Doner was born in Detroit, Michigan and grew up in the nearby village Franklin, though he and his family moved to SoHo, New York City when he was nine years old. He first became interested in writing when he visited an abandoned gas station called Space 2B which had been remodeled into a poetry and performance space where he listened to writers such as Pedro Pietri and Allen Ginsberg reading their work. He met Ginsberg, who convinced him to read his own poems at the space. Doner attended Harvard University, majoring in Biological Anthropology and Psychology and taking a number of film as literature classes. In his second year, he changed his major to English so that he could write a screenplay for his creative thesis. He had to go before a panel of seven professors to request to write a screenplay, as the first student to do so. He wrote his first script and, after graduating magna cum laude in 1994, used it to apply for the American Film Institute in Los Angeles as a screenwriting fellow, from where he graduated in 1996.