DGA Awards preview: Darren Aronofsky

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When Darren Aronofsky was a teenager in the 1980s, there weren't many art house theaters in his Brooklyn neighborhood.

But when he and his buddies went out one night to the Kings Plaza theater to see a blockbuster "Rocky" sequel, the movie was sold out. So Aronofsky and crew opted for a film about Brooklyn, one with "a goofy guy" on the poster: Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It."

It was a pivotal moment for the 39-year-old director.

"I was always outside the mainstream, but I just saw that a film could be different," he says. "It tuned me in that something was happening in independent film."

Twenty years and four fiercely independent features later, Aronofsky is now getting nearly universal accolades for his latest project, "The Wrestler" (Fox Searchlight). The film, about an aging has-been who grasps for a shred of dignity, is earning serious awards buzz, especially for the comeback performance Aronofsky got out of his lead actor, Mickey Rourke.

Aronofsky has become one of the indie world's most passionate fighters, willing to sacrifice to make his movies exactly how he wants. He's a serious guy who has made some serious films -- both disturbing and enchanting, and always intense. The same goes for being on an Aronofsky set -- everyone is forced to bring their best game.

But he didn't grow up dreaming of being a hard-charging director. In high school, his greatest passions were photography and writing.

"I was a little shy to go into the visual arts," he says. "I thought I should be reading Karl Marx."

Then, at Harvard, he took a drawing class and had a roommate who was an animator, which inspired him to want to create moving pictures. He enrolled in his first film class and eventually graduated from AFI in 1993 with a list of movies he wanted to make.

Several ideas on that list turned into his first film, 1998's "Pi," which cost just $60,000 to make. The film, about a paranoid mathematician, won Aronofsky the best director award at Sundance and was picked up for $1 million by Artisan. He followed it in 2000 with the drug-addiction drama "Requiem for a Dream" and 2006's "The Fountain," an intellectually ambitious sci-fi thriller in the vein of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (and ultimately as divisive).

On each film, Aronofsky was adamant about maintaining his vision, earning a reputation as a cerebral, resilient taskmaster who stays true to his complex plan.

"Every film I've made has been a war," he says. "It took me six or seven years to make 'Pi,' which we raised the money for ourselves. After 'Pi,' everyone was like, 'What do you want to do next?' I showed them 'Requiem for a Dream,' and people didn't even return my calls. After 'Requiem,' we got 'The Fountain' set up, and then it took us seven years to make."

By the time he finished "The Fountain," "I really wanted to do something different. To take a risk, to change my whole approach to filmmaking from the past and throw it into the trash."

One title on Aronofsky's original wish list, "The Wrestler," seemed like it could provide that opportunity. There were plenty of films about boxing, he reasoned, but what about its unregaled, if tawdry, cousin?

Aronofsky and producing partner Scott Franklin began exploring the world of independent wrestling, attending the sort of bare-knuckle events held in high school gyms before small crowds of devoted fans.



"When I started to meet these guys, I saw that they were in really bad shape," he says. "Some of them had been such big stars, and most of them had physical problems. But they were working for $200 or $300 a night. There was a lot of drama there."

Aronofsky then made the counterintuitive choice of hiring original Onion magazine writer Robert Siegel to work on a gritty drama screenplay.

And in 2005, he landed on the idea of casting Rourke as Randy "The Ram" Robinson. "Like everyone, I wondered, 'What the hell happened?' to the one-time star of 'Diner' and '9 1/2 weeks.'" Rourke had notoriously lost his way, gaining a reputation for self-destructive behavior and being difficult on the set.

"I didn't know if Mickey could pull it off," says Aronofsky, who met the actor (and his pet Chihuahua, Loki) in a restaurant in Manhattan's meatpacking district. "It was clear to me that he was sane. He had done 12 years of therapy, and he was completely aware of what he had done to himself. So I knew that no matter how tough things would get on the set -- and things always get tough on the set -- there would be that conscious person I could reach."

The hitch was that no financier was willing to back the film with Rourke in it. After sticking to his guns for about two years, Aronofsky capitulated, casting Nicolas Cage instead. "The Wrestler" became a greenlighted picture overnight, with a $12 million-$14 million budget. But Aronofsky wasn't satisfied.

"I couldn't get the Mickey version out of my head," he says. "I think Nic got that, and like a complete gentleman, he bowed out."

Aronofsky rewrote some of the more costly scenes and tailored the film to fit the $6 million budget that French financing company Wild Bunch was willing to support. There wasn't money to pay for a gym, so Rourke trained in a ring that was set up in Aronofsky's production offices in Williamsburg. The cast and crew went without director's chairs or standard video playback monitors on set.

Aronofsky also made personal sacrifices.

"I was willing to do the film for less than scale," he says. "And I don't really own any of it. That was a sacrifice I had to make."

He describes "The Wrestler" as "an experiment" in bare-bones filmmaking, one he felt was necessary after making three increasingly stylized films. He committed himself to improvisation, often not knowing what the day would bring.



That intensity impacted the cast. Rourke began calling his director "Darren One-more-ofsky" during the 35-day shoot that began in January.

"The hours were definitely brutal," confirms Marisa Tomei, who plays a stripper and love interest for Rourke's character. "Darren loves to have a lot of takes. Sometimes, I just had nothing else to give."

Not that Tomei is complaining; she identified with the director's tough work ethic and direct way of communicating, having grown up in the same part of Brooklyn and attended the same high school (though Tomei graduated five years prior).

"We spoke the same language," Tomei says. "He could look me in the eye in a certain way that said, 'I'm not going to screw around with you.' Brooklynese is a very frank way of communicating. He wasn't pulling any punches."

On a recent phone call, Aronofsky does crack a few jokes, but he remains focused and on message, rarely embellishing and never sidestepping a question. Brooklyn and Harvard have created an academic auteur with just a hint of street.

And he is as unrelenting with himself as with his actors. He pushed Rourke to the breaking point for one scene, asking him to let loose emotionally in front of a mirror. Then he cut the scene, prompting a week of arguments with Rourke.

"To finish a film, you have to cut your favorite shot," Aronofsky explains.

For the wrestling scenes, Aronofsky used a shot list, but for the rest of the film, he went without. Which is not to say that the look of "The Wrestler" is not important to Aronofsky -- it's just grittier. To that end, he hired director of photography Maryse Alberti, who has worked on documentaries, and who could help realize his intended cinema verite style.

"I have very much been into subjective filmmaking, so that the character's reality is what you experience," he says. "It was a leap to do something completely objective. I didn't do the weird sound design things I did in 'Pi' and 'Requiem' to draw you into the character's head. I wanted to do something that was neorealist."

Aronofsky isn't sure whether his next project will be a remake of 1987's "RoboCop" or another script he's developing, but he expects there will be a struggle.

"For some reason, whenever I do anything, it becomes very hard. I end up doing the film I want to make, but with very limited resources. I have not gotten rich being a filmmaker."

He has, however, gotten a family: Aronofsky lives in Manhattan with his "Fountain" star, Rachel Weisz, and their 2-year-old son, Henry. They live quietly and mostly avoid the paparazzi.

Only when he describe his son's first knock-knock joke is there a break in Aronofsky's voice. You can almost see him smiling on the other end of the phone.
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