Sean Gullette as Max Cohen in
Photo: Matthew Libatique
Film is a collaborative artform but few first-time films profit so richly from communal filmmaking energy as , Darren Aronofskys arresting no-budget thriller. Produced and co-scripted by Eric Watson and starring Sean Gullette (who also co-wrote), the film was very much a a group effort over a lengthy two-year development and production process. Finished in time for Sundance 98, the film won Aronofsky the Directors Award at Sundance, a lucrative distribution deal from Artisan Entertainment, and a seven-figure payday on his next movie.
While has probably launched a handful of careers, more importantly, its kept alive the notion of viable and challenging no-budget production. (s complete budget up to the 35mm print that was screened at Sundance is included here.) No-budget films are harder and harder to make these days. Crews are burnt out, state labor departments are cracking down on unpaid labor, and few filmmakers have the visual imagination to make their no-budget movies anything more than static slacker pics. The 16mm, black-and-white, however, is different. Replacing stunts with ideas, action sequences with imagistic montages, and special effects with an eerie reimagining of New York City, shows that the no-budget filmmaking can be both intellectually provocative and entertaining.
Filmmaker: In terms of guessing this films inspirations, it seems like you jumped a decade past the standard 70s movie influences of your generation to 60s paranoia films like Mirage and Point Blank.
Darren Aronofsky: Actually, Polanskis got a lot of responsibility here. But a big influence on was Tokyo Fist by Tsukamoto, the guy who did Tetsuo. He just went out and, in a low-tech way, created his own style. We were like, "He can do it, so were going to do it." The problem with Tsukamoto is that hes not a strong narrative filmmaker. I love stories, and I started with the idea of taking these interesting ways to shoot things and applying them to a normal narrative film.
Filmmaker: So youre more story oriented than some of your contemporaries?
Aronofsky: Im a story junky. Titanic you know exactly whats going to happen the whole time, yet emotionally it works on millions of people. And I think thats not a problem. The problem is how to take stories and push the limits of film grammar and structure. Pulp Fiction was structured great, but it still had very traditional setups and payoffs. Film is like humor setup, setup, setup, punchline. And thats how you tell stories. You set them up and then pay them off.
Filmmaker: How did you guys all meet and then decide to make this movie?
Eric Watson: Darren and I came up to the Independent Feature Film Market [IFFM] three years ago and saw that there was a film community here in New York and that this was the place to make movies.
Filmmaker: What film did you come to the IFFM with?
Watson: Nothing. As a vacation.
Filmmaker: You went to the IFFM as a vacation?!
Watson: I had never been to New York before, and I had the most amazing eight days of my life. I moved out here two months later. The goal was to make a movie in two years, which is what we did. The whole filmmaking process for us [involved] blind ignorance. We would meet with people and say, "We are making this movie no matter what!" We just had to throw away those fears, and it was a little easier to do that here in New York. I think it also comes down to finding a crew, finding people like Sean. I work in commercial production to make a living, and I got lucky in that Scott Vogel, my co-producer, had been working in the production community here for six or seven years. So we were able to get a free lighting package. As for crew, if you believe in something you can find other people to believe in it. Theyre not going to be the most A-list crew in the world, but they are people who are in some ways more motivated because they believe in the script and the people that are making it.
|Director Darren Aronofsky Photo: Sue Johnson.|
Filmmaker: So why do you think it didnt get done?
Aronofsky: It was much more ambitious than as far as the budget, but I think the real reason was at that time I didnt have partners. I was going out there alone. I think one of the biggest things I learned from is that partners can help you get it done. Whenever you are slacking, those guys slap you around, and whenever theyre slacking you can slap them around.
Filmmaker: It seems like every filmmaker who is working independently has that first-time coming-of-age movie.
Aronofsky: I did too, I just couldnt get it made!
Filmmaker: How much footage did you shoot on?
Watson: Fifty-three thousand feet of 16mm. Twenty-three hours. That was over a 28-day period as well.
Filmmaker: Where was the principle apartment?
Watson: We built it. Scotts father has a lighting warehouse out in Bushwick, which is a pretty grim area. Warehouses, stray dogs, police cars driving around. We found this back room there, gutted it, and built the set. It was cold. It wasnt the best situation in the world, but at the same time, for no money, it allowed us to have a set.
Sean Gullette: It became our sound stage. We developed this very dense homemade supercomputer which was scavenged from dozens and dozens of old 286s and IBM machines.
Filmmaker: How did you go about developing the story and central character?
Gullette: I think this films merits come very much out of the choices that were made about how to develop it. And one was to develop the character and the script simultaneously. Darren and I had an initial idea for a character sort of an aesthetic and a psychic state. And we built Max up from that.
Aronofsky: I had this one [script idea] called Chip in the Head. Sean was the only actor I knew in New York, and I had an image of him standing in front of a mirror with an exacto blade digging into his brain and pulling out a microchip. So I talked to Sean and he said, "O.k., Ill give you eight months to workshop this." And in eight months it basically came together. I dont know how. All these different themes just sort of evolved.
Filmmaker: What about the various philosophies in the movie, like the idea of the spiral unifying theory of nature? Where did that idea come from?
Aronofsky: Personal observation.
Filmmaker: Im sure that idea is out there and people follow it.
Aronofsky: Oh, yeah. I started to realize it afterwards. I was in a vintage bookstore last week, and there was a self-published book about a guy who was applying the golden mean and the golden spiral to the stock market. And I was like, "Thats my movie!" It was just a book published in 1991 by some crackpot. And then theres a theorist named Dan Winters. How did we find Dan Winters?
Watson: On the Internet.
Aronofsky: He has this really great website with all these ideas about shape and humanity. He sent me his books, and it turned out that he had taken the Jewish characters and shown how geometrically the letters were tied into mathematical formulas. We used Hebrew in a totally different way, but he was deconstructing the alphabet, actually saying that the geometry of the letters had cosmic meaning. Which made me start to think that filmmaking itself is, in many ways, like paranoia. They tell you in all the screenwriting courses that everything should come down to that one character or one theme. And thats exactly how paranoids think. They look at the world and think that everything is related to them. And as filmmakers we are constantly trying to construct universes where everything ties into one character.
Watson: And that idea fits this character extremely well. One of the big metaphysical polarities of the film is the idea of a scientist who is desperately driven to find order in this world, and that also becomes an emotional problem for him.
|Sean Guillette and Shenkman in Photo: Matthew Libatique|
Filmmaker: One thing I really liked about the movie was the way that the mathematical ideas advanced the narrative in a very economical way. is structured as a quest movie. But early in the film you have a scene where the older guy tells Max that he may find this spiral pattern hes looking for but its not going to be significant because anyone can find this pattern anywhere. Its a coincidence of nature. At this point, the whole value of the quest itself is called into question, and the narrative stakes are raised.
Aronofsky: What I think youre saying is that we were able to pull off an ambiguity is this really happening or not?
Filmmaker: Yes, but theres a sense of narrative gamesmanship going on. There are lots of movies about deranged guys going mad in their apartments. A lot of these films buy into their protagonists too much. The audience loses sympathy for them. But with this scene Im referring to, you throw in a dash of skepticism that makes the story more unpredictable.
Aronofsky: If we had said, "This is totally the truth. What you are watching is reality," I think the audience would have gone, "No way."
Filmmaker: That scene not only ups the narrative stakes we wonder if the film will find a satisfactory end to the protagonists quest but it also makes the quest more universal. Maxs search is really the search we all undertake, the search for meaning in our lives.
Watson: It doesnt have to be math, it could be politics, anything. The important thing is how that draws the character forward through the narrative. Its narrative skill that makes [the quest] be more than a Maguffin.
Aronofsky: Early on, we wondered, how is an audience going to like Max Cohen? He is cold and emotionally shut down. We had some faith in Seans charisma, but then we also gave the character some cool traits. Thats where the character of the little girl comes in. When, in the beginning of the film, Max solves the math problem for the little girl, (a) it convinces the audience that this guy is a math genius in a sort of comedic way, and (b) you can see that while hes shut off and shut down, at least hes not extremely rude to the girl. The audience can sense that hes trying to reach out; he just cant.
Filmmaker: What inspired these sort of non-narrative montages that punctuate the film, like the shots of trees swaying in the breeze?
Aronofsky: The trees were ultimately Seans idea, actually. I sent Sean up to the country to work on diary entries for the character. He had an epiphany there, came back, and said, "There has to be a scene where the character goes to Central Park and he stares out at the trees." Eric and I were like, "Not a chance." I had another symbol for nature I wanted to use, the Chinatown symbol. But eventually I figured out a way to shoot the trees that for me would be interesting, and that was to change the frames per second. At first Max is staring at the trees, and were shooting at 18 frames per second, so its slightly sped up. And then when Max is in really bad shape, we shoot at 12 frames per second. And then, at the end of the movie, we shoot at normal speed and instead of pushing in on the trees, we pull out. Max is seeing the world. Thats the idea, the metaphor.
Any sort of gimmick or in-camera effect that we used had to be meaningful, and the meaning ultimately had to come from Maxs point of view, because the whole film is a subjective movie. Every shot comes out of Maxs head. The slow-motion or sped-up stuff actually has a story reason and pushes the narrative forward. You know, if you can figure out what your [camera] tricks are, what your shots are, and you just focus on those, then you control your palette and stylize your project a lot more.
Filmmaker: What are some other stylistic devises you used?
Aronofsky: The idea was to make a purely subjective film; Max is in every frame of the film. Sometimes its his POV and you dont see a body part, but the shot is always connected to him. So we did all types of different things, like we only shot over Maxs shoulder, and we never shot over another characters shoulder because that would bring us on to that other characters point of view. When we shot the other people we shot them slightly off POV, while when we shot Max, we shot him from a side angle to create a sense of objectivity; we were studying Sean and were with him as opposed to other characters. We shot an extreme amount of closeup POVs so the audience would have a sense of how a mathematician thinks. This subjectivity also inspired the editing, inspired the music.
Filmmaker: So a lot of decisions that might seem like post-production choices, like the use of slow motion or accelerated action, were actually made very early on.
Aronofsky: Yeah. Probably one of my skills as a director is that Im also an editor. I knew how scenes were going to go together. So coverage was very basic. I rarely shot masters. I only shot masters if I was really pushed for time, and whenever I did that, I suffered. But I really hate masters for this type of film. I mean, Jim Jarmuschs [films are] all about masters, and its beautiful the way he shoots them. But everything in is about Max. A master shot doesnt exist its objective, a stage show for the camera. Theres never a shot in where Max enters a scene. Instead, Max is there and the scene has begun. And we made scene transitions by using extreme close-ups so that we could go from a shot of Maxs face to some type of extreme close-up, some type of montage that happens in that scene, and then an extreme close-up that happens in the next scene, and then the next scene begins.
Filmmaker: Was the voiceover part of the original script?
Aronofsky: I always wanted a voice-over because I felt voiceover would help us care about the character. Max is calm, hes got a nice voice, and the audience gets sucked in. But I only wanted to use it so that it would help expand the film. And I think it did, because we let the audience get into how Maxs mind works. But you learn after you make your first film that you dont need to explain as much as you think you do. Images and little bits of scenes give you enough.
Filmmaker: is also a great New York movie. It presents a real multicultural view of the city at a time when the physical landscape of midtown at least is getting more homogenized.
Aronofsky: That was definitely a conscious choice. I grew up in a very multicultural Brooklyn. And thats the way I view New York in some ways.
Filmmaker: The ethnicities of the supporting cast the African-American Wall Street woman, the Indian next-door neighbor, the people in Chinatown also displace the protagonist. Hes the minority in this world.
Aronofsky: Well, thats Chinatown. We chose Chinatown partly because of [Mayor Rudolph] Guiliani. Hes cleaned up New York so that its an unrecognizable sort of science fiction world. Its Demolition Man sci-fi as opposed to Road Warrior, which is aesthetically more pleasing to me.
Filmmaker: I would think youd like some of what Guiliani is doing, like the surveillance cameras in Washington Square Park!
Aronofsky: Giuliani is doing some fucked up things, so I dont know if Im going to live here for long.
Filmmaker: Did you steal all your subway shots?
Watson: Yeah, we couldnt afford that $18,000.
Aronofsky: We just hung out on the platform from 10 PM to 6 AM for about a week.
Filmmaker: Whats with the brain? The pulsating brain on the subway platform was the one thing shown in the film that could only be the product of the protagonists psychosis. Aronofsky: The brain is open to your interpretation. What do you think it is?
Filmmaker: I dont know. It seemed like a little homage to Eraserhead.
Watson: Film is fantasy.
Aronofsky: Its your brain, Scott.
Watson: Its Guilianis brain.
Sidebar: 's budget and breakdown.