Mumbai: Darren Aronofsky on 'One Strange Rock' Season 2, Losing Himself in India

Darren Aronofsky - Getty - H 2017
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The 'Black Swan' director gave a master class as part of the 20th Mumbai Film Festival and talked about the difficulty of capturing people's attention in the age of Netflix.

Darren Aronofsky needed little convincing to jump on a plane to personally attend the Mumbai Film Festival's 20th anniversary edition this year, where he is receiving the event's Excellence in International Cinema Award.

The 49-year-old director of Pi, The Wrestler, Black Swan and mother!, counts India as one of his favorite places, having visited the country over a half-dozen times. "I like to come and just sort of get lost here," he said Thursday before a packed house in Mumbai's historic Liberty Cinema, where he participated in a Q&A masterclass. "When you're directing, you're a complete control freak and you have to worry about every single detail of what's going on — but when you come to India, you can't control anything," he added, drawing approving cheers from the local crowd. 

The director said he often arrives in India with no more than a backpack and just wanders a city, enjoying the anonymity of the country's crowded streets. "Every corner that you go around is surprising," he said. "I try to get back here whenever I can."

Aronofsky first developed a connection with Indian cinema while in film school, thanks to an Indian classmate who gave him a stack of VHS tapes of classics and guided him through the country's rich cinematic history. That classmate, Froukh Mistry, now a veteran Bollywood director of photography, was in attendance Thursday and shared a warm greeting with the director from the crowd. 

Before Aronofsky took the stage at the Liberty, The Hollywood Reporter sat down with him at the city's iconic Taj Hotel for a brief chat about his recent activities, which include everything from political advocacy for the midterm elections to developing a story arc and visual language for the second season of his epic documentary series One Strange Rock, narrated by Will Smith. 

You recently directed a PSA to encourage young Americans newly of voting age to get out and participate in this election cycle. Political advocacy by celebrities and filmmakers is sometimes viewed skeptically. What inspired you, or convinced you, that this was something you wanted to do?

I feel it's a really critical moment, not just for America but for the planet. Personally, my whole message is that we should be electing people who believe in science. Science has brought us the iPhone and Twitter, and it has also brought us the knowledge that climate change is being caused by human activity. One was created by science and the other was proved to exist by science. If you believe in Twitter, you gotta believe in climate change — you don't get to believe just one. That's how I see it, and the world is at stake.

But I think it's very inspiring that there's a lot of really powerful young voices out there. What struck me was that a lot of these kids were not able to vote in 2016. I can remember that moment in my life — that first moment when I got to vote. It's like that moment when you first got to buy a beer in the bar, and when you go your driver's license. Getting to vote is really one of those milestones and I remember it like it was yesterday — walking into that booth by myself, not with my mom or dad, and making my own choice and doing my civic duty as an adult citizen. The fact that's there's some weird stigma or apathy hanging over it for some kids is hard for me to understand. So I decided to go look at these really passionate kids who are on the ground really trying to do something. I just tried to unite them and help them get their voice out there even further, however I could. 

You're something of a film festival regular. I think I've seen you participate or appear at Venice, Berlin, Busan and now here in Mumbai.

I love film festivals.

So the role of the streaming platforms, most notably Netflix, has become a perennial topic of debate at films festivals in recent years. Netflix is obviously giving filmmakers amazing opportunities to create work that they might not otherwise get, but at the same time, there's concern that it is disrupting the theatrical filmgoing model. For example, with Netflix's support, Mumbai is showing Alfonso Cuaron's Roma here this week. Watching it in one of the amazing cinemas they have here in Mumbai, with full Atmos sound, it's hard not to feel that it's a little tragic that most people around the world will never get to see that beautifully shot film on a big screen. As a filmmaker and film lover, how do you view those dilemmas? Would you ever make a big feature for Netflix if you knew it would only exist online on their platform?

There's something amazing about the communal experience of going to the cinema. There's also something amazing about — not just the convenience of being able to watch a film when you want to watch it — but also the number of people who can view a movie now around the planet because of these streaming services.

I hope I can continue to make films for the cinema, where people can have the greatest possible experience of the movie. But there's several reasons for that — it's not just because it offers the best projection and the best sound. It's also a place where there's the least amount of distraction. I think as filmmakers that's a huge challenge we are dealing with — the second and third screen. Most people are not just on an iPhone when they're watching a movie at home, they also have a tablet or a laptop nearby, and there's regular use of the pause button. And that damages the experience of the film — there's no doubt about it.

So that's the big question that I'm most interested in. How do we capture people's attention. One of the great gifts of cinema is empathy — the fact that you can watch another character go through a journey and an experience without really thinking of yourself, and you can project yourself into that character's shoes, regardless of differences in gender, age, wealth or poverty. It's an exercise in empathy. But that's kind of robbed from us if we're also wondering if there have been any more comments on my Instagram feed.

That's the reason to defend the cinema. People generally keep their phones put away in the movie theater, not just because they're warned but because they spent a decent amount of money on their ticket and really want to be there in the experience of the film. That's the reason I want to be there.

We also do spend so much time and energy on our sound mixes. A big part of my filmmaking has always been how sound is used in the theater. Back when we did Pi it was a stereo mix, and we're now talking about updating it for the 25th anniversary. The amount of work that's going to be involved to figure out how to do that is daunting — it's going to be a lot, but it's exciting.

So I understand the Nat Geo series you executive produce, One Strange Rock, is going to begin shooting again in February. Is Will Smith coming back as the show's narrator and can you tell us a little about what's in store for the second season?

Yes, we're hoping to do it again with Will. It's going to be similar in scope to the first — a huge portrait of the planet. Like the National Geographic magazine, which we are very big fans of, we want to make each episode feel that big, where you get to experience very specific stories from all over the entire planet. But the one thing that we try to do that's a little different from the magazine is connect all of those beautiful areas we visit into one story, and then hopefully that story connects with all of the other episodes to tell an even larger story. So that's always been the narrative challenge. We're working on all of that preshoot creative stuff now, figuring out the underlying big story we want to tell.

I've heard that you developed a visual rule book, or style guide of sorts, to keep the series' visual style consistent and cinematic. How did you put your visual imprint on the show and what you are going for?

Yeah, normally when I shoot a movie I'm there for every single shoot, overlooking everything to make sure each shot fits within the film grammar of the entire movie. There's no way to do something like that when you're talking about 160 different locations, with six different crews on six different continents shooting over three years. We have all these different craftspeople and artists collaborating, so very early on we said, 'Let's try to limit the different types of tools that these different people are working with so that there's a visual connection between all of these stories.' So I just started to come up with a visual language that could unify these different stories and relate back to the view from space. So there will once again be a very big scope with season two, but hopefully we will come up with a new visual language for this one.