One of the highlights of last year’s London Film Festival, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a thrilling psychodrama, a dark study of a troubled young dancer in a top New York company who becomes dangerously obsessed in her aspiration for perfection when she is offered the difficult dual part of the Swan Queen in the company’s new production of the classical ballet. During rehearsals, Nina (Natalie Portman) delivers a captivating performance as the White Swan but, much to the chagrin of her impresario Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), fails to prove that she has the sensuality and passion to bring the Black Swan to life. Pushed by Leroy, her narcissistic former dancer mother, and Lily (Mila Kunis), the feisty new girl in the company who seems to be out for the starring role, Nina becomes increasingly embroiled into a maze of delusion, lust and violence until fantasy and reality collide in the film’s formidable last act.
Pamela Jahn took part in a round table interview with Darren Aronofsky during the London Film Festival in October 2010 to talk about torturing the audience, the difficulties of making a ballet film and the secret behind Natalie Portman’s remarkable performance.
Q: You’ve talked about Black Swan as a companion piece to your previous film, The Wrestler, in that both stories are set in very competitive worlds. Why did you choose classical ballet?
DA: My sister was a ballet dancer. She got pretty serious about it as a young girl and then went on all about it until she was a late teenager. Back then, I knew nothing about ballet. I would just walk by her room and see all the posters and ballet shoes and that was it. But later I imagined it could be an interesting world, in the same way that everyone said wrestling wasn’t interesting at all, but as soon as we started looking into it properly, we saw that there was actually a whole world to discover. Ballet is an even more complex world than wrestling, the more we looked into it, the more interesting it became. I think this is also part of why people go to movies in general. They want to see something they haven’t seen before.
You do portray this in your films in a way that some people might find difficult to watch though. Do you take pleasure in torturing your audience?
I think people have different notions of what ‘torture’ is. Some people actually really enjoy it and some don’t. It’s a fine line and I just push it as far as I can. With Black Swan, I think it’s probably partly that I’m still trying to annoy my older sister and to get some attention from her (laughs). No, seriously, I don’t really know what it is. I think today it is very hard to create images and ideas that people will remember. There are so many movies out there on TV, on the internet, on your iPod, that as a filmmaker you want to create an experience that lasts, but that usually has to be an intense journey. I want to get people their money’s worth.
The film shows that ballet is very much a closed world that seems to have its own set of rules. Was it difficult to work with a real ballet company?
Yes, very hard. The ballet world couldn’t give a shit about anything other than ballet. They really did not care. Normally when you make a movie every door in the world opens up and people are like, ‘yes, sure, what do you want to see, anything you want to do, come, make a movie’. But the ballet world was not like that at all. It was extremely difficult, and getting dancers was way more complicated than getting wrestlers. Most of the wrestlers didn’t have cell phones and some people where homeless and, still, we could get them to the right place at the right time. But not the dancers. They are just so deep in their own world, they hardly care about anything but ballet. So it took a long time, but slowly and surely we got there.
In your film, the central character, Nina, is pushed to explore her dark side in order to be able to perfectly embody the Black Swan and she does so with a recklessness that threatens to destroy her.
Yes, that’s what the film is about and what Swan Lake is about. The film for us is a take on the ballet, we went back and looked at every detail of it. I’d been thinking about doing something with Dostoewsky’s The Double because I thought it was an interesting topic to explore: when you wake up someone else has taken your place and everything you are is suddenly being taken away from you. That was also something I hadn’t seen out there that much, so I started to pursue that idea. One day I went to see Swan Lake and I was absolutely stunned when I found out that one dancer is actually dancing both the Black Swan and the White Swan. And then suddenly it seemed an even better idea than The Double because they are such distinct characters, one is innocent and pure, the other is passionate and adventurous. So we built this story about the dark side and the light side of personality, battling for sanity.
Natalie Portman perfectly embodies the conflicted Nina, capturing her fear, desperation and exhilaration.
That was my little secret, that there was a lot more complexity in Natalie than most people thought. I think because of her beauty and youthfulness she gets cast as an innocent a lot and not many people have given her an opportunity so far to also show her womanhood. So I was hoping no one else would reveal this before I got the chance to do Black Swan.
Some directors reach that level where, although their movies are not the biggest smash hits at the box office, every actor says yes instantly when they cast for a new project. And it seems you are heading there…
Oh no, I don’t get that. Most actors don’t want to put up with it, it’s too difficult. I wish I could be manipulative. But I am actually very honest with actors and I tell them, ‘this is what it’s going to take to do the job, it’s going to be this type of pain and this type of work, and you’ve really got to do it’, and then most of them go, ‘OK, I don’t think I’m going to be doing that’. So I’ve lost a lot of A-list actors over the years. Looking at the actors I’ve worked with, how many of them are actually in super high demand?
Yes, true, but it was also an opportunity for him to do something different to what he had done before. And of course Natalie is in high demand too, but not as a lead.
How important is intuition for you in the process of filmmaking?
Intuition comes into play in many different ways. When you are on set and you are actually working, intuition is there all the time. It’s got to be. There is some kind of myth about filmmakers who know exactly what they want and are going for it. That might exist for some people but that’s not how I work. I try to get as many good people and as much good material around at one place on the set, and create an environment that allows freedom, so that the actors can develop things and mistakes can happen. Then I can follow my intuition and get to the right place. I think when you try to force something too much you just squeeze the life out of it. And then suddenly, no matter what you do, it just isn’t real. But if you want to know what it is that pulls me back to a project and why I end up choosing it, it’s often because there is something about it that I connect to and that makes me want to continue all the heavy lifting. We develop a lot of projects in my production company Protozoa and each project is a marathon run. A lot of them won’t make it to the finishing line, and the only reason some make it is because there is something about them and we go back to them and keep nurturing them and trying to figure it out.
You had a lot of trouble getting the money together for The Wrestler because you insisted on casting Mickey Rourke in the lead. Was there ever a point while doing this film where you thought you might not be able to finish it?
Oh yes, two weeks before we started shooting the money fell apart. I mean we were two weeks out, $1,000,000 in, and we realised that the money was a pyramid scheme and didn’t actually exist. So I had to go back to Fox and beg them to get the film made. It was tough. The Wrestler won lots of awards, got tons of recognition and was incredibly well reviewed, but that didn’t help. It’s hard every time… Making independent films in America right now is really, really difficult.
You once said your films don’t get a wider reception because the festival reviews are always so bad. But this seems to have changed now since both The Wrestler and Black Swan received raving reviews after their premieres.
Maybe this means the reviews are now just going to get worse and worse (laughs). With The Wrestler, it was completely unexpected that it turned out to be this big hit. And now Black Swan is doing pretty well too, but I can’t explain why. When we did Requiem for a Dream we did something like $3,000,000 theatrically, but I guess in today’s world, with a film like this, they would have figured out a different way to sell it. I mean, this was before Boys Don’t Cry and other films that then suddenly became Oscar candidates. So I think audience taste and expectations have changed somewhat. But I guess soon I’m going to be too old to make anything hip, and I’ve got to up my game (laughs)… We’ll see.
Interview by Pamela Jahn