Born and raised in Virginia to a family of engineers, filmmaker Richard Kelly claimed to hate high school, even though he was accepted by the popular crowd. He got a visual arts scholarship and moved out West to attend the University of Southern California in the School of Fine Arts. He made two short films (The Goodbye Place and Visceral Matter) before graduating in 1997. He spent the next few years trying to find someone to read his first feature-length screenplay, Donnie Darko. After a lucky meeting with actor Jason Schwartzman (who was supposed to play the lead), he was able to make a deal with Flower Films, Drew Barrymore's production company. As a 25-year-old novice, Kelly had to convince his financial backers to let him direct it with a budget of under five million dollars. With newcomer Jake Gyllenhaal in the title role, Donnie Darko became a one-of-a-kind phenomenon. A coming-of-age science fiction story set in the late '80s, the film flopped at the box office when it was first released in 2001. However, it generated a large audience on home video by word of mouth and quickly became a cult movie hit.
Kelly immediately became a hot name in hollywood, and began work on a bigger-budgeted supernatural thriller named Knowing. The story follows a man who finds a time capsule from the '50s. Meanwhile, Kelly was in hot demand as a screenwriter; among the many projects he was attached to in the wake of Darko were for such directors as Eli Roth (The Box), Darren Aronofsky (Cat's Cradle), and Tony Scott (Domino).