THE FOUNTAIN—Roundtable Interview With Darren Aronofsky
In my psyche there's a foyer with a long hat rack upon which I hang the various identities of my so-called life. Among that assortment of chapeaux, is the pith helmet of my Central American adventuring when I studied to be a surveyor, cartographer and scientific illustrator in the highlands of Chiapas and Guatemala, and the frontera of El Petén, eventually shifting into the comfortable armchair luxuries of Mayan epigraphy and iconography. I juggled glyphs and tour groups for a couple of decades before shopping for another hat that fit my more homebound misanthropic fashion. Edging towards decrepitude, I now frequently find myself juggling hats. Sometimes I wear two at once.
These days I wear a short brim that identifies me as film writing press. But recently the pith helmet has been trembling on its peg, anticipating the release of two Mayan-inflected features: Darren Aronovsky's The Fountain and Mel Gibson's Apocalypto. I was fortunate enough to catch The Fountain at the Toronto International Film Festival where—even though, due to an error in judgment, I was the very last person in line—I caught a seat two rows from the screen and a crick in my neck from the angle. I'm looking forward to watching The Fountain again next week from a more discriminating perspective. In anticipation, I agreed to participate in a roundtable discussion with director Darren Aronofsky last week at the Ritz Carlton. Joining me for that round table discussion were Pam Grady from Filmstew, Sara Schieron from Greencine and Peter Sciretta from /Film. I thank them all for their shared queries. Aronofsky started out by excitedly passing around the galleys of the forthcoming Rizzoli companion volume for The Fountain.
Filmstew: You went through a lot with this because you lost your original leading man, lost your original budget. A lot of filmmakers at that point would have moved on to the next thing, but you obviously didn't….
Darren Aronofsky: I tried.
Filmstew: So what was it about this project that you just had to do it?
Aronofsky: I don't know. It's hard to explain why something connects with you and where you get the passion. It's very hard to explain. But for the seven months after the film shut down before we really got behind doing it again—it was about a seven-month window there—every day I went to the office and I bothered everyone, "What are we going to do now? What are we going to do now?" We started to develop some new ideas, which are actually the ideas we're probably going to start working on now, but then there was this one night when I just couldn't sleep and I just realized it was in my blood and I had to get it done. I'm not sure if it's purely to prove them all wrong, to get it done, because that's what we've always done. Pi, no one wanted to make a black and white movie about God and math, and Requiem For A Dream was a drug movie that no one wanted to make. The Fountain was also hard to make so I think it's just a process I've gone through up to this point.
Greencine: The spiritual pursuit in this film is a lot more personal. First, would you agree with that? And secondly, why do you think that's so?
Aronofsky: When I made Pi, everyone was saying, oh, it's very interesting because it's not this autobiographical independent film. Because back then most of the Sundance films coming out were these coming-of-age stories. I was like, yeah, I suck at math, this isn't me, but then the further I got from it I started to realize that all the obsession and paranoia was very similar to my years of living in L.A. [Chuckles.] That's exactly how I was. When I got depressed and dark, and I was single and lonely, I was very much like Max and his computer. So there was a personal thing in it. But I think The Fountain's even more personal, even though I'm not fully aware yet. I still need some distance from it to see, but I think the whole writing of the project was in many ways a spiritual quest to start thinking about life, death, mortality, all the big issues. My way of dealing with it was spend some other person's money to make some art about it.
Twitch: When the leaks first came out that you were making this film, I became very excited because I'm a trained Mayanist, I'm an epigrapher, and I actually know Moises Morales ….
Aronofsky: You know Morales? You liked that?
Twitch: …and his son Alfonso, and I loved that you alluded to him. [Aronofsky chuckles.] My interest in the film is completely esoteric; I was intrigued to see how well your film tracked with Maya cosmography. I was likewise intrigued by your use of the Animal Tree and was wondering if you could talk to us about your use of the Animal Tree.
Aronofsky: Sure. You're talking about the Tree of Life that comes out of First Father?
Aronofsky: I've never heard that term "Animal Tree".
Twitch: It's an Amerindian concept of a tree that's alive as an animal is alive; you have the hairs that come out of it.
Aronofsky: Oh you mean that element of it? I co-created the story with a gentleman named Ari Handel who was my roommate in college. When we went to graduate school, I went to try to make movies and he went to get a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Right when we started working on this was right when he was finishing up his Ph.D. and he was fed up with neuroscience so I brought him on as a co-creator and we started working on it. The nice thing about Ari was he was able to communicate with a lot of academics, because he is an academic, so he could speak to them in their speak by email. So we talked to a lot of them and I had taken some classes at undergraduate in Mayan studies and reached out to a lot of them so all the stuff in the film is based on—I want to say truth but when you're dealing with the Mayans, you're definitely dealing with interpretation because it's us as Westerners looking at stuff that was written down thousands of years ago and even though there are Mayans living now and you could connect it, who knows really what it was? So it's our Western take on the stuff that people have discovered and read and tried to translate. All the cosmology, all the stuff about Xibalba, all the stuff about the star in the sky—which is the Orion nebula, where they thought Xibalba was—and their sense of the holy dread and the sacrifice of life creating creation, seems to be stuff that you can interpret out of their writings and their artwork.
Twitch: It tracked pretty well. The only thing that was of major difference was the orb, though as a transit vehicle not—but as a specific vehicle, yes. [In Mayan mythology it was a canoe paddled across the sky.]
Aronofsky: You mean the spherical ship?
Aronofsky: That didn't really come out of the Maya tradition. For me there was this Tree of Life and, of course, their Tree of Life was the ceiba tree, and our tree wasn't. The ceiba tree is something like 200-300 feet tall. We had talked about it but because you're dealing with a horizontal frame, it'd be really hard to photograph it, so we had to make a fictional tree. But all that stuff was true. We tried to put into the Tree of Life actual life and bring it alive and that was the concept of the hairs and that also tied into Izzi and the hairs on her neck and so there was a lot of that stuff.
/Film: When you first announced the film, you said you wanted to create a science fiction film that went beyond technology and science. What did you mean by that and do you think you achieved that?
Aronofsky: I don't remember saying that. When did I say that? Where did I say that?
/Film: I didn't write down the source.
Aronofsky: I've said a lot of things so we'll try and defend it. Science fiction movies have really been hijacked by the Buck Rogers tradition of sci-fi: technolust hardware sci-fic or button sci-fi. That's what my producer used to call "button" sci-fi, where it's all about—it used to be buttons but now it's holographs—but it's not that cool anymore, the technostuff. I remember when I was a kid seeing Total Recall and there was a secretary—I don't know if you remember?—who changed her nail color with a little pen and everyone in the audience went, "Cooooool." But it's really hard now—in a world where CGI is so prevalent and you can do anything—that you see something with technology that really blows your mind. Either way, I'm not really that interested in that. I really wanted to move sci-fi from this filmic tradition of outer space to inner space, get away from the laser gun and the ray gun, and go back to sci-fi that's more internal and psychedelic, in the tradition of what Philip K. Dick was doing and what Rod Serling was doing. There's a whole tradition of that that's much less explored than the ray gun sci-fi. There's still fun stuff to do with that, but it's less interesting to me.
If you think about it, for the last 50-60 years we've been seeing steel cans floating around in space and there's no reason why they should be made out of steel or in any shape because there's no friction up there; they can be any shape. They can be made out of anything. So instead of having trucks in space, we said no more trucks in space, let's get rid of that and go for something else. We slowly evolved to this bubble ship. What's the best thing? To have this view when you're in space. When you think about it, you have little portholes from Star Trek to Battlestar Galactica today, and we wanted to throw all that out and rethink it.
Filmstew: When you talk about psychedelics, I was wondering if that last bit in 2001, if that had any influence on you?
Aronofsky: 2001 is an influence in the sense that—we're coming up on the 40th anniversary of the film—and if you watch that film now, it's pretty seamless as far as the effects. You can see through some of them, but they're just incredible, and I can only imagine in 1969 when you sat down and saw them for the first time what it would have been like to experience something that radically different and that authentic that it still holds up 40 years [later]. I think that's because they basically invented a lot of techniques and worked hard to create complete truth and a full realism. I think that was an inspiration to try to create something that was that cohesive that it would hold up so that, when audiences go to see it today, they won't see how we did it, they won't see the magic trick. Now you see so much CGI in today's landscape that—even in some of the most expensive films of the summer—they cut to a CGI shot and it looks like a cartoon. It doesn't look real. I know that in a couple of years, even CGI that's really good, two years go by, you look back at it and it's suddenly like, oh, now I see what they did, now I see how they did it. We wanted to make something truly real. That's why we went for this whole organic approach. 98% of the film is CGI-free. Everything was basically photographed—you probably read in the press notes it was all shot through a microscope, it's all chemical reactions, and all about the size of a postage stamp. It was a new way of doing things and, hopefully, gives a new look to space.
Greencine: Your microphotography actually provoked a visceral response in me that was very similar to watching Stanley Brakhage films. I was curious if you viewed any experimental films in preparation for this? Your metaphysics plays in very well with his.
Aronofsky: I don't know his work but I will check it out. I know the name. I think while researching The Fountain we did look at some experimental filmmakers. At film school I studied animation and was exposed to a lot of different techniques you could do by hand, and a lot of experimental ideas, so that gave me the confidence that there had to be someone out there who was doing interesting things with film and I was really open to going abstract. Rather than going CGI, I was, like, let's go really abstract. We were looking at a lot of cubist [art] and a lot of painters from the 1920s [who] did a lot of stark paintings and we were thinking about doing stuff like that if we couldn't acquire something as real as what Peter [Parks]—the guy who did the microphotography—did for us.
Twitch: Abstraction seems to answer the earlier question about how you structured your science fiction not as technological but as ideological and conceptual.
Aronofsky: Yes, exactly.
Twitch: What struck me was the temporal concept, the slippage in time. One of the main things I learned about Maya cosmology in my studies was that their understanding of time was not based upon tense—as we structure time—but upon aspect, so that for them everything is happening all the time, not necessarily sequentially. That's how they recorded time in their art. Their art is not about events that have happened but about events that are continually happening. I was wondering if you were aware of that?
Aronofsky: I wasn't aware of that either. [Laughs.] I'm sorry. That's the great thing. It's weird. For instance, the conquistador sequence when he dies with flowers bursting out of him, I wrote that and it was one of those unconscious moments that you hope for as a writer when you're just typing along and suddenly you forget what time it is and then you look and you're like, wow, that's a really cool scene. That was one of the first scenes I wrote and we rewrote for four or five years but it basically stayed the same. Then when I started to research the Mayans, there was a whole thing about how—when great warriors die—flowers and butterflies come out of them. I actually had written butterflies as well but we couldn't do it because that would have meant CGI and I didn't want to do it. So I cut the butterflies out. But it's weird how you can tap into that type of stuff without being fully aware of it.
Twitch: And Maya kings are flowering trees. When you look at the stelae, which are stone trees, the kings have flowering ear spools, and are personified as flowering ceiba trees.
Aronofsky: It all ties in.
/Film: Can you talk a little bit about what happened with the first incarnation of the film with Brad Pitt?
Aronofsky: What happened with it is that it ended up in a graphic novel, which is out in hardcover and softcover in the marketplace. [Laughs.] That's what happened with it. It fell apart. We were seven weeks away from shooting and Brad lost faith in the material. Who knows what happened? When you're working with someone for two years and you break up, it's not that you break up because someone left the toothpaste cap off the toothpaste. It was much more complicated. It was a lot of stuff. Basically, we ended up in different places. It didn't work out.
Filmstew: Then you hit on Jackman when you saw The Boy From Oz? Can you describe getting from Peter Allen to The Fountain?
Aronofsky: I know, when you think of Hugh playing Peter Allen, a singer-songwriter from Australia who was married to Liza Minnelli, and then playing Tom, it was a stretch. I saw it and it didn't click right away. I was blown away by his performance [as Allen]. He was just tremendous: the charisma, the passion, the power, the energy, the charm, it was endless. Standing ovation every night for however long his run was, ten months, standing ovations where people were screaming and crying. It didn't connect right away. I went backstage and he said, "What are you doing next?" And I said, "I'm still working on this film The Fountain." I said, "What do you want to do?" He said, "I want to be in your film." He was very aggressive. He talks about it because he knows my face went like…. [Aronofsky mimes an incredulous face.] Because I didn't see it right then. Then a few days went by and I was like: he clearly wants to work with me, he's clearly very talented and, even though I don't quite see it, let him read the script and see what happens. So I gave him the script and he finished the show and the next morning he called me before 9:00 a.m. and said, "I want to do it." I said, "All right, let's get together" and we talked. He understood the material and he got it. It was clear that the stuff that the film was talking about was stuff that he had been thinking about for his life. He had some questions and he had some ideas and we just connected. That's why we went together.
Greencine: Why in your exposition in the perpetual Adam and Eve, is Adam a conquistador?
Aronofsky: What's your take on it? You think that this is an extension of Adam and Eve?
Greencine: What you've been speaking to, your symbols are all neutral, but they have a base in some religious mythos, any religion, lots of them, and the imagery just duplicates and replicates ad infinitum, and in the beginning you have your Genesis quote about Adam and Eve, and in each of the incarnations of this sacred marriage, he's some kind of a conqueror so I'm curious why.
Aronofsky: That's really interesting and I like that theory and I don't think we ever thought about that. But I like that a lot because it's true. I would love to run through that in my head before I answer that about how it plays out with the Adam and Eve myth for each time period because I bet you it does. But I don't think, once again, it was fully conscious, that element of it. Clearly, we were playing with all those myths. One of the final images of the film is when the star explodes and it shoots his body and he reins back and the stuff comes down. I mean, it's right there on the poster. [Aronofsky gets up and goes over to a display of the poster.] I didn't realize that this glyph here is that glyph from the tombstone at Palenque, the guy laying on his back with the tree of life coming out of his stomach, which is also in the film, but if you look at that image of him sprawled back, it's the same posture exactly as it is there. I was staring at that image for months, maybe even years, studying it and trying to figure it out, before I realized, until it got on the poster, I was like, "Oh my gosh, that's the exact same position as what we did in that visual effect I've also been working on for two years." The way it all ties together is strange when you're working with myth. I think it comes out in a very unconscious way. And I'm curious if it's something where we're programmed from when we first read our three-page books, which I'm reading now to my son, looking to see how much myth is in there, or if we're actually wired in some way for this stuff to be in there? I don't know which it is but it's definitely, I know when I write about this stuff it comes out in weird ways.
Twitch: I think when things are mythic, they're very natural, and nature abhors a vacuum. That's why the human imagination is drawn into the vast, empty spaces of a myth. Your film is very much like 2001 because it will exactly do what it's doing right here—we will all read into it who we are and what our quest is.
Aronofsky: The Fountain is dealing with all these huge issues. It's asking those same questions that all people have been asking since the beginning of time. Why are we here? What is life? What is death? What happens when you die? Can you love? What is love? Can you love forever? Those are the big questions and no one can answer them. There are no answers. There are just ideas that we can think about and talk about. That's what The Fountain is for me: those late night conversations you had with your college room mates where you basically sat around and talked about what is consciousness? What is existence? That's, for me, what the exercise of the film was about, it was to explore these big questions and to explore the big questions I think everyone has to come into it and start thinking about how they answer those questions for themselves.
Twitch: Questions create the space. The actual Maya myth is that First Father goes to Xibalba, lifts the World Tree and positions it so that it becomes the axis that separates darkness from light, in order to create the space, the necessary atmosphere, to become conscious.
Aronofsky: Yes. After that, where do you want to go from there? [Laughs.] Let's talk more about Brad Pitt!!
Filmstew: Actually, I have a hard time imagining Brad Pitt in The Fountain.
Aronofsky: I think he would have done good. Did you see him in Babel? I think he's acting great now.
/Film: Before you came in, we were talking about that: I can't imagine Brad Pitt in The Fountain.
Aronofsky: We would have had fun. We would have gotten there. But Hugh was just fantastic! Most people wouldn't have imagined Hugh in it either because they know Hugh as Wolverine, right? It opened up a lot of things for Hugh, which is great.
Filmstew: He keeps getting back in the film to the issue that he's trying to create immortality essentially. But you can't really have immortality. There's only a finite amount of space. It would be such a barren world.
Aronofsky: Absolutely. Yes. Humanity is defined by mortality. That's what the story of Genesis is about. They drank from the Tree of Knowledge and before they drank from the Tree of Life, they were kicked out. The question is—if they had drank from the Tree of Life—what would have separated them from their maker? So what makes us human is actually Death. It makes us special.
Greencine: Your symbols are largely neutral but right now, when this film comes out, we're in a country that's very divided by religion. Pi exposes certainly a lot of sentiments about faith. In this film you don't point to any religious orientation but I'm curious about your awareness that you're putting out this film that has a lot of mythic undertones, overtones—no, it is a myth.
Aronofsky: There is a lot of religious influences. The film starts out with a quote from Genesis. There's all this Mayan religion throughout the film. There's Buddhist imagery throughout the film. There's ideas about reincarnation, of energy and matter, from a Hindu tradition. I've always been into the connections between different religions because I'm not really psyched about organized religion. What interests me is that there's a spiritual truth that connects all religions, a shelf underneath them. If you think about the Genesis story and the Tree of Life mentioned in the Genesis story, and in the Mayan tradition there's a Tree of Life, and in the Buddhist tradition of transcendence happening beneath the Tree. The ancient Jews and the Mayans were probably separated by tens of thousands of years—who knows how long they were apart?—if they still have similar myths, it makes me think that there's actually something that connects us and that makes us human altogether, as opposed to saying my religion is right and my grasp of the spirituality is right. I'm into the pan-spiritual connection.
/Film: What can we expect in your future? You have a lot of projects in development.
Aronofsky: All of them in development are nonsense. Don't listen to the IMdb or any of the Internet chatter.
/Film: When will we get the episode of Lost?
Aronofsky: We are developing a lot of new stuff. We're developing something that's really really big and we're also developing something that's really really small. I don't know which will be first. It depends on which one we put together first. We haven't put either together yet. [/Film has done their gumshoe work and culled some threads about what that project might be.] I keep forgetting to download this week's episode of Lost. Was it good this last week?
Aronofsky: Ssssh. Don't tell me anymore. I got to go download it. I don't know. We'll see what happens. If the schedules work out. I really wanted to do it but it got messed up last year.
Twitch: My final question is, as a director—and something of a controversial director in each of the projects you've done—what kind of a belljar do you use to protect yourself from the divisive reaction this film has received? One evening booed and the next evening standing ovations. How do you manage that?
Aronofsky: I've always made divisive films. Whenever you try to make something new, something different, some people are going to want to hang with it, some people are going to shut down. I had the same kind of response on Requiem and the same response on Pi. So I'm very used to it. I know the amount of labor and love that went into The Fountain and, for me, it represents that work so I'm very proud of it. It's interesting because it's not the critics that judge films anymore, it's the public. Because of the Internet, you get people writing in and creating dialogue and that's what you want to do: you want to make an impact. When you get a 20-year-old kid writing three pages on a talkback about your film, that's the victory for me. It means that kid has a great experience with it. That's what I'm trying to do.