Finally, the ax fell. Aronofsky remembers this, “the worst day of my life,” in minute detail. He had flown to L.A. to hear the news in person. Then, instead of flying east to see his mother, who’d just started chemotherapy, he now had to cross the Pacific to fire 450 Australian crew members.
Their reps responded by publishing an open letter chastising the star: “What amazes us is that it appears Brad Pitt has no real understanding of the impact of his decision,” it read in part. “We estimate there are over 1,500 people here in Australia, including family and children, who are now displaced and unemployed.”
Now that The Fountain has risen again, and Troy has shrunk in public consciousness to a vague memory of Brad in a leather skirt, the matter has officially blown over. “I am happy to report we remain friends,” says Pitt. A hint of the fissure remains, however, in producer Eric Watson’s apparent physical inability to say the words “Brad Pitt.” During our long phone conversation, he refers to Pitt exclusively as “the lead actor.”
Unusually for Hollywood, Aronofsky doesn’t enjoy nursing grudges. He’s nobody’s idea of a brooding auteur, either. A child of schoolteachers, Aronofsky’s an affable Everyguy of the type TV ads use to sell you a bigger TV. Charlotte and Abraham Aronofsky still live in Manhattan Beach; their son begged them not to leave the neighborhood—he loves going back. (“I get a lot of source energy from that place,” he says.) On our way out there, we pass Park Slope, and I point out the palatial limestone on Carroll Street that Jennifer Connelly, co-star of Requiem, bought with her husband, Paul Bettany. The director’s eyes light up: “That one? That huge corner mansion? Jeeezus. How much did she buy it for? Do you know?” Aronofsky himself lives in Soho and isn’t contemplating a Brooklyn move (“When I was growing up, there were two categories of people,” he says apologetically. “Those that got stuck in Brooklyn and those that got out”). He seems eager to prove that his Kings County bona fides are intact, even though he’s engaged to a Cambridge-educated, Oscar-winning British actress (Weisz and Aronofsky had a son in May). “It’s a mystery to me where his writing comes from,” Weisz says. “In life, he is very lighthearted. His favorite TV show is The Price Is Right.”
The only thing that reconciles Aronofsky, the Manhattan Beach boy made good, with the inky depths of his film visions is the earnestness radiating from both him and his work. Pi, Requiem, and especially The Fountain are moral fables with an actual moral at the center. In private, Aronofsky can easily, unself-consciously well up talking about something personal, like his parents’ cancer diagnoses and subsequent recoveries, or even the film’s production troubles. Sean Gullette, the Harvard friend who co-wrote and starred in Pi, deploys the E-word immediately when talking about Aronofsky. “Darren’s an earnest seeker trapped in the body of a hotshot city guy,” he says.
“I admire his tenacity in seeing his vision complete,” says Pitt, “as painful and tiresome as it must have been.”
The Aronofsky film set is invariably a familial scene. His mother fed the cast of Pi with bagels and is duly credited with “craft services”; his father watched Ellen Burstyn channel a Brooklynite on the Requiem set. Aronofsky allowed the Montreal soundstage of The Fountain to be overrun with bloggers and online fans.
At Harvard, when a girlfriend dumped him on his birthday, Darren Aronofsky got into a beat-up car with two friends and drove from Boston all the way to Belize. The trip ended up spurring his fascination with the Mayan culture, on full display in The Fountain.
After the first Fountain fell apart, Aronofsky shoved two changes of clothes into a knapsack and flew to India, alone. He emerged several weeks later and spent the next couple of years picking up and abandoning projects; from this wilderness period, a slew of Internet myths persist—Aronofsky’s finally about to do Watchmen! A manga adaptation! The Bat specter rose again, beckoning Aronofsky into the big leagues: He says he did a rewrite on a Batman script, but his heart wasn’t in it. The directing job finally fell to Christopher Nolan, another upstart director coming off another “difficult” indie hit (2000’s Memento). “It was while trying to make The Fountain,” Aronofsky tells me. This, he felt, was the story he needed to tell, with or without studio money. “It was always all about The Fountain.” Months later, he delivered a new script to Eric Watson, who budgeted the film at about $30 million.
Eventually, Watson cobbled together a coalition of backers. In damage-control mode after Pitt walked, Warner Bros. said it would happily distribute The Fountain if Aronofsky and Watson managed to get it produced again, but nobody seems to have expected that it would actually happen. “Darren hung in there with this movie in a way that’s pretty wild,” says Jeff Robinov incredulously. Brad Pitt concurs: “I admire his tenacity in seeing his vision complete, as painful and tiresome as it surely must have been.”