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Movies

Darren Aronofsky answers our mother! burning questions

The director of Jennifer Lawrence’s divisive new film explains its symbolism and more

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When was the last time a movie had so many people riled up like this weekend’s mother!? Darren Aronofsky’s latest — staring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer — has divided critics and audiences into pretty extreme love it or loathe it camps. (This is also true in the Entertainment Weekly offices, where opinions were sharply split.)

[Important note: You should absolutely not read on if you haven’t yet seen mother! for yourself. For one thing, it would break the heart of Aronofsky who really has done everything in his power to keep the film under wraps so that audiences can discover it for themselves. And for another, it won’t make a lick of sense to you if you haven’t.]

The film begins as a chamber story about a marriage between a young woman (Lawrence) and a creatively blocked poet (Bardem). Then there’s a knock on the door. Two strangers arrive and before you know it, the film unspools into something else entirely. On the one hand, it’s a straight-up horror movie complete with blood dripping down the walls and screaming — but it also manages to tie into what climate change has done to the planet in two hours, using biblical allegories. Aronofsky has said that he wrote the script in just five days. “I had the idea two weeks before that five-day window. When I had the allegory idea it became connected to my own emotional experience and the stuff that was going on in my own life. I saw this allegory, one that I am passionate about, and it matched up perfectly. The big thing was figuring out the structure to the film,” he says. “Once I realized I could rely on the great stories of the Bible I thought it would be a very interesting marriage there — all these different streams that basically kind of weave together and become a river.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Are you surprised by how extreme the reactions to the film has been?
DARREN ARONOFSKY:
I think I knew it was going to be a lot of stuff. Anytime you do something that aggressive there are going to be people who enjoy it, who want to be on that roller coaster ride, and then there are others who say, “Oh no, that was not for me.” It’s a strange one. You see Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer and people are conditioned for a certain type of movie. And… we didn’t do that type of movie. [Laughs] It’s all good. I don’t mind people are upset by the film because it’s supposed to be a reflection and a cautionary tale of what’s happening to the planet. And it’s hard, because I’m pointing at all of us saying, look what’s going on! Let’s think about this! I’m also guilty, I’m not any better. But the one thing I can’t understand is how people can’t acknowledge the filmmaking — there are three camera shots in the whole film: over the shoulder, on her face, and her point of view. There’s no score. There are all these things we did that are really hard to pull off. I couldn’t have done this five years ago. It’s only because my team and I have been together for so long that we took the chance.

Why did you want to shoot it in 16mm?
It’s become part of my style and interest. I think some shots on video look remarkable but they’re all beginning to look alike. I think audiences like unique experiences and I like to make things different. When we did The Wrestler it made a lot of sense to shoot on 16 and then we carried it over to Black Swan, and I think it’s just become a stylistic choice. Unfortunately, I can’t begin to tell you the technical difficulties with shooting on film. Everyone is shooting digitally and no one does this anymore. It just made the process so difficult. I always say it feels like slightly burnt butter or the top of a perfectly cooked tiramisu. It just has a creamy unique texture to it. It’s something different than what you see, and I think and hope that’s cool for audiences.

Can we talk about the title? I had heard it was originally called Day Six?
No, that was the fake name we used internally. We used it because thematically it made sense — the film starts on day six of the Bible, right before man is created. So we used that as our internal name. The very first thing I wrote — before I started on the script — were the six letters of ‘mother’ and then I paused for a second. I remember this so clearly: I pressed shift-1 and put the exclamation point. That title was there before I wrote a word.

Niko Tavernise/Paramount

What was with that yellow powder concoction that Jennifer’s character drinks?
Oh no, this is the one I don’t love answering. [Laughs] I think Jen has a better answer for this than I do. Let’s just say it’s it’s harkening back to Victorian novels and this idea of a deeper connection for her and the house. But I don’t love to go deeper into it than that.

Okay, fine. Next question: Does every one of the characters have a correlating biblical character?
Everything is connected. That was the breakthrough for me — I had this idea, this allegory with a return to the horror genre and a take on the home invasion genre because I feel like everyone can relate to that feeling of having guests that won’t get the hell out of your house. And turning that into a nightmare could be interesting. But then I thought to try to talk about the people on this planet by using the great stories of the Bible. So I would say every single beat and character is related to the Bible in order — all the way through the Old Testament and the New Testament. That’s the fun — for people to put that together. Even some of the dialogue — and people haven’t picked up on this yet, is verbatim from the Bible.

So who was Kristen Wiig supposed to be?
So, okay, I guess I should say not every single character — like the guy pissing in the toilet or the drunk don’t have direct connections. But Kristen’s character name is “Herald” which is a biblical kind of name, and people can connect it to Elijah and a lot of different characters. Plus, you know, there’s this other very human story going on so it goes in and out a lot.

Was Michelle Pfeiffer the seven deadly sins?
Nope. If Ed is the First Man which is another name…

Oh, he’s Adam and she’s Eve?
Mmmmhmmm.

So what does it mean to reboot or restart again if we’re continuing to talk about mother as the earth?
I don’t know if it means anything for us, per se. It won’t be our story anymore.

Isn’t that a scary thought?
Yes, of course it is. That’s why it’s a cautionary tale. The final chapter hasn’t been written. Life on Earth will continue to go on. Life holds on. I just read an incredible article in The Times that they’re finding potentially new life forms in caves deep under the Antarctic and all these new organisms might be discovered. We get life on this planet in many ways. Even though we’re eliminating all the large mammals on this planet, there are all types of insects and bacteria that are not getting affected in any way, and some are even thriving.

I guess there’s a kind of hope to be found somewhere?
Well, by staring into the darkness you reveal the light. That’s what Hubert Selby taught me in Requiem for a Dream: lean into the darkness because out of it could come catharsis and movement.

Okay, but what was that bloody thing in the toilet?
[Laughs] Well… all I can tell you is that it’s the scene right after we see the wound on the back of Ed Harris. So if you think about that in terms of the Bible and that character, I think you can put it together.

It was a rib? Yuck!
Ding ding ding.