Interview: Darren Aronofsky – Part 1

Darren Aronofsky is the director of Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain. His latest film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and was bought by Fox Searchlight the morning after it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival (You can read my review here). Earlier this week, I was granted the chance to sit down with Aronofsky for a half hour interview. Below is the first part of the interview. We will be running the next part tomorrow, and the third part on Friday. Enjoy.

Peter Sciretta: There was a very long period of time between Requiem [for a Dream] and trying to get The Fountain off the ground. And now The Wrestler is being billed almost as a come back film…

Darren Aronofsky: Oh, that’s silly…

Peter Sciretta: So why was there such a long break?

Darren Aronofsky: Well, as you know, I had to make the Fountain twice. The first incarnation with Brad Pitt was much publicized and then it fell apart. I had to basically rewrite it and put it back together with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. So basically it was about 6, 7 years for the whole thing from start to finish. So for me it was almost like making two different movies. We were at seven weeks out from shooting the first Fountain 1.0 when it fell apart. It was fully story-boarded and shot listed, and…

Peter Sciretta: All the sets were built?

Darren Aronofsky: They were 60 or 70 percent built. We had 120-foot tall Mayan pyramid constructed. We had 150 Mayans about to board plane to Queensland, Australia. We were 20 million dollars in, or something…

Peter Sciretta: That must have been heartbreaking.

Darren Aronofsky: Oh, it was disastrous for me, but…  I had been through heartbreak in my career before, in film school, so I was kind of prepared and I kind of just tried to take it as positively as I could. I grabbed a backpack, literally a knapsack, with one change of clothes and I went to China and India for a few weeks and cleared my head, because I was over in Australia for five months. I then spent about six to eight months trying to get something else going. I developed a few other projects and actually the beginnings of The Wrestler.

Peter Sciretta: So you developed The Wrestler?

Darren Aronofsky: The Wrestler was my idea. When I graduated film school in ’92 / ’93, one day I wrote a list of ten ideas for films in my diary. And one of them was called The Wrestler. When The Fountain shut down the first time I started to think about it. I knew I wanted to do a wrestling picture. I teamed up my producer on this film, Scott Franklin, who was a wrestling fan, a bigger wrestling fan than me, and he loved the idea. He’s also a writer.

Peter Sciretta: You come from New York and so [wrestling] must have been all over the place?

Darren Aronofsky: I wasn’t a huge fan as a kid. I went to one match at Madison Square Garden with my best friend and my dad. I remember we all lost our voices from screaming so loud. Hulk Hogan was a bad guy and I remember Tony Atlas lifting up Hulk Hogan and dropping him on his balls on the top rope. We went crazy, it was great. I think I went to a couple of other little matches at veterans halls. So it was in my head a bit, but I was never a crazy fan. It was like a small window, and it was before the Hulk-mania, so it wasn’t so big. It was still kind of in the early 80′s. So it wasn’t quite the phenomenon that it became. And by the time Hulkmania came out, I wasn’t interested in it. But I thought that the boxing movie is a genre film, and there’s been thousands of boxing movies – who knows how many. But no one has ever done a serious wrestling film. No one has ever done a serious film about a wrestler.

Peter Sciretta: Every fictional film so far treats it as if it were a real sport…

Darren Aronofsky: Yeah, and all the Barton Fink jokes, which we were aware of… “Aronofsky, what are you going to do? A wrestling picture?” You know. [laughs] And some people picked up on it. In fact, at the Venice Film Festival, they asked for a director’s quote, and I sent in a quote from Barton Fink. But no one had ever done a serious film and I always wondered why. I think that’s because most people think wrestling is a joke. It’s really looked down upon by a lot of people, but the more research I started to do into that world, the more complex, and the more tragic I found it to be. The mortality rate of these guys is just staggering. And the fact that it’s not at all really examined is really curious. And the fact that it’s so popular. It’s like one of the most popular forms of entertainment in America and no one’s studied it in any way. We realized pretty quickly when we started to work on it that me being the type of film maker I am probably trying to do something with the WWE and having creative freedom wasn’t going to happen so I couldn’t really do something contemporary so originally we started to think about me and Scott to do something as a period piece, be it pre-WWF because then we wouldn’t have to deal with it. But then we realized this was a low-budget movie, so we figured we had to do something contemporary. We started to look at the backwoods wrestling matches that go on, all over New Jersey and everywhere in the country. They’re going on and I saw a lot of these veterans there and that kind of triggered the idea of an older time guy, and…

Peter Sciretta: Well, it’s also interesting that your film is the first wrestling film not to have the promoter as the villain…

Darren Aronofsky: [laughs]

Peter Sciretta: Or you know, the it’s like you don’t really have a villain…

Darren Aronofsky: I don’t think I’ve ever had a villain in any of my movies. If you really think about it, or at least a traditional villain. I haven’t made a film like that. I just wanted to tell a true story of a character going through this and what that lifestyle was like, the lifestyle as they call it.

Peter Sciretta: I think you pretty much nailed it. Before, when I was younger I was really into wrestling and the behind the scenes aspects really interested in and I think you’ve nailed that aspect of it. This is also a departure from your last project, and it was made for considerably less.

Darren Aronofsky: The Fountain was thirty million dollars and this is six, so it’s a fifth – 20 percent of the budget. After I spent two years in post on all the visual effects on The Fountain, about a year and a half of post work, and a lot of it was technical work. I love that work, but for me the most exciting aspect of filmmaking is working with actors. I just was craving to work with actors so my mandate after that time spent in post was like, I just want to do a quick piece with actors. I just want to work with actors, I want to work with actors. So I looked at my list of projects and I saw The Wrestler thing and I just started to think about it. And that’s kind of when I ran into Robert Siegel, who wrote the final screenplay. Rob was originally one of the first writers of the Onion, and wrote this great script which made the rounds around Hollywood. Actually he just directed it by himself independently. It was such a great script. I met with him and I just started telling him about sort of things I was working on and I told him about the script that Scott had written about The Wrester, and how he didn’t nail it, and he said “Wrestling? I love wrestling!” And so then he started from scratch. And basically, about the same time is when the idea of Mickey came up, and I can’t remember how the idea of Mickey came up immediately, but as soon as I met with him it was just clear that this was the man for the job.?

Peter Sciretta: But when the project was first announced, well obviously Nicholas Cage was attached, what happened?

Darren Aronofsky: There was a window where it was very very hard. Basically no one wanted to make it with Mickey Rourke. We couldn’t get money to do it. Just because of how independent films get sold now is on foreign value, and Mickey just doesn’t have enough for what we needed. So there was a brief flirtation with Nic Cage because Nic really liked the script. Nic was a complete gentleman, and he understood that my heart was with Mickey and he stepped aside. I have so much respect for Nic Cage as an actor and I think it really could have worked with Nic but… you know, Nic was incredibly supportive of Mickey and he is old friends with Mickey and really wanted to help with this opportunity, so he pulled himself out of the race. Then an executive producer named Jennifer Roth came on. She is great at doing independent films and she was like, “What if that’s the amount of money you got, let’s just figure out a way to do it.” So we just did it. So we did things which actually work with the style. Instead of getting a thousand extras we worked with these different wrestling promotions and actually put on live promotions and then stuck Mickey smack in the middle of it. It added to a whole new flavor to it and we got the authenticity that came with that as well.

Check back for Part Two tomorrow.

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