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Stock markets, supercomputers, and secret societies -- Michele Forman on the no-budget smarts of Darren Aronofsky's Pi

In an era when conspiracy-drunk readers unlock The Bible Codes and trade "X-Files" symbology in all-night internet chat rooms, the moment for paranoid cinema has arrived.

The Kabbalah Scholars in Pi photo: Sue Johnson
Darren Aronofsky has written and directed a smart conspiracy film that will be in competition this year at Sundance. Pi, a psychological thriller about mathematician Max Cohen, is a gripping story about the search for order out of chaos. The search leads Max into the bowels of Wall Street and the arms of Messianic Jews in pursuit of the true name of God. Like many sci-fi classics, this is about the danger of knowing too much.

And like many classic indie film tales, Pi is about pulling off an ambitious project on a shoestring. Armed with a miniscule budget and some cool looking black-and-white reversal film stock, Aronofsky, along with producer Eric Watson and lead actor Sean Gullette, banded together to inject some life into a familiar genre. Somewhere between "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" and "The Twilight Zone," Pi is science fiction with a street punk aesthetic.

Filmmaker: What convinced you to pull off a sci-fi film as a no-budget?

Aronofsky: I never really had any doubts or was ever afraid that we could not do science fiction. I always think of science fiction as a state of mind, not special effects. All those Star Wars movies took sci-fi down the effects road for the last 20 years. The interesting science fiction is the inner space, the return to the work of Philip K. Dick. Blowing up shit doesn't do it for us anymore. Pi does have special effects, but in the writing stage we were really conscious about only doing what we could achieve very well. If you try a special effect and don't pull it off, then you're doomed. It's like bad acting, which is the other ultimate death to the independent film.

Filmmaker: Your focus on creating such a deep, multi-faceted character is rare for a genre film. It alone sets it apart, but you go farther thematically. In the grand American tradition, you take on God and capitalism.

Aronofsky: Well, we are taking on capitalism -- that's an easy target for indie film. I don't know if we are taking on God. Pi is ultimately about a man's search for God. Max gets involved with Kabbalah.

Filmmaker: How did you approach a character that lives for abstraction? Where do you see the audience connecting with Max?

Aronofsky: The challenge of the film was to make a fully subjective movie to bring you into Max's mind. Every camera choice and lens choice and music choice and editing choice brought the viewer one step closer into Max's point of view. For instance, [D.P.] Matthew Libatique and I decided that we would always shoot from Max's point of view. We were allowed, during a dialogue scene with another character, to shoot over Max's shoulder, but never could we shoot over the other character's shoulder to Max.

Filmmaker:You also pose questions about the religious impulse. How was the reception among the Hasidic community?

Aronofsky: The Hasidic community was very helpful. I met with lots of the leading Kabbalah scholars in the country and had my actors meet with them. The Kabbalists were the first deconstructionists. They took the Torah -- the Five Books of the Bible -- and during the last thousand years, they took it apart, analyzed it and assigned it numbers and created fascinating and convincing models out of the original texts to prove their arguments.

Filmmaker: Max's spiritual quest ultimately is resolved in a messy, almost violent, way. Not at all the order he was striving for.

Aronofsky: Ultimately, I would classify myself as existential humanist. I think we're here for some reason, but that reason we'll never, ever know. But while we're here there is the hope and promise of the great things that we can do. Max's tragic flaw is searching for the unknown and for God and for what we're all going to share when we're dead before our time. Life isn't about order; it's about chaos. And that's what makes life worth living.

Michele Forman is working in Alabama on her first feature and recently served as associate producer of Spike Lee's documentary 4 Little Girls.


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