Darren Aronofsky reminds me of Egon from The Ghostbusters. This is not a slight. He’s an engaging man whose lack of pretension is as much of a relief as it is an underrated character trait—especially for a critically acclaimed director of his stature. Throughout our roundtable interview the Brooklyn native poked fun at us for never seeing Angel Heart [Mickey Rourke’s supposed 1980s masterpiece], apologized for a nagging sneeze-attack, and sized up our knowledge of the Hip Hop culture his hometown is famous for.
For a guy who has just made what’s certain to be an Oscar-contending Indie-juggernaut, Aronofsky didn’t seem like an elitist having made Requiem for a Dream, π, or The Fountain. In reality, he seemed to have much in common with the character Harold Ramis craftily displayed on the big screen all those ghost-free years ago—Cool and awkward. A genius whose resume speaks for itself.
My questions are in bold, the other journalists are in italics. Enjoy.
I grew up in and around Chicago, and I knew a lot of people into Graffiti Art. I read this is something you were into as a kid. Is this true?
Excuse the pun, but what “drew” you to that art form, and how does this transfer to your filmmaking?
Well, I grew up in Brooklyn in the 198o’s—So this was at the birth of Hip Hop. This culture was just starting, and it was just blowing up in Brooklyn. There were a lot of “cool” kids “hopping,” and break dancing, and “taggin,” and rapping. It was just a big part about what everyone was doing at that time. In my early films, me and Matty, my cinematographer at the time shot “Wild Style.” This is what we called it. That was just a joke back to the Hip Hop days—I think a lot of Hip Hop style and percussion actually influenced those films. But that was a while ago [Laughs]. Things change.
The past films that you’ve made—they’re all tragedies. Is this a genre you’ve been drawn to your whole life?
I don’t think The Fountain was necessarily a tragedy. It’s supposed to have a type of orgasmic ending. I’m also not sure The Wrestler’s really a tragedy. It’s kind of got some ‘glory’ in there. He’s [occasionally] happy… But, I have no idea why I’m attracted to those stories. It’s just what comes out. I’m not conscious of it.
You’re previous films are all fairly similar, and this one is sort of a new style. Are you done with those types of films?
Well, you never know. I think I just wanted to try something very different. I really wanted to reinvent myself. I just wanted to try to be inspired… in a different way. I put together a brand new filmmaking team, and we’ve tried to do a whole different type of filmmaking. I think it’s important, as someone who’s working in the arts, to keep challenging yourself, and trying new things… At least this is what Madonna tells us. So…
[Laughs] So true. Getting back to Brooklyn, and the arts. Since you’re a native, I was wondering what your thoughts were on this phenomenon where people—specifically from the Midwest—actors and musicians venture to Brooklyn to pursue their ‘art.’ What is it that Brooklyn’s got that Mundelein, Illinois, or Joliet doesn’t have? Why are people drawn to Brooklyn?
I don’t know. Maybe Spike Lee popularized it. [Laughs]. Statistically, Brooklyn it was at one point, such a stomping ground for people coming in from other countries. There were four million people living there. It’s a huge town. It’s also a big piece of New York City, which was the ‘great’ city of the twentieth century, I would say. It gives people access to a lot of tools, I think. But, I don’t know where that ‘mystique’ comes from. I do think Hip Hop’s a big part of it. You suddenly had the most popular music in the world… in all the boroughs—But for some reason, of the five, Brooklyn has the most street-cred. But then again, Run DMC was from Queens.
I think it’s actually shifting. Queens is now ‘it.’ There are a lot more immigrants there. There are a lot more artists in Queens now. I think that is going to be the more interesting place, now. Brooklyn’s getting really rich, and gentrified. Queens is still filled with people on the ‘edge.’ So, I think it’s going to shift, certainly in the next twenty years.
You talked a minute ago about reinventing yourself. It’s fun to watch your evolution. I’m interested to know how you feel about the next generation of filmmakers, and regarding students in film-schools right now—How can they push the envelope? What advice would you give them?
Well, the whole thing is a really, really, really tough job. It’s tougher now than it was when I started, because there are a lot more people that want to do it. Just look at how many film-festivals there are now—Look at how many submissions there are into Sundance every year. It’s tough. The thing I always say is, if you’re going to deal with all the pain, then you had better tell a story that you are very, very, very passionate about. Don’t try to play to the ‘middle.’ Don’t try to play to what makes you special. Tell the story that only you can tell. And then, do the work. So many people are given the opportunity, and then they just don’t do the work. When I tried to put The Wrestler together, even since financier in the world, except for the one that financed it—said no. The one that financed it, did not give me enough money to make it. I had to make it for less than scale. The DGA [Directors Guild of America] is my union, and I had to actually give some of my salary back to the film, to make it happen. That’s the life. If you’re going to want to tell stories, it’s tough. There are a few people who can go out and make those generic Hollywood films. It’s just as hard to get to that level—but if you’re a young filmmaker trying to get noticed, and tell stories, it’s important to tell a story that only you can tell.
There is a single character in question in many of your films, including The Wrestler. Do you ever want to go back to the ensemble structure?
I don’t know. I do like character studies. I like getting into character exploration. Even in Requiem, we got to know a lot of the characters. It depends on what comes. It’s easier in character pieces, than it is doing ensemble pieces. Especially when it comes to getting money [to film]. Character pieces are easier to make happen.
When you write the characters, do you usually have an actor attached to it in mind?
This film was always Mickey [Rourke]. Beyond Mickey, I’ve never had an actor I’ve worked with that I’d originally intended to work with. They had always changed. That’s just what you go through. It’s always a shifting boat. You just realized there are a lot of ways to get films made.
I have to bring up Brad Pitt. I just heard that he was just taken off the cast list for The Fighter. Is that true?
That was like eight months ago. [Laughs] No, they just reported it now. He was never ‘in,’ he was just reading the script. They reported that he was ‘in,’ and he wasn’t—now they’re reported he’s out eight months later, and he’s not. It’s just because Mark Wahlberg was on a press-line and they asked him whether or not Brad Pitt was doing it [The Fighter], and he said ‘no.’ But this is all old news. It’s all hype. The Fighter is a great script. It’s developing, but I don’t know what’s going to happen with it yet.
On the set of a film like The Wrestler, which you’ve said is not such a tragic story, but rather an uplifting one—It does have a darker scope to it. This is just the way it looks. What kind of camera are you using during those ‘walking’ scenes?
Oh, it’s just a hand-held camera. Yeah, we’re just following Mickey through his daily life. No tricks. [Laughs]
Okay. Well, a lot of that was shot at night, and in and around the backs of supermarkets and such—Is it a challenge to keep the on-set morale up at all, when you’re shooting a film about a guy who’s so down and out?
You know, we had a really tight-knit New York City crew. No one was there for the money, because there was no money. Everyone was there because we thought we were going something that was different—that’s the best feedback you get, when you get interns who tell you is was a ‘great experience,’ and that they ‘learned more,’ working for less. We try to keep a good energy on the set. When you’re doing something that you’re passionate about, and you believe in, and it’s something that no one else could ever tell—if you can convince people to help you, and they want to be a part of it, it just works.
I have a lot of friends who went through DePaul’s acting school. It’s pretty strict. It’s tough. These kids will put in two or three years, and invest of this money, and still get ‘cut’ from the program. To them, acting is an art you have to perfect. What’s your opinion on hiring actors. You’ve said Rourke was always attached to this film—How do you know an actor is going to ‘bring it?’ What is it that you see in an actor like Mickey Rourke? What makes you comfortable directing these types of people?
You are young guys—Had you heard of Mickey Rourke before seeing this movie?
Because of what—Sin City? Was were your takes on him, pre-Wrestler?
I would never see him has being cast as the lead of a film.
Right. You’d see him as just a character actor.
Did he work for the film [The Wrestler]?
I was just a big fan of his early work. You guys should really check out a film called Bar Fly. He’s just a great, great actor who just… threw it all away. All of the sudden, he wanted to come back, and hopefully a whole new generation will discover him again. Have you guys ever seen Angel Heart?
You’ve never seen it? Every one of you guys—Go rent Angel Heart. It’s a f**king badass movie. It’s f**king terrifying. Get the unrated version. You’ll love it.