“Look, every single film’s been just as hard to make as the last one,” says Darren Aronofsky, 41, with the grin of a practiced self-deprecator. The Brooklyn-born director, known for his punishing dramas, is being more playful than expected. “Getting $60,000 for Pi was near impossible. After that, everyone asked, ‘What would you like to do next?’ I showed them Requiem for a Dream, and nobody returned my phone calls.”
You would think that The Wrestler, Aronofsky’s Oscar-nominated hit starring a revitalized Mickey Rourke, would have helped him sell a tougher movie—say a fantasia about the cutthroat universe of anorexically thin ballerinas. “Not really,” he bats back. He adopts a confused-sounding producer’s voice (or maybe it’s a Jewish mother’s): “ ‘Who wants to see a ballet movie? The same people who like horror movies?’ ” He shrugs. “I don’t think they knew what it was.”
Black Swan, the darkly thrilling psychodrama at the center of all his worries (at least the recent ones), might have mystified on paper. Onscreen, it’s a wholly different matter. Forged in the winning tradition of Rosemary’s Baby and other metropolitan gothics, the nail-biting tale concerns a rivalry for a coveted role at the heart of a freshened-up Swan Lake. It makes sense that Aronofsky’s concept gave studios pause: Nina, his protagonist (played by Natalie Portman), might be melting down from the anxiety of embodying opposing swans, white and black. Or she might actually be sprouting wings. A cake-colored melodrama that deftly blends high and low, it’s the art fix of the season.
“His tone is obsessive, relentless,” Portman, 29, tells us via e-mail about Aronofsky, whom she’s long wanted to work with. “I really see his films as a progression, so I most loved The Wrestler, because he seemed at ease enough with his technical expertise to focus on performance.”
Portman’s turn in Black Swan is revelatory. Suddenly, the porcelain doll of the Star Wars movies has become a creature of flesh and insecurity, torn by the pressures of an infantilizing manager and mom (Barbara Hershey) and a rapacious company director (Vincent Cassel).
“I was always impressed with how she carried herself,” Aronofsky says of his limber lead, whom he first met over coffee in 2001 when the seeds of Black Swan sprouted. “But as she got older, I realized that no filmmaker had ever turned Natalie into a woman. Mike Nichols, a little, in Closer. But this was an opportunity to reintroduce her to audiences as an adult.”
Still, nine years to set up a movie is an eternity. Although Portman was then only in college, Aronofsky stuck by his casting choice. The result is closer to his intended theme of aging and decay than might be intended. “Over the years, she’d say, ‘I’m getting too old to play a dancer!’ ” Aronofsky recalls. “I’d tell her, ‘Honey, you look great; you’ll be fine. Just give us a little more time.’ ”
Ironically, once the movie was underway, there was barely time enough: By all accounts, athletic training for the shoot was intense. Portman, who had danced until she was 12, describes her full year of bodywork—which ramped up to eight hours a day—as rigorous: “It was almost like starting over. My sense of coordination hadn’t left me, but I needed lot of work.” (Costar Mila Kunis, 27, who also submitted to weeks of daily routines, is sarcastic about the ordeal: “I think I’m already a fantastic dancer, don’t get me wrong. Also a fantastic singer.”)
Aronofsky nods when prodded on the extremes he put his cast through; it’s an aesthetic he’s partly critiquing. “Most dancers are simply not eating,” he notes. “Susan Farrell [the eminent ballerina] talks about slicing an apple into three pieces, and that’s your three meals for the day.”
Such cultish discipline is part of Aronofsky’s preoccupation with outsiders. “When I was doing The Wrestler, I realized these guys were real people too, even if they’re in freakazoid bodies with tattoos, piercings, chemicals,” he says. The same could be offered of the hero of his next film, The Wolverine, a 2012 X-Men sequel that suddenly doesn’t seem such an unlikely choice. But the complainer is noticeably gone: “Finally, I’m in a room with people who actually want to make a movie!”
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