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Before tackling Batman, Darren Aronofsky has a Dream


Interview conducted by Michael Marano from Scifi.Com concerning Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem For A Dream", Untitled Scif Film ("Last Man") and "Batman: Year One."


In both Pi and Requiem for a Dream, there seem to be two distinct narratives going on at any given moment. You have your basic plot-line, of course, and there's also a narrative you create that's parallel to the main narrative that you tell stylistically--through editing, camerawork, special effects and sound effects. Your stylistic narratives seem better developed than the full-blown narratives of a lot of mainstream movies. What are the challenges of balancing these two parallel narratives, of making sure one doesn't overwhelm the other?

Aronofsky: That's a good question ... because that's exactly the challenge--trying to balance the two. I think the stylistic narrative hopefully comes out of the main narrative, [and] that you're stylistically trying to support it. Me and Mattie [Matthew Libatique], my director of photography, call what we're doing "expressionism," where we're taking the emotion of the characters and the emotion of the themes of the story, and trying to figure out visual ways to express them.

Is the Snorri-Cam [a camera that is attached to the actor's body and keeps the actor in focus and makes the background blurred] your best tool for doing that?

Aronofsky: I don't know if it's our best tool, but I like the tool; I think it's a lot of fun. It's a subjective camera that basically locks the camera in the center of the frame and makes the background all shaky and separates the character from their environment. So it gives you this really, really subjective feel. I really like using that rig.

Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream is wearing pounds and pounds of latex makeup appliances, and she's photographed in some scenes in direct sunlight. I'm thinking of one scene in particular where she's among her fellow Brooklyn yentas, and they are all lined up working on their tans along the sidewalk in front of their apartment building. The makeup looks faultless. None of the prosthetics' seams show. Could you discuss Ms. Burstyn's work in the film, both in terms of the technical difficulties, and in terms of directing her performance?

Aronofsky: Here's a 67-year-old actress--67 years old!--who went through four hours of prosthetics a day. She had four prosthetic necks [to make her neck seem flabby and then emaciated] that she wore throughout the film. Two "fat" suits [to make her look overweight, one weighing 40 pounds, the other 20]. Nine different wigs. I can't begin to tell you how much makeup work she went through, and all the different dresses she wore [created by costume designer Laura Jean Shannon]. She just sees all the technical difficulties as part of the craft. She's totally a dramatic artist; she's an amazing, amazing artist. It was an unbelievable gift to work with her. I think the best thing I've ever been involved in was having the honor of capturing on film her performance in this movie. I think she really just rocks it out of the park. I'm really, really happy with her work in this movie.

Did you "sweeten" the makeup with digital effects to hide some of the seams on Ms. Burstyn's prosthetics and wigs?

Aronofsky: No, we were just very conscious of the limitations of the prosthetics on the set, and we were just trying to construct moves to make her makeup look faultless. It's amazing, because wearing those prosthetic necks is like acting with one of those neck braces on that you get after you've been in a car accident. That's how stiff they are. You might be able to move your neck in them, but weird creases are created in the prosthetics that look unnatural. She really had to limit her actions. There was one shot where we've got a split screen, and she's looking at the fridge, and the camera is zooming into her, and the camera is also zooming into the fridge. While we were filming, you could see the line created in the prosthetic--it was clear as day, along the side of her neck. And I said, "Ellen, we have a problem. The crease is showing right there. Can you do something?" And she said, "Well... what about this?" And she lifted up her hand like this [in a gesture of emotional distress in front of her neck] and then she turned her hand into a character and her hand is blocking the crease in the shot. She was able to work within the limitations of the makeup. It was difficult for all of us, but were able to overcome it.

Both Requiem for a Dream and Pi are about the real and the unreal bleeding into each other. In Pi, you have Max's mathematical reality colliding with the mundane world; in Requiem, you have the dreams of the four main characters (Sarah, Harry, Tyrone and Marion) colliding with reality. Are you attracted to that blurring? And do you think reality is inherently fragile?

Aronofsky: Definitely! That's totally, exactly what I've been trying to do. When you walk down the street, you're really not just walking down the street. You're thinking about your conversation with your mom from four hours ago. You're thinking about the vacation you're going to take with your girlfriend in three weeks. You're in different places, and I find that is the most interesting thing that separates filmmaking from theater--that you can drift off into the imagination, into surrealism. That is what I'm fascinated about in filmmaking now--that question of "What is reality, and what is the subjective reality?"

I was wondering, was there a conscious quoting on your part, in both Pi and Requiem for a Dream, of Roman Polanski? Both Max's and Sarah's mental disintegrations in their apartments are a lot like Catherine Deneuve's disintegration in Polanski's Repulsion.

Aronofsky: Yeah, I'm a big fan of Repulsion. I think we watched Repulsion before we did Pi. I think Polanski is a master of subjective filmmaking. Repulsion is so masterfully done as far as subjective filmmaking, as is Rosemary's Baby. Roman Polanski is great, and I've definitely learned a lot from him.

What about Polanski's The Tenant?

Aronofsky: I like The Tenant, too. I think it's so funny when he jumps out the window ... twice! I don't think it's as successful as Repulsion, but there's some really creepy, wonderful moments in it.

Some your more interesting shots in Requiem for a Dream seem to quote the work of a number of painters. I'm thinking of Edward Hopper and Magritte. There's a couple of shots that look like the work of Caspar David Friedrich. During preproduction, did you refer to art books for visual quotes, or as a means to set a visual tone?

Aronofsky: We didn't quote any of those guys, but I know who you're talking about. A big influence was Goya. Have you ever been to The Prado [Museum], in Madrid? It's a really amazing experience, because you walk around upstairs and you see all of Goya's early paintings, these huge murals. And they're actually named after the seasons, which is kind of weird, too, just the way our film is. [Requiem is broken up into different "Acts": "Summer," "Fall," and "Winter."] Goya would have this huge mural, about the size of a conference room wall, called "Summer," and there'd be people playing in a field and on pogo sticks. And then he has "Fall," and then "Winter." And everyone's happy and it's just lovely. And then, when he went deaf in his later years, he lived alone and he made these paintings called the "Black Paintings" on these walls. And have you ever seen his painting of Saturn devouring his child? That was one of them. That sort of descent, of the experience of walking around the Prado, was a big influence for me and my director of photography. The way Goya's career evolved is how we wanted our film to evolve. Nan Goldman was a big influence, too. And there were a lot of Japanese photographers that are out there right now that were an influence, some of the more obscure ones.

Have you formally studied Jewish mysticism? Have you read Lurianic Kabbalah?

Aronofsky: Not really. When I went to Israel, I did one of those crash courses on Judaism, and there was a lot of Kabbalah in it, and that got my mind sparked. And then when I started writing Pi, I met with a lot of leading Kabbalah scholars who were passing by through New York, where I was living at the time. I got a lot of tidbits and information. They not were not like the Kabbalah Center guys--not into the sort of mainstream crossover Kabbalah. These guys were the kind of mystics who were pretty hard-core.

In a lot of ways, both Pi and Requiem for a Dream are about personal apocalypses (to borrow a phrase from critic Phil Nutman). Is there anything in your experience that attracts you to this kind of theme of the worlds of individual people ending? And if there is not anything in your personal experience, then is there something from the body of films and literature that you cite as influences?

Aronofsky: I don't know why I've been attracted to that material. I think I'm a pretty happy kid. You know ... my parents are still married. I had a normal upbringing. I was never a drug addict of any significant kind of drug beyond being addicted to the American dream and to television--and maybe being addicted to work and procrastination. I'm not sure why. I really don't know. Ever since I was a teenager, I was reading existentialists. I've just always been attracted to that sort of theme.

The five major characters in your two films--Max, Sarah, Harry, Tyrone and Marion--are all profoundly missing something in their lives. How do you film absence?

Aronofsky: Oh, wow ... ! How do you film absence? Requiem for a Dream is totally about absence. It's about "the hole." Ultimately, Requiem for a Dream is about the lengths people go to escape their reality. And when they escape their reality, they create this hole in their present, and will do anything to fill that hole. I think you describe absence, and the hole, by describing the boundaries that construct it. That's how you show negative space, by showing the framework that supports it. Negative space is what you don't see.

Okay, now what about the question everyone is asking: What's going on with your possibly filming an adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel, Batman: Year One?

Aronofsky: Nothing's green-lit. We've been talking to Warner Brothers for a long time. It looks like me and Frank Miller are going to write a draft, and then we'll see what happens. I'm also writing an original science fiction film that I've been working on for about 10 months with my roommate from college, a guy named Ari Handel. It's an original science fiction film that we've been writing, and we're going to set it up soon. We're going to push everything forward, and see what happens first.

And speaking of Frank Miller, what about your reported plans to adapt his graphic novel, Ronin?

Aronofsky: Ronin--we're still developing it a little bit. We're still more focused on the Batman project , but hopefully Ronin will get going at some point, too.

And what about Proteus, the submarine thriller to which you've reportedly been attached?

Aronofsky: Proteus is actually happening. I'm not going to direct it. I'm going to produce it with Eric Watson, my producing partner. We'll be producing it in partnership with Dimension films. And David Twohy, the guy who wrote and directed Pitch Black, is going to direct it. I think that's going through soon; it should be a lot of fun.