'Noah,' the upcoming film featuring a star studded cast led by Russell Crowe, re-tells an ancient story of biblical proportions, and the film's director, Darren Aronofsky, has a personal story - a New York story - worth telling all on its own. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 profile.
When he's on a movie set, Darren Aronofsky is often responsible for hundreds of people, as with his latest film, "Noah." But that's not what makes him nervous.
"I think I get more nervous doing an interview like this. I was up all night last night," he says. "I don't like talking about stuff. As long as I'm behind the camera, I'm fine."
He's done quite well behind the camera, from his first films "Pi" and "Requiem for a Dream," which brought him awards and acclaim, to "The Wrestler" and "Black Swan," which earned him Academy Award recognition and a much larger international audience.
"Noah" is his biggest project to date. Along with the film, there's a graphic novel that Aronofsky co-wrote and an art exhibit in SoHo: "Fountains of the Deep: Visions of Noah and the Flood."
"You don't get many contemporary artists actually doing stuff with biblical themes, so I thought it would be very interesting to see what they came up with," he says.
Aronofsky calls Noah the patron saint of his creative life, because the story was the subject of a poem he wrote as a 13-year-old at Mark Twain Junior High School on Coney Island.
"I had a magical teacher, Mrs. Vera Fried, and she asked everyone to write a poem based on peace, and it turned out it was a contest for the U.N., and I ended up winning it, and it was the first time I thought maybe, 'Hey, wow, maybe I can be a writer, a storyteller,'" he says.
Aronofsky contacted Vera Fried, now retired in Florida, and invited her to the set.
"I was like, 'You know what, we need an extra today.' So I stuck her and made her into this one-eyed crone, and she has some speaking lines with Russell," he says. "And when the studio was like, 'You know what, that shot, you should cut that shot out,' I was like, 'There's no f-ing way we're going to cut that shot out. That's staying in the movie.'"
So Fried, or Mrs. Fried, as Aronofsky still calls her, has been getting some attention.
"I went to dinner in the executive tent. This is an itty-bitty tent. That was a TENT," she said at Florida StoryFest 2013. "I went to dinner with Russell."
Aronofsky is known for an almost uncompromising passion in pursuing his vision for a film,
but after directing six features, he's realistic.
"There's always limitations, every film you make, and you're always collaborating with people in filmmaking," he says. "I always envy songwriters, because if you want to write a three-minute song, you can write a three-minute song and no one can mess with you. But as a filmmaker, you have to work with a big group of people. Even on a film like "Pi" or "Requiem for a Dream," there were people who were coming up with the thousands of dollars, the few hundreds of thousands of dollars, that you had to work with, and they had to trust that you were going to, that you were actually trying to make something that was going to work for an audience."
In those early films, Aronofsky became known for a style called "hip-hop montage." In Aronofsky's more recent films, we've seen the extensive use of shots from the vantage point of the protagonist.
"I think it just started with Mickey," Aronofsky says. "When I met him, he was so mysterious, and people do actually want to get to know him, which is what happened, but I was like, 'You know what? Let's hide it from the audience for as long as we can.' So if you notice, the opening of 'The Wrestler,' the first seven, eight, nine minutes of the film, you don't see his face. And so it just became part of the visual landscape."
Another constant in Aronofsky's films is his family, but not in some intangible, emotional way. His father, Abraham Aronofsky, is in every film. He's at the deli counter in "The Wrestler."
Aronofsky: My dad happens to be not too good of an actor, a little stiff, but still put him in the film, and he loves it.
Mishkin: How does one give their father notes?
Aronofsky: It's very easy when you're the director. You just start screaming at him. It's revenge for your childhood.
Actually, Darren Aronofsky remembers a happy childhood growing up in the Manhattan Beach section of Brooklyn with parents who always supported him. He hasn't strayed far. His production company, Protozoa Pictures, is based in Williamsburg.
"The greatest entertainment, the greatest culture, the busiest, craziest city in the world was right there," he says. "So I was close enough to know that there was as bigger world, yet I also knew there were places to retreat to."
He went off to Harvard in 1987 without a clue about his future until a friend got him interested in art and animation classes.
"I'd sit there and try to make papers that make sense and I'd get B-minuses on them, and he'd sit there and draw pictures and get A's, and I was like, 'Hmm,'" he says. " But I was like, going to my parents, there was a time when I was like, I don't even think I told them I started to take art classes at Harvard, and I was terrified that they'd be like, 'We're paying how much money for you to take arts and crafts?'"
Aronofsky had found his calling. He studied directing at the American Film Institute.
His movies are fueled by compelling characters. He's met more than a few in his own life, including an older driver that Aronofsky befriended while driving a livery cab years ago in Brooklyn.
"His whole life was about calling WCBS and requesting the songs that he loved most and then taping them," Aronofsky said. "He was the sweetest guy in the world and taught me incredible life lessons about sharing and about being kind and, but he was just this lonely guy that lived in an apartment in Sheepshead Bay. So is he in 'The Wrestler?' I have no idea."
Aronofsky's success has provided him with opportunities outside of feature directing. He's lent his talents to the Montana Meth Project, highlighting the dangers of methamphetamine use in a series of public service announcements that are nothing short of terrifying.
"I've done eight of them," he says. "They're all single shots, which I think is just a fun exercise. It's only 30 seconds. It's not 'Gravity,' for goodness sake, but it's fun to sort of just design and choreograph shots, and it's just a positive message."
Aronofsky has a young son with actress Rachel Weisz, his onetime fiancée.
At 45, Aronofsky has enjoyed a steady stream of success throughout his still young career, accruing accolades and turning his ambitious and complex ideas into major motion pictures. It hasn't always been smooth sailing, with stars and investors pulling out of projects, studio executives passing on his films and colleagues telling him not to use a particular actor.
"Everyone was like, 'No one wants you to do a film with Mickey. No one's going to watch Mickey Rourke for an hour and a half," he says. "'Black Swan,' every single person in town passed on it."
Aronofsky's personality, though, has helped him navigate the industry.
"I have been blessed with being able to forget about all of the pain and the hardship of getting a film made," he says. 'People point stuff out to me. 'Why are you talking to that person? That person said...' and I'm like, 'Oh, I don't care.' For me, it's not about, there's no vengeance or anything. That's not why I'm doing it. I'm doing it because I believe in the film and in the characters, and that's just sort of the struggle, is getting through all that stuff. Afterwards, I just hope everyone appreciates it."