama, which turned 20 on 19 January, stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a teenage boy who begins having surreal visions of a man in a bunny suit.
While the film is today recognised as a cult classic, it was treated with unease by Newmarket Films, the studio that produced it, who believed it was so unpromising than they were planning on releasing it straight to video.
In a new oral history of the movie, Kelly has confirmed that the Interstellar and The Dark Knight director stepped in to try to change their minds after seeing a rough cut of the film at a private screening.
“When the lights came up, Chris and his wife both turned to the Newmarket executives, Chris Ball and Will Tyrer, and they both looked over at them and they nodded,” Kelly recalled to The Ringer. “They were like, ‘You guys should distribute this’.”
When Newmarket later tried to bury the film, out of concerns that no one would see it in cinemas, both Nolan and Drew Barrymore, who stars in and produced the film, fought for it to receive a proper release.
“We had to bring Drew Barrymore in to basically beg Newmarket to give it a theatrical release because they were still like, ‘Yeah, we’re just going to put it to home video’,” Kelly added. “Chris convinced Newmarket to buy it and once they had bought it, we were not going to let them get away with not giving it a theatrical release.”
Kelly also revealed that Nolan and his wife and regular collaborator Emma gave suggestions on how the film could be improved upon. Specifically, the pair advised Kelly to add a parenthetical beneath the opening title card, which would serve as a countdown clock to a mystery event.
Donnie Darko, which became a word-of-mouth hit in cinemas and on DVD, also starred Maggie Gyllenhaal, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle and Jena Malone.
Kelly would go on to direct two more cult films after Donnie Darko: the political satire Southland Tales, and the Cameron Diaz thriller The Box. Speaking to The Independent in 2019 for a 10th anniversary retrospective of The Box, Kelly revealed that he was finally about to start making his long-in-the-works fourth movie.