TURN OUT: DARREN ARONOFSKY’S “BLACK SWAN”
This piece was originally printed in the Fall 2010 issue. Black Swan is nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Darren Aronofsky), Best Actress (Natalie Portman), Best Cinematography (Matthew Libatique), Best Editing (Andrew Weisblum).
Darren Aronofsky was developing a project based on Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novella, The Double, when he happened to go to a production of another Russian work, Swan Lake, the 1875 ballet composed by Peter Tchaikovsky. Seeing the ballet’s White Swan and Black Swan played by the same ballerina, Aronofsky experienced what he called a “Eureka” moment, realizing that The Double’s themes of splintering identity and possible schizophrenic breakdown could be found in the classic ballet.
Something else could be found there too — an early incarnation of the highly disciplined, sometimes punishing work ethic and training regimen that turns the most gifted students into beautiful ballerinas while clouding the futures of those with less talent. Swan Lake has been produced in many versions over the years, but the roots of most contemporary productions are the 1895 Russian production choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. The Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani danced both lead roles, and she famously introduced the physically demanding 32 fouettés into the ballet’s “Black Swan Pas de Deux.” After Legnani, fouettés became a standard requirement of a ballerina, with the ability to do 32 a certification of her skill and endurance.
In Aronofsky’s darkly seductive, deliriously entertaining Black Swan, Natalie Portman plays Nina, a New York City Ballet ballerina whose life is still defined by the dreams a young girl has of dancing on the big stage. When she’s not rehearsing she lives with her clingy, slightly bitter and overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey) in a run-down Manhattan apartment building. In Thérèz DePrez’s production design, her bedroom is that of a child’s, its fairy-tale furnishings now more disturbing than playful. She has no romantic relationships and, indeed, as articulated by the company’s brilliant director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the question of her ability to perform the lead role in Swan Lake has more to do with unlocking her sexuality than dancing 32 fouettés. Dostoevsky’s doppelganger intrudes in the form of the sexy Lily (Mila Kunis), Nina’s possibly traitorous understudy. Is Lily out to get Nina and steal her part? Is Nina mentally breaking down? Or, to reference another film about dreams and reality, is Nina the architect of her own inception, the author of an emotional storyline that will allow her to tap into the dark places her Black Swan needs to go?
No matter how far out Black Swan itself goes — like Requiem for a Dream, it has a brilliantly over-the-top last act, including a last line for Nina that is as chilling as it is triumphant — it remains grounded in recognizable psychology. As Aronofsky says here, the film is something of a companion piece to The Wrestler in that both movies deal with characters whose relationship to themselves is dependent on their bodies’ ability to perform for others. If The Wrestler depicted the issues surrounding a man no longer able to do his own form of the 32 fouettés, Black Swan captures a character on the other side of the fame curve. Mixing character drama and suspense, horror and dance and recalling films as diverse as Suspiria, Repulsion and The Red Shoes, Black Swan is a sensuous shocker that leaves you thinking, and is an exhilarating tour de force for both Aronofsky and Portman. I spoke with Aronofsky shortly after he returned from Toronto where the film received its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Fox Searchlight opens the film December 1.
So what were the origins of Black Swan?
When I graduated from film school I made a list of projects [set in] worlds that I thought were interesting. Wrestling was one of them, and ballet was another one. My sister was a dancer when I was a kid, and she got pretty serious, all the way through high school. So it was something that I grew up with in the background. When we were coming [up] with Requiem for a Dream, Andres [Heinz]’s script showed up, there was a little bidding war, and Phoenix [Pictures] got it. I couldn’t make a deal with Phoenix at the time, so they went off and developed it. That script was set in the Off-Broadway theater world. I always thought that converting [this script] to the ballet world might be really interesting. The project stayed in my head, but I started going back to different source material. I tried to develop something out of Dostoevsky’s The Double set in the ballet world, and then one day I went to see Swan Lake. I had never seen it before, and seeing a black swan and white swan played by the same ballerina, suddenly a light went off in my head because there I had the whole doppelganger thing. And even better than The Double, it had a really, really strong character divide — one was white, one was black. I had kind of a “Eureka!” moment. At that point, Phoenix had not gotten it anywhere, and I went back to them and asked them if they would let me give it a shot. I brought on this writer, John McLaughlin, who I had worked with on some TV stuff. He’s a very strong writer, and he made the conversion into the ballet world, but it didn’t go far enough. Then, when we were finishing up The Wrestler, I turned to one of my producers, Mark Heyman, who’s also a writer, and said, “Would you like to give that ballet project a shot?” And then we really dove in. We went back to Swan Lake, the ballet, and we tried to take a lot from that. For me, the film is very much a version of Swan Lake. It’s a fairy tale.
Both this film and particularly The Wrestler tell almost traditional stories. In The Wrestler, it’s the “one last chance at glory” film, and with this film you have a character struggling to achieve success through her art. But both films are very bold in their treatment of these stories, particularly in the way you’ve infused the narrative with the subjectivity of the characters. I’m wondering how much of this process you feel you capture in the screenplay form. Do you feel your films exist “on the page,” so to speak?
I’ve always had that problem with my scripts, not really representing what the final film is. I don’t know how scripts ever do that. Just so much is in the process of the filmmaking, and so much invention can happen in the filmmaking. You’ve got to really be open when you’re on set to the moment and what actors are doing and allow them to explore stuff. On The Wrestler and Black Swan especially, the camera started to become a character of its own. How we blocked scenes became very, very fluid and moveable because we had a moving handheld camera. So I’ve always looked at screenplays as blueprints.
Looking back on all your films, your earlier work felt more controlled in terms of its staging and its compositions. What made you decide to adopt a looser approach to shooting?
The first three films, Pi, Requiem and The Fountain, were definitely a trilogy of sorts. They were a progression of a certain type of filmmaking, which I think climaxed with The Fountain, where every single element was designed and controlled. After The Fountain, I wanted to do something very, very different. Casting Mickey [Rourke] and connecting with his kind of approach, which was very much in the moment and unprepared, was exciting. But there are a lot of influences on me that created this style I came up for in The Wrestler and Black Swan. My teacher from film school was a director named Miklós Janscó, a Hungarian director who did very, very long takes way before Alfonso [Cuarón] did it in Children of Men. He was doing 35-minute takes back in the ’50s. He’d shoot [special] loads of 35mm that he invented. I was always attracted to these long, sweeping, kind of following takes on characters, and continuous shots. And I was also trained and interested in cinema vérité and documentary. But if you look at the similarity between all five films, it’s that they are all character studies. That was the first assignment we had in film school, to do a character study. I think I never quite broke out of that.
I went back and watched two films before this interview. Repulsion and The Red Shoes.
The Red Shoes has got a tremendous amount of emotion and truth in it, but we weren’t influenced by it at all. I think by the time Scorsese reunearthed it, we were deep into [the development] of this. It is interesting they have sort of similar stories, but I think that’s because they are both based in the ballet world, and that’s the story of ballet.
What The Red Shoes does have is this idea of the performer’s space on stage turning into her psychological space. I thought you did this beautifully as well. Beyond the dancing sequences, though, I thought Black Swan succeeded by not falling into a kind of “is it real or is it a dream?” thing. So many movies that employ subjective point-of-view play out as puzzles.
Well, I’ve been interested in subjective filmmaking for a long time, from Pi. We tried to put boundaries on that film by just making a purely subjective movie. The Wrestler, it’s not really a subjective film, it’s an objective film. You’re following him, but you never get to see any of his visions. Taking that vérité feel and applying it to Black Swan, but bringing in subjective filmmaking, POVs, and really getting into her emotion — [this movie] combines stuff that I have been doing throughout my filmmaking career. It was a real cinematic tightrope walk, trying to figure out how much to give the audience about what they’re seeing and what they’re not seeing. You can go too far, and then everyone in the audience goes, “Oh, I saw something!” So the question is, “What is a little bit at a time? Is it seven frames or five frames?” It was just a careful balance with every effect shot, trying to figure out how far we could go. And there were a lot of fun things to play with because we were shooting widescreen. I would know if Natalie [Portman] was over here on the left side of the screen. I might be able to do something on the right side of the screen that’s very slight that maybe 40 percent of the audience would pick up peripherally. There are a lot of tricks like that.
What kind of tricks?
Well, most mirrors in the film are manipulated in some ways. Things will be happening in the reflections.
Throughout the whole movie?
Throughout the whole movie, things like shifting the timings on Natalie’s image in the reflections. We did a lot of things. We spent a lot of time trying to get doubles for Natalie, and we had a whole slew of them. Some of them could dance, some of them had the right hands, some of them had the right feet, some of them had the right shoulders, the back of her head. So we had all these different types of doubles to play with with Natalie.
You talked a moment ago about “how far is too far” to go with some of these effects and the POV experiments. How did you calibrate this?
For me, the question [relates to] what I do in a lot of my films, which is blend genres together. Black Swan is not really a genre film, but there are a lot of genre elements. I think when you start blending genres together, people who like certain genres might not like other genres. Some people who like psychological thrillers might have some issues with some of the horror in the film. So there were some concerns about that. But at a certain point, I had to throw up my hands and go with what I felt was most organic and truthful to the story. If it’s any genre, it’s some type of Gothic ballet genre. A lot of ballets are really Gothic and tragic fairy tales. That’s the kind of the tone I was going for.
How did you find your choreographer, and what went into selecting him?
Benjamin Millepied, who’s the choreographer, he’s a young guy, in his early thirties, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, and he’s a rising star in the choreography world. What I liked about his work was that it was definitely “classical ballet;” I didn’t want to make a film about modern dance, I wanted to make it about ballet. But he also grew up and spent time in Africa, and brought in lots of modern and African elements to [the choreography]. There’s an energy to [his work] that I thought was more youthful — something an audience like myself would connect to. When we first met, he was very fascinated by filmmaking. A lot of people in the ballet world couldn’t give a shit about film. He even asked me to look at a scene from Pickpocket, so I was like, “Okay, that’s interesting.” He probably came on in the fall [of 2009]; we started shooting in the winter. He helped train Mila [Kunis] and Natalie and sort of took over the ballet department — not the coordinating of it, but training the actors, teaching them the choreography and designing the choreography with me. It was a really fascinating process, because most of the time I’ll work with an actor, I’ll explain something to them, and then I’ll see them turn it into an emotion. With him, I would explain it to him, and it would turn into movement. I would tell him what that scene is about — like seduction, or innocence — and he would create something with Mattie [Matthew Libatique], my d.p., with a little video camera. We would start to move around and figure out what the basic camera movement would be. And then eventually we would get to set, with the spotlights and stage lights and all the production lights, and there were all these shadow nightmares. Mattie would need time to figure out how he was going to switch spots so the camera could slide by. So to get those really moving shots in advance, especially during the big performance in the end, was much more complicated than the smoothness that hopefully we portray [would indicate].
How long did that sequence take?
There were three acts of the ballet, and we shot each act in a day.
And Natalie had been training to do the ballet for quite a while before this?
Way before. She had already been training with a lot of other dancers. When Benjamin came on, he brought on some extremely qualified people. Natalie had gotten incredible physical training, and the really great basic training is from this woman, Mary Helen Bowers, who was a dancer with the New York City Ballet. And then we brought in these retired prima ballerinas who were the best teachers in town to come in and work with her. And the reason we were able to get them is because Benjamin kind of gave us his stamp of approval.
How long was Natalie attached to the project?
Natalie and I talked about it eight, nine years ago. We met at the Howard Johnson’s in Times Square. We had a coffee, and she was like a junior or sophomore in college. At that point I think I had lost the script, and I was trying to develop [a ballet story] on my own.
Had she been a dancer before?
She danced till she was 13. Then she got The Professional and became an actress. But I think those nine years [dancing] as a kid gave her a certain type of body structure that allowed a lot of things to rest on it when she went back.
How long had she been working in earnest before you did your movie? Your financing kept falling in and out, she had to have been working during that time.
I think probably for years, she would go on and off and stay in shape through ballet. And then about a year before we started she got into it, and started working with Mary Helen. It was going to be three months, but then the film kept pushing back, so for six months she was into really hardcore training. Losing weight, working five hours a day, swimming, cross-training, all different types of stuff. And she’s a really hard worker. I thought getting Mickey to become a wrestler was really hard, but it was nothing like becoming a ballet dancer in a convincing way because, as you know, these people spend 20 years to do what they do. When we were a month out, I remember going in and seeing Natalie [rehearse], and I got a little nervous, because she wasn’t even capturing the grace yet. Something didn’t click for her. And then at a certain point something did click. She said that [by then] she had lost enough weight. That could be it, but I don’t know. Natalie [weighs] nothing to begin with.
You know, it’s interesting because forget the physicality, forget the dance, in nine years she must have changed a lot as a person. She can’t have been the same person you first met.
I was [originally] interested in Natalie because I always saw her as a girl, and I liked the idea of turning her into a woman on-screen. I thought, no one has tried to do this. Mike Nichols tried to do it in Closer, but that was a small enough role. But then when I’d hang out with her, I’d realize she was a woman. She would just keep getting cast as a very young girl because of her beauty and her youthfulness.
How long was the shoot?
I don’t think it was more than 40 days. Thirty-five days, I think.
I read a little bit about financing falling in and out. I would think that after your last film, you’d be able to write your own ticket.
I thought, okay, ballet is a little weird, but it’s sexy, and I’ve got Natalie Portman, who’s a bonafide movie star. I’ve got Vincent Cassel, who’s an international movie star. Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey and Mila Kunis — an incredible supporting cast. And we couldn’t get the money. Every single financing source in town turned us down. In fact, I think it was harder to raise the money than it was for The Wrestler. We had to do the paperwork on it three times because we had two different teams of investors come in and then fall apart.
Why did they fall apart? Because they didn’t have the money, or because something happened to dissuade them?
I think we got scammed. I think the whole idea was, you get involved, and you don’t really have the money, but because you’re involved in this quality [project]… it’ll turn into something. Someone did that to us. They thought they could rock and roll for a little bit because they had a little amount of the money, which they did. And then as the rocks started to roll, they thought more moss would be attracted, and they would sort of come along for the ride, which they did. But they kind of bluffed, and they fucked us. Fox Searchlight came in and saved the day, literally two weeks before [shooting].
How did you get Fox in at the last minute? I presume they looked at it earlier and passed.
Fox was always a bit iffy about [the film] because they didn’t really understand the genre of it or who it was for. But I think as we got close enough, the cast had filled out nicely, and the script had gotten better. I also have an old-time relationship with Claudia [Lewis], and I said, “You got to put your neck out on the line for this one.” It was funny because when we were selling The Wrestler, it was between Fox and someone else and she was like, “C’mon, you’ve known me forever, you’ve gotta do this.” I went back to her with the same line, and she really did put her neck out and got the company to rally behind me.
How do you like to work with actors? Do you like to rehearse a lot, or are you more a “work it out on the set” person?
I think I’m pretty demanding when I get on set because we have a limited amount of time, and that’s what we’ve all been working for. I feel like it’s sacred time because it’s the reason we’re there. It’s not time to mess around, it’s time to get the work done. But it also has to remain loose and fun so that everyone can create. Actors need to be loose and free to express themselves. They don’t want to walk into a sterile environment, they just want to have fun. Ultimately that’s what it comes down to, wanting fun. I guess I’m serious enough to want fun.
How do you create an atmosphere of fun in a movie like this one that both requires difficult physical work and is so dark emotionally?
It’s all about movement. It’s about the intensity that an actor may be feeling in a scene. That lasts 20, 30 seconds, then it’s “cut.” And then everyone’s making jokes, people are making fun of each other and it gets really relaxed.
A friend of mine once told me about a film she worked on where the lead actress had to play depressed and seemed to actually be in a depressed state the whole film.
See, I don’t know — certain actors have that process. Sure, when you call cut, it’s not all gone, and if you’re going to do another take right away, they maintain it, but I’m not sure you need to — [filmmaking] is make-believe. I think that whole [staying in character] stuff is a little bit ego gratification, and also I think it’s an insecurity. It’s like, nothing’s going on, so how can you actually be that depressed character when you’re sitting in a makeup trailer? That character wouldn’t be in that makeup trailer getting mascara on. None of it’s real. To maintain that reality all that time and then someone goes “Action,” and you’re still there? I don’t get that. It’s like, someone calls “Action,” and then it’s real. You try to ignore this $200,000 piece of equipment and these bright lights and all these people looking at you. You try to ignore it and focus on what’s going on in front of you. So I’m not sure about that [other] process yet. I haven’t run into an actor like that yet. We’ll see what happens when I do.