INTERVIEW: "Pi" Progression, Aronofsky Returns With "Requiem"
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 10.6.00) --Before the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, "Pi" was just a mathematical constant and Darren Aronofsky was just a recent American Film Institute grad with a good idea. But Park City changed all that, as it often does, and Aronofsky's $60,000 first feature became a festival hit, winning him the Best Director award, a distribution deal and ongoing relationship with Artisan Entertainment, and a burgeoning career that few first-time filmmakers can match, let alone imagine. Aronofsky's name now appears regularly in the trades: a development deal with Dimension, another with New Line. And most recently -- and most famously -- he's been tapped to reinvigorate Warner Brothers' "Batman" franchise with a first crack at "Batman: Year One" (he's currently writing the script with legendary graphic artist Frank Miller).
When asked whether he saw himself as a lifelong filmmaker back in January of 1998, Aronofsky responded, "We'll see what happens. But I'm definitely going to make another one. So we'll see. Step by step." Aronofsky's second step has now arrived, with all the controversy and anticipation that few films engender. "Requiem for a Dream," based on Hubert Selby Jr.'s cult novel about four characters addicted to everything from diet pills to heroine (starring Jennifer Connelly, Jared Leto, Ellen Burstyn, and Marlon Wayans) comes out in theaters today. Speaking at Cannes, along with a more recent follow-up conversation, Aronofsky spoke extensively with indieWIRE's Anthony Kaufman about the special effects that went into the film, balancing style with story, the ratings controversy, and his future projects and financial struggles.
indieWIRE: After "Pi," we all read in the trades about this deal and that deal; what did that do to your confidence level going into this film? It seemed like the whole world was waiting to see your next project -- did you feel any pressure?
Darren Aronofsky: I really tried to ignore it and make the best film I could. My life style hasn't changed that much. I live in the same place that I lived while making "Pi." I'm still struggling financially, because you don't get paid for movies like "Requiem." I got paid $50,000 to direct "Requiem for a Dream" for about three years of work. And I'm still a workaholic, and I worked pretty much with the same team as I did on "Pi." So not that much has changed. How was the wait? Some "Pi" fans will like it, some "Pi" fans won't. It'll be interesting.
iW: It will be interesting. I think in many ways "Requiem" is a great progression for you. You go from black and white to color and you take a lot of the stylistic things you were playing with on "Pi" and you go further with it. Was a lot of that a function of budget?
Aronofsky: It was material, also. Part of the reason I was attracted to the Selby material was I saw similarities to "Pi" yet huge differences to "Pi." Yet it would allow me to execute some things that we didn't have the money to do on "Pi." And to try a few new things.
iW: What were some of those things?
Aronofsky: Different camera techniques. To use the same techniques in different ways. "Pi," we tried to make a fully subjective movie from Max's POV. And this film, this material was also very subjective. That's what lead to the split screen concepts. At the beginning of the film, I have two main stories and I wanted to differentiate them, because I wanted to show both of their subjective perspectives and experiences.
iW: But the more interesting use of split screen is when the lovers were in bed.
Aronofsky: It is. When you see sex scenes in movies, they suck. It's a low-risk version of pornography. And I needed to do a love scene and I wanted to do something that hadn't been done before, so I decided to do something that I was using stylistically elsewhere to help express the tenderness. I thought about this; they're apart even though they are connecting and touching each other. My last favorite sex scene was in "The Player," and that was sort of my goal: to make a sex scene that wasn't the same old shit.
iW: You did a lot of things with different effects.
Aronofsky: We started a digital effects company for this movie called Amoeba Proteus. Me and Eric [Watson, producer] and a couple of animators I went to college with. There are over 100 digital effects in "Requiem." The idea was not to do groundbreaking new effects, but to use old effects in new ways."
iW: It sounds a lot like what you were doing with "Pi."
Aronofsky: Yeah, but now doing it in digital. The skeletal effects definitely come from the direction of effects that can be felt, and not seen. Sometime, like the cookies and the cupcakes coming from the ceiling, they're very clearly visual. But for instance, when Sarah is in the hospital and gets injected by the nurse and walks away in slow motion, her face slightly shrinks. The idea is to do effects that are felt and not seen. For instance, taking the dissolve, the simple dissolve, which has been a film technique since Griffith and doing different parts of the screen dissolving at different times. For instance, when Harry transforms himself out to the pier through his imagination; first the window disappears, then the bed disappears, then the whole room disappears. Which is just a reinvention of how to use the dissolve. And things like the Vibrator-cam, which we used in "Pi" a lot for the headache scenes, we reinvented it, but we were allowed to have more freedom, because we did it digitally. We took their speech patterns; the graphs of their speech patterns and made the vibration to the loudness of their voices. So when they're quiet, it stops and when they scream, it peaks. So it was connected to the image. That stuff was done on Macs, basically, and then we took it to expensive machines. My whole theory behind Amoeba Proteus is that new racecars are always being made, but it's the drivers that are the important thing. I have these two great artists who I went to college with that I totally believe in and we're going to do an animated feature with them. We can always rent the racecars.
iW: What kind of programs did you use?
Aronofsky: After Effects.
iW: Talking about the effects, the sound design is very important. And I see that also continuing from "Pi."
Aronofsky: We try everything to paint the picture. We had the same sound designer as "Pi," Brian Emrich. You can really use sound to help capture the subjective experiences and suck audiences into the movie.
iW: And the score, as well, you have Clint Mansell, who also did "Pi."
Aronofsky: It's a great score, actually, some of Clint's beats, for instance, are samples from Bruce Lee punches, stolen from movies and basically, turned into beats. For the third act, for that driving music which climaxes the film, we sampled from the greatest Requiems of all time, Mozart, Verdi, and put them into a drum machine and programmed them and gave that to the Kronos Quartet and they played over it.
iW: In contrast to the heavy sound design and music, there's a very interesting extended scene between Harry and Sarah in the middle of the movie that's very still and quiet. The movie really stops there for them; what was your idea about that scene?
Aronofsky: That scene was one of the major reasons I did the film. When I read that scene in the book, I couldn't stop crying. I think everyone can connect to that in some way: everyone understands that relationship with a parent or grandparent who is losing it and there's nothing you can do. It might be for other reasons, but there's that miscommunication and you want to help and you want to reach out, but you just can't. That was an important scene for the film. It's the calmest scene visually as well as sound-wise; they're shot traditionally and I was very conscious of that.
iW: So the main criticism of the movie is that the film is all visual style without much substance; what's your reaction to that?
Aronofsky: I think it's easy to get lost in the filmmaking. And if they get lost in the filmmaking, they totally miss the performance. How can someone not see Ellen Burstyn's decline and feel for her. What do I need to do? Do I need to show her as a good person in a typical Hollywood way of being totally giving and then some injustice happening to her? Can't you feel for someone who's in pain? Do you need the normal structure? For instance, if this was a Hollywood film -- which it wouldn't exist -- that opening scene with Harry where he gets in a fight with his mother and she locks herself in the closet, would never ever have been, because how could one of your lead characters in the opening scene of the movie have any negativity? You have to make these characters that are so good or so evil, that having a character that's somehow pathetic or unbalanced, people don't feel for them?
iW: So how do you balance visual style with emotional story?
Aronofsky: I think it's a danger. I was extremely inventive, and I encouraged my whole team to go off, because I wanted to the push the edges of film grammar and experiment and use different techniques and have fun. But because I thought the film would benefit from having a lot of visual and sound excitement in a new way, it's dangerous because the greatest thing I've ever done in my life is capturing Ellen Burstyn's performance on film. So I'm hoping that people can sit back and see both things.
Filmmakers have to be very careful. An important lesson I learned when I was kid, was me and my sister and friends, use to put on little shows. We use to put on records and lip-sync or dance to them. And we'd invite the parents up and during this one show, I'll never forget, I turned off the lights and I had this big flashlight and had the spotlight on my sister dancing to some music. It was pitch black, except for this little spotlight. And my Dad screamed at me and said, "Turn on the lights!" And what I learned from that is that if it gets in the way of performance, then don't do it. And me and Matty (Libatique, Director of Photography) constantly said that to each other. So we tried to be as sensitive as possible, so whenever a great performance is happening, we stood back and let it happen. And I think the performances are there, but between the performances, there is some fireworks.
iW: So I wanted to ask you about the whole ratings controversy with the MPAA. Because of them, the film is going out unrated?
Aronofsky: I think there is a place in the world for the MPAA. I think it's important for people to know what they're going to go see when they pay their money for a movie. I think, though, their understanding of what the pulse of America is really, really behind the times. And needs a reinvention. I'm not saying I have the answers, but I'm just saying that type of thought needs to happen, because for one thing, the NC-17 rating is clearly outmoded, a hindrance and very problematic. There should be some type of rating for films that are meant for adults. It just needs to be defined for people in a lot clearer, more understandable way. And so I think "Requiem" is not gratuitous in any way. The MPAA had a problem with the 3-minute climax of the film. The entire film has been constructed to climax in that 3 minutes. It's meant to be an intense bombardment of sound and image. And if I was to trim in any way that sequence -- it's intensity -- I think I would undermine the whole purpose of the movie. So I'm glad Artisan is supporting me and we're not going to change it, so the film is going to be released unrated and that's that.
iW: Does that anger you because it might diminish the number of people who see it?
Aronofsky: I think it might attract more people, in fact, because a.) people want to see what the controversy is about. And b.) there's a hunger to see stuff that isn't fitting into the normal boundaries that everyone sees all the time.
iW: Have you been in touch with Artisan about problems booking the film?
Aronofsky: We haven't lost any bookings. We've lost some press, because certain TV shows, morning shows, have a little problem with an unrated film, because they're like, "We're family shows." Really, I don't think we've lost any theaters. You got to remember that "Requiem" won't ever be in a mall in Iowa. It's basically going to be in all the art theaters in America.
iW: I don't think you see enough filmmakers pushing stylistic boundaries these days. What's your reaction to independent filmmaking right now?
Aronofsky: For me, the promise of independent film is the ability to experiment. Because the money is independent. And so the fact that you can do that is extremely exciting. I think the best way to get recognition is to do something out there, to push the edges. Unless you hit it -- and do something really traditional really well, it's going to be nothing. Because you're not going to compete with everything else that's out there and has movie stars and is done technically better. So unless you think you can really nail that traditional style or that's just your style, I would encourage filmmakers to fucking break down walls, break down rules and make the film their own. And never do style without substance, cause that'll kill you, as well. Find your narrative and figure out a really smart way to shoot it. That's what I look forward to in independent film.
Then again, in Hollywood, you have so many interesting filmmakers making films on a big level within the system. You've got Fincher, Tim Burton, Paul Thomas Anderson, a lot of really talented filmmakers making their own stuff on a huge scale. And that, I think, is great.
iW: Aren't you going to be on that list pretty soon?
Aronofsky: "Pi" and "Requiem" are really art endeavors, but I also have a lot of interest in doing more commercial fare and I grew up on commercial movies, as long as the subject matter is good, I hope that I don't impose my style on a film, but try to find a style that comes out of the narrative.
iW: So what's this next big budget film?
Aronofsky: It's a first look deal with Artisan. They're giving us money to develop a project, to run our company and a lot of money to do some research and hire a staff. I'm trying to do something from the George Lucas school on a much smaller scale and hiring designers and special effects team now to help develop the story, so I can understand what's possible and doable now, so it can be an organic growth. So they're giving me that money to do that development. I own the copyright and they'll have a first look at the project when it's done and they have a small window to greenlight it and we can move ahead if they want to.
iW: And "Ronin" is on the backburner?
Aronofsky: Not really. We're looking to move ahead. We're trying to figure out what the next step in the development is. I think it's still a good project. That's pretty much it, except for the "Batman" stuff. I think it could be great. It would be a total re-invention. In the mean time, I got to pay the rent and keep writing.
iW: But things are going to change soon. You must have gotten some good money in this "Batman" deal?
Aronofsky: It's not that much money, it really isn't. The economics are just not that much money. I shouldn't be a spoiled brat; but ultimately the reason I'm motivated to make film is not for the money, it's ultimately something that wakes me up in the morning, because it's just too fucking hard of a job to do something for money in this business. If I really wanted to make money in this business, I would switch to TV, then I'd make a fortune. I really just want to keep making movies that I'm passionate about.
READ MORE INTERVIEWS with Darren Aronofsky at indieWIRE.com:
+ PRODUCTION: Last Exit to Success, Aronofsky Returns with "Requiem" (a
visit to the set)
+ The Whiz Kid -- Darren Aronofsky, writer/director of "Pi" (theatrical
release of "Pi")
+ PARK CITY 1998: An Interview with Darren Aronofsky and Sean Gullette of
"Pi" (Sundance 1998)