Each day this week, Christopher Campbell will take a look back at a “classic” film that played the Sundance Film Festival. Today’s installment: Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998).
Today’s story is a little shorter than the rest in this series, but it’s worth remembering because it involves another instance where one Sundance success directly resulted in the making of a later Sundance success (a la Slacker leading to Clerks). The earlier film in this case was Welcome to the Dollhouse, which Darren Aronofsky saw at the 1996 festival. In Peter Biskind’s book Down and Dirty Pictures, Aronfsky comments on the experience: “I thought it was such a unique, weird film, that it really gave me the courage to go back to New York and just try to throw something together.” That November he was in production on Pi.
A little over a year later, the stylish black and white Pi premiered at Sundance. When he submitted the film, Aronofsky thought maybe it could fit into the festival’s midnight program. Instead, it was selected for competition, alongside High Art, Buffalo ‘66, Next Stop Wonderland and Slam, which would win the Grand Jury Prize. Aronofsky would go on to win the Best Director award, but that wasn’t until near the end of the festival. Days beforehand, the filmmaker was given a first impression that Pi might leave Sundance with bupkis.
The first screening, an all-industry presentation, did not go so well. Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein apparently refused to see the film. October Films’ Bingham Ray reportedly hated it and walked out. When the movie ended, there was little applause and not one person asked a question during the Q&A. Fortunately, one important person eventually saw Pi and liked it enough to make it a modest hit while also taking Aronofsky’s promising career under his wing: Amir Malin, who’s company Live Entertainment would soon be renamed Artisan Entertainment and would soon explode as one of the most successful independent distributors of the late ‘90s.
Below is the first 20 minutes of Pi. The rest of the film can be found on YouTube in segments if you get hooked.
Watch the trailer for the film: