Visual Linguist: A Darren Aronofsky Profile (Part 1)

With his latest feature Black Swan currently on release in North America, Trevor Hogg profiles the career of filmmaker Darren Aronofsky in the first of a two-part feature…

Darren Aronofsky“When I was a kid, me and my sister and friends used to put on these little shows,” recalled American moviemaker Darren Aronofsky, the son of two school teachers. “We used to put on records and lip-sync or dance to them. We’d invite the parents up and during this one show, I’ll never forget, I turned off the lights and… had the spotlight [a big flashlight] on my sister dancing to some music… And my Dad screamed at me, ‘Turn on the lights!’ What I learned from that is that if it gets in the way of the performance, then don’t do it.” Along with a fascination with black and white photography, the young Brooklyn native found himself drawn to a controversial work by legendary director Stanley Kubrick. “When I was growing up, the films that I liked, movies like A Clockwork Orange [1971], I used to go to midnight screenings of it in Manhattan and get blown away. I always wanted to make a film that was as exciting and challenging as it for an audience.” Another influential picture for Aronofsky was She’s Gotta Have It (1986) which introduced him to the concept of “guerilla filmmaking.”

The graduate of the Edward R. Murrow High School decided to embark on an adventure. “When I was eighteen I traveled around Europe with a backpack and started in Israel,” stated Darren Aronofsky. “Because I had no money, I put myself on a kibbutz with dreams of being in an avocado field, picking avocados with my shirt off and catching some rays. In fact, they stuck me in a plastic factory and my job was to run between assembly lines for eight hours a day…It was a nightmare so I ran away after two days.” Heading off to Jerusalem, the penniless traveler agreed to take Torah classes three hours each morning from a sect of Hasidim Jews in exchange for food and shelter. Returning to America, Aronofsky attended Harvard University to study anthropology, boarding with an animation student. “My roommate [and future business partner Dan Shreker] would finish the year with a movie and I’d finish with a bunch of C’s. I decided to switch and found that film was the first thing that kept me awake at night, solving problems and doing mental edits. Film was also the first thing in which I got an A.”

“My friendship with Darren began with a collaboration on his thesis film at Harvard, Supermarket Sweep [1991]. I played a violent sociopath,” remarked actor Sean Gullette (Happy Accidents) who performs alongside Seth Gitell in the short film which combines elements of action, comedy, and drama; the directorial debut lead Darren Aronofsky to become a Student Academy Award Finalist. “When I went to film school we had to do three short films,” stated the filmmaker who sought to obtain his masters in directing at the American Film Institute, “so I started reading the short stories of my favourite authors. The first film I did at AFI was called Fortune Cookie.” The tale, written by Hulbert Selby, Jr., is “about a salesman who gets addicted to fortunes, and can’t make a sale unless he has a good fortune from a fortune cookie.” Next up for the aspiring director was Protozoa (1993) where he teamed for the first time with frequent collaborator and cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Iron Man) for the first time; the drama which also serves as the name of his production company stars Michael Bonitatis, Lucy Liu (Lucky Number Slevin) and Damon Whitaker (Mr. Holland’s Opus). Completing the AFI trilogy was the comedy No Time (1994) which features Robert Dylan Cohen, Chas Martin and Billy Portman.

Pi poster Darren Aronofsky“When I was in L.A. I couldn’t make an independent film,” said Darren Aronofsky, “but when I finally came back to New York, I was able to rally the troops; I had lots of resources because I grew up there.” Things did not go smoothly upon arriving back home as Aronofsky had to abort his original idea for his feature length debut. “It was about a fortune-teller who didn’t want to be a fortune-teller anymore. It was his grandmother who wanted him to be one. I thought I could’ve done it for a million dollars maybe and I couldn’t convince anyone that I was capable of doing it.” The filmmaker turned to his time spent with the sect of Hasidim Jews in Israel as well as his surroundings for creative inspiration. “The idea that you could convert the entire Torah into a long number and do all types of different mathematics with it, I thought was a very interesting way to approach the text.” As for incorporating Wall Street into the story, the director remarked, “They had put up that new, beautiful stock ticker… I wanted it in my movie and it’s there. So that was the initial idea for bringing in the stock market.”

Pi [1998] has a young math genius named Max Cohen for the main character,” explained Darren Aronofsky who recruited Sean Gullette once again for the leading role. “He lives in a gloomy apartment in Chinatown, isolated from other humans… [Max] is obsessed with the idea that everything in the world, ultimately can be represented and understood through numbers.” This mathematical obsession leads to Max being pursued by two ruthless organizations: a Wall Street company seeking to dominate the world financial market and a Kabbalah sect seeking to unlock the secrets of their sacred texts. “A film made for $60,000, the only way you can get it done is with a tremendous amount of favours,” observed Aronofsky who collected $100 donations from family and friends. “Every single filmmaker on the film from the P.A. [production assistant] to me to Sean to the producer to the first A.C. [assistant cameraman] were all equal profit sharers in the film. There’s a pool of 50% of the film which all of us shared equally. That’s the way to do it. That’s how we got their passion.” With the fundraising campaign falling short, a cash infusion by executive producer Randy Simon allowed the principle photography to commence; the project, which involved eight months of acting rehearsals, and took three years to make.

Pi Darren Aronofsky“I don’t really think that Pi is a math movie,” observed Darren Aronofsky. “The hardest math problem in the film is forty-one plus three, and we give you the answer five seconds later. It’s more the hokey-pokey magic tricks of math that we wanted to show off.” The director added, “It preserves the tradition of [Rod] Serling and Phillip K. Dick in that it works the lines separating paranoia, insanity and genius.” Aronofsky also sought to craft an entertaining piece of cinema. “We wanted to make a roller-coaster ride for ninety minutes, where audiences would be just strapped in and stay glued to their seats… If we accomplished the thriller goal, I knew we could push the themes a bit and push the style.” Cast in the picture are Mark Margolis (Gone Baby Gone), Ben Shenkman (Blue Valentine), Pamela Hart (Next Stop Wonderland), Stephen Pearlman (The Horse Whisperer), Samia Shoaib (The Next Big Thing), Ajay Naidu (Office Space), Kristyn Mae-Anne Lao, Lauren Fox (Revolution Summer), and Clint Mansell. “We really tried to exploit our limitations throughout making Pi, meaning that anytime we had something that we weren’t sure we could do, we would figure out what we could do and did it the best we could. We knew we couldn’t pull off colour. First we could only afford 16mm. And the way 16mm colour looks blown up, I’d never be happy with that, no matter whose process we used. We decided on black and white, but the problem with a black and white negative was we didn’t want the movie to look like Clerks [1994] – all grey. Then we decided to look into [black and white] reversal film, which is beautiful film stock, but extremely challenging to do.”

“We walked into the festival with no buzz,” recollected Darren Aronofsky regarding Pi being accepted as an official entry at the Sundance Film Festival. “At our first screening, we had a standing ovation.” A distribution deal was signed with Live Entertainment [later Artisan] causing entertainment industry publication Variety to print the headline Pi = $1 million. Grossing $3 million domestically, the science fiction thriller won the Directing Award – Dramatic, and a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic, at Sundance; it also received a Special Recognition Award for “excellence in filmmaking” from the National Board of Review, and the Open Palm Award at the Gotham Awards. The Independent Spirit Awards lauded the film with Best First Screenplay and nominations for Best Cinematography and Best First Picture. Questioned about how the Jewish community reacted to the story, Darren Aronofsky replied, “When we showed it at the Museum of Modern of Art [as part of the program of] New Directors, New Films, it was a very Jewish audience and they actually cheered throughout the film.”

Requiem for a Dream posterUpon graduating from film school, Darren Aronofsky picked up a copy of Requiem of a Dream (2000) by author Hubert Selby, Jr. but had to stop reading it halfway through; he found the tale about three heroine addicts who attempt to become drug dealers to be too disturbing. “My producer years later while we were cutting Pi, was going on vacation with his girlfriend and his family; he asked to borrow the book,” stated the director. “He came back and he said it ruined his vacation, ‘but we have to make it.’” After finishing reading the novel, Aronofsky agreed that optioning the film rights was a good idea, thereby making the cinematic adaptation his sophomore effort. “What Selby is saying is that anything can be a drug – it doesn’t have to be smack. It could be TV, coffee, chocolate, food, hope, love, [or] sex… I thought it was an idea that we hadn’t seen before on film and I wanted to bring it up on the screen.” The filmmaker also believes that the core theme is about the “battle between addiction and the human spirit.”

Performing in the $4.5 million production are Jared Leto (Panic Room), Ellen Burstyn (The Exorcist), Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind), Marlon Wayans (Scary Movie), Christopher McDonald (The Perfect Storm), Mark Margolis, Louise Lasser (Happiness), Marcia Jean Kurtz (Dog Day Afternoon), Sean Gullette, Keith David (Platoon), Ben Shenkman and Hubert Selby, Jr.. “When I pitched the movie,” revealed Darren Aronofsky, “I told people I wanted it to be like you jumped out of an airplane and about midway coming down you remembered that you forgot your parachute. That’s where the movie begins… And the film ends five minutes after you hit the ground, you’re alive during those last five minutes, catching your last few breaths.” Aronofsky added, “I wanted no catharsis at the end; [I wanted it to be] just as harsh and intense as possible. It’s a punk movie where the audience is a mosh pit of emotion.” The original author attempted to bring his story to the big screen years before. “Selby started writing a version of the screenplay… but he lost it. I started writing it, and got three-quarters the way done when I got a call from Selby, he had found the draft in his basement. He sent it over, and I would say about eighty percent [of the two versions] was the same. Basically, we were telling the same story. It’s about getting essence and then adding ornamentation.” Contemplating the subject matter of the drama, the director observed, “Ultimately the film is about the lengths people will go to escape their realities, and what happens when you chase after a fantasy.”

Ellen Burstyn Darren Aronofsky Requiem for a DreamA major challenge for the Brooklyn born filmmaker was the cinematically portrayal of an emotional state of mind. “With Sarah [Ellen Burstyn], there were actual visual ways to personify it [addiction],” said Darren Aronofsky. “The fridge coming to alive is a complete visualization of her addiction as are the television characters coming alive.” Featured throughout the picture is the filmmaker’s signature “hip-hop montage” which is a sequence of images or actions shown in fast-motion with accompanying sound effects to simulate an action such as taking drugs. “You can really use sound to help capture the subject’s experiences and suck the audience into the movie,” stated Aronofsky of the soundtrack which features audio samples of punches thrown by Hong Kong action film hero Bruce Lee (Enter the Dragon). Despite the heavy sound design there is a quiet scene in the middle of the movie with the characters Harry (Jared Leto) and Sarah. “When I read that scene in the book, I couldn’t stop crying… Everybody understands that relationship with a parent or grandparent who is losing it and there’s nothing you can do.” Visually, the director was equally inventive. “There are over one hundred digital effects in Requiem. The idea was not to do groundbreaking new effects, but to use old effects in new ways,” explained Aronofsky. “For instance, when Harry transports himself out to the pier through his imagination; first the window disappears, then the bed disappears, [and] then the whole room disappears, which is just a reinvention of how to use the dissolve.” However, as much as he enjoyed employing all the cinematic trickery, the most impressive accomplishment for Darren Aronofsky happened in front of the camera. “The greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life is capturing Ellen Burstyn’s performance on film.”

Trouble erupted for Requiem for a Dream when the MPAA gave it a NC-17 rating. “It wasn’t so much the sexuality that was the problem but more the psychological intensity of the three-minute climax of the film,” remarked Darren Aronofsky. “Personally, I like controversy because I think it attracts the right audience to the movie.” Aronofsky went on to say, “I just think there are more unhappy people on the planet than there are happy people. To feel good about yourself and feel good about your world, you have to go through a lot of darkness.” Earning $7 million worldwide, the drama received a number of accolades in particular for Ellen Burstyn’s portrayal of a woman who overdoses on watching television and diet pills after getting a call to appear on her favourite TV show. Burstyn was nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars, Screen Actors Guild Awards, and the Golden Globes. The Independent Spirit Awards lauded Requiem for a Dream with Best Cinematography and Best Female Lead (Ellen Burstyn) along with nominations for Best Director, Best Feature, and Best Supporting Female (Jennifer Connelly). And for the second time in a row, Darren Aronofsky produced a movie which was presented with a Special Recognition Award “for excellence in filmmaking” from the National Board of Review.
“I steal a lot of inventions from MTV, but it’s basically style without substance,” stated Aronofsky, who is quick to point out that a key principle for him is a stylistic technique must push the narrative forward. In recognition of his creative talent, the director was given the Franklin J. Schaffner Award by his alma mater the American Film Institute; the Young Hollywood Awards presented him with the trophy for Hottest Young Filmmaker, and he was a member of the dramatic jury at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. The biggest compliment of all came from Hollywood which envisioned him as the one to revive a comic book movie franchise about a masked vigilante. “Vengeance and justice that are really deep issues for Americans,” said Aronofsky who was attached to direct Batman: Year One. Also in development was a WWII submarine horror thriller he co-wrote with Lucas Sussman and David Twohy (Pitch Black) called Proteus, which was later renamed Below (2002).

Things took a major turn for the worse for Darren Aronofsky when he chose to direct an original science fiction fantasy with a box office star.

Continue to part two.

For more on Darren Aronofsky visit his official website and blog, along with the fansites Darren Aronofsky Online and Aronofsky Films. You can also watch the trailer for Pi here.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada. 

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