Aronofsky's slow flow to screen

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The long and winding road that Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain" took on the way to the big screen, where it opens Nov. 22, reveals the challenge an independent filmmaker faces when he encounters a big studio's moviemaking process.

The studio mind-set usually involves throwing big dollars at movies to wow audiences into coming to theaters. Smaller, more intimate pictures are tougher to pull off commercially. But more and more these days, having learned the hard way that throwing money at formula genre fare doesn't necessarily connect with moviegoers anymore, production executives are taking more chances on risky material, while trying to keep costs down.

This fall, several studios are releasing daring, modestly budgeted (by their standards, at least) pictures directed by one-time independent filmmakers, including Sony Pictures' $40 million "Marie Antoinette," directed by Sofia Coppola, and Warner Bros. Pictures' $30 million "Fountain," directed by Aronofsky.

While neither film carried any guarantee of commercial success when it first was proposed because the studios wanted to be in business with the filmmaker, they took a bet that they would come out ahead in the long run. In Warners' case, betting on indie filmmakers has worked in the past, from Christopher Nolan ("Insomnia" and "Batman Begins") to David O. Russell ("Three Kings") to Steven Soderbergh, who not only directs the "Ocean's" series but delivers more daring films such as the upcoming "The Good German" or last year's Oscar-winning "Syriana," which he executive produced.

In the case of "Fountain," the studio's own thinking about the project morphed over time.

The film has long been the obsession of the 37-year-old Aronofsky, who burst onto the indie scene at 1998's Sundance Film Festival with the $60,000, brainy, black-and-white "Pi" and went on to earn raves for 2000's hard-boiled $4 million drug saga "Requiem for a Dream," starring Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly. "Requiem" was so shocking and brutal (including a close-up of an infected needle hole in Leto's arm) that Artisan Entertainment released it unrated after the MPAA deemed it worthy of an NC-17 rating.

Since then, Aronofsky has lived night and day with "Fountain," once titled "The Last Man," and has refused to let it go. After seeing "Requiem" when he was production president at Warners, Lorenzo Di Bonaventura lured Aronofsky to the studio and at one point offered him the chance to take on the new installment of "Batman" that eventually went to Nolan. Aronofsky balked, wondering if he knew "how to connect with an audience in a larger way," he said at the time.

The pressures on a young filmmaker after delivering two indie winners can be immense. Especially for a writer who also is a director, it is difficult to move into a studio mind-set and still balance intensity and purity in a form that is commercial. Sometimes, though not often, studios will let indie filmmakers who fight for their integrity hang on to what made them successful in the first place. Aronofsky found that he couldn't give up his ambitious pet project about life, death, reincarnation and a fountain of youth set in three time periods: the present, the 16th century and the future.

Initially, Warners' super-deluxe, big-budget version of the movie was going to star Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett (who eventually reteamed on "Babel") and feature scores of extras and special effects. "We had huge, exciting battle scenes on the vertical steps of a Mayan pyramid," Aronofsky recalls. "This was after 'Gladiator' and 'Braveheart' and before 'King Arthur' and 'Lord of the Rings.' "

Warners originally budgeted "Fountain" at $90 million. The movie was in preproduction in Australia when snafus on location involving the switch-over from one line producer to another resulted in a speed bump as the film attempted to move forward. The change, Aronofsky says, "created a window of doubt for Brad. We had gotten to a place where creatively we had grown apart. We had conversations about why things were not like this or that. The pressures of the budget and the actors, trying to find the balance, you can get lost in there."

When Pitt called Aronofsky in Australia to bail out, the studio pulled the plug -- even though $18 million was already invested. (Pitt went on to make the studio's "Troy" instead.) That same week, Di Bonaventura, the project's champion, left the studio, and finding another marquee draw like Pitt willing to take a chance on such a big-budget risk just didn't happen. "Slowly, it died," Aronofsky says.

The director tried to get interested in other things. But he decided he just didn't want to write something else for either a studio or movie stars when he could write something for himself. "I couldn't get it out of my blood," he says. One sleepless night he had an epiphany. If he had directed "Pi" and "Requiem" on a dime and a prayer, why not do the same with "Fountain"? "What is the no-budget version of this film?" he asked himself.

So he went through the entire script, erasing dollars as he went. He reduced the epic battle scene down to one man fighting against an onslaught of soldiers. "I attacked the most expensive scenes and tried to find their essence," he says. When he showed the revision to new Warners production president Jeff Robinov, the executive decided to give the movie a whirl -- at $35 million, less than half its original cost.

At a lower budget threshold, the movie was able to proceed with Hugh Jackman, who insisted that they meet with an actress Aronofsky had resisted considering -- the director's own fiancee, Rachel Weisz. The chemistry between the stars was palpable. So Weisz took the dual role of the young scientist's wife who is dying of cancer and who writes a parable about a young conquistador searching for the fountain of youth for the queen of Spain. "Her book is a metaphor for their relationship, about going against all odds to conquer death," the director says. "It's a simple story about a woman and man in love coming to terms with tragedy. The man is trying to fix things and make them better and continues to fight into the future."

Trying to make "Fountain" for $35 million meant approaching it like an indie production -- and shooting it in Montreal. Every detail that Aronofsky put onscreen was precious. Instead of investing in many luxurious digital effects, the director used as many live elements as possible, actually building his gigantic Tree of Life and using photography of photo chemical reactions and microorganisms for his outer space shots. "We were not wasting money in a stupid way," he says.

Early reactions to "Fountain" range from raves (Glenn Kenny of Premiere writes that the movie "may well restore your faith in the idea that a movie can take you out of the mundane and into a place of wonderment") to outright dismissal (it elicited boos at the Venice Film Festival). But whether it bombs at the boxoffice or becomes a cult classic like "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Fountain" is the kind of modest bet that the studios can afford to keep making.
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