Darren Aronofsky is a maverick creator
He cracks witty one-liners and gives snarky replies with a deadpan expression. He’s funny and had the entire audience at the iconic Liberty Cinemas in Mumbai glued to his words for more than an hour. Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, famous for movies like Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan and the Jennifer Lawrence-starrer Mother!, sat down with Anupama Chopra, the director of the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, for a masterclass. He sipped on a mug of hot tea and claimed it had his favourite “ayurvedic medicine” in it. Excerpts from the chat.
Anupama Chopra: You said that everything about you as a filmmaker can be understood by going on the cyclone roller coaster in Coney Island, New York. Can you explain that?
Darren Aronofsky: That’s something I said 20 years ago, so probably not. But that’s one warning — what you’re saying lives with you for the rest of your life. I grew up in Coney Island, which is a very famous neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York. There was an old amusement park that had a famous roller coaster called the Cyclone built in 1929, which is very old for America. It is also very scary; eight people have died on it in its history. But it’s still working. It’s just beautiful, incredibly well-designed… big, scary in the beginning, but keeps going and keeps surprising and makes it more and more scary. I actually don’t fully remember why I used that metaphor but I was probably trying to relay to the audience that it’s very important to keep the audience at the edge of their seat and never knowing what’s going to happen next.
Anupama: Give us a sense of where some of these images come from — the climax of Requiem for a Dream, a wrestler turning a staple gun on another’s body, the sound that a baby’s neck makes when it breaks and then people eating it. If we were to open up your head, what would we find?
Darren: You know, nothing very different than what we’d find if we open up your skull. Sorry, just getting a little defensive (laughs). You know, it’s funny… I don’t know why I go into such intense ideas and themes. I think probably it has to do with always thinking about things that are surprising, things that are exciting, things that have never been done before. I think especially in today’s world, where it’s very hard to keep people’s attention, if you’re watching a movie at home on a TV screen, it’s often that people are looking at their phones or their tablets.
So, it’s about creating ideas, images, emotions that are exciting and very different for people. Some of the images you described were way before smartphones existed. And I think these ideas just came out of these stories that I was trying to tell.
Why I’m attracted to certain extreme stories, that’s something you can ask my psychologist; I can’t really answer it. But you know, in Requiem for a Dream, there’s this famous shot of the guy sticking the needle in an open wound and I knew that most people in the audience won’t appreciate that. But the entire movie is actually summed up in that single shot. That shot shows you how far people go to feed their addictions. And that’s what the entire movie is. It was one of the steps I wanted to take the audience on, to make them believe that eventually his arm would get cut off for his drugs. And that all of these other characters would do these terrible things because that’s the point of it.
The staples you talk about in The Wrestler, that’s also exactly what it’s all about — how far people would push their bodies for their art. When I was researching The Wrestler, I saw actual performers who were actually doing that to entertain the audiences. And I realised that we would have to include that because it’s just… I don’t know, the extreme parts of what people do, people are still doing them. It’s what makes us human. It’s figuring out why they do it and I guess, the great gift of cinema is empathy, right? You can watch a film made here in Mumbai or watch a film made in South Africa or watch a film made in New York… and if the character is real, it doesn’t matter what their gender, their orientation, their skin colour or their age is. You can relate with them, that’s the beauty of cinema.
Actually, watching movies is practising your empathy because you’re watching a five-year-old girl in Tehran worry about a goldfish in The White Balloon… you are that five-year-old girl, you’re all of her worries and all of her concerns.
And so, presenting nearly extreme images on screen can actually make the audience feel what their character is doing — the desperateness, the need, the pleasure, whatever it is that they need that’s expanding your own humanity. So I think it’s all kind of related to that. Breaking the baby’s neck and then eating it, that was just symbolism, that had nothing to do with empathy. That was just to f*** with the audience. Not really, but it was a good joke.
Anupama: So many of your movies have had characters who are obsessed with things — whether it is wrestling or ballet or drugs or Pi being just obsessed with finding order in the chaos. Why these obsessed people? Why do you keep going back to that? Is it in any way a reflection of you?
Darren: Uh… this is going to be a hard Q&A . It’s a compliment to you. I really like the easy ones like, “How was it working with Ellen Burstyn?”
Obsession… I don’t know. I don’t think I’m the most obsessive person in the world. I have a very balanced life. I do get obsessive when I work but I chose a job where I have to work every two years… most of the time doing research, thinking about what’s next and living a very normal life. I get to travel, I get to raise my son and then when I get on set it’s tremendously… it’s obsession but way more slowed down because you have time, you can take your time. But when I am on set and I am obsessed, I understand that character and I understand that intensity and I’m attracted to sort of exploring what that mindset is. Even in Mother!, the characters are very symbolic, they sort of got very human.
People ask me those questions but you know, Captain America is obsessed with doing good. The Hulk is obsessed with smashing things, you know? Characteristics are very consistent usually and they’re all obsessed with what they do. When you start to look in a real way, that’s when you really start to think about what it really means.
Someone asked me today about violence and why my films are so violent and I actually hate violence. I think I actually treat violence honestly. I never try to glorify violence or never try to trivialise violence.
Anupama: The violence in your films, I feel that you’re almost testing to see how much the human body can endure. The characters in your films go through so much physically… in Mother!, she (Jennifer Lawrence’s character) has her heart literally pulled out. It’s almost like a forensic eye for how much the human body can take. Is that right?
Darren: I don’t know. It’s definitely something I was very focused on in The Wrestler and Black Swan. These were two different artistes (played by Mickey Rourke and Natalie Portman) using their bodies as their art. And sort of what happens when your instrument of art starts to get away from you.
In the case of the wrestler, he was getting too old and in the case of the ballerina, more of her mind was starting to get away from her as well. I think real people is where our limitations and tests are. We all deal with illness, ageing, not being able to run as fast as we can… a boxer’s hands are all swollen up and they’re dealing with that reality and pain. That’s the honesty and that’s what the costs of living are.
Anupama: So, 66 minutes of Mother! is Jennifer Lawrence close-up. Ellen Burstyn said that for Requiem, you strapped a steady-cam to her body so that the camera could be that close to her face. Why is the close-up such a favourite of yours?
Darren: The close-up is the one of the most overlooked inventions of the 20th century. It’s probably one of the most important inventions. I think when filmmakers in the early 20th century put the camera right next to an actor’s face, everything changed for cinema because if you’re talking to someone — I’m going to make this really awkward right now — you better make eye contact. Oh, you’re doing a very good job!
Most of the time you’re thinking about something else but actually tuning into someone, it’s a very hard thing to do. What the close-up allows is the camera is really close to you and you in your dark room is not at all self-conscious about yourself.
Normally when you’re having a conversation and you’re talking to someone, your brain is thinking about a lot of things depending on who that person is to you. But when there’s a big movie star who’s often an incredibly attractive person, you’re not thinking about anything except for what they’re thinking. Once again, it’s this portal of empathy… it’s making you imagine what it’s like to be that person with these problems that are going on. That’s the magic of cinema… this close-up.
My favourite are actors with great eyes. I think that the eyes are the most important thing on an actor… and eyes that you can really see into and through those eyes they can express so much. Russell Crowe with the tiniest muscle in his lower eyelid can twitch it and every single person in the world understands the same emotion. That’s where great talent comes from… certain actors have that ability where with so little you can feel so many different things.
Anupama: Have you ever had an actor say that you’re too close? Move it away?
Darren: They don’t think like that… they want you to be inside them if you could. They’re actors. They are usually worried about a line or a pimple or lights.
Anupama: When you’re creating, do you ever think about how far can I push this before the audience says stop? Do you ever wonder will they turn away?
Darren: The audience? I mean there are things that I have shot that will never see the light of day. You don’t want to know. You want to take the audience on a trip and you want to constantly jolt them and keep them interested. But you don’t want to do something so extreme that they are not wanting to be there with you anymore. Once again, you’re thinking what the audience is thinking, what are they connecting to and what can we show them that will surprise them, maybe scare them… but never go so far that I’m going to lose them. So yeah, it’s always about how far to push it.
There’s definitely somewhere you have to hold back and say, “No maybe that’s too much”. For instance, the scene in Black Swan, when Natalie pulls a feather out of her back and her knee cracks back the wrong way and the other knee cracks back the other way, she falls over… the studio said, “that’s too f***ing far.” But I said, “No, it’s hilarious.”
And we fought about it and eventually I won. And then in one of the premieres, during that scene, there were some screams of horror but there were also people who laughed and I was like, “See? It’s hilarious.” And then I got the best compliment. Someone was working on a Ridley Scott movie and they told me that Ridley Scott pulled everyone into his office to show them that scene. As a good thing and not as a bad thing, so that was nice.
Anupama: Talk us through your writing process. You’ve written five of the seven films that you’ve made apart from Black Swan and The Wrestler. I read that you have this desk with 25 puzzling drawers… what is this thing? Where do you write?
Darren: It’s not such a good story. It’s just that I met a young artist who was making really cool stuff. I convinced him to work with me in this project. My writing happens in different places. There are different moments for different places. Sometimes I go to a really shitty motel just so that I hate my environment and that helps me to focus on my writing. Sometimes writing comes easy, sometimes it comes harder; you just have to figure out the best environment to do the work.
Anupama: So on that custom-built desk… nothing happens there?
Darren: It’s a puzzle desk. So sometimes I can’t solve the puzzle and can’t get a pen out and that’s kind of a pain in the ass.
Anupama: So your actors tend to win Oscar nominations… Ellen Burstyn was nominated for Requiem, Natalie Portman won for Black Swan. Can you take us through the process of how you work with actors? Did you attend acting school for a bit?
Darren: Yeah, I took acting classes because I knew it was a weak part on my side when I started directing… I had no idea what actors were doing. So I took an acting class and promised myself that the day that I cry in front of the audience or the class without being self-conscious, I’d quit. And that day came and I quit the next day. I think it was just about understanding what it takes to be something like that… so emotionally open, not to strangers, but to people you just know from acting class.
Anupama: How many classes did it take for you to reach that point?
Darren: I think about three months of work. Before that, I had done a lot of classes on how to direct an actor. It was generally taught by directors who had never directed an actor. But really it was about communication of trust. It helps that I have a decent track record with actors so that other actors can say, “Oh, I can trust him.” But as far as all filmmakers out there are concerned, it’s very much about spending time with an actor, trying to figure out what they’re going to need to feel safe. Because you’re trying to create an environment where they take risks and want to take a risk.
A lot of actors will take chances and then get taken advantage of and then instead of being an open flower, they end up closing. Your job as a director is to make them open up as much as possible — to show all that’s beauty, to show all of humanity and not hold anything back. So you just have to figure out how to do that. The best way is to generally by being honest and trustworthy.
Sometimes, little tricks can help. But you only want to trick an actor if they want to be tricked that’ll help them. For instance, sometimes you are trying to get an actor scared and if you have enough trust, they know that at some point you are going to blow an air horn next to them and just help them get scared. But you don’t want to do that to a stranger, you want to do that to someone who knows that you’re working on the same project and trying to get to the same result.
Anupama: What’s the most joyous part of filmmaking for you?
Darren: Every part of the process has good things and bad things. No matter how hard writing is, the discovery that emerges every once in a while when an idea comes together can be really exciting.
On set, when you’re preparing a shot for a long time and you call action, all these incredible artistes are working together or dancing together to create this one moment, and everything’s clicking... when suddenly a scene is coming together in a way that’s unexpected or just makes you laugh on how well it’s happening, the whole process has a lot of great kicks to it. There’s also a lot of pain, struggle and fear if things are going to work out or not... but you have to have those dark moments for the light moments to emerge.
Anupama: Speaking of sound, so much of the experience of your cinema is the soundtrack. It’s so distinctive and so much of a part of the haunting experience that your cinema gives us... but when you cut, you cut to no music, not even temp music. Why?
Darren: I think it’s cheating. Music is something that’s going to make something better. It sometimes fixes things but it’s never going to be as hard to look at something without music. Because it’s just honest. You’re looking at sound and dialogue and that’s all you have to work with.
And it’s interesting because Mother! actually has no score. It’s the first movie I’ve done without score. It’s a two-hour-long film without any music. I was terrified of doing that at first but what I realised is that music is such a powerful tool for a filmmaker. It’s really telling the audience how they’re supposed to be feeling. And the whole exercise of Mother! is I did not want the audience to ever know how Jennifer Lawrence’s character was feeling. So the second we put music in the movie, it fell apart, it fell flat. Suddenly it was much more comfortable. And I wanted the audience to be uncomfortable with the character in the film the whole time.
Anupama: Have you changed a lot as a director?
Darren: I mean, you’re constantly changing. I think you always have to be open and present to who you are and what interests you. If you’re trying to make something like you’ve made before, that’s the only mistake you can make. You’ve to constantly look forward to the next thing that interests you.
Anupama: So, what does interest you now?
Darren: Absolutely nothing! I don’t know. A lot of things interest me, but how I’m going to think about it and write about it, I’m not sure yet.
Anupama: From the beginning, your films have been polarising. Pi was universally acclaimed and people said it is the arrival of a major talent...
Darren: No, that’s not true. The New York Times called it an inky and a jarring score.
Anupama: But Martin Scorsese wrote this very eloquent piece in The Hollywood Reporter defending Mother! and saying something like only a true, passionate filmmaker could’ve made this picture which I’m still experiencing weeks after I saw it. So how do you process these completely different responses?
Darren: I think, well... it’s not a conscious decision. I wish I could make fully beloved experiences that fill me emotionally but it’s not something I’ve been attracted to. I think when I was younger, I was always interested in alternative culture and alternative art and it’s just how my taste has always been.
Look, I appreciate big mainstream Hollywood movies but to wake up every single day and fight for something you believe in, you really better believe in it. And so, I usually choose things that inspire me because there’s something that’s greater than I am, it’s greater than my friends or my community, it’s something that I want to spend years making. Like after Pi, people asked me what I wanted to make and I showed them Requiem for a Dream, the novel. And people didn’t even respond with a phone call to say no. They were like, “No way.”
It took me six years to make The Fountain and then it didn’t do well. Suddenly I didn’t have a career. Then I wanted to make The Wrestler with Mickey Rourke and no one wanted to make that. I went to every single person in the world who was giving money for movies and everyone said no.
But eventually we figured out how to get it done. And after The Wrestler had its success, we went to every single person in the world with Black Swan which had Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassel... you know, a pretty big cast, and every single person said no. They said horror fans don’t like ballet and ballet fans don’t like horror. So we had a bet to make that film. So, every single project has been that way. I think we are just making what we are interested in. We just keep pushing and trying to figure out a way to get it made. And I think what has kept me going is all of those ‘no’s.
Anupama: What’s the most important quality or a trait for a director to have?
Darren: I think the biggest thing is persistence. Not just the persistence in getting a film started or make, but the persistence of your vision when you’re on a set and there’s always many reasons for you to change your vision or compromise your vision.
It’s about looking across the street where you want to get to and it has all the bikes and cars and cows crossing along the way and you still got to cross the street to end up in the general same area. That’s kind of the trick of filmmaking. It’s not a solo vision — you have that vision and then you’re crossing that street with a lot of collaborators and it’s about those collaborators to kind of shape your vision and by the time you cross the street, there’s probably something new that belongs to everyone. I think persistence is a big, big part. Once you’re a director on set and you’re not clear on what you want, then things start to fray.