Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky sailed into Hollywood on his own unique terms. His first film, the artsy sci-fi thriller Pi, was shot for a mere $60,000. It went on to win the Director’s Award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival and was snapped up for $1 million by Artisan Entertainment. His second feature, the coal-dark drug drama Requiem for a Dream, ended up on numerous Top Ten lists in 2000 and nominated for an Academy Award.
Aronofsky’s third feature, The Fountain, traveled in much more troubled waters. In early 2002, Aronofsky landed Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as his main characters and was ready to start shooting with a budget of $75 million. “Creative differences” developed during pre-production, however, stranding Aronofsky without his big-name actors or sizable budget. Two years later, Aronofsky found himself a new cast (Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz) and a tighter budget ($35 million). The result is a beautiful, brilliant and often quite confounding rumination on life and death that reaches from the Spanish conquest of Central America to the space-spanning future.
Aronofsky took time to chat with the Alibi about this unusual mixture of science fiction, metaphysics and good old-fashioned romance.
When I see any film, particularly one this unique, I always wonder: Where does it come from inside someone’s head? What is the germination of this film?
When I was talking about Pi, I kind of realized that I was more of a tapestry maker than a writer. I just sort of look around at all of the things that I’m interested in, reading about, that I think are cool, and commence to do a lot of research on them, try and understand them. Then I slowly weave them together until they finally become their own carpet. It’s hard to say where it comes from. It’s kind of like the ether that’s around me at the time.
I was interested in doing something with conquistadors and Mayan history. I was also really fascinated with science fiction--trying to do something really new with science fiction. Suddenly the 21st century was upon us, and it felt like we were living in the future. I wanted to try and do something new and try and reinvent what sci-fi films could be. At the same time, the guy I was creating the story with, a guy by the name of Ari Handel--he was a college roommate [who], after college, went and got a Ph.D in neuroscience--was graduating. He was basically sick of academia and he wanted to do something else, so I convinced him to come off [work] and walk around with me and talk. We took things from his world of neurobiology and lab work and combined it with sci-fi. And added the Mayans as well. It’s not an easy answer.
I understand. It’s certainly not an easy film to describe.
Really at the core of it is the search for the fountain of youth. I realized that it was one of our oldest stories. You see it in our first, most ancient written-down story--Gilgamesh searching for the fountain of youth. It’s in the Bible in Genesis. Then it goes all the way to Ponce de Leon searching for the fountain of youth in Florida. Even [cable TV series] “Nip/Tuck” has to do with trying to look fresher. So I felt that it was this real human theme. That’s probably what I hugged onto.
Watching the film, the only thing I could compare it to was some of the ’60’s speculative science fiction. Robert Silverberg, Theodore Sturgeon, maybe--people from that time period who were doing more than just technological science fiction.
Yeah, well definitely. Definitely sci-fi films have been hijacked by “techno-lust” or “hardware button” sci-fi or “big ray gun” sci-fi. We just didn’t want to explore that type of outer space. We wanted to return sci-fi to the inner space. I think there’s a long tradition of science fiction that is internal.
It also strikes me as a thinking man’s film. Do you think that’s a hindrance compared with what’s out there now, or do you think that’s going to make it stand out?
Well, Hollywood’s freaked out that no one’s going to see movies anymore. It’s because we’re all seeing the same thing over and over again. It’s not that exciting anymore. And so, what we’re trying to do here with The Fountain is give people an experience that they’ve never had before. I think that some people are going to be really excited about that. Some people are going to be stunned by it. I think we’re going to getting a bunch of reactions.
When you first started working on the film a few years ago, you had a different cast. You wound up changing that. You wound up going through budget changes. Because of that, did the direction for the film wind up changing for you?
It’s always an evolution. You’re always working with what your limitations are, what your boundaries are. They are constantly shifting.
You’ve obviously worked with limitations before.
Yeah, exactly. That’s kind of been my strength as an independent, no-budget filmmaker. I’ve always preached that having your restrictions and your boundaries and turning them into your strengths is the best thing you can do. Pi was shot in black and white because I didn’t think I had enough money to execute the design of the film in color. I knew that by reducing it to black and white, I could stylize things and make things look more impressionistic.
So how did The Fountain evolve because of those changes? Did it alter significantly from what you were originally thinking of doing?
Yeah, that version, the old version, when the film shut down, I turned it into a graphic novel [illustrated by Kent Williams]. That graphic novel kind of represents somewhat that old vision of what it was like. It’s not that different. Basically, I had more time to do homework and figure out how to do things in similar ways. Having that time just gave me more time to do my homework and to prepare. The more you prepare, the more you can conserve and save.
Watching the film, one of the things that put me into that ’60s vibe was the special effects. It did not look to me like there was any CGI on it.
Well, 98 percent of the movie is CGI-free. I think it came with the whole commitment to make the film something different for people. I feel like for the last 20 years, filmmakers are becoming more addicted to CGI. And another thing: It’s used to fix problems, instead of really taking advantage of the good stuff that CGI can do. They kind of stretch it, and a lot of CGI just looks really terrible. Even some the most expensive movies of last summer, films that had unlimited budgets, you see CGI shots, and it just doesn’t look real.
I think that audiences are very, very sophisticated, and if you’re trying to create an authentic reality, then you have to figure out another solution. So I took the boys out to try and find someone who was shooting footage that could somehow be used to create nebulas and flying stars. They found this guy Peter Parks, who was living outside of Oxford in the United Kingdom, who for last 25 years was shooting through a microscope tiny chemical reactions of microorganisms. That became the basis of [the special effects]. Basically, what you’re seeing in this movie are pictures shot in a petri dish.
As I was watching the film, a lot of the individual scenes--whether it’s in a corridor or a lab or a castle--look very iconic. It’s as if what you’re looking at is a tableaux, a diorama, something done in miniature. Was that conscious?
Yeah, I think so. Everything is very, very stylized and theatrical because we wanted to tie in the whole universe and make the whole film one experience. Take you to a different place. The best compliment I’ve gotten for the film was people were coming up to me and saying, “Hey man, that was a good movie. That was an experience.” And that, to me, has been a great compliment.
When you look at the film, it seems different from your earlier work, which is a bit darker. Do you see this as a story of redemption whereas Requiem, for example, is definitely not?
Redemption, that’s interesting.
Or at least it seems like there’s a movement toward that?
Yeah, I think redemption is an appropriate word. I’ve just not thought about it that way. I’m not really conscious of those types of things. It just comes out, and they are what they are. But I think that could work.
In a way, Fountain is an incongruous follow-up to Requiem, where you come out feeling this heavy sense of doom. In this one, it feels like there’s at least this hope that somewhere in the future, even if it’s a far-flung future, life is something that goes on.
How do you view that grand theme of life? You’re not a particularly old man, but this film has a much heavier emphasis on the idea of life and death.
I don’t know. I guess I’ve always been sort of curious about the big question. And that’s what The Fountain is about. It’s about those big questions: What is life? What is death? What happens when we die? All those big questions that we’ve all talked about and thought about and rarely seen in a film. That’s what makes this film interesting to people. It asks those questions and circulates different answers and makes people meditate and think about why we’re here.
I wouldn’t call it a religious film, but would you think of it as a spiritual film?
I guess so. What’s interesting to me is that there’s a lot of different religions in the film. There’s stuff from the Bible, stuff from Mayan history, Buddhist tradition. I think that’s why I was attracted to. Thinking about those religions, it just seems that there’s a very unified spirituality.
Speaking of the future, do you mind talking about upcoming projects? I heard a rumor that you were interested in adapting Flicker, the Theodore Roszak book.
We developed it, and we made a script out of it. We’re probably not going to do it next, but we’re not really committed to what we’re doing next. We’re just generally thinking and trying to figure it out.
Is it a script that you’re happy with right now and just waiting for studios to look at?
No, we haven’t quite cracked it, as you can imagine.
It’s gotta be tough ...
We very much streamlined it, and we lost some of the magic of it. So, I think at some point we’ll get back into it and work on it again.
I’m very excited about it. I love the book.
There’s a lot of fans out there.
I can’t imagine too many people that I’d trust with it or that I think would be attuned to it enough to make it work right. It seems like you have the right sensibility for that.