With his latest feature Black Swan currently on release in North America, Trevor Hogg profiles the career of filmmaker Darren Aronofsky in the second of a two-part feature... read part one here.
“I walked out of The Matrix  and I was thinking, ‘What kind of science fiction movie can people make now?’,” marveled Brooklyn born filmmaker Darren Aronofsky. “The Wachowski Brothers took all the great sci-fi ideas of the twentieth century and rolled them into a delicious pop culture sandwich that everyone on the planet devoured.” The solution arrived in the form of a college buddy who had left neuroscience to become a writer. “I remember Darren saying, ‘How cool would it be to cut from a battle scene in some historical period to a man traveling alone in space for an unknown reason?’,” remarked Ari Handel who co-wrote the script for The Fountain (2006). “To convince Warner Bros. to give us the big budget to make this very experimental film, we knew we needed real stars.” Brad Pitt (Fight Club) and Cate Blanchett (Robin Hood) were originally signed to be the leads in the initial $75 million production that was to feature three stories: a present day scientist and his cancer-stricken wife, a conquistador and his queen, and a space traveler who meditates on his past love. Elaborate sets were built including a ten story pyramid on the Gold Coast of Australia. The production started to unravel when Brad Pitt and the studio demanded extensive script revisions. Matters got worse when the science fiction fantasy lost the financial backing of Village Roadshow and New Regency. In 2002, the troubled cinematic endeavor collapsed when seven weeks before principle photography was to begin Pitt left. “After working together for two and half years, Brad had lost trust in me and faith in the project,” admitted Aronofsky who suffered a near mental breakdown.
Escaping to India and China for a self-imposed month long exile, the filmmaker returned to New York where he sat for months playing Xbox snowboarding games. Looking at the series of research books for the movie, the director came to a final conclusion. “I could feel that The Fountain was not out of my blood,” confessed Darren Aronofsky. “And then I remembered I don’t have to write for the studio or Brad Pitt or any other movie star. I decided to start acting like an independent filmmaker again.” Realizing he would have to significantly scale back his vision in order to secure the necessary financing, Aronofsky hired Kent Williams to create a graphic novel based on the original screenplay which was published by DC Comics in 2005. “If that many people had tried to shut me down, I would have believed them and given up,” confessed actress Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener) who was recruited to play the female lead in the revised version. “But Darren has a kind of tenacity that I’ve never come across before – tenacity or madness. So The Fountain didn’t have Brad Pitt anymore, for however many gazillions he cost. Writing a cheaper version of the movie let Darren take a more indie route to getting it made.” Selected to replace Brad Pitt was an actor whom Darren Aronofsky saw performing in the Broadway musical The Boy from Oz, Hugh Jackman (X-Men).
“The whole approach of my team was to take old-school techniques and street technology and figure out how to do something fresh and original with them,” stated the director. “No matter how good CGI looks at first, it dates quickly. But 2001  holds up. So I set the ridiculous goal of making a film that would reinvent space without using CGI.” Warner Bros., which was anxious to recoup its initial $20 million investment, was skeptical about choosing practical effects over computer generated ones. “The studio gave Darren a hard time,” stated Peter Parks, a marine biologist and photographer who, along with his son, runs a special effects company. “Nobody believed he could make this film without CGI. The studio thought he was crazy. He had to fly that reel across the Atlantic five or six times.” To create the nebula scenes, a device used by the Parks called a microzoom optical bench, that has ability to magnify a microliter of water up to 500,000 times, was deployed. “When these images are projected on a big screen, you feel like you’re looking at infinity. That’s because the same forces are at work in the water – gravitational effects, settlement, refractive indices – are happening in outer space.” Peter Parks believed Aronofsky made the right decision. “The CGI guys have ultimate control over everything they do. They can repeat shots over and over and get everything to end up exactly where they want it. But they’re forever seeking the ability to randomize, so that they’re not limited by their imaginations. I’m incapable of faithfully repeating anything, but I can go on producing chaos until the cows come home.”
“On the set, I got to meet a different person from the Darren I knew at home,” remarked Rachel Weisz. “He got us to do some really crazy shit. Darren just keeps the cameras rolling, take after take, which pushed me and Hugh to places of extreme vulnerability and nakedness. It was sexy to see someone be so good at what they do.” Ellen Burstyn and Mark Margolis, who both appeared in Requiem for a Dream (2000), star in the epic with Sean Patrick Thomas (Honeydipper), Donna Murphy (The Astronaut’s Wife), Ethan Suplee (American History X), Cliff Curtis (Whale Rider), and Stephen McHattie (A History of Violence). Costing $35 million The Fountain earned $16 million worldwide; the story, partly inspired by the parents of Aronofsky being diagnosed with cancer within weeks of each other (they successfully recovered), received a nomination from the Golden Globes for Best Original Score, and competed for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
“The idea of doing a movie about a wrestler had been floating around in my head for six or seven years,” remarked Darren Aronofsky who made the observation upon graduating from film school that no one had given the sport a serious cinematic treatment. “I started to develop some of the ideas with producer Scott Franklin and discovered he was a bigger wrestling fan as a kid than I was.” Aronofsky added, “When you meet someone who ten or fifteen years ago was playing in front of 50,000 people and now they’re suddenly in front of 200 people, they’re not just doing if for the money. They’re doing it also to hold onto their craft and the glory. It’s really dramatic.” The Wrestler (2008) revolves around a retired professional wrestler who is drawn back to the ring with the goal of making a comeback. “It was a very hard role to cast,” admitted the Brooklyn native. “[I needed] someone to pull off the humour as well as the sadness and tragedy.” Aronofsky made a controversial choice. “No one believed in Mickey Rourke [The Rainmaker]. He has no value as a commodity. Well, I sat with him and looked into his eyes. His eyes aren’t dead. They’re alive, yearning, thinking.” The director did have some doubts about his leading man. “He’s a big guy but he’s nowhere the size of these wrestlers; he had to put on thirty-five pounds of muscle. So when I first met him, I didn’t know if he could do something like that, and [after] six months of lifting and five thousand calories, he did it.” Rourke impressed the filmmaker with his acting talent. “When you meet him, he has all this armor on him, but that’s because inside he is soft as jelly and he has such a big heart. Technically, he’s an incredible actor and completely in control of his craft.”
Completing the cast are Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny), Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen), Todd Barry (Road Trip), Mark Margolis, and Judah Friedhandler (Date Movie) along with professional wresters such as Ernest Miller, Ron Killings, Kevin Matthews, Johnny Valiant, Tommy Rotten, Rob Eckos, Necro Butcher, Ref Hanson, and Danny Inferno. “We put on real wrestling promotions and put on the matches,” revealed Darren Aronofsky regarding the guerilla filmmaking approach he adopted for the $6 million production. “When the [wrestling] match was over, me, Mickey and the camera woman would run out into the ring. We’d shoot a piece of the [fake] match, [and] leave.” The director sought to achieve a documentary tone for the picture. “I did a lot of preparation but I didn’t come to set with a shot list. I just waited for the actors to create what they were going to do on set. I really wanted to be open to what they were doing and then figure out how to photograph it.” Aronofsky gave an example. “We were backstage with the wrestlers and I said, ‘Hey, guys just talk about your matches’ and we just shot it.” Some things were staged such as the fight sequences. “It was an interesting sound issue because the hits are fake in one way but they’re real as well, in the sense that Mickey was actually getting hit but he wasn’t getting hit full-force like a real wrestler.”
Asked about incorporating a stripper played by Marisa Tomei into the storyline, Darren Aronofsky replied, “The truth of the matter is that when real wrestlers are done with their matches, they usually take their gate and go to the strip club.” The filmmaker went on to say, “The more we thought about it – an aging stripper and an aging wrestler have a lot of similarities. They’re both onstage using their bodies and have stage names. They both create a fantasy for the audience. They’re both endangered by time.” The character portrayed by Tomei serves a dual purpose. “As much as she is a romantic interest, she is [also] a mentor for him.” On selecting the Oscar-winning performer for the role, Aronofsky remarked, “She’s often cast as being very sweet and I liked the fact that she played against it.” The three years spent developing the script with the former editor of The Onion, Robert Siegel, paid off for the director as the drama grossed $45 million worldwide and became an awards circuit sensation. The Wrestler won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and received Academy Award nominations for Best Actor (Mickey Rourke) and Best Supporting Actress (Marisa Tomei). The BAFTA Awards presented Mickey Rourke with Best Actor while nominating Marisa Tomei for Best Supporting Actress. At the Golden Globes the picture won Best Actor – Drama (Mickey Rourke) and Best Original Song while competing for Best Supporting Actress (Marisa Tomei). The Gotham Awards nominated The Wrestler for Best Film whereas Independent Spirit Awards lauded it with Best Cinematography, Best Feature and Best Male Lead (Mickey Rourke). On the union front, Mickey Rourke received a Screen Actors Guild Awards nomination and the Writers Guild of America handed the film a nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
“At one point, way before I did The Wrestler,” remarked Darren Aronofsky, “I was actually developing a project that was about a love affair between a ballet dancer and a wrestler, and then it split into two movies.” The director hired screenwriters to rewrite the script called The Understudy by Andres Heinz (Origin of the Species) which was about off-Broadway actors and explored the idea of an individual being haunted by a double. Developing the psychological thriller, about a ballerina (Natalie Portman) who competes for the dual roles of the innocent White Swan and the sensual Black Swan in a New York City production of Swan Lake, was initially hindered by the lack of cooperation from those professionally involved with the performing art. “For people that do ballet, ballet is their universe and they’re not impressed with movies. I did find dancers that shared their stories with me, some retired, [and] some working. Eventually, I got to stand backstage when the Bolshoi came to Lincoln Center, standing in the wings watching some of the greatest dancers in the world. I got to see some amazing athletes up close and experience what they were going through.” Aronofsky added, “For me what’s so interesting about ballet is these athletes have done it for years – some of them start at four or five years old – and they make it so effortless.”
A serious issue the filmmaker had to deal with was securing the necessary financing for the $13 million production. “Having Natalie Portman [Beautiful Girls], a legitimate movie star, Vincent Cassel [Eastern Promises], an international movie star, and Mila Kunis [The Book of Eli], a big domestic star, and my supporting cast of Barbara [Hershey] and Winona [Ryder], I didn’t think it would be as hard. It was a nightmare.” On the other hand, attaching Portman to the fledging project was an easy matter for the director. “I am trying to find roles that demand more adulthood from me because you can get stuck in a very awful cute cycle as a woman in film, especially being such a small person,” stated Natalie Portman who has longed to star in Black Swan (2010) even since a fateful meeting with Aronofsky in Times Square. “We started talking about it in 2002 when I was still in college. Darren had a very specific idea. What he told me in our first meeting became what the movie ended up being.”
Portman was not entering into unfamiliar territory. “I did ballet until I was twelve then I stopped when I started to take acting seriously.” However, what the actress did find difficult was the amount of preparation required for the part. “Physically I trained starting a year ahead of time, and then the six months prior to [shooting] the film went into a hypertraining where I was doing five hours a day of ballet and cross-training with swimming.” All the work was worthwhile in the eyes of director Darren Aronofsky. “She was able to pull it off. Except for wide shots when she has to be en pointe for a real long time, it’s Natalie on-screen. I haven’t used her double a lot.” As for the notorious love-making scene with her co-star Mila Kinus, Natalie Portman stated, “Nina really doesn’t know who she is – she an ego without an identity, living to please other people and seeing herself through their eyes. This is the first time she lets go – her first real moment of finding pleasure for herself.” Portman enjoyed working with Aronofsky. “Darren gave us these really complicated characters and… the freedom to bring what we wanted to the roles.” The director was equally praiseworthy of his star. “One of the best things about the film is the casting of Natalie. She took the part and ran with it. I don’t know if when I was working with the writers we were consciously channeling Natalie or Natalie somehow transformed herself to the part, but they grew together.”
“The best thing with this movie is that everyone seems to be having a strong visceral response to Darren’s filmmaking,” stated Natalie Portman. “It’s both thought provoking, emotional and pure entertainment.” Screening for the first time at the 2010 Venice Film festival, Black Swan received a long standing ovation and Mila Kunis won the Mastroianni Prize for best emerging artist. Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter wrote, “You might howl at the sheer audacity of mixing mental illness with the body-fatiguing, mind-numbing rigors of ballet, but its lurid imagery and hellcat competition between two rival dancers is pretty irresistible.” He added, “[The] White Swan/Black Swan dynamics almost work, but the horror movie nonsense drags everything down the rabbit hole of preposterousness.” Mike Goodridge from Screen Daily observed in his review, “She [Portman] captures the confusion of a repressed young woman thrown into a world of danger and temptation with frightening veracity.”
Reuniting with Hugh Jackman, the moviemaker is helming The Wolverine (2011) which sees Jackman reprise his role as the Marvel Comics superhero. Wolverine travels to Japan to train with a samurai warrior. Darren Aronofsky has been quick to point out that the action picture, which is based on the script by Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), should be viewed as a “one-off” rather than a sequel. Also, in development for the director is a cinematic adaptation of an online serial by Max Barry; as it currently stands, the cybernetic thriller Machine Man will be released in 2012.
“It’s not about taking chances; it’s about making memorable films,” remarked Darren Aronofsky. “You’re in the world with so much media, so many distractions, that you have to give people something they’re not going to forget.” Along with declaring Terry Gilliam (Brazil) and Roman Polanski (The Ghost Writer) to be his heroes, the Brooklyn native admires the work of Tim Burton (Alice in Wonderland), David Fincher (The Social Network), and Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) who are “interesting filmmakers making films on a big level within the [Hollywood] system.” Having to prove himself with every movie he makes is nothing new for the director. “There’s always been a lot of pressure and tension on the line. If Pi  hadn’t worked out, I have no idea what my career would be. I don’t think I would have gotten another shot at it. If Requiem of a Dream hadn’t worked out, they would have called me a ‘one-hit wonder with a sophomore slump.’” Upon contemplating his career choices, Darren Aronofsky replied, “I try to choose the road that I have the most passion for because then you can never really blame yourself for making the wrong choices.” As for some words of wisdom for aspiring filmmakers, Aronofsky remarked, “Ultimately, every film has its own visual language. You have to figure out what the theme is and then apply style to it.”
For more on Darren Aronofsky visit his official website and blog, along with the fansites Darren Aronofsky Online and Aronofsky Films.
Be sure to read our review of Black Swan, and visit the official site.
Be sure to check out the screenplay for The Wrestler, along with a preview of The Fountain graphic novel and the official site of Machine Man.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.