MOTHER!

We take a peek in­side Dar­ren Aronof­sky’s lat­est mind­ben­der, with the help of Jen­nifer Lawrence and the di­rec­tor him­self. Warn­ing: con­tains heavy sym­bol­ism.

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS - words ian nathan il­lus­tra­tion Jacey

Grow­ing up in Man­hat­tan Beach, Dar­ren Aronof­sky was ob­sessed with the Cy­clone. Some­thing about the in­ten­sity of Coney Is­land’s fa­mous wooden roller­coaster spoke to the em­bry­onic di­rec­tor: the slow, ratch­eted up­ward climb; the freefalling and switch­backs; the cho­rus of screams. It was ter­ror by de­sign. He would ride it ev­ery sum­mer. And watch other rid­ers get off with jelly legs and huge grins.

Zoom for­ward 30 years and Aronof­sky is a film­maker no­to­ri­ous for tak­ing stu­dio movies with big, beau­ti­ful stars to vi­o­lent and hal­lu­ci­na­tory ex­tremes. His $60,000 black-and­white de­but, Pi, de­picted a para­noid num­ber the­o­rist who thinks he’s dis­cov­ered a code sent by God. His se­cond, a dev­as­tat­ing adap­ta­tion of Hubert Selby Jr’s heroin-seeped tragedy

Re­quiem For A Dream, de­scended into a vor­tex of sex­ual degra­da­tion and am­pu­ta­tion. For the smash-hit, Os­car-win­ning

Black Swan, he trans­formed the prim glis­sade of pro­fes­sional bal­let into a psy­cho­sex­ual bur­lesque, in which Natalie Port­man’s hy­per­neu­rotic bal­le­rina also played her own di­a­bolic dop­pel­gänger. The act of cre­ation is al­ways a short stop from mad­ness. In The Wrestler, ar­guably Aronof­sky’s most main­stream film, Mickey Rourke’s fad­ing fighter sta­ple-guns his own fore­head.

“I re­ally don’t want to be Mc­don­ald’s, where peo­ple are en­ter­tained and that is that,” the 48-year-old laughs. “I want peo­ple to talk about my films.”

His lat­est, mother! (the ec­cen­tric styling used is all grist to the mystery), is cer­tain to be end­lessly pored over. It is surely the apoth­e­o­sis of his be­dev­il­ments; his most am­bi­tious and con­found­ing ex­er­cise in cin­e­matic ex­trem­ity. And it tor­ments one of Hol­ly­wood’s big­gest stars.

In the be­gin­ning, how­ever, was a bad case of writer’s block. Well, writer’s itch. Aronof­sky was deep into the script for, of all things, a kids’ movie. “Some­thing very per­sonal,” he says of the project, which con­tained el­e­ments of his own com­fort­able Jewish-new York up­bring­ing. “But I was kind of strug­gling with it, as you al­ways do.” In­spi­ra­tion, he notes, is most of­ten just your brain try­ing to dis­tract you from what­ever it is you are sup­posed to be do­ing.

He knew well enough to scrib­ble the idea down. It was cer­tainly strange: a dark ro­mance, more or less a cham­ber piece, which like his apoc­a­lyp­tic 2014 Noah was loosely in­spired by his en­vi­ron­men­tal work. “Those is­sues are im­por­tant to me,” he says. “But I’m not the kind of guy to do a biopic of the guy who started Green­peace.”

It had struck him that where his par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion had been stunned by dire vi­sions of Viet­nam beamed into their liv­ing rooms via TV sets, so­ci­ety was now as­saulted by a blitzkrieg of im­ages re­sem­bling Bib­li­cal plagues, ping­ing onto our smart­phones: war, famine, poverty, ter­ror­ism, umpteen bank­ing crises.

“You just re­alise how frag­ile and how in­sane the world is, the ra­zor edge that we are sur­viv­ing on. I was also in­spired by some per­sonal things, some heartache, and that feel­ing of be­ing a par­ent where we are kind of im­po­tent yet filled with rage.”

Aronof­sky is a con­tra­dic­tory soul. The Brook­lyn kid loved Spiel­berg and Lu­cas, whereas the know­ing Har­vard film and so­cial an­thro­pol­ogy stu­dent ded­i­cated him­self to for­eign masters. He has flirted with a Bat­man re­boot (to star Clint East­wood), a mes­sianic take on Su­per­man, a Robo­cop re­vamp and a film that would kill Wolver­ine, and we can only hun­grily imag­ine what he would have made of any of them. But his path has led him deeper and darker into the wilder­ness of his own crav­ings.

A cou­ple of weeks on from his fren­zied scrib­blings, he found him­self at a loose end and sat down at his lap­top to see where the idea took him. “It just blew out of me like a fever dream,” he re­mem­bers. “I couldn’t stop. I sat there, not eat­ing, in my un­der­wear the whole time. I wrote

the whole thing in five days.”

Ex­hausted but ex­hil­a­rated, he sent the script to pro­duc­ing part­ners Scott Franklin and Ari Han­del, who he could rely on for a frank as­sess­ment. Had he lost his mind? Or was there, maybe, some­thing there?

They were taken aback but im­pressed, and sug­gested he risk get­ting it into the hands of po­ten­tial stars. Aronof­sky’s im­me­di­ate thought was to text his friend Jen­nifer Lawrence, warn­ing her he was about to send over his new script. He promised it wouldn’t be like any­thing she had read be­fore.

The premise is de­cep­tively sim­ple. Lawrence’s shy, young wife lives in a large coun­try house with her older hus­band (Javier Bar­dem), a poet of great re­pute suf­fer­ing his own Bar­ton Funk. She, mean­while, is sin­gle­hand­edly ren­o­vat­ing the house, and is cer­tainly not ready for the un­wel­come stranger at their door (Ed Har­ris). He claims to be a sur­geon — no-one gives a name — but he chain-smokes, of­ten in­doors. Ne­glect­ing his wife’s grow­ing ag­i­ta­tion, the hus­band be­comes strangely pre­oc­cu­pied by their guest. Fol­low­ing the dis­cov­ery of a bloody par­cel in the loo, the sur­geon’s wife (Michelle Pfeif­fer) ar­rives and she’s com­pletely im­pos­si­ble. When their crazy off­spring turn up, all goes to hell — as it were.

Lawrence’s re­ac­tion was to hurl the script across the room and text Aronof­sky back: “There is some­thing se­ri­ously wrong with you.” Hav­ing slept on it, she texted him again: “By the way, it’s a mas­ter­piece.”

She laughs. “There was a full 24 hours where ev­ery­body thought I had turned it down in a re­ally huge way. But it was like read­ing po­etry or scrip­ture, or Dar­ren’s diaries: ex­cerpts from a fucked-up mind.”

“The se­cond you have Jen­nifer Lawrence, you have a movie,” says Aronof­sky. What­ever qualms Paramount’s mar­ket­ing depart­ment may have had, they were well aware Aronof­sky was never go­ing to de­liver Ride Along. In un­der a year from that ini­tial writ­ing ses­sion he was shoot­ing.

Told with an in­ten­sity fever­ish even by the stan­dards of cin­e­matic hys­te­ria the di­rec­tor has al­ready set, mother! plum­mets from comic ab­sur­dity into fran­tic nightmare, as hun­dreds of house guests swarm through the frag­ile house.

mother! isn’t pred­i­cated on a sin­gle, chill­ing twist like The Sixth Sense; here ev­ery­thing is twist. There are, Aronof­sky is will­ing to ad­mit, two things go­ing on.

On one hand it is a “big, strong al­le­gory”. Ev­ery­thing serves as a po­ten­tial sym­bol that fits within the film’s ul­te­rior mean­ings. Some­thing you must de­ci­pher like a puz­zle. All of Aronof­sky’s ob­ses­sions lurk be­neath the crack­ing plas­ter: mys­ti­cism, re­li­gion, nu­merol­ogy, as­trol­ogy, life, the uni­verse and ev­ery­thing. Lawrence was de­lighted to fi­nally put her Ken­tucky child­hood Bible study class to use, amazed at how her di­rec­tor has “taken thou­sand-year-old themes and turned them into a story about what it means to be hu­man”. You could see it as an en­vi­ron­men­tal parable, but one that never leaves the in­te­rior of a ca­pa­cious but con­fus­ing house that

pre­vi­ously burned down.

“But un­der­ly­ing that is a true emo­tional story as well,” in­sists the di­rec­tor, who be­gan dat­ing Lawrence dur­ing the pro­duc­tion. “Peo­ple who have seen it are able to re­late to this as a re­la­tion­ship drama be­tween an older man and a younger woman, which is clearly in­tended. It is al­ways a cri­tique in Hol­ly­wood about old movie stars be­ing cast with young in­génues.” He had never ac­tu­ally pic­tured the house, but Aronof­sky knew it had to be Victorian. The right aes­thetic was key. The film ap­pears to be con­tem­po­rary, but there is some­thing clas­si­cal about the set­ting, the kind of big, bony pad har­bour­ing se­crets in the base­ment. “I also knew I wanted the house to have a very cir­cu­lar na­ture,” he adds, no stranger to ren­o­va­tion him­self, hav­ing worked on his own home (which he calls his “fourth film”) be­tween The

Foun­tain and The Wrestler. “I wanted it to be a con­fused lay­out, some­thing the au­di­ence would have to learn.”

When his pro­duc­tion de­signer sug­gested an oc­tagon house — an eight-sided ar­chi­tec­ture pop­u­lar in 19th-cen­tury Amer­ica — Aronof­sky was smit­ten. The style of­fered a be­wil­der­ing va­ri­ety of an­gles, with the cen­tral wind­ing stair­way an echo of that twist­ing Cy­clone. More­over, if you turn the num­ber eight side­ways, it be­comes the sym­bol for in­fin­ity.

Shoot­ing in Mon­treal, the pro­duc­tion built two ver­sions of their all-en­com­pass­ing res­i­dence, one on lo­ca­tion to al­low heav­enly day­light to pour through the win­dows (im­pos­si­ble to repli­cate in a stu­dio). Once night had fallen, they swapped to the set.

Dur­ing re­hearsal they drew a large chalk out­line of the in­te­rior to plot out the film’s con­stant anx­ious mo­tion and Polan­ski-like claus­tro­pho­bia (“He is an in­spi­ra­tion, full-stop,” says Aronof­sky of the Rose­mary’s Baby di­rec­tor). Mean­while, the script evolved. “It was a guide, but not the Bible,” says Bar­dem. “Things were hap­pen­ing: it was flex­i­ble, it was dy­namic, it was alive.”

The Span­ish star de­scribes his poet char­ac­ter as a man driven by a passion for cre­ation, al­most to the point of ob­ses­sion. He has known peo­ple like that in his ca­reer, pow­er­ful peo­ple who are al­ways vul­ner­a­ble. They can be very dif­fi­cult to deal with. The most im­por­tant thing was to bring a sense of re­al­ism to the story. “And to only point to the al­le­gor­i­cal feel,” Bar­dem ex­plains. “Then you hand that to Dar­ren.”

With Aronof­sky, ac­tors tend to sus­pect there might be some­thing more go­ing on. “Then they want to talk to me,” he laughs. Pfeif­fer in par­tic­u­lar, who like Har­ris plays a per­versely child­ish char­ac­ter, with lit­tle re­spect for per­sonal bound­aries, had a lot of ques­tions. “She im­me­di­ately got the char­ac­ter that she was go­ing to play,” he says. “But it took her a while to un­der­stand the larger pic­ture I was go­ing for.”

Lawrence de­scribes the wife, a con­stant source of food for her un­grate­ful guests, as “very lov­ing, very fem­i­nine, and very handy round the house”. The lat­ter not be­ing some­thing the ac­tor had any affin­ity with. “Me? No, I would just end up pay­ing some­one to undo what I’ve just done.”

To ac­com­pany the off-kil­ter sto­ry­telling, Aronof­sky de­vised an equally dis­ori­en­tat­ing ap­proach to his film­mak­ing. The cam­era never leaves Lawrence’s in­creas­ingly dis­traught wife as she dashes round her home, try­ing vainly to re­store or­der. Bar­dem calls the fren­zied chore­og­ra­phy a “dance”; the film spins, lurches and plunges, emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally. There were times when the ac­tor had no idea what was about to hap­pen in a scene. He prayed his di­rec­tor was in con­trol.

“There are only three shots in the lan­guage of this movie,” ex­plains Aronof­sky. “Over her shoul­der, on her face, or a POV of what she is look­ing at. That made Jen’s job un­be­liev­ably dif­fi­cult.” He has cal­cu­lated that 66 min­utes of the two-hour run­ning time is de­voted to Lawrence’s desperate face. “But you are not bored, be­cause she is a re­mark­able ac­tor who is con­stantly mak­ing you think.”

The bur­den for Lawrence was im­mense. Even solo-dra­mas like Cast­away or Buried are

not as tightly wound around the per­spec­tive of one char­ac­ter. “We shot pretty chrono­log­i­cally,” she re­ports. “It started very in­ti­mately, just the [lead] ac­tors, Dar­ren and the cam­era guys, then it grew to 20 ex­tras, to 50, to 100 ex­tras. It be­came over­whelm­ing, and the set con­tin­ued to get dirt­ier and dirt­ier and dirt­ier.”

As the strug­gle within the house mounts, so her ren­o­va­tions dis­in­te­grate along­side her frag­ile psy­che, like a de­monic re­boot of The

Money Pit. Events grow sav­age as fans and wor­ship­pers of the poet turn on his wife.

“This was the hard­est movie of my life,” Lawrence ad­mits. “It was just the most en­ergy I have had to put into some­thing. It was men­tally hard to go to such a dark place. And it was tough to snap out of it.”

She has never felt so out of con­trol. In one scene she ven­ti­lated so hard she popped a rib. Later, the crew could only gape when, on cut, the lead­ing lady fled the set in tears, with the di­rec­tor giv­ing chase, shout­ing, “It’s not real! It’s not real!” Lawrence has no idea how au­di­ences will re­spond to mother!. She hon­estly doesn’t. It’s likely to in­fu­ri­ate some, freak out oth­ers, and en­thral yet more.

“It was a scary movie to make,” she says. “And it is a scary movie to re­lease.”

The blood­stained trailer hints at straightup hor­ror, but the genre here is Aronof­sky. The twinned, lurid posters of poet and wife, the lat­ter de­pict­ing Lawrence clutch­ing her heart in her hands, have al­ready in­spired a whirligig of in­ter­pre­ta­tions.

“My taste has al­ways been a step to the side of the me­dian,” says the di­rec­tor, who spent 52 weeks in post try­ing to make sense of his im­ages. “I don’t know if you would call Black

Swan a hor­ror film. The Wrestler wasn’t re­ally a sports movie. The Foun­tain wasn’t re­ally a science-fic­tion film. Noah wasn’t a typ­i­cal Bib­li­cal movie.”

In­deed, you could read mother! as Aronof­sky’s re­sponse to his tri­als on Noah, where the film’s elas­tic ap­proach to the Old Tes­ta­ment was com­pro­mised in or­der to ap­peal to the faith mar­ket.

“Look, any­time you throw a hand grenade into the cul­tural pot, some­thing hap­pens,” he says. “I think that tragedy as a form is some­thing that has been lost in West­ern so­ci­ety. All our movies have happy end­ings; our cul­ture has be­come Dis­ney­fied. But I am com­ing from a good place, with hope.”

Bar­dem, for one, sees mother! as an op­ti­mistic film, de­spite its macabre im­agery. “There was one thing for me that meant a lot,” he of­fers, “which is the idea of need­ing to be­long. We are cre­ated to be­long to one another, and to some­thing big­ger than our­selves. With the world go­ing the way it is go­ing, it is a film for its time.”

What­ever your re­ac­tion, it con­firms Aronof­sky as Hol­ly­wood’s fore­most provo­ca­teur and the only di­rec­tor in the world will­ing to use the word “al­le­gory” in a stu­dio pitch meet­ing. “Ev­ery­thing comes from his mind,” says Lawrence. This is his cre­ation. Amen.

Clock­wise from above: Javier Bar­dem with screen wife Jen­nifer Lawrence; De­vel­op­ments drive Lawrence up the wall; The cou­ple’s house, soon to be over­run; Dar­ren Aronof­sky with DP Matthew Li­ba­tique.

House party: Well, that es­ca­lated quickly.

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