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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Darren Aronofsky, directed the new film "The Wrestler." Its leading actors, Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei, are nominated for Oscars. Rourke won a Golden Globe for his performance. Rourke plays Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a wrestler who was a star in the '80s and is now living in a trailer park wrestling for small change with newcomers and has-beens in high school auditoriums and American Legion halls. He's physically and emotionally broken but refuses to give up wrestling because it's the only thing he does well, and it's the only place he's appreciated.

The person he's closest to is a stripper, played by Marisa Tomei, who's also getting too old for the job. The outcome of the wrestling matches may be fixed, but "The Ram" is still subjecting his failing body to enormous punishment in the ring. The way Aronofsky directs the scenes, you can see that the fights are pre-planned, but also how much real pain is being inflicted. Here's a scene just before one of the small-time matches. The promoter is backstage announcing the line-up to the wrestlers.

(Soundbite of movie "The Wrestler")

Mr. GREGG BELLO: (As Larry Cohen) All right, let's go G. Where are you? You're up first against TDS.

Unidentified Male: Thank you.

Mr. BELLO: (As Larry Cohen) Second, we got Havuck and Colby versus Billy the Kid and Lex Lethal.

Mr. MIKE MILLER: (As Lex Lethal): I got you tonight.

Mr. BELLO: (As Larry Cohen) Third, (unintelligible) versus (unintelligible). Fourth, Judas and Traitor versus Rob Bechos. Intermission. Fifth, Kevin Matthews versus Inferno. Sixth, we've got Suga and DJ High versus the Funky Samoans. Seventh, Paul Enormous and Andy Anderson versus Jim Pylers and Pappa Don.

And last, but not least, for the strap we've got Tommy Rotten versus Randy The Ram. All right, you guys got it?

Group of Wrestlers: Yep. Yes. Yeah.

Mr. BELLO: (As Larry Cohen) All right, let's do this.

GROSS: Darren Aronofksy, welcome to Fresh Air. Congratulations on the Oscar nominations for Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei.

MR. DARREN ARONOFSKY (Director, "The Wrestler"): Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: You know, I would have assumed that if someone made a movie about wrestling that it would be a kind of satirical, campy film since a lot of wrestling, particularly wrestling in the '80s, was so campy...

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah.

GROSS: But your film isn't campy at all. It's got a lot of heart, and it's got real emotional and physical pain. Let's start with the story behind the idea for the film. Why did you want to make this film? How did you get the idea for it?

MR. ARONOFSKY: I think it started with an observation a long time ago that no one's ever made a serious film about wrestling, and I think that is because most people perceive wrestling as a joke, and because it's fake, and they sort of write it off. In fact, most people, while I was working on this film, were saying, what exactly are you doing with Mickey Rourke? And they really didn't get it.

But the more I looked into it, the more interesting it got, because you meet these guys, and they're 300 pounds, and they're jumping off the top rope down ten feet into a pile of concrete. And, you know, you can't find me anyone who's not going to feel that the next day. So that whole line between what's real and what's fake started to become really interesting.

GROSS: Now, I also think it's really interesting that your movie, "The Wrestler," focuses on washed-up, broken-down wrestlers who are in chronic pain...

MR. ARONOFSKY: Yeah.

GROSS: These are - they are not people who are in their prime anymore. They play these, like, little matches in recreation centers and American Legion halls. Why did you focus it on broken-down wrestlers?

MR. ARONOFSKY: Well, it came out of the kind of economic approach (laughing) of the film. I knew it was going to be a low budget film for several reasons. But - and when we first started, to be honest, we were thinking a more traditional route of a, you know, the twenty-something, thirty-year-old movie star doing this, but it became pretty clear that working with the WWE at the beginning might not give the type of creative control I would need.

GROSS: Oh man, I bet they'd want a lot of money.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Everything is just so marketed and franchised that...

MR. ARONOFSKY: Yeah.

GROSS: They'd own a piece of everything. I don't...

MR. ARONOFSKY: Yeah. But Vince actually, Vince McMahon, saw the film, and he called both me and Mickey and was really, really touched by it. And it was pretty - this only happened a week ago. And we were very nervous wondering what he would think, but he really, really felt that the film was special. And having his support meant a lot to us so, especially to Mickey.

GROSS: And he kind of controls the wrestling world (laughing).

MR. ARONOFSKY: Pretty much. I mean, definitely everything that most people know about wrestling comes out of what Vince McMahon did. But there's this whole other world of wrestling for people who aren't working, you know, that mainstream but still want to wrestle. There's the independent circuit, and it's how wrestling used to be before it was all kind of combined into one sort of national league.

So after we realized that, I started to think of it, first, as a period piece, because before the WWE existed, there were all these territories out there, you know, in the '70s and '80s - early '80s. But, once again, budget-wise, I didn't think I could do that either.

So then, I started going to these independent shows which exist all over the country, and they're actually really interesting because they have a lot of up-and-coming wrestlers, guys who, you know, want to go to the big league. And then, they also have, you know, people that will never make it. And then, they also have a lot of these legends that were huge back in the day. You know, men and women that would sell out Madison Square Garden and the L.A. Forum night after night after night, who are basically working for 500 bucks a night in front of two, 300 people. And suddenly, that became a really kind of intriguing story.

GROSS: Wrestling is really like the theater of cruelty and suffering.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And I think that's really what you capture in the movie. And one of the most amazing scenes is a match between Randy, the Mickey Rourke character, and the Necro Butcher, Keith Dylan Summers, who's a real wrestler, who plays himself in the movie.

MR. ARONOFSKY: (laughing) Yeah.

GROSS: And I didn't realize that wrestling - I watched wrestling in the '80s, and I haven't kept up with it, and I didn't realize it had gotten this hardcore, where, like, the Butcher uses a staple gun with these big staples, and barbed wire, and it's a real bloody affair. Before we talk about it, I want to just play a clip from the movie. And this is, like, backstage, so to speak, before the actual match between Randy The Ram and the Necro Butcher. And they're talking to each other, trying to, you know, plan a little bit what the match will be like. And the Necro Butcher speaks first.

(Soundbite of movie "The Wrestler")

Mr. DYLAN KEITH SUMMERS: (As Necro Butcher) Anything you need me to do, sir. Just maybe keep the running to a minimum. Like, maybe I can hit the ropes once, take a bump for you, but, like, no crisscrossing, please (laughing).

Mr. MICKEY ROURKE: (As Randy "The Ram" Robinson) This hardcore stuff, I mean, will you talk about it, what do you want me to do it tonight.

Mr. SUMMERS: (As Necro Butcher) Are you cool with the staples?

Mr. ROURKE: (As Randy "The Ram" Robinson) Staples?

Mr. SUMMERS: (As Necro Butcher) Staple gun.

Mr. ROURKE: (As Randy "The Ram" Robinson) What do you mean?

Mr. SUMMERS: (As Necro Butcher) Like, staple gun.

Mr. ROURKE: (As Randy "The Ram" Robinson) Staple gun?

Mr. SUMMERS: (As Necro Butcher) You've never did it before? Is that a silly question?

Mr. ROURKE: (As Randy "The Ram" Robinson) Does it hurt?

Mr. SUMMERS: (As Necro Butcher) Man, not so bad going in. It's kind of scary. You know, you got a big metal thing up against you. Pulling them out, they're going to leave a couple little holes, a little bit of blood loss there.

Mr. ROURKE: (As Randy "The Ram" Robinson) Rock and roll.

Mr. SUMMERS: (As Necro Butcher) Thank you, sir. It's an honor. Thank you.

Mr. ROURKE: (As Randy "The Ram" Robinson) Take it easy with that staple gun.

Mr. SUMMERS: (As Necro Butcher) Ha-ha. No problem, sir.

GROSS: One of the amazing things about this is that here's, like, you know, the Butcher talking about how he's going to use the staple gun, and (laughing) it's going to hurt, and he's calling him sir, and, you know, anything you need me to do, sir.

(Soundbite of laughter)

It's just such an odd mix. Is this a typical pre-match kind of conversation?

MR. ARONOFSKY: You know, I mean, it's definitely pushed a little bit for the audience's sake. Wrestlers do discuss what they're going to do beforehand. We might have spelled it out a little bit more. But that scene was actually not scripted. That was purely improvised. We shot the - every wrestling scene in the film, we shot in front of live wrestling audiences with real wrestlers. So everyone Mickey Rourke wrestles is a, you know, a real-life wrestler, as you said.

And so, while we were waiting for our chance to get out there, because there was a match going on, I had some time to kill. And I was like, you know, hey, Mickey, go over to Necro and just start a conversation. And it kind of evolved into that, and I said, oh yeah, that part's great. And then, we did another take, and that's what you see. It's only two, three takes.

And what was great about working with these wrestlers was that, you know, they're as much athletes as they are actors. You know, when you're backstage, it's, you know, like being backstage at a theater more than it is being backstage at a sporting event. And so, they were very natural in front of the camera and very realistic. And so, that was a lot of fun, all the improvisation and stuff that could go on back there.

GROSS: I want to ask you to describe that match between, you know, the Mickey Rourke character and the Necro Butcher. It's the most, I think, brutal (laughing), painful match in the movie. So I'd like you to describe what happens and how you shot it.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Well, to begin, you know, Necro Butcher is a real kind of underground cult American hero. He's a real wrestler, and he's always top billing at every wrestling event he goes to. And he basically gets flown around the United States to come to these events. And people go crazy for him. They're very much into his type of wrestling. It's an interesting form of wrestling. It kind of - I have a whole theory about it.

You know, wrestling got really bloody in the late '90s because I think it had to do with the simultaneous announcement by the WWE that wrestling was entertainment. And I think once that whole idea that this was entertainment and not, you know, an athletic contest, the audience knows that, and the audience is in on it. What makes it interesting, I think, for certain parts of the audience is the level of violence that these men do to each other. And so, when we started to do this film, I knew that would be a really important part because it is a big chunk of the independent wrestling circuit.

So basically, Mickey's character, "The Ram," goes to one of these hardcore matches, one of his first. And basically, these guys bring their own weapons that they buy at a 99-cent store or a hardware store into the ring, and they proceed to, you know, use those different tools on each other. And, you know, this happens in real life all the time, and they even have events where the audience is encouraged to bring their own weapons, and then the wrestlers use those against each other, you know, just to prove to people that there's very little trickery going on.

GROSS: So in this match, the Necro Butcher actually uses this really big staple gun.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: And he staples right up and down Mickey Rourke's back. And then, there's like barbed wire that they're using on each other and get caught in and a plate-glass window...

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Are you trying to get people not...

GROSS: One smashes over the other's head. I mean, it's really brutal.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah.

GROSS: Then there's this amazing scene afterward, you know, backstage, so to speak, after the fight, when you see Mickey Rourke's back after all the staples have been pulled out, and it's just so painful...

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Right.

GROSS: To look at it.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah. Well, that's sort of what these guys go through. And it's funny, you know, at the premier a few weeks ago, we invited all these famous legends to come and see the film. And there was a guy you may remember, Greg "The Hammer" Valentine, and he told me that he actually wrestled with Dylan the Necro Butcher two weeks earlier. So you know, I think it's - they're out there just trying to entertain, trying to hold on to their glory, trying to remain relevant, and, you know, at the cost of their health.

GROSS: So tell me what you've learned about the stunt where the wrestler, in this case Mickey Rourke - this is one of his specialties in the movie. He climbs...

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah.

GROSS: On the top rope and positions himself, kind of shows his muscles (laughing), and then dives on to...

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Head-first.

GROSS: Yeah, on to his opponent, who's laying there, in quotes, "helplessly," (laughing) on the floor of the ring.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: That's right.

GROSS: What did you learn about how to do that without killing yourself or killing your opponent?

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Well, you know, they are - most of the time, if it's done right, you know, the wrestler who's leaping lands - his knees will hit first, so that, you know, there's not direct impact of that force hitting the other guy. Once again, this is, you know, the creed of wrestlers, you know, protecting their opponent. I mean, kind of the rule number one is take care of your opponent.

So, you know, often these guys are taking the hits themselves to put their opponents over, that's how they put it. It's a really interesting thing. I mean, it's a lot of history to it, I think. I really wasn't able to track down where wrestling comes from, as far as, you know, this type of form of wrestling. Of course, Greco-Roman wrestling is ancient, but I have a feeling it was, you know, they speak this language that's got its own words. It's almost like a carny language.

You know, they call the audience the mark. There's terms for keeping all the wrestling secrets secret. They, you know, the performance is the show, and the good guys are baby faces, the bad guys are heels. And it's all about their secret language so that no one knows.

So I think it came out of, you know, the strongmen fighting each other back in the side show days. And so, it's got a long history. And because of that, they've got their own kind of communicational language, and that was what was interesting is how much of a world it is.

GROSS: My guest is Darren Aronofsky. He directed the new film "The Wrestler," as well as "Requiem for a Dream," "Pi," and "The Fountain." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

My guest is Darren Aronofsky. We're talking about directing his new film, "The Wrestler." Your interest seems to be beyond the theater of wrestling. I mean, I think you're really interested in the human body, and what it can endure, and what it means to suffer pain, what the body can take and what it can't take. Yes?

Mr. ARONOFSKY: I guess - I think that's in there. I don't know how much conscious I am going into it. I know these themes are, you know, I think how people manipulate their bodies to make art is pretty interesting. I see - for me, I think you can take the word wrestling out of this film and change it with any art or any vocation that someone is passionate about, and, you know, the story rings true.

It's funny. When I was on the road doing the film in Dallas, I met a preacher who was, I don't know, in his 50s, and he said, you know, from the beginning of the film, he started crying because he just so connected with The Ram's story. And how he connected it with was that, you know, he's watching his own congregation shrink as everyone wants to get a younger and younger preacher. And so - and he had just told his wife recently how he'll be preaching till there's only one person left in the stands. So it's kind of a similar story.

GROSS: That leads me right into my other favorite scene (laughing). Like one of my favorite scenes is that really violent one that we just talked about, and then there's another scene where it's a legends of wrestling signing...

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah.

GROSS: And there's like washed-up wrestlers are there with their videos and their t-shirts to autograph for fans, and to sell. They're selling the t-shirts. They're selling the autographs. You know, for a price you can get a picture taken with them. And so, they're in this, what is it, high school gym or rec center?

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah, that was a veterans hall, actually.

GROSS: A veterans hall. So it's just like a, you know, little place. And, you know, like a handful of fans are showing up, and the wrestlers are so over-the-hill. Like, one of them, I think, has a prosthetic leg, and one of them's in a wheelchair. They're yawning. They're sleeping. No one's there for the autograph.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah.

GROSS: And it's a great scene about what's it's like to still be selling the autographs when no one much wants them anymore.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah. Well, that comes directly out of something I witnessed. One of the first research trips I did, me and my co-producer, Mark Heyman, we went to an event out in Jersey, and there were so many legends there from Captain Lou Albano to Rocky Johnson, who's The Rock's dad, to Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka. They had a ring set up in the middle, and there were all these legends. And less people came to that than came to the amount of extras I had in that scene. And it was heartbreaking.

It's - you know, these guys just trying to make ends meet, trying to live their past glories, and just trying to hold on to the dream, and I just knew we had to do that scene after I witnessed it.

GROSS: Mickey Rourke has just gotten an Academy Award nomination for his performance in the film. It's an incredible performance, because he has so much heart and also does a lot of the stunts himself, and I'm sure it did a lot of (laughing) suffering during the making of the movie. How did you choose him? I had read that you were first going to go with Nicholas Cage and then decided to go with Mickey Rourke.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah, it was actually always Mickey, from the point where we got the idea for him, and the problem was no one in the whole entire world wanted to finance the movie with him. Basically, how financing for movies works is you go to the international market and depending on who the movie star is, you can - and what the project is and who the director is, but really the movie star - you basically can, you know, get loans off of what people promise to pay for it internationaly.

But the problem was Mickey was actually pretty much a negative in getting this film made. And I think that's because, you know, where his status as a movie star was. It just had fallen so much. But he just made so much sense for me. But after about a year and a half of, you know, no after no after no after no, I started to get a little antsy because I didn't think the film was going to happen. And there was a small flirtation with another actor.

But ultimately - and that ended up being picked up, because once you start doing something with a movie star, you know, they don't write about the year and a half of struggling to make a film with Mickey Rourke. They write about, you know, the flirtation with a movie star. That makes the front page.

GROSS: Well, why did you know Mickey Rourke was going to be right? It turns out you were correct.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: (Laughing) I don't know. You know, I was a big fan when I was a kid. I can remember the exact moment of seeing "Angel Heart" at the theater and just being blown away by him. And I was a big fan through "Barfly" and his other work, and I think, like a lot of people, you just wondered what the hell happened to him.

And, you know, I think Adrian Lyne told him that if he had died back then he'd be bigger than James Dean. And it's pretty cruel, but there's something - I mean, that's how huge of a star he was. You know, and on the promotion, you know, talking to, you know, promoting the film, I got a chance to talk to Sean Penn, Benicio del Toro, and Brad Pitt, and they're all, you know, Mickey was the guy. But he just sort of disappeared.

And I think when I met Mickey, I thought - I knew he had been an athlete, you know, because of the boxing story - you know, that he went and became a boxer was very well known. So I thought that might help. And also, just sitting with him, you look into his eyes, and, you know, his body is just all this armor, and he wears all these outfits, and it's all about keeping people away from looking in his eyes, because the second you look into his eyes it's just there's so much there, that it was really exciting as a filmmaker. And if my - if I have any great accomplishment on this film, it's the fact that Mickey Rourke never wore a pair of sunglasses in the entire film.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Which, you show me another film where that happened, and (laughing) I don't think it exists.

GROSS: Darren Aronofsky will be back in the second half of the show. He directed the new film "The Wrestler." He also directed "Requiem for a Dream," "Pi," and "The Fountain." I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross, back with Darren Aronofsky, the director the new film "The Wrestler." Mickey Rourke is nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a washed up wrestling star now reduced to matches in high school gym and recreation centers. His personal life is as broken as his body. He lives alone in a trailer park, and his only friend is an over-the-hill stripper who feels she has to treat him like a customer. In this scene, he's trying to reconcile with his estranged adult daughter. He's taken her to the boardwalk where they used to go when she was a child.

(Soundbite of movie "The Wrestler")

Mr. MICKEY ROURKE (As Randy "The Ram" Robinson): I just want to tell you I'm the one who was supposed to take care of everything. I'm the one who was supposed to make everything OK for everybody. But it just didn't work out like that, and I left. I left you. You never did anything wrong, you know? I used to try to, ha, forget about you (laughing). I used to try to pretend that you didn't exist, but I can't. You're my girl. You're my little girl. And now, I'm an old broken-down piece of meat, and I'm alone. And I deserve to be all alone. I just don't want you to hate me.

GROSS: Mickey Rourke in a scene from "The Wrestler." Let's get back to our interview with the film's director, Darren Aronofsky. Mickey Rourke has said that you were very hard on him while he was making the movie. What did he mean?

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Well, you know, Mickey's blessed with more talent in his pinky than most of us have in a lifetime. And so, it's very easy for him to coast through his work, and I think that's what we've seen for the last 10, 15 years. And to be honest, I'd say Mickey worked really hard on this film, but he didn't give me everything. I mean, he says he gave me everything, and he probably did, but there's even more in there, and that's how talented he is. He is so gifted. But because he is, he's just a little bit of afraid of it and also, you know, it just hasn't been put to the test. And so, if anything, my biggest job was just to push, pull, encourage, inspire, challenge, you know, for him to really, really dig deep.

GROSS: Now, he has the kind of muscle in this film that you usually need steroids to get. And his character does shoot steroids in order to get his muscles...

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah.

GROSS: So what did he do to get the muscle legally?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARONOFSKY: He worked really hard. He - I mean, since it took a year and a half to raise the money and he knew about it for that long - it was ultimately about two years he had to start thinking about it - he hired this really hardcore trainer, this former Israeli commando who was a former cage fighter. And the guy just took no BS, and he lifted twice a day, ate, drank about 7,000 calories a day, and was always walking around with one of those shakes.

And the thing is, Mickey's dad, his real dad, was actually a Mr. New York bodybuilder. And so, I think it's - he's always been kind of a gym rat. So he's in that culture.

GROSS: Marisa Tomei. I read that you went to high school with her?

Mr. ARONOFSKY: We went to the same high school. I was friends with her brother. She was already kind of a legend when I was there, because she was on TV and stuff...

GROSS: Oh, I see.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: And was pretty famous. But - and then, you know, as I made a film or two in the business, I got to meet her, and we've just been very friendly for years.

GROSS: She, in the movie, plays a pole dancer and lap dancer who works at a, you know, strip club that Mickey Rourke's character goes to, and he really loves her. And she feels something for him, but he's a customer.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Right.

GROSS: So there's nothing that she can really express. And like him, she's kind of washed up. She's still working. But the customers consider her old. And there's some terrific scenes on the pole, because there's times when she's really getting into the pole dancing and other times when it's so clear that she's doing it quite mechanically.

You do this motion. You do that motion. You look and see if anybody's interested. And I guess I'm wondering what kind of advice you gave her about when she was doing it just mechanically and disengaged to make it look as disengaged as she was feeling?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARONOFSKY: You know, I think she - Marisa took a role that could have been done very one-dimensionally, and she added a lot of dimension to it. Because for me, her character was always kind of as much a love interest as a mentor for Mickey's character in that she was going through the same thing, kind of this line between what's real and what's fake. There was the, you know, the realness of her real life outside the club and then this fantasy life of the club, and it kind of connected very well with "The Ram," Mickey Rourke's character, the wrestler's struggle of what's real and fake.

And the wrestler kind of has confused, you know, what's real, his real life versus his life in the ring, while she's kind of set up these real boundaries to separate and to keep herself healthy. And she's really trying to get more into her real life and sort of leave her fantasy life behind.

And so, all of her scenes with Mickey are about that line, and she just added this, you know, real complexity to it where she kind of floated between being engaged to being, you know, completely outside of it and above it. And for me, she was almost like - I call it like a drunken tight rope walker. You know, she's on that tight rope, that line, and yet, you know, what makes her performance dynamic and exciting is you just don't know which way she's going to fall.

GROSS: There's so many similarities you make between the wrestler and the stripper. They both have stage names. They both have to do their hair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Put on makeup. You know, "The Ram" - Mickey Rourke has to shave his armpits.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: They both wear...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You know, they both have choreography.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah.

GROSS: And they both have a different personality in the ring than - or in the club - than outside of it. Did you intentionally want to make sure that there was a scene where Mickey Rourke was shaving his armpits?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Just to show how cosmetic you have to be and the similarities between, you know what a stripper would go through, or what a woman would go through, and what the wrestlers go through?

Mr. ARONOFSKY: You're actually the first to point out that connection. I think in the script it was that he had to shave his chest, and Mickey was against that, shaving his chest, because he was like, there are certain secrets, blah, blah, blah. And I said, you know what? Then, shave your underarms. And he couldn't deny it, because he realized, in many ways, it was more revealing and embarrassing, yet you know it happens, so he went for it.

But that was kind of the whole spirit of the whole film is me and Mickey kind of - there was just a lot of improvisation always and Mickey bringing his own expertise and his own history to it, and then sort of happy accidents happen where, you know, the connection between - you know, the underarm hair is made for someone like you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Another great scene I have to ask you about is in the supermarket, there's a period in which, you know, "The Ram," the Mickey Rourke character, is unable to work as a wrestler.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah.

GROSS: And so, he's working at - behind the deli counter at an Acme supermarket.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: In Bao, New Jersey.

GROSS: Yeah, I was wondering where it was, because it looks like it's a real supermarket.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

GROSS: And I read that some of the customers were real, too?

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah, well the whole thing was - you know, we didn't have enough money to close down the supermarket or even close down the meat deli counter where we were shooting. So people were coming up and asking for, you know - and all those other workers behind, you know, with Mickey, were the actual employees, you know? And so, I just - I was like, hey, Mickey, go serve these people.

And so, he was game. And, you know, that was once again, you know, a lot of improvisation and Mickey bringing his own spirit to the screen.

GROSS: So what did the customers think? They must have seen the camera. Did they know that they were shooting a movie?

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah.

GROSS: Did they know that was Mickey Rourke behind the counter serving them?

Mr. ARONOFSKY: I think that's the advantage of having someone like Mickey Rourke at that point in his career is that most people with his hair up in a hair bun aren't going to recognize him. And even if they do, they're not going to be screaming through the aisles for an autograph. So people were very - they were kind of natural. You know, and with so much reality TV going on and so much...

GROSS: Mm Hmm.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: I think people are really comfortable now, and they just don't care. So, you know, they were just - that woman who was asking for the fried chicken was just a woman who came up, and, you know, she said, give me two big breasts. And Mickey made up the line, That's what I'm looking for, two big breasts with a brain. You know, it was just - it was perfect, but it just happened.

GROSS: My guest is Darren Aronofsky. He directed the new film "The Wrestler," as well "Requiem for a Dream, "Pi," and "The Fountain." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

My guest is Darren Aronofsky, and he directed the new film "The Wrestler." And his two stars, Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei, are both nominated for Oscars. Now, I have to say, your film seem so about pain.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah.

GROSS: Pain and drugs. In "Pi," the main character, who's really into math and how math can like describe the world and explain patterns in the world, but he has these terrible migraines, which is how the movie starts. In your film "Requiem for a Dream," which is an adaptation of the Hubert Selby novel, and he also wrote "Last Exit to Brooklyn," you know, there's drug addicts. The mother is addicted to amphetamines. And the Jared Leto character, who's a heroin addict, I mean, he gets this horrible infection in his arm from shooting up with dirty needles. And toward the end, he injects himself right into the heart of the infection.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And ends up having his arm amputated at the end. I mean, like - tell me that I'm wrong, but it seems to be between that and "The Wrestler" that you are interested in pain.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Have you not seen "The Fountain?"

GROSS: I have not seen "The Fountain." Is there more pain in it?

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Ahh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARONOFSKY: You should see it. It's my romantic film.

GROSS: Oh, I see. OK.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But you should go see that. I mean, there are actually is kind of drugs, and there's a different type of pain. There's broken heart pain in that one.

GROSS: Hmm.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: No, no. The connection between the three films, I - it's so - you know, people see different things. You know, between - you know, it's funny. Someone was talking about how all my characters fall at the end. You know, "Requiem for a Dream," Jared Leto falls. In "The Wrestler," he falls. And in "The Fountain," Hugh Jackman's character falls. So I know people see different things, and, you know, I'm just happy that people are making (laughing) connections between the films, that there's a sense that I'm not losing myself as I get older through this life.

GROSS: Tell me you're not interested in pain. I just would find that impossible to have made these movies and not thought a lot about that.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Well, you're talking about physical and emotional pain? Or you're talking about...

GROSS: I'm talking about both, but I think there's a real strong feeling about physical pain throughout your films...

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Hmm.

GROSS: With the exception of "The Fountain," which I haven't seen.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Wow. I guess, yeah. I don't - I couldn't tell you that it's something that I'm focused on, and when I approach this, that's like the thing that's pulling me to the subject matter. It must just somehow come out in the work.

You know, people talk about there's obsession in there and the struggle between people choosing their real life versus their art. So there's lots of different themes, I think, but I wouldn't say I approach a project thinking the emotional and physical pain of the characters before going in. I do think that, you know, the emotional end of it is very, very important because you want people to, you know, you want people to connect with these characters and feel for these characters and be touched by them, hopefully.

GROSS: Your cinematographer is best known for documentary films, for "Taxi to the Dark Side" and "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room."

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah.

GROSS: Why did you want to use a documentary cinematographer?

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Well, Maryse Alberti, she was so interesting because not only had she done great documentaries - to add to that list, she also did "Crumb."

GROSS: Oh, that's a great film. Yeah.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah, great film. She also, before that, did a lot of narrative films. She worked with Tom Haines on "Velvet Goldmine," and she shot "Happiness" for Todd Solondz.

GROSS: Oh, wow.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: So she had this independent, you know, narrative experience as well as documentary experience. I always knew I wanted to bring a verite style to this film. It's how I was trained when I was in film school, and it's something I haven't done in a really long time.

And it's - I almost did a documentary instead of this movie. I just sort of wanted to get back to grounding myself in reality. And so, that was the approach. I wanted that immediate energy approach of the film, and I just wanted that feeling when we went into those wrestling worlds, when we went into the wrestling ring itself, that we were really there. And she was great because she just was game to shoot anything, anywhere, anytime.

GROSS: My guest is Darren Aronofsky. He directed the new film "The Wrestler." You grew up in Brooklyn. I think both of your parents were high school teachers?

Mr. ARONOFSKY: No. My mom taught Public School 206 on Neck Road.

GROSS: Oh, wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I know Neck Road.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARONOFSKY: And my dad taught at Bushwick High School, which, I think at the time, the New York Post said it was the worst high school in North America (laughing).

GROSS: This was a dangerous school?

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah, it was pretty dangerous back in the day. Now, it's all filled with, you know, hipsters. But back in the day, it wasn't too good.

GROSS: And your father could handle it?

Mr. ARONOFSKY: He's a big guy. Unfortunately, I didn't inherit his shoulders. I got his height but not his shoulders.

GROSS: Now, it sounds like you had, you know, a very middle-class upbringing. But, you know, filmically, like you're interested in Hubert Selby, who writes novels about people who are like, down on their luck, and addicted, and desperate. And, you know, "The Wrestler" also about, you know, someone who's broke and, you know, physically, emotionally, and financially...

Mr. ARAONFSKY: Well, if you saw "The Fountain," that's about...

GROSS: That's what you keep telling me.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: A middle-class scientist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Middle, upper class. But, you know, Brooklyn's one of those weird places where, you know, you could be in a sort of middle-class neighborhood, which is, I guess, where I grew up was, but, you know, the guy - I guess, three kids that were my age that grew up, you know, two of them are in jail, and one of them's dead.

You know, half my friends became stockbrokers, and half of them became drug dealers. And then, you know, that was my neighborhood. You know, you go five minutes outside of the neighborhood and it's a whole different world. So it's not - you don't really live in a bubble when you're in Brooklyn. You're kind of - it's - even if your section is one thing, it's kind of a big mix that you can't escape.

I mean, when I got - when I was in college, I drove a - what they call, you know, a car-service type of thing in the neighborhood, and I couldn't believe it but, literally, a five minute walk from my house where I grew up was one of the big, you know, crack supply, you know, spots. And I would be driving people to get their stuff. It's just - it's a very strange place, Brooklyn, in that way.

GROSS: Hmm. Now, at the Golden Globes, when Mickey Rourke won, and he was at the mic, I forget exactly what he said about you that was kind of a loving, sarcastic thing. And in return, you gave him the finger. And the camera was on you.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: That's a loving, sarcastic return for a kid from Brooklyn.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Exactly. Right, exactly. But the camera was on you, and I'm sure - well, tell me what the producers of the Golden Globes (laughing), or the network that carried it, had to say about it. Anything?

Mr. ARONOFSKY: I haven't heard anything. I mean, I had a big smile on my face, and, I mean, for me and Mickey we're old friends, and that actually means I love you between us. So it was done with a lot of love.

GROSS: Well, good luck at the Oscars.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Thank you.

GROSS: And thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Darren Aronofsky directed the new film "The Wrestler."

Here's Bruce Springsteen singing the song he wrote for the closing credits. It won a Golden Globe.

(Soundbite of song "The Wrestler")

Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEIN: (Singing) Have you ever seen a one trick pony in a field so happy and free? If you've ever seen a one trick pony, then you've seen me. Have you ever seen a one-legged dog making its way down the street? If you've ever seen a one-legged dog, then you've seen me.

Then you've seen me, I come and stand at every door Then you've seen me, I always leave with less than I had before. Then you've seen me, bet I can make you smile when the blood hits the floor. Tell me can you ask for anything more?

GROSS: Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews the debut album by Fiction Family. This is Fresh Air.

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