Pi in the Sky

Photo: Jeff Riedel

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.

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.”

The Fountain was now completely soundstage-bound and could be mounted in any major city. Gone were the battle scenes. Hugh Jackman, who had wowed Aronofsky and Watson in The Boy From Oz, took Pitt’s part. On his suggestion, Weisz, whom Aronofsky previously swore he wouldn’t cast in his own projects, became the female lead.

The Fountain opens on 1,500 screens on Thanksgiving weekend, a psychotic realm of hourly nationwide box-office reports and anxious projections. To hang around, it needs something the director never thought it would have to deliver: a big opening weekend. Hoping to goose Pi and Requiem’s core sci-fi geek demographic, Warner Bros. has screened it at techie events and cultivated an online community of “fountainheads,” centering on the excitable and influential film-geek site Ain’t It Cool News.

Offline critics have been less impressed. After The Fountain got some boos in Venice last September, the next day’s papers went in for the kill—dubbing the film the festival’s biggest disappointment, a catastrophe, a hubristic disaster. Both Aronofsky and Watson insist that the reaction was in fact evenly split. Two people even came to blows and had to be pulled apart, something Aronofsky sees as a great reaction to an intellectual provocation.

Although the director puts the requisite brave hat on, he feels ambushed—not by anyone in particular but by a smirking culture that, he believes, prevents audiences from connecting with the film. “I don’t know why people still practice cynicism,” he says, as if talking about a crude ancient religion.

Warner Bros. seems to have heeded some of the film’s lessons and made Zen-like peace with every possible financial outcome. For its part, Aronofsky’s production company, Protozoa, is taking its business to Universal for the next three years. Somewhere in Hollywood, somebody is doubtlessly banking on the notion that with The Fountain out of his system, the genius can finally get down to the business of being a hot director. “It’s scary how Hollywood works,” Aronofsky admits. “But I’ll roll with it. I’ll make whatever they let me make next.”

Up With Popol
We asked Darren Aronofsky to list the biggest influences on his new movie, The Fountain:

David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”


Comic artist Moebius’s 40 Days in the Desert


The Popol Vuh (The Mayan sacred text)


Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s The Conquest of New Spain


Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano’s “Memory of Fire” trilogy


Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God


Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain


Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America


Early hip-hop group E.S.G.’s “U.F.O.”


Diego Velázquez


Hugh Jackman as Tomas.Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

See also:
• David Edelstein’s Review of The Fountain.

• Aronofsky’s Influences

Pi in the Sky