We liked Darren Aronofsky when he was the scrappy young filmmaker from Brooklyn (via Harvard) who financed his debut, “Pi,” in 1998 with $100-loans from friends and relatives, and relied on promotion that consisted of tagging Tokyo’s streets with the film’s logo.
We liked him when he cited photos by Nobuyoshi Araki and Hiromix as an influence on the look of his downbeat junkie flick “Requiem For A Dream” (2000), and also the sheer insanity of making a film with something like 3,000 cuts.
We loved him when he declined to direct “Batman Begins” and throw his talent down the creative toilet of superhero flicks. We even admired him for the over-reaching metaphysical mess that was “The Fountain” (2006).
After that particular excursion into the mystical, Aronofsky returned to the grittily real with “The Wrestler” (2008), which restored both the director’s and star Mickey Rourke’s careers. While that film did well at the box office, Aronofsky has trumped it with his latest, “Black Swan,” which has grossed over $100 million at the U.S. box office alone, and earned star Natalie Portman an Oscar for her performance as a ballet dancer. Not bad for a director who has been consistently uncompromising, delving repeatedly into a gray zone where mental fantasy and tangible reality merge.
“Black Swan” is no different, a suspenseful and slightly mad tale of a ballerina named Nina (Portman) who’s chosen to dance both leads in a production of “Swan Lake”; her director (Vincent Kassel) pushes his perfectionist princess to embrace her dark side to dance the Black Swan role convincingly. This she does, with a little help from bad-girl dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), but paranoia sets in when she begins to suspect that Lily is angling for her role. As is usual for an Aronofsky film, things get dark indeed.
What’s striking is that Aronofsky has a major hit on his hands without having compromised his style in any way. In an interview with The Japan Times — his fourth — the director pondered what went right: “This time it really took off, it really connected with people. I don’t know if that’s because of Natalie’s involvement, or the studio’s involvement. … It’s hard to explain what happened, because it wasn’t premeditated. We were just making a film the way we always do, believing in a story that meant something to us, and trying to execute it to the best of our abilities.”
Aronofsky has always been a risk-taking filmmaker, and going with Portman as his lead — who hadn’t danced since she was 12, — was definitely a gamble. “I was worried up to about maybe three weeks before,” notes Aronofsky. “I kept wondering if I’d made a big mistake in not casting a real dancer, because it was a huge challenge for her to create that illusion that she was a dancer. But she worked really hard; when it came to editing the dance sequences, we looked at the differences between her and her dance double, and they were very small.”
Aronofsky has since faced the rather ironic situation that having made a film about a double who tries to sabotage a star’s career, real life has wound up in a similar place. Portman’s dance double, Sarah Lane, contends that she — not the film’s star — danced most of the scenes.
Aronofsky can laugh at the irony, but quickly got serious: “When you have a lot of success, you suddenly get people who try to clamor for credit that really don’t deserve it. The double made a minimal contribution to the film and was rewarded very handsomely, and then basically realized, hey, this could mean a lot for my career, so she went out there and said a lot of very untrue things. The problem is, the news agencies enjoyed the controversy and tried to make a story out of it.”
Aronofsky and his editor, Andrew Weisblum, eventually went on American news shows insisting that 80 percent of the film’s dance shots are Portman. “We really debunked it,” said Aronofsky, “by actually counting shots and showing durations of shots and showing her contribution to the movie. I guess it shows that the competitive nature of dance we tried to portray in the film is not that far away from the truth.”
The film’s ballet sequences are memorable, with a visceral, up-close intensity rarely brought to this art form. Aronofsky described his approach: “With “The Wrestler” I went with this hand-held camera feel, but it wasn’t like a documentary, it was more like the camera was in the ring dancing with the wrestlers. So when I started to look at ballet, I knew that I definitely wanted to get the camera out of the wings and the back of the theater, because that’s how ballet is always shot. I wanted to get onto the stage and dance with Natalie. I liked the kind of freedom and speed with which I could react to the dancers.”
Working with choreographer Benjamin Millepied (who also dances with Portman in the film), Aronofsky developed the dance to work with the camera. “We did a lot in rehearsals,” said Aronofsky, “because there’s no way to storyboard something like that — it’s so fluid. So I would work out the idea of the shot, and then just surrender and hope the camera operator would get the best shot from moment to moment. That often created great foreground elements, because we could have the dancers rushing by and stuff like that, but it definitely led to a lot of collisions too.”
The original script for “Black Swan,” by Andres Heinz, wasn’t even about ballet, but Aronofsky was keen to take it in that direction. The director cites his sister’s ballet lessons when he was growing up, calling it “kind of the background noise of my youth.” Adapting the script took some time — the director was talking to Portman about the project nearly a decade ago — and getting some inside help from the ballet world also proved challenging. “The ballet world is really insular and focused on themselves, what they do,” said Aronofsky. “They really weren’t interested in film. Normally, when you make movies people open up the doors and give you full access to things, but the ballet world could give a sh-t about us. It was a dancer by dancer, inch by inch process.”
Nina’s descent into paranoia (and repressed sexuality) clearly betrays an influence from Roman Polanski’s 1965 classic, “Repulsion”; Aronofsky confirmed that “Polanski’s films have taught me so much. I think he’s the first master of subjective filmmaking; he was able to get into the head of a character, and use the camera and sound and effects to bring the interior of a character out onto the screen. I definitely studied his work.”
“Black Swan” has plenty of jump-out-of-seat moments as well — Aronofsky calls them “cheap shots” — and the director assembled more than three hours’ worth of the best ones he could find to study and “figure out fresh ways to do it.” Aronofsky noted that “we were also playing with the mirror scare shot, which is one of the biggest cliches in horror, and how we could use digital effects to take it to another level. We knew we needed mirrors because the film was really about reflection and doubles and so on.”
When asked about his own personal favorite cinematic scare shot, Aronofsky cites M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” (1999), noting “I remember going to a mid-afternoon screening in Times Square on the opening weekend of ‘The Sixth Sense,’ and people were just screaming — I barely heard half the movie.”
When it comes to horror, though, Aronofsky is left cold by all the torture-porn stuff. “I can’t say I’m a huge horror fan — I’m not a gore fan by any means — but a good jolt to the system is always a lot of fun. We didn’t even want to use the term horror, because we felt people would be scared away, think it’s a gore film. So we called it a ‘psychological thriller.’ But the great horror films can just scare you without making your stomach sick. Although I can’t say my films are totally devoid of that! (Laughs.)”
With the box-office success of “Black Swan,” and Portman’s Oscar win, one would suspect that things are getting easier for the director, who has often struggled through development hell, seeing as many projects canceled as realized. Aronofsky laughed, and said: “We were just tying to get a new project set up, and everybody turned us down. Every time you try to do something that doesn’t fit into a formula, it’s always difficult, because they just don’t know how to calculate what its value is in the world. And I’m attracted to material that’s pushing the edges, so I’m always running into trouble.”