Interview: Director Darren Aronofsky
Darren Aronofsky is an intelligent screenwriter-director whose feature film career was launched in 1998 with the release of the uniquely original and critically acclaimed film Pi. His latest feature is Requiem for a Dream (2000), an adaptation of the novel by Hubert Selby. This is the second film made from one of Selby’s books, the other being 1990’s Last Exit to Brooklyn directed by Uli Edel.
In our conversation, Aronofsky talked about the adaptation process of Requiem, and spoke about his upcoming job at the helm of the newest Batman film — hopefully as part of a team that will include the brilliant writer-artist Frank Miller. Miller’s startling re-envsionment of the Batman mythos with his hugely successful graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns contains all of the powerful storytelling elements that are conspicuously missing from the increasingly lacking series of films.
Allen White: What is the first thing that draws you to a story?
Darren Aronofsky: Good question. I don’t know. That’s really hard to say. It’s gotta be something that, you know, keeps you awake at night, that gets you really excited. It’s that feeling when you get really excited about an idea, you know, that scheming feeling, you know, when you just sort of see all the angles and it just looks really cool.
AW: So does there have to be a definite strong visual component to it as well, in this case, if you want to make it into a film?
DA: No, I think the visual component comes afterwards. I mean, of course, when you read a story, I think there are certain stories that are better for the visual medium of film. But there’s always a way to tell a story visually. One of my mentors, Stuart Rosenberg, who directed Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), great director, he would tell me that certain things don’t translate well to the screen, certain things are better as novels or books. And I think I agree. You know, there are certain problems you can run into. So that has to be some of the decision-making process.
AW: Absolutely. And that leads exactly to the next question, which is: Working on the screenplay for Requiem together with the original author must have been this rare and exciting opportunity.
AW: I would think also potentially somewhat intimidating. So tell me about the advantages and disadvantages of doing an adaptation with the original author.
DA: It always depends, I guess, on the original author. In the case of Selby, he was completely generous with his material and really trying to translate it into film.
…it’s definitely intimidating at first to start working with your hero, but you just try and be as completely honest as you can be, and as really as straightforward as you can be…
And I think it just depends on the writer. Certain writers get that it’s a different medium and that you have to do a translation of some sort. And certain writers — I actually haven’t actually had that experience — but I imagine that certain writers can’t do that. But Selby was completely generous, and it was a great collaboration working with him. You know, it’s definitely intimidating at first to start working with your hero, but you just try and be as completely honest as you can be, and as really as straightforward as you can be, because you don’t want any surprises to land on them, because that’s how you get people pissed.
AW: How did the process actually work? Was it both of you just sitting in a room —
DA: Oh, no, we didn’t work in the same room, unfortunately, ’cause he lives in LA, I live in New York. What happened is at first I was going to write it by myself, because he had written a draft about fifteen years ago for another producer, and he lost it, the draft. You know, nothing happened, it’s fifteen years, a lot happens. And I started writing and I got about three-quarters of the way done, and I got a phone call that he found it in his mom’s basement. So he sent it over, and literally about eighty percent of the scenes that I had put in he had put in. We both sort of saw what the heart of the story was. And I then I sort of fused them both together, then I sent it to him, and we did notes back and forth for a long time. And then eventually we arrived at something we were both happy with.
AW: Did this process take place before or after Pi? Because it indicated in the press notes that you had already bought the rights to it.
DA: No, I bought the rights during the cutting of Pi.
AW: So you were already, in effect, working on the script, or starting thinking about the script at that point?
DA: Yeah. You know, while we were cutting Pi, we visited Cubby — Selby, Cubby is his nickname–me and Grampa–me and Eric Watson; excuse me, I’m using everyone’s nicknames. Me and Eric Watson, we went out and we visited him, and he was excited. And it was great. If you get a chance, if you’re doing screenwriting, you should call him up and talk to him. He’s pretty accessible, I’m sure they can help you talk to him.
AW: I would love to talk to him, because Last Exit to Brooklyn is one of my absolute favorite books. I mean, I think it’s a masterpiece.
DA: Yeah, it is.
AW: I think actually that it’s a better book, but your adaptation is a much better adaptation of a Selby work.
DA: I think Requiem for a Dream is an easier adaptation, because it’s a much more cinematic narrative throughline. I thought that screenplay interpretation of Last Exit to Brooklyn was really good. I though the way they fused all the stories was the best accomplishment of the movie.
AW: A difficult adaptation, in any case, ’cause it’s so sprawling–
DA: I mean, it’s basically a collection of short stories, so it’s a very difficult thing to do.
AW: Plus it’s got that first-person narrative which really drives the novel which you just can’t translate to film. You have a feel for sound that really reminds me of David Lynch, actually. You use it to create an atmospheric and emotional undercurrent that almost seems to work subconsciously. So tell me about your approach to sound.
…I was fascinated by that idea of just weird sounds, and using them in strange places…
DA: I remember seeing a documentary as a kid about George Lucas sound designers who go out to the desert and collect the effects—
AW: Ben Burtt, and he was like hitting the wire–
DA: Yeah! You saw that?
AW: Yeah, I totally saw that. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
DA: What was his name? Ben…?
AW: Ben Burtt was the sound designer.
DA: Ben Bird?
AW: Burtt. B-U-R-T-T.
DA: Oh, really? But you remember that footage.
AW: He said, like, “Oh, yeah, the Millennium Falcon’s engine was the air conditioner in my hotel room in Arizona.”
DA: Yeah, yeah, that type of stuff. So I remember seeing that, And I don’t know what it was on, if it was on some…do you remember what it was?
AW: It was about Star Wars, so who cares? [Meaning that at that age, we would watch anything related to the film.]
DA: Exactly. And I was fascinated by that idea of just weird sounds, and using them in strange places, and I got this great sound designer, this guy Brian Emrich, who did Pi, and he’s just an amazing cat. He plays for this band called Foetus, and a few other bands, he was in — not Madness, he was in the other one, the other ska band — I’m spacing on the name. The first time I met him, he was telling me how he was trying to buy a two thousand-year-old mummy. I was like, “Okay, you’re hired.” He’s the type of guy that has those farting cockroaches in his house, you know, like eight of them — and I’m sure that sound’s somewhere in the movie. You know, he just has great stuff, and has a great digital mind, and great mind for manipulating sounds.
AW: Sound is so important to a film. I mean, I think one of my favorite pieces of sound in a movie is the original version of The Haunting (1963), where you never actually see anything, but you’ve got these menacing booms, and it just scares the crap out of you.
DA: That’s the great lesson between the original Haunting and the remake. Early on when I was working on Pi, I remember I watched a lot of independent films. And often you’ll see a good independent film, but there’ll be something wrong or something off and usually it’s because they saved money in the sound, and the mikes are cheap. And so with Pi, which is such an abstract visual style, it was very important to have great sound, so we spent a lot of money on renting the really expensive professional mikes, and we spent a lot of time creating a great sort of soundscape. And I guess it’s just carried through, in being meticulous in every detail of filmmaking.
AW: Plus, you’ve been very fortunate with the soundtrack, in this case getting the Kronos Quartet.
…if you’re doing work that you’re passionate about, you can work with anyone.
AW: That’s a coup.
DA: Yeah, you know, the thing is, what you learn very quickly, is that if you’re doing work that you’re passionate about, you can work with anyone. And it’s happening to me over and over again. I’ve worked with Selby, I’ve worked with Kronos, I’m gonna work with Frank Miller, you know, who wrote Dark Knight Returns —- and I’ve worked with him already. And I now I’m getting to work with everyone I’ve wanted to work with. I got to work with Ellen Burstyn. The reality is if you just go out there and just do good material, people will come. Kronos didn’t really know who we were when we showed them this. We showed them Pi and stuff, so we had something, but still they just really responded to the film, not to anything else.
AW: All right. Next word: Batman. You said “Frank Miller,” so we gotta go there now.
DA: Well, nothing’s happened, we haven’t even begun to work on it, and if I do work on it it will be with Frank Miller.
AW: Which one of his stories is it?
DA: It hasn’t at all been discussed. You know, Warner Brothers approached me about Batman while I was working on Requiem for a Dream, actually. While I was on set I got a phone call. And I’ve been talking to them for over eighteen months now. We’ve been talking about a lot of ideas, and I said that I really wanted Frank involved because I had worked with Frank on this Ronin adaptation.
DA: Yeah. And we had a great collaboration, and I figured, you know, Frank re-invented Batman two times in the ’80s, and now he’s writing Dark Knight Returns: Part II. I don’t know if you know that.
The whole look of Pi was kind of stolen from Sin City…
DA: Yeah, yeah. It’s very exciting, and it’s gonna be awesome. He’s given me a little hint of what’s in it, and it sounds bugged out. And Frank was excited to work again with me and on Batman, so hopefully it’ll work out, and we’ll be able to do something different and cool.
AW: What was the Ronin adaptation exactly?
DA: We got New Line to help us to adapt a screenplay out of Ronin. We never really quite nailed it, and it’s right now sort of in limbo, but hopefully we’ll get it back on track at some point. But now we’re working on other things, so we’ll see.
AW: He needs to have his day in the sun. Because Robocop 2 (1990) didn’t cut it. Because he’s somebody who’s also a great storyteller with a great visual sense, and it seems like a perfect match with you.
DA: The whole look of Pi was kind of stolen from Sin City [he’s referring to the original black-and-white neo-noir graphic novel series written and illustrated by Miller]. Yeah, I remember showing Sin City when it first came out to my DP and going, “I love the contrast, and I want to try and do something with Pi.”
AW: You often utilize extreme cinematic exaggeration like speeding up and slowing down the action, and manifesting hallucinations, making them come to life. In the best possible way, this reminds me of cartoon aesthetic. Did you watch a lot of cartoons–
DA: It’s funny, you know that music that goes crazy when Sara comes out of the TV and she’s dancing around [in Requiem], you know, that crazy conga music? I don’t know if you remember, when she’s circling the chair? Actually the guy who did that music was Brian Emrich — it’s the only cue that’s not by Clint [Mansell, composer] and Kronos, it’s by Brian Emrich the sound designer. I told Brian, “You know when Bugs Bunny dances on Elmer Fudd’s head? (does a conga riff) Dun-dun-dun-dun-dun, DANT! Dun-dun-dun-dun-dun, DANT!” You know what I’m talking about. I was like, “That’s the type of music I want.” You know, I’m that generation — you’re my age? How old are you, thirty-one? How old are you?
DA: Thirty-three. So we grew up on tons and tons and tons of cartoons. You know, Bugs Bunny, and Woody Woodpecker, and all that crazy Chuck Jones, Hanna-Barbera crap, which is great. But it’s amazing how it invades your subconscious. But definitely animation is a big influence on me.
AW: What, then, are the positive and negative sides to growing up watching tons of television as far as being a filmmaker?
I think film school let me make a lot of mistakes.
DA: From watching eight hours of TV a day as a kid, I’ve just watched enough of those formulas there’s somewhere deep in my head of how to sort of deliver visual information to an audience. And maybe that’s what I got out of it. I don’t know if I was born with that, or if I just, or if I, you know, just from too much TV. But it’s probably a combination of something. I think everything’s learned, I don’t think you’re born with much.
AW: How did going to film school help you be a better filmmaker?
DA: I think film school let me make a lot of mistakes. I really sort of treated film school as like, I wanted to make good film but I was like, “You know, I’m going to take chances and risks because now’s the time to fuck up.” And I remember I was scared of having a lead actress, the lead of a project. One of my projects in film school, I said, “Okay, I’m going to do a project with an actress.” And now I got to work with Ellen Burstyn. So think dealing with those fears in film school probably helped me.
AW: How do you direct someone like Ellen Burstyn, who’s such a powerhouse?
DA: You know, not much. You sort of stand back and let it happen. Maybe add some water and some sunlight and let it blossom. I mean, she is, you know, what can I say, she’s unbelievable. And the one thing I think that hopefully that audiences will get is that they’ll feel robbed by Hollywood which has not hired this woman for twenty years. And it’s almost a crime on the world, because, you know, just her abilities — it’s just unbelievable. And it should be mandatory that you have to get two films of Ellen Burstyn a year.
AW: Requiem is stylistically and thematically a very logical progression from Pi. How much of this process is intentional, and how much is it your personality manifesting itself in the process?
DA: It all comes out of my personality, probably, but we had a lot of limitations on Pi. And I didn’t really feel like I had finished exploring a lot of the visual ideas I had. And part of the reason I was attracted to Requiem was because it was going to allow me to do some similar stuff I did in Pi, but on a different scale. I think on the next film you’re going to see something totally different, hopefully.
AW: So, for example, where do you want to go on the next film?
DA: It depends on the story. The story dictates the film grammar. And so hopefully there’ll be a really cool story that we come up with and something cool will come out of it. Right now, outside of Batman, I’ve been working for eleven months on a new science fiction project [The Fountain (2006)] that’s probably back in the direction of Pi as far as thematics but on a much more ambitious scale.
AW: Something you wrote yourself?
DA: I’m writing myself, yeah. It’s pretty damn cool. It’s a post-Matrix metaphysical science fiction film.
1. He likely means The Toasters, an ’80s ska band in which Emrich played bass.