Darren Aronofsky Interview, Director The Fountain

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, "The Fountain," starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz is a sweeping and intimate story about love and coping with mortality that takes place in three vastly different time periods. Aronofsky got the idea for his screenplay when he realized that, although many cultures have stories about the quest for eternal life, relatively few films have been made about the search for the Fountain of Youth.

"The desire to live forever is deep in our culture. Every day people are looking for ways to extend life or feel younger," suggests Aronofsky. "Just look at the popularity of shows like ‘Extreme Makeover’ or ‘Nip/Tuck.’ People are praying to be young and often denying that death is a part of life. Hospitals spend huge sums of money trying to keep people alive. But we’ve become so preoccupied with sustaining the physical that we often forget to nurture the spirit. So that’s one of the central themes I wanted to deal with in the film: Does death make us human, and if we could live forever, would we lose our humanity."

Aronofsky made his feature film directorial debut with the acclaimed independent feature "Pi," which he also co-wrote. The film was honored with the Director’s Award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival and an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay. His second film, the critically acclaimed "Requiem for a Dream," premiered at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival and captivated both critics and audiences. Starring Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans, "Requiem for a Dream" went on to earn five Independent Spirit Award nominations, including ones for Best Feature and Best Director. The film appeared on more than 150 Top-Ten Lists for 2000, including those of The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and the American Film Institute. For her work in the film, Burstyn won the Spirit Award for Best Actress and earned Oscar, Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations.

At the Los Angeles press day to promote "The Fountain," Darren sat down with Movies Online to discuss the challenges of writing and directing a tale that explores love, death, spirituality, and the fragility of our existence in this world while unfolding in three distinct eras. He was enthusiastic about his new film and we appreciated his time. Here’s what he had to tell us:

Q: Ever since the screening last night I’ve been involved in conversation after conversation about this movie.

DA: Great!

Q: Is that the ultimate compliment?

DA: Absolutely. I mean one of my greatest memories was after being in a coffee shop next to the Nuart which is a movie theater here in L.A. just randomly and Pi was playing around the corner and I just happened to be there and a father came in with his 16-year-old daughter and a few of her friends and they sat there and they were all debating what the ending was. And I just sat there listening and it was great to hear a whole conversation, you know. So I think that’s the… It’s so often that you’re home the day after you saw a movie and you can’t remember what the hell you saw the night before. But then sometimes you see movies that just stay with you and create a conversation and I think that’s always been a goal to try and do something like that. So I’m glad to hear that that’s what went down.

Q: Before the movie you spoke…

DA: Yeah, I said hello.

Q: ...and said ‘Don’t think too much.’ Was that not being fair? I mean I think this is a movie you have to think a lot about.

DA: No, no. I mean ultimately I don’t think so. I think it’s a really simple love story at the core. It’s really about a man and a woman in love. One of them is going away and the other one’s not coming to terms with it. Eventually he does come to terms with it. There’s sort of a big anti-thinking, anti-intellectual message in the film even though it’s kind of told in a very different way that you think it makes you think. It’s really very simple the film and that’s why I kind of messed with the structure, taking a very simple idea but then encasing it in a puzzle structure that makes people think about how it all fits together and talk about how it fits together. But at the core it’s a very simple emotional story I think.

Q: For the most past of the last decade this has been part of your life pretty heavily. So now that it’s about to debut, how has that changed you? Darren Aronofsky ten years ago and Darren Aronofsky today?

DA: Well ten years ago Pi didn’t even exist so it’s less than that. It’s only five, six years or so. Darren Aronofsky ten years ago, I was trying to get into Sundance. So that was a very different world. I imagine I’ve changed a lot. My personal life has changed a lot but professionally I think I’m the same person and just being passionate about a project, believing in it, and then not letting go and just keep pushing it no matter how many people say no. We did that with Pi, we did that with Requiem, two films no one wanted to make. Honestly, no one wanted to make.
 
And the same thing happened with The Fountain. My producer always says when everyone is saying no, you know you’re doing something right. And that’s kind of been my mantra for a long time because I think we’ve always tried to do new stuff with cinema. That’s been me and my fellow filmmakers. We’ve been a team now and we just keep trying to do something a little bit wild, a little bit different, and really just trying to push the edge of what’s acceptable.

Q: How much have you changed this final cut from what you screened earlier or have you changed it at all?

DA: There’s a tiny… I’m an endless tinkler. In fact a good friend of mine, another filmmaker, a friend of mine, said ‘You never finish a film. You abandon a film.’ And I think that’s very true. I think it’s always going through your head. I mean that’s one of the reasons why I don’t watch Pi or Requiem again because I’ll just see all the things I’d love to fix and change. And with The Fountain there was this one thing that was sort of bothering me that we knew wasn’t right. It’s a very small thing. I don’t think… there were how many people who saw this version and saw a version in San Diego, even you, who didn’t even notice it.

Q: I did notice it.

DA: Yeah. So it’s a very slight thing but I think for people who are coming to it fresh, it’s a little bit better. It’s actually exactly how the script was but what happens often in editing is you get away from the script and then you never get a chance to go back. So I just tinkle. It’s the scene right after the funeral…it’s at the funeral. There’s one line that Hugh really wanted which in that version he kind of walks off into the snow and in this version there was a line there that we cut out which is he says, ‘Death is a disease and there is a cure and I’ll find it.’ I always love that line, I love that performance, but I couldn’t cut it in because I couldn’t make it work with everyone’s performance and there were a few complications and then three or four months ago in the middle of the night I kind of was like, ‘Oh! That’s how it should go.’
 
And I called up Jay (editor Jay Rabinowitz) and I told Jay and we sketched it out on his laptop. Jay’s my editor. And we went, ‘Oh, this works better’ and Warner Bros. agreed and they let me change it. It’s a slight thing. It’s something that people won’t know but if I had another 8 months to release the film, I’m sure I would be like, ‘Well, you know, I’m not really happy with the volume of that.’ You know, there’s always things you’re catching. So you’re just trying to really perfect everything.

Q: As you say, at its core this is essentially a love story. Was it always your intention from the very first second that you got the idea to involve all these other elements – the science fiction, the historical elements – or was that something that came from the theme?

DA: The love story came afterwards actually. The first thing was trying to do something new in sci fi, to return science fiction from the outer space journey to the inner space journey. Because, you know, sci fi – I was talking to you about this – has just sort of been hijacked by techno-lust and hardware button science fiction. In fact, people on the road have been like, ‘This isn’t science fiction because there are no ray guns and there’s no…where’s the lasers?’ And it’s hard for people who aren’t fans of the genre outside of movies to understand that science fiction has a long tradition of being internal journeys as well as external journeys and so it was always about trying to do something new in sci fi is what started it.
 
And then as we start to develop these themes about everlasting life, it became pretty clear that one of the main things that we as people can do while we’re here on the planet is love and it’s one of our big things is the loss of love. You know, it’s one of the great things that makes us alive. So that became a big theme and we realized that that was going to be the heart of the film.

Q: Is the movie any kind of examination of the nature of fantasy because I think you look at the Conquistador thing. They’re trying to find the fountain of youth which, within the context of the movie, maybe exists but that we all know in real life didn’t. I know they were into that back then. Today we think that rational scientific research will solve everything but yet we know that it doesn’t solve everything. And you know, the future is just fantasy there. Are you trying to have us question or examine our fantasy impulse?

DA: Yeah, I’ve always been into taking a story and going a step forward into heightened reality. You know I’m a big fan of Cassevetes but I’ve always kind of moved toward Terry Gilliam camp. That’s sort of the type of movies I’ve just liked a lot. I’ve always been attracted to move towards. So basically I like to ground things in reality and then just take it a step forward so there is a little bit of fantasy. But I mean The Fountain for me is a fairytale for adults, but a fairytale, always been a fairytale. In fact when I went to Spain, I was just in Barcelona at the Citrus Film Festival which is a great film festival if you can get sent there, or get there, go there. It’s a great time. But I was really concerned because the Spanish stuff is very loosely based in history. It was purposely so because it’s a fairytale.
 
There’s this magical Mayan tree. But I was concerned what they were thinking. None of the Spanish press was asking me about it, you know, which Isabel is this or any of that. So I started asking them, ‘What do you think of the whole Spanish thing.’ And they’d say, ‘Oh, it’s a fairytale.’ They got it instantly what I was doing and it’s like, ‘Oh, whew!’ (sigh of relief) So interviewer after interviewer kept saying that. It’s clearly fiction and everything is slightly heightened. I mean what’s happening in the lab is whatever, ten, fifteen, although stuff is happening, you know, which is amazing. I mean if you think about it, life expectancy I think in 1900 was something like 47 so we are living twice as long so for now if we look forward to a life expectancy for rich people of something in the 80s or something. In a hundred years, who knows, it might be 160 or 170. What would it mean to live to 160 or 170? It’s an intense concept and it’s a reality that’s happening. And it’s going to change the way we think about how we live and what a life is.

Q: Darren, recently you mentioned that your next project is going to be biblical? Is that biblical in the sense of something literally taken out of the bible, like Noah, the Apocalypse, or something?

DA: No comment. (laughs) We are working on something that’s biblical in nature. Luckily that can mean a lot of different things, but I’m actually working on two things. I’m working on a super big thing which is what you’re talking about and then I’m working on a really tiny thing. My goal is to start shooting in 07. So whichever one gets me to the starting line first is the one I’m going to shoot because in the last five years I’ve worked with actors for 60 days and that’s kind of my favorite part of the process so I just want to get back on set and working with actors again.
 
So whichever will happen. But then I’m not really talking more about that because it’s an embryonic phase and it’s brand new – well it’s actually not brand new – I’ve been working on it for a long time but once you start talking about it, it kind of dissipates.

Q: Is the little project fantasy or science fiction?

DA: The little project isn’t. The little project is more like a Cassavetes film. It’s very, very real and small.

Q: But in terms of what happened on this project where it was a six year process and you thought you were going to make it with Brad and a bigger budget, have you learned anything going forward on these next projects in terms of ‘Okay, we need to make sure we do this instead of this’?

DA: Well I definitely would want to make sure I have… I think being the initiator and the main force behind the reason something gets made is a hard place to be but I’ve always been that way, you know. No one wanted to make a black and white movie about Gong math. Then after Pi and the success of Pi everyone was ‘whatever you want to do.’ And then I sent them the copy of Requiem and no one even called us about it literally. (laughter) So with Requiem again we had to go out and raise the money independently. And basically The Fountain was a really hard film to put together as well so it’s not a pleasant placed to be from.
 
I think that unless I had the support to do the bigger film, I probably couldn’t get it made just because it’s the type of money that you just really need a studio and so it might end up as a graphic novel and that will be that. But we’ll see. Hopefully we’ll be able to make it. I just want to… For me it’s about getting back to work because it’s been a long trip and doing something that just lets me direct again because to have 60 days of directing and five years has been hard. It’s been hard so I want to work.

Q: So you made a movie that’s all about love and you’re making it and you’ve fallen in love. How did that happen?

DA: Well I fell in love before I made the movie.

Q: Oh really?

DA: The script existed before I met Rachel and it was cast before I met Rachel and the film fell apart and then after Hugh was cast we started to talk about who would… we started making a list for the women and Hugh was like, ‘What about Rachel?’ I was a little bit not sure of that because I had never crossed the line of working with that professional personal life but Hugh asked to have a meal and then when they met it was like one of those moments as a director, you know, you hope to see in the casting room, even though this wasn’t the casting room, where there’s just a link. And it was just clear that they were communicating, that they were connected. They were simpatico. And that’s what happened.

Q: How did you meet Rachel?

DA: I saw her do a play. She was doing The Shape of Things in England and I was there working on a project over there and I went to see the play and I was a big fan of Neil LaBute’s so I went to see the play and I went back stage afterwards. You know. Hijinks ensued. (laughter)

Q: Could you talk a little bit about Hugh and what it was that he brought to the film?

DA: Well Hugh when I met him, I saw him in The Boy From Oz which you know is very, very different than The Fountain. I said, ‘Well we can make the Conquistador having been married to Liza Minelli’ but it doesn’t quite work. But he was so incredible, I mean there was so much clear talent, so much talent, and no one had used it and I love hungry actors. I mean you look at Ellen Burstyn and Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans. They were actors that were waiting for an opportunity to show what they can do and that’s for me I think the best secret as a director to get actors who want to be there. And both Hugh and Rachel were like that.
 
And you know that goes so far because all that time you have to worry about negotiating people’s feelings was out the window. It was like Hugh was ready to jump in. And then we had a nice long pre-production to really learn about each other and get to know each other. He was confident that he could trust me which is the other biggest thing you have to do. Of course, Rachel trusted me pretty much and so that all worked out well.

Q: The film has an incredibly organic feel from start to finish. I’m just wondering how you went about creating the tone for that.

DA: Well everything is organic in the film. We moved away from – some of you might have heard about this – we moved away from CGI. 98% of the film is CGI-free. Kind of like Crest. I don’t know what that means but anyway. (laughter) It’s something about 99% or is that Ivory soap? That was because when we started this, one of our lofty goals was to try and reinvent sci fi because we felt for the last fifty, sixty years sci fi has gone down this path of…well for the last fifty, sixty years we’ve all seen trucks in space, you know, basically cars better and bigger in space. There was mock (??) by Spaceballs if you remember that long shot of the ship that didn’t end. We kind of wanted to throw that out completely and be like, ‘Okay, rethink the space ship.’ And I think we went so far that some people who aren’t versed in sci fi don’t even get that it’s a space ship. They just see a bubble and they don’t really quite get what’s going on but it was about moving out of space towards inner space. And then the other thing was to try and create…
 
The last 15, 20 years it seems like everything has been moving towards CGI. Basically things look a little bit better than the opening titles of Star Trek but not much better and we wanted to do something completely different and give it whole different feel, a whole different look and that’s when we turned to… You know, I just basically sent my VFX guys and said, ‘There’s got to be someone out there in the world who’s shooting explosions or shooting something in high speed.’ I just had this fantasy that someone was experimenting. Coming from an animation background, I just knew you could do things with cameras and eventually we found this guy, Peter Parks, who lives outside of Oxford in the U.K. for the last 25 years.
 
His work used to be in films but for the last 25 years his work has sort of gone out of style and out of favor. People used to do cloud tanks, you know, all the poltergeist clouds and that was an amazing effect. Now they all do it in CG but I think it actually looks better when it’s true organic systems with real particles interacting. So everything you’ve seen in the movie was actually shot – all that footage – the nebula, the dying star – was actually shot through a microscope and it’s all chemicals, chemical reactions, chemicals interacting, or actually some of it is actual microorganisms. A lot of what you were looking at was yeast growing in time lapse. And he’s been photographing stuff and no one’s used it. The raw material wasn’t great but we took it and then we scanned it and then digitally we did collage work on it. But basically it was all real footage. So that’s what gives you this total organic feel to it, I think.

Q: You mentioned you want people to talk about this movie and all that. You know, there’s been some early showings of it that have had what we call in the trade mixed reactions. You were expecting this I presume for a movie this challenging?

DA: I don’t know. I had to say I was surprised at what I first heard out of Venice, what happened, but then when the true story emerged after I had been in Europe and I had talked to a bunch of journalists who were in the room, what Variety reported was kind of true and what the AP picked up was kind of true but it didn’t tell the whole story which was there were people hissing and there were people applauding and they were basically even. And then afterwards…(to journalists in room) Was anyone there in the room?

Q: No.

DA: Because every once and awhile a witness of it was there and this is what I’ve heard. And eventually they cleared the room and they had to separate two journalists who actually got into a pushing match. And I was excited. I don’t want to cause violence but I’ve always been into… I mean I’ve always made films that are very divisive. Requiem for a Dream I mean I’ve already met journalists who sat across from me and have said how much…they were basically assuming that… the assumption was that they liked Requiem when I knew that what they first originally wrote was extremely negative.

Q: I had to see that movie all by myself in the screening room in Culver City with the giant Egyptian statues?

DA: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Q: It was quite an experience.

DA: It’s a very intense film.

Q: It was a unique experience. You never heard me scream so much.

DA: So that’s where we had the problem was there but I think The Fountain is a strange film because there’s a big love story in it but it comes out of some serious, hard core science fiction fans (?) and I think that people who aren’t that versed in science fiction may not get what’s happening for the first 20 minutes and some of you might have had that experience. For the first 20 minutes of the film you’re afloat. You don’t know really what’s really going on. And it comes out of a lot of sci fi novels that we read in the sense that you read a sci fi novel and for the first 100 pages you don’t know really what’s going on. And then suddenly some clues start to click and you understand what this language is and the whole world comes into focus. And suddenly you’re immersed in Neal Stephenson’s head and it all makes sense.
 
I wanted to give that experience to a film audience in the sense that all that information at the beginning – the battle scene and the floating bubble – all makes sense but you don’t really know what it means until ‘Oh, here’s the actual heart of the film. There’s a love story between this man and a woman and this is what these other time periods may mean.’ And the hope is by the end your brain is firing while emotionally you’re feeling something. Your brain is firing putting it all together. And it’s also very much a puzzle because I think when I first started making films with a film like Pi, Pi was one of the earliest DVD’s. You know people watched the film once back then, but it’s a very different world right now with people collecting DVD’s and now people downloading movies on their computer and downloading films on their iPods. We’re all going to see a lot of that now. People are watching films and looking for deeper and deeper experience.
 
I promise that the more you look at The Fountain, there’s five years of lots of people’s labor in that, there’s so many connections between the different things, that I think that’s one of the benefits of the film that you can get something out of it the first time but the second time you’ll get more and the third time you’ll get even more. For certain people, they’ll be like, ‘Whatever.’ They’ll dismiss it. After that first 20 minutes, they’ll cross their arms. But you know the end of this movie takes people to see something that you just haven’t seen before on a big screen and if you can’t enjoy it, you know, you can be a party pooper and just sort of cut it off as being nothing but the fact that people are getting exactly what we meant to do in its complete specificness and its abstractness, but they’re getting it, shows for me that it is gettable. It’s just a different experience for people.

Q: We know you were involved with Batman: Year One. Are we ever going to see you cross over and do a comic book character in a movie?

DA: Well that was a lot of hype Batman: Year One. I know it got to this big thing. I just … It was a writing assignment for me and Frank Miller. So I was never really… I was doing that while working on The Fountain because my interest was always to do The Fountain and coming off of Requiem for a Dream which was a $4 million drug movie, when the studio offered me their franchise, I was like, ‘Oh, well maybe if I write this and I do a good job, then maybe they could perceive me as someone who could do something like The Fountain. But it was always about doing The Fountain. But as far as a superhero story, I’m not … You know, I don’t know. I’d be open to it but I’m not sure what’s left to look at.

Q: Wolverine?

DA: (laughs) Oh I’d love to work with Hugh next time, but I don’t know. (laughter)

Q: Thank you.

The Fountain opens in theaters on November 22nd.

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