While there are many great films targeted for awards this season, the buzz film that stirs the most emotional reaction, of shock or a cringe has been Black Swan -- Darren Aronofsky's psychological horror suspense thriller -- a Whatever Happened to Baby Jane for ballet fans.
Aronofsky is remarkably skilled at ratcheting up the psych-out qualities of story ever since he made Requiem for a Dream -- his horrific film of middle-class drug addiction based on the late Hubert Selby's book of the same name. In Black Swan, the finely tuned and sculpted actress Natalie Portman plays Nina, a ballerina so tightly wound and dance obsessed -- with a helicopter-hovering stage mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) -- that the pressure to be the best is literally driving her crazy.
It doesn't help that she has a male Artistic Director Thomas Leroy -- played brilliantly by Vincent Cassel -- is pressuring her both psychologically and sexually. The former prima ballerina is being forced into retirement, and Nina is up for her crowning role -- that of the lead in Swan Lake. Leroy feels she makes a great White Swan -- timid and virginal -- but has trouble transforming into her dark alter ego, the sexy and passionate Black Swan. Determined to get the part and keep her understudy Lily (Mila Kunis) from taking it away because her erotic ease, she start a descent into madness as she fights to keep her star on the door.
Recently the 41 year-old Aronofsky made a stop at the Apple Store where he discussed Black Swan and his earlier films. Drawing on excerpts from that conversation, here's a look into the mind the man who made one of the most visually provocative films of the year, a multiple Golden Globe contender and likely Oscar candidate -- at least for Portman's startling performance.
And for those who haven't seen some of his previous films or would like to see him discussing filmmaking further, a mini series of his films, Darren Aronofsky's Dreams and Nightmares will be presented at The Film Society of Lincoln Center tonight and tomorrow. Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain screen this evening; tomorrow Aronofsky will appear for Q&A after the 615 pm screening of The Wrestler and Pi will play afterwards.
Origins of Black Swan
I made it because people think of ballet and think of sugar plum fairies and The Nutcracker, but actually if you look at Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, and Sleeping Beauty -- three of the other [big] ones -- they're actually pretty dark and gothic, and based on these sort of ancient fairytales.
The more we looked at Swan Lake and actually peeled away the beauty [that became apparent]. I remember talking to Julie Kent, the principal dancer at ABT, and said, "Let me get this straight. She's under this spell and during the day she's a swan and at night she's what?" because I thought she was a girl.
She said, "She's half girl, half swan," and I realized. "Oh, it's a werewolf movie." Except it's a were-swan film, and I was going to be able to take Natalie Portman -- this beautiful, delicate creature -- and turn her into something. So in turning a ballet into a movie you can suddenly start to do stuff like that. And very much the movie is the ballet.
My composer Clint Mansell took Tchaikovsky and sort of put it through the twisted filter of his brain and his electronic equipment. Then we rerecorded it with a real-live orchestra in London and turned it into something that is the score of Swan Lake but it's something very, very different. Like that music that you just heard, a lot of those ideas are from Tchaikovsky, but through the brilliance of Clint Mansell.
That music's been in the public domain now for a hundred years and it's been underneath every Volkswagen and Bugs Bunny cartoon, and so I think people associate a lot of those themes with a lot of different things. So the idea was to take the music and make it darker and meaner, and ultimately, ballet music's written for ballet, so it's very hysterical and it goes up and down and up and down.
Movies definitely have a more consistent, moody atmosphere that you have to maintain over a longer amount of time, and so that was part of the challenge is how to take some of the themes and ideas and turn it into a longer piece. The whole film is actually inspired by Tchaikovsky.
There's a whole club sequence where they go dancing, a pretty freaky sequence, and what we did is we went to the best of electronic musicians in the world from The Chemical Brothers to a bunch of other guys and gals, and gave them different pieces of Swan Lake and said, "Okay, now turn this into a contemporary dance electronic track." So that's how we got that music.
I think audiences are interested in worlds that don't get exposed that much, because there's a whole world there. When we were doing The Wrestler everyone was like, "Why are you making a film about wrestling? No one cares about wrestling." But once we went behind the curtain everyone was like "Oh. Those big muscular guys actually have feelings." So the ballet world was a similar challenge.
My sister was a dancer growing up and she was very talented, and so it was sort of in the background for my whole youth but I never knew anything about it. Then when I graduated from film school I made a list of possible worlds to explore, and one of them was wrestling and one of them was ballet. And then we just started working on it and it just came more and more alive the more we looked into it.
But I don't think I even had a conversation with her during the research part of it because she left it when she was in high school and definitely turned her back on it. I did show her the film when it was getting close to being finished to get some feedback from a dancer.
She was very supportive but she's so far from being a dancer at this point. She's a producer now for CBS News so she's in the media, so she was looking at it more as a filmmaker than as a dancer. So she wasn't that instrumental, but growing up with that in the background and not knowing anything about it, I guess I always wanted to know what it was all about.
When you look at ballet it's like when you first hear reggae music; everything sounds exactly the same. But the more you listen to it the more you realize there's a lot of depth and a lot of complexity to it, and the same with ballet. The more you look at it the more interesting it becomes.
Torturing Natalie Portman
I tortured her character. Her character was tortured in the film. But Natalie is very, very together, very disciplined, very hard working, and she probably tortured herself a lot. She started training about a year before the movie started. I mean that's a tall order to ask someone to become a ballet dancer, a prima ballerina.
When I asked Mickey Rourke to become a wrestler probably most of us in three or four months could do a decent job. Learning how to be a great ballet dancer is 20 years minimum, so it was a tall order. But Natalie trained for a year five hours a day and then eight hours a day when we got closer, and did a pretty damn convincing job. I think ballet dancers of course will see through the illusion, and people in the ballet world, but they'll be so impressed with how hard she's trying that they'll give her a break. But for most people that don't stare at ballet all the time, it's a pretty convincing illusion.
She trained from four to 13, so that helped a little bit with her turnout and her hyperextension and stuff, so she could do a lot. Ballet dancers start training when they're four or five and their bodies literally change. If you ever see a ballet dancer walking you can tell a mile away they've got a huge turnout on their legs. Their bones shift in their bodies, so it's a pretty hard thing to mimic.
She was pretty solid throughout. There was maybe one day when I changed the choreography on her that day, which was a really kind of fucked up thing to do, but the choreography wasn't working for the shot so we had to kind of change it. We made it simpler but I think it was also psychologically it's hard when you've practiced something for a long time to bring another thing in. And by then we were deep in it, she was pretty exhausted. So that was tough. But she was solid the whole film, she was a total trooper and it was unbelievably difficult.
She had an MRI during the shooting because she hit her head during one scene, and she actually got a twisted rip, which sounds not that bad but it was stuck under another rib. She actually gets physical therapy in the film and that's a real physical therapist, that's not an actress. That was her therapist actually digging into her and it's pretty gruesome and intense. So I think it was very, very tough on her, but she's a tough girl.
Getting It Made
It was really hard to make. When we made The Wrestler, everyone was like, "What the fuck are you doing? Mickey Rourke wrestling? You're out of your mind," and one company in the world gave us the money to do the film. And then after it did pretty well and people liked it I thought, "Okay, I've got a movie star, Natalie Portman, an international movie star, Vincent Cassel, I've got Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder. It's a sexy, psychological, horror film set in the ballet world and that's kind of cool." And everyone said no and it was a real nightmare once again to get the money. It was probably harder to make than The Wrestler to find the money to do it.
You get no respect. You only get respect if you do something that's commercial, that people want to see. That's the only time you get respect. Otherwise, you're the only person in the room trying to make the movie and it's just a challenge.
There were many. First of all, we were putting on an actual professional looking ballet, so that was a technical challenge to actually make a stage come alive like a ballet, and then figuring out how to photograph it. And ballet, just like wrestling, wrestling you probably have always seen with a wide shot and two shots on the side like the WWE does it, but I wanted to bring the camera in the ring like many boxing movies have. We did the same thing with the ballet.
We took the camera out of the wings and got it on stage to capture the energy of it. It's great. After a lot of these screenings we get some doofus saying, "I never thought I'd love ballet, man. That was great." And that's great because we wanted to capture the energy, the effort, the pain, the sweat and tears of how hard it is. That was exciting and fun to do.
Reflection and Mirrors
We always knew the mirror was going to be a big part of the character in the film and a big visual look in the film for several reasons. Any ballet studio is filled with mirrors and dancers are always looking at their reflections to see their line and to see where they are standing in three dimensional space, and also because the film has this whole theme of being replaced and the doppelganger and reflections.
But it was a big challenge because the mirror effect is like the oldest, cheesiest horror effect in the world. You're standing in front of the medicine cabinet, you reach inside to get some tooth paste, you shut it, and then "Ahh," and everyone's scared.
We didn't really want to do that; we wanted to try and do something different. So we really pushed it and we worked a lot with digital effects and put the camera in places that aren't possible for a camera to be, and also worked with a lot of one way mirrors and did a lot of tricks. We knew we were doing a lot of cheap scares because I think people enjoy them and that will be part of the reason people will come to see the movie is just to jump, but we just wanted to try and surprise people as best we could.
[There's] a lot of early Roman Polanski -- Repulsion and The Tenant were big influences. David Cronenberg's The Fly was a big influence. Even the Dardennes brothers, who really inspired The Wrestler, who are these Belgian filmmakers who did a film called The Son and The Child, great filmmakers, their immediacy helped. And of course, a lot of documentaries; Frederick Wiseman did a couple of documentaries on ballet that definitely gave us a reality check.
The Red Shoes
I had heard of The Red Shoes but I didn't see it until the Hollywood Foreign Press and Scorsese restoration started to happen and then I was like, "I'd better watch this movie." But we were really down the road and there are a lot of similarities between the two films, but I think that's because they're both set in the ballet world and not much has changed.
Looking At The First Cut
That actually is a suicidal moment. I've talked to many filmmakers and probably the worst day of filmmaking is when you see the assemblage because you think you've done such better work and it's crap. It's crap for a lot of reasons because you just haven't started to shape it and you realize how far you have to go. Because you normally see the assemblage like a couple of weeks after you finish shooting because the editing team has been assembling it. And I have a great editor, it has nothing to do with my editor, but it's still really depressing until you really get in there and get to know the footage and own it.
There's so much finishing work. There's so much sound work that has to happen and music work. When it's bare and naked and 40 minutes too long it's really, really, really upsetting. So all you filmmakers out there keep on going through the assemblage and just try to ignore it. But I always get drunk the night of the assemblage otherwise I'm miserable for two, three days.
The hardest is when I did Requiem for a Dream because that was cut such a different way and it was the first time I'd worked with that editor, who's a brilliant editor, but he had no idea. He was just confused why there were no master shots and so he was trying to make up for that. He just thought I was out of my mind and it just didn't work. I was like "No, no, no you don't have to start the scene with a master shot. You can start on a close up, that's the idea." So that was a disastrous day.
Well you've got to pay attention. I don't know. That was a very interesting one because the people who really get it really get it; the people who hate it really hate it. More than any film that's the film that people get the deepest connections. And the same thing with Hugh Jackman; he's like, "Those fountain things are creepy, man. They follow me around and stuff."
It's got this kind of underground following that seems to be growing as time goes by so it's cool. We were trying to make a film that was a mystery and that would hopefully be something people would look back on over the years, so hopefully that will happen. Tone is a really hard thing about what's the mainstream feeling for it.
None of my films have had to figure that out, they've all been for specific audiences and they've been able to survive that way. The fork and the staple gun in The Wrestler meant a lot of people in the Academy turned it off at that point or walked out of the theater and there are consequences, but the film needed that because he has to have a heart attack.
There's a similar line in Black Swan; how far can you go? My take is there are no limitations, just go for it every time, and that is often a bit too extreme for some people.
In the case of The Fountain it was like let's make this an enigma that is figure out-able and is actually not that complicated but is kind of fun to work on, but it definitely means certain people who are spoon-fed stuff a lot and expect that when they go to the cinema aren't going to go for it. It's a consequence.
All these films are a little bit of a Luddite. The Fountain was like please come to terms with your death; it's okay to die. And yet people are fighting so fucking hard to stay young and stay alive and ignoring the impact that that's going to have on us and the planet and all that stuff.
Maybe growing old is part of life, which in other cultures is really respected and honored and is a whole part of our philosophy we kind of shut off. It feels like all these body modifications are all about ignoring anything that's really connected. Yet I'll be the first one to stick my iPod in my shoulder as soon as we can. As long as it's over eight gigs.
Requiem For A Dream
We did a Blu-ray version of Requiem and I didn't really get that involved, I was busy working on this, but my team remixed it and remastered it and stuff, and they went back to the negative and made sure it looked right.
At the end they asked me to take a look at it which I did, and I couldn't recognize the man, or the young boy that had made that. I was like "That is not me. I don't know the person that made that film. I cannot make that film today."
It's really important to let it go. It's nice when people compliment [me for] those things because it represents something of who I was back then, but I don't know if any of that exists. It's just sort of gone and you let it go and you just try to keep making new work.
It's like an "exhale" but lots of them happened a long time ago. It represents what I was thinking about at the time but they're very distant. When a film happens, it's like having a kid and the kid's finally gone out of the house. You have a relationship but it's sort of gone.
Afraid of Failure?
Of course I'm afraid of it; every single film I've done so far everyone's said no to. Everyone said to no to. So there's a little fuck-you attitude, just like I'm going to fucking do it. There's a little punk attitude to it.
It's kind of like if I was at a black jack table every single time I've let it ride I double down. Like Pi to Requiem was a double down. Requiem to The Fountain was a double down. Some people would say they took all my chips. Doing Mickey Rourke with The Wrestler and then going to a ballet movie was the same thing, but it's like if you fail you might as well fail miserably.