Capone and Darren Aronofsky discuss THE FOUNTAIN!!!
Published at: Nov. 20, 2006, 8:57 a.m. CST by quint
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here, with my conversation with a long-time friend to those of us at AICN, Darren Aronofsky, whose latest work, THE FOUNTAIN, is finally, FINALLY hitting screens this week. Moriarty's been following the production and editing of this extensively over the last few months, and Darren was kind enough to let those at Fantastic Fest see the finished film as well in September. But now the rest of the world can partake of Darren's latest visual orgasm. Is it an action film? Is it science fiction? Is it the most expensive art film ever made? Or is it a simple love story cloaked in eye-popping imagery, the likes of which I've never seen before. You may be shocked to discover that it is all these things and more. To be honest, more than a month after I first say THE FOUNTAIN, I'm not ever sure I like it, but that doesn't take away from Aronofsky's accomplishments.
Our talk took us all over the place, and many times he threw questions back at me just to test my analytical skills. He's one of the nicest guys I've ever interviewed, and my guess is that I could talk to him for many hours more on just this film. The interview was conducted in mid-October when Darren was in town for a screening of THE FOUNTAIN at the Chicago International Film Festival. I left in a lot of the small talk at the beginning (which I don't usually do) because I think it's funny and it gives you a sense of how laid back Darren is. He seems much more eager to have a conversation than to be interviewed, and so that's what I attempted to do. Read on…
Capone: You provided my L.A. comrade, Drew [Moriarty] with some crucial access to this film's post-production. Thanks for letting us into that process.
Darren Aronofsky: Oh, yeah, yeah. [Looks at me curiously, then the light bulb goes on over his head] Oh, God. I didn’t realize who you were. It’s a real pleasure. They didn’t tell me who was coming right before you walked in. I mean, I knew you were coming. It’s nice to meet you. I’ve been reading your stuff for a long time.
C: Thank you.
DA: You’re Capone, huh?
C: That’s me.
DA: How long have you been writing now?
C: Eight years, actually.
DA: Oh, wow. Congratulations! I went down to the Fantastic Fest. I had a good time.
C: Oh good. That’s right, ‘cause the movie was there, that’s right.
DA: I got to meet Harry, which was very cool. He’s like a rock star, man.
C: At that event, he sure is.
DA: No, not even that, but the way he…the whole look. He’s got the whole look and everything. He’s got it down. So, you represent Chicago, or…what do you do?
C: Technically, I cover the whole Midwest, but I rarely leave Chicago.
C: Yeah, that’s pretty much it. I just made my plans today to get down to Austin for Butt-Numb-a-thon in December.
DA: Oh good. What’s coming?
C: Harry never tells us.
DA: That’s right!
C: It’s all a big surprise.
DA: Oh, that’s great. How long is it for?
C: It’s 24 hours--Saturday noon to roughly Sunday noon. It’s a great time. It’s always fun. It’s never been a let down.
DA: That’s awesome.
C: I almost turned down the interview because I thought think Drew had already interviewed you, at least, he’s been following him around a lot lately.
C: I know he’s seen and reviewed THE FOUNTAIN.
DA: Yeah, I was wondering, too, because they’ve done so much coverage. Are you sure they want to do an article? Or, should we just hang out?
C: [laughs] Well so far, none of our writers have done an actual interview. Lots of reviews of the film, with many more to come, I'm sure, but, yeah, no interview.
DA: So, where do you fall? What did you think of the movie?
C: [Long pause] You know, I really had to not talk to people for a while after I saw it.
DA: When did you see it?
C: Maybe it was two weeks ago, right before Fantastic Fest. Now that I think about it, maybe it was more than two weeks now.
But, I really just had to… I mean, obviously, it’s not a film that’s in any way meant to literally mean something. So, then my task was to figure out what it may have meant metaphorically. The story was more about the ideas at hand. I would never ask you to spell out the deeper meaning for you, because that wouldn’t be very much fun--I don’t want to demystify it--I just wanted to try to get a sense of what you were thinking.
And, obviously, it’s the most visually compelling thing you’ve ever done. And, I say that before I say that REQUIEM FOR A DREAM was my favorite movie that came out that year. Period. End of story. That’s the movie I saw the most times that year. And, I rushed out to buy it.
It’s interesting, in the age of the Internet following the progress of a film, THE FOUNTAIN has certainly been one of the longest roads to completion that a film has taken and been so well documented. I guess the obvious question is, Why were you so driven to get this movie made, rather than just put it aside and move onto something else.
DA: I just don’t know how to do that. Since 1999, when we first started coming up with the ideas, I wanted to make THE FOUNTAIN. All the other stories about BATMAN, all these other projects were just complete hype, once again Internet hype…
DA: Yeah, WATCHMEN, I was on that project for one week, it might have been more. It might have been a couple weeks, but what happened is…it came to me, it was available, David Hayter's script, and I thought David had cracked it. I had read earlier scripts that no one ever got. I thought it really was on the right track. So, I said, Yeah, and then I went to Paramount and set it up with Sherry Lansing--I think it was one of the last films she set up.
And, this was right when I was prepping THE FOUNTAIN, or getting close to prepping THE FOUNTAIN to go with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. And, they said, Well, we want to go right away on WATCHMEN. I said, Well, I’m about to make this movie I’ve been waiting five years to make. And, they’re, like, We want you to hire a production designer. I said I’m not going to hire a production designer. Let’s work on the script and get it right before we go. And, they were, like, Oh well, we’re going to replace you with Paul [Greengrass]. I was, like, Okay, fine.
There was no way I was not going to go ahead with my movie, after waiting all that time, even though I love WATCHMEN, I think it’s a great title. There’s just no way. I couldn’t wait to set something up…and then it didn’t even happen anyway. So, it was very frustrating to see that happen. But, I’m glad where WATCHMEN's at now, with Zack Snyder. I’m really a big fan of Snyder’s first film [I'm assuming he's referring to the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake].
C: When the graphic novel of THE FOUNTAIN, I think maybe some people thought that was as far as it was going to get for a while.
DA: It definitely was. What happened when it fell apart in 2002 in October [when Brad Pitt left the project], four years ago, we tried to save it. We tried to put it back together. We couldn’t get it back together, and it just slowly fell apart, or I should say, it really quickly fell apart.
And, I went off to China and India with a backpack with something like two changes of clothes. I just went around and just lost myself for a while, because I didn’t know what the hell was going to happen. I came back to New York, and for the next seven months, I sat around with the guys--you know, my company Protozoa [Pictures]--we just sat around. And every day, I must have just annoyed the hell out of them. I’m going, What are we going to do? What are we going to do?
We started developing all these new ideas. In fact, a lot of those ideas are probably the ideas that I’ll put in the next film. But, we started developing all these ideas. But I just kept thinking about THE FOUNTAIN. And, I remember at one point, Brad even gave me a call during those months. And, he was, like, How are you doing? He was checking in, because we stayed friends. I was, like, well, I’m still thinking about THE FOUNTAIN, but even though it was kind of a lie, because I was trying to find something else to do, but I said that to him. And, in that time period, I also found Kent Williams, the guy who did the graphic novel, and I got Vertigo. When I first started the project two or three years before that, I told my lawyer that we have to secure the rights to the graphic novel, because I have seen so many of these different types of movies trying to get made that get destroyed, and I want to make sure all the work we do somehow finds an audience. So, I had that right secured. And, I exercised that at Warner Bros. They were okay with it, because they thought it was dead, too. It was $18 million against the movie. And so, I went to Vertigo, and they helped me find Kent Williams, and we got it set up. And, Kent read the script, loved it, and just started drawing. Two years later, it came out.
But, during that time, one night about seven months in, I couldn’t sleep, and I woke up, crawled out of bed, and I was sitting in my office, just sitting there in my underwear, you know, 3 in the morning, and all the books I had read for THE FOUNTAIN were on this one shelf, straight across from me. I was just looking at the titles and…suddenly, I had this thing. I was, like, no, there’s no studio involved, there are no actors involved. I can completely write this for myself, because for the last couple of years, I had been trying to shape it to make everyone happy. I threw it out the old script, and I said, What is the version I want to tell? And, is there a version of this that is a no-budget movie? I was, like, I’m an independent filmmaker--PI was $60,000, REQUIEM was $4 million--we have all this money being spent in weird places, and I understand what it takes to make this movie. What is the version of this film that still tells that story? And, without telling anyone, no one, not my producer, anyone, I just wrote for two and half weeks. I just sat there alone, and I just reinvented it. And, then I gave it to my producer Eric [Watson], and he was, like, You turned it into a love poem to death, and I love it. It’s much better.
So, I was, like, Oh, that’s cool. So, he said we can make this for $30-$35 million. Even though I knew that there was all this money against the film, and there would be a billion hurdles to get over--and there were--I was just like, you know what, I gotta get it out of my blood. I gotta tell this story, because it’s somewhere…it still wakes me up at 3 in the morning, and I got to get it out. And, there’s a reason for that. So, I just had to trust that.
C: We obviously could spend days talking about the visuals. Where did you draw from in terms of the visuals that you have here, because they are very different than anything I’ve seen you do before.
DA: That’s a good question. And the answer is, I don’t know. There are always a lot of sources. You just try to surround yourself with a lot of different images, and then things lead to each other. And, it starts building, and it becomes its own thing. A lot of this starts with research, the truth, so you start off…you’re dealing with 16th century stains and suddenly, you look at painters from then. You look at Velázquez, and he has these guys in black and white outfits with this very, very stark lighting.
C: That’s what it looked like, that whole Spanish section, every image there I thought looked like a painting: the composition, the color, the lighting.
DA: Thank you. But, you know, when you look at the Velázquez, you see that all they wore back then was black and white. And, that starts hinting at you. The entire film is basically white, black, and gold. In fact, the entire movie is a movement from darkness into light in the most cheesy POLTERGEIST way, like, ‘Don’t go into the light.’ This is a movie about a guy going towards his death, so it’s about the light and what stops him getting to the light. And, the gold in the film is this whole world of Mayans and the whole world of materialism, and how that developed.
There was so much work done on the film by me, Mattie and James and Clint, just sitting around and talking about how different things connect. It’s hard to find the sources of everything, but I can track some of them.
One thing is there’s this whole geometrical thing going through the film. There’s that triangle that you see in space that we keep going back to, with the star in the middle, and that’s actually the Orion Nebula, which is what the Mayans actually thought was their underworld. That was what they pointed at. And, most people see the Orion Belt, the three stars they know, but then surrounding the Orion Nebula is this triangle. So, then we started saying, Well, you know, the Mayans, they had these triangular pyramids, and in Spain, they had these triangular towers. It makes sense to use the triangle for the 16th century.
And then, you come to the 21st century, and you’re, like, well, what’s our world? You realize our world is computer screens and doors and windows. It’s all squares, you know, the shape’s evolving.
Okay, so then we’re in space. What’s the next shape? Well, it’s very obvious--the planets, circle. So, maybe the spaceship, instead of going and doing the same old thing of putting trucks in space--which is what people have done since the shaping of these old…Every rocket ship is just a really souped up, pimped up car in space. You know, hey, let’s get a spherical ship. Why not?
They all led to different things, and suddenly, a visual language starts to grow. But, it’s not really one source. It’s just being part of the world, and taking things from wherever you can.
C: Obviously, the inclination when you go to see any film is to decipher it in a way that your mind can hold onto and make sense of it. Was it always your intention to expand beyond the surface concepts?
DA: THE FOUNTAIN is about the search for the Fountain of Youth. It’s one of our oldest ancient myths--if not the oldest myth that people have been telling, because people have been coming up with stories how to deal with the fear of death. And, trying to find out the reason of why we’re here and what is life and what is love. And what happens when you die. These are questions that people have been asking since the beginning of time. So, there’s absolutely no way that his schmoe from Brooklyn is going to be able to answer them. That’s not the reality here.
For me, it’s a film that’s a journey and it’s a trip and it’s an experience through the meditation of a lot of these questions. There are ideas in there that I believe, but I think I wanted to leave it open, so that anyone can bring their own beliefs to the table, and that it could awaken them, and people can have a conversation. Just like when we all used to sit around in college, or wherever, with friends just bullshitting about, you know, What is the world and why are we here?
That’s what this film is. It’s not your normal movie, where you go and watch and to wonder if Rudy’s going to get to play the game for Notre Dame. And, there’s nothing wrong with that, I mean, that’s one of my favorite films, RUDY, but you can do other things with cinema.
And, I think there is a lot of stuff in THE FOUNTAIN that is concrete that I think people will see the more they watch it. There are definitely more answers in THE FOUNTAIN than there are in “Lost.”
C: I would never be so bold as to try to pigeonhole this film in any genre. But you mentioned that someone had said it’s a love poem to death. And, I’m sure a lot of people are going to say, Oh, this is a film about this and this. To me, it was film about love--timeless, ageless love. And for those of us who have crazy, unfounded crushes on Rachel Weisz, it’s a love letter to her as well, because she’s never looked more beautiful than she does in this film. Talk a little about love, because Hugh Jackman’s character, in a lot of ways, his obsession with keeping Izzi alive was very dangerous, a little scary, and unhealthy. It’s the least sappy love story I’ve ever seen.
DA: Thank you. That was a battle in itself, because everyone’s looking for that scene where they [claps his hands together] connect in that terribly cheesy way. It seems all films have to have that moment. Do you know what I’m talking about?
C: Unfortunately, yes.
DA: There should be a name for that moment. We should name that right now! It’s like the necessary ‘falling in love with the cute character’ scene. I don’t know what it’s called. But for me, one of my biggest influences are cartoons. I grew up with cartoons. And, for me, my characters, especially the ones I write, are often very, very symbolic. Like cartoon characters, they represent something. And, I think Hugh Jackman is Man, and Rachel Weisz is Woman. And, between them is this great, great love. I didn’t want to make it too personal, you know, that they have this personal quirk, and they have that personal little ‘isn’t that funny that whenever you do that, that happens.’ That type of stuff--I can’t stand it. And, it works for some films, and some directors do it really, really well, but I’m not interested in that.
These characters actually represent something, and it’s where the audience would like to put itself into that character. And, to sort of surrender themselves--either in that man or in that woman--and I’m going on this trip. So, I think that we’ve got this tiny window that we’re here, alive on this planet, in this universe, and one of the best things we can do with that time is love. And, it’s the biggest cliché, but it’s true. It’s that great victory that makes us human, not to say that other creatures don’t have it, but it’s definitely ours as well to have. I think it is one of the great things about humanity.
And, for me, this is a film about what makes us human. There are two things in this film that make us human, and that’s being able to love and being able to die. And, how they play out and intermingle is what makes the film’s story.
C: Speaking of Hugh Jackman: There used to be more, but it seems there aren’t a lot of actors these days that can handle the emotional and the physical aspects that this film requires. After Brad Pitt officially left he film, how did it come about that Jackman entered this film?
DA: And, he can sing and dance [laughs]. The guy can really do a lot. To be honest, Hugh wasn’t actually on my initial list, because I had seen him in the X-MEN movies, but I hadn’t seen the work he can do dramatically. And, I got invited by his team to go see him in “Boy from Oz,” the show he won the Tony for. And, the character in that is very, very different from the character in this film. That character is a singer/songwriter from Australia [Peter Allen] who was married to Liza Minnelli, who’s a little bit different than Tommy.
So, I didn’t think it would connect. But, I went to see it, and he was so committed, so talented, so multi-talented, so charismatic, so passionate, so energetic. He just lit up the room. At the end of the show, I’m suddenly with everyone else on my feet--standing ovation, you know. And, I talked to him, and he was a really nice guy, and everyone will tell you how nice a guy he is. But, he’s authentically nice in the sense that when we were on set, he would treat every P.A. in the same way he treated me. He was right in, connect, and fully present, which is just a remarkable thing for someone who has so little time.
So, I thought about sending him the script. And, I said, Hey, let me just see what he says. And, he read it, and he just got it. He called me up the next day, and he understood it. He had some questions, and we had a conversation. But, it was clear that he was thinking about these things.
C: I can’t imagine what the script for this film looks like.
DA: I’ll send you a copy.
C: Please do. If you don’t mind answering the question, What is The Fountain? What is it really? Is it God? Is it science? Is it medicine? Or, is it all of those things?
DA: Let me see if you can answer it for me. What does a fountain do?
C: Any fountain? It brings forth water, in some capacity.
DA: It brings forth water. Where does the water go when it comes out?
C: It depends on what kind of fountain it is, but normally the water re-circulates around.
DA: There you go. It circulates around and then what happens?
C: What happens…?
DA: What happens to the fountain as it keeps circulating?
C: It gets rusty eventually.
DA: To me, it doesn’t get rusty.
C: Is there more than that?
DA: There’s nothing more than that. It just keeps going. And, then you think about the Tree of Life, which is a certain type of Fountain of Youth. The Tree of Life grows up, up, branches come out, has leaves, the leaves fall down, they go back into the earth, come back up through the tree, come on out, and there’s the leaves.
C: This is sounding suspiciously like the circle of life from THE LION KING.
DA: [Laughs] But, I think a fountain is a symbol of the circle of life in many ways.
C: My original question was almost, What does the tree represent, because the fountain in your movie feeds off the tree, but…Well, I guess you’ve answered it.
DA: YOU answered it. I didn’t answer it.
C: That's why journalists like you, you make the feel smart. Let me ask about stuff you’ve got coming up. Are you still linked to the LONE WOLF AND CUB movie?
DA: LONE WOLF AND CUB is another one…there’s a lot of hype. They’ve been having a hard time securing the rights from the Japanese. In Japan, as we know, it’s such a huge property. And, I don’t think Paramount ever actually controlled it, even though we started developing it, so I don’t know exactly the fate of that project. And, it’s unfortunate, because it would be a great thing to work on it, too. But it’s a lot like if Walt Disney licensed Mickey Mouse to some other country. It’s that popular in Japan, and that important there.
C: It’s a great series. What about FLICKER?
DA: FLICKER is something that a script exists, and it’s not something that I’m going to direct next. It might be something that…we’ve been talking to some interesting people possibly to direct or produce. But, it might be something I do, I don’t know.
C: Okay, that's strike two. So what is next for you?
DA: I’m developing two things, and it’s going to be one of them, whichever one they let me make next. And, one is a very, very small piece, and one is a very, very big piece. But, I don’t really want to pitch them yet.
C: It took you the better part of six years for THE FOUNTAIN. Are you getting nervous, now that you’re getting a little older that maybe you need to be more productive?
DA: Nah-h-h. I think if you continue to make films that you’re passionate about, that you believe in, I don’t think there’s anything to be worried about. That’s what gets me up in the morning is new projects and stuff. It keeps me going.
C: I was just wondering if you’re one of those people who has issues about output and ‘I should be working faster. I should be producing more.’
DA: You know what, I don’t know. I’m not interested in the quantity game. I’m just really trying to make the films that I want to make. I would love to be in that game where I could just pump them out, but I just don’t know how to do that. It’s not my strength. My strength is thinking about ideas, figuring out how they get fit together, and then trying to get them made, which is always a challenge.
C: Can you tell us a little bit about your approach to the action sequences in THE FOUNTAIN, because I think it’s the first time you’ve done any. They don’t look like traditional action sequences.
DA: Really? That’s good. I thought they went a little too traditional. Yeah, I was hoping to do something different. I had plans to do more different things, but I ultimately didn’t have the resources or the time it would fully take us. When I look at some of the battle stuff, there’s some stuff I’m very happy with. There’s other stuff that I wish I had more time to go a little further with it.
C: When this was a bigger project, were the action scenes…?
DA: It was much bigger battle scene, but you have to remember when I wrote it, it was pre-TROY, of course, and pre-KING ARTHUR and, you know, pre-Peter Jackson with LORD OF THE RINGS. And so, I wrote it after GLADIATOR and after BRAVEHEART, excited by what as a filmmaker you can now do with action sequences. But then, Peter Jackson basically made [shrugs]…why ever try to outdo one of those action sequences? There’s no reason to ever do that.
After LORD OF THE RINGS, the big battle scenes in other movies were really getting boring, I mean, there were so many at this point that it was just like, Why are you watching that? So, one of the things that happened when I was rewriting was…I said, you know what, I’m not that excited about shooting this big action sequence anymore, because I’ve seen so many of them that even though I would try and do something very different and new, what really is the scene about? And, I realized the scene is very simple: It’s about one man trying to overcome impossible odds.
C: The sequence in which you have the two soldiers standing next to Jackman and then they get taken out pretty fast, that’s the most tension you feel in all of those battle scenes.
DA: I agree. That’s always the most exciting thing about battle scenes--when they figure out a way to stick an emotional core into the center of battle, instead of just watching a bunch of cool shots, which could go far. We’ll see, I’m sure somebody’s going to do something new with it.