Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan opened the Venice Film Festival and took the Lido by storm. I talked with the director about the long “nightmare” of getting the script right and financing the film, casting Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassel, shooting in a gritty up-close verite style, and how he set about “creeping out” the audience.
AT: Do you have a sense of who you made this movie for?
DA: I never do that. For me it’s like, “it’s got a lot of good scares, and I think a lot of people my age will enjoy it.”
AT: I think it’s going to play young, and for men too, but women are tricky, just because it’s so intense. You’re always intense.
DA: Should have taken that staple gun out!
AT: No. You gotta do what you gotta do. Everybody wants you to take chances.
DA: It’s not about taking chances, it’s about making memorable films. You’re in the world with so much media, so many distractions, that you gotta give people something that they’re not going to forget. That’s what we all want, and we go on the roller coaster just to be brought to the brink of insanity and terror. I like to be pushed and I like to push; it’s fun.
AT: What took this project so long to get made?
DA: It was really hard. Every time I think it’s going to get easier and easier, and every time, no one wants to make these movies. So once again we had no one who wanted to make the movie. I thought having Natalie Portman, a legitimate movie star, having Vincent Cassel, an international movie star and Mila Kunis, who’s a big domestic star, and my supporting cast with Barbara [Hershey] and Wynona [Ryder], I didn’t think it would be as hard and it was a nightmare.
AT: Didn’t [foreign sales agent/financeer] The Wild Bunch come out well on “The Wrestler”
DA: And so did Fox Searchlight, but they both said no.
AT: What was the commercial risk for them? Was the budget too big?
DA: The money on the screen was $13 million (with some back expenses to Universal). It was developed at Phoenix for a while, and then I brought it into Universal, so they owed some money, but it’s under $15 million in the end.
AT: Natalie Portman was attached for a long time?
DA: I’ve been a fan since “The Professional,” literally, I love that movie, so I’ve always known her, and her manager was a year above me in college, so we kind of grew up in the business and she was like, “oh, you gotta meet Natalie,” so I met Natalie a long time ago, and I’ve always liked her and thought about her for stuff. We met in Times Square. She says it’s eight years ago (she was a junior in college). We went to the Howard Johnson’s and had a coffee. My sister studied ballet as a kid, so I was really interested in it. When I started to think about things for features, I was like, “wow, it would be really interesting with the ballet world, because no one has done anything really serious in that world since “The Red Shoes,” unless it’s a kind of romantic “Turning Point”: you see a dancer spinning and then it cuts to Anne Bancroft and she’s at the bar, like sweating. It’s a little silly.
AT: How did you pull the dancing off with Portman? Did she do everything? The toe work must have been someone else?
DA: Not everything, but a lot of it. That shot, in the opening prologue when she walks off into the light and she’s flapping her wings, and she’s on point, that is 100%, untouched, no digital Natalie Portman. When the camera pulls out on her and she’s on top of the ramp and she’s bleeding, and she’s on point, right before she jumps–that is Natalie Portman on point. She was able to, she got up on point, she was doing pirouettes, you know, it was amazing. There are wide shots in the film where we did use a replacement, but that’s because physically the body is transformed when you start dancing at four, your turnout – that you can’t recreate.
AT: But she did study ballet?
DA: I think only till thirteen and now it’s just a hobby. Two months out I was really nervous. I was like, “Oh, my gosh.” Then something clicked. She became—the grace appeared, the struggle disappeared. All the shots when we’re with her – that’s her, there’s no other way to do that otherwise.
AT: So it turns out Vincent Cassel also studied ballet. How did you come up with him?
DA: I’ve been a fan of Cassel since “La Haine,” Kassovitz’s film. He’s got so much charisma, he’s so unique looking and so sexy and so powerful and so dangerous. There’s just so much going on with him. I didn’t know that [Jean-Pierre Cassel] was the Fred Astaire of France until he showed me some footage of his father. I had heard that [Vincent] moved very well, he had done some martial arts so I knew that he was into athletics and sport; that was good. Originally the role was written for a Russian, but ballet is very international; we were always trying to make it an international cast. One of my producer partners on the film, Ari Handel, said, “what about Vincent Cassel?” and I was like, “oh, yeah, duh!” It made perfect sense. We met in London and it was done.
AT: So back to the development process…the writing of the script came when?
DA: I had the idea of the ballet world and I was thinking of doing something with “The Double” with Dostoevsky. I saw Swan Lake, I had never been to the ballet, and suddenly I saw a black swan and a white swan played by one dancer and I was like “oh.” It was a eureka moment, because it was The Double in the ballet world. I was like, “Ok, I’ve got something.”
Right about the same time this script came around, when I was editing “Requiem for a Dream,” called “The Understudy,” by Andres Heinz. It was “All About Eve” with a double, set in the off-Broadway world. There was a bidding war on it and Phoenix bought it and then I couldn’t make it. I think it had to do with me wanting final cut on it, and Mike [Medavoy] said, “I’ll protect you.” I didn’t know Mike at the time. Now I know that he is a director’s producer, very protective, but I was really very novice, it was my second film, so it didn’t work out. Mike developed it with John Avnet for a few years (that’s why John Avnet has a credit on the film), but they kept it in the Broadway world.
And then I tried to keep developing it off of “The Double,” but we couldn’t really make it work without a lot of the elements Andreas had in his story. They had tried to make it work in the Off-Broadway world, but years later it still didn’t work. I came back to Mike, after “The Fountain” maybe. I said, “what’s happening with that, you know I’d love to…” and we brought on this good writer who I had worked with, John McLaughlin. He took my idea of Swan Lake and the ballet and put [the story] into the ballet world and changed the title to Black Swan from The Understudy. And then we set it up at Universal when I had an overhead deal there. And then it never really quite worked, the script. He did a lot, John’s a really good horror writer. So it sort of died, again.
AT: Did you envision it as a really intense thriller?
DA: I think The Understudy was a psychological thriller to start with so that was the engine that it was attached to – a Polanski-ish Repulsion with a Double type of thing. I love Repulsion.
AT: What about Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now?
DA: Yes, I was talking to Roeg [Sutherland, CAA agent] last night, ’cause he put [Black Swan] together (he’s named after Nicolas Roeg). So then, after The Wrestler, I turned to Mark Heyman, who is my director of development at Protozoa, my company, who really did a tremendous amount of work helping Rob Siegel on The Wrestler, to make that script function, and he wanted to write something. So I said, “do you want to give the ballet project a try?” And we dove in together and Mark wrote it and made it something that was workable.
AT: When did Searchlight come in?
DA: Well everyone turned it down, and who do you go to these days? Wild Bunch was like, “we’ll give you ten” and we just couldn’t make it. They tried to make it work with their formula, but because there was no domestic, and it would be all pre-sales, they couldn’t make the numbers work. And then Fox Searchlight also didn’t like the number on it. So we raised the money independently from a few different people, and the money fell apart two weeks out. We were $1 million dollars in, and the money didn’t really exist. Roeg scrambled, and I went to Claudia [Lewis, at Searchlight], who meanwhile had been giving us notes on the script.
AT: Assuming they’d buy it eventually?
DA: I think she liked it, she was just hedging bets a little bit, making us get better, I had casted it up and she liked the casting choices, so Claudia stepped in and put herself on the line a bit.
AT: Do you think this whole process made it a better movie?
DA: Of course. Fox Searchlight is a very good creative company and Claudia and her team are really smart.
AT: You hinted that they might have wanted you to soften it or gloss it up?
DA: No. They did talk about shooting the ballet sequences in 35mm, that was their idea.
AT: Why go with Super 16, the same as The Wrestler?
DA: I just like it. I went for it. But widescreen. I shot it in 3-2-5. I like Super 16 because the cameras are really light, really moveable. Also, for The Wrestler it was a money-saving thing. The film stocks on 35mm would become so glossy that they’d get close to what people are doing on video. I wanted to go back to the grainy, verite feel of The Wrestler.
AT: Why did you go back to cinematographer Matthew Libatique?
DA: Because we decided it was time to work together again. But it was a huge decision actually.
AT: Because filming dancing is a particular skill. But you had preparation from The Wrestler in a weird way.
DA: Like with wrestling, ballet is shot in wide shot with two shots on the side, and no one really brought the camera–well, wrestling– into the ring or for us, onto the stage and into the practice room. I really wanted the camera to dance, but I was nervous about shooting a psychological thriller/horror film with a hand-held camera. I couldn’t think of another example where they did that.
AT: Well, John Carpenter did it with steady-cams.
DA: But steady-cams are very different than hand-helds, because hand-held gives you that verite feel. I was concerned if that would effect the suspense, but after a while I said, “screw it, let’s go for it.”
AT: Did you want the audience to have a sense of being close-up inside her point-of-view? And she is an unreliable narrator.
DA: To say the least, yeah. Well that’s the thing with The Wrestler, it’s the same thing I did in Pi and Requiem. I like subjective filmmaking, and they are basically character portraits.
AT: Did you debate how much to tell the audience what was real?
DA: Being unreliable and going insane: there’s going to be ambiguities of, “what, did I just see that or not?” Technically, it was a real challenge, how to portray that on film. How many frames of her seeing the double do we give to the audience so that they pick it up? And then there’s all these little subtle things we’ve done throughout the film. Any time there’s a mirror, there’s a manipulation going on. And because its widescreen, and actually it was really interesting, because people are looking at this side of the screen and we were actually playing with things on the other side of the screen, which I think peripherally, I’m hoping, will kind of creep people out.
AT: It creeped me out. How intense could it be? It’s very R-rated in terms of the sexuality.
DA: Well in America it’s a shame that you can kill people with guns and get PG-13 and any time you approach any type of sexuality it’s rated R. That’s the main thing about the MPAA—well, about America—that hasn’t changed. I mean I walk around the streets with my four-year-old and there’s guns on posters everywhere and he reacts more to that than to a woman in a bikini. It’s messed up. That thing Nikita is all over New York and it’s really upsetting; it’s designer guns, really messed up. What is our society that we’re terrified of sexuality and we’re totally fine with arms?
AT: So the hot lesbian sex scene between Portman and Kunis, did Fox try to get you to cut that down at all?
DA: No, why, is it too dirty?
AT: No, it’s great. I wanted it to be true, for them to get together in the movie.
DA: It may be.
AT: (SPOILER ALERT): As I understand it, you basically bring Portman back to reality most of the time, where she figures out what really happened. But you are also doing something weird with her shoulders from the beginning that takes a while for the audience to figure out.
DA: That’s good. That’s the cool thing: the ballet Swan Lake is gothic. The story is: during the day she’s a swan, and at night she’s like a half-swan-half-human creature. I was going, “that’s a werewolf movie.” She’s a were-swan: “oh, Natalie Portman turning into this creature, how exciting!” And I wanted the metamorphosis to be a surprise for that big final, don’t-want-to-spoil-it moment, because she’s struggling with those spins, so it’s set up throughout the film, and then finally she’s able to do it and unleash it. We really worked on trying to reinvent the werewolf genre.
AT: You were supposed to remake Robo-Cop at MGM. Is that all gone?
DA: It’s not all gone as far as I understand. It was the beginning of last summer that we started this: MGM with Robo-Cop, or this movie that’s ready to go? So we went with this. I feel like I made the right choice on that one. I mean, they’re not making The Hobbit or James Bond. That’s like guaranteed money. Robo-Cop might be a lower risk, but you’re like minting money with those, you know?
AT: What else do you have lined up?
DA: I have a lot of things, but I don’t really know what I’m going to do. I’m going to play this out a little bit, take a break, a breather for a little bit. See what’s out there, and figure it out.