Darren Aronofsky is easily one of the best directors working in American cinema today. Consider his oeuvre up to this point: the paranoiac, homemade indie Pi; the surreal addiction meditation Requiem for a Dream; the mind-boggling spiritual maze The Fountain; and the broken-dreams drama The Wrestler. He's the filmmaker other filmmakers want to be. I sat down with the guy recently, to discuss his latest, Black Swan, a psychological, perhaps supernatural thriller set in the world of ballet that explores the risks of artistic ambition. I know, ballet doesn't exactly sound ... well, thrilling. But it's terrifyingly so in Aronofsky's hands. The movie's a shoo-in for a best picture nod, while most people expect star Natalie Portman to at least be nominated along with Aronofsky for their breathtaking work.
Cole Haddon: Can you talk about the 10-year journey it took to get this movie made?
Darren Aronofsky: I've been a fan of Natalie's since I saw her in The Professional. Luc Besson is one of my favorite directors, and it turns out that her manager is an old friend of mine from college, and so I had a little inside line to meet her. We met in Times Square at the old Howard Johnson's, which is now an American Apparel, which shows you where America is going. We had a really bad cup of coffee. We talked about the early ideas I had about the film. When she says that I had the entire film in my head it's a complete lie.
[Later, Portman disagrees, insisting, "No, it was close to what [he] described to me."]
DA: So we talked a bit about it, and I started to develop it, but it was a really tough film because getting into the ballet world proved to be really challenging. Most of the time when you do a movie and you say, "Hey, I want to make a movie about your world," then all the doors open up and you can do anything and see anything that you want. The ballet world really wasn't at all interested in us hanging out. So it took a long time to get the information and put it together, and over the years Natalie would say, "I'm getting too old to play a dancer. You better hurry up." I was like, "Natalie, you look great. You'll be fine." And then about a year out before the film, or maybe a little bit earlier, I finally got a screenplay together. That's how it started.
CH: Black Swan has been described as a companion piece to The Wrestler. How did you approach this movie in contrast to that one?
DA: I don't really think there's that much difference. I don't think it's that much of a big deal. I think people are people, and if their feelings are real and truthful, they can connect. I keep saying that it doesn't matter if you're an aging 50-something-year-old wrestler at the end of his career or an ambitious 20-something-year-old ballet dancer, if they're truthful to who they are and they're expressing something real, then audiences will connect. That's always been the promise of cinema, and that's why we can see a film about a seven-year-old-girl in Iran or an immortal superhero in America. It doesn't matter as long as they're truthful.
CH: There are also numerous thematic and even visual similarities to the classic ballet movie The Red Shoes (1948), which, like Black Swan, used a ballet to parallel the emotional and relationship breakdowns of characters. Can you talk about how Red Shoes influenced you?
DA: I actually wasn't aware of The Red Shoes. I mean, I had heard of The Red Shoes, but I didn't see it, and then [Martin] Scorsese did the restoration a few years ago, and then I was like, "You know what, I better go and see it." It's a masterpiece, an unbelievable film, and I saw that there were similarities in the story, but I think that's because we both went back to ballet and pulled from ballet the different characters and stuff. So we ended up in similar places, but I wasn't really influenced by it, and I really didn't ever try to be influenced by it because it's such a masterpiece and the dance sequences, they weren't doing visual FX like that for 20 [more] years, they were [that] ahead of their time. So I just sort of kept it in the back and said, "Look, we just sort of dress it." I forget the year, but it's a long time ago and most people may not know about it, but unfortunately they do.
CH: Can you talk about your approach to Black Swan compared to your earlier movies? Your work has such a wonderful, surreal quality to it. Do you have a particular interest in that sort of filmmaking?
DA: I think it's all about what the story is that we want to tell. One thing that I realized during one of these -- it's funny because a lot of times you figure it out when you're doing the press because you start talking about it and becoming aware of it. The whole cinema verite, handheld approach to The Wrestler was a big risk to bring over into this ballet film because I had never seen a kind of suspenseful film that had this kind of handheld camera, and I didn't know if it worked. I was always really worried that if in a really scary scene everyone would wonder why Natalie wouldn't turn to the cameraman and go, "Help," or something. So I didn't know if it was going to work, but then we sort of went, "Fuck it. Let's just go for it because it's never been done," and I really enjoyed the camera moving. Having a man hold the camera, I could really move the camera in ways that you can't in any other way. The result of that is that the first third of the film has a very different feel than the last half of the film because it's got this very naturalistic feel, which I think actually is kind of cool because it makes people feel like they're watching a very different type of movie that can't ever freak out like the way that it freaks out. Yet, it gives you that kind of immediacy of being in that other moment and being in this other world with little hints like she's peeling her finger and things are going to get really freaked out. In general, it just feels like a documentary in the beginning before it freaks out. So it kind of worked out for us.
CH: Some have suggested that Black Swan could hurt the dance world, as it shows it in such an ugly light. What do you think about that fear?
DA: I saw that report and I thought that it was really unfortunate because we've had very, very different reactions from dancers elsewhere. I think so many dancers are incredibly relieved that there's finally a ballet movie that takes ballet as a serious art and not as a place to have a love affair. If you actually look at ballet, the ballets themselves are incredibly dark and gothic. Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet, and of course Swan Lake -- [and my] movie could've been called Swan Lake. We took the fairy tale of Swan Lake and the ballet of Swan Lake, and basically turned all the characters -- Rothbart, the Prince, the Queen -- and translated them into characters in our movie reality. So it's really just a retelling of Swan Lake, but yes, it definitely shows the challenges and the darkness and the reality of how hard it is to be a ballet dancer. I think it also represents the beauty of the art and the transcendence that's possible within the art all within retelling Swan Lake. So there are going to be people who are always going to have issues with things, but the margin by far, the dancers that we have met and talked to are like, "Finally, we have a real movie about ballet." So that's the response.
CH: Darren, you have The Wolverine coming up next, your first big-budget studio flick. In the past, you've also done sci-fi. Do you enjoy bouncing between genres as a director?
DA: I'm not really much of a genre guy. [Black Swan] was my best attempt at a genre film. I think that audiences don't need that anymore, where you just [execute] a very specific genre. Audiences are very sophisticated, and as long as it's fun, it's OK and entertaining. That's kind of what I was trying to make, and I think it's also very different, which I think people who are bombarded by so many different types of media are hungry for, just a very, very different experience. So that's what we were going for, something that keeps you excited and keeps you going and is hopefully memorable so that you talk about it with other people and hopefully they'll go to the movies.