Darren Aronofsky On 'The Wrestler' Director Darren Aronofsky talks about making a realistic film about a notoriously fake sport. His Oscar-nominated film, starring Mickey Rourke as a professional wrestler well past his prime, will be released on DVD next week.
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Darren Aronofsky On 'The Wrestler'

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Darren Aronofsky On 'The Wrestler'

Darren Aronofsky On 'The Wrestler'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross. Our guest, Darren Aronofsky, directed the film "The Wrestler." Its leading actors, Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei, earned Oscar nominations, and 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 the only place he feels appreciated.

The person he's closest to is a stripper, played by Marisa Tomei, who's also getting too old for the job. The wrestling matches may be fixed, but the Ram is still subjecting his failing body to enormous punishment in the ring.

Aronofsky's scenes reveal how the fights are preplanned, but also show how much real pain the wrestlers inflict on each other. Terry spoke to Darren Aronofsky in January. Here's a scene just before one of the small-time wrestling matches. The promoter is backstage, telling the wrestlers what the line-up is.

(Soundbite of film, "The Wrestler")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) All right, FLG(ph), where are you? You're up first against TVS(ph).

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Thank you.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Second we've got Havoc and Colebean(ph) versus Billy the Kid and Lex Lethal.

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) What I gotta do tonight?

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Third, Sapiens(ph) versus Devon Moore(ph). Fourth, Judas the Traitor versus Rob Echoes(ph). Intermission. Fifth, Kevin Matthews(ph) versus Inferno. Sixth, we've got Sugar and DJ High versus the Funky Samoans. Seventh, Paul E. Normous and Andy Anderson versus Jim Power and Pappa Don(ph). And last but not least, for the strap we've got Tommy Rotten versus Randy the Ram. All right, you guys got it?

Unidentified Men (Actors): (As character) Yeah.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) All right, let's do this.


Darren Aronofsky, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, I would've 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, 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. DARREN ARONOFSKY (Director, "The Wrestler"): 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 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 10 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.


GROSS: These are - they're 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 of the film. I knew it was going to be a low-budget film for several reasons, but when we first started, to be honest, we were thinking a more-traditional route of, you know, a 20-something, 30-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 because everything is just so marketed and franchised.

(Soundbite of laughter)


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

Mr. ARONOFSKY: But Vince actually - Vince McMahon saw the film, and he called both me and Mickey and was really, really touched by it, and we were very nervous wondering what he would think, but he really, really felt the film was special, and having his support meant a lot to us, especially to Mickey.

GROSS: And he kind of controls the wrestling world.

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 basically are working for 500 bucks a night in front of 200, 300 people. And suddenly, that became a really kind of intriguing story.

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


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 hard-core where, like, the Butcher uses a staple gun with these, like, 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 film, "The Wrestler")

Mr. DYLAN SUMMERS (Actor): (As Himself) 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. It's hard-core stuff for me with you. Talk to me about it. What do you want to do tonight? Are you cool with the staples?

Mr. MICKEY ROURKE (Actor): (As Randy Robinson) Staples?

Mr. SUMMERS: (As Himself) Staple gun.

Mr. ROURKE: (As Robinson) What do you mean?

Mr. SUMMERS: (As Himself) Like staple gun.

Mr. ROURKE: (As Robinson) Staple gun.

Mr. SUMMERS: (As Himself) You never did it before?

Mr. ROURKE: (As Robinson) No. Does that hurt?

Mr. SUMMERS: (As Himself) Silly question. Man, not so bad going in, kind of scary. You know, you've 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 Robinson) Rock and roll.

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

Mr. ROURKE: (As Robinson) Take it easy with that staple gun.

Mr. SUMMERS: (As Himself) 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 it's going to hurt, and he's calling him sir, and you know, anything you need me to do, sir. It's just such an odd mix. Is this a typical prematch 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 - 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, is 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, 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 is 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'm going 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, 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, and it's an interesting form of wrestling, a 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 the 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 start 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 hard-core 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 one smashes over the other's head. I mean, it's really brutal. But then there's this amazing scene afterwards, 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 to look at it.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Right. Yeah, well, that's sort of what these guys go through. And it's funny. You know, at the premiere a few weeks ago, we invited all these famous legends to come and see the film, and there was a guy who you may remember, Greg "the Hammer" Valentine. And he told me that he actually wrestled with Dylan, the Necro Butcher, two weeks earlier.

So it's - you know, I think it's - they're out there just trying to entertain, trying to hold onto their glory, trying to remain relevant and, you know, at the cost of their health.

GROSS: So tell me what you learned about the stunt where, you know, the wrestler - in this case Mickey Rourke - because this is one of his specialties in the movie. He climbs on the top rope and positions himself, kind of shows his muscles, and then dives onto…

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Head first.

GROSS: Yeah, onto his opponent, who's laying there - in quotes - helplessly on the floor of the ring. Like, 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 protecting their opponent. I mean, kind of the rule number one is to take care of your opponent. So you know, often these guys are taking the hits themselves to put their opponents over, is 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 or 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 carnie 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 strong men fighting each other back in the sideshow 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.

DAVIES: Director Darren Aronofsky. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview, recorded in January with director Darren Aronofsky. He directed the film "The Wrestler," which is coming out next week on DVD.

GROSS: 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 think that's a - 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 'til 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. 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, and these 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 like what - is it a high school gym or rec center…

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

GROSS: A veterans' hall. So it's this, 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, and it's a great scene about what 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, 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 was 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 ah, 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 got 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 he did a lot of 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 - 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 internationally.

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 and - 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 getting 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 the 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: 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" in 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've gotten the chance to talk to Sean Penn and 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 - 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 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)

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Which you show me another film where that happened, and - I don't think it exists.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Director Darren Aronofsky with Terry Gross, recorded in January. Aronofsky's film, "The Wrestler," is out on DVD next week. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "The Wrestler")

Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (Singer/Songwriter/Musician): (Singing) Have you ever seen a one trick pony in the 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 makin' his way down the street?

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're listening to Terry's conversation with Darren Aronofsky, the director of the film "The Wrestler," which comes out on DVD next week. Mickey Rourke was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a washed-up wrestling star now reduced to matches in high school gyms 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. Here's a clip from the film. 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 (Actor): (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 okay for everybody. But it just didn't work out like that. And I left. I left you. You never did anything wrong. I used to try to forget about you. I used to try to pretend that you didn't exist, but I can't. You're my girl. You're my - 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.

DAVIES: Mickey Rourke, in a scene from "The Wrestler." Let's get back to Terry's interview with the film's director, Darren Aronofsky.

GROSS: 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 is 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 afraid of it and - 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: Well, 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. 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 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 hard-core trainer who is a 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: She 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, a 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. So…


GROSS: …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 it - there's some terrific scenes on the pole because there's times when she is 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 is 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 - you know, 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. And 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 tightrope walker. You know, she's on that tightrope, that line, and yet, you know, what makes her performance dynamic and exciting is you just don't know which way she is 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)

GROSS: …put on make-up. You know , the Ram, Mickey Rourke…

Mr. ARONOFSKY: They both (unintelligible)…

GROSS: … has to shave his armpits.


(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You know - you know, they both have choreography.


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)

GROSS:…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 - Mickey was against that, shaving his chest, because he was like, you know, there's certain secrets, blah blah blah. And I said, you know, what? Then shave your underarms. And he couldn't deny it because he realized that - 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 happened where, you know, the connection between, you know, their 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 - is unable to work as a wrestler.


GROSS: And so he's working at a deli counter at an Acme Supermarket. And…

Mr. ARONOFSKY: In - in Bayonne, 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, just 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 that - they must have seen the camera. Did they know that they were shooting a movie? Did they know that was Mickey Rourke…


GROSS: …behind the counter serving them?

Mr. ARONOFSKY: I think that's the advantage of having someone like Mickey Rourke at that point of 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, you know, 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, you know, that woman who is 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, and that was just - it was perfect but it just happened.

DAVIES: Darren Aronofsky, speaking with Terry Gross. He directed the film "The Wrestler," as well as "Requiem for a Dream," "Pi" and "The Fountain." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get to our interview with Darren Aronofsky. His film "The Wrestler" comes out next week on DVD.

GROSS: Now, I have to say, your films seem so about pain…

(Soundbite of laughter)

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. And - but he has these terrible migraines, which is how the movie starts. In your film "Requiem for a Dream," which is an adaptation of a 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.

GROSS: And ends up having his arm amputated at the end. I mean like I - 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 that?


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARONOFSKY: No, you should see it. It's my romantic film.

GROSS: Oh, oh I see. Okay.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But you should go see that. I mean there are actually - there's, kind of, drugs and there's different type of pain as - broken-heart pain in that one. I don't know, the connection between three films, it's so - you know, people see different things. You know, between - you know, it's funny someone was talking about how fall - 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 don't know, people see different things and, you know, I'm just happy that people are making connections between the films, that there's a sense that I'm not losing myself as I get older through this life.

GROSS: Oh, tell me you're not interested in pain. I just would find that impossible to have made these movies and not thought…


GROSS: …a lot about that.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: …you're - you're talking about physical and emotional pain? Or you talking about…

GROSS: I'm talking about both but I think there's…


GROSS: …there's a real strong feeling about physical pain throughout your films - with the exception of "The Fountain,'' which I haven't seen.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Well, 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, I'm -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 that 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 about 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 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." Why did you want to use a documentary cinematographer?

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Well, Maryse Alberti, she was - 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, a great film. She also before that did a lot of narrative film. She worked with Todd Haynes 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 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 at Public School 206 on Neck Road.

Gross: Oh, wow. I know Neck Road.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

GROSS: It 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: You know, 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. ARONOFSKY: Well, if you saw "The Fountain," it's about a middle-class scientist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Middle, upper class. But - and you know, Brooklyn is 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 is dead. You know, half of 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 its 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 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 a - it's a very strange place, Brooklyn, in that way.

GROSS: Now, at the Golden Globes, when Mickey Rourke won and he was at the mike, I forget exactly what he said about you, a kind of loving, sarcastic thing.


GROSS: And in return you gave him the finger, and the camera was on you.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: That's a loving sarcastic return for - for Brooklyn.

GROSS: Exactly, right, exactly. But the camera was on you and I'm sure -tell me what the producers of the Golden Globes, 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, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: Director Darren Aronofsky, speaking with Terry Gross. Aronofsky's film "The Wrestler" is out next week on DVD. Coming up, David Edelstein on the new Russell Crowe film, "State of Play." This is FRESH AIR.

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