Visionary director Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” takes a thrilling and at times terrifying journey through the psyche of a young ballerina (Natalie Portman) whose starring role as the duplicitous swan queen turns out to be a part for which she becomes frighteningly perfect.
MoviesOnline sat down with Natalie Portman and Darren Aronofsky in Los Angeles to talk about their recent collaboration. They told us about the genesis of the project, how Natalie transformed for the challenging role of Nina, and what “The Wrestler” and “Black Swan” share in common. Darren explained why Natalie is the first A-list actor he has worked with in his career. He also described how he used handheld cameras to build the film’s psychological suspense and tell the story of a dancer’s sudden rise and terrifying descent.
Here’s what Natalie and Darren had to say:
Q: Can you talk about the 10-year journey to make this film?
Aronofsky: I’ve been a fan of Natalie’s since I saw her in ‘The Professional’. Luc Besson is one of my favorite directors, and it turns out that her manager is an old friend of mine from college and so I had a little inside line to meet her. We met in Times Square at the old Howard Johnson’s which is now an American Apparel which shows you where America is going. We had a really bad cup of coffee. We talked about the early ideas I had about the film. When she says that I have the entire film in my head it’s a complete lie.
Portman: No. It’s was close to what you described to me.
Aronofsky: So we talked a bit about it and I started to develop it but it was a really tough film because getting into the ballet world proved to be really challenging. Most of the time when you do a movie and you say, ‘Hey, I want to make a movie about your world,’ then all the doors open up and you can do anything and see anything that you want. The ballet world really wasn’t at all interested in us hanging out. So it took a long time to get the information and put it together and over the years Natalie would say, ‘I’m getting too old to play a dancer. You better hurry up.’ I was like, ‘Natalie, you look great. You’ll be fine.’ And then about a year out before the film or maybe a little bit earlier I finally got a screenplay together. That’s how it started.
Q: Natalie, this is a dream role for you. Can you tell us why?
Portman: Well, I had danced when I was younger, until I was about twelve and I guess always sort of idealized it, as most young girls do, as the most beautiful art, this expression without words. I always wanted to do a film relating to dance. So when Darren had this incredible idea that was not just relating to the dance world, but also had this really complicated character, two characters to go into, it was just an opportunity, and especially with Darren who is a director that I would do anything for – it was just something completely exciting.
Q: “Black Swan” has been described as a companion piece to “The Wrestler.” You can see some parallels. How did you approach this in contrast to “The Wrestler”?
Aronofsky: I don’t really think there’s that much difference. I don’t think it’s that much of a big deal. I think people are people and if their feelings are real and truthful they can connect. I keep saying that it doesn’t matter if you’re an aging fifty something year old wrestler at the end of his career or an ambitious twenty something year old ballet dancer, if they’re truthful to who they are and they’re expressing something real then audiences will connect. That’s always been the promise of cinema and that’s why we can see a film about a seven year old girl in Iran or an immortal superhero in America. It doesn’t matter as long as they’re truthful.
Q: Did you and Vincent Cassel create a weird symbiotic relationship based on his role and your approach to directing?
Aronofsky: I cast someone who looked a lot like me. No. I don’t know. I wish that I could be as manipulative as his character in the film. I think I’m really way, way too direct and I’ve actually scared away a lot of A-List actors. In fact, Natalie Portman is the first A-List actor I’ve worked with in my career. Everyone else sort of went, ‘You want me to do what, for how long, for how little money?’ And then they walk away. So I’ve lost a lot of movie stars along the way, and I think that a more manipulative director would be like, ‘Oh, it’s not going to be that hard. Come in and we’ll have fun,’ but I think that’s when wars start. It’s like, ‘You told me there would be sushi on set everyday.’ So I’m a little bit too direct, too straightforward I think.
Q: Mila Kunis talked about her excitement at being able to eat a Double Double as soon as she was done filming. Natalie, can you tell us what your first meal was when you were done? And Darren, can you talk a little about “The Red Shoes” and how it influenced you?
Aronofsky: Is that why you wore red shoes today?
Portman: I believe the first meal was pasta for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Aronofsky: It’s funny, the one thing about that is that it was a really hard film to make. There was really no money for the film and we had to push a lot of times and I only found out recently that the person who suffered the most from pushing, I actually don’t mind pushing because it means that I get an extra two or three weeks to get my shit together, but I found out that Natalie would just be screaming to our mutual friend, the manager, that she had to live on carrots and almonds for another three weeks and what was she going to do. So she was the one who suffered the most from not eating. But the question was about ‘The Red Shoes’. I actually wasn’t aware of ‘The Red Shoes’. I mean, I had heard of ‘The Red Shoes’ but I didn’t see it and then [Martin] Scorsese did the restoration a few years ago and then I was like, ‘You know what, I better go and see it.’ It’s a masterpiece, an unbelievable film and I saw that there were similarities in the story, but I think that’s because we both went back to ballet and pulled from ballet the different characters and stuff. So we ended up in similar places, but I wasn’t really influenced by it and I really didn’t ever try to be influenced by it because it’s such a masterpiece and the dance sequences, they weren’t doing visual FX like that for twenty years they were so ahead of their time. So I just sort of kept it in the back and said, ‘Look, we just sort of dress it.’ I forget the year, but it’s a long time ago and most people may not know about it, but unfortunately they do.
Q: This film is about transformation and you make a complete transformation on film. How do you approach transforming yourself for something like this?
Portman: Well, it was a great challenge and I had really, really amazing support. I mean all the teachers and coaches and the choreographer, obviously, and the director first and foremost were shaping and pushing along the way. But I started with my ballet teacher a year ahead of time. Mary Helen Bowers and she started very basically with me, but we would do two hours a day for the six months. That was really just sort of strengthening and getting me ready to do more so that I wouldn’t get injured and then at about six months we started doing five hours a day where we added in swimming. So I was swimming a mile a day, toning and then doing three hours of ballet class a day and then two months before we added the choreography. So we were probably doing eight hours a day and the physical discipline of it really helped for the emotional side of the character because you get the sense of the sort of monastic lifestyle of only working out that is a ballet dancer’s life. You don’t drink. You don’t go out with your friends. You don’t have much food. You are constantly putting your body through extreme pain and you really get that understanding of the self-flagellation of a ballet dancer.
Q: Can you talk a little about working on the choreography and what that experience was like?
Portman: Well, the choreography were different pieces for Black Swan and White Swan. I had an amazing coach, Georgina Parkinson, who very sadly passed away two weeks before we started shooting. She is sort of the premiere, was the premiere ‘Swan Lake’ coach for Odile/Odette and so she worked very specifically with me on everything from fingertips to where you put your eyes on different movements that are sort of ballet acting. It’s little gestures that you can do that really differentiate between those two characters.
Q: Barbara Hershey talked about mimicking Natalie’s look. Can you talk about that, Darren?
Aronofsky: That was great. She came in and she was like, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘What happened?’ She painted out the curve here to match the eyebrows because Natalie has those great, iconic eyebrows.
Portman: And Darren did a really beautiful thing where he had Barbara write letters to me in character, as Erica to Nina, for the first portion of the film that he would hand to me on sort of important days of shooting so that I should feel my mother. And Barbara wrote really, really gorgeous letters that were really in character and gave that sense.
Aronofsky: And I never read the letters which I don’t know if I would still do. I just thought that it should be between the two of you.
Q: Given that you have a degree in psychology, Natalie, what would be your professional diagnosis of your character?
Portman: Well, this was actually a case where something that I did learn in school did translate into something practical which is very, very rare. But it was absolutely a case of obsessive compulsive behavior. The scratching. The bulimia, obviously. Anorexia and bulimia are forms of OCD and ballet really lends itself to that because there’s such a sense of ritual — the wrapping of the shoes everyday and the preparing of new shoes for every performance. It’s such a process. It’s almost religious in nature. It’s almost like Jews putting on their tefillin or Catholics with their rosary beads and then they have this sort of godlike character in their director. It really is a devotional, ritualistic, religious art which you can relate to as an actor, too, because when you do a film you submit to your director in that way. Your director is your everything and you devote yourself to them and you want to help create their vision. So all of that, I think the sort of religious obsession compulsion would be my professional diagnosis.
Q: Was your character supposed to be of Russian descent?
Portman: If she’s Russian, you’re asking? I didn’t really consider her to be Russian, but I think –
Aronofsky: I think the back story was that you had a lover that was a foreign dancer. I don’t know if he was French or Russian or something, but then he left. But it was just a back story and we really didn’t get that deep into it.
Portman: Yeah, and I remember them saying that they named her Nina because it’s like little girl, like there’s a little girl connotation in it.
Q: As you just mentioned, so much of this is about obsession. How do you find your own balance and how do you pull yourself out of that as an actress? What works for you to get going and keep going?
Portman: Well, pulling out of it, I’m very much like as soon as I finish a scene I’m back to being me. As soon as I finish shooting I want to be myself again. I’m not someone who likes to stay in character. This clearly had a kind of discipline that lent itself to me being probably more like my character while we were shooting than past experiences but I just go back to my regular life after and the second part was how do I keep myself going?
Q: Yes, how do you achieve a balance and keep that balance?
Portman: I mean, one of the reasons that I think Darren and I had such sort of telepathy during this is that I feel that he’s as disciplined and focused and alert as could possibly be and that’s what I try to be. I’m not a perfectionist but I’m definitely, or well, I like discipline. I’m obedient. I’m not a perfectionist.
Aronofsky: A professional.
Portman: I think it’s important to work your hardest and be as kind as possible to everyone that you work with and that’s the goal everyday, just keeping focused on that.
Aronofsky: I mean, all these actors were, I’ve dealt with a few method actors, and I don’t know if should say this, but I think it’s a bunch of nonsense. I think it’s film acting and you just have to be on when the camera is rolling. I mean, sure, if it’s a very intense scene then you might want to keep that energy in between the takes while the crew is resetting and they would all do that, but when it’s cut it’s cut. Even when it’s action there’s still a camera here and all these lights and all these people moving around you. It’s impossible to fully make believe that doesn’t exist. That’s why they’re so good, that they’re able to sort of make believe that that’s not there convincingly, but the second that it’s cut someone is coming over to touch your mike and someone is putting powder on your face. It is make believe, but I don’t know. Whatever works, not to scare away method actors. Actually I want to scare away method actors because it’s a pain. It’s like, ‘Come on, what are you doing? It’s not real. What are you doing? Oh, you’re really brooding. Okay, good. Go to your trailer. I’ll see you in an hour.’
Q: Can you talk about your approach to this film as compared to your earlier films? Your films seem to have an interest in surreal qualities. Do you have an interest in that kind of thing?
Aronofsky: I think it’s all about what the story is that we want to tell. One thing that I realized during one of these, it’s funny because a lot of times you figure it out when you’re doing the press because you start talking about it and becoming aware of it. The whole cinema verite, handheld approach to ‘The Wrestler’ was a big risk to bring over into this ballet film because I had never seen a kind of suspenseful film that had this kind of handheld camera and I didn’t know if it worked. I was always really worried that if in a really scary scene everyone would wonder why Natalie wouldn’t turn to the cameraman and go, ‘Help,’ or something. So I didn’t know if it was going to work, but then we sort of went, ‘Fuck it. Let’s just go for it because it’s never been done,’ and I really enjoyed the camera moving. Having a man hold the camera I could really move the camera in ways that you can’t in any other way. The result of that is that the first third of the film has a very different feel than the last half of the film because it’s got this very naturalistic feel which I think actually is kind of cool because it makes people feel like they’re watching a very different type of movie that can’t ever freak out like the way that it freaks out. Yet, it gives you that kind of immediacy of being in that other moment and being in this other world with little hints like she’s peeling her finger and things are going to get really freaked out. In general, it just feels like a documentary in the beginning before it freaks out. So it kind of worked out for us.
Q: There was a report put out saying that this movie was going to hurt the dance world and shows it in an ugly light. Can you comment on that?
Aronofsky: I saw that report and I thought that it was really unfortunate because we’ve had very, very different reactions from dancers elsewhere. I think so many dancers are incredibly relieved that there’s finally a ballet movie that takes ballet as a serious art and not as a place to have a love affair. If you actually look at ballet, the ballets themselves are incredibly dark and gothic. ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and of course ‘Swan Lake’ and this movie could’ve been called ‘Swan Lake’. We took the fairy tale of ‘Swan Lake’ and the ballet of ‘Swan Lake’ and basically turned all the characters, Rothbart, The Prince, The Queen and translated them into characters in our movie reality. So it’s really just a retelling of ‘Swan Lake’, but yes, it definitely shows the challenges and the darkness and the reality of how hard it is to be a ballet dancer. I think it also represents the beauty of the art and the transcendence that’s possible within the art all within retelling ‘Swan Lake’. So there are going to be people who are always going to have issues with things, but the margin by far, the dancers that we have met and talked to are like, ‘Finally, we have a real movie about ballet.’ So that’s the response.
Q: Natalie, there’s already Oscar buzz around your role in this movie. How do you feel about that? And how did it feel for the first time to be in those shoes?
Portman: The best thing that you can hope for when you make a movie and you put your soul into it like all of us did is that people respond to it well, and the fact that audiences have come away moved and excited and entertained and stimulated by this film is extraordinarily flattering. So it’s a great, great honor. As for heels, I like wearing flat shoes. The thing that I was happy to stop wearing was point shoes. Point shoes are torture devices. I mean, ballerinas get used to it and so it was definitely a case of it being a new experience for me, but they feel very medieval.
Q: Was there ever a Chekhovian influence on your character in this film, on Nina?
Portman: I did think about it a lot actually and probably because of the name, although I feel like this has a very different ending than ‘The Seagull’, obviously. But there’s this young girl who needs to name herself instead of be named by a man because obviously in ‘The Seagull’ when he tells her that she is a seagull and then she has to name herself later. She has to give herself her own name. There is a lot of that in this, too, where she’s being told who she is, our Nina in this film, and she has to announce who she is rather than have that projected upon her.
Q: Darren, do you enjoy bouncing between genres as a director?
Aronofsky: I’m not really much of a genre guy. This was my best attempt at a genre film and I just don’t know really or I just haven’t been able to do that. I think that audiences don’t need that anymore where you just need a very specific genre. Audiences are very sophisticated, and as long as it’s fun, it’s okay and entertaining. That’s kind of what I was trying to make and I think it’s also very different which I think people who are bombarded by so much different types of media are hungry for, just a very, very different experience. So that’s what we were going for, something that keeps you excited and keeps you going and is hopefully memorable so that you talk about it with other people and hopefully they’ll go to the movies.
Q: Can you talk about being a green set?
Aronofsky: I think that Natalie helped us with that –
Portman: No, no, no. Darren is a huge environmentalist and talks about it all the time and made sure that there were no water bottles anywhere on set which is a huge deal. We should not have water bottles anywhere and we were drinking tons of water, obviously, because we’re dancing and expending so much energy and everyone was given containers and there were things to fill it up on the set.
Aronofsky: Our start gift was a Clean Canteen to give a plug because they gave them to us with our logo on it. Every crew member and cast member got one. So that was just a start. There were no water bottles on set.
Portman: Then it has to do with everyone gets lunch everyday and instead of having Styrofoam which most movies have for your containers you can have eco-containers. I mean, all of that, once you’re conscious about all of that because that’s a daily thing where hundreds of people are just wasting stuff that’s poisonous. That was all from Darren but he doesn’t remember.
Aronofsky: Yeah. Film sets are incredibly wasteful and it’s a very hard thing. So you just try to do your best.
Q: Natalie, I read that you just sold your script with your college friend, that it’s a raunchy comedy?
Portman: I can’t discuss it. I’m sorry.
“Black Swan” opens in theaters on December 1st.