Must Watch : A Masterclass With Darren Aronofsky

By Arun Fulara. Posted on January 30, 2015

This article written by Nathalie, was first published on The article has been republished with due permission from the author.



This was long overdue, but it finally happened, and just like for Steve McQueen, we have to thank a museum for programming a masterclass with Darren Aronofsky and for sharing it with the world. So thank you, New Museum.

Like Christopher Nolan, Aronofsky launched his career with an ingenious ultra low-budget feature film, Pi, and then went on doing one demanding and complex film after another, renewing himself each time. Darren Aronofsky is probably the most featured filmmaker on this site betweenthe making-ofsthe interviewsthe analysis and the essays, he is a personal favorite of mine (obviously), but I had never had the chance to listen to him talking about his work and career the way he did at the New Museum for their Visionaries Series.

Here are a few highlights:

About the Relationship Between Filmmaking, Sculpture and Tapestry

“Filmmaking is very sculptural. In fact when I was studying, at a certain point I realized that I wanted to start going into visual arts or, as my parents called it, ‘arts & crafts’, which is fair you know when they’re paying for Harvard it’s a fair critique. But I started to go down that path and I had taken a drawing class in sophomore year, which was fantastic, with a great drawing teacher named Will Ryman, and he kind of changed the whole perception of how I looked at a three dimensional world and try to represent that two dimensionally. And so it was incredibly exciting. And then the next year there was a sculpture class I was interested in, and there was a filmmaking class. And I didn’t get into sculpture, but I got into film class so that kind of chose my path. And I think they are very similar. I end up thinking about film like sculpture or even tapestry, especially Pi. Because Pi really was a lot of ideas I had been thinking about through my twenties that they were kind of like the coolest things and ideas I had been playing with and I sort of weave them together into a fabric of ideas and so it’s really a snapshot of who I was mostly in my mid-late twenties leading up to that and sort of building this big tapestry together. It was taking a lot of ideas that had absolutely no relation to each other and figuring out how to make something blend and turn it into something that was all connected. So a lot of things were pushed and pulled to make it work. “

About Making Pi and Working With What You Have

“When I started thinking about Pi I started thinking “There must be a way I can raise $20,000 from people somehow, to pull it altogether.” It was funny because I’m teaching now at NYC and I was like “How much do they charge you a year?” It’s $57,000 a year to go to NY grad school, which is how much Pi cost. So I figured I could do that and I thought ‘What can I really rely on?’ and the one thing I could rely on was one of my best buddies in school who I thought was an interesting actor, Sean Gullette. I knew I could depend on him so I said “ok, we’re going to do a film that is basically like my first assignment in film class, it’s a portrait film. You will be playing a fictional character, it won’t be a documentary. (…) We’ll try to shape a character out of you.” I knew I can rely on him so I decided to make a film on something I was exploring which was subjectivity in film.”

Why Rules Matter for Indie Films

“We came up with all these rules about [Pi]. And what I love about rules is that they actually help you save money. Because once you have rules you can just go and do that, you can make that part of something. For instance, we only shot over Max’s shoulder because that makes it part of his story. We never shot over one of the other people’s shoulders. And we shot Max we kind of shot slightly more from a profile so we kind of were objectifying him. When we shot the people he was talking to we tried to make the eye-line as close as possible to the camera so it was almost like a P.O.V. And so the whole idea was trying to pull the audience as much as possible into this internal monologue.”

About Collaborating with Hubert Selby Jr.

“He was kind of past the place where he could collaborate and he was in L.A. and I was in New-York. I went into hibernation in my parents’ basement. And the deal was in the 70s, when he was in bad shape and he was still a junk he was paid like ten grounds by a producer to write a screenplay and he said ‘I think it’s in my mum’s basement.” And was like “Well I could really use it if you do it.” Unfortunately his mum passed away while I was writing and he had to clean up his mum basement and when he came out of the basement and gave it to me, basically the document I had made and his were almost exactly the same. So then I just sort of blend it up together and I had a few scenes that just didn’t quite make [sense] so I asked him to write me some dialogs and stuff.”

About Doing Tragedies in Hollywood

“It’s funny because tragedy used to be an accepted form of entertainment but we don’t really do tragedy in Hollywood very well. It happens every once in a while but no matter what, it always gets spoiled with some cherry on the top, or something good has to happen at the end.” 

About Working With Maryse Alberti on The Wrestler

“Me and Matty we had a divorce after The Fountain. It was time to take a break. Now we’re back together but it was time to take a break. He is a very emotional guy and I’m a very emotional guy and sometimes it doesn’t work. [Maryse Alberti] had done all these great films, she had worked with Todd Haynes on Velvet Goldmine, and she had worked with Todd Solondz, so she had done this really great, visually beautiful independent films. And, I think she had a kid so she started to work on docs because they were spread out over time and they weren’t as intense, the shooting schedules. And she did Chrome and she did all these beautiful documentaries. And she was just kind of done doing documentaries and she wanted to come back and I got wind of it, so she was a perfect fit because I always wanted to make it a documentary.”

About What and Who Influenced Him to Make Indie Films

“I grew up waiting on the line to see E.T. Skipping school to see the second Indiana Jones, so I was totally the Star Wars generation. Then I think something rang different when I started seeing Spike [Lee]‘s movies and Jim Jarmusch‘s films and the birth of the american independent film and that lead me towards… You know the beautiful thing is I also came to age when the video store was king. Which is kind of a gift that my generation of filmmakers is starting to recognize is that it was a major thing. Because suddenly you can go in and get all the Fellini films, so I stumbled on Fellini, and I stumbled on Kurosawa, and they were all stumbles. You ended up seeing films I would have never been exposed to in Brooklyn. So that was sort of the change, it was the video store.”

About The Level of Details Behind The Fountain

“It took us like 8 years to make [The Fountain], so we spent a lot of time thinking about it and trying to make everything have a reason. Everything does have a reason on that movie, I could show you any screw on any set and explain why we chose that color. But really were kind of crazy. (…) The details of how we thought about it visually: the Future being all about circles because we were around planets and the circular ship, the Present being about squares because we were in rooms and tables and computer screens are all squares, and then the Maya time being about Pyramids and triangles. And they all sort of interlocked and were interwoven together hinting at the period times altogether, so I was once again trying to make a tapestry that made sense.”

About Actors Conveying Realism

“[Black Swan] was clearly a very stylized New York and a very stylized world, yet the actors were acting truthful so… And that’s always a gamble, you’re always hoping people are going to come for the ride and be willing to go with it and that’s usually based on emotional truth from the actors. So if the actors are truthfully experiencing something you can get away with a lot. That’s how you get away with Lord of the Rings, because the actors believed they’re there. And the illusion is close enough that you go ‘ok, this is gonna true’.”

About Understanding the Acting Process

“I never wanted to be in front of the camera, I never was interested in it, but I realized it was probably something that I should do. I avoided it through directing school so I anonymously joined a Meisner acting class and I said I’m going to do this until I can cry in front of the audience unconsciously. The audience was the twelve other students and I did that and then I quit the next day.”

About the Filmmaker’s Mindset

“You definitely need to be a bit obsessive to make a film, but that doesn’t mean you need to be obsessed all the time. When you get an idea, thousands of people will say no to you before it gets done, in all different times and ways. So I think more than obsessive, what drives me is the passion for the characters, for the story, sometimes for a shot.The first draft I wrote of The Fountain, I pumped it out very quickly and I wrote the scene of the flower coming out of the conquistador’s mouth and him exploding with the flowers, and I just knew I just wanted to do it. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I wanted to see it done and executed. So when the fifth person of that day said ‘no’ I remember getting that and going through it. Is that obsessiveness? I don’t know, it’s not the only thing that you think about. You think about so many other things but it’s obsessive to an idea and holding on to a project. I think that’s a bit part of it, it’s being stead fast with a project. Persistance maybe is more?”

Do I need to say it? A must see:


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