“Why are you wearing that stupid bunny suit?”
“…Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?”
It only took two installments of Making a Monster to hit a real conundrum. When I first plotted out my ideas for this monthly column, I envisioned covering the wide array of horror’s limitless catalog of villains. Big names like the Universal Monsters, lesser known entities like Baghuul from Sinister, and everyone (or everything) in between would find themselves under my metaphorical microscope at the appropriate time. They all had one thing in common, though. They were monsters – evil, nefarious, grotesque, maniacal, horrific monsters. Well, it’s Leap Fear month here at Nightmare on Film Street, and I’m going to jump back in time to revise my pitch. Why? Because the focus of this month’s piece cannot, in fact, be considered a monster. Sure, he’s scary looking as hell. But recall a lesson we all should’ve learned early on – you never judge a book by it’s cover.
“From the get go, writer/director Richard Kelly knew Frank would wear a rabbit costume…”
For this edition of Making a Monster, I will be bending time and observing the “manipulated dead” to examine Frank the Rabbit from Richard Kelly’s 2001 mind melter Donnie Darko. As a quick disclaimer, I’m still picking up the pieces of my shattered psyche after re-watching the film for the first time in years. With that, I apologize if things get weird. All I remember is that I did watch it, and it was brain-bending awesomeness. LET US BEGIN.
Building a Bunny
From the get go, writer/director Richard Kelly knew Frank would wear a rabbit costume. He also knew it needed to have a profound impact for whoever saw it. In a fantastic interview with Entertainment Weekly, Kelly revealed the backstory behind the costume and the weight he knew its image must carry.
When we brought the rabbit on set, that was a moment where I knew I was either going to live or die by the rabbit and how people responded to it…Everyone just got quiet on the set. Everyone was like, this is really intense. So I knew it was working, and I felt the sense of relief. I could look around, and the makeup artist and the production assistants and the second AD, they were all just really freaked out about it. Steven Poster, my cinematographer, came up to me, and he was like, ‘Rich, I wasn’t sure about the rabbit… but now I get it.”
Kelly had sketched several images of the infamous mask before sending it to be sculpted. The director hypothesized that maybe the inspiration for the character came subconsciously from one of his favorite works of literature, Watership Down by Richard Adams. Or that perhaps it was from a dream? In reality, there may not be any true satisfactory explanation at all for the rabbit’s twisted, menacing appearance. “Everyone asks me, ‘Where did the rabbit come from?’” Kelly told EW. “And it’s not an easy question to answer.”
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Explaining the … Hard to Explain
In the “real world” of the film, Frank is merely Frank Anderson, the boyfriend of Donnie Darko’s sister, Elizabeth. The demented bunny costume? That would just be his Halloween costume, as the story takes place around this time. This simplicity of his character is not so within the “tangent universe”, where nearly all of the film takes place. This is where things get really hare-y (get it?!) I won’t take the time to break down the intricate workings of the Donnie Darko story, nor do I think I actually could if I wished to. You best search out people much smarter than I to explain the time travel elements and true meaning behind the film in a coherent manner, and that’s part of this film’s charm and appeal. It’s open to the viewer’s interpretation. But to understand Frank and his rabbit suit, we need a quick summary.
The way-too-basic breakdown of the story is this – a corruption in our real universe timeline creates a tangent universe (thank you Dr. Emmett Brown and your chalkboard). If this mistake is not corrected by the “designated fixer” (Donnie), the real universe would cease to exist. This is where Frank enters the picture. Frank is referred to as the “manipulated dead,” as his character lives in the real universe, but dies in the tangent universe. In this tangent universe, a fully costumed Frank guides Donnie through this corrupt time line, assuring that every event needed to happen does in order to fix the mistake.
Playing the Easiest Role
As complex as Frank’s role may be in Donnie Darko, it also happened to be the easiest character to perform. That is, according to the actor who played the costumed terror himself. In another excellent interview, actor James Duval discussed his time donning the rabbit suit with Dazed Digital.”I don’t know how to say this, (but it was) probably one of the easiest jobs I’ve ever had in a sense,” he shared. “I would put the suit on, show up on my mark, turn my head to the left, look straight, turn my head to the right, look straight, look up, look straight…”
As I mentioned earlier, it can be easily lost in the intricate story that despite Frank‘s jarring look and crucial role, he really is just a man in a rabbit costume. Conveying Frank‘s dialogue was much less simple. The rabbit mask was so obstructive, Duval had to scream his lines at the other actors. “I’m screaming through the mask and half of it you can’t really understand,” Duvall told the publication. “So you’ve got to give Jake (Gyllenhaal) a lot of credit for knowing what I’m saying without being able to hear me clearly.” In the studio, the actor first faintly whispered the lines, which were then added to a recording of the recited lines in a firmer yet gentle reading. Through the magic of studio editing, the recordings were then split and layered together to create the haunting dialogue.
To this day, fans of the film still come up to Duval to express their affliction with the film, and more specifically, Frank the Rabbit. “It’s an honor. I’m so absolutely flattered beyond belief that anything that I’ve done is a part of something like Donnie Darko.”
Let’s be Frank About This
Sure, Frank guides Donnie into some pretty unfortunate situations. In fact, he is responsible for one of the most devastating sequences in the film. However, all of this takes place in the tangent universe, in order to restore the actual universe. Would it be fair to Frank a traditional “monster”? I don’t think so. That said, that bunny suit still brings about nightmares any which way you look at it. Looking at the full scope of the character and the film, what mark has Frank the Rabbit left on society?
Donnie Darko did not find success at the box office, but has developed a very intense cult classic status ever since. Some view it as a film about teenage angst and mental illness. Director Richard Kelly once described it as a rejection of public school education. Some view it as a love story, where someone would be willing to go any lengths necessary to save the life of another. No matter the interpretation of the film, most would agree that Donnie Darko deserves it’s spot in the realm of cult classics. And you cannot hear “Donnie Darko” without the image of Frank the Rabbit flooding your mind like the basement of Middlesex High School.
“The rabbit mask was so obstructive, [actor James] Duval had to scream his lines at the other actors.“
Do you consider Frank a “monster”? Where would you rank the bunny suit among film’s most upsetting costumes? Should I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion? Let us know on Nightmare on Film Street’s Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram pages!