Darren Aronofsky: The Swan King
Director Darren Aronofsky took on wrestling with his last movie. Now, with Black Swan, he turns to a calling that really brings the pain: ballet.
Let’s try a different table,” says Darren Aronofsky. It’s a Friday morning in an almost-empty Manhattan cafe, and the director is concerned that background clatter and a nearby stereo speaker are going to interfere with a tape recorder. Because his new movie, Black Swan, is opening today, he’s got other concerns as well. The film, which is rated R, stars Natalie Portman as a ballerina on the verge of a breakout—and a breakdown. And Aronofsky is curious, to say the least, about how it will be perceived. ”So,” he asks, ”would you call this a dance movie?”
The answer is yes and no. In addition to capturing the beautiful masochism of the ballet world, the film’s also a psychological thriller filled with dark doppelgangers, as well as a cautionary tale about madness and the pursuit of perfection. Which is to say it’s a typical Aronofsky movie—weird and riveting. Black Swan was a gamble commercially, but then so was the director’s last film, 2008’s The Wrestler with Mickey Rourke: ”Every single person on the planet was telling me, ‘Why are you destroying your career making a film about wrestling, which no one cares about, and with Mickey Rourke, who no one wants to look at?’ ”
The Wrestler proved to be an indie hit and resuscitated Rourke’s career. And although Black Swan is still in limited release, it’s been spectacularly successful thus far, earning almost $1.4 million on 18 screens its first weekend and positioning Portman as the only one who could conceivably beat Annette Bening for Best Actress. The movie promises to be the biggest hit of Aronofsky’s career. ”He’s the real thing,” says Barbara Hershey, who plays Portman’s profoundly clingy mother. ”I see visual unity between his films, and that’s the sign of a real filmmaker versus just a director. Woody has that. Scorsese has that—you can look at a film and say, ‘Oh, that’s Scorsese.’ Well, now you know a Darren Aronofsky movie when you see the footage. He truly has the ability to make the audience feel what he wants them to feel.”
In person, Aronofsky, 41, is tall, with a warm, boyish face and just a touch of his hometown Brooklyn accent in his voice. He’s a regular at this East Village cafe, often stopping in for breakfast after walking his 4-year-old son, Henry, to preschool. (Aronofsky and Henry’s mother, actress Rachel Weisz, split earlier this year. He prefers not to discuss the matter.) The director is good-natured but intense when talking about his work. ”I actually enjoy it,” he says of doing publicity. ”It makes you think about what you’ve done, and some of it is very intuitive and unconscious. You sort of forget the details. Like with ?”—Aronofsky’s first feature, about a half-crazy math genius trying to beat the stock market with just his computer and the Torah—”I don’t think I ever really knew what it was about until I started talking to the press.”
? made a splashy debut at Sundance in 1998. But Aronofsky’s subsequent films still had to fight their way to the screen—partly because of the director’s taste for challenging subject matter. His sophomore feature, 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, was a harrowing, surreal portrait of addiction that the MPAA initially wanted to stamp NC-17. The film was eventually released without a rating and snagged Ellen Burstyn an Oscar nom. Aronofsky’s next movie, The Fountain, did not have as happy an ending. After a torturous six-year ordeal—during which star Brad Pitt walked away, an elaborate set was demolished, and an entire crew was fired before the budget was slashed and Weisz and Hugh Jackman were cast—the film got mixed reviews and made only $10 million. ”The problem is that it was released as a commercial film because it had a couple of movie stars and a big budget, but it was an art film about coming to terms with death,” says Aronofsky, who remains proud of the film and says that of all his movies, it’s the one with the most devoted fans. Says Jackman, who will begin shooting The Wolverine with Aronofsky in March, ”He seeks the best in everyone and gets it. As an actor I’d go to the ends of the earth for him.” Portman seconds that emotion: ”I’d hold the boom for him on any movie.”
Aronofsky first became intrigued by the world of dance as a kid, as he watched his older sister, who seriously studied ballet, practice in the family’s living room. In 2000, he met Portman, a former ballet student, and they began a decadelong discussion about making a movie.
Black Swan had an uneasy journey to the screen. The movie’s original backer pulled out four weeks before cameras were set to roll. Aronofsky and his producers scrambled to raise enough money to begin filming. Still, the production nearly ran out of cash multiple times—”We had huge budget problems,” sighs Aronofsky—before Fox Searchlight bought the film. Artistically, the film’s greatest challenge was creating believable ballerinas out of Portman and Mila Kunis, who does a sly, seductive turn as a rival dancer. ”I’d be standing next to all these amazing top-end dancers, and I’d see Natalie struggling to do certain stretches,” says Aronofsky. ”It took a long time.” He grins. ”But then she really did it.”
Portman gracefully hands the credit back to Aronofsky. ”A lot of directors say, ‘Freebie’ or ‘Free take,’ after they try everything they want to do. But Darren would say, ‘Now do one for yourself,’ ” she says. ”That opened a whole new world to me. It gave me a power and respect for my own artistry that changed the entire process. It gave me new insight into my character, because her whole journey is from pleasing other people to learning how to please herself, and so she kills the little girl and becomes a woman and an artist. He handed that to me on a platter.”
Of all the Oscar contenders being released this winter, Aronofsky’s movie may be the one that most truly lives up to its buzz, delivering imagery both beautiful and creepy, not to mention a breathtaking lead performance. Ironically, Aronofsky says he doesn’t like to watch his movies after they’re finished. Recently, however, he screened Requiem for a Dream during its transfer to Blu-ray. ”I couldn’t actually recognize the filmmaker who had made it,” he says. ”It’s so distant from me and who I am.” He pauses. ”Which I think is a good thing, actually. It’s important to move forward and not look back.” But did he like the movie? ”Oh, yeah, I admired it,” he laughs. ”I thought, ‘That guy has some good chops.’ ”