Today: April 14, 2024

Director Darren Aronofsky

When Darren Aronofsky first tried to pry open the back stage doors to look inside the somewhat secretive, highly competitive world of ballet, they were slammed shut.

When Darren Aronofsky
(
Pi, Requiem For A Dream, The Fountain and The Wrestler) first tried to pry open the back stage doors to look inside the somewhat
secretive, highly competitive world of ballet, they were slammed shut. Aronofsky was
researching his latest film, Black Swan, and assumed that the ballet world
would embrace his project and help him get the details exactly right. The
reaction was not what he expected or indeed, hoped for.

Aronofsky was undeterred
and eventually found a key collaborator who would prove invaluable both in
preparation and as a key member of the production team –acclaimed dancer
Benjamin Millepied, who choreographed the stunning dance sequences in Black
Swan. Aronofsky’s idea to make
a psychological thriller set to the backdrop of ballet goes back almost ten
years to when he first discussed it with the actress who would become his
leading lady in Black Swan, Natalie Portman.

When did you first embark on Black
Swan? Where did the idea come from?

My sister was a
dancer growing up and she was very into ballet. It wasn’t really anything that
I understood. But as I got older, I was thinking about worlds to set films in
and I thought ballet could be an interesting world to explore. In addition, I
was very interested in Dostoevsky’s ‘The Double’, which is a story about a guy
who wakes up and his double is there, and the double starts to replace his
life. Then I went to see a production of Swan Lake, which I thought was just a
bunch of girls in tutus. I didn’t know what it was. But when I saw that there
was a Black Swan and a White Swan, played by one dancer, and it was kind of a
Eureka moment, it was like ‘oh wow, a double…’ So then it started to come together…

How long ago?

I met with Natalie
eight or nine years ago. We met in Times Square and had a coffee and I had this
idea for something set in the ballet world. It was slowly evolving over the years and it finally came
together after The Wrestler. I was working on it with Mark (Heyman,
screenwriter) and it was a very hard script to finish because understanding the
ballet world was really complicated.

Did you have complete artistic freedom
doing this film?

Fox Searchlight is
very collaborative. They’ll argue with you but they basically trust their
directors in general, or at least with me they did and they were very generous.
The artistic freedom was controlled by the limitation of money and time.

Natalie has said
that it was a very physically and emotionally demanding role. And you were the
guy who had to push her. Were there any times when you worried about her on
set?

You don’t really need
to push Natalie that much because she’s incredibly hard working, disciplined
and present. She is willing to go for it and rarely complains. She’s tough.
She’s a tiny little girl but she’s built of some strong material and she really
went for it, over and over and over again. She was very prepared so I didn’t
really need to push her that much emotionally and she did the physical training
as well. She was incredible because it was a very hard role for her.

How much of the dancing did she do herself?

She did most of
it. She was up on pointe a lot.
The closing shot of the opening sequence when she goes off into the light is
her. A lot of these dancers have been training since they were four years old
so their bodies have changed, the turnout and the muscles and the bones have
actually changed, so there were wide shots where it was clear she wasn’t the
dancer, but so much of the dancing is her. When she’s on top of the ramp and
the camera pulls down and the blood comes out and she’s on pointe that’s her.
She really was pretty impressive.

When The Wrestler
was released you said that you didn’t know an awful lot about professional
wrestling when you embarked on the film and you said it was the same with
ballet for Black Swan. You obviously like exploring the unknown…

I think curiosity
keeps you young. I think learning about new stuff is kind of what gets you
going and it’s interesting, otherwise it gets boring.

There are clearly
parallels between The Wrestler and Black Swan – both are about performers who
have to push themselves to the limits, physically and emotionally. Do you see
them as complimentary pieces?

Yes, I do see them as
companion pieces. I look forward to the day when a theatre plays them as a
double feature. There are so many similarities between Mickey’s character and
the Nina character in Black Swan – they are both artists that use their bodies
to express themselves and they do a tremendous amount of damage to themselves in
the process, except one is the highest art, and one is the lowest art, if you
can call it an art. Most people
wouldn’t call wrestling an art but I like that comparison. The stories are very
different but there is a comparison.

Vincent Cassell
said that he sees you as more of an auteur, a European style director. But
there are other young American directors, like Sofia Coppola and James Gray,
for instance, who have that kind of sensibility. Do you feel part of a new wave
of American directors?

I don’t think we are
so new anymore; we’re all getting old (laughs). But it’s nice to be surrounded
by the names you mentioned. I know a few of them although I’ve never met Sofia
but I’m a huge fan of her work. I know James a little bit, but we’re all pretty
separate. I think there’s a club of some of them, but I’m not part of that. I’m
often in New York, just doing my own thing.

I’m interested in how you approached
the sexual content of the movie, because it’s quite extreme for an American
movie. Were you ever told to tone it down?

No one has told me to
tone it down, (laughs). I’m glad about that, and I guess it is a little bit
adventurous for American film, but there’s so much sexuality in our culture and
on the internet. I’d say that it’s pretty tame compared to what is out there.

How did you
approach the music for the film? There’s obviously Tchaikovsky and then you
seem to have layered more on top…

Well, it’s not purely
Tchaikovsky. It’s Tchaikovsky via Clint Mansell, my composer. When I started
this film I turned to Clint and said ‘I’m doing this movie for you..’ And he
took Tchaikovsky and he pulled it apart. Because if you just put Tchaikovsky
over the move it would be way too up and down and too fast. Classical music is
not movie music. So Clint took certain themes and ideas and turned it into
scary music, so it flows out of Tchaikovsky into Clint, influenced by
Tchaikovsky and back into Tchaikovsky. Even the dance club music – the samples
and manipulations by The Chemical Brothers and all these bands – are using
pieces of Tchaikovsky to make that music. So Tchaikovsky is there throughout
the entire film but it’s not purely his music. It’s exciting and it’s fun.

You use mirrors a
lot in the film. Is that something you picked up from the world of ballet?

There are mirrors
everywhere in the ballet world because ballet dancers are constantly looking at
themselves, and studying themselves, and maybe even judging themselves – all
the time. So it was clear to me that the mirror was a major character in this
film. The film is also about doubles and your reflection in a mirror is a
double, so mirrors became a really
important part of the film. From very early on we started to think about all
the very different types of cool tricks we could do with mirrors. We tried to
have as much fun as we could with them.

What about the
feathers growing out of Natalie’s skin? It’s a very striking image. When did
you come up with that idea?

The story of Swan
Lake is during the day she’s a swan and at night she’s a half swan and half
human creature, so it’s a werewolf tale. So I was excited to make a were-swan
movie (laughs). Then I had the
idea of taking Natalie Portman and turning her into some type of creature, which
was even more delicious fun. So,
that just became a major part of the film.

Did the ballet world welcome you? What
was their reaction?

They are very
insular. Usually it’s like ‘oh you want to make a movie? Sure!’ But they’re not
like that. They were very indifferent and very unfriendly. It was really
difficult to get into that world.

Why is that do you think?

They
don’t give a shit about anything but ballet. They really don’t care about
movies. It not their art and it doesn’t seem like they are interested in it.
It’s some type of popular culture thing I guess, I don’t know. They are really
focused on their ballet, they live, breathe, die by ballet. Well, maybe not die, because they all
retire at a young age, but even then, they end up being involved teaching and
all that stuff.

So how did you convince them?

There were people that were kind of
interested – some dancers, some disgruntled dancers and some major stars. We
eventually started working with Benjamin Millepied and Benjamin is deeply
respected in that world. He’s a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet,
he’s one of the youngest, hottest choreographers and he has a lot of interest
in film. He opened up so many different doors for us and got us into a lot of
places.

Natalie studied
psychology at university. If she were analysing you what would she find in your
head?

I’ve got no idea,
probably a lot of gibberish and stuff (laughs). When I watch the film I think, ‘wow,
there is a lot of whacked out stuff going on’ (laughs).

But it is a film
that has a lot of symbolism – the use of mirrors, the drawings and paintings in
Nina’s mother’s room. Are you leaving clues for your audience?

I remember working on
the first film I ever did, Pi, and I thought I understood it. Then, after doing
press for a few months for it, I thought ‘wow, I never really understood the movie until I talked to
all of you people!’ (laughs) And I think that’s true. I think the
meaning changes as I speak about it and answer questions about it and I see
what you are all interested in. Every day when I was on set and I was working
with Natalie on a take it would be one thing but what it is and what it represents
is constantly evolving.

So that wasn’t just a semi-flippant
remark when you said ‘wow, there’s a lot of fucked up shit going on?’ Are you quite
surprised by where a film ends up?

I think it’s always a
surprise. There’s something about the material that’s interesting and attractive.
It’s got to have something that connects with you because it takes years to
make these things so it’s got to be something that you can come back to. With
Black Swan I was very excited about the werewolf element, the transformation,
the metamorphosis and I liked the idea of shooting dance, and the movement of
dance, like the nightclub scene, between Lily and Nina. There were things that
were just always exciting about it.

The movie has a
lot of special effects. Did you enjoy that aspect of the film?

There’s over 250, 300
shots of digital effects. It was hard because we had to rush to get them done
for Venice and it was a lot of work, but it was fun. I come from an animation
background, which is very similar to CGI, and digital effects and I enjoy what
digital effects allow you to do. We get much less time on set as the great film
makers did 20 or 30 years ago because it’s so expensive to shoot a movie. But
the one advantage we have over them is that if we make mistakes, we can fix
them digitally. If there’s a light in the shot or a C-stand, it’s not very hard
to paint it out, while back then, if they had a light or a C-stand, it wasn’t
usable, because it was right there in the shot. So you can correct a lot of mistakes.

How did you map out the look of the
film? Because the use of colour is very striking and changes during the film…

Everything is thought
out. One of the first things you do is think about how to control your colour
palette and black and white was obviously always going to be a major part of
the film because of darkness and light and then pink became a very obvious
colour because it’s the colour of ballet. Then we had the colour of the lake,
all these greenish blues, so they all had different meanings for different
characters and we tried to track it through the whole film.

Did winning the Golden Lion in Venice
with The Wrestler change a lot in your career?

I don’t think so. I’m
still making films out of America so most people don’t unfortunately know that
much about European prizes and I don’t think it matters to them too much. I
didn’t get a call from the President or anything. I think it might have been
Bush at the time so I’m kind of glad, but I would have liked a call from Obama
(laughs).

You’ve had good
times and bad times at Venice, so were you nervous about taking Black Swan
there?

If you’re talking
about The Fountain, I had a great time and the audiences were great.
Critically, I had some schmucky reviews that are being proved wrong as time
goes by – it’s like a good bottle of wine that was opened too early. And two
years ago (with The Wrestler) was just insane. We were completely under the
radar, we were one of the last films in the festival and we had no expectations
and everyone was like ‘Mickey Rourke wrestling? Are you crazy?’ And then it
happened and it was insane. And this time, for Black Swan, I wasn’t that
nervous, even though it was opening night. But then they sat me next to the
President of Italy who was eighty something years old, and his wife was right
next to him and I’m thinking, ‘oh my god, this film has ecstasy, lesbians,
rave, self mutilation..’ so I bent over and I said, ‘I’m really sorry for
what’s about to happen. It’s really an upsetting movie, and I don’t know what
to say..’ And he said, ‘don’t worry, I will try not to feel any emotion.’ And then at the end of the film I
turned to him and he said, ‘I tried but I felt emotion.’ So it was a good
victory for me (laughs).

Do you keep in touch with Mickey
Rourke?

Yes, he called me on
Friday to wish me luck (in Venice) and to complain that his movie is not going
to Venice, and I said ‘you see, it was me!” (laughs) I still talk to him, we
still joke and he sends me funny texts, so yes, we’re still friendly.

Marcia Degia - Publisher

Marcia Degia, who has worked in the media industry for more than 20 years, is the Publishing Editor of KOL Social Magazine. See website: thekolsocial.com

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