Darren Aronofsky at Apple SOHO

Posted in Events, Video by Nathan Lee Bush on November 22, 2010

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The SOHO Apple Store presents consistently great guest lecturers, so it came as no surprise that Darren Aronofsky, one of the most important filmmakers working today, was scheduled to speak about his new film, The Black Swan. It was standing room only at the Apple theater when I arrived Thursday night, with Rolling Stone film critic, Peter Travers, moderating.

The Black Swan

Aronofsky became interested in the dance world early on. His sister was intensely training from a young age, so he had a peripheral awareness of this strange and competitive diaspora. He decided he wanted to someday make a film about the world of pro wrestling and a film about the dance world.

It surprised me to learn that Aronofsky had to struggle to get funding for this film. One would think that such a respected and successful director would have no problem finding financing, but he explained that whenever you’re trying to do something different, you’ll encounter resistance.

He talked about the challenges of this particular project. One unique challenge was making a full-fledged, professional-quality production of Swan Lake within the film, and getting Natalie Portman to the point where she could pass as a professional dancer. Portman, who had trained as a dancer from age four to 13, apparently trained five hours a day for a year, and then eight hours a day as filming approached.

The entire film is handheld, with a shoulder rig, giving it a sense of immediacy and directness. The dance scenes in the film are unlike any ever filmed. In one clip, the camera magically stares directly into Portman’s face as she leaps around the stage. Her nuanced expressions of panic as she throws herself into each position, as well as the jittery handheld camerawork hint at her character’s unstable emotional state. Aronofsky thus brings the potential intimacy allowed in the cinematic medium to the formerly distanced perspective afforded by the theater. It looks like Aronofsky might do for dance what Scorsese did for boxing.

He cited the Dardenne Brothers, some of my favorite filmmakers, as one of his major influences at the moment. You can definitely see it in the departure from the MTV-cuts and stylized imagery of Pi and Requiem for a Dream to a cinéma vérité look in The Wrestler and The Black Swan.

The Son by The Dardenne Brothers

Aronofsky is not above “digital tricks” and “cheap scares” (his words) to heighten the emotional response of the audience. “People like them,” he said with a shrug. This pragmatism is refreshing from a serious director, but it also shows his that however close he comes to The Dardenne’s art-house sensibilities, he understands that in America, box office viability comes first and that show me the money, is the unofficial motto in Hollywood. Yet he resists obvious clichés at all costs, preferring to play with conventions. He explained how he created CGI special-effects shots with mirrors to explore themes of being replaced and doppelgängers, while consciously resisting classic uses of mirrors as a horror movie trope.

Especially valuable to filmmakers, Aronofsky hinted a bit of his mental toughness in seeing the project through. He described how getting the assemblage, the point where the footage is roughly thrown together before the editing begins, is the most depressing moment in the filmmaking process. Nothing is how it’s supposed to look, and you just have to stick with it to shape it into something.

I asked Aronofsky how actor improvisation figures into his work, since his move to a naturalistic style would imply a more spontaneous delivery. He said that he lets actors improvise on a case-by-case basis, “let them do it if they are good at it,” but also said that at some level, actors are always improvising within the scripted lines.

He also talked about how he dealt with past work. Finishing a film, he said, is like a child growing up and leaving the house. At some level you have to let it go. It represents another you, and that person’s preoccupations at that time. It reminded me of something Werner Herzog said:

Your film is like your children. You might want a child with certain qualities, but you are never going to get the exact specification right. The film has a privelege to live its own life and develop its own character. To suppress this is dangerous. It is an approach that works the other way too: sometimes the footage has amazing qualities that you did not expect.

I continue to be impressed at how Aronofsky pushes himself as a filmmaker, evolving his style with each production, and simultaneously abandoning anything that would pigeonhole him as the x, y or z director.  From  what I’ve seen, The Black Swan appears to be some of Aronofsky’s strongest and most mature work to date.

The Black Swan arrives in theaters December 3.


Nathan Lee Bush is a photo and video artist in New York City. His pictures are on his site and blog, and his videos are on Vimeo.


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