Darren Aronofsky chats with Capone about Rourke, Tomei, Springsteen--THE WRESTLER!!!
Published at: Dec. 22, 2008, 10:20 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey folks. Capone in Chicago here.
First off, I need to say a few things about tonight's Chicago screening of THE WRESTLER. It's still on! I know it's cold outside, and I would never ask anyone to risk life or limb to see a movie, but we need a good turnout tonight. I called in some favors to make tonight's event happen, and things don't look full, the favors will dry up faster your grandmother's…fruitcake. The whole reason we get to do any screenings in Chicago is because we can deliver the audience. Our readers turn out at a much higher percentage than your average, everyday guy who picks up a pass at a bookstore because he may or may not go to the movie. I'm counting on you guys to come to every screening if you enter a contest, and so far you have. Thank you. Tonight is no exception. Hell, I've seen the film twice already, and I'm still coming. I've got a lot of groovy stuff lined up already for the first quarter of 2009; a couple of these events I'll announce tonight, including one with a glorious guest. I don't want to resort to something stupid like banning people who cancel at the last minute, but I realize stuff comes up. But I've already gotten a couple emails from people in the last 24 hours saying they aren't coming because of the weather. Come on, people! You live in or near The Windy City. Since when did 40-below wind chills bother us? Okay, I'm done. And I'll thank those of you in advance who show up tonight for making us look good. And don't forget, there will be a stand-by line. I'll do everything in my power to make sure as many of the stand-by folks get in as possible. On with the show…
When I first saw director Darren Aronofsky's latest, THE WRESTLER, I almost couldn't believe what I was seeing. Let's start with the tragic magnificence of the performance from the film's star Mickey Rourke, and the fact the the film serves as a metaphor for Rourke's troubled life and tentative comeback in recently years in such films as DOMINO and SIN CITY. Every second of the movie moved me, from the opening sequence when we walk behind Rourke as he goes through his pre-match rituals to the tear-stained end credits song from Bruce, which was inspired by both Robert D. Siegel's screenplay and the long-running friendship the singer has with Rourke. The song is a tribute to a friend who has seen rough years but survived long enough to deliver the greatest screen performance of his career. I find this one of the most fascinating aspects of a staggeringly fine film, which hopefully explains the time I spent talking to Aronofsky about the song. But we had a lot of time together, so we got to it all. Nothing that the director has done before will quite prepare you for the stark and haunting power THE WRESTLER possesses. There is no possible way you cannot be moved by this fine work. Enjoy Darren Aronofsky, truly one of the good ones.
Capone: If it's alright with you, I'd like to spend our entire half hour together discussing the process of getting Bruce Springsteen to write a song for you.
Darren Aronofsky: [laughs] I'll tell you that story! To be frank, I can take absolutely no credit for that. I think while he was shooting HOMEBOY, Mickey met Bruce in the Stone Pony over drinks.
Capone: So we're talking late '80s…
DA: I think so, yeah, must of been. And Mickey was a big star, and they became friends. When we finished this film…well, we always had a nice poster of The Boss in "The Ram's" trailer [Rourke plays a wrestler named Randy "The Ram" Robinson]. I don't know if it's actually photographed, but it was clear that Bruce was a big influence on this character. We're in Jersey. The character is sort of a stock Bruce character in a way.
Capone: Well, there's that one shot of the boardwalk that I've seen dozens of times in TV pieces about Bruce.
DA: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. Mickey wrote him a letter and sent him the script, and Bruce wrote a letter back saying, "Nice to hear from you, Mick. I'm on tour in Europe, and I'll read the script, and if something hits me…" Then he wrote back that he loved the script, and that he had an idea. At this point, we're in post-production. So I got a phone call. And I knew he was going to call, but still, when you get the phone call, "Hey, it's Bruce Springsteen. I like the project, and I've got a few ideas. I'll put them down, and if you like them you can use them." Yeah right! [laughs]
So, the date that it was supposed to happen came and went, and then Bruce was coming back through New York and playing Giants Stadium, and Mickey's like, "Let's go to the show." So we go to the show, and we're standing in the front row. And I've never seen a Bruce show before.
DA: No. I grew up in Brooklyn in the '80s, so I definitely gravitated toward the hip-hop thing. Of course I knew Bruce Springsteen, but I wasn't a fanatic in any way. I wasn't that big a fan. I mean, I've always respected him because he seems unbelievably cool in his skin and aware of who he is. And then we went back stage after the show, and the next thing I know I'm standing in the Giants locker room with The Boss and Mickey. Mickey introduces us and then he says, "I know you've got business to talk over; I'm going to leave you." So suddenly I'm in the Giants locker room alone with Bruce Springsteen after just seeing him rock out 80,000 people. And I literally got stage fright for the first time in my life. [laughs] He grabbed his guitar and motioned for me to sit down. So I sat down, and I didn't know what to say. And slowly but surely my chin started going lower and lower toward my body. I was like, "Oh my God, I'm having stage fright in front of Bruce Springsteen."
Capone: So he played you the song?
DA: Yeah. So we just started talking, and he was a very, very cool guy. And he said, "Yeah, I wrote down a few things, and he pulled out a spiral notebook and played the song, and it was amazing, just amazing. Basically what I found out during that meeting was…well, he said, "I admit, I haven't seen your films, but I've heard about you and I know you're serious about what you do. I did this because I've been a fan of Mickey's for years, and I've been hoping Mickey would get an opportunity like this. And when I read the script, it just made sense, so I'm glad to help in any way I can." As I said, I take no credit for it. It was all because of The Boss's respect and love for his friend Mickey Rourke.
Capone: Has he now seen the film?
DA: He did. He's only seen it on DVD. After we put the song in, I sent it to him, and he called me up. I sent it to him with two slightly different ending, one where the song begins in the final shots of the film, and the one we went with where it begins as soon as the film is over and we've got to black. He said very nice things and really respected it. He called Mickey and made Mickey cry, so Mickey was happy that it all worked out. Mickey is very thankful and loves the song and won't stop playing it. If you hear the song, it's an amazing song because we wanted to incorporate it earlier in the film but he captured the whole spirit of the film and told the story of the film, so I felt that putting it earlier would be too much of a comment before I was ready to comment.
Capone: He has a real gift for doing that, as we've seen with "Streets of Philadelphia" and "Dead Man Walking" and "Missing." It's not so much summarizing it as capturing it.
DA: What did you think of the song? Did you get to hear it?
Capone: Of course. I knew it was coming and I didn't move. As soon as I heard him counting in, I focused on nothing but the song. Will the song be available to buy?
DA: I think it's going to be on the soundtrack.
Capone: Among all the heavy metal songs?
DA: Exactly. [laughs]
Capone: Did you think in casting Mickey Rourke, that you were taking any kind of gamble?
DA: I think everyone in the world thought it was a gamble, and before I met him I did to maybe, because his reputation preceded him a lot. And why hadn't he come back, really come back? But when I met him, it was completely clear to me that he was aware of where he was in the world and what he had done to his career. He was very honest in wanted to work again. But when I committed to him, I went to every single financing source in the world, and every single one said No. They all loved the script. The reason they all said no was because of Mickey. They didn't think he could be the lead of a movie; they even questioned whether they thought he could be sympathetic. So when you hear that many 'No's', you always question yourself, but I couldn't get the vision of him doing this performance out of my head. And even with all the temptations to make it another way, I had to make it with the limited budget from that one financier. So I took the $6 million that Wild Bunch offered us and made a lot of sacrifices to the scope of the film, and put on my independent hat like I've done on every film I've done [laughs]. We just figured out a way to get it done.
Capone: You've illustrated in all of your films a great of love of people's faces and of the faces of those whose faces we don't often see on the screen. Mickey's face is impossible to take your eyes off of. I had a fairly famous actor say to me recently, "Mickey Rourke used to be so pretty." And his face has been ravaged by time and boxing. I think some people might believe the way he looks in THE WRESTLER is makeup. You hold back showing his face in the beginning of the film, and I can't imagine that with every audience that sees the movie there isn't some sort of collective gasp when you first reveal him.
DA: He has been hit in the face a million time. To me, the most importantly thing are the eyes of an actor. His eyes haven't changed at all, and you can see right deep into his soul. That's why I knew I'd be fine. The reason people go to the movies is so you can sit in a dark theater without any self-consciousness, and look at Paul Newman's eyes 30 feet wide, without any fear that he's going to look back at you. You can just look right into them. And I knew if I showed Mickey's soul through his eyes--and that's why he doesn't wear sunglasses in the entire film. I fought him every day; he wanted to put on a pair of sunglasses, and I broke many pairs of sunglasses of his because I wouldn't let him do it. So that's it--the spirit is inside, and his face is alive. He does more movement and twitching and has more life in that face than 90 percent of the actresses out there. [laughs]
Capone: I will submit--and you can tell me if you agree or disagree--that nothing you have done up to this point really prepared me for this kind of the film from you. The story, yes, but your approach, no way. I know you used to do documentaries, and clearly you you're drawing from those skills once again.
DA: My first three films, I see as a trilogy and a chapter in my filmmaking life. There were a lot of changes in my life when I started this film. I'm half joking when I say, if Madonna taught us anything it's that we have to reinvent ourselves, but I think it's totally important as a filmmaker and as someone who works in the arts to constantly reinvent yourself and do new things and challenge yourself. So I wanted to try and do something incredibly naturalistic. But the style of the film came out of Mickey, very much so. I used to talk about how every film has a film grammar, and the film grammar comes out of the themes of the film. You look at the story and that will tell you where to put the camera, and I believe that. But this film, I think I could have shot in a lot of different ways, and I decided to create a film grammar based on Mickey as an actor. I wanted to create a sandbox for Mickey that had absolutely no boundaries. I wanted to be able to…if Mickey wanted to walk outside his trailer and go take a leak in the wood, I could just follow him and do it. So I built a team around him. I got a cinematographer, Maryse Alberti, who had a lot of experience shooting documentaries. I got a production designer [Tim Grimes]who was very comfortable working on locations. And then I just sort of opened it up for him. Thirty to forty percent of this film is improvised; it just happened. For instance, the deli counter scene, we didn't have the money to close the supermarket or the deli counter, so there were people coming over. No one really recognized Mickey, especially with his hair back in a bun. And we'd be like, "Do you mind if we film you?" "Sure, no problem." At one point, the manager of the supermarket came up to me and said, "Can you ask Mickey to write more neatly?" "What are you talking about?" Turns out he was scribbling the prices on the packages of meat and people would go and try to buy it, and the cashiers couldn't read what he'd written.
Capone: "Can you ask Mickey to do his job better?"
DA: Exactly. So they weren't in on it; they didn't know what was real and what was fake.
Capone: That's really funny. I thought some of those customers were probably non-actors. They looked so natural.
DA: Yeah, yeah. We did the same thing with the wrestling promotions. Every wrestler was real. Every wrestler that Mickey wrestled was a real wrestler. Necro Butcher is a total underground, cult American hero. Go to YouTube, and look up Necro Butcher. He's a wild man.
Capone: Did you ever see BEYOND THE MAT, the documentary about Mick Foley?
DA: Yeah, of course.
Capone: That came to mind while watching your film.
DA: Absolutely. And there was another film that came out this year, BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER, that's a great film. I just saw it a couple of weeks ago. BEYOND THE MAT came out while we were working on the film. I think that filmmaker got a lot of great stuff. I think they were lucky to get sanctioned, but I also think they tried to shut them down.
Capone: There's a quintessential moment in the movie that sums up everything about this character's life. Right after Mickey gets out of the hospital, and he goes to that signing with all the old wrestlers, who are either sleeping or bored or reading magazines and there's nobody there to see them. That's his life. If he's not allowed to wrestle, that's all he has. And the saddest thing of all was seeing how many of the guys had VHS tapes of the greatest fights on their tables--not even DVDs. Who is going to buy those? There's no dialogue. It's just Mickey surveying the room.
DA: I think a lot of us who are Ain't It Cool News folks have been to some of those. That scene is based on an actual event I went to. We went to a gym somewhere in Jersey, and Superfly Snuka was there, The Rock's father Rocky Johnson was there, Lou Albano was there. And there were maybe 12 people there the whole day; it was a disaster. It was good for me because I spent most of the time talking to the guys and getting stories. But that scene was verbatim what went on that day.
Capone: I know you've had the idea of making a movie about a wrestler in your head for quite a number of year. So why didn't your write the script for this film?
DA: I've been looking for the opportunity of working with writers. I started developing this when I was still working on THE FOUNTAIN, so I wasn't available to write it. When I read Rob Siegel's writing, I thought there was a really interesting match here, and then I talked to Rob and it turned out he was really into the whole world of wrestling and he got it. I got excited about that, and I spent a lot of time developing it with Rob. But he brought a level that was completely his own, and I think like with any collaboration that's what you want, you want to work with people who can bring something that you can never really do.
Capone: I like that you deal right off the bat with the staged quality of the sport, but then you quickly follow that up with the acknowledgement that, yes they work some of their moves out ahead of time but it's a painful and bloody exercise.
DA: Yeah. The funny thing is that when I started to work on this film, everyone was saying, "Why do you want to work on a movie about that? It's fake. It's silly." But you find me a 250-lb. guy who jumps six feet down onto another guy, even if you're not trying to hurt the guy, the next day you're going to wake up feeling it. If you're lucky! If you're unlucky, you could really hurt yourself. These guys have taken real bumps and real hits, and a lot them, by the time they get into their 40s, they can barely walk. I remember when me and Mick went to meet Greg "The Hammer" Valentine, we saw him across the hall before he saw us, and he was an old, old man. They he saw us and lit up and pulled himself together when we walked over. But you could see the pain. That was an important part of the film--real and fake. Yes it's fake, but hold on here. It's scripted but these guys are serious stuntmen doing real action. You can't deny that. That became a theme for the entire film--what is real, what is fake. Being in the ring, is that real for Randy ["The Ram" Robinson, Rourke's character] or is that fake. Your real life, when you're at home, suddenly doesn't feel so real anymore. When you're a big hero in the ring, that's when the Cassidy character [played by Marisa Tomei] started to get exciting to us, how she's so clear about the real world and the fake world. What is the fantasy world and what is the real world? The way their lives mirrored each other and worked off each other was a big, exciting, complex idea for me.
Capone: The first time we see Marisa, she's looking as beautiful as I've ever seen her. But as the film goes on, people start making fun of her because she's older and we see her without makeup out of the strip club. She is like him, hiding an illusion.
DA: She's very brave.
Capone: For some reason, this film reminded me of TENDER MERCIES. Both films show a man past his prime, but he's still doing it. It's a slice-of-life film, not a highlights reel. Both films show a transitional period in the person's life, and there are no big moments, just little realizations. Life has to be different from this point forward, and you can't back things up. And you ended your film exactly right.
DA: Thank you.
Capone: And we go into that scene thinking it's going to end one of two ways and you don't give it us either one. It's wonderful.
DA: What do you think people are going to be thinking?
Capone: That he may not make it through the rematch. Our final image of The Ram is fantastic and slightly idealized.
DA: But what you were saying before that, every athlete deals with the themes in this movie. On a certain day at a certain point, you wake up and your body can't do what it once was able to do. So it doesn't matter whether you're a baseball player or football player or ballet dancer, at a certain point, it starts to end for you. Even as a person who is not an athlete, we all know that. One day you're waking up, and you're not doing the same stuff you used to do. How do you deal with that?
Capone: Talk about what happened at Venice and Toronto, because you kind of snuck in there and suddenly there was this whirlwind of activity around the film.
DA: Wednesday, the week before the screening, we finished the film. That Thursday, we flew to Venice. On Friday, there was something afloat because there was a standing ovation at the press conference and you never get a standing ovation at those. You never see journalists clap. [laughs] And that Saturday, they said, "You've got to stay." And we won the Golden Lion. We were all stunned, because we'd just finished it Wednesday. We left Venice at 6:00 am Sunday morning, and we landed in Toronto at 3:00 pm that day, we premiered in Toronto that night at 6:00 pm, and sold it at 5:00 am. So it was a 24-hour day.
Capone: But you managed to keep things so under the radar.
DA: Because everyone was making fun of it. And you know what? When we got back to New York four or five days later, I got a phone call from Mickey saying, "What have you done to me? There's paparazzi outside me door. A week ago, I couldn't get a ham sandwich." I kept calling Mickey and going, "Ten days ago, you were a joke." Next day, "Eleven days ago, you were a joke." Click. That was my revenge on him. [laughs] But the reality is and what's been so exciting to me is how many closet Mickey fans there are in the world. So many people have been laughing at him for so many years, and part of the reason they've been enjoying this comeback is that he's so gifted and talented, yet he wasted it. But deep down inside, people are excited to see Mickey rock it, because he's one of the few guys that really has it, that real edge. He's a real working class hero. He's from the street; he's not full of shit or some middle-class movie star who's some bad ass super thing. We know Mickey paid his dues. The Pope is back!
Capone: You did it when I interviewed you for THE FOUNTAIN a couple years back as well, but you don't hesitate to ask journalists what they thought of your movies. The one thing that struck me about the final speech that The Ram gives, and I'll just say this, nothing he has said or done up to that point led me to believe that he could make a speech like that. And I don't mean that in a bad way. That speech is as much about Mickey Rourke as it is about The Ram. It's a perfect speech, but it took me by surprise.
DA: And guess who improvised it? He made it up there. He did it. It's funny, some people find that the most emotional part, some people say it pulls them out. So it's definitely affecting people in different ways.
Capone: I think I agree with both of those statements.
DA: For anyone who knows who Mickey is, it makes you aware of him. I just thought, it's just so brutally real. And the thing is, I always knew that speech was going to happen. Me and Rob, we went to a wrestling match, and one of the guys grabbed the mic and did a speech like that in front of the crowd of 300-400 people, and I said, "Rob, The Ram has got to do a speech like that." And Rob wrote a speech which was very similar to what Mickey did, but then Mickey made it his own and we did that in one take. That was it. He just did it.