The story of how Christopher Nolan proved pivotal to getting Donnie Darko a big screen release.

Comforting moments were sometimes a bit hard to come by in 2020, but for those of us who cherish the theatrical experience, one of them was surely Christopher Nolan drawing an ideological line in the sand and effectively telling coronavirus ‘you shall not pass!’ like some latter-day Gandalf. Only instead of protecting hobbits, the British director was protecting cinemas.

His determination to get Tenet onto the big screen saw him heralded as a saviour of cinema, and although it didn’t quite work out quite as well as we all hoped, (again, a bit like Gandalf) it was still a victory of sorts and a bright spot in what was a pretty miserable year for cinema fans.

Now it’s come to light  that preserving the theatrical experience for films that should be seen on the big screen has been something that Nolan has been doing ever since his days as a fledgling filmmaker. To mark Donnie Darko’s 20th anniversary, The Ringer has published an oral history of the film which is well worth checking out. One of the fascinating nuggets we learn, is that months after debuting at Sundance, where it had been outshone by Nolan’s own Memento among other films, Donnie Darko still hadn’t found a distributor.

When Newmarket Films, who had funded Nolan’s Memento, decided to screen the film for executives, they invited Nolan and his producing partner Emma Thomas along.

Nolan and Thomas – following the success of Memento – had become the tastemakers for Newmarket. Once the film had screened, Richard Kelly – the director of Donnie Darko – recalls Nolan saying to the executives present that “you guys should distribute this.”

Kelly also credits Nolan with coming up with the subtitles below the title cards that help to clarify the film’s timeline.

Newmarket went with Nolan’s opinion, and his insistence that it should play at cinemas rather than a straight-to-video release. Despite stumbling at the box-office, Donnie Darko went on to become one of the first true cult hits of the 21st century.

Nolan, to his credit, probably knew exactly how Kelly was feeling. Brian Raftery’s fun exploration of 1999’s cinema output, Best. Movie. Year. Ever. gives an account of Nolan himself felt similarly dejected when he took Memento to Sundance in 1999 and it was largely overshadowed by The Blair Witch Project, which of course went on to become the most successful micro-budget movie of all time.

It’s heartening to see that Nolan remembered that feeling and used it positively, to extend a hand to other talented filmmakers too.

You can read the oral history here.

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