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Interview: Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler)

I wasn’t very. I think a lot of guys my age had about an 8-month romance with wrestling when they were kids. It was during the “hulk-a-mania” craze. I went to one match at Madison Square where Hulk was the bad guy. He was against Tony Atlas, and I remember the Hulk trying to throw Atlas, but missing, giving Atlas the opportunity to pull Hulk’s pants off. I was so excited I lost my voice for about three months.

When I first heard Darren Aronofsky was making a film about professional wrestling I was concerned. Not only did I have a particular disdain for the “sport,” but thought it unlikely that any movie about sports figures could prove to be original in a market place super-saturated with sports films. Then came even more disturbing news: two of Aronofsky’s key collaborators, cinematographer Matthew Libatique and composer Clint Mansell, would not be on board.

But Aronofsky managed to do something with The Wrestler that many great filmmakers never do: he experimented. He switched up his style; he explored a segment of society frequently looked down upon by sports fans and non-sports fans alike. The end result is one of the best films of the year.

Mickey Rourke’s performance is outstanding, clearly channeling his own rise and fall. The camerawork is different, yet still as jarring as the hip-hop cuts of Requiem for a Dream or Pi.

I got a chance to sit down Darren Aronofsky in New York.

Darren Aronofsky

Interview with Darren Aronofsky The Wrestler

Benjamin Crossley-Marra: Were you into pro-wrestling before you made this?
Darren Aronofsky: I wasn’t very. I think a lot of guys my age had about an 8-month romance with wrestling when they were kids. It was during the “hulk-a-mania” craze. I went to one match at Madison Square where Hulk was the bad guy. He was against Tony Atlas, and I remember the Hulk trying to throw Atlas, but missing, giving Atlas the opportunity to pull Hulk’s pants off. I was so excited I lost my voice for about three months. I mean I don’t think it’s something any boy can escape growing up in the states. It was such a huge phenomenon here as in Japan, yet no one has ever done a serious film about it. No one has taken a serious look into what this world is. It’s because of the perception that it’s fake, therefore people write it off. But, if you think about it, someone who weighs 300 lbs, jumping from a top rope of a ring, even though they’re trying to protect themselves and their opponents, they still feel it. When we went to explore these independent leagues we found wrestlers like Tony Atlas, people who used to sell out Madison Square, destroying their aging bodies for a mere $200 bucks a night. There’s drama in that. People who were hugely famous are now being forced to make ends meet.

BCM: This is the first movie you’ve made without longtime cinematographer Matthew Libatique. Could you explain how your visual approach to this film was different from your previous efforts?
DA: Well Matty was tied up shooting Miracle in St. Anna when we went into production. This film came together really quickly. We had been trying to raise the money for about two years, which is about how long it usually it takes me to raise money for a project. I thought The Wrestler would come together more quickly, however, every major financer said no to the casting of Mickey Rourke because nobody thought he could be sympathetic. I was talking to some students at Columbia last night, and I was re-enforcing going with that gut feeling. No matter how crazy or outside it may be you have to stick with your gut. But when the company Wild Bunch did come together with a mediocre budget of six million (which was way too little) the film was on the fast track, so I had to put on my “independent” cap and scramble everything together.

Interview with Darren Aronofsky The Wrestler

BCM: What made you stick by Mickey Rourke?
DA: He’s just such a unique performer. It’s funny, during all this press I’ve been trying to put him into a box, but he’s a Zebra, he can’t be painted into a thoroughbred and that’s what’s so great about him as an artist. He’s an original. He’s honest and everything that comes out of his mouth is for real, it’s not a prepared speech. He’s always in the moment and he’s legitimate. He comes from tough times but he’s got it under control now and he’s able to turn in great art. There are very few actors out there that even come close to approaching that.

BCM: How about the change in style?
DA: It’s very different from my first three films. They were very, very formal. Every single shot was shot listed and, in most cases, storyboarded. I just wanted to do something radically different. I came to the set without a shot list. I really wanted to try a different approach. I’ve heard other directors do that. They just show up with an advanced understanding of what the scene should be and they go for it. I know Clint Eastwood does it and he’s been making films far longer than I. I really wanted to experiment. Also, because we were working with Mickey I wanted the aesthetic to be as spontaneous as his persona. He had to be free to do anything he wanted and the camera had to be able to capture it in any way possible.

BCM: How was it working in 16mm?
DA: I love 16mm film, all my student films were in 16mm and of course Pi was as well. I’m not afraid of the grain, I think it looks great. Modern day film stock is so smooth and crystal clear that I think people forget to connect with the film. I love the 16mm aesthetic and we shot it in widescreen, which uses even less of the negative, which makes it even grainer. I love the final product; I don’t think we’ve seen that aesthetic in a while.

Interview with Darren Aronofsky The Wrestler

BCM: How did Robert Siegel, a first time screenwriter and former editor of The Onion, come to pen the script?
DA: Well, Robert wrote a script that actually just got into Sundance [Big Fan]. It’s about an obsessive fan of the New York Giants. I read that script and it was just great. It reminded me of Hal Ashby with all the dark humor but a lot of drama. That was type of vibe I really wanted for this film. He also had seven years of editing under his belt, which didn’t hurt. He really brought a lot of interesting things to the table. For example, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of hair-metal music. He knows every hair-metal song in the world! So it was a really interesting collaboration.

BCM: How have members of the wrestling community reacted to this film?
DA: About a week ago the cast and I did a screening out in LA and Rowdy Ronnie Piper, who none of us had ever met, was in attendance. At the end, someone asked the very same question you just did so we asked if he would stand up and comment. So this huge shadow stands up in the back of the room and begins with: “what you guys did…” and then he paused for a really long time, so Mickey and I thought we were fucked. But then he broke down and said that Mickey captured everything perfectly and he knew it wasn’t his story, but it was very similar to his life. And he came back after the screening and had nothing but complimentary things to say about the film. Hopefully the premiere will bring some more people about of the woodwork.

BCM: I noticed a special thanks to Axel Rose at the end?
DA: Well, we begged and begged them to use “Sweet Child of Mine.” They finally were able to give us an incredible deal all because they loved Mickey. I mean, the last time someone used it, it cost 1.5 million dollars and we got it for $20,000. Axel and Mickey have been friends for a while now so that’s the reason for the credit. Also, the Bruce Springsteen song at the end I can take no credit for. Mickey wrote a letter to him, they’ve also been friends for quite some time. Then I get a call that Bruce wants to do it because he feels Mickey is one of the most authentic people working in the industry today.

Interview with Darren Aronofsky The Wrestler

BCM: I noticed a lot of similarities between Marisa Tomei’s portrayal as a stripper along with Rourke’s Wrestler. They’re both performers, sacrificing their bodies and just barely making it. Did you see this as well?
DA: Oh yeah, there are so many similarities between them. I mean, when I first got the script and I saw it had a stripper, the red flags went up because strippers have been so over-used in film it doesn’t really work unless you do something original. What I loved about what Rob was trying to get out is the incredible parallels between these characters. They both have fake names, they’re both onstage creating fantasies for the audience. Time and age is their biggest enemy because their bodies are their tools. They also both wear spandex! I also think Marisa’s character acts as a romantic FOIL in the film as well as a mentor. She knows and understands this line between fantasy and the real world, a line that Mickey’s character has blurred. But what makes her performance so dynamic is that the audience doesn’t know if she’s going to break that line and go for Mickey or if she’s going to play by the rules.

BCM: At one point in time you were tapped to direct adaptations of both Lone Wolf and Cub and Flicker. Are there any updates on these projects or are they “dead in the water” so to speak?
DA: Well for Lone Wolf they could never clear the rights. It was a very complicated legal procedure. So I don’t know what’s going to happen with that but I think it’s a fantastic piece of material. Flicker was just a tough nut that we never cracked. Jim Uhls wrote a great script but it just didn’t quite work all the way. But, actually, a new director is starting to sniff around the project and I may wind up producing it. But we’ll just have to wait and see.

BCM: Can you talk about Robocop yet?
DA: Sorry, not yet.

Fox Searchlight opens The Wrestler in NYC and L.A theaters today.  

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