Few filmmakers have blended art, religion, and science to a greater extent than Darren Aronofsky has. In the 25 years since his first film, “Pi,” was released, the director has carved out a niche for himself, telling stories about people obsessed with finding order in a chaotic universe. Sometimes those people are mathematicians, other times they’re saints, but they’re all chasing forbidden knowledge hidden in the universe.
With those themes in mind, Aronofsky recently sat down with Pioneer Works director of sciences Janna Levin for a conversation about the scientific influences on his work. The panel, which was part of the museum’s Science vs. Fiction series, touched on all eight of Aronofsky’s feature films.
The conversation began with a discussion about “Pi.” While the 1998 film — which is getting an IMAX re-release next month — is a considerably smaller affair than most of Aronofsky’s other films, it remains a fascinating exploration of his worldview. The film tells the story of an obsessive mathematician (Sean Gullette) whose attempts to find patterns that connect the universe lead him on a dark journey through the worlds of math and mysticism.
“I do remember having huge debates with Sean about how much we believe that there were actually patterns going on. But there was definitely something out there. I had a math teacher in high school, and I remember him telling us all of these crazy things about pi,” he said. “So I thought it would be cool to start with a protagonist who was just really into calculus. I thought that was great because I failed calculus in high school, and thought it would be really interesting to learn about.”
His next film, “Requiem for a Dream” is less explicitly scientific. The film tells the story of four Coney Island residents whose battles with various addictions end up blurring the line between reality and delusion. But Aronofsky explained that once he decided to make a movie out of Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel of the same name, he began to study the science of addiction.
“There’s a science to addiction,” he said. “I read ‘Requiem” and what was amazing about it was how he was able to show that the psychology of addiction doesn’t have to be with hard drugs. It can be with food, chocolate, coffee, and how the psychological mind works in the same way when it deals with substances.”
While editing the film, he employed the same mathematical approach that made “Pi” such a success. The entire film essentially builds up to an intense musical climax, and Aronofsky and his editors made a point of using math to meticulously build up to the final close-ups.
“The whole film is a movement from wide shot to tighter and tighter shots,” he said. “One thing we did do was, for the final climax where all hell is breaking loose, it’s structured mathematically. We said we’re gonna have eight frame cuts, then six frame cuts, then four frame cuts… it was kind of like a snare drum to make it speed up to the explosion at the very end.”
Aronofsky eventually discussed the controversy that has followed him throughout his entire career. From his blunt portrayal of heroin addiction in “Requiem for a Dream” to the confusing nature of “The Fountain” (a film that he joked even he doesn’t understand) to the use of fat suits in “The Whale,” people have always bristled at his provocative films. But Aronofsky explained that he isn’t particularly bothered by the criticism as long as he’s doing something new.
“I’m always surprised how thin everyone’s skin is,” he said. “It excites me when things go off the rails on my films. That’s kind of what I live for, to see things I haven’t seen before.”
Watch the complete conversation between Aronofsky and Levin, an IndieWire exclusive, below.
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