20 Things You Never Knew About 'Donnie Darko'

Go inside the layered, brilliant cult film on its anniversary.

Jeff Vespa/Getty

The story behind the story is Donnie Darko could've been a footnote in film history if not for Drew Barrymore. We'll get to that. For now, be amazed by the fact it's been 20 years since writer/director Richard Kelly's incredible time travel opus hit the big screen, not that anyone noticed at the time. 

It took word of mouth for the public to give a movie with a name like Donnie Darko a chance. Critics mostly agreed the film was expertly-crafted with moments of excellence thanks to a talented cast, expert period details of the 1980s, and Kelly's magnificent script. The story, about a troubled high school kid seeking the answers to his apocalyptic visions, is viscerally sensible enough to please casual movie goers. But the real triumph of Darko is how intellectually deep its waters run. Kelly's parallel universes, time travel hypotheses, and existential mysteries all deserve more than one viewing. 

Celebrate Donnie Darko with us on its 20th anniversary as we go behind the scenes to bring you twenty things you may not know about the movie. 

1. Vince Vaughn, Mark Wahlberg, and Jason Schwartzman were all considered for the title role. Vaughn was actually offered it, but turned it down because he thought he was too old. Schwartzman's schedule didn't match up, and Wahlberg only wanted to play Donnie if he could portray him with a lisp. That didn't fly with Kelly. Jake Gyllenhaal, 20-years-old at the time, would land the part.

20 Things You Never Knew About 'Donnie Darko'

2. Kelly cast Maggie Gyllenhaal as Donnie's sister, Elizabeth, not because of her relationship with Jake, but because the director saw her drink urine in Cecil B. Demented and liked the way she did it.

3. Tim Robbins was the first choice for the role of Eddie Darko, which would go to Holmes Osborne. Mara Wilson was considered for the role of Samantha Darko, but she turned it down. Daveigh Chase would win the part.

20 Things You Never Knew About 'Donnie Darko'

4. Kelly has stated that if it weren't for the $4.5 million invested in the film by Drew Barrymore and Flower Films, Donnie Darko would've gone straight to DVD or the Starz Network. Barrymore produced and also portrayed Donnie's teacher, Karen Pomeroy.

5. Gyllenhaal rarely blinks in his performance, a trick used by many actors to add intensity. Ask Michael Caine about it.

6. At the beginning of the film, while Donnie rides his bicycle back into town, you can see Frank passing by in his red Trans Am.

7. Rabbit and bunny references in the movie: Volkswagen Rabbits; Echo and the Bunnymen's song "The Killing Moon"; stuffed rabbits around the house; a Polaroid of Donnie dressed for a previous Halloween as a rabbit; and a bunny jack-o'-lantern.

8. Donnie reveals under hypnosis that he fantasizes about Married...with Children star Christina Applegate, but the original script had him thinking about Alyssa Milano. For legal reasons, it had to be changed. 

20 Things You Never Knew About 'Donnie Darko'

9. The reference to the term "cellar door" as the most beautiful combination of words in the English language actually comes from J.R.R. Tolkien's 1955 essay "English and Welsh." He says, "Most English-speaking people...will admit that cellar door is beautiful, especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful."

20 Things You Never Knew About 'Donnie Darko'

10. In the "Cunning Visions" infomercial, Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) pats a child on his behind. The same kid shows up later at the school assembly and tells Cunningham he wants to learn how to fight.

11. Donnie and Gretchen (Jena Malone) go to the movies to see The Evil Dead (1981), which director Sam Raimi lent the rights to for free. But Kelly's original choice was the 1984 horror flick, C.H.U.D.. Neither make sense, as the movie is set in 1988. 

12. Malone couldn't pronounce "Professor Monnitoff" in character so the scene when Donnie corrects Gretchen is actually real. Kelly left it in the movie. 

13. Frank says the world will end in "28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds." Those numbers come from adding or subtracting one from each of these numbers: 27:07:43:11, the precise length of one lunar month (sidereal).

20 Things You Never Knew About 'Donnie Darko'

14. In many ways, Kelly's film is a superhero story and there are a few elements of comic book writing in the script. The most prevalent being the use of alliterative names. Comics are filled with characters like Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, and Susan Storm. Donnie Darko follows the same formula. Characters in the movie are named Cherita Chen, Frankie Feedler, Daye Dennis, Joanie James, and, of course, Donnie Darko.

15. Kelly reveals in the DVD commentary track that the guy in the red jogging suit is actually a FAA agent assigned to watch the Darkos because the agency is so befuddled by that jet engine falling on the family's house. Similarly, the mystery lady seen at the Sparkle Motion performance is a talent scout for Star Search.

20 Things You Never Knew About 'Donnie Darko'
All photos courtesy of Pandora Cinema & Newmarket Films

16. At the house party someone is jumping on a trampoline wearing a Ronald Reagan mask, supposedly it's a reference to a photo of Hunter S. Thompson doing the same thing.

17. Kelly was inspired to create the future path blobs while smoking weed and watching John Madden use a telestrator on Monday Night Football. 

18. Donnie, Gretchen and Donnie's friends riding bikes after the Halloween party is a tribute to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, one of the director's favorite films. 

19. Donnie's theory about Smurf sex was approved by the Peyo estate because they saw it as an accurate description.

20. Kitty defensively says she knows Graham Greene because she's seen Bonanza. The joke being she's an idiot who thinks the famous author is actually actor Lorne Greene. 

20 Things You Never Knew About 'Donnie Darko'
Pandora Cinema | Newmarket Films

*Big h/t to Wikipedia, IMDb trivia, AV Club, and my Donnie Darko DVD special features.

Managing Editor, Zimbio — entertainment writer, critic, and reporter since 2011. Bay Area. Origin: Shark City.