How Darren Aronofsky Recruited Astronauts for Environmental Doc Series 'One Strange Rock'

Courtesy of National Geographic/Matt Frost
In November 2017, Aronofsky directed Smith (left) on a 'One Strange Rock' set in Surrey, England.

The producer hopes that viewers are spurred to action with the NatGeo series: "It's easy to forget that this planet, our home, has been handed down to us."

After nearly three decades of making films on a spectrum of subjects — ballet, wrestling, drugs — in the past few years, Darren Aronofsky has settled on a common theme: the environment. In 2017, the helmer released the divisive environmental allegory mother! and enlisted Patti Smith and Jessica Chastain to narrate a VR experience about the cosmos, Spheres. His latest effort to get viewers to preserve the planet, One Strange Rock, is a National Geographic Channel informational series about the complex, interlocking systems that keep Earth running.

Aronofsky and production company Protozoa Pictures worked with British documentary producers Nutopia to film for 100 weeks in 45 countries and combine an array of branches of science into one narrative. As executive producer, Aronofsky helped brainstorm using astronauts and their insights about the planet to structure the broad-reaching narrative. (Will Smith serves as narrator of the series.)

Aronofsky, 49, spoke to THR about the complexities of production, his environmental work and the state of U.S. climate policy.

As an executive producer, what did you specifically bring to the project?

First, I’m a storyteller, so I was trying to figure out how to combine all these different sciences into a story that had an emotional impact. At a certain point, we came up with the idea to use astronauts as our narrators to lead us through the history of the planet. That also allowed us to explore their personal stories. One thing that really stuck out to me was that all of these astronauts had a similar experience, that if they went into space for eight days or they went into space for 665 days, they all went through the spiritual transformation — it’s called the cosmic consciousness or the overview effect, and it’s basically this way of looking at the planet as one huge system. That gave us the narrative and underlying themes of the show: that all of these different systems on the planet work together to allow life to happen.

What differentiates One Strange Rock from other docuseries about the wonders of Earth?

Instead of focusing on just animals like Planet Earth, we actually work with all the different sciences. It was about taking astronomy, anthropology, sociology, chemistry, physics and biology and blending them into one single story because that’s how all of these different astronauts perceive the planet when they think about it. And so we really wanted to do a global presentation about Mother Earth and how Mother Earth works.

Were there any specific challenges that came up because you were doing something so epic?

We shot in the coldest place on the planet and the hottest place on the planet; we also shot in a space station. It was about shooting that type of stuff in new and unique ways. The space station is a good example: When I talked to the astronaut that did the work, Paolo [Nespoli], I wanted it to not look like all the other footage that had been shot, so I gave him specific lighting ideas — I said, “Can we turn off all the lights in the space station so that the inside is just lit by the sun and the reflection of the sun off of the Earth?” It gave it a very dramatic look.

Why did you choose Will Smith to narrate?

The science of the film is very accurate and sometimes it gets very heavy. So we wanted to try to have an ambassador who could broaden the audience so that it wasn’t just science fans. Will can very much lean into being the everyman — he communicates with the world really well and has the biggest social media presence now as far as celebrities go. So he has that great ability to make things that are hard to relate to really connectable.

You’ve said that One Strange Rock aims to help viewers understand why they need to be “stewards” of the planet. How so?

It’s a little bit like a beautiful watch that gets handed down from your ancestors: There’s just so much respect for this beautiful pocket watch that you’re given and there’s respect for all of the knobs and wheels inside of it. It’s easy to forget that this planet, our home, has been handed down to us. Unless you open up the back and look at all those knobs and wheels and gears that make it work, sometimes it’s hard to [remember] how intricate and how beautiful all those different parts [are] that work together to tell time. So that was the strategy with this: “Hey, let’s look at all the beautiful parts and all the different systems that work together to allow for life on Earth to exist.”

How would you hope viewers feel after watching this series?

What’s interesting about when you watch the show is that there’s a lot of science, but as the show builds each hour, it suddenly turns kind of emotional. And it’s a weird emotional reaction — some of it’s an emotional reaction to the story of the astronaut in the episode, and also it’s about how different science works together to make it possible for these beautiful lives we have to exist on this planet. That’s the unique thing about the show: Through ideas and knowledge, it gives you this emotional appreciation of your surroundings. Celebrating the Earth and celebrating how amazing all these systems are means you’ll take things less for granted and maybe have more respect for our shared home.

One Strange Rock is part of a larger body of recent environmentally focused work for you including mother! and Spheres. What inspired these efforts?

My father was a science teacher, so I was always interested in science, and that led me to an interest in the environment. Also, growing up in New York City, in the concrete jungle, I wanted to get out of New York City and witness nature. When I was in high school, I started to work with this school called The School for Field Studies, which basically trains young people to become the next generation of environmentalists. I traveled with them to environmentally sensitive areas. I went to Prince William Sound [in Alaska] two years before the Exxon Valdez spill. I was lucky to witness that place when it was completely pristine. But then to watch on TV as it was devastated woke me up about how important it was to protect these incredible places.

The head of the EPA is actively throwing doubt on climate change, and the U.S. has backed out of an international climate accord. What can filmmaking accomplish in this political climate?

Everyone should be working on this issue. It’s crazy that science is being cherry-picked for political reasons. Science is science; it’s not political. To turn your back on the accepted science that humans are affecting climate and that this is having incredibly devastating effects is just political and isn’t truthful to what’s happening. The result is that we’re heading in the wrong direction, and it’s an extremely scary situation. We’re starting to see the effects, the results of us burning fossil fuels on this planet, and yet it’s being completely ignored for greed and political reasons. It’s a scary time, and whatever form we can work in, we need to work in and push forward the truth. 

This story first appeared in a May stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.