Darren Aronofsky

A dark character study of obsession

Darren Aronofsky has been talking about a cup of coffee he had with Natalie Portman quite a bit in the past few weeks. While some might be inclined to recount the intimate sips and informal pleasantries they might have with Ms. Portman, for the acclaimed director of Requiem for a Dream, Pi and The Fountain, this cup of coffee, shared on a cold winter afternoon in New York, marked the beginning of his latest film, Black Swan, and a partnership with the actress that would last for the next 10 years.

The film, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival to standing ovations and overwhelming critical accolades, is part character study, psychological thriller and hauntingly beautiful revision of the story of Swan Lake. Aronofsky was struck with Portman’s own interest in ballet that day and while they would both go on to work on other projects, the nightmarish tale of obsession, betrayal and physical performance always stayed with them. It is also fitting that Black Swan follows his last film, The Wrestler, in that both works explore the fragility of existence and the extremes people will endure to follow their craft. Aronofsky, speaking over the phone minutes before boarding a flight to Paris, discussed his own trials of getting the story to the silver screen, the importance of letting go of one’s obsessions and why the most exciting part of filmmaking for him will always be found in the moments between ‘action’ and ‘cut.’

Black Swan is kind of like your own take on Swan Lake, but it has been nearly 10 years since you started on the project. How do you think the interpretation has changed over the years?
It was a lot of work. I don’t think that you read a script and then it visually makes sense. You have to hire actors and there is a lot of collaboration to make something come to life, and along the way, you hopefully turn out a cohesive story. I think I’m someone who thrives off of that kind of collaboration.

There was also quite a bit of soliciting on your part to distribution outlets to make this happen. I’m surprised in the credits it didn’t read, Darren Aronofsky: Director and Hustler.
What can I say? Films, like the one’s I make, are just really difficult to find funding for these days.

I don’t see you wanting to direct Scary Movie 12, but you had a major Hollywood star with Natalie and you were kind of a critical darling after The Wrestler
We were all under the impression that after The Wrestler we would have a much easier time getting the money for this, but it was actually more difficult than The Wrestler if you believe that. I just think it depends on the persistence and how bad you want to go after something.

So, do you find yourself becoming a bit obsessive during this time?
Yeah, but I think I used to get much more obsessive about my films than I do now. I find the more that I relax while doing them, the easier it comes together. That’s the secret I’ve learned for myself over the years and that’s the way I have become more open to accidents…well, accidents that are positive.

It sounds like you still have to have a blind faith that somehow it will just work itself out.
I’ve also learned that there is no telling how people will take the final work. We were just finishing Black Swan and getting ready to get on a plane just three days before the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival. To be completely honest, we really had no idea what the reaction would be like. I don’t think you can ever predict that, you just sort of hope for the best.

You have said that you would like to see Black Swan and The Wrestler as a double feature matinee one day. What threads do you think connect the two films other than the physicality of the two main characters profession?
That’s a good question and I think that both films are about performance and performers. It’s certainly true that the main characters both give very physical performances and they are the kind of people that put their body’s safety before anything else. But I was also interested in people that use their bodies as art. There is a connection between the characters, obsession and the love of their craft and art. They are people that will go to the extreme to perform.

Do you go to the extreme as well? If you were to direct a movie about the obsessed director would you be in it? Who would you cast in that role?
Well, Brad Pitt would have to play me, because he is the only one that even comes close to looking as good as I do (laughs). Honestly though, as I’ve gotten older, I really learned to welcome the randomness of lucky mistakes and try to use them to improve my work. You can just lose yourself if you try to control everything.

Do you remember when you first found yourself wanting to be behind the lens and directing?
I was an undergrad and started to take filmmaking classes. We had to do a character study and I remember making this one cut that blew my mind, where there was this guy talking about something and then it cut to this screaming Jimi Hendrix solo. It just worked in this very visceral way and made me understand the whole process.

What was the character study?
It was a portrait film of this weird outsider guy in Salem, Massachusetts. I just remember sitting in a dark room and making this cut with this image and sound, and it just blew off the screen for me.

Do you still feel that kind of excitement now? Does your hair ever stand up on end today?
Oh, all of the time. The most exciting part of filmmaking for me has always been between yelling ‘action’ and ‘cut.’ You are just sitting there and watching these amazing actors open up their hearts and try to connect with the universe through expressing emotion and humanity, and just being able to be right up next to the action and seeing that energy pour out of them is just one of the great thrills in my life.

– Patrick Knowles

Photography Niko Tavernise