Recording Mad World For Donnie Darko Took No Time At All

"Donnie Darko," the 2001 Richard Kelly-directed mind-bender of a movie about time travel, death, and the dreadfully existential experience that is high school is memorable for many reasons. Today, if you so much as mention the cult film, images of Frank the rabbit and his shot-out eye immediately come to mind. Frank is the stuff of nightmares, enhancing the movie's atmosphere with his mysterious and ominous presence in the title character's life. However, Frank's creepiness is only one part — albeit a big one — of the film's peculiarities, none of which would be anywhere near as effective if it weren't for one major thing: the music.

The score for "Donnie Darko" is perhaps just as memorable as Frank, that pesky jet engine, the incredible finale, and that one uncomfortable scene in Donnie's (Jake Gyllenhaal) therapist's office. It is the thing that sets the tone for the entire movie, kicking things off with a dreamy piano intro that effortlessly flows into the 1984 Echo & the Bunnymen hit, "The Killing Moon." The movie is peppered with other classic '80s songs — Tears for Fears' "Head over Heels," and Duran Duran's "Notorious" among them — but perhaps the most memorable of them all is "Mad World." Originally another Tears for Fears song, the version in "Donnie Darko" is a cover by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules that plays in the film's final moments. This stripped-down, haunting version pairs perfectly with the movie's somber tone, and while you might assume recording a cover of one of the most well-known songs of the 1980s would take time, in the case of "Donnie Darko," it actually took very little time at all.

An alternative version

The lyrics to Tears for Fears' "Mad World" feel almost as if they were written specifically for "Donnie Darko." With its "familiar faces" that are "going nowhere" and its dreams about death resulting in joy, it's easy to forget that the song was actually released in 1982, almost 20 years prior to the movie's release. When the time came to choose a song for the final scene of the film, The Boston Globe reported that there wasn't enough money in the budget to secure the first choice of the film composer, Michael Andrews. Originally, "it was [U2's] 'MLK'," Andrews told The Ringer. Therefore, he needed to come up with another plan for the movie's final moments.

His decision was to do a cover of an '80s song in the style of the film's already piano-heavy score. "In [composer] John Barry's movies, or old '60s movies, the score would sort of have an instrumentation and a tonality to it. And then, [musicians] would make these songs sort of within the framework of that aesthetic," he explained to The Ringer. The result was a cover of "Mad World" that was recorded at Andrews' home. 

For the vocals, Andrews enlisted an old friend and singer-songwriter, Gary Jules. "Mike and I, we were in a band together in high school that covered 'Mad World.' I covered the song on acoustic guitar in gigs for years," Jules explained. When it came time to record the song, Andrews told The Ringer, "We kind of just did it. Very quickly." In fact, Jules elaborated, "The whole thing was over in 15 minutes." A far cry away from 28 days, six hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds. 

A tonally perfect ending

The use of Andrews and Jules' stripped down piano-ballad version of "Mad World" was very impactful — it eventually charted at number 1 in the UK — even at the time of recording. Director Richard Kelly told The Ringer, "They performed it for me and I was like, 'That's incredible.'" Curt Smith, one of the band members of Tears for Fears, even endorsed the song, explaining, "A lot of things we do are lyrically poignant but set to things that are far more rhythmic and maybe upbeat. The original version of 'Mad World' was very much an uptempo song. Whereas Michael and Gary's version was more in tune with the lyrics, to be honest."

Jules, however, had his doubts initially. "I'm not a big fan of my voice, and it was so naked in the thing," he said. "But one of our friends was in the control room with some other people that we know. And when I went in, she was crying." The power of Jules and Andrews' version of "Mad World" is evident in the movie's final moments. After Donnie makes the decision to succumb to his jet-engine fate, the camera slowly pans over all of the characters that we've come to know over the course of the film. Their "familiar faces" are filled with anguish as they understand what has happened to Donnie. The absurdity of his death paired with the idea of a mad world that must go on despite tragedy makes for a tonally perfect ending to one of the early aughts' most delightfully perplexing films.