At the SXSW Conference, in Austin, Texas, Academy Award-nominated and Brooklyn-born and raised director Darren Aronofsky delivered a film festival keynote. He first asked what made us different from animals. His answer: the ability to tell stories.
Aronofsky knows about stories. His credits include mother!, Jackie, Black Swan, The Wrestler, The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream, Noah, and Pi. He went even further, suggesting that if you could drop a little boy on an island and let him grow up alone, he’d still innately understand the concepts of a setup and a punch line.
Before delivering what he called “The Ten Commandments of Independent Filmmaking,” he shared how he came to be a storyteller.
Finding His Story
After high school, Aronofsky traveled around Europe. When he got to Marrakech, Morocco, he discovered a place called Jama. People would stand in the square and tell stories. “I saw this old man,” Aronofsky said, “who was a storyteller. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I could see his shape changing as he told his story and I understood.”
He was impressed by the power of storytelling to share true human emotions and “let us know we are all one.”
“When I returned from Europe,” Aronofsky continued, “and got over some dysentery, I started college.”
He said that he worked really hard on writing good papers but received poor grades. “I was fascinated by what my roommate, an art major, was doing,” he said. “So, I signed up for a drawing class, and was so impressed that the teacher gave me so many tools developed over the centuries for visually communicating. I applied to get into the sculpting or filmmaking program. I was accepted in filmmaking. It was the only ‘A’ I ever got.”
Aronofsky shared stories about his early struggles in getting films made. Out of these, he said, he developed ten commandments for filmmaking. “I present these in all humility,” he said, “as I am kind of a hack writer compared to that Bible guy.”
Work, Persistence, and Family
“Commandment One,” he said, “is ‘Make the film only you can make.’ For me, I wanted to tell my stories. I’m every character in every movie. I admire films made because only that filmmaker could make them. That’s always what I push and encourage. When I was trying to sell Requiem for a Dream, I was told ‘Its great, just get rid of the old lady.’ But that character was why I made it.”
“Commandment Two is ‘Persistence is nine tenths of the game,’” he said. “Well, maybe it’s only seven tenths. Nine-tenths sounds more impressive. It’s definitely over 50 percent anyway.”
Aronofsky recalled times he needed to be persistent. “I was working on Requiem for a Dream and I was on a first date in a bar trying to be impressive because I was making a movie. I got a call that said our budget was cut from 5 million to 2.5 million. I cried,” he admitted.
“The Fountain took six years to make because after three years’ work the project fell apart. I rewrote it and made it cheaper. With The Wrestler, no one wanted Mickey Rourke. Even with Black Swan I was told that horror fans don’t like ballet and ballet fans don’t like horror.”
Aronofsky admitted that it was getting easier for him now, but persistence is still a large part.
He said that Commandment Three was “Work with family.”
“They always have your back. And become a family with the people you work with,” he advised. He said that his mentor was Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke, The Amityville Horror). “Stu told me once,” he recalled, “how a gaffer had given him a big idea. Collaboration is key. Treat everyone with the same respect. A set is no place for weird power dynamics. It’s friends.”
Homework, Reality, and Actors
“The fourth commandment is ‘Do your homework,’ so you can be ready on set,” he said. “For The Fountain I storyboarded every single shot and imported them into an early version of iMovie. I added transitions and music. When The Fountain shut down the first time, I lost that file. Then I did it the second time. There is actually a 70-minute storyboard version of The Fountain.”
For mother! Aronofsky explained that the principal cast rehearsed for three and a half months in a warehouse with tape on the floor representing walls. He said that there are only three shots in the film: over Jennifer Lawrence’ shoulder, on her face, and her POV. No wide shots in the entire film. “We filmed the rehearsal, cut it together, without walls, without costumes, without makeup. We made the crew watch this two-hour film. They didn’t get much out of it, but I did.”
Aronofsky said that Commandment Five is “Adapt to reality and make your limitations advantages.”
“For The Wrestler the concept was to make a documentary of Mickey Rourke playing Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson. We shot it like a doc. There are scenes in there with real people. The turkey scene where he chops up the turkey for a woman: I don’t think she ever knew he was an actor. We worked with real wrestlers. The match at the end was shot during a real live event we promoted.”
He pointed to Pi as another example. “We didn’t have a budget to control the color palette. So, we chose to shoot it in black and white. To turn that to an advantage, we went even further and shot it in black and white reversal.”
“Commandment Six,” he said, “is ‘Don’t be afraid of your actors.’ Editing and camera work came very naturally to me, but I couldn’t understand actors. Yesterday my 11-year-old son said to me that acting is just about saying things so it should sound real. I thought, wow, we all played make-believe when we were little kids. We lost that when things got real.”
He explained, “Actors get into it because they want to cry. You want to find the actors who are hungry to share themselves. I’ve had the pleasure of working with so many actors who just show up and do their job. Your job is to create a place where the actors feel safe. They need a sandbox where they can try things.”
Audience, Vision, Caring
Commandment Seven came from a sign that Stuart Rosenberg had on his desk: “Where is my Audience.”
Aronofsky explained, “Between ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ be the audience. Look deep into the emotion. In your head all the technical stuff is going on, but, also channel the emotion. You are the caretaker for the entire film. There should be one thematic idea and every little piece that you create should add to this. The same thing happens in the editing room. It’s hard, but you need to see it fresh each time, like you are the audience.
“You must commit to the vision,” he added, “and see it through to the end. That’s number eight.” He suggested that that is often easier said than done, citing Noah.
“Everyone knew what film we were making. Two agnostic Jews turning the Bible story into a myth about environmental destruction. We tested it in the center of the country and evangelicals weren’t going for it. But I spent six months fighting for it and it became a worldwide hit.”
His Commandment Nine almost sounded like a contradiction of Eight. “’Let the Child Go,’” he said. “You never finish a film. You abandon a film. For me The Fountain was a six-year-long project. Eventually you get to a place where you must say ‘I’m going to let it go.’ Then never go back. That’s a waste of time. Go on to your next project.”
Commandment Ten was to “Give a sh*t.” “Make something deeply human. Don’t worry about being preachy. Creativity that supports fun is entertainment. Creativity that disrupts a worldview is art. So, go be artists.”
Featured photo at top of article by author