It’s been twelve years since Darren Aronofsky’s feature debut, Pi, established the filmmaker as a cinematic innovator, and though his output following that film has been fairly sparse, his fourth movie The Wrestler earned a lot of attention for the remarkable comeback for its star Mickey Rourke. That was two years ago and Aronofsky’s fifth movie, the psychological thriller Black Swan, seems to be getting similar amounts of attention for its star, Natalie Portman.
Portman plays Nina Sayers, a ballet dancer at the prestigious Lincoln Center, whose casting as the lead in a new version of “Black Swan” puts so much pressure on her that she begins to go through a startling transformation. Adding to her stress are an overbearing mother, played by Barbara Hershey, the company’s lecherous director (Vincent Cassel) and the company’s new dancer (Mila Kunis), who Nina is convinced is trying to steal her role. As much as the environment of this story is almost polarly-opposite that of professional wrestling in The Wrestler, the movie gives Aronofsky and his team a chance to put on their own distinctive version of the ballet “Swan Lake,” while exploring classic horror tropes that will leave the audience wondering how much is real and how much is in Nina’s mind.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with Aronofsky a few weeks back to talk about his second movie in a row to be getting almost unanimous critical acclaim.
ComingSoon.net: As far as I’m concerned, you’re 5 for 5.
Darren Aronofsky: Thank you, sir. I’m trying.
CS: I think some people would see this being set in the world of ballet being completely opposite to that of wrestling and going off in a completely different direction. I understand that this branched off of the original idea for “The Wrestler”?
Aronofsky: No, no, no, that’s not true. My first interview, I confused it with a different project. I hadn’t started talking about the film, but no, I think it’s because when I got out of film school, I made a list about ideas for worlds to set films in, and one of them was “The Wrestler” and one of them was set in the ballet world. I think because I’d been developing them both… this one for ten years and “The Wrestler” for I dunno, 10 (or) 15 years, they end up getting infused with similar stuff, because it’s stuff I’ve been thinking about for the last ten years, but there also happens to be a lot of connections between them, although one is about the high art and one’s about low art…
CS: Right, and it’s up to the audiences to decide which is which.
Aronofsky: Yeah, it depends on whether they’re from New Jersey or not. (laughs) But they’re both about performers that use their bodies to create art, and they’re willing to put their bodies at risk to entertain, so that was just an interesting connection, and then there ended up being a lot of connections between their structures and the fates of the characters.
CS: They’re also very different types of movies, and I’ve had a lot of discussions with our horror guy about whether this is horror or not.
Aronofsky: What does he say?
CS: Well, he says it’s horror, obviously, because he wants to cover the movie. I say, “Well, it’s questionable…”
Aronofsky: Well, it’s interesting because it’s somewhere in the… look, I’ve never really made a genre film, I don’t really know how to do that. I guess the closest I came to a genre film is “The Wrestler” being a drama, but what genre was “Pi,” what was “Requiem for a Dream”? I guess it was a drug movie if you want to call it a genre, but that’s not really a genre, a drug movie. There are lots of drug movies in different genres, some are dramatic, some are comedic. “The Fountain” was the furthest thing from being a genre film.
CS: Well, some people would say that was science fiction, because it had elements of sci-fi.
Aronofsky: Yeah, and this film has elements of drama, but I think if anything it’s a fairy tale. That’s kind of what it added up to me about is, like the original “Swan Lake,” the ballet, is a fairy tale, we tried to take that ballet and translate it to the big screen, so all the characters are by a metaphor connected to the characters in the ballet.
CS: Did you have any sort of personal connection either to the ballet or in the case of “The Wrestler,” wrestling, at any time or did you just find those occupations or worlds interesting?
Aronofsky: I think wrestling, like a lot of American males, I had a two or three year love affair with it probably when I was 12 or something. Ballet, my sister was a dancer, and she got pretty serious. She went to the School of Performing Arts here in New York, the famed school, and was very talented at it. I knew nothing about it, but because I knew nothing about it, it kind of made me curious about it.
CS: With “The Wrestler,” you found a writer to work on that with you and same with this one, and I was curious how you found these writers.
Aronofsky: Well, it’s a long story but there was a script that came around when I was cutting “Requiem” that was called “The Understudy,” which was written by Andres Heinz, the first writer on the film, and it was set in the Off-Broadway world, and I saw it and I thought it was a really good engine for my ballet idea. I didn’t know then that it would take me two writers and probably 40 or 50 drafts to get to translate it to the ballet world, so there was a long, long path to get it there. But I’ve kind of gotten into working with writers, because it’s nice to have another brain in the room, especially a brain that ends up having to do all the heavy lifting, because as you know–you’re a writer–writing is really f*cking hard. It takes a lot of time and work and time alone, so it’s nice to work with people, I really enjoy that.
CS: I’ve talked to a lot of directors who write, such as Guy Ritchie, but he found that writing takes time away from directing. Did you find the same thing, that you wanted to direct more and not necessarily spend years writing something?
Aronofsky: I don’t know. I think if you’re going to make anything good, you have to treat the material like a writer. You can’t just go and take a script and direct it. I mean, you can, but the results may just not work out as well as you think it will. I think just turning a piece of writing in and directing it doesn’t always click.
CS: Now getting into the two very different worlds from these past two movies, was it harder getting into the ballet world?
Aronofsky: Absolutely. I don’t think anyone showed any interest in the wrestling world, so they just looked at us like we were really strange, what were we doing? But the ballet world had no interest in a movie about them. It took a very long time to work our way in and to get people to trust us and to share with us. It was really hard. Normally, when you make a movie, all the doors open up. You can scout any location, you can talk to any neuroscientist expert, you could talk to any surgeon and get in to watch surgery happen but when it came to the ballet world, they really weren’t that interested. They’re very, very serious about what they do and they don’t like distraction.
CS: And I supposed they don’t want others to know too much about the inner-workings of how dancers move up the ranks and all that…
Aronofsky: Maybe. There is something about the mystery of ballerinas and the untouchable-ness of them is part of it, I think.
CS: It must have taken some time before arriving at Mickey Rourke for “The Wrestler,” but how long did it take to come up with Natalie for this one? She’s obviously a great actress, but you made a very specific point to show that she’s doing a lot of the dancing herself and not cheating that. Can you talk about how you ended up meeting her and figuring out she could do this?
Aronofsky: We met actually nine years ago in Times Square, right down the street, and over the years, she’s asked me about it, while I’ve been developing it, and she’d say, “I’m getting too old to play a dancer, you better hurry up!” But I was pretty committed to working on it with her, and as time went by, I just continued to work on it, and she stayed in my mind, and then a year before we started shooting, I showed her the script and then when she started to train, and she started to train for over a year.
CS: She’s an amazing actress, but I do think that over the last five or six years from “Garden State” to “Closer” to this, she’s become even better, and actually waiting on this might have actually paid off.
Aronofsky: Maybe, yeah, yeah. That makes me wonder what would happen in five years?
CS: I also want to ask about Barbara Hershey. I don’t know if you know about this horror movie “Insidious” with the guys who made “Saw.”
Aronofsky: Yeah, she mentioned it at the Q ‘n’ A yesterday, what is it exactly?
CS: It’s like a “Poltergeist”-like movie and she plays the mother-in-law of Patrick Wilson who has some sort of religious answer to the weird goings-on at their house. But she’s amazing in that, and the fact that both you and them thought of her.
Aronofsky: Right, how was she in that?
CS: She’s great, she’s great, but I was curious how you thought of her to play Natalie’s mother in this?
Aronofsky: Actually, we were doing a read-through and my casting director said, “Get Barbara Hershey.” I was like, “I’m a big fan,” and then she came in the room and there was enough similarity and you felt like she could have been a dancer. She took a role that easily could have been one-dimensional and really fleshed it out and turned it into something special.
CS: I agree, and as far as the performance of “Swan Lake,” you seemingly created your own unique take on it.
Aronofsky: Yeah, it’s definitely a modern version, but it’s based on the classical.
CS: I don’t know if you ever had experience directing stagework, but how did you go about deciding how you would do your own adaptation of “Swan Lake”?
Aronofsky: Yeah, just hiring the right people and making original decisions when those people come to you and say, “What do you think it should look like?” It was a combination of the production designer, the cinematographer lighting it. You just sort of take your film crew and bring it to the stage, and then we brought some theatrical experts in to actually run the stage so it actually could be run like a performance.
CS: You’re once again working with Clint Mansell on the music, and I’m glad you were able to bring Matt Libatique back to shoot this, because that was one thing I missed about “The Wrestler,” so how did you want to work with them to get them up to speed on this world. Clint has a lot of musical influences…
Aronofsky: But he has absolutely no classical background.
CS: But he’s worked with orchestral instrumentation before.
Aronofsky: It was a huge, tall order to take perhaps the best known ballet score and make it new, rearrange it, rescore it, reinstrument it, add his own themes and then rerecord it, and it was a big challenge. He spent many, many months alone in a room with the ballet score, slowly pulling it apart and deconstructing it and rethinking it out and retooling it and making it scarier and appropriate for a movie.
Black Swan opens in select cities on Friday, December 3.