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Darren Aronofsky-The Fountain

Interview conducted by Daniel Robert Epstein from SuicideGirls.Com concerning Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain" from April 2005.

According to Warner Bros, Darren Aronofsky is the next Stanley Kubrick. It may be hard to believe that any filmmaker can be compared to what many consider the greatest filmmaker of all time. But Aronofsky’s new movie The Fountain starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz may very well prove Warner Bros claim correct. The Fountain combines elements of Braveheart, a love story and 2001: A Space Odyssey into one film where a man discovers the fountain of youth and all throughout history he tries to save the life of the woman he loves. Visiting the set for The Fountain was so much fun and very exciting. I remember first seeing PI and while it didn’t grab me as much as Requiem for a Dream later did, I knew that Aronofsky was a major talent. Of course Requiem later proved that but everyone wants to know what he could do with a large budget. Walking into the assuming Montreal building that houses the sets for The Fountain you would never think that genius is afoot in there. After getting settled we were led into a monstrous room that held the last set that has been constructed for the film. It’s a giant spaceship that was built to look like it was made out of a tree. A freshly bald Hugh Jackman says something to Rachel Weisz, and then something else happened that I couldn’t see!.

Daniel Robert Epstein: So is this an official teaser?

Darren Aronofsky: It's not really a teaser because we just threw it together. I didn't pick the performances. I just threw it together to get the crew psyched so they would show up on time [laughs].

DRE: When I spoke to your producer, Eric Watson, I mentioned that in the footage you showed us that there was no camera strapped to anyone’s chest. He said “I think we’ve worked through that one.” Is that true?

ARONOFSKY: Yeah I think that every film has its own grammar. I mean, every story has its own film grammar so you have to sort of figure out what the story is about and then figure out what each scene is about and then that tells you where to put the camera. This was just a very different film. I think that Pi and Requiem for a Dream are connected because on Pi we had such limited resources and on Requiem we had a little bit more money and so I was able to explore some of the visual ideas that I had. But I just wanted this film to look like its own thing. So I think that there are connections to other things, but I think that it is own piece.

DRE: Were you going for a statelier feel?

ARONOFSKY: Really the whole design of the film is a crucifix actually. So almost everything is straight behind, straight in front or from the sides or straight above or straight below. That just came out of trying to define it and basically in trying to figure out how to shoot the spaceship because it's like a circular, spherical shape and how to put the camera into a sphere was really a challenge. So I tried to put some order onto it and then I realized that there was a crucifix of the Conquistadors and it sort of played in very well and then it sort of evolved into all the other time periods.

DRE: Could you talk about why The Fountain fell apart the first time? I read you and Brad Pitt had creative differences.

ARONOFSKY: That's not true. The reality of it is that Brad and I worked on it for about two and a half years. So it's kind of like if you had a relationship with someone and you broke up after two and a half years and you had to define the actual reason. Is it because they leave the toothpaste cap off? It's never just one reason. The ultimate reason it shut down is because of Brad, but Brad didn't do it. He didn't come to Australia but why he didn't come has to do with a lot of things and has to do with many politics of his own life as well as what had happened before that on a film. That had to do, I think, mostly with the fact that it's a very different movie and I think that it's scary for anyone to get involved with it. That just shows you the bravery of someone like Hugh.

DRE: When Hugh Jackman took the part how much changed?

ARONOFSKY: Well, what happened is that after the film fell apart in October 2002 or 2003. I tried to find something else to do and I started working on other projects and developing other ideas and then about six or seven months later I couldn't sleep one night and I was sitting in my office and I realized that I was an independent filmmaker. That's where I started so we know how to do things cheaply. We did Pi for $60,000 and Requiem for $4 million. So there must be a cheap way of doing this movie. I decided to figure out the cheapest way to do it that still preserved the vision and the big concepts that I wanted to explore. What resulted is that I worked for about two weeks and the script just came out better. I think that what happened was being seven weeks out from production and having spent a lot of money to get there we really understood exactly what things cost and what would be expensive and what would not be expensive. The scope of the battle scene has changed. What I wanted to do at the time was hundreds of people versus hundreds of people but that was before Troy and King Arthur came out. Six years ago I was sort of writing that going, “Wow. Look how cool Braveheart was. Now Hollywood can do cool battle scenes. So I'm going to do a battle scene.” But there've been so many battle scenes that now when you see Troy or 'Lord of the Rings, where the scope of the battle scene was so huge, they have to be reinvented because they're not interesting no matter how big it is. So I decided to reduce it to what it's really about which is one guy trying to get through overwhelming masses. To do that was a lot cheaper than having all these Conquistadors and Mayans. Ultimately the same film but it's just really boiled down to its essence.

When the film fell apart I kind of reinvented it and said, “I only want to work with actors that really get it and make it work.” I didn't want it to be a star driven thing anymore. I wanted it to be much more of an independent film. That's how I wanted to approach it even though the budget is bigger than a normal independent film. I wanted to approach it purely as an independent film. That was the whole idea. No more bullshit and lets just make this thing purely independent. So Hugh was of course someone whose work I knew, but I didn't really know his work beyond X-Men which was a very specific thing, but not being a big comic fan or X-Men fan I didn't really know who Wolverine was until Hugh Jackman did it. But I went to see The Boy From Oz [on Broadway] and even though the role was so much different from what we're doing here, almost the complete opposite in fact, but the amount of talent that he displayed onstage was just overwhelming and I was like, “This guy is great.” Then I met him and he was really an amazing guy and I could just see that it was the right time for both us because he needed a role that could show a lot of dimension. He gets to play three different time periods and three different characters. When Hugh joined the film we met every week for a couple of hours and worked on it. So I think that it evolved somewhat and I kept rewriting it.

I just needed someone who could give that commitment. This film would not be possible without Hugh because technically and emotionally he's just so good. It's just hard to believe how good he is. If you ask any person on this crew what they think of Hugh Jackman they'll admit that they've never seen anything like it. I'll give him an emotional note and he'll hit it every time. He'll physically be there and then emotionally he'll be there. It's just remarkable and a great pleasure. Rachel read the script and just really was very aggressive about getting it. What I like about Rachel is that she's sort of like Hugh in that there's not a role in American cinema that completely defines them so that they can become part of this and make it their own. I knew that she was very talented and then when I started talking to her about the material she was thinking about it. A lot of people don't really think about that stuff. They just do whatever.

DRE: The original script you did for Brad Pitt is now becoming a graphic novel from Vertigo. How do you look at that now?

ARONOFSKY: I don't know if it's better but it is different. The thing is that it's always an evolutional process. It's constantly growing and constantly changing. I think that if we'd have made that film it would've been a great film but it would've been a very, very different movie than what this is because in many ways I've already made that film. I got so close to shooting it and I was completely cast and I was completely ready to go and the sets were built and psychologically I thought I was shooting. So I did everything but shoot it and show it to people. The whole lead up to that is one of the biggest parts of the job so the shooting is such a small part of it. Emotionally, I've kind of made that film and this film is different film. It's kind of like my fourth film even though it is the third film that people are seeing. To me it feels like a fourth film because even though I say it's better it's a different film. I mean, I hope that Requiem is better than Pi. I hope that Pi is better than my student films and I'm hoping that I'm getting better as I get older.

DRE: What’s the essence of The Fountain?

ARONOFSKY: It's weird because I talk about Pi which is about God and math and Kabbalah and paranoia. So I don't really make the typical genre film that fits into a clear section. Pi could be sci-fi or drama or an art film. It could be an indie film so I don't know where this fits. I've been saying that it's a psychedelic sci-fi film which is the only thing that I can think of and there's a long tradition of psychedelic sci-fi films. It's a good genre, but I don't know how to describe it. For me, one of the big things was the fountain of youth which I thought was a really cool theme. It's an old theme and one of the oldest stories that mankind has been telling. It's in Genesis with the tree of life. It's in Gilgamesh and Ponce de Leon searched for it. But Hollywood hasn't really done much with it unless you count Nip/Tuck and Extreme Makeover. However it is this big theme in society. In The New York Times magazine there was an article about this doctor who thinks that aging is a disease and can be cured. There's this huge quest in our culture now to stay young and we do it mostly physically. Although, there are always health diets that are supposed to keep you young. People are living longer so I was thinking about what the repercussions are on people and on love because now that people are living longer you're not just married to someone for 20 or 30 years but for like 50 or 60 years.

People are saying that our kids are going to live to a 110. What does that kind of lifetime mean? They don't give us any tools in high school or elementary school to think about dying and death. The only thing that they do is to tell you to collect autumn leaves and say how beautiful they are. But they don't ever tell you that when we look at old people we sort of shut it off and lock them up in old age homes and don't include them in our lives. So it was interesting to start exploring that literature as I started to get a little older.

DRE: I was one of the last people to interview Hubert Selby before he died. He was so wonderful but he said he was unhappy and ready to die. Did working with him on Requiem kind of inspire you to do a story about the fountain of youth?

ARONOFSKY: I don't think so. It's weird, I turn 36 on Saturday. So I think that I started on The Fountain right about the turn of the millennium right when I turned 30. It's a little pathetic to say, but when you turn 30 it's the first time that you're not in your 20’s anymore and you start to go, “Oh shit.” There are all these kids that are in their 20’s and they're the youth now. It's just interesting how that changes, and then you start thinking about, “Wow 40 isn't that far.” In fact, that there's a short story that Selby wrote about those big markers in life. First it's 18, then it's 21 then 30 then 45 then 60 then 75. They get further and further those big markers. But turning 30 was when I started to think about it and also my parents both got cancer and were fighting it and beat it, but their mortality started to get to me. Everything wasn't as hunky-dory like it was.

I think that he just made me start thinking. I don't really remember the whole evolution of the idea. I mean, it's very much like Pi in that when I write an original it's kind of more of a tapestry. I'll take different threads from different ideas and weave a carpet of cool ideas together. So I was reading something about the conquistadors. There's a book by Bernal Diaz called The Conquest of Spain. He was one of Cortez's foot soldiers and he wrote a story. It's an amazing book. I read that. The space stuff I think was influenced a little bit by Space Oddity by David Bowie and that's probably why the character was named Tom.

DRE: Did you talk to Bowie about doing some music?

ARONOFSKY: Yeah, well not music, but hopefully a third Major Tom song. It'd be cool. He's working with Clint [Mansell] our composer. So we're talking and hopefully that'll happen. So there was that influence and then present day stuff. But Ari, who co-wrote the story with me, was getting his PhD in neuroscience and so that whole world of neuroscience sort of influenced the present and then we just sort of sewed it together.

DRE: Both Mark Margolis and Ellen Burstyn were in Requiem for a Dream and now they are in The Fountain. How is it working with them again?

ARONOFSKY: I like it. It's easy when you have a shorthand. They understand and do what you want.

DRE: Did you have them in mind when you wrote the parts?

ARONOFSKY: Yes, I wrote Ellen's role for her and I wrote Mark's role for him.

DRE: The Fountain seems a bit more hopeful than your other films, was that conscious?

ARONOFSKY: It was a little conscious. I sort of wanted to do something more like this when I finished Pi but the opportunity to do Requiem came up. It wasn't really an opportunity, but the chance to fight to get it made and to actually have it happen came up. Requiem was very much my twenties and I really felt I should do it and finish it. Those themes, the TV addiction, the relationship between the mother and the son was stuff that I had written about and then I found it in Selby's book almost exactly like I had done it, but much better than I could ever write. So I sort of owed it to myself to make it. But I think that thematically I was already starting to think about a happier ending. It's not about selling out or anything. If you look at this film it's nowhere near selling out. It's the hardest film to get made. Literally, every single person in Hollywood said no to this movie at least once including the people making it. It was very difficult to make and I think that the reason is because it’s not an absolutely clear genre film. Really, at the core of this film is just a simple love story.

DRE: Do you think The Fountain graphic novel, that Kent Williams is drawing, will spoil the movie you are making?

ARONOFSKY: I don't think so. People go and see Batman and everyone has read a Batman comic so I don't think that hurts you at all. I think that everyone who's going to spend 30 bucks on a comic book is going to spend the ten bucks to go and see the movie. It's a different experience. What’s nice about this is that it's not a comic book based on a movie so it's not like one of those cheesy comic books where they do likeness of the actors. It's not going to be one of those that they sort of pump out just as another medium. This is its own thing. I mean, you can look at the artwork and doesn't look like Rachel [Weisz]. Kent Williams didn't know who was cast in it.

DRE: How similar is the story in the graphic novel to the one in the movie?

ARONOFSKY: The story is similar but there are some things that are different. I think that it'll just add to the conversation. If people see some of the images beforehand, that's what is going to happen anyway. I'm hoping that we'll just get more people excited about coming to see the movie and vice versa.

DRE: Was the first Kent Williams book you ever read Havok and Wolverine

ARONOFSKY: No. I'm not a comic book guy at all.

DRE: But you did Pi: The Book of Ants through Dark Horse a few years ago.

ARONOFSKY: That was just the studio. I made a comic book and what happened was that in college one of my college roommates who I now work with, Dan Sandler, was into comics and he showed me Frank Miller's stuff and so I started reading that stuff. But as a teenager I didn't have comic books at all. I think that I tried to start collecting for a week but I just never got into it. Then when I was older and I read Watchmen, Ronin and Dark Knight so I got really into it. I didn't actually know Kent's work. When the film fell apart the first time, before I even went to Warner Bros, I made sure that we could preserve the rights to the comic book. I said, “If Hollywood gives me a problem, I'll make a comic book out of it.”

I had to go to DC first. That was the deal, but then I had the rights to shop it. And it's not like it was a money thing because there's no money in comics. So I saved the rights for that and then when it fell apart I got in touch with DC and Karen Berger at Vertigo.

DRE: So The Fountain graphic novel will be a Vertigo book?

ARONOFSKY: It's Vertigo and I sort of knew them from before and they turned me on to artists.

DRE: When the graphic novel comes out who is going to be credited?

ARONOFSKY: It'll be Kent Williams. I wrote the screenplay. Ari [Handel] and I wrote the story so it's written by Darren and story by Darren and Ari.

DRE: How involved are you with the page by page interpretation?

ARONOFSKY: It's Kent's interpretation. I'm going to write and place the words and stuff. But he's completely interpreting the stuff and it's amazing that it's very close to what we were planning.

DRE: As a film fan yourself, can you look at your film career objectively and go “What will my tenth film be like?”

ARONOFSKY: I have no idea. I think that right now I never want to make another movie [laughs]. But it's day 56 of shooting. I remember at the end of Requiem all I wanted to do was get a DV camera and just do a small film. It changes. After shooting in front of a greenscreen for the last week, I never want to do a special effects movie again, but then the hunger comes back. So I think that the goal is just to make good films every time or at least try to make a good film. When The Fountain fell apart I thought that it'd be great just to take an assignment and shoot something. But I couldn't do it. I'm not one of those filmmakers that can just show up and shoot because I think the only way I can make a film that has good images and stuff is by pushing everyone. The only way that I can push myself and other people is that I think that I'm actually doing something that's exciting. You have to wake up wanting to do it and there will be days when you'll wake up and you'll not want to get out of bed and you have to have something that pulls you out and gets you going.

DRE: You had amazing websites for Pi and Requiem for a Dream; will that be the case for The Fountain as well?

ARONOFSKY: We're working on it. The Pi website was one of the first film websites out there and when we first started it, Sean Gullette, who was the star of the film, was very hip to the web and we were all hip because we were of that age group when the web first started. We were just coming out of college then and so we had all these ideas. We wanted to put it into USENET Groups that Max Cohen really existed and put this fake fiction in there which Blair Witch ended up using from the same company [Artisan Entertainment]. I won't mention anything about that just compare the posters. But we had those ideas and then we designed that Pi website and they were all like, “What is this stuff?” We were like, “We don't know what it is that it's called.” Then when Requiem came around films had started doing this, but they basically were billboards to tell where they were playing and they're still like that. Ninety percent of them suck.

DRE: How did the Requiem site come about?

ARONOFSKY: I knew that there were interesting experimental artists working in the internet and I sat next to some guy on an airplane that knew all these different cool artists were out there. I found these artists out there who had their own website and I sent them an email. They were in Europe and I asked if they would be interested. Turned out that they knew Pi and they had ideas and they came up with that whole sort of interactive thing. It was like one of the first film sites to do that and then they went on to do Donnie Darko and all these other award winning ones. I'd love to find something new, but I don't really know what you do now. Now there is so much expertise and brainpower it's hard to be at the cutting edge of what's cool and not go do something that's totally geeky. You want to do something that's actually interesting like those were and I'm not sure what that is yet. So I don't know yet.

DRE: You came really close to directing Watchmen.

ARONOFSKY: I got involved and I got that setup at Paramount and then they fired me. Well they didn't fire me, but they wanted to go now. They wanted to be in pre-production in January and I've been working on this for six years and I clearly have a hard time doing two things at once. I can do one project well so I couldn't really do it. As soon as we setup, they got really excited and wanted it in the summer of '06 and I was like, “This isn't a film you can rush because if you fuck it up there's going to be a lot of angry people.” The funny thing is that when I went to meet Bowie, one of the first things he said was, “Oh, are you doing Watchmen?" It turned out that he was developing an opera out of Watchmen. I was like, “If I do this film and I fuck it up, I'm going to piss David Bowie off.” The reason that I got involved is because David Hayter’s script and I thought that it was a great adaptation. I thought that it was better than any of the Sam Hamm scripts. I wish them all the best luck but I can't do it that quick. I have to take my time.

DRE: What about a Lone Wolf and Cub film?

ARONOFSKY: We're developing Lone Wolf and Cub. It's a fun but very hard piece to adapt. We're turning it into a western. You can't really do a samurai story.

DRE: Are you excited to see Sin City?

ARONOFSKY: Yeah, sure. I can't wait to see what they did. I love Robert Rodriguez and it looks cool. I've seen all the trailers. Frank Miller is great. He's directing and I'm really glad for him because for so long, so much of Hollywood wanted them to make it and he just wouldn't let go of it. He doesn't have that much anger when you talk to him which is amazing. With Batman I was like, “I'll only do it if you involve Frank Miller.” They thought that was a radical idea. I was like, “The guy is responsible for your moves ultimately.” He's responsible for making the whole title cool again.

I'm really excited to see Batman Begins. I think that it looks great. It's a hard thing to do because you have to make it for a real audience. Chris Nolan is a real filmmaker, there's no doubt.

Comic books and graphic novels are a great medium. It's incredibly underused. Since that great year of 1987 when Watchmen and Dark Knight came out, there've been very few things that have been that revolutionary. There's been great stuff, but nothing like that. So I think that it's a great medium to play with.

DRE: Do you have a quieter just talking type movie you want to do?

ARONOFSKY: A Kevin Smith type of thing?

DRE: A movie where nothing horrible is happening to the main characters, maybe something autobiographical.

ARONOFSKY: [Laughs] Pi is sort of autobiographical. That's my life, sitting in an apartment alone. I imagine that there's a limit of what I'll be attracted to wanting to do down the line so that's definitely possible. For some reason right now, when I go to movies I generally want to be taken to another world and I kind of like that. So I edge more towards Terry Gillian than I do John Cassavettes. But I do love Cassavettes movies. That's my general taste.

DRE: Do you have any tattoos?

ARONOFSKY: I'm too scared of needles. I don't get that concept.

DRE: Have you heard of SuicideGirls?

ARONOFSKY: Yeah. I do know of SuicideGirls.' Someone sent me a link at one point and I thought that it was very funny.