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An Interview with Darren Aronofsky and Sean Gullette of ‘Pi

From Sundance 1998: Aronofsky and star Sean Gullette of "Pi" speak to IndieWire about the "fully subjective" indie classic.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Artisan Ent/REX/Shutterstock (5877692e)Sean GullettePi - 1998Director: Darren AronofskyArtisan EntUSAScene Still

Artisan Ent/REX/Shutterstock

With a standing ovation after their second screening and industry electricity surrounding this metaphysical portrait of man’s nature and numerology, “Pi” is one of the more talked about films in this year’s Sundance dramatic competition. Inspired by the Japanese surreal, sci-fi film “Tetsuo” and influenced by Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” and Frank Miller’s comic book “Sin City,” writer-director Aronofsky, a Harvard and then AFI grad, came to Sundance two years ago “very lost,” but now returns with this visually enticing, paranoiac flick.

More than just a constant 3.14 to find the circumference of a circle, “pi” is a cinematic experience that follows Maximillian Cohen, a repressed, young mathematician, searching for a numerical pattern in the chaos of the stock market. With “offers on the table,” Aronofsky is confident that the film will be distributed, “it’s going to be a company that wants to do business with me. It’s going to be a company that makes films. I’m ready to go.” He assures me, “We’ll get theatrical.” With Sundance more than half-way through, we’ll likely see very soon.

Darren Aronofsky: The idea behind “pi” was to make a fully subjective movie — meaning never to cut away to the bad guys going “We’re going to control the stock market” so we made up all these bogus rules, me and the D.P., Matty Libatique, so we can only shoot over Sean’s shoulder, so that we are in Sean’s story. We can shoot the other actors almost P.O.V., almost straight-on, but Sean was almost always shot in profile, so he was more of an objective and the audience was seeing his point of view more subjectively. That was the intent, at least, we tried to stick to that from the music to the lighting. . . The one thing we got out of the American Film Institute was the Art of the Story. I had a great teacher there Stuart Rosenberg, who did “Cool Hand Luke” and some of the original Twilight Zones. And Rod Serling is clearly the patron saint of the movie. So, the Art of the Story, was basically a shot doesn’t mean shit unless it’s inspired by the story. Because we were trying to be subjective, every little gimmick we did we tried to have a reason for.

indieWIRE: But the themes you are dealing with are not exactly cinematic. You take certain philosophical, epistemological questions in this movie and I would think it would have been a hard sell, but it seems to have been successful.

Aronofsky: I think we tried to visualize it as much as possible and trying to not make it esoteric. People seem to be responding that they get it. People who hate math are like, “it’s not a math movie, it’s a mystical movie.” It’s pop math, really, everyone bought “Chaos,” that chaos book that everyone first the first three pages and then it became a doorstop or something. That’s what the film is. It’s like the first three pages of those cool math books.

Sean Gullette: It is also a character piece. There’s layers. There’s the Kabbahl layer, there’s the number theory layer, there’s the mysticism layer, but beneath all that, there’s a layer of the lonely, alienated character. . .

Aronofsky: The mad scientist, the Faust story. . .

Gullette: There’s the knowledge layer too. But I think the bottom most layer there is a real emotional character — a lonely guy who thinks if he discovers this, it’ll fix everything that’s wrong with his sad life.

iW: There’s also the engaging visual element. Even if you don’t follow the theory or you don’t get into the character, you are responding viscerally to that black and white photography.

Aronofsky: Matty was brave enough to take on Reversal film, which many of us shot in film school, and its black and white Reversal, extremely hard film stock to expose. We didn’t want it to end up looking like “Clerks” and be all gray. We wanted it to be black or white. We were inspired by “Sin City” by Frank Miller — he just does white scratches into black ink. Matty was a master of exposure. . . I can’t tell you, we did three hundred feet of test. That’s all we could afford. Three hundred feet of 16mm test, on a Bolex, which is absurd. We shot most of it on an Aaton. But then, Matty just nailed it, there was some reshooting, but I’d say 90% of his exposures were nailed, which is amazed. Like on paper, he’s shooting newspaper on Reversal and to get the black black and the white white, I mean, if it’s off half a stop, it’s unusable.

iW: Did you do a lot of post-production sound?

Aronofsky: Tremendous amount. I think a lot of independent films fail because of bad sound. Finally, that’s getting around. Because if you don’t spend the money on sound, even if it’s a great movie, there’s something missing, there’s this weird claustrophobia and I don’t think the audience knows what it is, but there’s something wrong. . .

iW: Well, you can’t hear.

Aronofsky: We were very, very detailed. We knew we were going to have this really abstract imagery and the only way to get the audience in was really layering sounds. We had this incredible composer, Clint Mansell, from this band called Pop Will Eat Itself and they split up, he has been around, hibernating creative energy just building, and it just burst on the screen for us. He wrote 70 minutes of original music for us. The rest of the soundtrack was filled out by a Who’s Who of electronic music from Orbital to Electric Sky Church. And the sound design was done by this guy named Brian Emrich, who is a bassist for Fetus and Brian is good friends with Clint, so they were able to collaborate on those headache scenes, exchanging sounds, so the landscapes, sound design and the score could totally intertwine.

iW: It’s not an easy film. It’s a bold, brave film. Lot of people are still making cliche, formula stuff. . .

Aronofsky: The great thing about Sundance is that I came here two years ago. Very lost. I had been trying to set up a film in New York for a long time. It’s just too big for me. You can imagine what “pi” looked like on paper. I came to Sundance and I really saw the films they were praising were really great films made by directors who were really doing their films. Here are these bad-ass people who went out, made out their own projects and Sundance is praising them, and you know what, if you go out, you do what you want to do, if you’re not a copycat and you just do it, you’ll get recognized. That’s the only way to do it well.

iW: You had a lot of producers on your film, didn’t you?

Aronofsky: That’s the only way to get it done. A film made for $60,000, the only way you get it done is with a tremendous amount of favors. Every single filmmaker on the film from the P.A. to me to Sean to the producer to the first A.C. are all equal profit sharers in the film. There’s a pool of 50% of the film which all of us share equally. That’s the way to do it. That’s how we got their passion.

Gullette: It is the way to do it and that fucking Republican Vinny Gallo (who also has a nice ass) was saying, “Oh, you hippie, commie, pinko, faggots, oh, you’re always talking about making your films as a labor of love and everybody’s working for free and all so gay and left.” I don’t want to dispute that, but if you’re not already a movie star, it’s an important business model that the people who are working on the film think it’s their film. Period.

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