Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky

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Filmmaker explains why, as a director, he’s able to get actors to go above and beyond while researching their roles.

Darren Aronofsky was winning kudos for filmmaking before he graduated from college. After receiving international acclaim for his senior thesis film at Harvard, he went on to win critical success for his feature debut, the sci-fi thriller Pi. With credits that include The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream and the psychological drama Black Swan, he's established himself as an avant-garde filmmaker. A self-described "Brooklyn hip-hop kid," Aronofsky was born in the NY borough and holds an MFA in directing from the American Film Institute.


Tavis: Darren Aronofsky is a talented director, writer and producer whose previous projects include “The Wrestler,” “Requiem for a Dream,” and “Pie.” His latest project, “Black Swan,” is already front and center in the conversation about this year’s best films. The movie opens Friday in New York and L.A., with more cities, of course, on the way. Here now, some scenes from “Black Swan.”
Tavis: So there’s buzz on this film, but there’s also a lot of buzz on Natalie.
Darren Aronofsky: Yeah, absolutely.
Tavis: Deserved?
Aronofsky: I think so, yeah. She worked really hard for this, spent a year training, 365 days, five hours a day, becoming a ballerina, which is a pretty tall order at 27, 28.
Tavis: Performance – every director, of course, wants to pull the best out of his or her subjects, the talent they’re working with, but it appears, just from looking at your work, that performance is really important to you, and for whatever reason, the people that work with you want to give it to you.
Natalie, to your point, doing all this training, Mickey Rourke – as a matter of fact, I think I got a clip here. Mickey was on this show when “The Wrestler” was out.
Aronofsky: Oh, cool, cool.
Tavis: And I asked him a question and your name came up, so let’s take a look at this first.
Aronofsky: Oh, cool, yeah.
[Begin video clip.]
“Mickey Rourke:” For about two years I’ve heard about this young director named Darren Aronofsky. I went and saw a couple of his films and I went, “This cat – there’s something about this cat that’s really special.” He reminded me of, like, Coppola, sort of a really innovative, smart kind of renegade that just beat to his own drum.
[End video clip.]
Aronofsky: Oh, that’s nice.
Tavis: That was kind, huh? (Laughter) I was asking him what drew him to the script and why he wanted to do this, and of course, your name becomes the answer. I was saying, though, that you are into performance, and these performers want to give it to you, so from Mickey and the wrestling moves to Natalie here, what’s that about?
Aronofsky: Ellen Burstyn in “Requiem.”
Tavis: Yeah, Ellen Burstyn, exactly.
Aronofsky: I think actors want to act, but I think they often do something and then the movie doesn’t quite support them and they’re left out there hanging to dry, and they close up like a flower.
But all they really want to do is act, so if you create trust and you’re telling them, “I’m going to give you a platform to do what you do and support you, and if you ever go too far, don’t worry, I’ll take care of it,” then it happens.
And they’re game. It’s not like it’s really that hard to force them to do it. They’ve just got to know they’re safe and it’s safe to play.
Tavis: So the storyline of “Black Swan” is?
Aronofsky: Ooh, that’s a hard one. (Laughs)
Tavis: Yeah, that’s why I asked you that.
Aronofsky: So “Black Swan” is a movie set in the ballet world. It stars Natalie Portman as a young dancer who’s given a chance to play the Queen Swan in the great, famous Tchaikovsky ballet “Swan Lake.” In “Swan Lake,” the ballet, one dancer plays the Black Swan and the White Swan, and the White Swan is innocent and virginal and the Black Swan is a seductress, and the playing both roles kind of splits her and all sorts of horror ensues. (Laughs)
Tavis: Did you take certain liberties here? Are there things you tweaked, things you changed here?
Aronofsky: Yeah – you mean based off of “Swan Lake?”
Tavis: Yes.
Aronofsky: Well, “Swan Lake’s” a ballet, but we tried to – it is a fairy tale and it’s got a lot of gothic horror elements and a lot of melodrama. We tried to take the energy of it and turn it into all the different character in the film. That kind of inspired the entire film.
Tavis: Why this project for you? You’ve explained what it is, but why did you want to do this one, of all the things that were on your desk you could have chosen from?
Aronofsky: Yeah, well, “The Wrestler” was very connected to “Black Swan” in a lot of ways, because they’re both about performance and I kind of like them as companion pieces. They’re both about artists that put their bodies at risk to do what they do, except one’s about the highest art out there and one’s about the lowest art.
I thought it would be – kind of the magic and hope of cinema is that you could take an aging, 50-something year old wrestler at the end of his career and a young 20-something year old dancer at the beginning of a career, but if their emotions are real then hopefully audience will go on a journey and a trip with them.
Tavis: It begs the obvious question, what is it as a director, then, that attracts you specifically to this kind of performance art as theater?
Aronofsky: Well, I think my favorite part of the job is working with actors. They are performers, and the only time I get to be Michael Jordan, soaring through the air, when he’s in the zone, is when I get to watch actors actually in the zone. I’m right there with them and when they’re channeling it, whatever the powers of the universe is coming through them, I get to be right there and actually connect with them.
So I’ve always been interested in what that unconscious moment is that you get into when you’re in the zone.
Tavis: To your point now, do directors get in the zone, and if they do, what is that and what’s that like?
Aronofsky: Well, that – we get into the zone right then, when you’re in performance, between action and cut, when it’s going and you’re just watching what’s happening and all the different crafts are working to create a moment, you can sort of get into that moment and become the film, and feel it.
As a writer, I get it a lot – not a lot, I get it every once in a while when you’re alone in a room, typing away. But we don’t get it that much, it’s a shame. I do envy artists that get to do it all the time, and that’s probably why I’ve been interested in these films about performance.
Tavis: Was this the plan – you mentioned earlier that Natalie went above and beyond what you expected in terms of her performance, Mickey went above and beyond what you expected. Is this, the directing thing, above and beyond what you expected, given that you write and you direct, or was this part of the plan all along?
Aronofsky: It’s such a hard job, wake up every day and do the job, it’s a real challenge. So you’ve got to –
Tavis: The writing or the directing?
Aronofsky: All of it.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Aronofsky: Just to have – the directing especially, because it’s a huge time commitment, so you’ve got to love it to do it, and so even though you hate it sometimes when it’s happening. You’ve just got to believe in the stories that you’re telling and in the characters you’re telling stories about, and try and get that emotion and that humanity and to entertain. That’s the bottom line. It’s the fun part when it’s done and you get to share it with people.
Tavis: Ever thought you were in the zone, the project ended, you look back on it and said to yourself, “I wasn’t in the zone?”
Aronofsky: I think the zone is the zone. When you’re in it, you’re in it. It’s that state that time disappears in a second and you don’t know what’s going on and you’re just connected and you’re not yourself. You’re just it. So it is that, and I think the reactions of the audiences are always going to be different. People have different times and different places, but that moment, it’s clear.
That Michael Jordan, I have that photo on my wall of him soaring through with his tongue out, and if it was an incredibly huge negative and you can see every single person in the audience if you look behind him –
Tavis: Standing, exactly.
Aronofsky: – staring at him and they’re all looking at – they’re all having a religious moment. They’re all – there’s people like – and it’s just an amazing thing, because they’re watching him channel it. I think that’s what in the arts and in sports and everything we do – cook, anything – you’re just trying to get to that moment where it becomes unconscious and it just becomes – all the training you’ve done and all that sort of goes away and you just become what you do.
Tavis: When you get to a point in our career where the stuff that you do starts to get this Oscar buzz the minute it comes out the gate, does that put a level of pressure on you? Do you change your own expectations of yourself? You see where I’m going with this?
Aronofsky: Yeah, I do. (Laughs)
Tavis: So are you going to answer it now?
Aronofsky: No, yeah. (Laughter) Look, the whole award circuit is really important for these smaller films because we don’t have the budgets to sell them on TV and buy all the ads and stuff.
So getting the critical response is really helpful, and as an independent film you need to have it. And it’s fun, it’s great when people like it. It’s tough when they don’t like it. But you just keep moving forward and you keep doing what you’re doing.
Tavis: Take me quickly back to Brooklyn and tell me how, when, why, where you figured out that this was your destiny.
Aronofsky: My story is I went to see – it was 1986, I think I went to see one of the “Rockies.” It was sold out, and there was a poster next to it with this goofy looking guy with the word “Brooklyn” on his hat. I was like, “Oh, let’s just go see that movie, it says Brooklyn, it’s got to be cool.
I walked in and it was Spike’s “She’s Gotta Have It,” and it changed everything for me. (Laughter) Because being from Brooklyn, I was just like – I actually walked in part of the way in, and it was that scene, that montage where all the different guys are talking, doing their pick-up lines to Nora Darling, was that what –
Tavis: Mm-hmm, you got it. (Laughter)
Aronofsky: I just – my jaw dropped. I was like, “What the hell?” I didn’t know cinema existed like that. So after that I found the foreign section in the video stores and “La Dolce Vita” and Kurasawa and that’s when the doors opened up.
Tavis: I didn’t know Spike Lee was going to be a part of that answer. (Laughter)
Aronofsky: He is the Brooklyn filmmaker, you know, for my generation.
Tavis: Yeah, he is a great guy.
Aronofsky: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Tavis: But this guy is a pretty great guy, too, and everybody’s talking about his new project. It’s called “Black Swan,” starring Natalie Portman. A lot of buzz on this thing already. Darren, good to have you on.
Aronofsky: Thank you very much, really nice to meet you.
Tavis: I’m going to say congrats in advance on a great, successful film.
Aronofsky: Thank you very much.
Tavis: You’re very welcome.
Aronofsky: Good to meet you.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm