At the same time that Darren Aronofsky was directing an allegory about the ruination of planet Earth, he was producing a TV show about how beautiful and miraculous our world can be.
“‘mother!’ was a very personal project about what’s going on, just trying to hold up a mirror to some of the things that are really out of control,” he told IndieWire at the Television Critics Association winter press tour about “One Strange Rock,” the new documentary series he executive produced for NatGeo. “This is just a very different approach on that very similar subject matter, since they’re both talking about our home. This is more talking about how beautiful our home is, how all the systems work together so beautifully to create this precious thing we call life.”
But the metaphor of “mother!,” which features Jennifer Lawrence’s “house” getting destroyed by the evil of man, still applies to “One Strange Rock,” according to him: “We need that plumbing, we need that electrical work, we need that cable, we need the roof, we need all those systems to be working. Admiring how they all work together is something that’s inspiring; that shows off how beautiful our home is.”
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“One Strange Rock,” which premiered Monday, was executive produced by Aronofsky and his frequent collaborator Ari Handel, who co-wrote “The Fountain” and “Noah,” and worked with producer Jane Root to create 10 episodes about the weird little rock we live on.
Aronofsky and Handel met in college, the first week of their sophomore year at Harvard, and their friendship continued after graduation, when Aronofsky began pursuing a career in film and Handel moved onto receiving a Ph.D. in neuroscience.
“Ari would, to get away from academia, would sort of sit around with us and throw around ideas,” Aronofsky said. “And then I had this idea for ‘The Fountain’ was sort of brewing and I asked Ari if he would want to write it with me, because he was kind of getting over academia after he got his Ph.D.”
Aronofsky continued, “We would just walk around and talk and then it eventually grew into him becoming the president of Protozoa [Aronofsky’s production company] and now we’ve written a bunch of scripts together and produced a bunch of movies together. It’s been a long trip.”
Aronofsky and Handel were brought in by NatGeo to, in Aronofsky’s words, figure out how to make the concept for the series — an in-depth look at Earth as the miracle it can often be, blending many different scientific disciplines for a comprehensive look at our “strange rock” — work both on a visual level as well as a storytelling level.
“It was about trying to connect all of these different teams that were going around the planet with a kind of visual language,” Handel said. “So a manual was created of the types of shots we were looking for, so that all of the different directors and cinematographers that were scattered around the planet would try to make things that were related and connected because we always were about trying to connect how these different systems work.”
The filming on the series extended as far as space, thanks to astronaut Paolo Nespoli, who shot footage on the International Space Station for the show. “I kind of gave him a coaching session on how to photograph up there and how to make it as cinematic as possible,” Aronofsky said.
Another key element was the show’s host — the Fresh Prince himself, Will Smith, narrates the series directly to camera, and his “everyman-esque” quality, Aronofsky felt, helps communicate big ideas to the audience. “It’s about figuring out a way to make it more relatable to everyone who is watching,” he said.
The show’s genesis, he noted, came from not science but a human touch, based on the experiences of astronauts who have just returned from space. “Some people call it religious, some people call it spiritual, some people are just filled with awe. There’s terms for it but they all have this experience that connects all the different systems that they understand and scientific information that they understand and this one idea of this interconnectedness. And when they come back to Earth, they’re changed forever,” he said. “We wanted to try and relate that back to the audience — back to everyone watching the show. I think Will was able to kind of capture that energy and kind of relate it back.”
Right now, most documentaries about the current state of our planet have a dark undercurrent to them, thanks to the ever-increasing threat of climate change and other threats. But as mentioned above, the message of “One Strange Rock” is ultimately a hopeful one, which was a deliberate choice for the team, even while in a “mother!” state of mind.
“There’s a lot of work out there right now because of the times we’re in about how scary things are,” Aronofsky said. “We wanted to do something that was filled with hope but also that showed how precious it is, this planet. It was a different way of showing this story, the same story, it’s a very complicated system. We’re very, very blessed by all these things having worked out to allow us to be here to watch our favorite TV shows. And as soon as you look at those systems they’re incredibly miraculous and I think through an understanding of those systems, I think hopefully they will fill us with respect for them.”
Added Handel, “The more you understand how all this stuff works together, it’s awe-inspiring. It’s inspirational. It makes you filled with an admiration. And that feels like hope.”
“One Strange Rock” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on NatGeo.