Black Swan - Darren Aronofsky interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
DARREN Aronofsky talks about directing Black Swan, a psychological thriller set in the world of professional ballet, featuring an Oscar tipped performance by Natalie Portman.
He talks about some of the thematic similarities between this film and The Wrestler, some of the financial difficulties of shooting and why he chose to shoot it in the way he did. He was speaking during a press conference held during the London Film Festival.
Q. How did you immerse yourself in the world of Ballet and how different was it from the film industry?
Darren Aronofsky: Well, the ballet world was very hard world to get into. Usually when you make a movie, doors open up. You say: “I wanna make a movie…” And everyone’s usually, ‘ok.’ But the ballet world couldn’t care. They’re just very, very insular and self-involved. They’re very, very focused. So it took a very, very long time. But slowly but surely we met a few dancers who were interested in sharing their stories. We did a lot of research. Eventually, choreographer Benjamin Millepied came on and that sort of gave us a stamp of approval because he’s very well respected at the New York City ballet and in the ballet world and slowly but surely they helped us out.
Q. You describe yourself as an “existential humanist”…
Darren Aronofsky: I do?
Q. Can you explain what you meant by that?
Darren Aronofsky: I actually had a girlfriend in college who said that’s what my films were like, so I don’t know how that carried over 20 odd years later. I have no idea what it means. Help. Anyone?
Q. Could you elaborate on what you feel the connections are between The Wrestler and Black Swan in terms of the body injuries and dedication in both subjects?
Darren Aronofsky: When we were cutting The Wrestler and getting into revitalising this film [Black Swan], because we had been developing it for about eight years actively and it kind of died during The Wrestler, until one of the producers on The Wrestler, Mark Heyman, who is also my director of development, said he wanted to write something and I said: “What do you think of the ballet project?” And he got deep into it and he said: “You know, there are a lot of similarities between this and The Wrestler.” But I wasn’t afraid of them. I thought it was an interesting thing, because one’s about the highest art, one is about the lowest art – if you want to call wrestling an art, which most people don’t, but that’s an argument for a different press conference. I think they’re both about performers and performance in that both performers put their bodies before their health and age. Their physicality is the big challenge to that.
Q. What were the biggest creative struggles you faced making this film?
Darren Aronofsky: Well, it was a really difficult film to make. After The Wrestler everyone was like, what are you doing making a film about wrestling with Mickey Rourke? But following the success we had with it, I thought it would get easier having Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassell and Mila Kunis and Winona Ryder, but it was very, very difficult and probably raising the money was harder than raising the money on The Wrestler. Two weeks out, the money fell apart and I don’t even know if my actors knew this, after training for months and months. But then we were very lucky and got Fox Searchlight to come in after going on our hands and knees begging.
And then it was very, very difficult. Because we had so little money, every single day was really difficult. There was never an easy day. Every day was like: “Oh my gosh, we have to do all that today!” It was 42 days of a huge hustle. And, of course, all the money got used up shooting, so there was no money for post. We have over 300 visual effects shots. Basically, it was really, really hard until now. Now, we’re here at this fancy hotel and suddenly there’s money [laughs].
Q. You said there were 300 or so visual effects shots and obviously many of them were very subtle such as goose-bumps and the tattoos moving and things like that. How much of that was conceived long before the production and how much came out of actually filming?
Darren Aronofsky: I think it was a mixture. The complicated ones that you noticed, like the goose-bumps and the tattoo moving on Nina’s back, those are all difficult to do unless you pre-plan them and there would be no way to improvise them on the budgets we had. But we really started to play with things when we got into post because we realised because I shot widescreen and started to think about where the audience’s eyes might be we thought we could manipulate the screen in very gentle ways and add to the tension and paranoia of the movie. So, there are very slight manipulations of lots of things throughout the film. They’re very gentle things and probably most people won’t notice them, but they may feel them.
Q. Could you talk about the look of the film, especially the graininess of it, which seemed quite counter-intuitive to the glamorous world of the film? And could you also talk about your choices of camera moves and how much did you improvise those shots?
Darren Aronofsky: The film is shot on 16mm film, and that’s what gives it the delicious grain. But we shot it widescreen. It’s actually the same format as The Wrestler. I knew that I wanted to get the camera onstage with the dancers, because I think when you’re in the audience, dance seems very effortless. Dancers train their entire lives and basically make all the effort disappear. And then when you go backstage you suddenly see all the muscles and tendons and blood and sweat and breath.
So, as a director, I thought: “Well, how am I going to show that?” So, I knew I wanted to get the camera on stage and get it out of the wings, which is how most people have seen ballet. But I was a little nervous about bringing this cinema verité style that I had used on The Wrestler, this hand-held style, to a psychological thriller/horror film. Because I thought that the documentary feel might suck out the tension because people might think: “Why doesn’t Natalie turn round and say to the camera-man, ‘hey, help me out here’.” I couldn’t think of an example of a movie like this that had used a handheld camera, so we eventually thought: “Screw it, let’s just do the shots and see what happens…”
Q. It’s a film about dance that manages not to stand in the shadow of The Red Shoes. What other cinematic references did you have?
Darren Aronofsky: I saw Red Shoes actually really late in the game. I’d heard of it, but we were really deep down the road when [Martin] Scorsese did that restoration of the negative and it came out and I saw it. I was blown away that the stories were kind of similar, but I think that’s because they were both based in the ballet world and there were certain characters that emerged and certain themes.
But there were a lot of references throughout, of course… [such as] [Roman] Polanski’s work and [David] Cronenberg’s work. The Dardenes’, who were a big influence on The Wrestler, that visual style kind of carried through. There were definitely a lot of touch points. One of the journalists yesterday was talking about Hitchcock and Marnie, which we watched, and Vertigo, obviously has a double. I think there were a lot of themes that were out there.
Q. What advice would you give new filmmakers?
Darren Aronofsky: The only thing I think new filmmakers have to offer is originality. So, that’s what I would push starting filmmakers to do: something different. That’s what you can offer the world. And persistence is a huge part of the game. So, a combination of those two things is what will work.
Black Swan opens in UK cinemas on Friday, January 21, 2011.
- Read our review
- Natalie Portman interview
- Darren Aronofsky interview
- Black Swan Photo Gallery
- Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassel interview
- Black Swan Premiere Photo Gallery
- Watch the trailer