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DGA: Darren Aronofsky Article

Interview conducted by DAVID GEFFNER from DGA.Org concerning Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem For A Dream".

The Bronx may be up and the Battery may be down, as the old song goes, but the independent film community in New York is diverse, dispersed, and thriving in every corner of the city. Talent like Rose Troche (The Safety of Objects), Lisa Cholodenko (High Art), Neil LaBute (Nurse Betty), Bennett Miller (The Cruise), Matthew Harrison (Kicked in the Head) and Tom DiCillo (Double Whammy) have infused the East Coast with a dynamic, restless spirit not content to pander only to an art-house crowd, but rather to straddle every corner of the industry.

Perhaps no indie better exemplifies this blend of old-and-new-school filmmaking smarts that so many East Coast directors share than Darren Aronofsky. Rocketing from film-school grad to no-budget feature to his current assignment, penning the screenplay and directing the next incarnation of the Warner Bros. mega-hit franchise, Batman, Aronofsky represents the meeting of two worlds: no-budget New York guerilla filmmaking and mainstream audience acceptance.

The fact that Aronofsky may be the only Harvard-educated filmmaker to come out of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, is mostly beside the point. The 31-year-old director, whose debut feature, , combined higher mathematics, chaos theory, the Jewish Kaballah, and Wall Street into one story, is more a product of the New York public system, the digital/hip-hop culture, and a passion for experimentation, than any highbrow academia. Still, Aronofsky is hard-wired for education - his father was a schoolteacher, and along with an MFA in Directing from AFI, Aronofsky prides himself on being a filmmaker "who loves to do his homework." Before shooting for the dizzyingly low budget of $60,000, Aronofsky gorged himself on independent films, studying his peers' work for the rewards and pitfalls of the medium. This studious approach paid off: won the 1998 DGA Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival, the Open Palm Award from IFP/Gotham, and an Excellence in Filmmaking honor from the National Board of Review.

With his latest effort, Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky further explored his New York roots; the film was shot entirely in and around Coney Island, and was an homage, of sorts, to the pervasive memories of Aronofsky's youth. A self-described "union kid" who has been around labor guilds all his life, Aronofsky had planned to join the DGA prior to Requiem but a mix-up with his producers resulted in Aronofsky signing up a few months before the film was released.

"My grandfather was a union man, as was my father. So, I've been around labor guilds all my life and have always dreamed about joining the DGA," Aronofsky says from his Manhattan offices, where he's been writing a science-fiction script he calls his most ambitious work to date. "To me the DGA seems like a very strong Guild which serves its members well. The creative rights issues they deal with come up all the time. That's the line you're always negotiating as a director: how much involvement and control you'll have with the project. The DGA's work in this area is incredibly important because the industry needs to understand what filmmakers do. They've basically set up a conversation so the industry can talk about our issues."

As it usually goes with new indie directors, the conflicts on Aronofsky's first two films were all about low budgets rather than creative control. In both movies, Aronofsky dealt with themes of obsession and extremes of human behavior, which encouraged his fearless, experimental style. Requiem for a Dream featured nearly 3,000 separate cuts, more than 150 digital manipulations, and a liberal use of split-screen to tell its story of a Brooklyn mother and son caught in the vise-grip of drug addiction. The young director's approach to sound design was equally as radical, although Aronofsky claims to be tone-deaf.

"The sound design in my movies comes out of having watched so many independent films and realizing that everything was great but the sound, because that's where indies end up having to cut corners," Aronofsky explains. "I remember seeing a documentary on Star Wars that was all about the sound design team going out into the desert to collect sounds for the Millennium Falcon. I was fascinated by how they pieced together all these diverse sounds. The collage aspect comes from having grown up in New York in the '80s and being a hip-hop music fan. From the first short I ever made as a kid, I was sampling images, the way hip-hop samples other songs, to create this narrative language."

In only a few years, Aronofsky has managed to create a signature style that seems to echo the pulse of New York itself. Yet, the filmmaker claims a much more different director as one of his inspirations, and plans to change his visual techniques in the years to come. "I look up to directors like Alan Parker," Aronofsky says, "who basically surrender themselves to the story and create a visual style out of the story. That's really important to me - to start with the story, figure out its theme, and then build out a visual and audio language that can best tell that story."

Blending visual and audio elements into a new method of telling stories not only describes Aronofsky's rapid ascent through the indie ranks, but also a shift in the world of independent filmmaking, at least in the director's view. From left: DGA First Vice President Martha Coolidge, Julia Loktey and Darren Aronofsky with DGA President Jack Shea at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.

"I don't make a distinction between independent and Hollywood anymore," Aronofsky intones. "Just look at the Oscars last year: Being John Malkovich and Boys Don't Cry are independent films in every sense of the word, yet Hollywood embraced them. Then you have mainstream directors whose films have a totally independent attitude - the Wachowski brothers with Matrix or David Fincher with Fight Club. Tim Burton used to be the only model we had for bringing that spirit into the mainstream, but now there's Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson and even M. Night Shyamalan, whose films are considered very commercial but they are completely his own. It's an exciting time to be a filmmaker because audiences have a very wide range of tastes and the line between independent and mainstream is blurring with each day."

While Aronofsky is reluctant to acknowledge a clear split between East and West Coast independents, there's little doubt his New York roots have factored heavily into his learning curve, as it has for so many indies working in the Big Apple.

"I don't think New York will be crucial to the next film I do," Aronofsky reflects. "But, for p and Requiem, it was everything. With p I was actually racing to capture a part of New York that's gone - that paranoid, cyber-punk kind of world. And, with Requiem - well, Coney Island has been a huge aesthetic influence in my life. The contrast between an amusement park, which is supposed to be full of life, and the death that hangs over it, is very interesting. New York is such an important city that just putting it on film makes a statement about so many things."

Speaking of statements: critics and filmmakers alike say Darren Aronofsky makes indie films that look entirely original. But, the director has a different take on how his sensibilities threaten to make him the heir apparent to Tim Burton's crown as the most visually inventive indie to crack the mainstream. As Aronofsky concludes in a nod to his hip-hop music roots: "Personally, I don't believe there are that many original ideas. The originality is when you absorb them into your own interpretation. To me, filmmakers are like blenders - we take different ideas, which are like different fruits - bananas, cherries, strawberries - and stick them in a blender to make a big smoothie that's our own creation. The ingredients in the smoothie are all out there in the world, it's simply the filmmaker's choice as to which ones to use."