Interview: Darren Aronofsky Talks 'Mother!', Cinema, Batman & More
by Alex Billington
September 13, 2017
"I tell stories. All I can ever do is express how I'm feeling at a moment." In theaters this week is the new film from acclaimed filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, a very provocative and intense feature titled mother!. The film stars Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem as a couple living in a secluded home, trying to fix it up and make it nice until one day uninvited guests show up. Mother! premiered at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals, and the reviews have been all over the map. I loved the film (here's my review), because I understood exactly what he was doing. This is Aronofsky's outburst of anger about the state of the world, and the way we abuse and mistreat this beautiful planet we live on. While at the Venice Film Festival, I met with Darren briefly for a chat about mother!, and the state of the world - he's always fascinating to talk with.
This is officially my third interview with Darren Aronofsky over the years I've been running this site - I first talked with him for The Wrestler back in 2008, and then again in 2010 for Black Swan. I visited the set of Noah when it was filming, and attended the premiere, but didn't interview Darren during that movie. Let's just say we go way back, and I genuinely love talking with Darren because he has such a unique perspective. The impression people (who don't know him) seem to have of him is, in my opinion, not very accurate. He's not only super smart but a very caring, passionate person who just loves to tell good stories. He's also a huge movie geek, and could go for hours discussing movies big and small. Which is my favorite thing to talk with him about. This time it's all about mother! and don't worry, there are no spoilers - only general discussion.
Before we begin, I suggest (re-)reading Darren Aronofsky's Director's Statement about mother! from the Venice Film Festival. It gives a much better idea of his feelings on this film and his intentions. Read it here.
I met up with Darren at a hotel in Venice during the Venice Film Festival, just a few hours before the film's world premiere. The film had screened for press that morning to extremely divisive reactions - some critics hate it, while others love it. Darren still seemed to be in good spirits, especially because he knew it would divide audiences. It's a very provocative, challenging film and he knows that. If anything, he is excited to see how people respond and react. It has been kept a secret for so long, and now it's finally out in the world. I wanted to talk to Darren about his feelings of anger, as well as his thoughts on cinema today. Here we go…
Did you envision exactly what this would be (the final movie we're all watching now) from the start, or did it really begin to come together when you were filming and editing?
Darren Aronofsky: Well, it's always an evolution. Maybe [Stanley] Kubrick was the guy who could visualize it all… But even, you can read about the immense amount of research he did. Clearly there was a very long thought process, and filmmaking is always a changing process. This one [mother!] more so than anything, because there was less planned. It's true - I wrote the script in five days, the initial thing. I don't know if you've read that yet.
Yes, I did.
Darren: I wrote it in five days. Two weeks before that, I had the idea for it. And it was really cool. Then I figured out the structure. Not just an idea. Then I was like, "oh I can write this." And then I had these five days off and I just fucking sat there and I banged out this 90 page version of it. And then we got [Jennifer Lawrence] attached and it all started to move. But it moved very quickly and then we spent three months rehearsing. And a big part of that rehearsal period was – I wanted to see the actors work with this material and change… Jen was just absorbing it, and taking it in. Javier definitely shaped his character and tried to figure out how to bring in different colors. It was a different process with different actors.
The last two weeks of that three month rehearsal period, we actually shot the whole thing on a taped out stage. Kind of like Dogville. Where the camera had to respect the doorways and then we cut it together and had an 80 minute version of it just to watch, which I made the whole crew watch. It was an awful experience because no one knew what the fuck was going on because there's no walls or anything, and there's no hair and makeup was inconsistent. It was just, Jen's hair like this, Jen's hair like that. Different outfit. But for me it allowed me to start working through shots and how they were connected. It was a good process. But then this was a 53-week long post, which is a crazy long post. I found out that Bennett Miller wrestling movie…
Darren: Foxcatcher was a 52-week post and he said it happens every once in a while with certain films. And it took a long time because, first of all, we only had the three shots to cover a scene. There's only: over her shoulder, on her face, and her POV. And often the over-the-shoulder and on her face are all one shot that's spinning as she walks, and goes. So there was a very limited language. And when you don't have a wide shot to cut out to, which really saves you in editing if, like, an actor sucks at a moment or something's not consistent with continuity, you can cut out to a wide shot and it basically resets the eyes. And we had no inserts where you can go in and see something. So we had an incredibly limited language. Every moment, beat by beat, you had to have a sense of where she was at that moment.
I wanted to ask about the rehearsal process, since it seemed much longer than normal. What exactly were you working on during that process?
Darren: Yeah, we sat at a table. It was a big warehouse. It was all taped out. And we would just get up on our feet and try it. And it for me it was like – look, Mike Leigh has been a hero of mine forever in the way he develops things, and I was really interested in that technique of spending time with the actors and getting them into it. Because as a film director, at least for me, my favorite part is when I get to work with the actors. But I get to do so little of it. I get maybe 40, 50 days when I shoot a movie every two, three years. So this way I got another three months where I actually could work with actors and I had delightful actors, so it was not painful in any way.
Of course. So, don’t take this question the wrong way, but it seems like you're angry.
Obviously with the current state of the world. And…
Darren: Who isn't?
Exactly. But there's also--
Darren: I mean, whoever isn't is an asshole.
Yeah, exactly. But the film mother! seems like a cathartic attempt to express that and just be like: "fuck this".
Darren: Well look – I mean, it's funny that it's a full moon tonight because [the film] is a howl at the moon. I've always felt it's a howl. There's so much helpless rage we're feeling every day. When we see this schizophrenic United States go from backing the Paris Climate Accord to pulling out, to three of the biggest storms in the history of the United States within 12 years of each other… I had a lot of my friends who lost their homes in Katrina. I lived through Sandy. Were you there for Sandy?
No, I moved right after.
Darren: I lived through Sandy. I was in the blacked-out Lower Manhattan for a week, in a blackout for a week. And now Harvey is a growing disaster. It's not just the flooding, it's also this petro-chemical cleanup, which is never going to get cleaned up. It's a disaster. And yet there's people walking around with devices in their pockets that are the latest in science and they can communicate 140 characters to 35 million people in a blink of an eye. Yet, they won't acknowledge that humans are impacting the climate and we need to do something about it, out of greed and corruption. It's disgusting. And I'm a parent.
My Grandfather came to America to give his offspring a better life. And we are not giving our grandchildren a better life. Right now, we are witnessing and partaking in it. And so I don't know how you don't get fucking angry and pissed off at the fucking world. The thing is that, what happened in Charlottesville and what's happening with the EPA, what's happening is: the hoods are coming off. Literally. That cancer has been living with us for a long time. And you know what, pick your fucking side. It's gotta fucking change. It's 2017, it's 21st Century. You can talk to any person on the planet, you know there are people starving right over there and you're not doing anything about it. It's not like you're living in ignorance or only know what's happening in the neighborhood. We see what's happening with Harvey. We're not even talking about what's happening in Mumbai and in Bangladesh where 41 million people are affected with who knows how many dead there. And it's time to act. Everyone's gotta act. How I can't keep that passion in my work is hard.
Do you think art – be it movies or anything artistic – has the real potential to change society?
Darren: Oh I don't know about that. It's just what I do. I tell stories. All I can ever do is express how I'm feeling at a moment, what I'm thinking about, what moves me. And follow that path. That's all I can do. I know there's a lot of thinkers who have talked about this, a lot of filmmakers who have talked about it in lots of ways. Art without meaning is… I don't know. I’ve always had, since I was a teenager, I've had a connection to… I grew up in the part of Brooklyn that's on a beach. And I can remember seeing trash on the beach and being affected by it. Am I trying? I don't think there's an attempt to try to change anything, it's just me trying to portray what I feel and the only thing I can do is take my strongest emotions and express them. That's my responsibility, to sit back and tell a general story. I would love to do that as well. Just tell a good, old story and hopefully I will at times. But sometimes, I don't know, I can't quite control what comes out.
Darren: Yeah, and especially now, it's changed. But to be fair I wrote this in the eighth year of Obama.
Darren: Yeah. But from my perspective we were not in a much better situation anyway.
Of course. It’s only gotten worse.
Darren: It's definitely gotten worse. And we're finally seeing where that corruption is coming from. These people are literally being paid off to vote against their children's future. Yeah. Which is insane. It's not like, eh, pay off and let my kid into this school or here's some money and let me higher on that list to get tickets to that concert, or whatever it is. It's like: I'm going to take money and not give a fuck about other people.
As someone who works in the film world, I wonder what hope there is, and what can I do in my own ways to push for change and encourage it. Can I tell them to go see your film and hopefully it will change their mind? No. But, I mean…
Darren: No. I think pushing people just to have the experience. I don't want to sound preachy. And I think that will turn people off and I get very worked up about it because I'm deeply concerned. I'm a director on the Sierra Club Foundation board, so I read all the reports of all the latest stuff. And the shit that happens, like the Dakota Access Pipeline suing us, the Sierra Club, as terrorists for invading, trespassing on their land. I mean, the type of activities that they do are so corrupt that, what is this human being who sits there, and actually can see it from that point of view?
It's just amazing to me. Especially when we're witnessing it, you know. It's not like it's abstract anymore. It's like, Harvey is the worst rainstorm in the United States that has ever happened. The worst rainstorm, oh and Sandy was also the "storm of the century", I think it was. And Katrina was the "storm of the century," too. But how did they all happen in 12 years? The images we see out of Harvey are going to be images of the 21st Century, meaning we're going to see them over and over again. Same images of people in thigh high water. And other type of tragic things.
That's what I mean.
Darren: It's very hard to give a fuck about [superhero movies in this day and age]. It's like ugh, okay. So this guy is going to fight that guy in the third act and it's good guy versus bad guy. It's a lot uglier right now. What does it mean to be a filmmaker right now? I think there's a bunch of films that are touching on this… I didn't see it, but Downsizing has an environmental theme, but he's doing it through the Alexander Payne [lens], I'm doing it through the Darren Aronofsky touch. And even The Shape of Water might have--
Yes, it does.
Darren: Did you love Shape of Water?
I did actually.
Darren: Okay, good.
What do you think of the state of cinema nowadays? Do you think it's really evolving, that it's changing now, if at all?
Darren: Well, the effect of TV is a huge thing. The fact that things you would see at a festival like [Venice] are now 10 hours long on TV. And "Better Call Saul" I thought was incredibly well shot. I don't know if you watch it, but the shots are fucking great. There used to be a lot more entrance in this kind of world, within this category of films, and so much talent has been sucked away by these big tent-pole movies. The worst thing about those big tent-pole movies is that the greatest actors of their generation are, not that they're doing those roles, but they're unavailable to make other weird films. That's the really crazy thing. It's like, I can't get Scarlett Johansson because she's on a fucking movie for the next four years. And it's tough. So much great talent is hard to get now. So I think that's an effect of it that's hard to deal with. But I think the opportunities of serial television and how you can really take creative risks there is great for storytellers. And exciting.
Do you see yourself ever getting into that?
Darren: Yeah. I mean, we're trying. We're interested in it. I haven't found the right one that I'd like to do and I don't think I could… It's hard to do 10 hours of work on something. That's a lot. Especially the way I work, to not tuck in every corner, and to do that would be a big commitment. But then again I'm also sad because I want more fucking David Fincher movies and he's off making TV.
Yeah, I was thinking that too.
Darren: It's like, fuck, man, Fincher - I want a new movie! Gone Girl is a few years ago already, right?
Yep, three years ago , yeah…
Darren: That's the only thing. Some of my favorite filmmakers, I want more movies.
Yes, same here. So I want to ask about this – whenever you are brought up, there's always a discussion about your involvement with Batman. You once expressed interest and everyone now says "oh, I would have loved to see Darren's version." Or even, "Darren's version would have been too dark for the studio." Do you still feel that way?
Darren: You know what, I think it's finally… I think we were basically – whatever it is – 15 years too early. Because I hear the way they’re talking about the Joker movie and that's exactly – that was my pitch. I was like: we're going to shoot in East Detroit and East New York. We're not building Gotham. The Batmobile – I wanted to be a Lincoln Continental with two bus engines in it.
Darren: Yeah, with two bus engines, all duct taped together. It was the duct tape MacGyver Batman. And some of my ideas got out there through other films. Like the ring with "BW", Bruce Wayne's ring making the scar was our idea and I think that was in Zack's or something. Which is fine, you write these ideas and they get out. We were all about reinventing it and trying to make it more Taxi Driver visceral. That was the whole pitch. But the toy people were like, "oh it can't be a Lincoln Continental, you have to make a Batmobile."
And I think with Chris [Nolan's] work, which was great, it was just - he hit it [out of the park]. He was able to get the darkness in, and the psychology of the character, yet he was still able to give the gizmo thing, which I wasn't ever really interested in. So, I think that's the back story. I think we were ahead of our time. And I was always like; why can't we make a more lower-budget rated-R [movie], just like in comics you have different brands but and now they're finally doing that. They're doing the spinoffs, which is great. This is an exciting time because they'll be able to take more risks and we won't be seeing the same superhero movie over and over again. You'll get things like Deadpool, which was a relief as compared to seeing the same film over and over again.
Yeah. It is an interesting time for superhero movies because in the midst of all this they're trying something different…
Darren: Yeah. And Watchmen as a TV show I think is fantastic. I think that's perfect for that medium. And where it should have been, but [the production platform] didn't exist at that time. And I think they'll have much more fun in a more developed world.
A big thank you to Darren Aronofsky for his time, and to 42 West for arranging the interview.
Darren Aronofsky's mother! premiered at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals (read my review). The film hits theaters everywhere starting September 15th, this weekend. It's an breathtaking experience. Go see it.