Black Swan - Darren Aronofsky interview
A dark, mind-bending thriller that puts a trippy twist on Swan Lake
Black Swan is one of the most anticipated films of 2011: a dark, mind-bending thriller that puts a trippy twist on Swan Lake. Alistair Harkness asks the film’s director, Darren Aronofsky, about his journey to the black heart of ballet
The first time Darren Aronofsky watched his new film Black Swan with an audience, at last year’s Venice Film Festival, it was not a particularly comfortable experience. He wasn’t suffering from first night nerves. He was simply worried about the rarefied company he was keeping. ‘I was sitting next to the 82-year-old President of Italy and his wife,’ recalls the 41-year-old director a few months later in a London hotel room. ‘I was like, “Oh my God, what am I about to do to these people?”’
His concern was understandable given that the ballet-themed Black Swan is not a refined, Oscar-baiting exploration of high culture, but a trippy, freaked-out, psychological horror spin on Swan Lake, featuring hallucinogenic dream sequences, ecstasy-fuelled lesbian sex, and the odd spot of transmogrification. A heady mix of The Red Shoes, Repulsion, Showgirls and the ‘body horror’ films of David Cronenberg, Silvio Berlusconi would probably love it, but Giorgio Napolitano and his missus? ‘It was a terrible feeling to have them sitting next to me,’ confirms Aronofsky, ‘but it went very well and I had a nice standing ovation. I hope it wasn’t just respectful.’
Respectful or not, Black Swan is certainly one of more brilliant and bizarre films of the coming year. Starring Natalie Portman as a sexually repressed prima ballerina cast in a radical new production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, the film charts her character Nina’s disintegrating mental state as her predatory director (Vincent Cassel) exploits the vamped-up sexuality of new girl Lily (Mila Kunis) to push Nina towards the edge.
It’s an idea born out of an initial desire to make a film about ballet loosely inspired by Dostoevsky’s The Double. ‘I thought that was a good, scary way in that anyone could identify with,’ explains Aronofsky in reference to that book’s identity theft storyline. The eureka moment came when he went to see Swan Lake for the first time. ‘I saw one dancer play the White Swan and the Black Swan. I thought this was better than having a double, because she could actually be two different characters.’
As much as Black Swan is something of a bacchanalian trip through one woman’s psychosis, though, like his previous film, The Wrestler, it’s also about the body-wrecking art of performance. It’s a comparison Aronofsky readily embraces. ‘I thought it was interesting because one is about the highest art and one is about the lowest art, but they’re both about performers who put their bodies before their health and their age.’
This required a lot of dedication from the cast, especially Portman, who trained for a year doing ballet for five hours a day. ‘It was very gruelling,’ says Aronofsky, who admits he didn’t realise how much pain she was in until they neared production (torn ligaments, hyper-extended shoulders and bruised ribs were just some of the injuries his female leads suffered). ‘So many of those dancers start when they’re four and so their bodies start transforming, their joints hyper-extend and they get a turn-out in their hips that’s its own thing. So to try and replicate that was really tough.’
Which isn’t to say Aronofksy didn’t have it tough in his own way. Despite the success of The Wrestler, nobody wanted to make Black Swan, and when he did finally get the money together, it fell apart two weeks before shooting was due to start. It was, he says, ‘a real hustle,’ though that’s par for the course in terms of his career. The Brooklyn-born, Harvard-educated director did, after all, burst onto the scene in 1998 with Pi, a lo-fi, black-and-white tale of madness and mathematics shot guerrilla-style for $60,000 on the streets and subways of New York City. Following it up with the uncompromising Requiem for a Dream (2000), he spent the next six years dealing with fickle movie stars and slashed budgets to make his metaphysical sci-fi film The Fountain (2006), then fought tooth and nail to cast Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler when no-one else would touch him. Given that each of his films explores the destructive nature of obsession, it’s tempting to read them as a reflection of his own tenacity, but Aronofsky isn’t having any of it. He used to be obsessed with film, he says, but he’s moved past that now.
‘I think that working with Mickey Rourke changed my take on filmmaking because there was no way to really control him. It was more about letting him loose and being in the moment with him. I think filmmaking is now just about setting up a space where you get as many bright, focused people together and be open to see what happens.’
That’s certainly how he approached Black Swan. Shot on grainy 16mm film in the same verité style as The Wrestler, its raw, imperfect aesthetic may not make much sense on paper given the film’s psychological horror trappings and the upscale milieu of the New York Ballet. It does, however, work on screen, and Aronofsky reckons he learned an important lesson about appreciating such incongruities after collaborating with Bruce Springsteen on the award-winning song for The Wrestler. ‘There was this one line that goes “Have you ever seen a one-legged dog walking down the street,”’ smiles Aronofsky, remembering the track. ‘We were mixing the film – Bruce wasn’t there – and I kept saying: “I can picture a three-legged dog and I can picture a two-legged dog, but what the hell is a one-legged dog?” After it won the Golden Globe, I had a couple of drinks in me, so I said: “So, Bruce, what the hell is a one-legged dog walking down the street?” And he said: “Sometimes the poetry is in the mistakes.”’ He laughs, adding in quickly: ‘Not that he makes mistakes – he’s Bruce Springsteen. But I think what he was saying was that the things that don’t quite make sense are often where the mystery rises up. I just thought that was an interesting idea.’
The Black Swan, general release, Fri 21 Jan.