Darren Aronofsky may have his faults as a filmmaker, but lack of ambition has never been one of them, and his striking vision has turned heads from the start. His feature debut, 1998's Pi, and its follow-up, 2000's Requiem For A Dream, were both overwhelmingly intense, quirky, unusually textured films that earned mixed critical responses but resonated well with audiences; his latest project, The Fountain, is an epic-scaled but surprisingly personal film, in which Hugh Jackman and Aronofsky's wife Rachel Weisz interact in three parallel stories, set respectively in the past, present, and future. Made entirely without computer-generated images, it's nonetheless a visually dense wonderland and a psychedelic experience. Aronofsky recently sat down with The A.V. Club in Chicago to discuss reaction to the film, how it was made, and how he narrowly escaped making a horror movie set on a submarine.
The A.V. Club: The Fountain got some bad press coming out of the Venice and Toronto festivals. What kind of experiences have you had showing the film since then?
Darren Aronofsky: I'm not sure what you're talking about. My experience in Venice was, we had a première and we had a 10-minute standing ovation afterward. In Toronto, we were one of the first films to sell out. We had this huge applause at the end as well. There were some divisive reactions in the press screenings, but it wasn't really properly a report of what had happened.
AVC: Do you think the press isn't indicative of how the film is actually being received?
DA: No. If you read the reviews on the Internet—Premiere magazine gave us a four-out-of-four-star review this month. Playboy gave us six bunnies out of six. So I don't know. The trades were very, very hard on the film. Which is exactly what happened with Requiem For A Dream. Todd McCarthy of Variety said I shouldn't be making films, I should be in therapy. It's the same thing with The Fountain, but the stakes are bigger now, because a lot of people have heard of Requiem For A Dream, and they've been waiting to see this film.
AVC: Do you think this will be a film where word of mouth has to fight against the critics' reviews?
DA: No, because I think the critics haven't weighed in. The only critics that have weighed in are the trades and the Internet. And the Internet reviews… If you look at Ain't It Cool News, a lot of them are love letters. This one woman in Variety wrote about how I was booed in Venice, which is not what happened. Half the audience whistled at it—which is what they do—they don't boo, they whistle—and half the audience applauded. The two sides started debating—they had to clear the theater, and people were screaming at each other afterward. That's what happened. I was in Spain two days ago and this came up, and I said, "Was anyone here at that press screening?" And a guy raised his hand, and I said, "Give him the mic." And I asked, "Who was louder, the people clapping or the people whistling?" He said it was the same. That's the story. And I've got no problem with that. That, to me, is a good thing.
AVC: Why have the screenings been contentious?
DA: The woman who wrote the article in Variety really, really, really does not like me for some reason. If you read the review, which you should, it's a complete character assassination. But the opening line is, "The film was booed in Venice." Which made it sound like our première was booed, which it wasn't; we had a 10-minute standing ovation. That's what I witnessed. And in Toronto, applause. And I just watched the film in Spain, and afterward, they swarmed us. It was insanity. It was embarrassing, the response. I had to get out of there, because I didn't know how to handle it. I think that there is this… I don't know. When I said this at a press conference in Spain, I was like, "Why doesn't anyone write about what actually happened at Venice? No one's written that story." And the next day, an English newspaper wrote that I was defending the film. I'm not defending the film: The film is divisive. Many, many people are going to hate it. Many people are going to love it. Exactly like Requiem For A Dream. Exactly like it. And that is good. I like that. I want people to… I like films that make you feel in a strong way. And definitely, The Fountain does it, in a very different way than Requiem, but as divisive.
AVC: Do you consciously set out to make provocative or divisive films?
DA: Not at all. I try to make things that are entertaining. The thing is, I think time is… I've met with a lot of journalists recently who sit there and talk about how divisive The Fountain is, and they're saying, "Yeah, but Requiem was…"—making it sound like Requiem went great. And I've met with some journalists who actually killed Requiem when it came out. I remember what they wrote about it back then, but now they're all saying that they liked it. And I'm like, "What are you talking about?" And I think we've done something with The Fountain that's very, very different than what is out there in the marketplace. And I think a lot of people are caught off-guard by that. Some people want to see Requiem For A Dream again, and some people want to see a science-fiction film. And it's not really… It's a lot of different things, but it's really a very different experience for people.
AVC: You've been working on this project in various forms for a long time. Where and when did it actually originate with you?
DA: It started in 1999, while I was cutting Requiem. We started to think about what was next. We started to read some scripts. None of them really worked for us. So we started to try and come up with something new. So that's how The Fountain began.
AVC: When you say "we," who do you mean?
DA: I have a team, the same team of filmmakers I worked with on Pi and Requiem. Which is my cameraman, and my composer, and my producer. We've all worked together for three films now.
AVC: There was an early, higher-budgeted version of the film in progress at one point, starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. Is the film now hitting screens significantly different from the film you had in mind back then?
DA: Ultimately, a film is 95 percent looking at the actors' faces. So if I was a painter, it's the colors I've chosen. So the film is very much Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. That's the movie you watch, and you're watching their emotions. If it were any other actors, it would have been a very different film.
AVC: But in terms of the story?
DA: It's the same story.
AVC: Same script?
DA: No, no, no. It evolved. It went from, for me, I saw it like a humble samurai-sword carver, and I just kept honing it and honing it and sharpening it and making it a better weapon as the years went by.
AVC: What about the graphic-novel version you released earlier?
DA: The graphic novel's slightly different, but ultimately, it's the same. There are a few scenes that are different in scope, but basically, at the core, it's the same exact feature.
AVC: Were there things you couldn't do because of the budget change?
DA: Sure. There were things I developed that were different. When I first started working on The Fountain, it was post-Braveheart and Gladiator, but pre-King Arthur and Troy and Lord Of The Rings, so people hadn't done these huge battle scenes. So I was very interested in trying my hand at taking all this new stuff that you could do with movies and making an awesome battle sequence. But then Peter Jackson comes along and makes several of the greatest battle scenes ever made. So it wasn't interesting to me any more. So basically, I went from making that opening scene, that big battle scene, to really what the core of the scene is about, which is one man against incredible odds.
AVC: This version of the film had half the budget of the Brad Pitt version, but it's still a huge increase over your previous films. Did you actually end up feeling that budget change as a significant thing?
DA: It's not that much of a difference. Basically, your job is the same as a film director. It's a triangle between creativity, money, and time. But they don't really change. You're ultimately trying to get the most creativity and time with the money that you have.
AVC: There's been a lot of press about The Fountain's special effects. You didn't use CGI at all?
DA: There's no CGI. Computers were used. CGI means, just to be clear, creating any type of image with a computer. Basically, starting off with nothing, or with images and manipulating them. The way we did it, everything was actual photographed images. A lot of that stuff was shot through a microscope of chemical reactions, yeast growing, lots of weird things, by Peter Parks. We put it into a computer and collaged it, manipulated it. Meaning we digitally shaped it to fit with other images. But there was no computer-generated imagery at all.
AVC: So when we're seeing the tree in a giant bubble, that's an actual bubble on a petri dish?
DA: We photographed soap bubbles and used their textures. We built the tree on a stage. We also built a model that was about six feet tall. And we used that as well for certain shots. We went back and forth.
AVC: Why did you decide to go that route with your effects?
DA: Because I feel that so many sci-fi films and films in general have just become really dependent on and addicted to CGI, and that some of the big CGI films of the summer, you see these effects that look like crap. You don't know if you're watching a cartoon or something that's real. And I didn't want to fall into that trap. I really thought there was a way to use a lot of these old techniques to do some new and really neat stuff.
AVC: If you had decided that you wanted it to be a primarily CGI movie, you probably would have gone to an independent CGI house and said, "This is the effect I want, I'm contracting you to create this effect for me." Working with older techniques, though, how did you manage that? Did you go back and research special effects in older films? Did you work with veteran filmmakers?
DA: Definitely that. We looked at a lot of stuff; we did a lot of research. The guys that did the effects for Pi and Requiem, we formed a visual-effects design company, and we worked very closely together to search for people that could help us. Early on, when we talked about not doing any CGI, we said, "There's got to be someone out there who's photographing explosions and chemical reactions…" And sure enough, as we started to ask people, we found Peter, hanging out in his garage in Oxford.
AVC: Had he done film work before that you'd seen and liked?
DA: Two years ago, he won one of those scientific, technical Oscars. So he's known, but the last time his stuff had been used in a film, he did some of these really basic cloud-tank effects for 1978's Superman. So it's been a long time. But the thing is, he's been honing it and developing it, and doing new stuff. And back in Superman, they didn't have computers to help them shape that stuff. Now we can take that stuff and actually do neat things with it.
AVC: Was the petri-dish technique something he had already developed, or did he create it for this film?
DA: He has been shooting stuff through a microscope, the stuff inside a petri dish, for years now. For different reasons—more as an artist. He's been just shooting imagery that he thinks is beautiful. So that's how it worked out.
AVC: In an interview earlier this year, you talked about how The Fountain's camera movements were shaped like a crucifix, moving in the four cardinal directions. At what point did that camera language occur to you? In planning, during the shoot, or afterward?
DA: The whole visual language of the movie is developed way before we get to set. Especially when you're doing visual effects and you don't have a lot of money to mess around, which we didn't, you have to really preplan everything. Pretty much every shot in the film was figured out months before we got to set.
AVC: So how did the crucifix idea occur to you?
DA: It comes out of the character, really. I looked at the scene and the character, and I started to realize that the Hugh Jackman character is constantly on the march. So I have a character who's constantly moving forward. And a lot of ways people show movement is, you let the character move from the left side of the screen to the right side, almost like a profile. That's the normal way of shooting it. Then the next level would be following him and tracking back with him. So suddenly, I had a cross. But then when we started to work with the character in space, we're dealing with zero-G. I realized the characters actually have an "up." So it suddenly added another dimension. It's more of a cruciform than a crucifix.
AVC: Do your other films have similar shapes in your mind?
DA: Every film had its own grammar. And it's your job as a director to basically figure out a language to tell a story. For The Fountain, we threw out everything from Requiem and Pi that we had worked on. Requiem and Pi were really about subjective filmmaking. Also expressionistic filmmaking—making the audience feel like they were inside the characters' heads. And so we create all these different types of techniques to put the audience there.
AVC: What sort of experience are you trying to give them? How do you see the camera movements as contributing to that experience?
DA: I think that there's an infinite amount of places where you can stick a camera. There's an infinite amount of choices of what could be going on. There's an infinite amount of places for so many things, so you have to figure out how to do your job. The only way I know as a director is to figure out what the film is about. And out of the theme and the sense of what the film is about, all those decisions start to make sense. But to find that truth within it, you have to limit your possibilities and limit your choices. That's where this visual language grows out of.
AVC: Requiem came out of a novel, and the IMDB says you're working on a film version of the comic book Lone Wolf And Cub. Are stories you originate more personal to you than stories you adapt?
DA: Sure, though there's always something in that material that I somehow must be responding to. That's the only way I know how to work, is if I'm somehow connected to the material.
AVC: What about Lone Wolf And Cub interests you?
DA: There's a lot of hype out there, so don't believe everything you read. We were actually never able to acquire the rights for that.
AVC: Is it a dead project?
DA: I don't know. I think people are still trying. The problem is, it's kind of like Japan's Mickey Mouse. It's one of their great titles made by one of their great masters, so I think studios here have been trying and failing to get the rights to it for a long time.
AVC: How involved were you on the production of Below?
DA: Not at all involved. I wrote a screenplay. When I was doing Pi, I thought it might give me a shot at making another film, so I wrote a genre film, which was a horror film set on a sub. Me and a college roommate wrote it while we were cutting Pi. And then when Pi came out, we sold it. Then Pi did better than I ever could have imagined, and they said, "Well, what do you want to make?" I said, "I want to make Requiem For A Dream." I wasn't interested in Below; I wasn't involved any more. Dimension owned it, so they made it.
AVC: If Pi hadn't gone over well, you might have made Below yourself instead?
DA: Yeah. I was just trying to protect myself, to have a job. Pi was a weird black-and-white film. I thought a genre film would give me another shot at directing.
AVC: If Pi had bombed, or if you hadn't gone into filmmaking at all, what do you think you would have done with yourself instead?
DA: I have no idea. It's the impossible question. I'd probably be a teacher. I like teaching. Hopefully film, I would teach. Or storytelling. But I have no idea.
AVC: What's the best part of filmmaking for you?
DA: Probably working with actors is the most exciting and the most creative end of it.
AVC: Mark Margolis and Ellen Burstyn are both in The Fountain; you've worked with them both several times before. Are you interested in developing a stable of actors?
DA: I love the idea of that. A lot of the actors that were in Pi were in Requiem. The Fountain has such a small cast that I only found a place for Mark. But yes, absolutely. I love working with the same actors over and over.
AVC: Your films all focus on very obsessive, very intense people. Is there a particular reason for that?
DA: I don't know. I'm a pretty driven guy myself, but… I don't know.
AVC: Do you see a natural through-line in your films, or a similarity between them?
DA: I don't. At all. I think they're… Well, of course, in some way they're all things I've worked on, so that's why… I mean, this is a very stupid thing to say, but for me, the connection is that I've worked on all of them, I've bled on all of them, I've given them all my love and passion. But it's hard for me to comment on what they're about.
AVC: Your films also tend to play with time, going back and forth through time, or speeding time up and slowing it down. Is there a particular reason for that interest?
DA: Film is a great tool to do stuff like that. That's something you can't experience in real life that you can experience on film, and it takes you to a different place.
AVC: What's Harvard's film program like? What was your experience with that?
DA: I think a lot of it is based on documentary. Especially the personal documentary. Ross McElwee was a teacher there, the guy who did Sherman's March. It's a big movement. It's a type of documentary where the person filming is somehow involved with the subject. So it's mostly a documentary program, They were very, very free when I was down there, and they basically let you do what you wanted. For me, that's a very good environment. They give you the camera and a budget, and they say, "Go have fun." To me, that was great, because I was good at sort of putting together my own team and just going for it.
AVC: Were there specific things you couldn't learn in a film program, that you had to find out for yourself in Hollywood?
DA: I think it's all there in microcosm. There are politics. You might not be fighting with the head of a studio, but you're fighting with the guy that controls the cameras. So there's always the politics going on.
AVC: You tend to work with collaborators in writing your screenplays. Is there any one specific thing you get from the collaboration process that's the same, regardless of who you're working with?
DA: That's a very good question. I think there's something in collaboration—the fact that you can sit there and bounce ideas off of someone. It definitely matters who the person is, because certain people… The act of collaboration, where you can talk to someone, hang out, get ideas going, there is something in that. That's similar between everyone. But I think every individual collaborator is different, because they have different brains and emotions and ways of working, so it changes. Definitely.
AVC: You've said in interviews you think each one of your films is better than the last. Are you talking about something more than technical prowess? Do you think each of your films is progressively richer?
DA: That's your hope, is that you're going to continue to make more and more challenging work that's going to come out more and more interesting. I don't know if that will always continue to happen, but every one of these films has definitely been a progression as far as complexity of narrative, character, and plot. I think that these three films in particular have had a growth to them.
AVC: Does developing your skills make you look back at your old work and wish you could have done it differently?
DA: I don't look back at them. I haven't watched Requiem since it was released. It's a weird form of self-hatred and narcissism to look at your old films. It's like looking in the mirror, not just to brush your teeth. There's something weird about it.
AVC: Are you concerned at all about genre ghettos? Could making genre films limit your career?
DA: Well, what genre is The Fountain?
AVC: It seems like it's being advertised as a science-fiction movie.
DA: Yeah, but what genre is it?
AVC: Excellent question. You tell me.
DA: I don't think it's a genre film. I don't think I make genre films. Pi wasn't sci-fi. And Pi wasn't a thriller. And Pi wasn't a drama. It was an indie film, so maybe you could stick it there. Requiem For A Dream, I guess you could stick in "indie film" too. It's not really a drug movie. It's got a lot of other things, too. I don't think I make genre films. I think studios try to sell films as genres because they know how to do that. There's nothing wrong with that. I don't know what I make. It's sort of a pot roast, all my films.
AVC: Is Flicker your next project?
DA: Don't listen to that stuff. It's all nonsense. Flicker's not my next movie. Lone Wolf And Cub's not my next movie. I'm not talking about the next thing yet.
AVC: When will you?
DA: As soon as I know which one they let me make. There's a really big idea, and there's a really small idea. If the big idea's too complicated, I'm just going to go and make a small idea. I don't want to sit around for another five years trying to get a film made. Just keep moving.