Anatomy of a Contender: Making of Black Swan
Harrowing, dark, dramatic — and that was before filming even began. Director Darren Aronofsky recounts the 9-year struggle to get his ballet epic made
Four weeks before Black Swan was set to begin filming, Darren Aronofsky’s dark creature almost died.
After years of searching for money, Aronofsky, director of art house favorites Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, finally had found the $15 million-plus he needed to make his film — which centers on a ballerina who gets her big break then seems to lose her mind — when he learned that the company funding it was backing out.
“We got pretty deep in, and we were close to being out of money many times,” Aronofsky says. “It was a tough situation.”
About 400 cast and crew members had been hired, hundreds of thousands was spent, and shooting was set to commence with a 43-day schedule in New York — and it all seemed for nothing.
How Swan, set to open domestically Dec. 3, avoided death is a tale with nearly as much drama as the Tchaikovsky ballet that gives the film its title.
Aronofsky began thinking of making a movie set in the ballet world nine years ago, when he met Natalie Portman at the divey Howard Johnson’s coffee shop in New York’s Times Square.
At the time, the filmmaker had made the modestly budgeted Pi and the highly regarded Requiem, and Portman was a 20-year-old actress best known for her role in George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace. They were drawn to the idea for different reasons: Aronofsky because his sister pursued ballet in high school, Portman because she had longed to be in a movie about ballet since she was 14.
Over coffee, the two discussed Aronofsky’s initial idea of exploring the relationship between artist and ego, and how having an inflated ego without a strong sense of self can wreak havoc on one’s mental state.
Aronofsky had an idea but no script. Thinking of a story that might contain some of the themes he wanted to explore, he recalled another screenplay he had read: Andres Heinz’s spec script The Understudy, which Mike Medavoy’s Phoenix Pictures had offered to Aronofsky shortly after he completed Pi. Aronofsky initially turned down the project, which centered on an off-Broadway theater understudy whose ambition turns deadly, after Medavoy couldn’t guarantee him final cut.
“It had a really good thriller engine, and it was based a lot on [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky’s The Double, which I was a big fan of,” says Aronofsky, referring to the 1846 Russian novella in which a man meets his doppelganger and slowly goes mad. The script also had hints of 1950’s All About Eve, in which a conniving understudy claws her way to a stage role.
Aronofsky went on to other projects after turning down Understudy, but he and Phoenix continued to look for scripts on which they could work together. In fall 2006, the conversation again turned to the spooky understudy story.
Haunted by the genre-twisting story, Aronofsky and Medavoy, who had retained rights to Understudy, took it to Universal, where Aronofsky had a first-look deal.
Universal hired another writer, John McLaughlin (Man of the House), to rework the project, setting it in a ballet company. But when his first draft arrived in late 2006, it still didn’t coalesce.
“The off-Broadway actor world is very different than the ballet world,” Aronofsky says. “There are no understudies in the ballet world. That couldn’t be the main thrust of it, so there was a lot more work to do.”
With the screenplay in progress, Aronofsky turned his attention to another film with its share of problems: The Wrestler.
There, he faced the challenge of securing backers who would commit only if the movie starred Nicolas Cage, rather than Mickey Rourke, whom Aronofsky was determined to cast.
As he worked on Wrestler, he continued to develop other projects, signing to work on Phoenix’s Robocop reboot in June 2008. That very-different movie, ironically, put Swan back at center stage for the director.
When Robocop stalled because of financial problems, Aronofsky decided to pursue the ballet script as his next helming project.
At about the same time, Mark Heyman, a principal at Aronofsky’s production company Protozoa, began tinkering with the ballet script — still known as The Understudy — using the black swan/white swan metaphor from Swan Lake as a narrative device.
“On some levels, it’s a thriller and horror film; on other levels, it’s a drama,” Heyman says. “There’s also this documentary ballet aspect to it. The biggest single challenge was balancing all that out. It’s a hybrid, and I don’t think it fits comfortably in any box.”
Perhaps not, but the new script was enough to get the project moving again. Protozoa and Phoenix acquired rights back from Universal, and with Portman attached, Aronofsky returned to developing the film.
Wrestler had been completed by then, and Aronofsky — and Rourke — were drawing the best reviews of their careers. While promoting that picture on the awards circuit in early 2009, Aronofsky kicked Swan into life.
“Darren and I went from the Spirit Awards in L.A. to a cast read-through with Natalie,” producer Scott Franklin says. “Barbara [Hershey] came to read [the role of Portman’s mother].”
As Wrestler gathered momentum, earning Rourke an Oscar nomination, so did work on the Swan script, going through 20-25 more drafts before Aronofsky was satisfied. “I put [Heyman] through hell,” he says.
Thrilled with their finished work and delighted with their potential cast, they offered the movie to Universal, which passed — “It didn’t fit their mold,” Franklin says. They tried Fox Searchlight. Aronofsky was optimistic, but production chief Claudia Lewis — who had developed a good working relationship with Protozoa on Wrestler — also passed.
“I’m giving them a sexy genre film with a legitimate movie star, and it was harder to make,” Aronofsky says.
But Lewis’ notes proved instrumental in taking Swan to the next step.
“We implemented 80% of them,” Franklin says.
With their latest revision — in which much of the dialogue was unrecognizable compared with the script’s initial drafts — Aronofsky and Franklin found backing from Rick Schwartz’s Overnight Films, which also financed Robert Rodriguez’s Machete.
Then, four weeks before the shoot, Overnight pulled the plug after it became clear that its funding was not as robust as originally envisioned.
Desperate, Aronofsky and Franklin returned to Searchlight. But the studio remained cautious; after all, the ultra-dark tale hardly fit the mold of brighter comedies like The Full Monty or even Slumdog Millionaire, with which it had enjoyed its greatest success.
Anxiety rose to a boiling point as Portman was slated to work imminently on the big-budget film Thor, which effectively would have killed Swan or delayed it for years.
Mere days before producers would have had to pull the plug, a minor miracle happened when Cross Creek Pictures president Brian Oliver stepped in. Oliver, who had known Franklin for more than a decade, felt strongly that Aronofsky could bring Swan to life. He also was convinced it was a matter of time before Searchlight signed on.
So Cross Creek — a $40 million fund from private investors that launched last year — approached the Fox unit, offering to split financing in a worldwide deal.
“It instantly became a passion project for us,” Oliver says. “We were working 24 hours trying to get deals done in the last week. Fox really wanted it to happen, but they’re probably a little more strict with what they can do and can’t.”
Only a day before shooting was scheduled to begin Dec. 7 in New York, Searchlight said yes. The movie was a go.
If only the drama had stopped there.
Although bills were being paid and the script had been cut by nearly 25 pages to fit the budget, the physical demands on Portman and co-star Mila Kunis were excruciating.
Portman had been training with professional dancer Mary Helen Bowers for nearly a year, but her days on set were even more demanding.
“After we’d finish a 16-hour day, I’d have to go work out,” says the actress, who lost 20 pounds for the movie. “When you’re waiting for camera setups, you have to stay warm, so you’re doing more exercises, elevating your feet.”
Her experience was characterized by “sleep deprivation, not eating a lot and extreme physical duress. There was nothing mean; it was just harrowing” — so harrowing that Portman dislocated a rib and sustained a bad bump on the head during production.
“It was probably my hardest set,” Aronofsky says.
At no time was that more apparent than staging the climactic number. “When we did the stage show at the end, we had to put on something that could be world-class, so we had to create some expensive sets and complicated lighting,” Aronofsky says.
Somehow, he managed. Shooting wrapped Feb. 12 with no further crises.
Even so, the budget issues — which meant no trailers and the loss of an on-set nurse — continued into postproduction, where Aronofsky was “extremely understaffed,” especially in creating the 300 visual effects he needed.
“We did a lot of manipulation of mirrors and tiny effects that add to the creepiness,” he says. “Very few people are going to pick up on [them].”
The effects were most challenging for the final transformation scene.
“Every single department had to perform,” Aronofsky says. “I had one day to shoot the major acts of a ballet, so we were just rushing to get shots and trying not to have anyone get hurt. Then there were all of these weird visual effects happening — Natalie dancing in contacts so that she can’t see, feathers falling off of costumes and flying around the set.”
The scene and its effects came together just in time for a Venice Film Festival premiere in September, where Swan became one of the event’s most talked-about movies.
“The challenge, when you overcome it well — that makes independent film great,” Franklin says.
HOW TO PLAY A BALLERINA
Natalie Portman put in plenty of long days and hard work for Black Swan
“The idea behind [Natalie Portman’s] training was really simple: Train like a professional ballerina in order to look like one and move like one,” says Mary Helen Bowers, a pro who helped train the actress over two years. “About six months out, when she was starting her rehearsals for the film, [we’d train] five hours a day, more when she had more time. We were meeting at 5:30 in the morning to work for two hours before she’d go film a 12-hour day on set. And rather than going home and going to sleep or going out for beers with the cast, we did the gym. If we did ballet in the morning, we’d do cross-training and exercising in the evenings. I knew how hard it was going to be when she got to set.”