Darren Aronofsky interview: Black Swan, remakes, Wolverine and psychological horror

As sinister ballet movie Black Swan arrives in UK cinemas, we caught up with director Darren Aronofsky about filmmaking, remakes and more...

After months of waiting, Black Swan is finally here. And, in an odd quirk of interview scheduling and embargoing, we have this roundtable chat with director Darren Aronofsky, from back in October, when the dark, ballet-themed psychological horror screened at the London Film Festival. Back then, anticipation for the film was still building after its well-received premiere at Venice, and the film’s American release, and the score of accolades that came at the end of 2010, was still some time off.

However, most curiously, it was Aronofsky’s career that provided the most mystery for our assembled journos. See, a couple of days earlier, Hugh Jackman had confirmed Aronofsky’s involvement in what is now titled The Wolverine, although the project, which would see the director tackling both a major franchise and a Hollywood-sized budget for the first time, was still left unannounced by studio sources.

We were still a month away from Fox’s official statement on the matter, but things seemed certain. Which left us puzzled when, after Aronofsky talked us through his career in financially-risky ‘tough sell’ movies, and his potential plans for making a ‘safe bet’ film in the future, he stopped conversation dead in its tracks when Wolverine was mentioned.

Thankfully, this derailing was only a minor issue, and before long we were in full flight, talking about the troubles marketing Black Swan, the world of ballet on film, and the importance of Clint Mansell’s score to the finished work.

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That one upcoming project aside, Aronofsky proved an eloquent, opinionated, and wholly chatty interviewee, also letting us in on his future plans for the medium of comics, as well as giving us a pragmatic take on the ‘Method’ school of acting.

You’re still attached to the remake of RoboCop. How do you feel about remaking a film that is so iconic?

Oh, it’s unbelievable. The first RoboCop‘s great. Unfortunately, a lot of the business has become about that, and I think, with the right opportunity, it’s not such a bad thing. I think so much has changed in the ways that we make films, since the 80s, so you can really do lots of different things. So, it could be exciting.

Would you feel comfortable with somebody remaking your films?

Which one? Go for it! I mean, come on. How are you going to remake Pi? Have fun! Do it in colour, and we’ll see what happens.

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How do you choose your projects?

So far, it’s just that I’ve doubled-down every time, left the chips on the table and let the cards go, because each one is just about taking a risk and a chance. Every one was as risky as the last one.

I think that’s just because I just want to do something. I’ve got to keep myself interested and keep myself passionate, and so I haven’t really made safe bets all the time. I just wanted to try and do something that excites me.

Why do that, though?

I don’t know. I think it’s my nature to try and make original content, and that’s what I’ve done, is just try and approach things in an original way, and do things differently. It’s unfortunate that I go that way, because it’s not very good on the bank account.

Do you not ever feel like going for a safe bet?

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Absolutely. I’m very interested in it. It would be nice to make a movie that other people want to make, because every one of these movies, I basically have to find the only company in the world that’s willing to make it, and it’s always a big challenge. I end up spending a tremendous amount of energy and time trying to get money to make these movies and it’s exhausting.

Is that what has attracted you to the Wolverine movie?

I don’t know what you’re talking about.

[After a bit of an awkward silence] Speaking of comics, you have, in the past, released comics based on your own works, such as The Fountain. Is there any chance you will work in that medium again, maybe bringing some other projects out that way, such as your take on Batman?

Well, we’re actually doing one, which I can’t talk about. It hasn’t really been announced. But we’re doing a comic book of a script that’s really hard to make, and we’re going to do a comic version first, and see what happens. Because it seems like, when you come up with an original script, it’s not as effective in Hollywood as if you come in with a comic book.

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I mean, how successful was Kick-Ass as a comic book, or Scott Pilgrim? Those were fringe comics, right?

They were popular for comics.

Yeah, but what are you talking about? 50,000? 100,000? Scott Pilgrim. I didn’t even know it. It’s really an underground comic.

It was popular for the community, though. Do you not think, by saying you’re taking an unfilmable script and turning it into comics, that you’re just limiting your audience? Going from the larger community of moviegoers to comics readers?

When you work really hard on material, you kinda want to get it out there. The reason The Fountain comic exists is because, for a long time, we didn’t think The Fountain was going to happen. And so, I went after an artist, because I wanted to get that vision out there. I’m a storyteller, so I can’t tell it in my medium of choice. So, let’s try it another way.

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You’re primarily known in some quarters as a very visual director. But after Mickey Rourke’s success in The Wrestler and Mila Kunis’ award in Venice for Black Swan, do you think you’ll get more of a reputation as an actor’s director?

I hope so. That’s my favourite part of the process, working with actors. And working with Ellen Burstyn on Requiem, that was my biggest thrill. And that sent me down on a path of really focusing on actors.

How important is Clint Mansell to your filmmaking? Do you ever visualise scenes with his music in mind?

Not really. He often writes some things beforehand, but the final product of music is way different than where he begins.

But when I first started this project, we actually were on a panel for a BMG conference in LA. It was before the film even happened, and I made a joke that the reason I was doing Black Swan was for Clint. And there’s a truth to that, because I knew this great challenge of taking Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece and turning it into a movie score would be a really cool fusion. And I was really excited about what he would do.

So, he basically took that great score and ripped it apart and found certain themes and ideas, and then made this Frankenstein that became the score. And then we came to AIR Studios with an 80 piece orchestra.

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Did you try to make the ballet your own, in a similar way?

We just went for it. I was terrified when we started off working on Swan Lake, because it’s such a complicated work that has incredible history. So, I never knew how I would get into it and wrap my mind around it.

I knew nothing about ballet. I knew nothing about Tchaikovsky’s score. Of course, I knew a lot of the themes, but that was a problem, because I associated most of the themes with Elmer Fudd hunting Bugs Bunny.

So, how to make those fresh for an audience was a real challenge, because that music has been deeply abused, because it’s in the public domain. So, how to make it fresh was a big question.

Having worked on this, do you now have an interest in directing a ballet work for the stage?

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Me and Benjamin Millepied, the choreographer, were talking about doing some sort of ballet version of the film. Taking Clint’s music and some of the choreography he had, and doing that but – I don’t know where we would get money for something like that. Chasing money for ballet seems harder than chasing money for a movie.

Did you take a look at The Company, Robert Altman’s film about ballet?

Well, I didn’t take a look at it. I saw it when it first came out, because it came out while I was thinking about doing a ballet film.

Was it helpful?

I think it’s a terrible film. I’m sorry. I mean, I think most films about the ballet world, besides The Red Shoes, are pretty awful. That film [The Company], at least, was realistic, but all it really was was a concert film. I really wasn’t into it. Centre Stage, and – I’m trying to think what else is set in the ballet world –


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That’s not really set in the ballet world. That just has ballerinas in the back. It has really nothing to do with ballet. Everyone was like, “Ah! You’re stealing it from Argento!” But we really wanted to have that documentary feel of the ballet world and build the horror out of ballet.

Are you concerned with how they’re going to market it? Or who they’re going to market it to?

It really isn’t my problem. I used to actually care about that stuff, but I’ve learned. I don’t make films that are easy to market, unfortunately. I think that Pi was the easiest one, because we had that symbol to stick up everywhere, so that was a good gimmick, and created a good mystery, and we didn’t have to do huge scale. So, I am nervous. The question is will men like it. Or will men come?

One aspect of the narrative is the idea of a director pushing a performer towards perfection. And as a director who elicits very emotionally raw, impressive performances, is there a commentary there about directors potentially pushing their actors too far?

I see that now. When I was doing the film, it wasn’t really on my mind.

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I wish I could be as manipulative as Vincent’s character was. He was a true master manipulator. I’m very direct, probably direct to a fault with actors, and I’ve probably scared away a lot of A-list actors, because I tell them how much of a pain this process is going to be, how difficult it is.

So, that’s why, if you look at the actors I’ve worked with, outside of Natalie Portman, they’re definitely looking for the opportunity to stretch their wings. Even Natalie, she hadn’t been given a leading role. But I haven’t gotten the big A-list actors to sign on.

What’s been the most traumatic experience, then, in terms of actors working on your films?

I don’t find it traumatic. I’m pretty easy. Natalie’s worked harder for me than anyone, and that’s because of the dance. It’s an unbelievable accomplishment, what she’s done, physically. The fact that ninety percent of the dancing on the screen is here. That is unbelievable.

These dancers train from the age of four, for twenty years, to get to where they are. And to physically pull that off, and to emote, to actually be telling a story during it, is really an accomplishment.

In a way, I read the film as almost a criticism of Method acting, in the way that the character is pushed to make her personal emotions represented in the performance.

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Well, I’m probably pretty critical of that. I used to think it was cool, like I think most young film people. But watching Ellen Burstyn and being around a few masters – I mean, everyone has their own process, but I think it’s actually pretty selfish. It’s just make-believe.

There’s a fucking half a million dollar camera sitting there, and forty lights, and you’ve got to hit a technical mark. What is the Method when it’s such a technical job? It’s about make-believing, for a very, very short window.

Like, I think the Method could work when you’re stage. Sure, when you walk off stage and you’ve got to stay in character and you’ve got to keep the adrenaline up. That makes sense to me.

But film is basically little bursts of acting. Twenty seconds here, 10 seconds there. Two seconds there. I mean, sure, in between takes you could stay there, but once the take’s over, when you’re in the make-up chair, come on. You can be thinking about what you’ve got to get done that day and be serious, but you don’t have to be an asshole.

To me, it doesn’t impress me, actors that do that. I think it’s a lot of wasted energy.

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If you flash back to 2008, you have The Wrestler coming out alongside The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire. And right now you have The Social Network, 127 Hours and Black Swan coming out in a similar time-frame again.

[Laughs] I guess it’s unfortunate that I have to be on cycle with Fincher and Danny. Two of the best living directors.

The three of you are some of the most versatile directors in Hollywood. Do you look to them as your contemporaries?

I look up to them. They’ve been making films for a lot longer than me, and incredible movies. Fincher, he’s a real master. And Boyle as well. So, the fact that I’m in the same sentence with them means a lot to me. So, thank you. But I’m a big fan. I saw Fincher’s film. I haven’t seen 127 Hours. I can’t wait. I hear it’s fantastic. So, I can’t wait to see it.

Mr Aronofsky, thank you for your time!

Black Swan is released January 21st.

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