(Fox Searchlight Pictures) Darren Aronofsky achieved immediate fame in the film work when his gritty black & white debut Pi won the directing prize for him at the 1998 Sundance Festival. Further indie success followed with 2000's Requiem For A Dream and 2006's The Fountain, before a wider mainstream audience joined the Aronofsky appreciation society after 2008's The Wrestler brought an Oscar-nominated performance from Mickey Rourke and widespread acclaim. Aronofsky recently sat down with Buzzine to chat about his latest film Black Swan - a psychological thriller set in the world of ballet, starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis.
Izumi Hasegawa: Is it true that this project started ten years ago?
Darren Aronofsky: I've been a fan of Natalie's since I saw her in The Professional. Luc Besson is one of my favorite directors, and it turns out that her manager is an old friend of mine from college, so I had a little inside line to meet her. We met in Times Square at the old Howard Johnson's which is now an American Apparel, which shows you where America is going. We had a really bad cup of coffee. We talked about the early ideas I had about the film. When she says that I have the entire film in my head, it's a complete lie. We talked a bit about it and I started to develop it, but it was a really tough film because getting into the ballet world proved to be really challenging. Most of the time, when you do a movie and you say, "Hey, I want to make a movie about your world," all the doors open and you can do anything and see anything you want. The ballet world really wasn't at all interested in us hanging out, so it took a long time to get the information and put it together, and over the years, Natalie would say, "I'm getting too old to play a dancer. You better hurry up." I was like, "Natalie, you look great. You'll be fine." And then, about a year before the film, or maybe a little bit earlier, I finally got a screenplay together. That's how it started.
IH: This is described in the press notes as a companion piece to The Wrestler. You can see some parallels. How did you approach this in contrast to The Wrestler?
DA: I don't really think there's that much difference. I don't think it's that much of a big deal. I think people are people, and if their feelings are real and truthful, they can connect. I keep saying that it doesn't matter if you're an aging 50-something-year-old wrestler at the end of his career or an ambitious 20-something-year-old ballet dancer--if they're truthful to who they are and they're expressing something real, audiences will connect. That's always been the promise of cinema, and that's why we can see a film about a seven-year-old girl in Iran, or an immortal superhero in America. It doesn't matter, as long as they're truthful.
IH: Did you and Vincent [Cassel] create a weird symbiotic relationship based on his role and your approach to directing?
DA: I cast someone who looked a lot like me. No, I don't know. I wish I could be as manipulative as his character in the film. I think I'm really way, way too direct, and I've actually scared away a lot of A-List actors. In fact, Natalie Portman is the first A-List actor I've worked with in my career. Everyone else sort of went, "You want me to do what, for how long, for how little money?" And then they walk away. So I've lost a lot of movie stars along the way, and I think a more manipulative director would be like, "Oh, it's not going to be that hard. Come in and we'll have fun," but I think that's when wars start. It's like, "You told me there would be sushi on set everyday..." So I'm a little bit too direct, too straightforward, I think.
IH: Can you talk a little about The Red Shoes and how it influenced you?
DA: The one thing about that is that it was a really hard film to make. There was really no money for the film, and we had to push a lot of times, and I only found out recently that the person who suffered the most from pushing, I actually don't mind pushing because it means that I get an extra two or three weeks to get my shit together, but I found out that Natalie would just be screaming to our mutual friend, the manager, that she had to live on carrots and almonds for another three weeks and what was she going to do? So she was the one who suffered the most from not eating. But I actually wasn't aware of The Red Shoes. I mean, I had heard of The Red Shoes, but I didn't see it, and then [Martin] Scorsese did the restoration a few years ago, and then I was like, "You know what? I better go and see it." It's a masterpiece--an unbelievable film, and I saw that there were similarities in the story, but I think that's because we both went back to ballet and pulled from ballet the different characters and stuff. So we ended up in similar places, but I wasn't really influenced by it, and I really didn't ever try to be influenced by it because it's such a masterpiece, and the dance sequences--they weren't doing visual effects like that for 20 years, they were so ahead of their time. So I just sort of kept it in the back and said, "Look, we just sort of dress it. I forget the year, but it's a long time ago, and most people may not know about it," but unfortunately they do.
IH: Barbara Hershey talked about mimicking Natalie's look. Can you talk about that?
DA: That was great. She came in and she was like, "What do you think?" I said, "What happened?" She painted out the curve here to match the eyebrows because Natalie has those great, iconic eyebrows.
IH: Did you feel like Natalie's character was of a Russian decent?
DA: I think the back story was that she had a lover that was a foreign dancer. I don't know if he was French or Russian or something, but then he left. But it was just a back story and we really didn't get that deep into it.
IH: How do your actors achieve a balance and keep that balance?
DA: They're professional. All these actors were. I've dealt with a few method actors, and I don't know if should say this, but I think it's a bunch of nonsense. I think it's film acting and you just have to be on when the camera is rolling. I mean, sure, if it's a very intense scene, you might want to keep that energy between the takes while the crew is resetting, and they would all do that, but when it's "cut," it's cut. Even when it's "action," there's still a camera here and all these lights and all these people moving around you. It's impossible to fully make believe that doesn't exist. That's why they're so good, that they're able to make believe that that's not there convincingly, but the second it's "cut," someone is coming over to touch your mike and someone is putting powder on your face. It is make believe, but I don't know. Whatever works--not to scare away method actors. Actually, I want to scare away method actors because it's a pain. It's like, "Come on, what are you doing? It's not real. Oh, you're really brooding. Okay, good. Go to your trailer. I'll see you in an hour."
IH: Can you talk about your approach to this film as compared to your others? Your films seem to have an interest in surreal qualities. Do you have an interest in that kind of thing?
DA: I think it's all about what the story is that we want to tell. It's funny because a lot of times you figure it out when you're doing the press because you start talking about it and becoming aware of it. The whole cinema verite, handheld approach to The Wrestler was a big risk to bring over into this ballet film because I had never seen a suspenseful film that had this kind of handheld camera, and I didn't know if it would work. I was always really worried that, if in a really scary scene, everyone would wonder why Natalie wouldn't turn to the cameraman and go, "Help," or something. So I didn't know if it was going to work, but then we went, "Fuck it. Let's just go for it because it's never been done," and I really enjoyed the camera moving. Having a man hold the camera, I could really move the camera in ways that you can't in any other way. The result of that is the first third of the film has a very different feel than the last half of the film because it's got this very naturalistic feel, which I think actually is cool because it makes people feel like they're watching a very different type of movie that can't ever freak out like the way it freaks out. Yet it gives you that immediacy of being in that other moment and being in this other world with little hints, like she's peeling her finger and things are going to get really freaked out. In general, it just feels like a documentary in the beginning before it freaks out. So it kind of worked out for us.
IH: There was a report saying that this movie was going to hurt the dance world and shows it in an ugly light. Can you comment on that?
DA: I saw that report and I thought it was really unfortunate because we've had very, very different reactions from dancers elsewhere. I think so many dancers are incredibly relieved that there's finally a ballet movie that takes ballet as a serious art and not as a place to have a love affair. If you actually look at ballet, the ballets themselves are incredibly dark and gothic--Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet, and, of course, Swan Lake... This movie could've been called Swan Lake. We took the fairy tale of Swan Lake and the ballet of Swan Lake and basically turned all the characters--Rothbart, The Prince, The Queen--and translated them into characters in our movie reality. So it's really just a retelling of Swan Lake, but yes, it definitely shows the challenges and the darkness and the reality of how hard it is to be a ballet dancer. I think it also represents the beauty of the art and the transcendence that's possible within the art, all within retelling Swan Lake. So there are going to be people who are always going to have issues with things, but large and by far, the dancers that we have met and talked to are like, "Finally, we have a real movie about ballet." So that's our response.
IH: Do you enjoy bouncing between genres as a director?
DA: I'm not really much of a genre guy. This was my best attempt at a genre film, and I just don't know really, or I just haven't been able to do that. I think audiences don't need that anymore, where you just need a very specific genre. Audiences are very sophisticated, and as long as it's fun, it's okay and entertaining. That's what I was trying to make, and I think it's also very different, which I think people who are bombarded by so many different types of media are hungry for--a very, very different experience. So that's what we were going for--something that keeps you excited and keeps you going, and is hopefully memorable so you talk about it with other people, and hopefully they'll go to the movies.
IH: The movie got the Green Seals Award. Can you talk about being a green set?
DA: I think Natalie helped us with that. Our start gift was a Clean Canteen to give a plug because they gave them to us with our logo on it. Every crew member and cast member got one, so that was just a start. There were no water bottles on set. Film sets are incredibly wasteful and it's a very hard thing, so you just try to do your best.
'Black Swan' is in theaters now.