One of the most predictably oversubscribed events at the Marrakech International Film Festival this year was Darren Aronofsky’s masterclass. Lasting nearly two hours, however, and delivering a retrospective spin through the five feature films that make up his back catalog, as well as a few nuggets about the forthcoming “Noah,” it actually most caught fire when the proceedings were opened up to the audience. In this section, Aronsofky was at his most forthcoming and engaged, happy to share his expertise with the many film students who got questions in, and passionate in his encouragement of young local filmmakers.
During the course of the evening, he namechecked many filmmakers — Fellini, Kurosawa, Kubrick, Kusturica and Spielberg — and many films, including “Stop Making Sense” (director Jonathan Demme was in the audience) and more recently, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which he described as “one of the most amazing performances and moments of spirit that you’ll ever see in a movie.” Here's a recap of what we learned over the evening.
Aronofsky owes his start in filmmaking to his college roommate.
[At college I was] waiting for that moment when a light would shine on me and tell me what to do. And luckily my roommate was an animator and he would end the year with a movie, and I would end it with a bunch of papers with B minuses on them. So I was terrfied to start studying filmmaking, but he gave me the strength, and then I started to edit, cutting with real film. I was really good at working that machine, so I helped other people with it, and discovering editing and the power of a strong cut is what gave me the energy to make films.
Aronofsky feels he’s become looser in his filmmaking style from film to film.
I’ve become more and more loose as I’ve progressed. I used to shotlist and storyboard everything. And now [I just do that for] really difficult technical scenes where visual effects are a major part. If it’s just actors and a set I go completely unprepared, put them in the location and try and figure out a moment. It’s less work for me, because I have to do less homework, but it also I think is a better process.
"The Fountain” and ‘Requiem’ are much more formal and I was on sticks a lot, but then “The Wrestler” was very much a verite documentary style, so I started to work with handheld cameras. I think every movie has its own visual language and it’s your job as director to figure out what’s the best language to tell that story. Sometimes there’s economic reasons, but then you try to figure out how to make that part of the language of the film.
I worked the least in “The Wrestler” than I ever worked, as far as the amount of pain that went in. And I think I even worked a little less on “Black Swan,” so sometimes it’s not how hard you work, it’s just getting into the groove of what’s in front of you.
His only real regret about “The Fountain” is how much it cost, but he believes its themes are still relevant.
It was the film I wanted to make. Of all my movies, to the people that are fans, it’s almost like a cult religion, they get tattoos and I’m constantly getting long letters from people saying it helped them come to terms with something. So I think it works for a much smaller audience because ultimately the film is about coming to terms with your own death, which is not a big commercial idea for a lot of people. The unfortunate thing about that film is it cost a lot of money to make, but is probably more of an art/experimental film than the budget it warranted.
The way we treat old people and people who are dying is just…with all our advances in science we’ve just become incredibly cruel with how the end of life is dealt with — especially in the States, it’s really messed up. And the beginning of life too — giving birth in America you have to do it in a hospital and there are very few options for natural childbirth. So Western science has taken control of the way we are born and the way we die, and there’s really no spirituality to it any more. [laughs] This is why that was not a commercial movie.
Darren Aronofsky's friends warned him against working with Mickey Rourke
[Rourke] was such a tricky character to figure out how he works — he’s such a beautiful character. Everyone, all my friends said, "You cannot make a feature film with Mickey Rourke. No one gives a shit about him, no one’s gonna care to watch him for 90 minutes, he’s an animal, he’s disgusting." But then after the first day I realized that I had an incredible, sympathetic creature, and that was the thing, to show the beauty and the beast.
We wrote “The Wrestler” for Mickey. Very early on his name came up and he just got stuck in my head. When the writer was working on it there was a picture of Mickey over his typewriter.
Shooting Rourke’s big speech in the ring in “The Wrestler” was a wild experience.
It was an amazing moment, that sequence — it was in front of a live audience. We put on actual wrestling events with actual promotions that brought their own wrestlers out, and then in the middle of the show we’d go out and shoot our movie. So we really had one or two takes before the audience would start getting crazy and annoyed with us, because wrestling fans are not very nice people. We got cursed out and screamed at “Get out of here, Hollywood!” …And this was a 360 shot, so there was nowhere for me to go, I was just standing to the side of the ring screaming at the cameraman telling him where to go, but he couldn’t hear me because the crowd was so loud and he just got in the moment and it became this dance between the two of them. And that’s something that you know you’ve set up and you talk about it beforehand, but really it’s in the hands of the great craftsman and the great actor and sometimes you’re not involved in it, you just let go and it becomes a real thing. That was the one take we did, and it worked out so well.
His collaboration with cinematographer Matthew Libatique is a marriage of sorts, and the cinematographer’s work on “Noah” is hugely impressive
It’s like a marriage – good at times, mostly bad. We did get a divorce, just before "The Wrestler," and I got remarried… but then we got back together after that. He’s a real artist and he really cares and that’s hard to find. We just finished shooting “Noah” two weeks ago and I’m really glad I don’t have to see him again for a few months. But then when I see him again I know I’ll love him, because we’re great friends. It’s just that we’re both always fighting to get as much as we can, and not everyone’s always happy with what we get, because there’s always limitations on filmmaking.
On “Noah” he just had incredible technical abilities, and they type of things we pulled off — I think there’s very few people on the planet that could have done what he can do. There were nights when we had six huge cranes — the type you build skyrises with — holding up giant rigs of lights and rain rigs and the complication and sophistication of the equipment is just so technically difficult that very few people could have done that. So there are those skills, but he also has the tenderness and sensitivity to look at a performance and see how he can help it.
Aronofksy believes that "Noah" can connect with modern audiences
I haven’t really started to talk about the film yet because I only finished filming two weeks ago, so I really don’t know yet what’s going on and what it’s about.
In the Bible the story is only a couple of pages, and the perception we have of it in the West is more as a children’s toy — an old man with a long beard and animals two by two on the boat. And there’s so much more to the story than that…there’s a lot of clues there about what the story means. So it was about trying to create a world where the story of Noah could be truthful and could take place, and make it something that could connect to a modern audience. There’s a lot of ideas in that story that actually are very, very relevant to what’s going on right now, so we tried to create a story that would ring true to people both that believe that it really happened and to those who think it’s a story.
His advice to budding filmmakers? Kill your darlings and every rewrite should be a full rewrite.
I could look at a shot and go “that took me 12 hours to do, and it was really hard and it was raining and no one can tell – I can’t take that out, it shows my pain.” But if it means nothing to anyone it has to go. I used to say that a movie’s not done until you’ve cut out your favorite shot and there’s some truth to that, because usually your favorite shot sticks out because it’s somehow more beautiful or more something than everything else, and it usually doesn’t belong.
A big mistake for a lot of writers is they’ll work on the first twenty pages of their screenplay over and over and it’ll be a great twenty pages, but then the next eighty pages is slowly getting worse and worse. It’s like if you were to focus on the hand of a sculpture you were making – the hand might be beautiful, but it would be grotesquely huge as compared to the rest of the body. Each time you do a pass you have to go all the way to the end, is a rule I’ve made.