Moriarty Takes A Swim In Aronofsky's THE FOUNTAIN! Set Visit Details!
Published at: Nov. 15, 2008, 4:40 p.m. CST by Moriarty
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
One of the things that pleases me most about working for Ain’t It Cool is that I am free to pursue my own interests. I don’t have an editor to please, and I don’t get handed assignments to cover things I’m not interested in. AICN has always been about each of us watching and reading and writing about the things that we are drawn to, which is what keeps us (and hopefully you) interested.
When the first rumors broke about some crazy sci-fi film that Darren Aronofsky was working on, I was instantly interested. It was exciting when Brad Pitt was initially mentioned as a possible star, especially when he started growing his mountain man beard for the film. When things started getting shaky, we were there covering it. And the more we covered it, the more information people starting sending to us. Finally, it all came to a head when we ran the first script review anywhere about the film. Looking back at that piece now, I’m struck by just how impassioned I got about the project. Having visited the set and having seen some of the film, I can honestly say now that I am more excited today than I was even after reading the script. THE FOUNTAIN is shaping up to be one of the most original and profound films of 2005, and a major step in the career of one of our most unusual young filmmakers.
It’s funny that I hadn’t met Aronofsky through all of that coverage of THE FOUNTAIN and, before that, BATMAN: YEAR ONE. A few terse communications via e-mail over the years hardly qualify as knowing someone. As a result, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when Warner Bros. first called me to ask if I wanted to go to Montreal to visit the set.
I’ve been to Montreal many times, but always during the summer. The town’s alive that time of year, overstuffed with events. The Just For Laughs Comedy Festival. The Jazz Festival. The Montreal International Film Festival. And, of course, the FanTasia Film Festival, one of my very favorite events anywhere. Summer in Montreal is beautiful, temperate, a great time to visit.
Winter, on the other hand... holy shit.
Maybe I’ve lived in Los Angeles too long, because my system wasn’t ready for that sort of assault. I thought I was. As a California boy, I never see snow. Flying into Montreal in the middle of a storm, checking into the beautiful Le Saint-Sulpice Hotel in the middle of the night, I was struck by how different a blanket of white can make a city seem. Even though it was well after midnight when I got in, I went out and walked around for a while, and then I did the same the following morning. The wind was strong enough to push me off the curb as I waited to cross the street, and I had trouble keeping my head up so I could see where I was walking. Finally, I went back to the hotel and had a nice breakfast before getting ready to head to the set. There was a small group of other journalists there to visit the set, including Jonah Weiland, editor of Comic Book Resources and Berge from JoBlo.com. The oddest outlet involved was SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, but as the day wore on, it made sense that they were invited.
It took two vans to get us all over to Mel’s Cite Du Cinema, the studio space where the FOUNTAIN production team spent a good chunk of their winter. By the time we pulled up outside, the snow was coming down even harder, and we all had to sprint for the building to avoid losing any extremities. Even so, the wind was so bitter cold that we were forced to stop halfway to the front door and resort to cannibalism. Wasn’t pretty, but I guess you’ll just have to live without the coverage that the SCI-FI WIRE guy was going to do, eh? Inside, we were led back to a make-up room that we would be using to do our interviews with various members of the crew and cast over the course of the day and told to settle in.
The first person we met from the production was, appropriately enough, the producer. Eric Watson’s been part of Aronofsky’s creative team since day one, and he also produced a great little film called SATURN that I reviewed on the site ages ago. Eric’s an interesting guy in person, very soft-spoken, but as he talks, he can build up a real head of steam, and it’s obvious that he’s got passion about the film they’re making. I’m also reminded upon meeting him that he and Aronofsky are my age, and I am a sloth, having dragged ass about my work while these guys are busy turning out great films. Way to make me feel good about myself. Eric was introduced to all of us, and then offered to take us over to the set. First, though, he led us into an adjoining make-up room where he showed us a full-head sculpt of Mark Margolis, a character actor Aronofsky fans will recognize from both PI and REQUIEM. We also saw an upper body and head sculpt of Hugh Jackman, complete with long hair, full beard, and flowers growing out of his mouth and eyes.
... uhhhhhh... what?!
That’s the reaction that several of the journalists in the room had, and Eric turned to me, sly smile in place. “You know what scene that’s from, don’t you?” I just nodded in response, a little overwhelmed by the realization that this film is really getting made. There are a number of heartbreaks inherent to covering films as they make their way through development. I’ve heard all sorts of reasons for why we shouldn’t review scripts, but I’ll give you a new one: because it hurts when a film doesn’t happen. So many of our favorite projects have languished over the years, like Richard Kelly’s BESSIE or Michael Valle’s SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE VENGEANCE OF DRACULA. You get used to it after a while, but it never gets easy. When THE FOUNTAIN fell apart in the wake of Brad Pitt’s departure from the film, it seemed like it would never happen. “We just realized one day that this is what we do,” Watson said. “We had to figure out how to make the film we want for the money we had.” This is an independent film at heart, no matter who’s releasing it, and looking at that surreal sculpture of Jackman as Tomas Verde, new life erupting from him, I was filled with the undeniable thrill of seeing the good guys win for once.
As we headed down the hall toward the soundstage, I asked what sort of concessions had to be made to get the film up and running. Obviously, there was some severe rewriting that had to happen. “Not really,” said Watson. “It’s still pretty much the film you read.”
”During your first round of pre-production, Darren spent a lot of time studying the state of the art in CGI. How much did that help in cutting the budget?”
”Well... we don’t really have any CGI in the film, so I’m not sure how to answer that.” Watson could see how astonished I was, and he laughed.
”Wait a minute,” I sputtered. “How can you make this movie without CGI?”
He pulled open the door to the stage and smiled that same Cheshire Cat grin at me again. “I’ll show you, “he said, as he led us all inside.
The first thing we saw as we walked in was a small trailer-looking thing which he referred to as OPS. Basically, this is the Francis Coppola dream of the Silverfish come true, a mobile production center in which all of your storyboards, production art, script pages, daily call sheets, databases, and anything else you need are ready at the touch of a screen, and which is also hooked up to editorial so you can call up any footage you need at any point. There’s a large screen on the outside of the OPS trailer where they have a daily digital newsletter for the cast and crew posted. When you touch the screen, though, you can get a menu that will allow you to scroll through anything you want to see. They did a pretty good job of keeping me away from OPS for the rest of the day, for obvious reasons. Mr. Security Issue. That’s me.
There was a huge curtain set up surrounding the set, so we couldn’t see it at first. What we could see was the lighting rig overhead, spinning around and shutting on and off in a way that made me think we were about to walk into a disco. I caught a glimpse of Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky’s fiendishly gifted cinematographer, on a crane next to the lighting rig, but I couldn’t imagine what effect he was trying to create.
Then we walked through the curtains.
One thing’s for sure: this version of THE FOUNTAIN may cost less than the originally proposed one, but that doesn’t make it any less epic or ambitious.
Suffice it to say that this is not an easy film to sum up. There are three separate timelines involved: 1535, in the Mayan jungles and the courts of Spain; present day, in and around a cancer research center; and the year 2500 in deep space. Rachel Weisz and Hugh Jackman appear in all three timelines, but not necessarily as the same characters. During the scenes in space, Jackman’s playing Tom Verde, who may or may not be the same character we meet in the 2005 segments. The space ship he’s traveling in is one of the film’s key images, and I have to say... if Warner Bros. was trying to impress us, they picked the right day to let us visit. In an age where films like SIN CITY and SKY CAPTAIN take place in worlds spun wholecloth from pixels, it can be a shock to step into something someone built for real. Tom Verde’s entire ship was constructed around the same thing that the 1535 version, Tomas Verde, went into the Mayan temples to find.
The Tree of Life was originally built on another stage altogether as part of the Mayan sets, then turned into the centerpiece of the damnedest spaceship I’ve ever seen. No instrument panels. No glowing buttons. No viewscreens. Nothing that would indicate “spaceship” at all. Instead, everything’s organic. It’s like the Tree needed to go to space and grew just enough ecosystem to make it possible. Tom travels alone on the ship, except for the ghosts of lifetimes past, as lost in personal time as he is in space. The ship is perfectly round, a huge dish, with compartments under the surface formed from the root systems of the Tree. The curtains, I realized as we stepped in, were greenscreens, covering about 200 degrees around the set. Cameras and lights were all mounted on cranes and elevated platforms, raised to be able to shoot the set, which stood about 25 feet off the ground. Video Village was set up at the base of the set, which is where we were introduced to Aronofsky as we entered. He greeted everyone warmly, and when he turned to me, Watson said, “Darren, this is Moriarty from Ain’t It Cool.” He sized me up as we shook hands. I always wonder what someone thinks after they’ve been mercilessly scooped by the site, even if we’ve been generally positive about their work.
”So what do you think?” he asked. Overhead, the lighting rig was still spinning, and looking at the monitor, it was interesting to see how extreme the shadows were that moved across the set.
”It’s incredible,” I said. On the monitor, we could see Hugh Jackman, but the camera was set up on the furthest possible part of the ship’s surface from Jackman. Even stranger, there appeared to be a hospital bed on that far edge of the ship. In it lay an emaciated Rachel Weisz. Those long shadows rolling across the set in waves, like a breaking tide, gave a sense of motion. I asked what sort of backgrounds they plan to use if they’re not utilizing any CGI.
There was something conspiratorial about the look they exchanged, like I’d asked about some extra-cool secret. Watson was the one who first explained it for us. “There’s a guy named Peter Parks, who's pretty much a genius, and he’s done some amazing experimental stuff for us.” Parks was the 2003 recipient of the Gordon E. Sawyer Award at the SciTech Oscars for his overall contribution to the art of cinema, and later in the day, Aronofsky told us that Parks was one of the reasons Warner Bros. greenlit the movie.
”When Jeff Robinov saw the test footage we did with Peter Parks, I think he got a sense of how unusual this film could be,” Aronofsky told us.
One of the grand poobahs of Warner Bros. publicity said much the same thing at dinner later. “Warner Bros. sees this the same way Bob [Daley] and Terry [Semel] saw their overall deal with Kubrick. We believe that Darren Aronofsky makes unique films, and we want to be part of that with him.” High praise, indeed.
Parks has done a lot of work with macrophotography, particularly of chemical reactions. He’s become quite good at provoking certain reactions by touching small amounts of certain substances to other substances and photographing the results in startling close-up. Exactly which elements he’s using seems to be his trade secret, but he’s gotten very good at prompting the exact sort of visual reaction that he wants.
When we were shown the test footage, it seemed to me to be more than just a great-looking image, although it’s certainly that. Explosions of color and geometric patterns explode in random organic fashion, and there’s a thematic resonance to the imagery, taking these incredibly small chemical reactions and using them to represent the outer edges of our universe. The journey undertaken by each of the incarnations of Tomas Verde or Tommy or Tom may be epic, crossing vast distances both on and off our planet, but what he’s really searching for is personal, intimate, and almost internal. The test composites we were shown really drove the point home.
Clint Mansell joined us as we stood in Video Village, trying to slip in unobserved. For any self-respecting Pop Will Eat Itself fan, though, he’s not anonymous, and meeting Mansell is a huge thrill. His film score work has been inspired and varied so far, and I’m always glad to see newer film composers come into their own. It seems like such a small club of guys who everyone uses ad infinitum. Mansell strikes me as being sort of like Jon Brion, a genuinely fresh sound that’s all his own. The first thing I asked Mansell is something that’s been eating at me for a while now. After an introduction from Watson, I asked, “What did you think when your REQUIEM score was reorchestrated and used for the TWO TOWERS campaign?”
”Honestly, I thought it was interesting. I know he didn’t care for it much,” he said, indicating Aronofsky, “but it made me think about my own music in a whole new way. I’m starting to feel like maybe I could score a film like that. I never really thought about it until I saw how well it worked.”
As the other journalists talked with Mansell and Watson, Aronofsky pulled me aside so we could talk privately. To my great surprise, he led me up a ladder onto the surface of the set so I could get a close-up look. The level of detail was amazing, completely organic, like it really was grown instead of built. A small stagnant pond nearby, rich dark soil that clung to my shoes, a forest floor smell that seemed to be made stronger by the hot overhead lights... all of it together was enough to almost make me forget the greenscreens. The Tree towered over us, its thick roots reaching to the far edges of the ship.
Aronofsky told me how much he’s appreciated our unflagging support of the project over the last few years. Just getting to see him work again pays off every word we’ve written about the film. It’s funny, though... as frustrating as it is as a film fan to see how often even our best directors can get entangled in development hell, it’s got to be ten times worse for the filmmakers. We’ve got the easy part. All we have to do is be loudmouths about the things that interest us, something Harry and I can be good at. It’s guys like Aronofsky and Watson and co-writer Ari Handel who spend five years tirelessly fighting for every dollar of the $35 million they’re spending on this film. It always cracks me up when people thank us for supporting something cool. How easy a gig is that?
Aronofsky called over Rachel Weisz so we could meet, prompting her, “This is the guy who wrote that script review.” She smiled as we shook hands, and I was struck by how delicate her features are up close. She’s got a scrubbed, almost translucent quality to her skin, and as we spoke a bit about CONSTANTINE (this was on February 10th, just before I hosted the Egyptian screening of the film), I couldn’t help but be charmed. This film’s going to ask more of Weisz than anything she’d done before. She’s playing royalty in the scenes set in the past, the Queen who makes it possible for Tomas Verde to go on his quest. In the modern-day scenes, she also serves as inspiration for Tommy Verde, but of a very different sort. She plays Izzi, Tommy’s beloved wife. He’s a surgical researcher working with several other experts under the supervision of Lillian (the great Ellen Burstyn) on some very advanced experimental cancer treatments. In a cruel twist of fate, Izzi’s dying of cancer, and the more she deteriorates, the more Tommy pushes himself and everyone around him to find a cure.
Izzi's working on a book called THE FOUNTAIN, and that book covers the relationship between Tomas Verde and Queen Isabella and Verde’s Mayan quest. Izzi knows she won’t finish her book, and she wants Tommy to finish it for her. She’s resigned to death. She’s made her peace with it. Her spiritual strength seems to be in direct inverse proportion to her physical condition, while Tommy falls apart, unable to accept what’s happening to her.
Even in the original, more expensive version of the film (at one point, this was going to cost somewhere north of $70 million), most of Act Two was character driven, dealing with the time Tommy and Izzi have left together. Aronofsky talked to us about how this film was inspired by his own turning 30 and dealing with mortality in the people around him, and that’s what made the script seem so different from most SF films. This isn’t being made to show off some new FX trick or because of a toy line tie-in. It’s about something substantial and universal, something that Aronofsky had to tackle as an artist for personal reasons.
Once Aronofsky and I went back down the ladder to the stage floor, we were joined by Hugh Jackman. If you remember Brad Pitt’s wild-man look he was cultivating for the film, that’s pretty much the exact opposite of what Jackman looks like in the space sequences. He’s gaunt, so thin that he almost doesn’t look like himself. It’s not quite as drastic as Christian Bale’s physical change in THE MACHINIST, but it’s shocking. If anything, it’s moreso because Jackman shaved his head completely.
”Oh my god,” I said. “When did you do that?”
Jackman chuckled as he ran his hand over his skin-smooth cranium. “About four days ago,” he said. “What do you think of it?”
Aronofsky mentioned how much he liked the look, and Jackman looked relieved. “Darren got lucky. I was bald once before, back when I was in school. Everyone called me ‘Peahead,’ so I’m just glad this worked out.”
If this film’s going to be a challenge for Rachel Weisz, it’s going to be a defining moment for Jackman. So far, we’ve only seen a little bit of what he’s capable of as an actor. I’m a fan of his X-MEN work, but let’s face it... genetics dealt him a kind hand. He gives the best squint since the young Clint Eastwood as Wolverine, and it would be hard not to seem like a badass when you’ve got adamantium claws. Films like SWORDFISH and KATE & LEOPOLD reveal an amiable leading man, but they haven’t pushed him at all. Here, he’s going to have to play physical and emotional extremes that any actor would find taxing.
Someone asked Aronofsky the logical question: “What made you choose Hugh for the film?”
”Eric and I went to see him in THE BOY FROM OZ, actually.” Just in case you missed that, it was the Broadway musical about flamboyant Australian singer/dancer Peter Allen. The show was, by most accounts, a showcase for Jackman’s song and dance skills. Remember, musical theater is a big part of his background. Even though THE FOUNTAIN is about as far from being a musical as possible, seeing such a different Jackman from his film work made a lasting impression on Aronofsky. The choice seems inspired. It would have been nice to spend more time talking with Jackman (and Weisz, for that matter), but they needed to focus. The material being shot was some of the heaviest in the film, scenes that cut right to the heart of the key relationships in the movie. We left them to prepare for the next take and headed back to the make-up room where our day began.
”Now that you’ve explained the Peter Parks idea, it seems ingenious,” I said to Watson, “but what led you there? Is it that much cheaper than CGI?”
”That’s not it at all,” he answered. “We could have done more conventional FX for the film, but we decided that we didn’t want to make a film you’d be able to pin down to a particular year. Movies like STAR WARS or THE MATRIX or LORD OF THE RINGS are amazing, but things change so fast from year to year right now. We talked about it, and we didn’t want this film to take place in an animated world.”
After lunch, we got a chance to see a four minute reel of footage from the film, and it’s safe to say that they accomplished their goal. There’s nothing animated about what we saw. The reel was cut by Aronofsky for the cast and crew as inspiration, so they could get some sense of what they’re working on. Clint Mansell wrote an original piece of music after first reading the script almost five years ago, and that’s what Aronofsky used to score the footage. Don’t expect to see all of the trademark shots that showed up in PI and REQUIEM. There’s been a conscious decision to move in a new direction visually. Certain images seem to echo through each of the time periods, repeated motifs that tie everything together.
It’s hard to reconcile the Jackman we met on-set with the Spanish explorer in the footage from 1535. He’s a brawny adventurer, and we got some glimpses of a remarkable scene where he battles a Mayan priest/warrior wielding a huge flaming broadsword, as well as other scenes where he tries to fight his way into the temple that houses the Tree Of Life. The real meat and potatoes of the reel was the footage of the present-day Tommy and Izzi. It looks wrenching, raw and emotional, and Jackman and Weisz have real chemistry even in the brief moments we saw. I know it must have been frustrating to go through all the ups and downs of development, but I think sometimes films happen when they’re supposed to happen. I love the work of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, but would they have had the same connection that Jackman and Weisz do? Would a more expensive film have looked any better? Hard to say. Libatique’s cinematography is lush, with a rich palette and a daring sense of composition. His 1500s-era Spain and Mexico are incredibly stylized, theatrical. The best compliment I can give the footage is that everyone in the room wanted to see it again as soon as it ended. We were told that it’s like a magic trick, meant to be seen just once. Smart. It’s such complete overload that you end up thinking about it for days afterwards, trying to figure out what exactly you saw.
The balance of our afternoon was spent in that make-up room, talking to the film’s FX supervisors, co-writer Ari Handel (a scary smart guy who helped ground all of the film’s science and medicine in reality), Mansell, and Aronofsky, and as we get a little closer to release, I’ll bring you more of those interviews. I couldn’t help but dig into some seriously spoilery material with everyone, and they were all surprisingly forthcoming. We heard some cool news about David Bowie, who is working with Mansell to write a new Major Tom song for the end of the film. His “Space Oddity” was one of the things that first inspired Aronofsky, and the way he portrays the desolation of deep space travel certainly calls that song to mind. We also learned that Bowie grilled Aronofsky about his involvement with WATCHMEN. Turns out Bowie’s working on a rock opera version of WATCHMEN on his own, although details about that production are still tentative. More than anything, I was struck by how bright everyone on this entire creative team seems to be. This could turn into a film that’s all brain and no heart, but I suspect that won’t be the case. When Warner Bros and New Regency release this film this fall, I have a feeling we’re in for something special.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to reveal that since I visited this set, I was hired for an entirely unrelated screenwriting job by New Regency, the production company that Warner is partnered with on the film. I’m working for a different studio, though, and I’ve been on record as a big fan of this project for a long time, and this is just one of those odd coincidences. You’ll see for yourself this holiday season. In the meantime, it looks like I’m on my way to the UK later this week to visit the set of another unusual Warner Bros. film set for release later this year, TIM BURTON’S THE CORPSE BRIDE.
Before I leave town, I’ve got a new DVD SHELF column, a really groovy interview with Dave Jaffe, creator of the addictive new Playstation2 game GOD OF WAR (which I’ll be giving away to some of you), a look at the set of a potentially very funny new Steve Carrel film, a script review of one of the bigger Oscar-potential films on the horizon, and a few other surprises. Until then...