By Iain Blair
Writer/director/producer Darren Aronofsky made a big splash when his debut feature Pi won the prestigious Director’s Award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. He then quickly followed that up with 2000’s acclaimed drama Requiem for a Dream.
But his hot streak and momentum came to a screeching halt in 2002 when Brad Pitt dropped out of his expensive and ambitious sci-fi epic The Fountain just weeks before shooting was due to start. Aronofsky scrambled to completely rewrite and retool The Fountain, this time starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz.
Since then, Aronofsky has regained his momentum and continued to make visually audacious films as 2008’s The Wrestler, 2010’s Black Swan (he got a directing Oscar nom, and star Natalie Portman took home the gold) and 2014’s Noah.
His latest film, Mother!, is another hard-to-categorize film — part horror story, part comedy, part fable, part psychological thriller — that stars Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem as a married couple whose relationship is severely tested when uninvited guests suddenly arrive at their home, disrupting their tranquil existence and ultimately turning it into a literal war zone.
I recently talked to Aronofsky about making the film, and why he ditched the score.
This isn’t just a horror film. What sort of film did you set out to make?
After Black Swan I wanted to return to the horror genre, and I felt the home invasion genre hadn’t been used well in a while — and we can all relate to having house guests that overstay their welcome. So I felt that was a great starting point, and I also wanted to deal with larger issues — the planet we all live on, as guests in a sense. But I’m not really a genre filmmaker. For me, Pi was a thriller at its core, but I added lots of stuff and it became something else. I think I always do that. When I pitched Black Swan they felt it wasn’t enough of a ballet movie or horror film. It didn’t fit into any one genre. I just do what I think is cool and interesting, and then I start adding stuff.
How tough was it walking the tonal tightrope between the beginning comedy and the increasingly dark, serious nature of the film?
It was tricky, but I think I was just truthful to what I’d written, and the intent of the characters does not change. They’re all very bad guests, and the level of the badness is what shifts, and the pitch changes. It’s like speeding up an old vinyl record — it just gets crazier and crazier, and more and more intense.
What were the main technical challenges of making this?
Technically, it was one of the hardest things me and my team have ever tried to do, because the last 25 minutes — the fever dream — were so demanding to choreograph and to maintain that nightmare fever-pitch for that long and have it build and build needed every department to work together in perfect sync.
The house is like another character. How did you deal with that?
It was vital to me that the film felt realistic and grounded for the first half, at least. I don’t think we could have pulled that off just shooting it on a stage, and we couldn’t find a real house that worked, so we went to great expense and effort to actually build the house up in Montreal where we shot. We actually built the house twice — the first time with just the first floor out in this beautiful field, which allowed us to do all the daylight sequences in natural light, and we shot those all in order. Then we built the full three-story house in a soundstage in Montreal for all the interior and night sequences, and as the house is like another character that morphs and changes, it really had to be a real house with all the plumbing and wiring, so that when it starts coming apart, it feels very real.
Do you like the post process and where did you do all the post?
I love post, and we did it all in New York at Sixteen 19. This post was very difficult and it ended up being 53 weeks – by far the longest I’ve ever done.
You cut this film with editor Andrew Weisblum, who collaborated with you on Noah, The Wrestler and Black Swan, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. How did that relationship work?
Editing was very tricky, because I wanted to pull the audience into Jen’s experience and not give them a chance to breathe, so we shot the film exclusively from her point of view, with hardly any wide shots, which usually allow you to get out of any sticky situations. Basically, the film is either shot over her shoulder, on her face or at what she’s looking at. This gives you incredibly limited coverage to work with in the edit, and Andy was forced to work with that. He began in preproduction, and we did three months of rehearsal which DP Matty Libatique, who’s shot most of my films, shot as a test. We then cut it together so we were able to look at a 100-minute rough version and get a sense of the camera movements and placement and how it would all look and learn from it. That was very helpful.
One of the biggest shocks of the film is that there’s no music. Can you talk about that decision and the importance of the sound design in the film?
It was a shock to me too! I’d hired composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who’s done films like Arrival and The Theory of Everything, and he wrote a wonderful score, and we worked on it for five months, but it was really weird — every time we played it to picture, it just didn’t do what it was supposed to do, and we couldn’t figure out why. Then he said to me, “The score’s actually taking away from Jen’s performance, and pushing the film in another direction.” He was right. So we decided that the best score for the film was no score at all, which was pretty tough after all that work — and it scared the hell out of me, since I’ve always relied on music to be a major part of my films.
So I then turned to my longtime sound designer Craig Henighan and told him to just go for it, and that then became a huge part of the film. We actually kept some music cues all the way up to the mix stage, which we did at Warners, but ultimately realized we didn’t even need that because they suddenly stuck out.
Can you talk about the VFX, and working again with VFX supervisor Dan Schrecker.
Dan and I were roommates at college, and he’s done all my films. We had a huge number of shots — over 1,200, more than we had in Noah, although not so complex. We had a lot of different houses working on them, including ILM, Hybride, Raynault, and it was a mad rush at the end because the studio changed our release date, so we had to do two months of VFX work in just one month.
How important was the DI on this, and where did you do it?
At Company 3 with Tim Stipan who’s done all my films, and we worked very hard on the look to get this great, warm, lightly burnt butter look, so the DI was crucial.
Did it turn out the way you envisioned it?
It’s always a constant evolution, and the colors a film takes on constantly shift and change, depending on the cast and production design and so on, but I’m very happy with it.
All Photos: Niko Tavernise
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.