The dark prince of American cinema is himself physically squeamish (he shuts his eyes during the violent bits in Quentin Tarantino films) and a devoted son. He remains close to his parents, teachers who live in Brooklyn, where he and his sister were raised. “So many of the people I know who are talented and creative have come from difficult backgrounds,” says Ellen Burstyn, who was Oscar-nominated for her role in Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. “I have always wondered, What would a person be like who had that same kind of talent and was dropped into a happy family? Would their talent not blossom? Does the pain of a difficult background serve as the fertilizer for talent? I always thought that was the case until I met Darren.”
Before studying film, he trained as a field biologist, conducting research into the “water strategies” of wildebeests and gazelles in Kenya and the thermoregulation of harbor seals in Alaska. There is a whiff of the lab experiment in his films, which combine a fierce intellectual rigor with a forensic eye for human frailty. His debut, Pi, was a lo-fi freak-out about a mathematician whose efforts to divine order in the universe literally drive him out of his mind: The film ends with him taking a power drill to the side of his head. His second was an adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s Requiem for a Dream—“a manifesto on addiction’s triumph over the human spirit,” as Aronofsky called it in a 2000 foreword to the book—and that pretty much describes the film, too. Strip away the viscera of his movies and you will often find a theorem or diagram, whether it be the spirals that run through Pi, the circles that loop through his third film, TheFountain, or the neatly arranged doubles and doppelgängers of Black Swan.
“He’s very organized,” his then-fiancée Rachel Weisz told me in April of last year, when Aronofsky was still in the editing room. “Seeing his films, you’d think he’s this dark, intense guy, and he’s certainly a deep thinker, but he keeps a lot of himself to himself. He doesn’t want to discuss things.” On their first date, Weisz went back to his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen and happened to pull a DVD out of its alphabetized order, then watched as he carefully slotted it “back in place, but you know, in this quiet way. He likes things in order.” (The couple, who have a 4-year-old son, have since separated. Aronofsky is understandably reluctant to talk about it—“It’s a little too fresh,” he says. “Maybe if you write a book about me in ten years.”)
“I never thought there would be out-loud laughter. None of my films has ever really had laughs.”
More recently, the python grip of obsession has loosened in his films, allowing the characters to breathe each other in. You see this clearly in his last film, The Wrestler, in Mickey Rourke’s tug between the ring and Marisa Tomei. I wonder if this is reflecting a personal loosening. “Was that me?” he says. “I think when I was starting out as a filmmaker I had tremendous focus, but I don’t think I robbed myself of too much life. I’m still friends with the guys I grew up with in nursery school. I have a great relationship with my family … I am definitely attracted to balance, to symmetry. I’m definitely an ordered personality. But I’m a lot less ordered than I was.”
The Wrestler was the first Aronofsky movie in which the director ceded control to an actor. When I spoke to Weisz, she took a little credit for this. “Darren’s films before were more about the director,” she said. “The Wrestler was more about the actor. I was really proud of that.” Aronofsky admits this is true: Weisz was a “huge” influence. But it has more to do with the challenges of working with Rourke. “Mickey is an unbelievable talent,” says Aronofsky, “but he’s extremely lazy, and that’s probably because he has more talent in his little pinkie than most people have in their whole body. He just likes to hang out. And that’s what people love when they see him on the screen: He’s just hanging out. But he only responded to direction after he got to do what he wanted to do—if he wanted to do something. There were some days he didn’t want to do anything, and you’d have to force him. I used every trick in the book. I would tell Mickey, ‘Every dime you take out of this budget’—because he’d ask for money here and there, too—‘you’re taking out of you. Because this movie is you. It’s all you.’ That film was a gift from me to Rourke.”
That generosity is precisely what made The Wrestler Aronofsky’s breakthrough film. It’s arguable whether Portman has wrested control of Black Swan in the same way, or even whether the film asks her to, but her performance, which has made her a front-runner for the Oscar, is a classic piece of self-vandalizing coup de théâtre. “In many ways The Wrestler and Black Swan are about actors,” says Aronofsky. “I remember a friend of mine, Scott Silver, who wrote The Fighter, told me he saw a documentary about Al Jolson, and how he used to go up to people on the street and say, ‘Hey, I’m Al Jolson,’ then start singing. His whole identity was that he had to entertain people to survive. There’s something about that, that dedication to artistry, that I find intriguing, inspiring. And fascinating. That’s why I made these two movies.”