USC film graduate refuses to play safe

January’s Sundance Film Festival, which introduced an unusually strong crop of first-time writer-directors, was nevertheless marked by extreme caution by acquisition executives.

And while Richard Kelly’s highly assured directorial debut, “Donnie Darko,” represented one of the fest’s high points, the overarching ambition of its story and interlocking shades of light and dark drew strong interest but left some distributors scratching their heads.

“When you’re a first-time director, you have to play ball with distributors,” says the 26-year-old USC film school grad about the balance between meeting distributors’ demands for changes in his movie and maintaining his personal vision.

“Donnie Darko,” a coming-of-age story about a troubled teenage boy (Jake Gyllenhaal) who reveals the hypocrisy behind the veneer of placid suburbia that surrounds him, mixes science fiction, fantasy, romance, humor and drama.

Kelly, who describes the film as ‘”Catcher in the Rye’ as told by Philip K. Dick,” admits that it’s quite a heady brew, but in his first attempt at a screenplay, decided he was “really going to go for it and create a movie that I would flip out if I saw it and try to really just push the envelope.”

New Market, which picked up the film for an October release, gave Kelly the time, money and freedom he needed to clarify the complex story with a time-travel element that threw some people for a loop.

“With a film like ‘Memento,’ which certainly challenges its audience, New Market had great success,” says Kelly, “and I think they were willing to take a similar risk with our film to release it in a form that doesn’t paint everything into a corner or tie up everything in a big red bow.”

In the meantime, Kelly has three finished scripts, any one of which he would “happily make next given the right casting.

“I’m real aggressive about having more than one thing on my plate,” he adds, “because you never know what’s going to happen.”

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