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Darren Aronofsky - The writer/director of Pi discusses the limits of filmmaking and human knowledge

Interview conducted by Andrea Chase from ChitChatMagazine.Com concerning Darren Aronofsky's "Pi."

Andrea Chase: I'd like this to be a serious interview, but there's one issue I'd like to get out of the way right off the bat: How sick are you of pastry references?

Darren Aronofsky: I haven't heard any in a while, but the other day I was in New York and there was this guy wearing a shirt that was a pi symbol made out of cherries and underneath it said "Cherry pi." I tried to buy it off of him, but he wouldn't sell it to me.

AC: There are several variations. My favorite is the pi on a background of a blue sky with clouds called "Pi in the Sky."

DA: Where do you find that?

AC: There are a couple of catalogues that sell T-shirts with those logos. You haven't seen them?

DA: No, I have not seen them, but if you buy me one, I'll be your friend for a long time.

AC: I can get you that information.

DA: [laughing] No, I want you to buy me one. I want you to give me a gift.

AC: One of us has the three-picture deal and the other doesn't. Hmmm. Let's do the math.

DA: [laughing] Do the math!

AC: This is a film about abstract math, but it's not a math film. In your estimation, how much math would someone need to know in order to enjoy this film?

DA: Well, the hardest math problem in the film is 41+3 and we give you the answer about three seconds later. isn't really about math, it's about all that cool math theory that you hear about at cocktail parties, you know, chaos theory and about connecting the universe and looking for God through math that everyone always finds so interesting and wants to hear more about. So, that's the math in the movie.

AC: Why is pi so compelling as a number?

DA: Well, when you think about it, the circle, this simple shape in the universe that you see everywhere, from the sun to the moon to the pupils of your lover's eyes, is a perfect shape. Anywhere where there's intelligent life, it's witnessed and seen, and if you take the circumference of a circle and divide it by its diameter, something totally elegant, you get this number, pi, which is impossible to write with the human numerical system. The only way we can represent it is with a symbol. So, the idea came to me that if there's this infinite chain of numbers that goes on and on and on and on and on forever, who's to say what that number is? Who's to say that that number isn't the universe's DNA?

AC: That of course is what propels this film. There's Max, the mathematician, who's playing with his computer, Euclid, trying to discover the pattern of the universe through Wall Street trends, not for profit, though.

DA: Max is a renegade mathematician searching for numerical order in the New York Stock Exchange. He's doing it to look for the perfection in the world. He's looking for an order underneath all the chaos. He's chosen the stock market because it's this tremendous data set of numbers of qualified human behavior actually quantified. He believes that if he puts a numerical analysis on it, he'll be able to find this unifying order. A lot of people think it's pretty whacked out, but Max stumbles onto something that threatens existence and his sanity.

AC: It breaks his computer and has caused another mathematician to have a stroke.

DA: Yeah, the idea is the Icarus myth. If you fly to high to the sun, you get burnt. It's Prometheus, if you steal fire from the gods, they send giant birds to come out and eat your liver. It's that typical Faustian journey, a retelling of this old mythology for the digital, cyberworld age.

AC: Do you subscribe to the theory that there are some things we aren't meant to know?

DA: I think we're meant to know everything, it's just a matter of when and how. I think this knowledge of God precludes the existence of the ego and the self and that as Max gets closer and closer to finding this universal order, his own self starts to disappear more and more. That's the underlying conflict of the movie.

AC: Some of the other people involved with this number are Kabbalists. How were you first exposed to the Kabbalah?

DA: Growing up with a Jewish education, you always hear about it somewhat, but it's on the fringes because it's something that only wizened old men are supposed to study and understand. When I was eighteen I went to travel around Europe with a backpack and started in Israel. Because I had no money, I put myself on a kibbutz with dreams of being in an avocado field, picking avocados with my shirt off and catching some rays. In fact, they stuck me in a plastic factory and my job was to run between to assembly lines for eight hours a day. Literally, it was timed so that when I finished the work on one line, I would have to run, I couldn't walk, I would have to run to the next line or else the boxes would start falling on the ground, and I would get screamed at. It was horrible. It was a nightmare, so I ran away after two days. And if you have no money and you're walking around the Western Wall in Jerusalem with a backpack, you get brought into religious sects that introduce you to mysticism, that show you the beauty and magic of religion, to bring you back into the fold and away from Satan. For me it didn't quite work, because the devil has some nice toys. I did come away with some nice stories and some good ideas. That was the seed for a lot of the Kabbalah stuff in the film. When we started working on Pi and putting these elements into the film, I used my Hassidic connections in Brooklyn to get to some of the leading Kabbalah scholars in the world. There are basically three heavy-duty rabbis out there who are these big, big mystics. They're like these Jewish shamans that go around the world and perform little miracles. They shared a lot of their secrets with me, and a lot of their stories. There's some stuff that would blow your mind and we brought that to Pi. Everything in the film is completely, 100% true.

AC: The part where [the Hebrew words for] father and mother add up to [the Hebrew for] children is too freaky.

DA: There's stuff that I could show that would maybe cause a few heart attacks in the audience.

AC: Among the Kabbalah scholars that you were talking to, they weren't part of the movement in Southern California?

DA: No, that's more a fusion of New Age with Judaism. It's a different thing. The ones I talked to were practicing stuff from the Middle Ages, you know, the guys who are the direct descendents of the people who summoned golems to defend the Jews from the Cossaks.

AC: Isaac Luria and those guys?

DA: Connected to that.

AC: In this film, you concentrate on the numerology of the Kabbalah [the Gematria], the idea that the Torah is really a string of numbers with messages written in it for those who know how to crack the code. In a future film, would you go into some of its other aspects?

DA: Potentially. I find it really fascinating, but its not involved in any of my immediate projects, though.

AC: What's been the reaction in the Jewish community to Pi?

DA: When we showed at the Museum of Modern Art [as part of the program of] New Directors, New Films, it was a very Jewish audience and they actually cheered throughout the film. I think the portrayal of Jews on film has become a certain stereotype, I mean when they are Jewish (NOTE: Jewish should be undelined) characters. Seinfeld, for example, isn't a Jew, he's just a whiner, but when you have characters that are actually Jewish, there's a stereotypical portrayal that's very different from the kind of guys that I grew up with in Brooklyn. With those guys, there was no difference between the Jewish guys, the black guys, the Italian guys, the Irish or Greek guys. We were all products of hip-hop culture. We all grew up in the inner city listening to the same music, practicing the same art, cutting the same classes, imbibing the same drugs and alcohol. That's what bound us and united us. I'm into stripping down stereotypes, revealing them and totally flipping them around. We tried to do that with a black female as the bad guy, which you never, ever see in film, and also as the leader of a Wall Street firm. I mean, not only is she a female, she's black I mean talk about AAAAH [lets out an unearthly wail]. But beyond that, it's an interesting way to spin things around because it becomes more realistic, and suddenly, it's more relevant. We did that, too, with Devi, the next-door neighbor, played by Samia Shoaib, to have a sex symbol, an object of sexual desire being an Indian woman. It's done very rarely in American cinema. I think it totally works and it also opens people's minds and changes people's stereotypes about what's sexually exciting, what's bad, what's good, what's weak, what's strong. The film [though] in a lot of ways is anti-religion and pro-spirituality. I think a lot of religious groups often forget why and what they're doing. Anyone who believes that they should kill in the name of God I think, has totally lost all sense of spirituality. You know, that's not what it's about.

AC: This film has a very distinctive look, which is important because this is a science fiction film without special effects. In any science fiction film, you need to set a mood, and you need to do the suspension of disbelief right away, so the look and the feel of it is the most important part. Talk about some of the things you did to achieve that.

DA: We shot a film stock that's never been done for a feature film before, it's called black and white reversal film. It's actually more expensive to shoot than color, so it's a purely creative choice. There's only one lab in the country that processes it, Bono labs in Virginia. The reality of it is that you have to nail the exposure, if you miss the exposure by one or two stops, it either goes completely white or completely black. If you nail it, though, you get a movie that is black or white, as opposed to black and white with a lot of gray tones. It's extremely stylized and different. With camera angles, we tried as much as possible to bring the audience into Max Cohen's head. We wanted them to experience how it was to be a renegade genius mathematician standing on the verge of insanity.

AC: Why did Max have a rotary phone?

DA: The whole idea was we took Terry Gilliam's brilliance and tried to copycat it a little in the sense of taking old technology and putting it into a hyper- future reality. If there's a throwback to old technology then people accept it more that this is an alternative world. We did that with everything from the dot-matrix printer to the old disk drive and the old keyboards. Yet, Euclid was more powerful than any computer in the world.

AC: I like the sense of not existing in any particular time frame.

DA: A lot of my projects take place in the hyper-real plane, things that could be now, but it's not.

AC: This film cost only $60,000, right?

DA: That's right.

AC: So you had to be very creative with how you used your money. Do you think if you'd had a lot more money, you wouldn't have made such a good film?

DA: [laughing] Thank you, I guess. That' s kind of like slapping me in the face while complimenting me. was purely a film made within its budget range. It was constructed out of what we could and couldn't do. We took everything we could do for that money and pushed it as far as we could and made it as solid as we could. If we'd had more money, I probably would have made Scream 4. From the profits from that, I could have been making 's till the day I die.

AC: This film got a lot of attention as Sundance. When did you know that you had a hit on your hands?

DA: We didn't know until our first screening, which was a Sunday morning at 10:30 for 1200 people after everyone had been drinking and partying the night before. At the end, we had a standing ovation, which was probably one of the greatest moments of my life as well as one of the most embarrassing moments of my life?

AC: How so?

DA: You know, it was like "Who are you clapping for?" "What's going on?" "Where am I?" It's hard to explain the feeling when you get an emotional response from an audience for a film you've made.

AC: You go from being Darren Who? to everyone wanting a piece of you, does that engender a certain amount of cynicism?

DA: Since hit as Sundance, I've realized that my only friends are the friends I met before Sundance and the people I met after that are becoming friends, but I'm a little more wary because they may want to be friends for different reasons. But I spend a lot of time with my old friends from Brooklyn and from college. As much time as possible because a lot of people I'm surrounded by now are in the film industry. That's a large reason I left Los Angeles. You can only talk about a movie so much, there's a whole other world of stuff to talk about and that where the really good ideas are.

AC: Paul Schrader is a big fan of this film. He actually handed you your award for it. DA: He hugged me, actually. It was an honor. Paul Schrader is a living legend and he's written some of the great movies and he's directed some great movies. The type of stuff he said about was a real honor.

AC: And the award you won was…

DA: We won the directing award. So much great stuff has happened for Pi that at this point it's all very unreal. It's like I'm not really sure you exist. I'm tempted to reach out and touch you to make sure I'm not dreaming. Do you exist?

AC: Yes, I do.

DA: How can you prove it?

AC: Well, I can't prove it to you, because I'm not sure that you exist.

DA: You see, that's what Pi's about.

AC: Last question - what kind of brain was that in Pi?

DA: That was [New York mayor] Rudolph Guiliani's brain. He was very nice to lend us his brain and we tried not to damage it, but when we returned it, I just have to tell him, this is the first time I'm telling anyone, there was a lot of dirt on the bottom, so he should scrape it off.

AC: It doesn't seem to have affected him though, and what can we infer from that?

DA: That's a good question, but if he could run again, I'd vote for him again.