Berlin Jury Chair Darren Aronofsky: Festivals "Help Keep Cinema Alive" (Q&A)

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Darren Aronofsky

The 'Noah' director talks to THR about being arrested in East Berlin and why he's avoided scrutinizing the lineup: "It's really nice to go into a film clean."

Coming off the $363 million worldwide success of Noah last year — not to mention a promotional tour that included a near meeting with the Pope, complaints over an all-white cast, glowing reviews from U.S. critics and a mixed but vocal response from Jewish and Christian groups — Darren Aronofsky is heading to Berlin. The 45-year-old Oscar-nominated director of Black Swan, who will chair the jury at this year’s fest, spoke with THR about staying neutral despite some Terrence Malick worship and his desire to direct for TV.

What are you looking forward to in Berlin?
I’m looking forward to movies, man! It’s an amazing opportunity. As a jury member, you watch an incredible amount of film in a very short amount of time, so you need a certain amount of stamina and a lot of caffeine. But it’s exciting to have a chance to get the pulse of what’s happening in storytelling all across the planet — within just a few days. 

Was there ever a time when you consumed movies in that kind of volume — before festivals came calling?
Actually, yeah. I used to go up to the Boston Sci-Fi Festival when I was in college there [at Harvard]. They’ve got this marathon — it’s having its 40th anniversary this year — where they play sci-fi flicks for 24 hours straight. Eventually you’d get too tired and fall asleep during Robinson Crusoe on Mars and then wake up in the middle of Alien and then pass out again. It was an amazing way to mess with your brain.

This is your first time to the Berlinale, but are you familiar with the city?
I was actually arrested in East Berlin once. I don’t know if I should share that story …

Please do.
I guess you could say I had a little run-in. Berlin was still divided then. It was May Day. Huge parade, lots of drinking. East Berlin was covered in flags and I was with this crazy Australian guy and we decided to, sort of, take one as a souvenir. Let’s just say that was not a good idea. (Laughs.) But I’ve been back since the wall came down and it’s just an amazing city. We went there with Noah last year, and the cast and crew and I went out dancing and had an incredible Berlin night.

How does this year’s lineup grab you?
I’ve actually been staying away from it. It’s really nice to go into a film clean. Reading those descriptions in the catalog — it’s almost like reading a mini review. Of course, I know Terrence Malick’s film is coming and I can’t fully ignore something like that, because he’s an amazing filmmaker and he’s meant a lot to me over the years. But you want to approach every film from a neutral place. Ultimately, there’s really no way to compare movies — it truly is the apple and orange problem. It’s more about what happens to emotionally connect with the jury at hand. The prizes are as much about the jury as they are about the films. That’s a good thing to remember, whether you’re in a competition or judging it.

Your big break came at Sundance with Pi in 1998. Do film festivals hold a special importance for you?
I think they’re very important. Without these festivals, the careers of so many directors I love would not exist. If you look at the history of film, many of the great directors got their launch at Berlin, Venice, Sundance or Cannes. If you look at the films that are nominated for best picture, they’re usually festival-like films. It’s a way for these movies that don’t have a lot of money behind them to gather some steam and find an audience. The awards, ultimately, only represent one moment in time and they’re always unfair. But they’re still incredible honors. The noble history of these festivals and the great filmmakers who walked before us help keep cinema alive — especially in light of all the things that are challenging us for our attention today.

You were attached at one point to both Batman and X-Men projects. Are these things you’d still like to do eventually?
It’s all about storytelling. That’s how I see myself. If film didn’t exist when I was coming up, I would have figured out another way to tell stories. Setting a genre or a form is never really what I’ve done. Noah is a great example: a bible movie that’s not really a bible movie. Black Swan was a dance movie but also a horror film; I guess The Wrestler was sort of a sports movie; I don’t know what The Fountain was. I just want to keep telling the stories that interest me in the moment.

Your Protozoa Pictures signed a three-year first-look deal with HBO last year. What’s the latest on your relationship with the channel?
We still have a deal over there and they’re incredible collaborators and really fun to work with. I hope I can get a few things going. TV remains really interesting to me because that’s where a lot of creative freedom and dramatic tension exists now. The line between where film and TV exists and gets distributed has become very fuzzy. The only thing that unifies all this stuff is stories. That’s the one thing that hasn’t changed.