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6 Lessons on Filmmaking From Darren Aronofsky

Last evening, The New Museum held a conversation between Lynne Tillman and Darren Aronofsky as part of their annual Stuart Regen Visionaries Series. Tillman began with an excerpt from Genesis, a winking reference to Aronofsky’s Noah as well as the frequent depiction of beginnings — of identities and obsession — in his work. Over the next hour and a half, the two parsed through his filmography in chronological order, weighing in on themes and construction. Below are a few major takeaways from the discussion, and if time is not of the essence, the full version can be viewed above.

Using Format to Create Cohesion

Per Aronofsky, filmmaking is about “how to make things blend.” With Pi, his decision to use black and white reversal film immediately pulled together elements he felt were otherwise divergent. In creating this alternate world, the high contrast visuals functioned as a suspension of disbelief.

Film as an Exercise in Subjectivity

What sets film apart from theater is its ability to “put an audience in a character’s mind.” While Pi was told from Max Cohen’s perspective, Requiem for a Dream juggled four points of view, which determined Aronofsky’s use of split screen. Additionally, the “hip hop montages,” with their rapid edits, were intended to mirror the all-consuming repetition of addiction.

The Benefits of Rule Making 

“What I love about rules,” Aronofsky said, “is they make you save money.” In determining Pi’s sense of subjectivity, Aronofsky decided with d.p. Matthew Libatique to only shoot over Max’s shoulder when framing another character. Such an axiom saves time in a pinch, and in filmmaking, we all know time is money.

Bridge Scenes When Adapting Novels

Aronofsky related a few interesting interactions he had with Hubert Selby, Jr., the idiosyncratic author of Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream. After cold calling him from a WGA listing while he was still a graduate student at AFI, Aronofsky and Selby, Jr. forged a friendship, and collaborated on the script for Requiem by each writing their own version. Aronofsky then welded the two strikingly similar adaptations together by asking Selby, Jr. to create exchanges that could effectively bridge scenes. It all goes to show there is no one way to collaborate or adapt another work.

Embrace, But Reconfigure, Clichés

Though his detractors make argue otherwise, Aronofsky claims, “there’s nothing wrong with a cliché, it’s just how you execute it.” In speaking about The Fountain, Aronofsky said it was just a regular story of “a guy trying to save his love, told in a different way.”

Be Persistent 

Pointing out the semi-obvious, Aronofsky commented that you have to be obsessive about making a film, but not necessarily all the time. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Be “steadfast” with a project; remember that you will have a thousand people say no before one says yes, but “persistence is key.” Find whatever excites you about making a particular script — a shot, the story, the characters — and hold onto it.

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