When did Paramount know that “mother!” was a problem? Nothing about the film should have been a surprise to the studio; Aronofsky sold the $30-million movie to late studio chairman Brad Grey on a pitch, running through the audacious allegorical concept beat by beat. Maybe the studio concentrated on the Jennifer Lawrence of it all, until tracking showed the numbers wouldn’t support the long haul of a platform release. So Paramount moved the date up by a month, to come on the heels of the film’s festival debuts.
Meanwhile, Aronofsky convinced Paramount to skip preview screenings; this left the studio anxiously urging the director to explain the movie, off the record, to the press corps. After a strong reaction at its Venice debut, the “mother!” team started to discuss the film in more detail on the record at the Toronto Film Festival. In his interviews with journalists and at public Q&As (including the Academy in Los Angeles), the director tried to explain his mythological crazy quilt. “I apologize,” he told one TIFF audience, “for what I’m about to do to you.”
Unfortunately, Aronofsky clearly left audiences behind. Those polled leaving theaters on its opening weekend gave the movie a rare F Cinemascore, and the movie pulled in a woeful $7.5 million in 2,638 theaters. While Aronofsky harbors awards hopes for Lawrence, the competitive actress race and a now-tarnished box office record makes its Oscar chances very slim.
When we spoke in Toronto, Aronofsky explained what he was trying to do. (He cites this review as one that gets the movie, along with many other female critics.) Unfortunately, the result is a box-office debacle; whether his reach exceeded his grasp is still up for debate.
1. Give moviegoers something completely different
After writing 70 pages in his deserted New York townhouse in a mad rush two years ago one quiet holiday weekend, Aronofsky got Paramount to back the movie, and landed Lawrence as its star. (They became a couple after principal photography.)
“All my work comes from somewhere inside,” he said. “It’s passionate. Filming is so tough, people are constantly saying ‘no,’ you have to wake up every morning. I don’t know how to do that unless you believe in the material.”
“Mother!” unfolds like a surreal landscape from Salvador Dali, where bloody mouths appear in the floor and a strange piece of soft flesh gurgles at the bottom of the toilet. The house has a breathing, pulsing heart. “The dreamscape in movies is one of the great elements of cinema,” said Aronofsky. “It was popular all the way up to the ’70s, when our heroes Scorsese and Friedkin started making realism, and we’ve left dreamscape. Bunuel and Polanski drifted away, and movies became real, leading to ’80s fantasy and the ’90s superhero era. Now we have very simple heroics.”
He wants to make movies outside the confines of genre definitions; go too far from those structures, and you risk leaving audiences behind. “Mother!” is a textbook case of an art film that cost too much or an audacious movie that should have figured out how to lead the audience into its rules. Aronofsky never explains them, which is why he’s doing so much explaining after the fact.
“If we want something new at the movies,” he said, “you give them something new and they say, ‘What the hell is that?’ The more these films can succeed, the more chance we can get weird ones made.”
2. Control your movie, message, and marketing
As Steven Soderbergh discovered with “Logan Lucky,” sometimes the filmmaker does not know best when it comes to marketing. Aronofsky was closely involved in releasing first images via his Twitter feed (252K followers) and marketing materials. At Toronto, Paramount handed out a cardboard printout of “mother’s prayer” to press.
He demanded that the studio not reveal too much in the trailers “and keep the mystery alive,” he said. “That’s rare in this world — normally, you see the whole movie in the trailer.” At the New York premiere, attendees were invited to attend a funeral. He may not have realized how prophetic that was.
When ex-Fox chairman Jim Gianopulos took over the Paramount studio, he moved the release date up by a month to September 15, right after Venice and Toronto, because of “how quickly information flows and how hard it is to stay in the conversation a long time,” said Aronofsky. “Every week, you get crazy headlines compressing everything. They saw September as lighter because the summer was weak.”
He hopes the movie continues to generate controversy. “That conversation is going on for a little bit,” he said. “That gives us more legs.”
3. Go with the allegories.
Aronofsky tapped his Biblical knowledge with “Pi,” “The Fountain” and “Noah,” which dealt with the Book of Genesis and the Creation. He jumped right back to Day Six with “mother!”
“Lightning struck for me as a writer when I realized my initial intentions of creating this allegory in a very Luis Bunuel type of way,” he said, “taking a piece of a world and confining it to a space and making it a conversation about society, lined up with a personal human story, and I figured out how to structure it with a biblical core, and was able to write so quickly.”
The Cheat Sheet
Based on my conversation with Aronofsky, and others he’s had, this is what we know about “mother!”: According to the Bible, before God created Man, there was Paradise. Lawrence is Gaia, or Mother Earth, defending the living, breathing organism she has built into a perfect home. She can’t handle or fully understand why people are being so disrespectful. Her husband in the film is God, who out of boredom creates Adam (Ed Harris) and Eve (a mischievous Michelle Pfeiffer); they invade her pristine world and the artist’s study (the Garden of Eden), which holds God’s perfect crystal (the apple). Their dueling children are Cain and Abel. And they bring in worshippers who feed God’s need for adulation (in the Old Testament, if don’t pray, you die). The worshippers keep sitting on Mother’s unsupported sink, eventually causing the pipes to burst into the Great Flood. God impregnates Mother, who gives birth to the Messiah, who is followed by an increasingly chaotic communion and Revelations.
Mother Earth is “very much about loving and giving,” said Aronofsky. “She’s given us life on this planet. All she does is give us life. We also see nature’s wrath in the scene when Mother is attacking the crowd. The allegory is, here are these incredible infinite resources given to us and we abuse it all. We don’t follow lessons from kindergarten to clean up your own mess. We are empathizing with Mother Nature, feeling her pain and her wrath.”
Aronofsky has been passionate about environmental causes about for a long time. “I’ve been very frustrated and filled with a certain amount rage about how much inaction is happening on my other cause,” he said, “which is how do we treat our home, our world.”
Everything is personal for Aronofsky, although he’s less comfortable with another obvious interpretation of this movie: Like him, Bardem is a blocked artist who doesn’t fulfill the serial women in his life and is distracted by seeking fame and attention. “The fame stuff is purely a side effect,” said Aronofsky. “A lot of people are seeing that. It is because we have Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer dealing with the crowd, the paparazzi and autograph seekers. When I was writing I wasn’t seeking comment about that, it was about the allegorical sense of worship.”
Yes, the movie is also about the selfishness of the creative process, and disappearing into his art. “I haven’t lived a life where I sacrificed my personal life to my work,” Aronofsky said (and he insists his former partner Rachel Weisz has nothing to do with Mother). “But I do understand that character.”
The writer-director loves diving into ancient religions (Hindu/Buddhist reincarnation also appears in “mother!”). “There’s imagery there,” he said. “The religious text is great mythology. Out of that mythology you can draw great stories, and in the same way we talk about Icarus flying so high to the sun, we know it’s not true, but we learn so much from it. There’s a lot to get out of them. These are the oldest stories of humankind, that three major religions are based on.”
And what is that yellow potion that Mother drinks when she gets anxious? “I will never answer what Jen is drinking,” said Aronofsky. “That secret I will take to the grave.”