Darren Aronofsky wrote and directed the indie splash Pi, which he followed up with a second indie cult movie, the Oscar-nominated Requiem for a Dream. After a failed attempt to launch a film of Batman: Year One with Frank Miller, Aronofsky began developing the science-fiction epic The Fountain, but the film went into turnaround when Brad Pitt jumped ship. The film was eventually made with Hugh Jackman and Aronofsky's lovely wife Rachel Weisz. I spoke to Aronofsky, at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, about The Fountain and other sundry topics.
Groucho: First, I wanted to ask if you could talk us through the film's gestation from 1999 to today, including the release strategy?
Darren Aronofsky: (Laughs.) That's one question. But I'll try and do it fast. Well, 1999, I guess, you know—I don't know if it's true, but a lot of it started after I saw The Matrix. Because I thought that they took every kind of great twentieth-century sci-fi idea from the cyber-punk to—William Gibson cyberpunk to Philip K. Dick paranoid reality-within-a-reality and kind of rolled it up into one great package that everyone on the planet was gonna digest. So as a fan of sci-fi, I was like "Okay, what do we do now?" At the same time, my college roommate who had gone off to get a Ph.D. in neuroscience was just graduating, and was sick of neurobiology and wanted to do something else. And I said, "Hey, let's start talking about science fiction." So we started walking around and talking about ideas and eventually The Fountain started to grow and emerge, and then we quickly got it together and we cast Brad Pitt, and we got about seven weeks away from shooting in October 2002, and then it fell apart and kind of tumbled and collapsed on itself. And there was a lot of money against it: $18 million had been spent. So I tried to do something else for about seven months. And eventually I just realized it was in my blood. And I wouldn't be—I couldn't rest until I got it done. And so I decided to write a no-budget version of the film. And I guess about two weeks later I had the draft and my producer said we could do it for $30 million. And then we started it up again, even though it would be really near impossible to get done. We just said, "Hey, we're gonna do this." And here we are. Marketing? I don't know. Send me around to talk to people. That's all I know. I think there's gonna be some TV ads. I heard there was some on MTV, so I'm excited...
G: About the film's three sections, it seemed to me that the structure itself is a kind of metaphor, with the past being a fiction and the present being the reality and the future being a vision.
G: Is that how you see life? Is that kind of a life view of yours?
DA: That's interesting. Umm, I think there is a message in the film about seizing the day and not living in the future and not having regrets. But that's one way to interpret what you saw last night. It's not the only way, and in fact it's not the way we as filmmakers interpret it. So I suggest you go see it again. But it works in that way...
G: Do you think that re-scaling the film to a smaller size turned out to be a blessing in disguise for it?
DA: I think it's a different uh—it's a different film. I really see it as two different movies. Because The Fountain I was seven weeks out from shooting: I was fully prepped. Every shot was shot-listed. Every beat had been worked out. We knew what we were gonna do. We were building sets. I mean, we were there. Although I didn't get to shoot it, I got to the point where I had done all my homework. And I was ready just to execute. So I just needed to make a few proper decisions, and I would've gone through it. Then when I had to re-think it, I kinda had a head start because we had done a lot of this research. But we basically threw out most of it and started over. We replaced our production designer. So creatively we had to start over. And we replaced our actors. So we had to start all that work again. So for me, it's two different pictures. And, you know, that Fountain 1.0—you know, no one's going to ever see that on the screen, but, you know, Fountain 2.0 is the one that got finished. And that's the one that people will get to appreciate. I guess Fountain 1.0, you could read the graphic novel and get a sense of the difference in scale.
G: Is that graphic novel a fair representation of what 1.0 would have been?
DA: Well, no. The script is what it was gonna be. But Kent Williams, the artist who did it, basically gave his visual take on it. So you won't see a likeness of any actor. It's what he thought the characters would look for in his imagination...
G: Can you talk a little bit about the different iterations of creation in the movie, in terms of the imagery? We see it as life and then we see sexual imagery, and we see a kind of metaphysical universe creation and even the pen as an artistic act of creation.
DA: I think that's great, man.
G: Was the film partly a creation to examine your artistic process? How about that?
G: I think abso—I think—I don't know. I mean, you're not very conscious about these things when you're doing them. You just sort of write and then add stuff and tie it all together, and I think that, you know, there is a lot in the film about creation. And there's a big line in the film as death as an act of creation. So I think that was probably floating through our heads. I think you're very accurate with that...
G: You mentioned that the final prints of the film include an added line of dialogue that changes the meaning of the film slightly, compared to the pre-release prints. Is that line in the latter part of the film?
DA: Yeah. You'll get it. You'll see. There's a line of dialogue that you'll, like, "Wow! I haven't see that." And it's great. And it got—you know, it's a long story how it got fucked up. But it got fucked up. And eventually we fixed it. It just took a while. But basically, you saw the final cut...
G: The MPAA reversed its initial "R" rating and granted The Fountain a PG-13, with no cuts required. That seems more appropriate.
DA: Yeah, I think they were—the violence is a little tough. But it's not that tough...
G: Did you have any trouble conveying to your effects teams exactly what you wanted for each sequence? Or did you get the shot from what they came up with for it?
DA: Umm, oh, it was endless communication. I mean, months. Years of work to, you know, get it to where it is. You know, how it works is you shoot the plate, which is the actors and the set. You send it to an effects house. They start compositing things. They show it to you. It goes back and forth and back and forth. But it could go back and forth hundreds of times. Until it gets right...
G: Can you give us any hints about what—you mentioned a small project and a big project?
DA: Can't give you any hints. I'm sorry. I'd love to. But it's very early on...
G: Is that science is kind of a false path in the storyline of The Fountain—is that because of the intent behind the chase, or do you think it really is a kind of false path for society as opposed to a more spiritual life?
DA: I think it's a little bit of both. I think, um, you know, I think you can take something too far. I mean, I think that's what's going on in the West in the sense that Western medicine and science have done incredible things for life extension. You can live to—you could be seventy-five and eighty and have an incredible, full life. And that's just getting further and further the longer we get. But then, I think at the same time, because we've gone so far, there's a certain hubris and arrogance that we've kind of shut—we've made believe that death doesn't exist. And that it should always be fought, and it should always be battled. But there are times when, you know, death is a noble thing and is the merciful thing. And that's—there's a real disconnect with it, and the result of that is a lot of people dying alone and in misery—as well as incredible waste in the sense that our society is being bankrupted by, you know—I mean, my grandma was ninety-three, and she had a heart attack and they tried to resuscitate her three times. They broke her ribs; they shoved pipes down her throat. Ninety-three years old, you know? After the first time—you know, you can maybe try once, but three times? And breaking ribs? It's just—it's butchery. So I think you can go too far. Where you basically make someone go out in a very inhumane way.
G: You talked last night at the Q&A about how the zen of art is possible in all things. Can you talk a little bit about that?
DA: Oh, I saw—I was just in Japan—which I highly recommend. But I went to some really good restaurants. And you watch these chefs. And, I mean you can almost see it in any sushi bar, you know, to a certain extent. There's just such an attention to detail. And it was actually inspirational watching these gu—I went to this one meal that was a Zen Buddhist monk prepared a meal with over thirty different vegetables. They believe every meal you should have thirty different vegetables. It was a vegan meal. But just to see him prepare—and he was sweating. But just to see him prepare each dish with such care and perfection. It was very inspirational. There was just a real attention to the moment as opposed to, you know, what we do—what seems like we're doing here is just trying to get to the next thing. And if we're not getting to the next thing, we're watching TV. And not to say everything's perfect in Japan, by any means. But just watching these artists work. And it's in a way that you don't usually expect to see art. But I think, you know, you can find an art in anything.
[For Groucho's review of The Fountain, click here.]