American film-maker Darren Aronofsky.
American film-maker Darren Aronofsky.

It is an accomplishment just to shock people at all: Darren Aronofsky

In an interview with Mint, American film-maker Darren Aronofsky talks about the pain of artistic self-expression, the power of shock and how storytelling matters more than budget

The name Darren Aronofsky works like a trigger. Simply saying it out loud feels like we’re already inside a jumpy montage, evoking the relentless, hyperstylised close-ups of drug use in his iconic Requiem For A Dream, and of numerous times his characters have been brutalised by the very act of creation.

The 49-year-old director is calmer than his protagonists. Twenty years ago, he funded a $60,000 film called Pi, borrowing $100 each from friends and members of the family with a promise to pay back $150 each if the film did well. It made $3 million. Aronofsky’s unconventional and disparate successes made him a unique Hollywood figure. He nearly rebooted Batman and came close to making a Wolverine film, but prefers now to craft his own mythologies, sometimes nightmarish, sometimes Biblical. Sometimes both.

His filmography is fascinating. Over the years, Aronofsky and the defiant, driven characters he creates have pointed several actors rightly toward the Oscar stage. Ellen Burstyn got a Best Actress nomination for Requiem For A Dream, and The Wrestler got a Best Actor nomination for Mickey Rourke and Best Supporting Actress nomination for Marisa Tomei. For Black Swan, the first of Aronofsky’s films to earn a Best Director nomination, Natalie Portman won the Best Actress award.

He is a fiercely uncompromising film-maker who refuses to tone down his films to increase their box-office chances—Requiem was released without a rating—but he is also a soft-spoken man with a distinctive fondness for scarves. As he told me over a cup of coffee in a Mumbai hotel, Aronofsky considers himself boring. Boring enough to even sing in the rain, perhaps. Edited excerpts:

Your cinema is frequently about self-expression as torment, the idea of creation being so difficult. I’ve always been curious: is the art of creation something you enjoy, or is it like carving out a piece of your liver? Is masochism a part of the process?

Masochism is definitely part of the process. Sometimes it’s fun to complain about those kinds of things. Generally creating stuff is enthralling and exciting, but there are moments when the work is really hard and really challenging.

When you’re working with just ideas, there isn’t really a process or a method. So you can try to work and struggle to sort of figure out how ideas are fitting together, but they only sort of come together and they start to work through spending time with them. And I think a lot of that time is spent in frustration and in fear. That can often be really trying and difficult. But then when things click, the excitement you get from stuff like that makes it all worth it.

I ask because characters in your films, their self-expression, their artistry is through so much turmoil that I wonder if pain is an essential part of the art for you.

That’s a good question. I probably felt more of that with the earlier work. I think probably since The Wrestler, I’ve taken the work with a lot more ease. With my first three films there was a lot of struggle, a lot of pain to figure out how to do it. And working with (The Wrestler lead actor) Mickey Rourke and not being completely prepared going into the project, being open to the experience made it more fun. I think that probably came out of the experience of having made the first three films, to start to be able to have the confidence to show up to work, having done a lot of homework but allowing for more room for things to happen.

Would you be like the character Rourke played in ‘The Wrestler’, ready to die with your boots on rather than actually stop creating?

I don’t think so. I think I’ve definitely been attracted and driven by characters that go to the extremes, but I’m definitely more of a reporter. In that I watch these characters do it, and I watch real people in the real world do it, but in general I like to sort of not fully experience life that way but be a little more safe and grounded.

‘Mother!’ shocked many viewers. Shock value is a powerful film-making tool to provoke a reaction, but how much is too much, and is there a point where it can possibly become overkill?

Well, I think it’s always about playing that edge. Because you want people to remember the work and be moved by the work, and to do that you have to take people to places they’ve never been before. And so there will be some audiences where you’ll show them things that they can’t even look at, and other audiences who see the exact same image and it doesn’t do anything for them. I do think, though, that it is an accomplishment in this world just to shock people at all. There’s just so much stuff out there that people have seen, so many different types of things, that just to get people’s attention is a hard thing.

In that sense, overkill can itself be deployed as a different kind of tool, then.

I think so. The important thing is you want to try and hold on to as much of your audience as you can. Also, I don’t think it was the shock of Mother! that caused the controversy. I think something like the needle going into the arm in Requiem For A Dream was a shock that most people were just… jolted by it. To me, shock is a jolt. Mother! has a few shocking ideas but not that many shocking images, and I felt that overall some people loved the strange ride, while many people thought “this isn’t a movie, I don’t know how to process this." I think that’s largely because movies—especially movies with movie stars—they’ve become very narrow, very similar movies and I’ve never been interested in that path.

Since you mentioned that needle jolt, visual motifs in your films are very strong. Did you work actively to develop a visual style and do you feel that can sometimes get in the way of your storytelling?

I think each film creates its own visual language. You basically look at the story you’re telling and you try to figure out what’s the best language to tell that story. And sometimes that language has restrictions because of money, sometimes because of time, but always you try and figure out a language that tells the story in the best possible way.

Specific imagery does recur, though. Moments of epiphany in your films, for instance, often have characters accompanied by flashing lights, when their fantasy worlds collide with reality. Is that something you feel compelled to do—or is it a trademark flourish you enjoying signing off with?

I think that’s probably me and Matty (Matthew Libatique, cinematographer) going back to tools that we’ve liked before and figuring out how to reuse them or use them in new ways.

One of the big surprises about ‘Mother!’ for me was how big it was. It’s a horror film, a home invasion film, and you don’t expect that presented on a giant scale, starring huge A-listers (Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem). How important has spectacle become to you as a film-maker, and will we ever see you make a quick, down and dirty film again?

Oh, Mother! was cheap compared to most Hollywood films. It looks expensive but we didn’t spend that much money on it. I don’t think I care about the scale of the film. They come in all different shapes and sizes and I think it’s just what you need to make the film happen. The Wrestler was $6 million and then Black Swan felt like a big film but was also very cheap ($13 million). The last two (Noah, $113 million, and Mother!, $30 million) have been a little more expensive. I think spectacle is all about the story. It has nothing to really do with the budget.

Finally, if your life was a movie, which filmmaker would be best suited to make it? Would you be an Ingmar Bergman-film or a David Fincher-film? Spike Lee, maybe?

Oh wow, that’s a hard question. None of those guys. It would be much more boring. (Pauses) I don’t know, maybe it would be a Stanley Donen-musical.

That isn’t boring!

(Smirks) There you go.