Darren Aronofsky is a storyteller. Over the course of his 16-year career, he has told countless stories of tragedy, self-destruction, addiction, faith and love on screen. On Tuesday night at the New Museum Theater, the Academy Award-nominated director sat down with novelist Lynne Tillman to reflect on his own story as a part of the Stuart Regen Visionaries Series. He pointed to his influences from his upbringing in Brooklyn, his college career as a young visual arts student and his profound relationship with Hubert Selby Junior. Using each of his films as a touchstone on the map of his career, the pair explored the heavy thematic material present in all of his films and his ultimate thoughts on how his films relate to our reality. What he reveals may surprise you:
The director’s repressed Brooklyn twang presented itself every so often throughout the conversation, foregrounding his earliest influences from growing up in Brooklyn to unconventional filmmakers that he discovered in local video stores.
“When Brooklyn was Brooklyn, and not the creature it has become now, there were two types of people. People who were going to stay there for the rest of their lives and people who wanted to get to the big city. I always wanted to get to the big city. I always had a taste for what other people didn’t like. I was into Spike Lee’s “Shes Gotta Have It” and seeing that film made me realize there could be something different than the stuff I had grown up on. Something changed when I started watching Spike movies and Jim Jarmusch’s films and with the birth of the American independent film. I came to age when the video store was king, which is a gift that my generation of filmmakers is starting to realize was this major thing because suddenly we could go in and see every Fellini and Kurosawa film. I probably rented those films because there was a girl with big tits and a badass samurai on the covers.”
As an undergraduate at Harvard, he began studying “arts and crafts” as his parents called it where he first began to observe the relationship between visual art and filmmaking. His visual art background clearly helped as Aronofsky typically brings vibrant visual aesthetics into all of his films. His first film, “Pi” is evident of that.
“Pi” really was a lot of ideas I had been thinking about through my 20’s. They were all the coolest things and ideas I was playing with and I weaved them together like a fabric or tapestry of ideas. I decided to make a film surrounding something I had been studying which was subjectivity in film. I also started thinking about the difference between theater and film. With theater, you’re really objective, you’re just watching from the audience. One of the really beautiful things about film is that you can really put the audience inside of a character’s mind. I think “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream” were really my exploration of those ideas—how to make a fully subjective movie.”
There is no denying that the tragic character arc is something that permeates many of his films, especially in “Requiem For A Dream.” When asked why he gravitates toward it, he said, “It’s funny because tragedy used to be an accepted form of entertainment. But we don’t do tragedy in Hollywood very well. No matter what, it is always spoiled with some type of cherry on top or something good has to happen at the end. But, I think by revealing the darkness, you actually shine a huge light on everything. By going through the experience of these dark characters you’re actually able to reflect on choices you may make in your life.”
Aronofsky and Tillman went on to discuss Aronofsky’s other films including “The Wrestler,” “The Fountain” and “Black Swan,” and explored his immensely powerful thoughts on parallelism, immortality and perfection. Each film is so layered with thematic pathos, it’s hard to believe viewers are able to interpret these films without Aronofsky’s explanations.
He concluded with an impassioned speech on “Noah,” his biblical epic released earlier this year. He shocked the audience when he causally mentioned that the terrorist group, ISIS, has been using imagery from his film in their newsletters. He used this example to bridge the gap between reality and myth.
“One of the biggest issues we have in the world today is literalism. There is more power in accepting these old books as mythology. Instead of fighting over ‘did it really happen or did it not happen,’ we should realize that this is a great mythical story and it’s one of our greatest stories that belongs to the entire world no matter what your religious beliefs are. It’s why it’s a great thing as a filmmaker to go back to these myths and stories and to use them to talk about where we are today.”
It may sound like a cliché to us, but Aronofsky is a self-proclaimed purveyor of clichés.
“One thing that Selby used to say was it’s called a cliché for a reason because it’s often true. That is something I think about a lot. There’s nothing wrong with a cliché, its just how you execute it. I would argue that most of my plots are cliché. It’s just a matter of how you tell the story.”
Aronofsky spoke to Indiewire afterward and when asked what he tries to communicate to young filmmakers (he is currently a professor at NYU) he simply said, “Original voices. That’s when you get a really great independent film. That is what’s most exciting to me–when you see something that only that person could have made. Seeing that originality of vision is great. For me, the filmmakers that inspire me are filmmakers whose films only exist because no one else would make them.”