Toronto Interview: The Wrestler Director Darren Aronofsky
by Alex Billington
September 15, 2008
My very favorite experience of the entire Toronto Film Festival was meeting and interviewing Darren Aronofsky, the brilliant filmmaker behind Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and most recently, The Wrestler. Not only is it amazing to speak with such an incredibly talented director, but it's like I was chatting with a good friend who is as big of a movie geek as I am. Aronofsky and I spoke at length about The Wrestler, my favorite film from Toronto, as well as the current state of independent cinema, RoboCop, and more. If you haven't already read my review for The Wrestler, all you've got to know is that it's another huge success for Aronofsky. And with that brief introduction, I bring to you my complete interview!
Darren starts off the interview by asking me what I didn't like about The Wrestler. He's actually referring to my thoughts that I had voiced in this video blog on SlashFilm. He had watched the video that morning and was telling Peter that he was going to really let me have it once he got me in a room alone because I said some odd things about his film. To the say least, I was scared. So before I could even begin, he fired off the first question, and I had to explain myself as best I could. Obviously I liked the film, but it was a question of whether I liked it more than The Fountain. It was all just fun and games anyway…
Darren Aronofsky: So what didn't you like?
Well, it was like choosing between my favorite films of my life and ranking them, because The Fountain is in the top 10 of my life. And The Wrestler was amazing, I'm not saying it wasn't, but it was just like, how do I rank it in comparison to The Fountain?
Aronofsky: Well I'm hoping that, the big thing for me is not to get-- it's hard, because I remember when I did Requiem-- it's funny, Pi and Requiem fans are very, very different fans. I mean, sometimes I'm lucky and people like both, but often there's a split there and then there's definitely a split on The Fountain fans, because The Fountain was incredibly divisive. And, I guess people will always compare you versus your past work and stuff. But, I mean this film really was about trying to do something completely new and different because I think it's important that as -- it's like Madonna taught us, you have to reinvent yourself. That's the David Bowie -- you got to constantly keep reinventing yourself. And I think it's important as a filmmaker to try new stuff and try new interests and stuff.
So I really wanted to move away from the kind of -- even though the filmmaking style between the first three films does vary, there is a consistency of sorts and I really just wanted to do something different. I mean, there's no extreme close-ups in this movie for instance. Like when she opens up the card, you don't go in and see what it says and stuff. For me, that was -- everyone was like, "What do you mean you're not going to do an extreme close-up?" And I was like, "it's not that type of movie, we're doing something very different." So, it was fun to try and do something different and new.
And speaking in those terms of different and new, this would be your first film that you didn't write the script for?
And I'm just curious how different that is for you?
Aronofsky: Well, I didn't write it, but it was my idea in the sense that when I graduated film school I kind of made a list of ideas that I could possibly turn into my first feature and one of them was called "The Wrestler." And so it's been an idea I've had since the early '90s basically because there's so many boxing movies out there, that it's its own genre, but--
I've written about that actually.
Aronofsky: No one's ever done a serious wrestling film. No one's ever done a film about wrestling. And so, I mean, telling the true story of what it is to be a wrestler. So I just thought there was an opportunity there. And then eventually we found Rob Siegel who, I don't know if you know about him, he was the original, one of the early editors on "The Onion" and he wrote this great script that I read and I really liked his writing and I told him about this project I had and he just got it and loved it. I worked, me and my company Protozoa, we worked really hard with Rob for a very long time to get the script right. So, although I didn't write it, I felt a lot of authorship to it. So, I think any time I direct something I think I need to get that deep into it because I think as a director you have to fully understand what all the motivation of all these different characters are and that when an actor asks you a question, you have to really understand why that line is there. And the only way to do that is to basically deconstruct the script so deeply that even if you haven't written it, you know it as well as a writer knows it.
Did Rob ever come on set and work with you?
Aronofsky: He visited a few times. I mean, we basically backed up against the strike because we started shooting-- the strike started Halloween and then right before the strike, me and Mickey [Rourke] spent a couple of months going over the script line by line because Mickey needs to turn-- Mickey's a writer too actually and he really needed to turn each line into a line that he could say. And so, I would say pretty much every line in there, except for maybe the Kurt Cobain line, he wrote. I mean, Rob wrote it, but he reinterpreted it and said it in a way that he could say it.
Is it safe to say either you are now or you were a wrestling fan before?
Aronofsky: I wasn't a big wrestling fan. I mean, as a kid I went to one match at Madison Square Garden, it was pre-Hulkamania, Hulk Hogan was a bad guy and Tony Atlas dropped him on his balls and I remember screaming so loud I lost my voice. But, that was it. I had a good friend that was a big fan and that's why we went to the match. I remember my dad brought me and my dad couldn't believe it and I was just like, "Wow!" I remember my dad saying, "it's fake," and me and my friend Ari screaming, "It's not fake, it's real." So I wasn't really a big fan. I'm interested in worlds that we haven't seen before because I think that's the great power of cinema is to go places that you haven't seen. And I don't think anyone's seen a scene like that in the locker room when those guys are getting ready and what'a going on. And so, that was just one to show. And I've always been intrigued by people that use their body as their art. And another project I'm working on is about ballet, which is actually very similar to wrestling in a lot of ways because their art is their body. So I was interested to document that part of the world.
When I was watching this, I was thinking that there could be a backlash from the major wrestling agencies now that you're showing the backend.
Aronofsky: I have no idea.
Do you know if the WWE has a secrecy policy— like they want the younger fans who don't know that it's fake to not think about that?
Aronofsky: Yeah, but it's rated R, our movie. So that's not going to be an issue. But I don't know how they're going to react. We'll see. We'll see what happens. I mean, I think the WWE and Vince [McMahon], I hope that they like the movie because I think it actually takes wrestling very seriously and it shows wrestling as an art and it shows the men that do it as true performers and true athletes. And I think a lot of people think that wrestling's a joke and that it's fake, but what the film really shows is that yeah, sure it's fake, they're not trying to kill each other, but you jump off the top rope and you're 250 pounds and you fall six feet, you show me anyone who can do that and not wake up bruised or potentially really hurting themselves.
I noticed that there was a shooting style that you used a lot, which is sort of the from behind look and I was curious whether that was inspired from-- there was a scene where he was going into the deli and it was like he was going into a fight. Was that sort of the inspiration to follow him around the rest of the movie like that? Like he was a wrestler going to these various places? Where did the inspiration for that kind of shooting style come from?
Aronofsky: When I first started filmmaking I was trained in documentary and I think when you do documentary that's what you do. I mean, if a "subject", I guess is the word, starts walking, you can't really lead them, it's hard to lead them in a documentary. I guess you could sort of sometimes, but it's much easier to follow them. And so I approached it very much as a very controlled documentary. And that just became the language of it just because the opening of the film, we're behind him a lot and as I was doing it, I started to realize, "oh wow, there's something cool going on here where I could really hide Mickey for awhile," because I think the mystery of what Mickey looks like is a big part of this film. Because I think people are very intrigued by him and his face and so I wanted to sort of slowly reveal him.
That shot where the crowd came in happened when we were location scouting; I came up with the shot. I saw it and I said "this is a great hallway, we should shoot." And then I realized, oh wow, there's this curtain here and we can actually do something. I realized that there was a funny joke to be made, because the irony of the situation is right there. I mean, the fact that he's being humiliated by having to do this, I figure, a better way to show that -- I mean, I was excited to show that.
If I'm allowed to jump to RoboCop?
Aronofsky: What do you want to know?
I know you guys probably aren't too far along in it and it's kind of hard to get anything out of it, but I guess one of the biggest questions I've had is I've heard sort of conflicting details on the story and whether it's like a reboot, sequel or--
Aronofsky: It's reinvention. A complete reinvention.
So is it then essentially based on the concept of RoboCop, like a guy who gets replaced with these materials--
Aronofsky: It's a complete reinvention. And it's really early stages. David Self is a really talented guy, really excited about collaborating with him. I don't know if you know who he is, but he's very, very smart and he's -- he was on holiday and then I had to do this big launch of the film so next week we're going to roll up our sleeves and get more into it, but it's a really great title I think and there's so much potential. But we're definitely taking it to a very new place.
This is actually a subject I've been addressing with a lot of people here in Toronto and since I was at Telluride too, it's just sort of the state of independent cinema. You were, I would say, more than lucky to have your film sold to Fox Searchlight which as you know, I believe is the greatest independent studio right now, but there's a lot of films that go through festivals and don't get released. And I think one of the Variety guys was quoted saying that independent cinema is dead. I'm curious what your take on that is and how it's--
Aronofsky: I think it's cyclical. I've been there long enough that I've seen this cycle already. A lot of people were making a lot of money off of independent films, so there was a total gold rush after it and, you know, a lot of product got out there that maybe wasn’t necessarily supposed to get out there and damages the market. And then, it's like the '80s when suddenly everyone was making blockbusters and the films of the '70s were drying up and then John Sayles came back and Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee and it started again. And so I think, the bottom line is quality films. People want to see good films. Well, people want to see quality films and they want to see big, big things blow up.
So I think there'll always be-- I think if you go out there and you make something that's original and that something's good, people are going to want to see it. I think it's a really hard time to make film right now because money's-- the economy's in a tough place and there's not a lot of free money right now. So it's really, really hard to make film, especially original film, especially risk-taking film. But it's going to come back, it has to, because people just get bored and they want to see something new and something different. So, I hope so.
I mean, there's this one theory that I read about that all serious dramas are being-- that there's a platform for them now on TV because of HBO and the "Sopranos" and things like that and that's really bit into dramatic filmmaking. And there might be something about that, because people do have great viewing experiences now in their big flat screen TVs at home. But, it's hard right now -- and the reality is when I'm making a movie, I've always been conscious that most of my audience is going to see it on a TV screen, because that's the reality of it and that's always been that way. Requiem for a Dream made $3.5 million theatrically, yet a lot of people have seen it, more than that $3.5 million from the box office. So I know that, and it's not like it's come out and they've seen it at art house theaters, they've seen it on their crappy TVs and on a DVD or on a VHS tape and I think that's the reality. So I don't know.
You have an incredible future ahead of you with RoboCop and The Fighter and everything…
Aronofsky: Talk about Mickey Rourke and how great that was, you can't deny that!
I already mentioned in my article this morning that he deserves an Oscar.
Aronofsky: Okay, good. You cannot deny that.
It's going to be a good Oscar fight this year, I think…
Aronofsky: Who do you think it is? What have you actually seen?
That's the thing though, the only one--
Aronofsky: That you think is good, that you've actually seen because all the fucking hype, it's always hype. I watch it all the time, every year; they're like, "that film, that film, that film." It doesn't mean anything until people see it.
This probably won't fulfill your question, but based off of the trailer for Milk, I think Sean Penn has it in. But I don't know. That's what I mean, it's like I haven't seen that and the trailer could just be so well made.
Aronofsky: He's fantastic all the time. Anyway, Mickey is just thrilled that people are looking at him again and remembering how great he is. And that's, for me, the best accomplishment. I mean, I think we've done it at this point, which is we reminded people that Mickey's this great talent and we gave him a performance where people can see his heart. And the thing I learned most about this film is all you need is some honesty and a lens and you got a movie.
Lastly, what are you five favorite movies of all time?
Aronofsky: It's very hard. The first thing that pop ups is a Kurosawa film, so maybe Yojimbo (1961). I'd probably pick two Terry Gilliam films or maybe one, I'd probably pick Time Bandits (1981) or Brazil (1985), I don't know. God, that's a really hard question. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) maybe, you have to pick a Leone or Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). It's hard -- there's so many. Then I'm sort of drying up because I'm tired. I love Breaking Away (1979). It's one of my favorite films.
Thank you so much to Darren Aronofsky and everyone at MRC for this interview - truly one of the best I've ever done! The Wrestler was picked up by Fox Searchlight and should arrive in limited theaters starting on December 19th.