When Darren Aronofsky left New York in the middle of December on a European tour to publicize his new film, Black Swan, it looked well on its way to making back its estimated $13 million budget. By the time he returned from his tour, three weeks later, it had taken in over $50 million—which is more than all of his previous films combined—and Jim Carrey was performing a Black Swan parody on SNL in a full leotard and tutu. “It’s crazy,” says the 41-year-old director. “Black Swan doesn’t feel much different from my past films, so I don’t get it. The movie is out there, it’s definitely weird. The first comments we got back from people were that it was weird.”
Aronofsky tells me this over dinner at Shun Lee Cafe, just opposite Lincoln Center, where parts of Black Swan were shot and where, in just a few hours, he’ll take part in a moderated discussion of his work. He seems a little shellshocked by his film’s success, pleased and perplexed in equal measure, with some jet lag thrown in. “I think he’s embracing it, but the reality is still hitting him,” says his longtime producer Scott Franklin.
Aronofsky is a handsome, big-boned guy with a small, vulpine smile and a lingering impression of sternness that even his man-of-the-hour high spirits can’t dispel. Maybe it’s the mustache, which manages to bypass the seventies and burrow back to the early days of film, when directors like Josef von Sternberg, bullhorn in hand, bent the very light itself to their bidding. “There is, strangely enough, something very old-fashioned about him,” says Vincent Cassel, who plays Thomas, the ballet’s artistic director in Black Swan. “The mustache, the way he carries himself, his voice, which is very particular. Darren really likes actors, you can feel it, but at the same time he likes to trick you; he tells secrets to one that the others don’t know to get something different out of them.”
It is often said of directors that they are control freaks. Aronofsky goes one better: He’s a loss-of-control freak. His films are immaculately calibrated surrenders in which his heroes splinter and break upon the rocks of their own consuming obsessions. In one sense, Black Swan is no different: a dark fantasia about Nina (Natalie Portman), a ballerina whose pursuit of perfection takes her to the edge of madness, death, and perfectly choreographed oblivion. That is not the film that has been playing in theaters, however—or not quite.
“More than anything, what they’ve been saying to me is that Black Swan is fun,” says Aronofsky, pausing slightly over the word fun as if expecting to be apprehended. “That’s been one of the most interesting parts about this trip. We knew it was extremely heightened; if you watch ballet, it’s often hysterical. A lot of the reason the film goes over the top is because of Tchaikovsky and Clint Mansell’s score, which makes scenes go to fucking volume eleven. I remember hearing the music, and at first I was like, Uh-oh. And then I thought, You know what? Fuck it. Because it was insane. We knew it was going to that next level, that it was going to push people.”
But perhaps not to laughter. The laughs greeting Black Swan are complex. Two parts tension relief to one part flabbergast (with a few snickers at the film’s thick impasto of cliché—a mother straight out of Carrie, a lesbian love scene à la Showgirls), they finally settle into a stupefied gonzo admiration for the spectacle of the thing. “I never thought there would be out-loud laughter,” says Aronofsky. “I thought there would be smiles, but none of my films has ever really had laughs. I don’t think it’s just nervous laughter; I think it’s a mixture of things, because I’ve heard it in a few places, I know the spots they’re hitting, and the reaction seems different in each. And in Europe: nothing. No laughter at all. So I don’t know what that means.”
The watercooler talk has been unusually intense for Black Swan. In addition to those who find the film courting ridiculousness, some have voiced complaints about misogyny. “What’s interesting,” he says, “is that it’s male writers who are having issues with it more than female, which I think is worth looking into. What do you think?”
Aronofsky is genuinely curious, as if he, too, were on the outside of his own film looking in. And in a way he is, for Black Swan is a bona fide phenomenon, an art-house indie on its way toward $100 million at the box office, and unquestionably the love-it-or-hate-it movie of the year—which is apt. Doubleness is, after all, the film’s subject and its object: horror film versus ballet film, white swan versus black, the movie Aronofsky made versus the one being received, and the two sides of the director’s own personality that are dramatized in the film. “I just want to be perfect,” Nina whispers to Thomas at one point. “Perfection is not just about control,” he replies. “It’s also about letting go.” It’s a conversation Aronofsky has been having with himself his whole career.
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.”
Aronofsky currently finds himself riding out something even more unpredictable than Rourke: his own success, which includes admission into the exclusive club of A-list directors, like David Fincher (who recently sent Aronofsky a note that read, “BS. No BS”—“Black Swan. No bullshit.”) His next film is an intended blockbuster—a reboot of the Wolverine franchise, starring his Fountain star Hugh Jackman—that Aronofsky plans to inject with his own fleshy concerns. “Give me some time,” he says. “I’ll be on the outside again real quick.”
Something of Aronofsky’s ambivalence plays out doing the Q&A portion of the evening at Lincoln Center. The Walter Reade Theater is packed with a more diverse crowd than you might expect at an Aronofsky event: old, young, black, white, male, female. He’s greeted with rapturous applause, and for the most part it’s a polite back-and-forth—are his films a search for God? Is too much perfection a good thing?—until, toward the end, a middle-aged woman raises her hand and asks why the film was so “unnecessarily grotesque.” The hall fills with laughter. “It’s about transformation,” explains Aronofsky patiently. “It’s ultimately a werewolf movie. Swan Lake is about a girl trapped as a swan. At night she’s half-swan, half-human, so I saw it as a werewolf movie. I’m sorry if I upset you and offended you, but … beware of my films!”
When he steps off the stage, he’s gently mobbed by the crowd. One young man stands patiently, waiting for an opportunity to ask his question. “Do you work at [he names the address of Aronofsky’s production offices]—that old redbrick building?” Aronofsky looks a little wary: “Um, yes. Why?” The young man says he lives opposite the building. “I see you sometimes,” he says with unnerving solemnity. When he leaves, Aronofsky says, “That was a little creepy. That guy was a little weird.”