In one corner, you have Mickey Rourke, all serrated flesh and oozing blood, leaping from the top rope because that’s how wrestlers roll. In the other corner, you have Natalie Portman, austere and intense, turning pirouettes because that’s what a ballerina is born to do.
The two are connected, if you can believe it. And why not? As Darren Aronofsky explains, 2008’s Oscar-nominated “Wrestler” is in essence a companion piece to his forthcoming “Black Swan.” The athletes he focuses on are so consumed with their professions that they are swept up and eventually overtaken, with the end result being that there is no dividing line between ballerina and ballet, between wrestler and wrestling.
In the new film, Natalie Portman stars as Nina, a New York City ballerina about to assume the lead position in her company for a production of “Swan Lake.” Competition and disturbing psychological warfare arrive in the form of the rival dancer Lilly (Mila Kunis), who awakens in Nina a dark side that brings objective reality into question.
Aronofsky has been wanting to make a film about the world of ballet for a decade. In a recent interview with MTV News, the director spoke about the movie’s psychological and supernatural undertones, the research he did for the film and the much-buzzed-about make-out session between the two leading ladies.
MTV: Let’s begin with the “Black Swan” trailer, because it really seemed to capture people’s imaginations. How involved to you get in the process? What are you looking to communicate and also withhold?
Darren Aronofsky: It’s funny, because I literally finished the film yesterday. It’s been a incredible mad dash to the finishing line, and to be frank, I really surrendered to the studio and I have to credit Fox Seachlight with doing a lot of the heavy lifting. In the past, I’ve worked very hard on the trailers, but I just didn’t have any time. I had to finish the movie. When I saw the trailer for the first time, I was very impressed. I thought it was exciting. You never know how audiences are going to react. I generally do these films that are hard to fit into boxes and they’re hard to sum up in two minutes. I’m glad people are enjoying it.
MTV: And I guess it doesn’t hurt to have your
two female co-stars making out.
Aronofsky: Yeah, I know. A lot of people already knew that was happening. A screenplay got out there and someone wrote about it on the Internet and the next thing you know CNN is reporting on it. It’s definitely something that happens in the film, but it’s just the tip of the exciting things that happen.
MTV: I think it’s kind of interesting for you to be going from wrestling to ballet, because there’s probably more of a similarity there than people might think, just in terms of choreography and competitiveness and things like that.
Aronofsky: Exactly. I’ve always considered the two films companion pieces. They are really connected and people will see the connections. It’s funny, because wrestling some consider the lowest art — if they would even call it art — and ballet some people consider the highest art. But what was amazing to me was how similar the performers in both of these worlds are. They both make incredible use of their bodies to express themselves. They’re both performers. At one point, way before I made “The Wrestler,” I was actually developing a project that was about a love affair between a ballet dancer and a wrestler, and then it kind of split off into two movies. So I guess my dream is that some art theater will play the films as a double feature some day.
MTV: I have a feeling if you suggest it, someone will take you up on it. They’ll just make you run the projector and scoop the popcorn.
Aronofsky: Exactly. I’m fine with that.
MTV: I know you did a lot of research for “The Wrestler,” going to matches and talking to wrestlers. What was your process like for “Black Swan”?
Aronofsky: Ballet is a very insular world. There’s a lot of privacy, and it’s hard to get in. Normally when you say, “I want to make a movie about your world,” the doors open up and you get tremendous access. The ballet world could give two sh–s about anyone making a film about their world. For people that do ballet, ballet is their universe and they’re not impressed by movies. I did find dancers that shared their stories with me, some retired, some working. Eventually I got to stand backstage when the Bolshoi came to Lincoln Center, standing in the wings watching some of the greatest dancers in the world. I got to see some amazing athletes up close and experience what they were going through.
MTV: Are you standing there watching as a director, like storyboarding your movie, or are you just taking in the spectacle?
Aronofsky: Most of my time, I’d be thinking, “This is an amazing closeup, but how am I going to let audiences appreciate this?” Wrestling, it’s very clear how to show that. My goal there was to show how much it actually, physically hurt. People always think it’s fake, and my point was, “Sure it’s fake, the outcome is already decided, but the stunts are not fake. These are real people falling onto a concrete floor.” For me, what was so interesting about ballet was these athletes have done it for so many years — some of them start at four or five years old — and they make it effortless, so that you cannot see the skill involved. It’s almost impossible to experience how hard it is to get your leg over your head when you’re standing on the tip of your foot. It looks so easy. But when you’re up close, you can see the muscles ripping. For me, it was about, “How do I make that effort visually exciting?”
MTV: I spoke with Natalie back when she was promoting “Brothers,” and she talked about wanting to get away from “cute and girly” roles . “Black Swan” clearly doesn’t seem cute and girly. What’s your sense of why she wanted in?
Aronofsky: It’s kind of weird. It came together really well. One of the best things about the film is the casting of Natalie. She took the part and ran with it. I don’t know if when I was working with the writers we were consciously channeling Natalie or Natalie somehow transformed herself to the part, but they grew together. I first talked with Natalie about this project at least 10 years ago. We were in Times Square and had a coffee at the old Howard Johnson. I had this idea of setting something in the ballet world. It was very loose. I didn’t have a script. And then I found out she was fascinated by ballet and wanted to play a dancer.
MTV: Was that when it was still that ballet/wrestling film?
Aronofsky: No, that was after. I realized pretty quickly that taking two worlds like wrestling and ballet was much too much for one movie. So we met and for years it was something I’ve been developing and struggling with and when I finishing up “The Wrestler,” a guy who worked in my company, Mark Heyman, he had done a lot of writing and producing on “The Wrestler,” and I asked if he wanted to give the ballet project a shot. He jumped in and he turned it into something we could make.
MTV: For Mila’s role, you needed someone who looks like Natalie, but obviously it can’t just be about looks. It’s got to be the right actor. How do you approach that sort of casting challenge?
Aronofsky: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I saw “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” and she just leapt off the screen. So natural and so beautiful. I’d never seen her TV show. So she was in my head, and then Natalie said, “Hey, for the part of Lilly, what about my friend Mila Kunis?” I was in Europe, and we met over iChat and she was natural and cool and seemed relaxed and excited and then I just hired her. It was a leap of faith.
MTV: At Comic-Con, Natalie compared the movie to a psychological thriller like “Rosemary’s Baby.” Does that ring true for you?
Aronofsky: I’m a huge Polanski fan. Probably “Repulsion” and “The Tenant” are better comparisons than “Rosemary’s Baby.” They were big influences on “Black Swan,” as they’ve been on all my films. Unfortunately for my checkbook, I don’t really make movies that can be put in a box. I don’t know what it is. It’s not like much out there.
MTV: It definitely seems that it toes that line of, “Is this purely psychological? Does magical realism come into play?” Not that you’re going to tell me the answer, but were those ideas in your head?
Aronofsky: It’s definitely an experience. But the trailer should give you everything — it’s all in there! No, no, it’s got a lot of sources that I get inspired by and influenced by. It’s like, “What the hell was ’Pi’?” I’m not really sure. Definitely “The Fountain” was outside the box. I guess “The Wrestler” was the most straightforward thing I’ve done. I think I was trying to make a sports film. I guess I don’t do genre very well.
MTV: You seem to be doing OK so far.
Aronofsky: I don’t know. Everyone will see in a few days.
MTV: Yeah, you’re opening the Venice Film Festival. Do you get nervous for stuff like that or are you cool, calm and collected?
Aronofsky: I always get nervous when I show work to an audience. Eventually they’re going to have to see it. When “The Wrestler” showed at Venice the last time, I walked out in the middle. I couldn’t handle it. I snuck back in the end. It was not a pleasant experience.
MTV: You’re staring at the people, going, “Are they liking it? Are they liking it?”
Aronofsky: Unfortunately, I don’t make the kind of films where you can tell if they’re liking it. It’s not a laugh-fest. It’s a tough job. It’s a tough job.
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