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