Iceland might seem like an ideal setting for a Darren Aronofsky movie — it’s where he shot “Noah,” after all — but that’s not why he came to the country this month. Instead, he was in town to receive the Creative Excellence award from the Reykjavík Film Festival. The award was presented at Bessastaðir, the presidential residency where the newly elected Guðni Th. Jóhannesson resides. But before the Golden Puffin was presented, the writer, poet and environmental activist Andri Snær Magnason delivered a short speech in Aronofsky’s honor. Ironically, Andri Snær recently lost to Guðni in the presidential election. Say what you will about Aronofsky’s films, but at least they have been able to bridge the gap between the two opponents.
The following day, Aronofsky held a Master Class at RIFF, moderated by the aforementioned Andri Snær and director Þóranna Sigurðardóttir, whose recent work includes the acclaimed short “Zelos” and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ video for their latest single “Go Robot.” She also worked with Aronofsky as the Unit Production Manager on “Noah,” which utilized Iceland’s desolate landscape for the post-apocalyptic version of the biblical tale. In a conversation that ranged from the thematic connections between his work and the process of getting them made to the crafts of writing, financing and distribution, Aronofsky — who also recently produced the Natalie Portman vehicle “Jackie” — held the packed auditorium in rapt attention.
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At last year’s festival, director David Cronenberg received the Lifetime Achievement Award. It was clear then that Cronenberg’s films were both having trouble being financed and getting very limited theatrical releases. Perhaps as an antidote to the rather doomed feeling that discussion left, Aronofsky’s work is proof that demanding and original work still has a place within mainstream narrative filmmaking, giving plenty of hope for the future.
Here are four takeaways from his talk.
He Takes His to Time to Write
When asked which part of the filmmaking process was hardest, Aronofsky had an easy answer: ”Here’s the secret: They all suck.” On a more serious note, he added that every project requires a certain gestation period while he considers the entire premise. “My approach is to discuss and think about the project for a long time, in order to have a structure before I start writing,” he said. “I often have these big, crazy ideas, like Max using the drill in ‘Pi.’ I then try to write towards these moments.”
While writing that breakout film, Aronofsky went off to a cabin to finish what he called a muscle draft, “something that has everything I need that I can then reshape into something that works as a screenplay.” The cabin belonged to a friend’s parents, where he intended to stay until he finished the draft. “They were academics and there were books all over the house, which was great for procrastination,” he said. But Aronofsky ended up picking a very motivating piece of literature.
“They had a copy of Stephen King’s ‘Carrie,’” Aronofsky recalled. “So I started reading it and ended up scaring myself shitless. I ended up writing the draft in a day and a half just to be able to leave.”
He’s Used to Fights With Financiers
Given his challenging work, financing is a struggle that has generally taken a year of work for each picture. “After I made ‘Requiem for a Dream,’ I wanted to make ‘The Fountain,’ but the only response I got was ‘How about you make “Batman”?'” Aronofsky said.
“The Fountain” was initially planned as a more expensive vehicle for Brad Pitt, but the project fell apart weeks before production was slated to commence; even the crew had started production on pyramids in an Australian studio. Aronofsky had already started working on his next movie, “The Wrestler.”
“I realized I was closer to a cheaper version of ‘The Fountain,’” he said. “That basically turned the film from an action-adventure movie into a love poem about death.”
Even the psychological horror film “Black Swan,” was a struggle to get going. “Everyone told me that horror fans don’t like ballet and ballet fans don’t like horror,” he said. In desperation, Aronofsky sought the help of some suspicious characters. “There was this really shady financier who invited me to lunch at this place which sold hamburgers that cost $25,” he said. “Then I knew I was in trouble.”
Their plan involved taking high interest loans, paying them back and re-borrowing with a lower interest. The scheme collapsed two weeks before production started, which may have helped the project in the long run, Aronofsky said. Desperate for resources, he called Fox Searchlight, begging for the remaining money to make the film. The studio got on board, but encouraged the director to take the film further into the horror realm, something he believes improved it.
He Shoots a Lot of Footage
Aronofsky explained that so much of his filmmaking comes in the editing, so he works to gather as much footage as possible. “Russell Crowe called me greedy, which really pissed me off,” the director said. “I need to be greedy with time. You have a limited time for the shooting, and you need to use every second that you can to get stuff to take to the editing room. If you don’t get it you just lose it.”
The shooting process also puts Aronofsky in close contact with the most mercurial of filmmaking elements – the actors. When asked about his approach to directing the actors, Aronofsky discussed that you need a different approach for different people, but the most important thing is mutual trust.
“When I was working with Natalie Portman on ‘Black Swan,’ we were able to build a really great relationship,” Aronofsky said. “I could just ask her to give me a bit more of the White Swan for some takes and a bit more of the Black Swan for others.” He added that Hugh Jackman, with whom Aronofksy collaborated on “The Fountain,” was the kind of actor who could give you anything you needed and fine-tune his performance to achieve it.
“But there are other actors who are more like wild animals who are unleashed and surf on the wave of their emotions,” he added.
Aronofsky’s upcoming project, an untitled relationship drama due to come out next year, co-stars Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem. Aronofsky said the Spanish actor was an especially gratifying collaborator. “I could ask him to do something specific and he’d come at it with that intention,” he said, “but then that wave just comes and you need to surf that.”
Þóranna, the moderator, mentioned that Aronofsky was a great communicator who was able to get his vision across to the whole crew, through a method he called The Circle. However, Aronofsky begged off discussing the mysterious approach.
His New Film Is a Mystery
Aronofsky also remained highly secretive regarding his latest project, which finished shooting a few weeks ago in Canada, with Lawrence, Domhnall Gleeson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Bardem among the cast. But a few details slipped out.
Aronofsky mentioned as an aside that he shot the project on 16mm film. But he also revealed that for the final day of shooting, he worked with digital cameras for some of the CGI-heavy visuals that will be included in the film. But no news about the project was more exciting to the Icelandic audience was the fact that the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (“The Theory of Everything”) will be writing the score.
The most tantalizing detail came up during a question about incorporating political messages in narrative work. “I think all my early films were more about ideas,” he said. “When it came to ‘Noah,’ there was this clear environmental statement in the original gospel, which was interesting to push forward. My latest project probably has similar political intentions behind it, but first and foremost responsibility as a narrative filmmaker is making something that is emotional and can connect with an audience.”