Darren Aronofsky on 'Mother!' Critics: "Rex Reed Called It the Worst Movie of the Century. That Is a Victory"
In a wide-ranging interview, the director also opens up about his inspirations, Brad Pitt's last-minute decision to pull out of 'The Fountain' and the script note he got from Mickey Rourke on 'The Wrestler.'
Writer-director Darren Aronofsky says he’s unperturbed by the critical backlash to Mother!, his psychological thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem.
“My favorite [criticism of] Mother! is Rex Reed, [of the New York Observer, who] called it the worst movie of the century,” Aronofsky said October 11, speaking to students at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film & TV. “For me, [that] is a victory. I mean, finally I got to the top of the list. You know, he hated Black Swan [which], was an ugly duckling for him."
But, he added: “I don’t really read reviews. I try to avoid them. I’m not that concerned about that stuff. The job of the filmmaker is to make the film, and put it out into the world the best way that is possible with the resources you have, and then whatever happens happens.”
Aronofsky, who took part in the ongoing interview series The Hollywood Masters, pointed out how opinion about his 2006 sci-fi fantasy The Fountain has changed. “For a long time, The Fountain was really, really hated and made fun of and stuff, and I think the fans of that one have been the biggest fans of any film that I have had.”
That movie was complicated by Brad Pitt’s last-minute decision to pull out, seven weeks before filming was due to commence. “We were shooting in Australia for rebate,” Aronofsky recalled. “So for six months I was on the other side of the world, and that was the lesson: you can’t really keep a collaboration like that going in a long-distance situation.”
He returned to Los Angeles to persuade Pitt to remain onboard. “I came back to L.A. and he had grown this beard,” he noted — something he had wanted for the picture. “He hadn’t shaved, so I thought, ‘Oh, maybe there’s a shot here.’” He was wrong.
When the movie collapsed, “I retreated to a veranda in New Orleans, and I sat on the veranda drinking gin and tonics, staring out at the graveyard… and then I got a phone call from Sly [Sylvester Stallone]. He was like, ‘What happened? Do you want to come up and see me?’ He just reached out to me, you know, a big muscular shoulder to cry on.” Aronofsky had been developing The Wrestler and now pondered casting Stallone in the lead. “I started to talk to Sly a little bit about that. But as time went by, I realized I was further away from making that script work.”
A transcript of the interview follows.
GALLOWAY: I want to start sort of a long way from here, and from where you grew up: in Kenya. You went there as a teenager.
ARONOFSKY: I didn't grow up in Kenya. I was there for five weeks. [LAUGHS] It was five, six weeks.
GALLOWAY: That had a pretty huge impact on your life. Tell us where you were in your life when you went there and how that experience affected you?
ARONOFSKY: Well, as a teenager growing up in south Brooklyn, in the concrete jungle, I always wanted to get out and experience nature and see the world. So I think from a very young age I was interested in camping and exploring and traveling a lot. I think another great thing about south Brooklyn is there was the New York City Aquarium, which is one of the best aquariums in the United States, in Coney Island, which was three or four miles from my house where I grew up. And you could do an internship there where if you had the internship shirt you could go on the Cyclone, the best rollercoaster in the world, for free. So we used to all do it just so we could go on the Cyclone over and over again. But while there, I found a catalog to an organization called the School for Field Studies, which I am actually now on the board of directors. It's still around. And they take mostly college students, but some high school students, to environmentally sensitive points in the world and do serious science and research. So, the first place I went with them I went to Kenya where I studied, here's my little bragging moment, thermoregulation... No, excuse me. I studied water strategies and ungulates. The second year I went with them to Prince William Sound in Alaska and I studied thermoregulation harbor seals. So...
GALLOWAY: Ungulates meaning hoofed...?
ARONOFSKY: Yeah. Ungulates meaning animals that stand on their hooves. So...
GALLOWAY: Did you have any choice in what you studied?
ARONOFSKY: Well the whole program was that, and then you basically had to choose different crews. So basically, there was this... I don't know how deep we want to go into it, but there was this capitalist who was in Kenya and he had this idea of doing preservation for profit. And the idea was that during a drought, domesticated animals like cattle will die, but wild animals who have better water strategies and have evolved in the environment for millions of years would do better. But to uphold that you have to have the science because science... Once you have an idea you have to prove it. So we were there collecting all different types of data on how these animals dealt with their water strategies.
GALLOWAY: Were you thinking at that point of going into environmentalism in some capacity as a job?
ARONOFSKY: I don't think I was thinking about a job or anything. I just was like I am going to go on safari, you know? And I was excited to just see the world, and I think I always had an interest in animals, and then I got really interested in science. It was when I was in Alaska, Prince William Sound, which is, you know, two years after I was there was when the Exxon Valdez had the biggest oil spill up to that point, and they actually used our data to see how the seal populations were impacted. And the only textbook was The Origin of Species, which every couple nights we had to read another chapter, Charles Darwin's masterpiece. And so that was a big formation in how to think.
ARONOFSKY: Well, because I guess how he thinks. He just uses observation and logic and connecting things to prove a point that when you put it in context of where he was... Well even in today's world where you have people who doubt if it's true even though it's pretty much, it is truth.
GALLOWAY: Do you need to add "pretty much"?
ARONOFSKY: No, well a theory — you know, all the evidence points in that direction just like the theory of gravity, but we all sort of accept it as truth, but there is, you know, you have to in science leave an opening that something can be outside of the norm.
GALLOWAY: What is a fact? Is there anything you could say "This is a fact and I have no doubt about it?"
ARONOFSKY: Probably just in my own heretical way of saying that I believe in stories, and stories are the way to unite us or something that. But a true underlining fact and truth that I absolutely believe in in some type of cosmic level I don't think I have any of those.
GALLOWAY: Are you religious?
ARONOFSKY: I would say... I mean the reason I work with Bible stories a lot is because I'm a storyteller and I love stories. And of course the great stories of the Bible, all of our creation myths, I think belong to everyone equally. I'm not interested when people start talking about who they belong to or if they really happened. I think there is more power in the story. The perfect example is Icarus who, I just say that word everyone understands the meaning but no one questions if he actually put on wings and flew close to the sun. So for me that's where my faith is, is in stories and how we can as humans apply them to our lives in the 21st century.
GALLOWAY: And if you had to strip the Bible to all but one story, which would be the one that you cling to?
ARONOFSKY: You mean my favorite?
GALLOWAY: Yeah. That's another way to put it.
ARONOFSKY: Probably Noah. I mean I spent five years on Noah.
GALLOWAY: You did?
ARONOFSKY: So, I mean Noah's great and all of Genesis is great. Although, you know, I can't say I've dived as deep into the other books. I heard Numbers is a great read just recently, and I was like, that one I kind of skipped.
GALLOWAY: When did you discover that? You grew up in a Jewish family but not particularly religious. Did you learn about that in school?
GALLOWAY: The Bible?
ARONOFSKY: No, I took it at... When I was in undergrad, they had a Core, and one of the easy classes was the Bible class. [LAUGHS] I took Bible, I took Jazz, you know, for all my Core and I got through it that way, but that's probably the first time I sat down and actually read the Bible all the way through.
GALLOWAY: When was the first time you thought "I might be a filmmaker"?
ARONOFSKY: I think it started with being a storyteller. When I was 18 I graduated high school early and I took my savings and I flew to Europe in the Middle East and just backpacked around for six months. Ended up in London with bronchitis and no money in my pocket.
GALLOWAY: Oh wow.
ARONOFSKY: And while there, we went down to Marrakesh in Morocco, and they have the square there is called the Jemaa. At night it turns into the marketplace with tons of food and snake charmers and people selling weird incense and all different spices, and they also had these storytellers. And there was this one old man who was bent over leaning on a cane. And I remember pushing through the crowd, and it was just a packed audience, and even though I didn't understand a word he was saying because he was speaking Arabic, he just changed in size in front of me. And I could just feel the power of story. And I'm happy The Moth wasn't around [LAUGHS] because I would have just become like a spoken-word storyteller.
GALLOWAY: Do you all know that show, The Moth?
ARONOFSKY: It's on NPR. It's great.
GALLOWAY: It's terrific.
ARONOFSKY: It's a great thing. You do a 10-minute story, and they're just great. They're a lot of fun to listen to.
GALLOWAY: Have you ever done it or would you?
ARONOFSKY: No, Ari Handel, who is my co-writer and producer on many of the projects is head of the board of directors there, so I support them a lot and I love them, but I haven't found a moment to do that, you know, yet. So for filmmaking I think even though I started to lean towards filmmaking, I've told this story before, was you know, I went to the multiplex in Brooklyn and the film we were going to was sold out, and there was a poster with a goofy-looking guy with a Brooklyn hat on, and we bought tickets, and I remember sitting down in the last seat that was available in a packed audience. And it was that montage in She's Gotta Have It when all the different men are picking up Nola Darling, and I had never seen anything like that. In black and white and just that type of use of montage. And I was like "Oh wow, there's something else going on." And that sort of led me down the path discovering independent film, which was a lot harder to sort of get exposed to as it is now because that stuff didn't exist on the Internet, which didn't exist. And so it was at small, you know, theaters in Manhattan, and I was into cult film. I was always going into the city to see at midnight like Liquid Sky and Stop Making Sense and Clockwork Orange, all the kind of forbidden films.
GALLOWAY: Which ones most impacted you? Which two or three films really shifted your thinking?
ARONOFSKY: I would say it probably started with discovering the Europeans, and actually probably started with Kurosawa and Yojimbo. That was a film that I just thought it was the closest thing to perfection I've ever seen in that art form. You know basically this... You know there's one scene in which I, you know, if I had to be critical on that that sort of goes off, but I...
GALLOWAY: You're knocking Kurosawa?
ARONOFSKY: Yeah, yeah, no, but every single shot. I'm not knocking him. Just saying it's an impossible feat I think to make something perfect. And sometimes, you know, the art is in the mistakes. That was, just aside, a lesson I learned from Bruce Springsteen who wrote the closing song to The Wrestler. And in one of the lines he writes that "Can you picture a one-legged dog walking down the street?" And we were sitting around and I'm like "I can picture a three-legged dog.” [LAUGHS] "I can even picture a two-legged dog walking, but what is a one-legged dog?" And after he won the Golden Globe, we were getting a drink and I was feeling a little tippy and a little… And I said "Can I ask you something, Bruce?” [LAUGHS] Wasn't really sure I could say that to him. And he's like "Yeah, sure." And I was like "What's a one-legged dog walking down the street?" And he said "Sometimes the art is in the mistakes. The poetry is the mistakes."
GALLOWAY: Where have you felt that in your own work?
ARONOFSKY: Look, I think the most controlled and closest I've come to something being what I conceived at the start of it or had the energy I wanted is my last film. But you know it's interesting how so many people perceive it in so many different ways, which we always knew was open for people to take. You know, I've always talked about the job is to plant the seeds and you let the audience harvest and that's when you get a good meal, as opposed to force-feeding them some type of meal. I think it's much better when they can put their own dinner together as long as it's in the kitchen that you've set up.
GALLOWAY: That's the issue. What if they read into the exact opposite of your intent?
ARONOFSKY: Well, the only one that's upsetting is that they think I'm somehow condoning darkness and violence, and that's... I don't know how to respond to that. That's just missing all the kind of evidence and clues that are in front of them, and I think that's partly because people don't really see violence represented truthfully in American cinema, and for me it's a big issue. I think we fetishize violence, and it's barely ever represented. The fact that you can do PG-13 without as many gunshots as you want without actually seeing the blood I think is the wrong way to think about it. I think people should know what firearms do. They should know what violence on people on people is, and you should just be truthful to it. And when you sort of glamorize it or over push it over the top so you're making it into some type of pornography, that's a big problem.
GALLOWAY: Do you ever worry that you'll alienate your audience so much that you'll lose the very people you want to speak to? You won't remember this, but I love The Wrestler, just love that film. But the first time I saw it, I said to you that after 30 minutes, it was so violent that I almost left. And I remember your reply was "I didn't think it was violent enough."
ARONOFSKY: Well it doesn't really... You know if you go to any of those matches, it was just the tip of the iceberg. It was stuff that was going on. And I think if you read any good newspaper of record, the A section, and you look past the words that are on the page, the violence that's represented every single day on a global international scale, is terrifying and way beyond anything in Mother! Mother! is just like a snapshot, a small window into it. Yes, we have movie stars and we are in an enclosed space and we are putting it right into your face, but that was the idea.
GALLOWAY: Have you ever been in a violent situation personally?
ARONOFSKY: I mean I grew up... I saw lots of violence, you know, growing up. Just in, I mean, I don't want to be like “the streets of Brooklyn,” but it's true. [LAUGHS.] In the streets of Brooklyn there was violence a lot. I have very clear memories of like bad fights, like blood and stuff.
GALLOWAY: That you watched or that you were involved in?
ARONOFSKY: I never, I wasn't much of the fighter, but you could not be, you couldn't really exist without witnessing it, I don't think. If you went to a party, you know, it happened, but I think that's everywhere.
GALLOWAY: Maybe not to that degree. Maybe not in front of you. Going from that world to Harvard, was that a shocking experience? Or did you like Harvard?
ARONOFSKY: I think I wasn't really practicing "It's not where you are, it's where you're at" when I was at Harvard, and I was very much always thinking about what's next. But the resources at that school were just unbelievable, and the kind of universe that's created on that campus is just so many infinite ways you can take advantage of it. And so I think in retrospect I had a great time. Although I can remember at the time wanting to get into the world and get out there, but, you know, I'm still working with many of my friends I made there. Ari Handel, who we already talked about, was my college roommate, and the guy who does my VFX was my college roommate, so I've known them 30 years or whatever it is. So I think it was a good experience.
GALLOWAY: What was the most important thing you learned there?
ARONOFSKY: Well I went into the...[TO AUDIENCE] He's tough, huh? [LAUGHS] Is it always this deep, man?
GALLOWAY: You like that, though.
ARONOFSKY: Yeah, but I don't know, it's getting personal. [LAUGHS] Normally I could just go through this with a bunch of bullshit. The question was... I guess the best gift I got was from my parents saying, "Just do your best," which I don't think they said when I was in elementary school, in high school. I think they wanted me to work well, but you know, when I went off to college they gave me that advice. And I think I went into the school you know, feeling like an underdog a little bit just because I had a public school education. I really didn't learn grammar and had to read and write very well. I mean I know how to read but not very well. I didn't read that many books in high school, you know. You know, they were very successful the public schools back then teaching math and science. And I was exposed to a lot of great stuff. It's just, I don't think it was on par with a lot of people that were entering that school with me. So I just sort of gave myself permission to "Just do as well as you can." And I was basically a B- minus student all the way through until I found filmmaking, and that's the first time I got an A. And the last time I got an A [LAUGHS] was filmmaking.
GALLOWAY: You then went to the American Film Institute. Did you go immediately to the AFI, or did you take a break?
ARONOFSKY: I did a short film that was sort of my thesis film at Harvard, and then when I graduated I spent that year trying to promote it, which back then was a very different process because just finding out where at film festivals existed was very hard. And there was one organization in New York that had a file cabinet filled with all these different applications to get into these festivals. And you would have to get certified checks to enter each one for $25 dollars, and then you would have to make VHS copies, then you would have to go to the post office and mail them off, and then wait six weeks until you got a reply or not.
GALLOWAY: Now they have a website I think, Without a Box.
ARONOFSKY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You post it and everyone has links. Yes, it wasn't that way. So that was part of it. So it was kind of a job trying to figure it out. And there also wasn't that many stories back then of filmmakers that came out of Sundance yet. I think about that year I got out was when Linklater came out with Slacker, and I remember seeing that at the Angelika at this... I forget what they call it. The AIFFP, do you remember that? Anyway, it was an early independent film festival kind of marketplace that they had like in September in New York City. So I saw Slacker there. And then I think when I started filmmaking, when I went to AFI was when Rodriquez's El Mariachi came out and the I guess $7,000 movie or something like that? That idea was like suddenly there were paths and people were talking about different ways to go. And then after I graduated AFI, which may be jumping ahead of then you want, but a friend of mine from AFI, Scott Silver, who is now an amazing writer in Hollywood, had directed a film called Johns, and then he asked me to come with him to Sundance. And I remember seeing Welcome to the Dollhouse that year and the Muhammad Ali movie When We Were Kings. And it was just a great year at Sundance, and seeing something like Dollhouse made me realize that no matter how small you think a story is, if it's personal and you make it real and you do a good job, there's an audience for it. So Sundance kind of gave me the courage to go out and make personal films.
GALLOWAY: Do you recommend film school?
ARONOFSKY: I think film school is interesting. You know, yeah, I think I do. For me it was beneficial. You get to experiment and try a lot of things. And ultimately I mean the best thing for me was I met crew members, you know. The first week I met Matthew Libatique, who became my DP on...
GALLOWAY: Oh he was at the AFI with you?
ARONOFSKY: Yeah, yeah. He was the youngest DP and I was the youngest director, and we were sitting next to... He was from Queens, I was from Brooklyn. We both grew up with the same, you know, love of music, very similar styles. So we clicked right then. My producer for the first half of my career, Eric Watson, was my producer at AFI. So I think, you know, meeting people and creating those relationships and finding people that have the same passions, that is what film school is potentially good for.
GALLOWAY: What did it fail...
ARONOFSKY: It's hard to teach film, you know.
GALLOWAY: Harder than say literature of history, is it?
ARONOFSKY: I think so.
GALLOWAY: I want to just go to the first film that Darren did, which is just exceptional and was made on $60,000. It's called Pi.
ARONOFSKY: I haven't seen that in a long time.
GALLOWAY: I was going to ask you, if you watch your films and you go back to them sometimes.
ARONOFSKY: No, watching your films is akin to masturbation.
GALLOWAY: [LAUGHS] Well, I thought it was going to be a painful experience, but maybe that is too — I don't know.
ARONOFSKY: I mean, yeah. I mean I see so many mistakes, but it's fine. I worked the hardest I could at that moment, so...
GALLOWAY: What was the genesis of that film?
ARONOFSKY: It was a lot of things. It was the kind of frustration to make a film. I had graduated I think three, four years after I finished the AFI was before I was able to mount that. And so it was a lot of ideas I was thinking about. I had been reading a lot of Philip K. Dick. I had had an experience where I had learned some of that stuff about the Bible that was interesting.
GALLOWAY: An experience, meaning what?
ARONOFSKY: Well just to get the other things, there was also I had a great teacher in high school who kind of taught it was an elective on kind of cosmic mathematics and geometry, sacred geometry. And he just pointed out all these things about pi and about Pythagoras and Fibonacci, and a lot of that stuff was kind of floating around and I thought it was interesting and never had been really dealt with in film. So it was about taking a lot of different ideas and weaving them together into something that just became its own kind of tapestry.
GALLOWAY: Was it a hard script to write?
ARONOFSKY: It came pretty quick. I think when I went to Sundance and saw Welcome to the Dollhouse, by the next Sundance we had wrapped it.
ARONOFSKY: And it hadn't been written. So it was a big process. Because I went back that next year to watch films again.
GALLOWAY: Let's go back to Pi. What interests me with it is, here's the script, if you listen to the dialogue, it's very intellectual, but there is such tension behind it. How do you put that in a screenplay as opposed to into the film?
ARONOFSKY: It was always the concept to have a very, very tight thriller structure to it. You know, the rule number one I always have is never bore an audience. And so I think once you accomplish that then there's nothing wrong with piling on the meat and adding all different types of ideas. So it's a basic thriller structure. It's a guy who has a piece of information and everyone else wants it. And yet it's dangerous for him, and it also potentially has gifts for him. You could put that type of description on probably thousands of films. So that's where it started was just like "How do we make something that races to the end, but then kind of put all these kinds of cool ideas that we've been thinking about into it?"
GALLOWAY: What were the toughest decisions you had to make in the editing, in putting that film together?
ARONOFSKY: Well it was really difficult to edit because it was edited by a commercial editor, Oren Sarch, who was basically working at a commercial house. And he would only be able to work on it after hours. So I would just show up at his work at like seven o'clock at night and work for three, four hours. So that was probably a longer cut than Mother! was because it was just peppered very, very slowly. But we sat there and just went through every single cut. You know, every single cut was handpicked and sliced. It was definitely done in a very, very old school way.
GALLOWAY: Do you like to sit with the editor and go through it, or do you let the editor do his rough cut first?
ARONOFSKY: I always let the editor do their rough cut because... I mean, I wouldn't say it's their rough cut, it's the assemblage. Which when you watch the assemblage is the worst day of any person's life. Every director will tell you this. You just have to go into it knowing you're going to be miserable for three days afterwards and terrified. Because you've done all this work and you are just so ready to brag, and then you just see this mess in front of you that's going to take forever to shape. And so just know that. That's a good lesson to have. It sucks for everyone. But then you just sort of roll up your sleeves and you start picking away. I'm very much like a fine editor when I edit, so basically when I do my first pass, I take care of all the details and try to deal with all the problems that I can. Instead of just sort of doing a looser cut or trim this out, trim that out, we just go through very, very slowly. We also never cut to music. We never put in temp music. Which was tricky on Noah when the studio wanted to test the film. But I just feel like the composer is an artist onto themselves and they should be... That putting other ideas in there kind of takes away that first impression you get when a composer like Clint Mansell or Johann Johannsson shows up to the process.
GALLOWAY: So at what point are you having conversations about the music?
ARONOFSKY: Oh I'm having conversations about the music before I start shooting. I like to bring on a composer as early as I can. Clint was always involved with the movies. You know, he'd be my third or fourth call.
GALLOWAY: And what were those conversations? Did you wait for him to suggest things to you, or do you say, "This is what I'm looking for?"
ARONOFSKY: It's always a different process. You know, usually I'm just at the pitching of the story idea when I do it. "I'm thinking about doing something in this world. What do you think?" Then you send the script, and then sometimes they write some music to that moment to see, you know, because they see something off the written page. And that's great because it just starts the conversation.
GALLOWAY: Did you try going in different directions with the music?
ARONOFSKY: In Mother!?
GALLOWAY: In Pi.
ARONOFSKY: Well, it was a weird process because at the time Clint wasn't a composer. He, you know, had been in a pretty successful band called Pop Will Eat Itself, and they had broken up and he was living in New York City. But we were always interested in electronic music as my producer, Eric Watson, was friends and kind of connected to that kind of birthing moment, when all those interesting [groups like] Autechre and Massive Attack were starting to form and create this new type of music. And because we had a few connections in that world, we thought for very cheap we might be able to put together a soundtrack. At the same I met Clint and I said, "Hey, would you try to write something for the opening of the film?" And I remember he came with an audio cassette and we stuck it in a box.
GALLOWAY: Oh wow. [LAUGH]
ARONOFSKY: Yeah, it was old school. And we listened to it, and it was just, I remember bringing everyone in because it was so exciting that kind of opening Pi. I won't try to hum it. And then we kind of realized we didn't have enough money to get all these other songs, so I'd say "Hey, Clint, would you mind maybe writing a song here?" And that's how we worked together to make that collaboration, and he stepped right into all those challenges and met them all beyond our expectations.
GALLOWAY: You made this film for $60,000, I think Artisan Entertainment bought it for $1 million-ish.
ARONOFSKY: That was the Variety headline. It wasn't really true.
GALLOWAY: But it still put you on the map as a filmmaker. How did that change things for you?
ARONOFSKY: I don't know. I guess the most exciting thing was in the contract they referred to me as artist, and I was like "Oh wow. It's legal now.” [LAUGHS] That was an exciting moment.
GALLOWAY: All the studios were coming after you for meetings, the whole Hollywood machine —
ARONOFSKY: I came out to L.A. and I did a round of meetings, which was very interesting and eye-opening to see how things sort of start to work. I didn't know many people out here. I had been here at AFI, but it was just other film students. I didn't really get that much exposure to the way to studio system worked. So going onto the lots was super exciting. Meeting people that had made some of your favorite films was exciting.
GALLOWAY: Who did you meet?
ARONOFSKY: I remember at one point Ridley called me in to meet me.
GALLOWAY: Ridley Scott.
ARONOFSKY: And he had the big Alien poster on his wall, and it was great.
GALLOWAY: [LAUGHS] That will intimidate.
ARONOFSKY: It was a great moment. But there were a few meetings like that that were awesome.
GALLOWAY: What surprised you about Hollywood?
ARONOFSKY: I got into this argument with Alejandro Jodorowsky. I don't know if you listen to that podcast, but you know, I think Hollywood's filled with people who love movies, and they want to make great movies. And, you know, they're responsible also that it's business, but they definitely believe in the power of cinema. And it's very deep that way. You don't run into many people who aren't film fans.
GALLOWAY: I'm not sure that's as true today as it was 20 years ago, you know? The corporate takeover of the studios has become so great that you...
ARONOFSKY: I don't know. Jim Gianopulos loves film. Tom Rothman loves films. Stacey Snider loves film. Alan Horn loves film. They're out there.
GALLOWAY: Four studio heads.
ARONOFSKY: Yeah, and I probably could go through all of them. Lionsgate, Erik Feig, all those people. They love film. Netflix loves film.
GALLOWAY: OK. Did you come to a turning point where you have to decide "I'm going to make a very Hollywood kind of film or I'm going to do another personal film"? Or was it an easy decision for you?
ARONOFSKY: Well, it was interesting. I wrote a very strict genre film called Below.
GALLOWAY: Yeah, but you didn't direct.
ARONOFSKY: I didn't direct it. And when I was working on it, it was something I was thinking about directing, and it was much more genre than anything I've done. But I think the success of Pi showed me a way to possibly make Requiem for a Dream. And so I'm always the guy at Blackjack who's like "Let it ride." [LAUGHS] So I don't take the chips back. I just sort of put them back on the table every time.
GALLOWAY: That's impressive. And it's difficult to resist that temptation.
ARONOFSKY: Yeah, it would be nice to cash in.
GALLOWAY: One day.
ARONOFSKY: I don't know. Yeah, I think that's what keeps you going is, you know, you just have to survive. You have to go for it. I think that's part of it.
GALLOWAY: I mean I thought it was an extraordinary decision to go from Pi and not make BElow, but instead make a film that if anything is even more daring. Here's a clip from Requiem for a Dream.
ARONOFSKY: Strange clips you chose.
GALLOWAY: Well partly it's ones that are the right length too, so that's one factor. But it's also where you've done things that filmically that I find really interesting.
GALLOWAY: I mean you've got a sequence here with no dialogue with this haunting music. By the way, I hadn't realized one of the things you do in Mother! that thought was incredibly original was, we talked about it a tiny bit, was that you have these close-ups on Jennifer Lawrence and then you are cutting to another close-up from a different angle. And I see you did that here too where we're on her face, then we're on her head. When you went into Requiem, what were the difficult decisions for you?
ARONOFSKY: I don't know... They're never difficult. You're always just trying to figure out the language to tell the film, the grammar that's going to make the movie. So you start figuring out different techniques that help the audience into the head of these characters and into their experience. I think Pi sort of sent me down the path of subjective filmmaking where the audience is with Max the whole time. That came out of probably budget restrictions, which is we knew we had one actor, my good friend Sean, who would show up every day, so we knew he was in every scene. And so we started to create a language of how to sort of put the audience into his head. So for instance in Pi, we could only shoot over Max's shoulder. We could never shoot over the other character's shoulder because that would be from their point of view. So we just started a language based on how to put the audience in the right place at the right time. The exciting thing about Requiem when I read it is I realized that instead of one subjective story it was suddenly four subjective stories. And the way Hubert Selby, Jr. wrote so beautifully was...
GALLOWAY: You mean in the novel that this is based on.
ARONOFSKY: The novel that it's based on, yeah. Was that he could just put you in the mind of this older woman or these younger kids effortlessly and show that addiction to a dream, or addiction to chocolate, addiction to cigarettes is not much different than addictions to much more dangerous things. At least the language, the mindset that goes through your head.
GALLOWAY: How much did you want us to empathize with those characters? Because they're not easy people to like necessarily.
ARONOFSKY: I mean it's always you want the audience to completely connect with your characters, with all their faults and all their mistakes. And that's the challenge is when you take characters that are more real than the normal characters, you see in movies, how to make audiences connect with them.
GALLOWAY: There's something you said that was interesting. Before Mother! was being screened, you wrote an introduction for it that you wanted people to read. I don’t know if that was given to the public.
ARONOFSKY: Oh, it was a director’s statement for the Venice Film Festival. But that’s because the Venice Film Festival requires it.
GALLOWAY: Oh, it does?
ARONOFSKY: Yeah. Everyone’s got to do it. I’ve done it for every movie.
GALLOWAY: Every director has to write a statement?
ARONOFSKY: Everyone has a director’s statement. That’s printed in the catalog.
GALLOWAY: So, we were given this, and one thing you said that, I’m going to read what you wrote, because it’s pretty interesting. You said, “Through staring into the darkest parts of ourselves is how we find the light.” Is that your goal as a filmmaker?
ARONOFSKY: That’s not my line, by the way, that’s something Hubert Selby Jr. taught me. And that’s kind of the beauty of his work was how dark the stories go, and, you know, when the MPAA gave us an NC-17 rating on the film, they wanted us to trim back some of the intensity, but that was going to undermine the exact purpose for making the film. Very similar thing to Mother! It’s about going to the extremes to create a catharsis for the audience.
GALLOWAY: What did they want you to cut from the film?
ARONOFSKY: In Requiem? It was ridiculous. There is an edited version I was forced to make that is somewhat circling around, but it’s only probably four or five cuts. But they were, I mean, the one that really just, once again, just shows the hypocrisy is during the sex sequence, there is a condom going onto the sex toy, and they found that upsetting. So, I said, “Oh, so safe sex is not...?” [LAUGHS] You know, I was just like, of all of the things that are going on, that’s the thing that...I guess it’s graphic in certain ways, but it’s actually, once again, you’re missing what’s behind the image. You’re missing the message. So, that’s always where, you know, I think it’s very hard to deal with censorship because…
GALLOWAY: How do you have that? Because I would imagine that the financiers, the distributors, want you to agree to what you’re being asked.
ARONOFSKY: On that one, I was lucky because Artisan felt that going out with no rating was more controversial and it would help the film, and the film was made for such a reasonable number that they weren’t worried about it. So, I mean, I was very young, and I didn’t really know how these things work. At the time, I probably would have gone in and tried to talk to them and debate it with them, but they kind of shut me out of that and just said, “No, we’re going to go this way.” And I was just happy that I had my cut and wasn’t forced to edit it. So, ultimately, I think the final result is that you made the film you wanted to make.
GALLOWAY: How difficult was the film to cast?
ARONOFSKY: It wasn’t hard. It was complicated because you’re first casting a mother and a son. So, you have to figure out that balance. It was very hard to fill Ellen [Burstyn]’s role. I’ve talked about it before. She didn’t come up first when we were looking for people. There were a few actresses that passed along the way. One of the actually ended up talking to her therapist about it for a long time, and wrote me a letter about it, because she wanted to figure out why she didn’t have the courage to undertake it.
GALLOWAY: She told you that later, did she?
ARONOFSKY: Yeah. Yeah, she wrote me a letter about that. And then a lot of guys, young men, passed on the Harry Goldfarb role, which was stunning to me. But, eventually, Jared (Leto) came in and he was just so empathetic instantly. Those eyes are just amazing. And Ellen Burstyn, of course, I couldn’t have gotten anything better in the universe. She’s just the master of masters.
GALLOWAY: Later, when you did The Fountain, Brad Pitt pulled out, I don’t know, seven weeks before you shot. Why? I’m assuming you’d had conversations with him before you did the...
ARONOFSKY: Oh, we had developed it for a long time, for I think two and a half, three years, together, and I think that the lesson there was because we were shooting in Australia for rebate and the value of the Australian dollar at the time. So, for six months I was on the other side of the world, and that was the lesson, is you can’t really keep a collaboration like that going in a long-distance situation.
GALLOWAY: Why do you think he pulled out?
ARONOFSKY: You know, it always comes to lack of confidence in the project. So, you know, you could call it that, you could call it fear, you can call it, you know, just not believing in it anymore. And that’s always hard to do, and hard to live with, you know.
GALLOWAY: Did he call you directly to tell you?
ARONOFSKY: I believe so, yeah.
GALLOWAY: Did you try to persuade him to stay?
ARONOFSKY: Yeah, I came back to L.A. and he had grown this beard, which, you know, CNN was reporting every day.
GALLOWAY: [OVERLAP] shave it.[LAUGH]
ARONOFSKY: In fact, when he did shave the beard, CNN reported that, as well. But, he hadn’t shaved, so I thought, oh, maybe there’s a shot here. And, you know, it’s a very, very long story. I mean, there was also it was a very hard budget to figure out, and to make it work, and several different line producers had to come through to make it work and get us to the right number. So, there were a lot of torpedoes that our battleship, we’re taking on, that we had to keep fighting back to keep it afloat. At one point, we got shut down because of budget issues, and the crew was so loyal to the project they were actually building their own nails so that they could continue to build the set. But, ultimately that version never happened.
GALLOWAY: Are these experiences traumatic or do you manage just to not worry about them too much?
ARONOFSKY: No, they’re traumatic. [LAUGHS] I mean, now in retrospect it’s not much, but I can, you know, it’s very hard, you know, when you go through it.
GALLOWAY: I couldn’t live with that kind of stress.
ARONOFSKY: Yeah. [LAUGHS]
GALLOWAY: Can you?
ARONOFSKY: I think it’s hard because… it’s hard to remember all the feelings that were going on back then but, you know, you’re surrounded by... I work with people I love, you know, who believe in the projects. I make them because we all believe in them. It’s not just me believing in them, they, you know, they question me and then they, you know, they question me and then I see it when they click and they get excited by it, and that’s a part of it. So, you know, having that team, I think is what gives you some of the confidence to keep going forward. You know, when the film fell apart, I retreated to a veranda in New Orleans, because my partner at the time was making a film there, and I sat on the veranda drinking gin and tonics, staring out at the graveyard, and that was a really good way to heal. New Orleans is a great place to sort of recover. So, that helped and then I got a phone call from Sly.
ARONOFSKY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. He was like, “what happened?” You know, and then he was like, “do you want to come up and see me?” I was like, “yes.”
GALLOWAY: Did you know him, or...?
ARONOFSKY: No, no, no, he just reached out to me. And, you know, I guess was, you know, a big muscular shoulder to cry on. No, I’m just kidding [LAUGHS]. It didn’t happen. But I went up there. I had come back to L.A. and then I had just started to think maybe I’ll do The Wrestler, which was an early idea, and I started to talk to Sly a little bit about that. But as time went by I realized I was further away from making that script work than I was in figuring... Because I knew what everything in The Fountain cost, I was seven weeks out from making the film and $18 million had been spent. And so, I knew what it was, the movie, and I realized that I was very close to figuring out how to do a really, really cheap version of this. So, without telling anyone, my producers or anyone, I sat down for two weeks, and I just wrote this $30 million version of The Fountain, and then I gave it to my producer Eric Watson, and he said, “I feel like you wrote a love poem to death.” And I was like, “let’s go, rock and roll, baby.” [LAUGHS] So, we started to work on it and then, you know, I went back to the studio and they were like, you get one of these guys, you know, okay, we’ll do it and I got one of those guys, and then they were like, well, maybe we won’t do it and, like, and it went back and forth. It’s such a long, long journey. It could be, literally, 10 of these I could fill up.
ARONOFSKY: Your thing of how it went, and it truly is, like, a real class in how films struggle to get made. But, eventually we got the right actor and actress and then we made the movie how I wanted to with about, you know, with the full support from the studio.
GALLOWAY: You had a kind of different situation with the casting on The Wrestler, the film you just mentioned. I want to take a look at the clip from that. Maybe my favorite film of yours, with Black Swan. Even though, as you’ll see from this clip, it’s quite a difficult film to watch.
ARONOFSKY: So, we’re skipping over the clip of The Fountain, my best film! — up to Mother! [LAUGHS.]
GALLOWAY: I find if we show more than four clips...
ARONOFSKY: Oh, no, that’s all right. They always skip The Fountain.
GALLOWAY: Let’s watch The Wrestler.
GALLOWAY: When you did that, you used real-life extras and real-life people [in the deli sequence]?
ARONOFSKY: Real-life blood.
GALLOWAY: [LAUGHS] Right. He did really cut his hand.
GALLOWAY: How did you go about doing that deli sequence?
ARONOFSKY: That was a lot of fun. There are some actors there, but there’s also...we had an open deli counter, and Mickey [Rourke] was actually cutting meat for them and very unsanitary and writing prices on them. And, like, someone came over to me, and they were like, “People are buying the meat he gave them.” And he was making up random prices, so, but that was part of the fun it is, like, we went very documentary with the vibe. The idea was to take Mickey Rourke and have him play this character and stick him into as real environments as we could, even though they were staged. So, like, all of the wrestling events were, we became wrestling promoters, and we promoted these fights, and invited real fans. I don’t think we charged them. And put on events and got other wrestlers to do warmup and then we would go out and do our thing. And it was a lot of fun. It’s just a great way to make cinema is, like, to bend the line between what’s real and what’s fiction.
GALLOWAY: Nicolas Cage was going to do the role, and then didn’t. Why?
ARONOFSKY: The role was always for Mickey.
ARONOFSKY: It was always for Mickey. I don’t know what you’ve heard.
GALLOWAY: Well, a lot was written about that.
ARONOFSKY: Not that much. [LAUGHS]
GALLOWAY: I’m curious to know how you navigate a situation like that.
ARONOFSKY: Yeah, I’m sure you are. You know, it was a very — look, from the beginning the role was for Mickey. When, you know, I mentioned that we talked to Sly at the beginning, but then that just wasn’t realistic for other reasons. I think Sly went off and did Rocky Balboa, which had a similar vibe as this. So, it didn’t make sense. And then, the idea of Mickey Rourke came up, and it was super-exciting, because I am the craziest of fans from Angel Heart and Barfly, he’s just an incredibly overlooked actor that disappeared, and then we met together and we connected, and we saw, you know, I wouldn’t say eye to eye, but I knew there would be a collaboration that could happen. We spent a long time trying to raise the money with him, and everyone was like, “No one wants to watch a movie with Mickey Rourke,” and that people were actually saying it’s a negative, it doesn’t add value. So, it was really, really tricky, and it was hard, and we went off track a few times, trying to get the film made, but eventually we figured out a way to make it with Mickey.
GALLOWAY: Was he easy to work with?
ARONOFSKY: He, you know, he’s a delight because I think he is tough, and, you know, he’s like the propeller on a biplane, you know. You got to rev it up a few times before it catches, but then once the motor starts going, he hums, but getting that motor going can be an effort. I always joke that I was medicine for him. He hated the taste, but he knew it was good for him, and so I think he trusted me and gave me everything he could. The problem is it’s like, you know, I mean, his gift is he has more talent in his pinky than most people have, and yet he doesn’t work so hard, because it comes so easy for him, and that’s also part of his charm, is that it’s easy for him.
GALLOWAY: Do you like to rehearse? I know that on Mother! you rehearsed for about three months I think.
ARONOFSKY: Yeah, I mean, although that was a very, like, hard core, every day we’re going to sit here for eight hours and go through the script and get up on our feet and perform it, and Jen Lawrence and Javier Bardem were there for every moment of it. But, Natalie Portman started ballet two years before we did it.
GALLOWAY: With Black Swan?
ARONOFSKY: Yeah, 10 years before that we first started going to ballets to talk about and think about it.
GALLOWAY: We meaning you...?
ARONOFSKY: Me and Natalie, we met and went to see some ballet rehearsals, and talked to dancers, and then it disappeared for a while. But then, she was deeply involved with the choreography and stuff for way beyond three months to bring that to life. Mickey was, I don’t remember the length of time, but he had to learn how to wrestle, which is not so easy, and very dangerous, and took a long time as well, and, like I do with every actor, I go through the script line by line. And with Mickey, he, in the script, it was dude, and he’s like, dude is West Coast. I’m East Coast, it’s bro.
GALLOWAY: Oh, yeah.
ARONOFSKY: So, switch all dudes to bros. But things like that. The way he says things. He constantly wants input and my strategy was like, get all of the issues and problems that we can out of the way, because when you get to set there’s always going to be new issues and problems, and just try to get them done.
GALLOWAY: You described Wrestler and Black Swan as sort of companion pieces. And at one point I think you were conceiving of those two as one story of a wrestler who is involved with a ballerina, which is kind of interesting.
GALLOWAY: Let’s take a look at the clip from Black Swan. This is a scene from maybe your masterpiece, Black Swan. Here we go.
ARONOFSKY: My masterpiece is Mother! [LAUGHS] Give it some time, see it a second time.
GALLOWAY: I will. I’ve seen all the others at least twice.
ARONOFSKY: Yeah, and then call me.
GALLOWAY: At what point did you separate these stories of the wrestler and the ballerina?
ARONOFSKY: I think as soon as we started working on The Wrestler, there was enough story there. The problem is when we started in wrestling everyone thought wrestling was a joke and that there was no world there. But I refused to believe that because I was like, people dedicate their lives to this, and there is a whole world of it, so it has to be something interesting in that world, we just have to find it. And as soon as we start to meet some of the old legends that, when I was a teenager I looked up to or I was a fan of for a couple of years, I started to hear these stories, and that’s when I kind of saw a way in and realized it was a huge story. And that just, that meant the ballet was not going to be this film. I think when we were editing The Wrestler, Mark Heyman, who was the director of development at my company, Protozoa, wanted to start writing again, and I said, “Well, what do you want to write?” And he was like, “I’d like to work on Black Swan,” which had two previous writers but was not quite making sense or working. And so, we then started to develop it, and then eventually it became its own thing. But the reason I think it’s so connected to The Wrestler is they were overlapped in the making of them. So, one was about the low art, and one was about the high art, yet both had these performers who their bodies were their instruments, and the decay of the body was a big part of it.
GALLOWAY: Do you identify with the choreographer in Black Swan?
ARONOFSKY: Not any more than any other character. I think every character I paint, I’m connected to. I have to. It’s the only way. When an actor is performing the role¸ my job is to sit there and feel and empathize and see if it’s truthful. So, every single character in the film, I’m equally connected. The mother, the dancer of course, every character.
GALLOWAY: It wasn’t easy working with the ballet world. Why?
ARONOFSKY: I think at that point, it was a very insular world. I think social media has changed it. I just actually was talking to a dancer recently who was saying...we were talking about some dancers who had recently retired and how they were kind of the last generation of this insular, and she was pointing out how everyone’s more connected now, and there’s a larger connection to the other arts. But I think at the time we did Black Swan, ballet was very, very insular and not really interested in movies. Like, normally you go, “Hey, I want to shoot a movie”, and people are like, “Oh, cool, great”, you know, and they open up doors. No doors were opened for us. It was just a few dancers were like, oh, sounds interesting, and they would give us a little time and talk to us.
GALLOWAY: How did you do the research for it?
ARONOFSKY: You know, little cracks, little cracks allowed me in, and we just kept pushing, and eventually, you know, it was a few prima ballerinas that, you know, I got to talk to and meet, and see how they work, and then Benjamin Millepied came on as the choreographer, and he, at the time, was the principal dancer for the New York City Ballet, and so he then opened up a lot of doors for us.
GALLOWAY: What surprised you about that world? I think your sister trained. Did she train as a ballerina or study?
ARONOFSKY: She went to performing arts in New York and, you know, the Fame school and was a dancer, and so I grew up with that in the background. You know, she had all the posters of ballet slippers on her walls. But, I was into little league, so I didn’t really pay attention that much to it, and but I always was curious what the hell those people were doing up there. Because if you don’t understand it, it’s very bizarre, the movement and, you know, it’s a very strange art form that’s kind of remained truthful in a classical way to its [roots]. I don’t know when the roots were, but a long time ago.
GALLOWAY: It surprised me that the artists you show in your film, by the way, whether they’re committed to the art of wrestling or ballet, or poetry in Mother!, and not very joyful people. But you seem pretty joyful. I don’t know, is this the other side of Darren Aronofsky?
ARONOFSKY: I think it’s the characters I paint. You know, I think, look, you know, you’re making a 90-minute entertainment where you’re painting a character which is complicated, but definitely has a point of view of what you’re trying to say. So, it’ll never be as complicated as a real human, any character in any movie. That it’s always going to be shaved in a certain way to sort of fit a narrative, and so you basically push characters certain ways that become, usually, more extreme versions, so that they’re identifiable.
GALLOWAY: I want to talk about Mother!, which is your other view of artists, which actually seems like a sister piece to Black Swan in some ways. Here are three clips that Paramount sent us from Mother!
GALLOWAY: For much of that film you have the camera either right behind her or right on her, and you’ll cut between two close-ups.
ARONOFSKY: That’s not a close-up. The back of the head is over-the-shoulder. So when you say two close-ups it would be going from the side of the face to the front, and that could be very confusing.
GALLOWAY: I understand.
ARONOFSKY: That was the idea.
GALLOWAY: You wrote the script in five days.
GALLOWAY: What was the genesis of that?
ARONOFSKY: I think that that got blown out of [context], you know. The press sort of grabbed on that and it’s a bit out of context. There was an initial writing phase of five days, which was very much like this fever dream, and it just poured out of me. Then, how it was different than any other process is, with that script we were able to get the movie going. And so, the development of the script that happened after that happened while we were making the movie and, you know, I got to rehearse with the actors for three months. And we spent a lot of time trying to pull apart the script I had done, to see what was making it work, and it was kind of like waking up from a dream and seeing your memories of that dream sort of fade away into pixie dust. There was something about that energy that it had that just sort of held together, and that dream logic, I guess is what it would be, is what kind of made the film unique in its own way, and what we wanted to do. So, in some ways it changed, but in other ways, that initial oomph to get it done was the sort of marking point of the script. I think it came out of just a lot of rage and frustration with what was going in the world. All my work outside of my film work is environmental work, and it was just frustrating to see how slow we were moving to act to save ourselves and to save our home.
GALLOWAY: When you finished the script, what changed between that five-day version and the finished film?
ARONOFSKY: I think everything equally. You know, what didn’t change a lot was the fever dream, that last 25 minutes of the film
GALLOWAY: Which really is exceptional filmmaking.
ARONOFSKY: Thank you. It was definitely, technically, the most difficult thing me and my team ever did together. It required every department being lock-step together, moving a narrative that happens kind of in real time through a kind of escalating and intensifying nightmare that just takes you higher and higher in sort of its disbelief. And every department, hair, makeup, costume, production design, performance, had to work equally to pull it off.
GALLOWAY: Do you storyboard that kind of thing?
ARONOFSKY: I didn’t, because the camera was so moving it’s an impossible thing to storyboard. What we did is, the last two weeks of the three-month rehearsal we shot the entire film in one take. No costumes, no hair, no makeup, just the actors walking through a taped-off set, and then we cut it together to see how it moved together. So, I’d kind of had a sense when we got to set what the shots would be, but then when you’re dealing with real walls and real nature outside windows, everything changes, but that homework allowed us to be pretty prepared when we walked into a set.
GALLOWAY: So, you weren’t reproducing the shots that you had done, you were just using that as a guide, basically?
ARONOFSKY: Sometimes they reproduced and it worked okay, but then we would run into three-dimensional real technical issues of how is the camera going to get through that small space that quickly. It was built as a real house, so it wasn’t like a Hollywood set where you can fly out walls and do all different types of things. Because, when the house starts to decay and come apart we wanted lath, and plaster, and pipes, and wires, to be behind the walls.
GALLOWAY: Did you tell the actors going in this is going to be three months of rehearsals?
GALLOWAY: And they were prepared to accept that?
ARONOFSKY: Javier [Bardem] says that’s the reason he took the job. And I think actors actually love to act. So I think it was a lot of fun for everyone involved.
GALLOWAY: How do you work with actors like that? And these are incredible actors. How do you avoid being dictatorial? How much did they teach you? What’s the process of those three months?
ARONOFSKY: It’s a lot of trust, that’s the most important thing you can get between you and an actor is trust that you’re going to protect them when they take chances. Because that’s where the good stuff happens, when they really push the edge of emotion and go for it. But, I think lots of actors have been burned, especially actors that have been around a while, and so they start to close up like a flower, and you have to coax them back into the sunlight.
GALLOWAY: How do you do that?
ARONOFSKY: Well, it’s nice that I have a body of work that they can look at, and they can talk to the actors I’ve worked with. But still, you run into fear, and then it’s just a matter of, you know, doing anything that works. You just have to figure, it depends, every actor is their own, you know, creature, with their own needs, and drives, and how they think, and psychology. So, a lot of it is just trying to figure out how to just get them to relax and do the best work they can.
GALLOWAY: One more question from me, then we’re going to turn to the audience.
You’ve said you spent 53 weeks on post-production. Why?
ARONOFSKY: Well, we came back to the edit room without any coverage. There’s no wide shots in the film, and that’s a filmmaking secret is you can always cut out to a wide shot when you run into problems. We had to make every moment work in this film, because the only coverage we had was these close-ups on Jen. 66 minutes of the film is Jen’s face.
ARONOFSKY: And how to keep that interesting and not boring, it’s because of Jen’s incredible talent but also where the cameraman was, had to be in the right place and the sound had to be working, and the other actors had to be doing the right thing. So, it was a constant kind of detail-shaping in the edit room. So, there’s more visual effects in this film than there are in Noah. t’s 1,200 visual effects, but you don’t see any of it.
ARONOFSKY: And they’re all about, we re-collaged images. We were working on 16-millimeter, which is the size of a postage stamp of information, but we would go in and take sometimes three different takes and blend them, to create the right shot, because, you know, the actor’s great in this, but the camera’s not there, so, the camera’s there. And the actors were generally always good. It was usually technically on our end. It was a very difficult thing to have the camera moving around that fast and being in the right place at the right time at all times.
GALLOWAY: And then you just stitched shots together?
ARONOFSKY: We actually blend them, so it’s like within a shot that you’re actually looking at, there could be three different exposures going on.
GALLOWAY: Good. Let’s do some questions. It’s daunting just to think about it. Don’t forget to say who you are and what you are studying.
QUESTION: I’m a screenwriting major, and my question was, because for some recent press you were doing for Mother! you were talking about how the people’s reactions to the movies or any of your movies, you wanted it to be some sort of really passionate one, like, positive or negative. And I was wondering, from all the films you’ve done, has there ever been a specific criticism or complaint that you’ve thought, I don’t know about that or, like, something that you’ve thought you need more context for that, something?
ARONOFSKY: I don’t fully get the question.
QUESTION: Sorry, has there ever been a specific criticism that you didn’t think was fair.
GALLOWAY: Lots. [LAUGHTER]
ARONOFSKY: All the time. I mean, my favorite on Mother! is Rex Reed called it the worst movie of the century.
GALLOWAY: [LAUGH] Oh, wow.
ARONOFSKY: For me, [that] is a victory. I mean, finally I got to the top of the list. You know, he hated Black Swan [which] was an ugly duckling for him. I remember somebody telling me that. I don’t really read reviews. I try to avoid them. It’s very hard to avoid everything in this world. You hear the conversation because of all the different types of ways we get media in this world. But, I’m not that concerned about that stuff. The job of the filmmaker is to make the film, and put it out into the world the best way that is possible with the resources you have, and then whatever happens, happens. I don’t think you can ever predict, you know, for a long time, The Fountain was really, really hated and made fun of and stuff, and I think the fans of that one have been the biggest fans of any film that I have had. The passion that people feel for that film has been deeper than any feedback I ever get from just people I meet. So, you don’t know how things are going to work, and it definitely, you know, the story of films takes a long time, especially if the filmmaker has worked hard on them.
QUESTION: Hi, I’m a production major, and I’m wondering what’s maybe one of the worst pieces of filmmaking advice that you’ve received, and how has that helped you evolve into a dynamic storyteller?
ARONOFSKY: I mean, look, you’re always facing no’s, every single day when you’re trying to make a movie, there are endless people that say no to you. You know, after we made Pi, everyone was like, “what do you want to do next?” And I was like, Requiem For A Dream, and no one even returned our phone calls. And after Requiem they were like, you want to do Batman and I was like, “no, I want to do The Fountain,” and it took me five, six years to get it made. You know, The Wrestler, I talked a little bit about, working with Mickey, that it was very hard to find the money for that. And when we did Black Swan, people were like, "Horror fans don’t like ballet. Ballet fans don’t like horror." So, you are constantly dealing with no’s, and my producer, Eric Watson, used to say, when everyone’s telling you know, you know you’re doing something right, and I think that’s a good motto to live by. So, so I don’t know if that kind of is the opposite of your question, [LAUGHS] but that’s my answer.
QUESTION: I’m from China. I’m a graduate student of film production. Among all those tremendous works you do, I love Wrestler most, and I think it inspires me a lot as a director. I want to know that because you shoot this film in a realistic tone, in a documentary style, I want to know what’s you in this film. Which part of this film tells us more about you as a person? Thank you.
ARONOFSKY: I don’t know, for me I’m telling stories, but once again, I relate to every character, I relate to Marisa Tomei’s character, to Mickey Rourke, to Evan Rachel Wood’s character. So, I think there’s always parts of me in all those situations.
GALLOWAY: You did say in one interview that, “all my work is autobiographical,” which I thought was pretty interesting.
ARONOFSKY: I did say that? [LAUGHS]
GALLOWAY: Yes. By the way, it’s awful that you say something, and the next day you may change your mind, but it’s there forever.
ARONOFSKY: No, no, I get that, but I don’t think it’s wrong, I think that the reason I make these films is because they come from a burning place inside that gives me the passion to face all the no’s and rejection that you’re going to get. No matter what you do, you are always going to see that rejection and so they are very personal, and so I never jumped off the top rope, but I get into that mindset and that head and I think about if I was in that situation what would I do, and I try to bring truth to it. You know, the whole style of The Wrestler, I call more of, like, a faux cinema vérité, because we, you know, in cinema vérité you don’t know where the subject is going to go, but in this we kind of knew where Mickey was going to go, unless he decided to do something else. So, we were more dancing with him, and that was the style we kind of created and built for it.
GALLOWAY: Good. One more question?
QUESTION: I’m a freshman here majoring in production. I come all the way from France. So, in half an hour I have Art of Cinema, and I have to hand in my midterm essay, and my midterm essay is about Black Swan costume and makeup. [LAUGHTER] I still have half an hour to throw in some stuff. So, can you please tell me how you used costume and makeup to help convey the story in Black Swan.
GALLOWAY: That is fantastic.
ARONOFSKY: I’ll just walk over to your class with you in 30 minutes and we’ll sell the room.
QUESTION: You can.
ARONOFSKY: Let’s see. So, costume, there were so many ideas, you know. There was a restricted palette, all the colors meant something. Of course, black and white meant...I think they were obvious. And then pink was the other major color which was, like, the color of her youth and her being a child, it just made sense, her whole room is pink. As opposed to the mom’s room, which is green, which is an opposite side of pink, but I think it was more about, I think at the argument, oh yeah, it was supposed to be, I think in the Swan Lake myth there was a whole thing about a forest and the pond, and so that was like the forest, which is kind of the dark place. So, you just try to connect ideas to a limited palette, and it happens throughout. I know you’re still getting an ‘F’ on your paper right now.
QUESTION: [LAUGHS] Probably.
ARONOFSKY: But, makeup, let’s see. I mean, there was...
GALLOWAY: Those swan costumes in the very first scene are pretty staggering. How did you create that?
ARONOFSKY: The dance number. What happens in it, she starts off as a maiden, and then this dancer comes and slowly turns into a beast, and then she turns into the swan, which is kind of how a lot of the classical ballets start. And so, we just tried to take all those different challenges, limit the palette as much as we could to sort of, I think, within the restrictions and boundaries is where you find the film, and that comes out of independent filmmaking. I’ve always had limited resources, and you try to figure out how to make them your strength. So, now we’re not really worried as much about budget as we are about how to stylize things. So, everything is just very, very carefully picked, and every costume is picked. It’s hard to give you an overall movement of the costumes and makeup, but definitely there’s a movement from her pink and white towards black at the end of the film because she’s transitioning to the black swan.
GALLOWAY: What’s next?
ARONOFSKY: I don’t know. I got to wait for, you know, you sort of have to recharge the batteries and just feel the planet again and take some time before that fire gets lit again. And I don't know what will do it. I mean, after Noah, I worked on another script for a couple of years before Mother! emerged out of somewhere, and then that was the fire that was burning the brightest. So right now, there's nothing burning, so I just have to wait until it happens.