Look, in the last twenty minutes of the movie, I have this Buddha guy floating to a dying star in a bubble. The music, the battle noises, the effects are going crazy. I’m naked.” Darren Aronofsky, the director, is furiously mixing metaphors in a Brighton Beach pizzeria. “All my chips are in the pot. I’m tap-dancing here trying to entertain you… ”
Aronofsky, the wunderkind auteur of two fervently admired indie hits, has a right to be defensive. His third and most ambitious film, The Fountain, was abandoned by its original star and forsaken by his studio before it even got made. Now headed to theaters as a smaller, fiscally chaster, and far more emotionally intense version of the script Aronofsky originally dreamed up, it’s already provoked a strong reaction among early audiences and critics—but not the kind he had intended. “It’s funny how the same people who complain that Hollywood never does anything different attack when you do,” he says.
Different used to work for Aronofsky, now 37. His first feature, Pi, a black-and-white swirl of pop science and Y2K hysteria financed with $100 donations from friends and family and advertised in a spray-paint campaign, became 1998’s most-talked-about debut. His excruciatingly depressive follow-up, Requiem for a Dream, brought an Oscar nomination (for Ellen Burstyn as a pill-addled Brighton Beach matron) and an offer from Warner Bros., which tried to enlist him to save Batman from Joel Schumacher’s campy clutches. Instead, Aronofsky threw himself into The Fountain.
The film takes place in Renaissance Spain, the modern-day U.S., and a psychedelic vision of the 26th century. In Spain, Rachel Weisz (Aronofsky’s fiancée) is Isabella, the queen sending off conquistador Tomas (Hugh Jackman) to find the Tree of Life in the Mayan jungle. Today, she is Izzi, a writer dying from cancer (a theme inspired by the director’s own parents’ diagnoses a month apart) while her scientist husband, Tommy, searches for the cure. In the future, she is a spectral voice and memory haunting an astronaut (who may be Tommy) on his way to a dying star where, he believes, her soul will be reborn. Toward the end, the film explodes into pure abstraction; its psychedelic coda could be a screensaver.
“There’s a lot of big ideas in it,” says Aronofsky, unironically rattling them off: “Why are we here? What happens when we die?”
The first version was a lavishly written epic with Braveheart-style battle sequences, and Brad Pitt, a big fan of Requiem, eagerly signed on to star. “I dropped the script off at Brad’s house,” remembers Aronofsky, “and he called me in my car when I was fifteen minutes out, saying, ‘I’m in.’ ” “Did you finish it?” asked Aronofsky. “No.” “Finish it,” the director said. Pitt did so, his resolve intact. Together, the two began resculpting the main character in Pitt’s image. The female lead was to be played by Cate Blanchett.
In the summer of 2002, after two years of rigorous prep, the film was weeks away from shooting in Australia, with a crew numbering more than 450. “A pyramid was built!” cries Aronofsky. The only thing missing was the film’s star.
He never showed. Instead, Aronofsky received a phone call from CAA, informing him that Pitt was pulling out. At the time, the actor’s camp offered many explanations, and the press made up many more. The silliest, in retrospect, had Pitt so heartsick at the prospect of being apart from Jennifer Aniston that he didn’t have the nerve to undertake a long Australian sojourn. (Evidently, he didn’t have the same problem with the five-month-long shoot in Malta and Mexico to film Troy, his substitute project.)
As Jeff Robinov, Warner Bros. president of production, sees it, Pitt found the original script brilliant but flawed and eventually tired of trying to get Aronofsky to streamline his topsy-turvy time transitions. “As the start date loomed,” Pitt said in a statement faxed to this magazine, “it was my belief there still remained many questions that we had not yet answered and we simply were not ready.”
Robinov notes that Pitt wasn’t even the first person to walk off the project: His departure was preceded by that of a major financier, who had “issues” with the script. “And so did we, frankly,” says Robinov. What kind of issues? “The same issues that some people will have with the movie today.”
Warner Bros. transferred Pitt to what seemed like a can’t-miss project: a sword-and-sandals epic with hit-maker Wolfgang Petersen at the helm. As he headed off to the desert, Aronofsky’s project thrashed around for several more weeks as the studio hunted for a new lead. Tom Cruise was otherwise engaged; Russell Crowe loved the script, says Aronofsky, but couldn’t face another period film after Master and Commander. Somewhere in Australia, a Mayan pyramid was falling into disrepair.