GUY RAZ, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Darren Aronofsky is a Brooklyn-born, Harvard-educated filmmaker whose small movies get big notice. His first movie was "Pi," in which film noir meets the geometric constant. He made "The Wrestler," and now from those smoke-filled gyms where Mickey Rourke made fans scream to Lincoln Center, where a fictional New York ballet company makes its fans applaud more politely.
Aronofsky's new film is "Black Swan," starring Natalie Portman as a ballerina cast as the swan queen in "Swan Lake." She is ambitious, repressed and ultimately an unreliable narrator of her own story.
(Soundbite of film "Black Swan")
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. NATALIE PORTMAN (Actor): (As Nina Sayers): I had the craziest dream last night about a girl who was turned into a swan, but her prince falls for the wrong girl, and she kills herself.
SIEGEL: Darren Aronofsky told me that he's been thinking about ballet since his sister danced in high school.
Mr. DARREN ARONOFSKY (Director, "Black Swan"): When I graduated film school, I had made a list of possible worlds to investigate for films, and ballet was one of them, as well as wrestling.
SIEGEL: You speak of ballet and wrestling. Both "Black Swan" and your previous film, "The Wrestler"...
Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah.
SIEGEL: ...involve self-inflicted physical pain, self-laceration, the binding of wounds, terrible filial relations. Are these preoccupations of yours?
Mr. ARONOFSKY: Well, I think both films are about performers and performance, and my favorite part of the collaboration is working with actors because they are the true artists on the set. I get to be really close to them, and it's really fascinating. And so it's kind of my diptych in ode to actors, these two films.
SIEGEL: I read a quotation attributed to you in The New York Times that you had Natalie Portman lined up to do the movie. Should have been a snap getting lots of money to make a big-budget film. It wasn't.
Mr. ARONOFSKY: No. Well, I thought, you know, when we did "The Wrestler," everyone was like: wrestling, Mickey Rourke, what are you doing? And then it turned out pretty well. So I thought there would be a little faith.
And I showed up with the "Black Swan" script, which is kind of, you know, sexy and scary, and I had Natalie Portman attached and international star Vincent Cassel and Mila Kunis and Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey. And I was, like, oh, this is not going to be hard at all.
It actually turned out to be much more difficult, and it's just the state of independent film in America, it's really rough. And if you don't try to do something that's really, clearly in the box, it's a really tough road.
SIEGEL: In the box. If it had been a superhero who entered the ballet company...
Mr. ARONOFSKY: Exactly, we would have been all set.
SIEGEL: Thirteen million dollars?
Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah, that's how much we got. It sounds like a lot, but it's really a tough - it's really tough. You know, I have no idea what the average these days in America is, but I'm sure it's well over $30, $40 million.
So you basically have very limited resources, and it's all about days. It's all about time. And if you don't have that much time, there's lots of compromises made.
SIEGEL: The actress Ellen Burstyn said in a previous movie of yours, your parents came and catered. They provided the food. I thought that was a very charming thing. Was this to save money? Is that the point?
Mr. ARONOFSKY: No, I think they just like being involved. On "Pi," I actually did need their help. You know, it was a $60,000 movie, and...
SIEGEL: This was your first film.
Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah, my first movie. And there was only eight people on the crew. So we really needed as many people as we could get. My mom did catering every day with her best friend, my aunt Jo(ph). And my dad, you know, filled in a few - when we needed another extra, he showed up in a suit and slicked back his hair and carried a suitcase.
SIEGEL: I want you to talk a bit about these very intense and often disturbing images of blood and scraping one's body. How important is it to you to make those scenes vivid and disturbing to people?
Mr. ARONOFSKY: Well, we really based the film "Black Swan" off of the fairy tale "Swan Lake," and I remember when I was first doing my research, I was hanging out with Julie Kent from the ABT, and she was going through all the different swan queen, you know, dances that she had to do and describing them.
And then I kind of realized, you know, I was like, well, what exactly is the swan queen? And she said, well, during the day, she's a swan, and at night, she becomes kind of a half-swan, half-human creature. And I immediately realized it was a werewolf, were-swan movie. And so that kind of physical transformation became a big idea for the film and something I kind of latched onto right away.
SIEGEL: One thing that struck me when I saw the film in a screening, and a colleague, as well, was the movie's attitude toward Nina Sayers, the Natalie Portman character. It doesn't feel altogether sympathetic. You feel almost cold toward her.
Mr. ARONOFSKY: Mm. You know, I mean, it seems like movies have really turned our heroes into really one-dimensional characters. And you sort of really have to, you know, love these characters in most films.
And I just, I mean, people aren't really that way. And so, you know, this dancer is filled with ambition and stress, and she's trapped, and she's a prisoner. And so I was able to go there partly because I know people love Natalie Portman. So I got the sympathy votes very early from her, but I was -so I was comfortable with her pushing away.
It was funny. With, you know, "The Wrestler," it was the opposite. It was like here's a character that was really kind of despicable in a lot of ways, even worse, but, you know - and the question was did Mickey, was he warm enough? Did he have a big enough heart to pull an audience in?
SIEGEL: So yes, in the case of Mickey Rourke, "The Wrestler," we feel for the guy a bit. I mean, there's a heart and a soul in there somewhere that we look for. You're telling me with Natalie Portman, it's different. You can coast on the fact that she's lovely...
Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yes, that's basically the point. (Laughing)
SIEGEL: It's a different equation in making a movie.
Mr. ARONOFSKY: It allows you as a filmmaker to try and do something a little different. And, you know, I thought, you know, it was OK for them to be like, OK, sort of rooting for her and sort of worried about her but, you know, a little distant, as well. I wasn't afraid of that.
SIEGEL: You mentioned your own place as an independent filmmaker and the difficulties of making independent film if it's not in the box.
Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah.
SIEGEL: If there's an undergraduate listening right now who's just seen "Rashomon" for the first time and is hearing you speak, is the takeaway, gee, I could be the next Darren Aronofsky, or is it get a job, this is a disaster, the independent film sector?
Mr. ARONOFSKY: You know, I'm on the fence with it. I used to, you know, be really encouraging, telling people, you know, just go make the most original thing you can, the thing that you think is best for your friends, which I still, you know, I teach, and I still talk about that.
I mean, when I talk to film students, I'm like, that's what you have to offer is your own stories. And that's kind of what I've done with all five of my movies.
I mean, every one, I've been the only person in the room who's ever wanted to make it, and it's always been a really hard road, and I think, you know, with the economic realities, and there's less money around, it's a really tough time. But then again, for $2,000, you can buy cameras now that give any camera that Hollywood's using a run for their money. And so you can make a small, interesting little film.
So I don't know, but it is buying a lottery ticket, and I guess it comes down to persistence. If you really, really want to do it, there's probably a future.
SIEGEL: So you have a big change coming up. You're going to be making the next "Wolverine" film.
Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah.
SIEGEL: A change of career or an alternation between big and little? What's the...
Mr. ARONOFSKY: I really don't know. I mean, you know, as I said, I've been the only, you know, person in the room who wants to make these movies for the last five films. It's kind of exciting to be in a room with everyone wanting to make the movie. And I'm curious...
SIEGEL: But one of them is going to say: That's not the movie I wanted to make.
Mr. ARONOFSKY: I hope not. You know, I'm just excited to - I've always been into, like, new challenges. You know, when I did the wrestling film, everyone was like what are you doing. And then the ballet film, it was the same way. And now, you know, I don't know exactly what's ahead of me, and I'm kind of excited by it.
SIEGEL: Darren Aronofsky, thank you very much.
Mr. ARONOFSKY: Thank you for having me.
SIEGEL: Darren Aronofsky's new film is "Black Swan."