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SYFY WIRE Donnie Darko

How Christopher Nolan Saved Sci-Fi Cult Hit Donnie Darko From Purgatory 2 Decades Ago

The goodwill of Memento went a long way.

By Josh Weiss & Trent Moore

Even before his acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy thrust him into the upper echelons of rarified filmmaking air, Christopher Nolan was proving his chops as an influential Hollywood heavyweight.

Sitting down with The Ringer in 2021 for the 20th anniversary of Donnie Darko (the director's cut is now streaming on Peacock if you'd like to give it a rewatch), writer/director Richard Kelly and executive producer Aaron Ryder recalled how Nolan and his wife/producing partner, Emma Thomas, helped secure distribution for what would become a beloved cult classic among sci-fi fans.

RELATED: How James Cameron pushed and inspired Richard Kelly to (still) not give up on a Donnie Darko sequel

A split featuring Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Donnie Darko (2001) and Christopher Nolan

How Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas helped save Donnie Darko

Ryder, who had previously served as an executive producer on Memento, invited the pair to an advance screening of Darko alongside the head honchos of Memento distributor, Newmarket Films, at a time where Darko was still trying to land a distribution deal. "It was a great screening because while the movie was, let’s call it flawed, there was also something so unbelievably captivating about it," he said.

"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 continued. "They were like, 'You guys should distribute this.' And they gave me some suggestions. Chris and his wife, it was their idea to put the parenthetical beneath the title cards."

While Kelly and Ryder didn't go into much detail about what Nolan specifically liked about the movie, it's probably safe to assume that the future Batman director was attracted to the ambitious and high-concept genre storytelling he had already applied on Memento and would later apply on a blockbuster scale for InceptionInterstellar, and Tenet.

Nolan has always been a filmmaker who likes to play with narrative structure and non-linear storytelling, and he clearly saw a kindred spirit in Kelly's sci-fi tale, even if it was still a bit rough around the edges at the time. Considering fans are still debating and digging into the nuances of Donnie Darko all these years later, we're glad Nolan took an interest to help get the project across the finish line at a critical moment where it could've just as likely ended up shelved in development hell.

Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut is now streaming on Peacock. As for Nolan, you can catch his latest film Oppenheimer is out on digital and Blu-Ray on November 21.