The Whiz Kid -- Darren Aronofsky, writer/director of "Pi"
by Anthony Kaufman
Some months after winning the directing Award at this year’s Sundance
for the edgy, black and white, paranoid trip that is his first feature,
“Pi,” Darren Aronofsky went from obscurity to a bit of local stardom.
You can’t walk in New York without stepping on one of those damn Greek
letters, you can’t go much further without seeing the writer-director on
the cover of this summer’s FILMMAKER magazine and you can’t saunter into
an industry soiree without hearing about his recent production deal with
At a lunch in April, Aronofsky told me about his desire for a FILMMAKER
cover someday, “I call the publisher everyday and ask him, ‘Am I on the
cover?’ I’ll work for anything that can help me get on the cover of
that magazine.” Well, his wish came true and much sooner than he
expected. Now with the release of “Pi” this Friday, Aronofsky’s $60,000
collaborative innerspace adventure goes public and the 29 year-old
auteur begins what could be a long filmmaking career. Reflecting on
this daunting prospect, as well as his style, his poverty, the directing
award and his distribution deal, Aronofsky, easy-going and ambitious,
appears primed for the task.
indieWIRE: There’s been this question about your film. It isn’t really
a science fiction film, but in some ways, everyone is defining it like
Aronofsky: We’ve been pushing that, because it’s an interesting way to
put us in the market. It’s a unique thing to be a science fiction film
in the independent realm — it just hasn’t been done. Sundance picked
up on that and they’ve sort of been pushing it forward. It’s sci-fi in
the tradition of Philip K. Dick sci-fi, in a tradition of inner
exploration. And its pushing science forward within the fiction realm,
so I think ultimately it is a science fiction film. Like Philip K. Dick
did which was paranoia, going into the character’s mind, but also all
the mathematics and scientific stuff and all the big, weird ideas of
science coming together to explain the universe — is a form of science
fiction. . .
iW: Can you talk about some of the ways, obviously without spending a
lot of money, that you created the surreal environment of the film?
Aronofsky: A style that I’ve always worked on is hyperreal, which is
now, circa today, but slightly in the future. Certain things are pushed,
but it could be happening now. We really tried to exploit our
limitations throughout making “Pi”– meaning that anytime we had
something that we weren’t sure we could do, we figured out what we could
do and did it the best we could. We knew we couldn’t pull off color.
First, we could only afford 16mm. And the way 16mm color looks blown
up, I’d never be happy with that, no matter whose process we used. We
decided on black and white, but the problem with black and white
negative was we didn’t want the movie to look like “Clerks” — to be all
grey. Then we decided to look into reversal film, which is a beautiful
film stock, but extremely technically challenging to do. So if you’re
thinking about doing it, really find out all the technical problems
because you’re going to run into a bunch of them. But the results were
great. You don’t have to fight the colors. And also you can get away
with a lot of special effects and art direction that you can’t really do
in color. There’s 40, 50 years of special effects tradition that was
built up over black and white and do all these tricks and we took
advantage of a lot of them. The detail of back and white doesn’t see
all the corners and all the dark and all the bright areas. So you can
really hide a lot of stuff.
Also, the computer that Max Cohen lives in, Euclid. We sort of took off
of Gilliam and sort of said, we’ll do the retro. And the retro will
help stylize the sort of futuristic world. So we grabbed all these IBMs
and Macs from the 70’s and used a lot of old technology to hint at
something futuristic. If you do that, it ends up. . . you know, you
look at “Alien” or Kubrick’s work, it’s dated and cheesy. So we
decided, let’s go with the technology of 10 years ago, but the way this
guy is using that technology is deeper into the future. So, hopefully
it will date better and be a more timeless element to the film. It just
worked economically, we didn’t have to have crazy designs to create some
crazy, bullshit computer. We were able to scavenge all this old stuff.
So that’s some of the things we did.
iW: Didn’t you get a lot of people who were willing to offer you time
and favors to the production?
Aronofsky: The film cost $60,000 to finish, to finish an AVID cut, to
get a final cut. We got our AVID for free from a top of the line
editing company called Blue Rock post-production. They’re a big
commercial place and their editor always wanted to cut a feature and he
turned out to be a great cutter and a great guy, Oren Sarch. We cut on
nights and weekends for about 10 months. But you could always find
someone, you know, that’s independent film. Someone always has a family
and friends to pull on. When I was in LA I couldn’t make an independent
film, but when I finally came back to New York, I was able to rally
around the troops, because I had lots of resources here, because I grew
up here. I also think it’s easier to make an independent film in New
York, because people are less jaded, and they want to be involved with
film. My crew was all film students, basically, kids that didn’t really
know what they were doing. But it was all right. They were there and
they were passionate. I tried to make it as egalitarian as possible.
You probably heard this. Everyone worked for the same amount of money
every day. $175 deferred and then we had 50 points on the movie that all
the filmmakers that worked on the movie split evenly, so I own the same
amount of money as a PA, a DP.
iW: And did that money get distributed?
Aronofsky: Money will be coming in. Not all of it, but a bunch of it.
Everyone will be getting a check who worked on the movie. Everyone.
There’s not one person who won’t.
iW: Let me go back to after Sundance. You won the award. What do you
think the directing award did for you?
Aronofsky: It put us over the top. . . . We walked into the festival
with no buzz. Vincent [Gallo] had all the buzz, “Smoke Signals” had all
the buzz; they were in all the articles. And then at our first
screening, we had a standing ovation, and it sort of switched. And that
was the great moment for “Pi”. People got really excited. That’s when
our sale got secured, I think. That was also when we knew we had a film
that an audience could react to emotionally. And it was great. And
then suddenly we started getting press. And what the awards do is that
every single journalist in the country who writes an article on Sundance
mentions the ones who won the awards. So even if you didn’t like the
movie, they’ll write about it because it won an award. Which was
great. It meant we got coverage everywhere that Sundance got coverage.
We were sort of the weird, artsy film at the beginning, but then we
started getting press for it and it was great.
iW: That’s quite an accomplishment; you went from weird arty thing to
something that actually spoke to people.
Aronofsky: You know who really liked it was the volunteers. Cool kids
from cities that come out so that they can snowboard and go to a film
festival. Some of them are wanna-be filmmakers, some of them are
filmmakers, some of them are just snowboarding and want to see
celebrities. But they were the kids — and those were the guys that
really liked the movie. It was this pop, underground uprising of the
kids that liked me.
iW: What do you think of the fact that there’s something in this movie
that initially didn’t speak to executives —
Aronofsky: The executives didn’t see it. They saw black and white, no
stars and they all got scared. That was all we could make at the
time. I begged them to get their executives to come. Bill Block, from
Live Entertainment, was at that first screening and I didn’t even know
who the hell he was at first. And he saw it and wanted it from the
beginning. He got it immediately. And then a bunch of executives regret
not being at that first screening when we sold it.
iW: Do you think you can see yourself doing this for the rest of your
Aronofsky: Making movies? We’ll see what happens. But I’m
definitely going to make another one. So we’ll see. Step by step. I
can only hope to keep doing it if I get paid eventually. I’m still
struggling. As I told you, the money is shared with all of the
filmmakers. I don’t really own any of it. It’s the way to do it, you
know. I have no regrets about it. I know that if I had gone into debt
and found the money myself, I would have made a lot of money, but I
wouldn’t have gotten the same sort of support from my actors and my
crew. That’s the most important thing on a film like this when you’re
not paying anyone. You have to make them part of the team in every way
possible. That’s the way to do it.
iW: How are you paying the rent now?
Aronofsky: Sliding deeper and deeper into debt. But the money’s going
to come real soon. I’m not that concerned, in fact. I’ve been eating
so many free meals, all I do now is buy everyone food. All my friends,
I take them out for drinks, even though I don’t have it, I put it on my
credit cards. So much has been going in my direction that if I don’t
start giving out, nothing else is going to come around again. I’ve had
more protein in this month, than I’ve had in the last two years.
iW: How has it been working with your distributor?
Aronofsky: I can’t even tell you how blessed we’ve been by working with
Live [now Artisan]. They’re really hip and they get the film. They’re
willing to work with me. They like my ideas. I like their ideas. It’s
been a great collaboration, so far. I was very nervous at one point,
because a lot of friends went and dealt with distributors and had to
change stuff. It’s a pain in the ass, at a certain point, you want to
be done with a film. I was done with “Pi.” I wanted to move on and
start the next film. I’ve been working on it for two years, and that’s
a long time for me. I called up one of the owners Amir Malin of
[Artisan] and I’m like, “Amir, you know, uh,” I was really nervous, “so,
do you want me to make any changes to the movie?” And he’s like [tough
guy voice] “I don’t want you to touch one fuckin’ frame of that
brilliant piece of work.” And I was like, “I like you, man. I like you
iW: How did you negotiate your distribution deal at Sundance?
Aronofsky: The only thing we negotiated was the price. [Artisan] came
in and they offered us certain things on the table and they’ve been
complete in honoring them. “We’ll give you five city minimum,” whatever
else was on the table went back and forth, but I wasn’t there for it.
They kept me out of the room and they knew it would get bloody and that
I shouldn’t be there if I’m going to work with these guys. It worked
out well. It wasn’t that bloody. It’s such a dream. When you get into
Sundance, all the distributors have you come over or take you out for a
meal. In fact, I had a meal here with someone from Fox. And we went
around to a few. Tom Bernard, from Sony Pictures Classics, came in
screaming at us. “Everyone’s always saying they’re going to get the
million dollar deal at Sundance, blah, blah, blah, blah, you’re not
going to get anything. It’s no advantage, it’s a place to launch your
movie, you should show us the movie now.” And when Tom saw it, he said,
“I’m too old for the movie. I didn’t get it. It’s a piece of shit.”
Whatever. But it was such a great feeling when the headline in Variety
read “Pi = $1 million.” It was just like, “Yes!”