Darren Aronofsky Interview, Part I


After spending years trying to put together his epic about eternity, “The Fountain,” only to have the critics excoriate it, Darren Aronofsky decided he was ready to face the ultimate challenge: Mickey Rourke. So far the gamble has paid off in a big way for both director and actor. “The Wrestler” won the Golden Lion for Best Picture at the Venice Film Festival and the film and the director and actor, not to mention co-star Marisa Tomei, have come up repeatedly as winners and nominees in the ongoing flurry of  critics awards, Golden Globes and ten best lists. So Aronofsky was in an upbeat mood when I interviewed him last month while he was promoting the film in Boston.

PK: It seems like for the first ten minutes of the movie all you see is the back of Mickey Rourke’s head. It’s like there’s going to be some sort of Phantom of the Opera thing when he turns around. What was the reason for that?

DA: Well I think a lot of people are going to come to the film wanting to see Mickey, and since we’re going to spend 100 minutes with him I think it's good to give him a long intro. And so, I also think Mickey’s one of those actors who can really act with his back, with his body, and gives a lot of the character away, and I just thought it would be an interesting way to slowly introduce him.

PK: You get to see his hair. Is that his hair?

DA: Some of it. He had expensive extensions.

PK: But his hair is on the long sort of scruffy side.

DA: His hair? Yeah, he has long hair.

PK: Was he your first choice?

DA: Absolutely, yeah. I’ve been...we were trying to make it with him for a very long time, about 2 years. It was very hard to get the money for him because basically every financier in the world said no to him.

PK: Why is that?

DA: I think no one thought that he could be sympathetic. But when I sat down with him, beneath all that armor, it was completely clear that he had this big jelly heart filled with love and spirit and soul, and no one had given him an opportunity in years to play someone sympathetic.

PK: Has he ever played a sympathetic role?

DA: I think yeah, absolutely. I don't know if you'd directly call it sympathetic, but the stuff in “Angel Heart,” or “Barfly” even.

PK: What was it like working with him?

DA: He was great. You know, tough and a challenge, filled with ideas, but between action and cut, no one more natural, no one better have I ever seen.

PK: He showed up on time, and knew his lines..

DA: Yeah, showed up on time, knew his lines well enough. You know, the whole spirit of it was very free-natured and flowing and so improv became a big part of it.

PK: So there were some spontaneous moments.

DA: Oh, most of it.

PK: So you didn’t really stick to the script religiously?

DA: Some of the jokes we stuck to, and then definitely how the scripts structured the scene, but within that, Mickey was allowed to do whatever he wanted.

PK: Some examples?

DA: Well, like the deli scene, when he’s serving people, you know we didn’t have enough money to close the supermarket or the meat counter, so there were real people walking up and so I just had Mickey start serving them. And a lot of those people in those scenes are not actors, they’re real people. All the wrestlers, those are real wrestlers and that was all unscripted.

PK: But they knew it was a movie, those people in the deli scene and that this was Mickey Rourke and not...

DA: They didn’t actually know it was necessarily Mickey Rourke. I’m not sure how recognizable he is, especially with his hair up in a net. But you know, I was like, “hey, we’re making a movie, do you mind if we shoot you?” and they’d be like, “no, go ahead,” and then afterwards we had them sign a release and that was that.

PK: So they know they’re in the movie. How about the old lady with the...

DA: “...a little more, a little less? “

PK: Yeah.

DA: She was an actress.

PK: Too good to be true. But going for a long pass...

DA: No, that was a real guy. The woman he gets the fried chicken for is a real person and all the people working behind the deli and the meat counter were real people.

PK: Real supermarket.

DA: Real supermarket, really happening, really open to the public.

PK: Where was this?

DA: In New Jersey.

PK: I guess, didn’t you injure yourself....the “Ram Jam” or something?

DA: Yeah, the “Ram Jam.” Basically the last day of shooting, Mickey was like, “you gotta leap over the top ropes,” and after 35 days of shooting, I was all stiff and cold and out of shape, but I just did it. Ran back, hit the ropes, came running, leaped, I made it, except for about that much of my boot, hit the rope and went straight down to the ground. Two months later I got an MRI but I’m fine now. It was some type of neck thing.
PK: Everyone had to do that?

DA: Lot of people did it. Lot of the crew..

PK: Marisa?

DA: Marisa wasn’t around.

PK: She would’ve done it though.

DA: I’m sure.

PK: So this movie came up--you had the idea awhile ago, but it sort of came up after “The Fountain.”

DA: Yeah.

PK: Or in between the two “Fountains.” Can you talk about the evolution of the idea?

DA: Well, it was an old idea. I had the idea in the early 90s, and it just came from the observation that no one had ever made a picture about wrestling.

PK: Not even Barton Fink.

DA: Yeah, well Barton Fink was writing about it. But it’s funny, that irony never left us. When we got to the Venice Film Festival, they asked for a director’s statement, and I took a quote from Barton Fink and handed it in as my director’s statement. No one got the joke, but it was funny. But um, you know, no one had ever done it, and there’s been so many boxing movies it’s like its own genre...

PK: You’re making one, aren’t you?

DA: Hopefully. And um, so eventually I started to research, and the more research I did, the more fascinating the world was.

PK: I had no idea there was this underworld of washed-up wrestlers, I thought they were all like on TV, making a lot of money.

DA: Yeah, that’s what happens to these guys when they’re no longer wanted for the big leagues.

PK: Is that guy with the staples an actual...

DA: Yeah, that’s the Necro Butcher. I highly recommend everyone YouTube it. He's kind of this underground American cult hero. He's a top billing marquee name in this world, and he’s just known for doing crazy stuff. Most of which we never even showed.

PK: Yeah. Real staples going into Mickey Rourke?

DA: Can't give away movie tricks.

PK: Is it safe to say the Ram died for our sins? There’s all these sort of Christological references...

DA: If not now, when?

PK: You have the reference to “The Passion of the Christ,” and he's got that Christ on his back.

DA: Well the Christ tattoo is just a tattoo that Mickey actually has. All the tattoos you see in there are his. We removed some, there were a few we took out.

PK: How do you remove them?

DA: Well it was actually a real pain. First you put a lot of makeup on them, but we didn't really calculate that there would be a couple of sweaty men wrestling, rubbing against the mat and stuff, and we looked down at the mat and it was covered in pink colored makeup and stuff. We had to do a bunch of digital fixes, and digitally take some out.

PK: So why do you think there are so many boxing movies? This reminded me a little bit of “Fat City.”

DA: That movie was a big influence.

PK: And “Requiem for a Heavyweight"  which has wrestling in it...

DA: It was interesting to have such a modern take on wrestling back then, but I leave it to Rod Serling to get things right. What about boxing movies?

PK: What is it about them? Why have there been so many movies about boxing and so few about wrestling?

DA: Well I think boxing is an easier translation because it’s such an obvious athletic competition, it’s man against man. I think wrestling is harder to put into a sports movie because there’s so much that’s theatrical about it. So how to make that final match dramatic is a big question. That to me was the great challenge and the great victory that Rob [Robert D. Siegel, the screenwriter] had when he delivered the script was to make that final scene mean, you know, even though it’s not a real competition, because it’s not like it doesn’t matter who wins, yet to make it dramatic was a tough thing to do, andI was always impressed with that. I think wrestling, most people hear it’s fake and they think it’s a joke, but the reality is if you're a 6' tall, 260 pound man jumping off the top rope, even if you’re trying to protect yourself and your opponent, you’re gonna wake up the next day feeling it. So.

PK: Is there going to be a “Wrestler 2?”

DA: We'll see how this one does.

PK: It's been doing pretty well, I guess, if you look at the all the Oscar buzz sites, though I don’t know how seriously you take those.

DA: Best song? Bruce Springsteen.

PK: Oh yeah, that'll definitely win. But did you foresee this success when you came up with the movie?

DA: We finished filming 2 days before the Venice Film Festival. So, you know, then we won the Golden Lion, and it was the third American film to win it in 65 years, and it was never even a pipe dream, to win the Golden Lion. So it’s been way beyond our expectations, and I think at this point it’s all gravy.

PK: What were the other two that won?

DA: Cassavettes won for “Gloria,” and Robert Altman won for “Shortcuts.”

PK: Good company.

DA: Not bad, not bad. I’m humbled.


Next: Namedropping Roland Barthes. 

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