Interview with Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky
When did you first embark on Black Swan? Where did the idea come from?
My sister was a dancer growing up and she was very into ballet. It wasn’t really anything that I understood. But as I got older, I was thinking about worlds to set films in and I thought ballet could be an interesting world to explore. In addition, I was very interested in Dostoevsky’s ‘The Double’, which is a story about a guy who wakes up and his double is there, and the double starts to replace his life. Then I went to see a production of Swan Lake, which I thought was just a bunch of girls in tutus. I didn’t know what it was. But when I saw that there was a Black Swan and a White Swan, played by one dancer, and it was kind of a Eureka moment, it was like ‘oh wow, a double…’ So then it started to come together…
How long ago?
I met with Natalie eight or nine years ago. We met in Times Square and had a coffee and I had this idea for something set in the ballet world. It was slowly evolving over the years and it finally came together after The Wrestler. I was working on it with Mark (Heyman, screenwriter) and it was a very hard script to finish because understanding the ballet world was really complicated.
Was your sister hoping to become a professional dancer?
Well Patti got pretty far and she went to a professional ballet school, all the way through high school. And then once she got out of high school, she stopped. She realised that it wasn’t for her and now she does other stuff.
Did you have complete artistic freedom doing this film?
Fox Searchlight is very collaborative. They’ll argue with you but they basically trust their directors in general, or at least with me they did and they were very generous. The artistic freedom was controlled by the limitation of money and time.
Natalie has said that it was a very physically and emotionally demanding role. And you were the guy who had to push her. Were there any times when you worried about her on set?
You don’t really need to push Natalie that much because she’s incredibly hard working, disciplined and present. She is willing to go for it and rarely complains. She’s tough. She’s a tiny little girl but she’s built of some strong material and she really went for it, over and over and over again. She was very prepared so I didn’t really need to push her that much emotionally and she did the physical training as well. She was incredible because it was a very hard role for her.
How much of the dancing did she do herself?
She did most of it. She was up on pointe a lot. The closing shot of the opening sequence when she goes off into the light is her. A lot of these dancers have been training since they were four years old so their bodies have changed, the turnout and the muscles and the bones have actually changed, so there were wide shots where it was clear she wasn’t the dancer, but so much of the dancing is her. When she’s on top of the ramp and the camera pulls down and the blood comes out and she’s on pointe that’s her. She really was pretty impressive.
When The Wrestler was released you said that you didn’t know an awful lot about professional wrestling when you embarked on the film and you said it was the same with ballet for Black Swan. You obviously like exploring the unknown…
I think curiosity keeps you young. I think learning about new stuff is kind of what gets you going and it’s interesting, otherwise it gets boring.
There are clearly parallels between The Wrestler and Black Swan – both are about performers who have to push themselves to the limits, physically and emotionally. Do you see them as complimentary pieces?
Yes, I do see them as companion pieces. I look forward to the day when a theatre plays them as a double feature. There are so many similarities between Mickey’s character and the Nina character in Black Swan – they are both artists that use their bodies to express themselves and they do a tremendous amount of damage to themselves in the process, except one is the highest art, and one is the lowest art, if you can call it an art. Most people wouldn’t call wrestling an art but I like that comparison. The stories are very different but there is a comparison.
Vincent Cassell said that he sees you as more of an auteur, a European style director. But there are other young American directors, like Sofia Coppola and James Gray, for instance, who have that kind of sensibility. Do you feel part of a new wave of American directors?
I don’t think we are so new anymore; we’re all getting old (laughs). But it’s nice to be surrounded by the names you mentioned. I know a few of them although I’ve never met Sofia but I’m a huge fan of her work. I know James a little bit, but we’re all pretty separate. I think there’s a club of some of them, but I’m not part of that. I’m often in New York, just doing my own thing.
I’m interested in how you approached the sexual content of the movie, because it’s quite extreme for an American movie. Were you ever told to tone it down?
No one has told me to tone it down, (laughs). I’m glad about that, and I guess it is a little bit adventurous for American film, but there’s so much sexuality in our culture and on the internet. I’d say that it’s pretty tame compared to what is out there.
How did you approach the music for the film? There’s obviously Tchaikovsky and then you seem to have layered more on top…
Well, it’s not purely Tchaikovsky. It’s Tchaikovsky via Clint Mansell, my composer. When I started this film I turned to Clint and said ‘I’m doing this movie for you..’ And he took Tchaikovsky and he pulled it apart. Because if you just put Tchaikovsky over the move it would be way too up and down and too fast. Classical music is not movie music. So Clint took certain themes and ideas and turned it into scary music, so it flows out of Tchaikovsky into Clint, influenced by Tchaikovsky and back into Tchaikovsky. Even the dance club music – the samples and manipulations by The Chemical Brothers and all these bands – are using pieces of Tchaikovsky to make that music. So Tchaikovsky is there throughout the entire film but it’s not purely his music. It’s exciting and it’s fun.
You use mirrors a lot in the film. Is that something you picked up from the world of ballet?
There are mirrors everywhere in the ballet world because ballet dancers are constantly looking at themselves, and studying themselves, and maybe even judging themselves – all the time. So it was clear to me that the mirror was a major character in this film. The film is also about doubles and your reflection in a mirror is a double, so mirrors became a really important part of the film. From very early on we started to think about all the very different types of cool tricks we could do with mirrors. We tried to have as much fun as we could with them.
What about the feathers growing out of Natalie’s skin? It’s a very striking image. When did you come up with that idea?
The story of Swan Lake is during the day she’s a swan and at night she’s a half swan and half human creature, so it’s a werewolf tale. So I was excited to make a were-swan movie (laughs). Then I had the idea of taking Natalie Portman and turning her into some type of creature, which was even more delicious fun. So, that just became a major part of the film.
Did you think about any Roman Polanski films when you were making this movie?
Yes, of course. Repulsion was a big influence, and The Fly.
Did the ballet world welcome you? What was their reaction?
They are very insular. Usually it’s like ‘oh you want to make a movie? Sure!’ But they’re not like that. They were very indifferent and very unfriendly. It was really difficult to get into that world.
Why is that do you think?
They don’t give a shit about anything but ballet. They really don’t care about movies. It not their art and it doesn’t seem like they are interested in it. It’s some type of popular culture thing I guess, I don’t know. They are really focused on their ballet, they live, breathe, die by ballet. Well, maybe not die, because they all retire at a young age, but even then, they end up being involved teaching and all that stuff.
So how did you convince them?
There were people that were kind of interested – some dancers, some disgruntled dancers and some major stars. We eventually started working with Benjamin Millepied and Benjamin is deeply respected in that world. He’s a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, he’s one of the youngest, hottest choreographers and he has a lot of interest in film. He opened up so many different doors for us and got us into a lot of places.
Natalie studied psychology at university. If she were analysing you what would she find in your head?
I’ve got no idea, probably a lot of gibberish and stuff (laughs). When I watch the film I think, ‘wow, there is a lot of whacked out stuff going on’ (laughs).
But it is a film that has a lot of symbolism – the use of mirrors, the drawings and paintings in Nina’s mother’s room. Are you leaving clues for your audience?
I remember working on the first film I ever did, Pi, and I thought I understood it. Then, after doing press for a few months for it, I thought ‘wow, I never really understood the movie until I talked to all of you people!’ (laughs) And I think that’s true. I think the meaning changes as I speak about it and answer questions about it and I see what you are all interested in. Every day when I was on set and I was working with Natalie on a take it would be one thing but what it is and what it represents is constantly evolving.
So that wasn’t just a semi-flippant remark when you said ‘wow, there’s a lot of fucked up shit going on?’ Are you quite surprised by where a film ends up?
I think it’s always a surprise. There’s something about the material that’s interesting and attractive. It’s got to have something that connects with you because it takes years to make these things so it’s got to be something that you can come back to. With Black Swan I was very excited about the werewolf element, the transformation, the metamorphosis and I liked the idea of shooting dance, and the movement of dance, like the nightclub scene, between Lily and Nina. There were things that were just always exciting about it.
The movie has a lot of special effects. Did you enjoy that aspect of the film?
There’s over 250, 300 shots of digital effects. It was hard because we had to rush to get them done for Venice and it was a lot of work, but it was fun. I come from an animation background, which is very similar to CGI, and digital effects and I enjoy what digital effects allow you to do. We get much less time on set as the great film makers did 20 or 30 years ago because it’s so expensive to shoot a movie. But the one advantage we have over them is that if we make mistakes, we can fix them digitally. If there’s a light in the shot or a C-stand, it’s not very hard to paint it out, while back then, if they had a light or a C-stand, it wasn’t usable, because it was right there in the shot. So you can correct a lot of mistakes.
Has making the film given you a passion for ballet?
Yes. I would go to a good performance – if the Bolshoi comes to New York, or if I am in Russia, I’ll definitely go see it.
Has your sister seen the movie?
Yes. I think she liked it but she hasn’t seen it finished yet. She’ll see the final version soon.
How did you map out the look of the film? Because the use of colour is very striking and changes during the film…
Everything is thought out. One of the first things you do is think about how to control your colour palette and black and white was obviously always going to be a major part of the film because of darkness and light and then pink became a very obvious colour because it’s the colour of ballet. Then we had the colour of the lake, all these greenish blues, so they all had different meanings for different characters and we tried to track it through the whole film.
Did winning the Golden Lion in Venice with The Wrestler change a lot in your career?
I don’t think so. I’m still making films out of America so most people don’t unfortunately know that much about European prizes and I don’t think it matters to them too much. I didn’t get a call from the President or anything. I think it might have been Bush at the time so I’m kind of glad, but I would have liked a call from Obama (laughs).
You’ve had good times and bad times at Venice, so were you nervous about taking Black Swan there?
If you’re talking about The Fountain, I had a great time and the audiences were great. Critically, I had some schmucky reviews that are being proved wrong as time goes by – it’s like a good bottle of wine that was opened too early. And two years ago (with The Wrestler) was just insane. We were completely under the radar, we were one of the last films in the festival and we had no expectations and everyone was like ‘Mickey Rourke wrestling? Are you crazy?’ And then it happened and it was insane. And this time, for Black Swan, I wasn’t that nervous, even though it was opening night. But then they sat me next to the President of Italy who was eighty something years old, and his wife was right next to him and I’m thinking, ‘oh my god, this film has ecstasy, lesbians, rave, self mutilation..’ so I bent over and I said, ‘I’m really sorry for what’s about to happen. It’s really an upsetting movie, and I don’t know what to say..’ And he said, ‘don’t worry, I will try not to feel any emotion.’ And then at the end of the film I turned to him and he said, ‘I tried but I felt emotion.’ So it was a good victory for me (laughs).
Do you keep in touch with Mickey Rourke?
Yes, he called me on Friday to wish me luck (in Venice) and to complain that his movie is not going to Venice, and I said ‘you see, it was me!” (laughs) I still talk to him, we still joke and he sends me funny texts, so yes, we’re still friendly.
Black Swan is released 21st January in the UK