Before The Wrestler, Aronofsky has been known for visually explosive movies that split the difference between art house and mainstream, debuting with the mathematical thriller Pi, following up with the punishing heroin memoir Requiem for a Dream, and most recently with the New Age sci-fi epic The Fountain. We talked to Aronofksy about working with a small budget, on which professional wrestlers The Ram is based on, and how Rourke being a professional boxer made training for wrestling even harder.
Zimbio: You had trouble convincing the financiers to make this movie with Mickey Rourke. Were you able to convince them eventually, or did it take scaling back the movie's budget?
Darren Aronofsky: It took two years to find the money. And we went around everywhere. We always had this offer from the French on the table, but we didn't think it was makeable [for that much]. But at a certain point it was the only really credible offer, and it was like "All right, screw it, we'll just figure out how to make it for that amount of money."
It meant rethinking, putting on the indie film cap and figuring out how to do it for no money again. It's just hard to do that. The older you get, the more responsibilities you have, it's harder to live on falafel again. Ultimately it comes down to the work, and you do what it takes to get it done.
Zimbio: Did it help that Mickey Rourke had professional boxing experience?
Darren Aronofsky: It actually hurt. It was great that Mickey was an athlete and had that discipline and focus. But it was almost twice as hard for him to learn how to wrestle. Boxers move completely differently from wrestlers. Boxers want to hide their punch, they don't want their opponents to see the punch coming. In wrestling you want people in the back rows to see the punch coming three minutes before it happens.
Also, boxers, more than most people, have disrespect for wrestlers because it dirties their sport, which is a real sport, versus this theatrical thing of wrestling. He had a hard time for a while, it took him about half of his three months of his training to relax and say, "Okay, this could be fun.” I think he even had a pride, macho thing about it. Playing a wrestler was embarrassing for him a little bit.
Zimbio: There's some obvious parallels between Mickey Rourke's life and The Ram's. Do you relate to where The Ram is at in any way?
Darren Aronofsky: I think so. I think we all do. I think that a film is watchable ultimately if you can relate to that main character. Somehow their humanity draws you in. I think you can understand The Ram's mistakes and where The Ram's coming from.
There's some type of connection between the battle between work and real life. If you translate wrestling into any art or any sport, I think you can relate to what his battle is.
I've been reading Obama's The Audacity of Hope. He talks early in the book, how his career wasn't going that well and that he was working so hard that he was away from Michelle a lot, and she was pondering if his priorities are right. And I was pondering how that's exactly what The Ram is doing. You go off and you separate yourself from your real life. I think every father, every parent thinks about that balance, how much for themselves versus how much for their family.
It's also for anyone who's got a physical body, which we all do. You wake up one day and you don't heal the same way you healed when you were seven, and what's up with that? I've watched all my friends move from basketball to tennis, and now I've watched all my friends move from tennis to golf. And it's really fucking sad. You know you don't go play basketball anymore because you'll jam a finger or sprain an ankle and you'll be on crutches the next few weeks. It just happens.
Zimbio: Compared to the other movies you've done, the direction was much less stylized. What made you want to use a more documentary style?
Darren Aronofsky: If Madonna taught us anything, it's that you've gotta reinvent yourself. I think if you're a creative person, you've gotta moving keep challenging yourself. For me those first three films were a chapter. Same film making team, same producer, [director of photography], production designer, editor. I really wanted to shake it up and do something new. It felt like it was time.
Zimbio: In interviews for The Fountain you talked about using camera movements that were like a crucifix to symbolize Hugh Jackman's character, who's on a march. In this movie there's a lot of long shots following behind the back of The Ram -- were you trying to illuminate something about the character in same way?
Darren Aronofsky: I was interested in the long takes because I hadn't done that much of it in the past. I like the idea of dancing with the actor, moving and having choreographed shots. That was the idea, how to tell entire scenes in long takes until we got into dialog scenes. So I'm glad it comes across. I don't think I pulled it off that well. The problem is with a super-low budget, you just don't have the time.
The attack of it was realism. We're one camera, we're a documentary. So for instance, that final speech that Mickey makes at the end? We had two cameras. So it's basically one take from Mickey going backstage, down the ramp with the American flag, going through the crowd, sliding into the ring, and when he slid into the ring a second camera was waiting in the ring, picked him up, and followed him through the entire speech in one shot. Then the other camera operator she ran, climbed a ladder, and shot Marisa from up on the ladder. So Marisa watching him during the speech and him doing the speech is all together.
Zimbio: So her reaction shots are in real time during his speech?
Darren Aronofsky: Yeah. And then digitally we took out Maryse [Alberti], our camerawomen, on the ladder. But the whole idea was to have reality happening and capture it. When you have that, it's just what happens, and a continuous shot comes out of it.
Zimbio: The fight sequences were remarkable. It was a very, very realistic look -- was that a conscious choice?
Darren Aronofsky: Going back to the line between the two characters between the real world and the fake world, that was right there with wrestling. Is it real or is it fake? The answer is "Sure, it's fake" in the sense that it's scripted, but it's real in that guys are jumping off the top rope and even if they're trying to protect themselves or their opponent they're gonna feel it the next day.
It was a hard filmmaking problem. You go in and do sound effects, the slap, which is a real slap, but not a real real slap. The guy's not trying to kill the guy but just make a lot of noise. How do you create a sound design effect that reflects that? So it was a balance of showing that it's fake and yet these guys are actually taking damage.
The wrestling was partly exciting because no one has ever gotten into the ring in a wrestling match. With boxing, you've been in the ring a billion times since Rocky. But wrestling is only seen on the wide angles on Raw and WWE. They never go into the ring. It was great to go in there and show you hey these guys are talking to each and they're communicating in different ways, and I think that adds to the excitement of it.
Zimbio: Was there a wrestler The Ram is based on?
Darren Aronofsky: We always knew he was a mid-level guy. He was never Hulk Hogan. He might have won an Intercontinental Belt, or at one point he was on a tag team. A Brutus Beefcake-type of level.
As far as the personal story, that was really a combination of lots of different people we met along the road. Young people, old people. The more stories we heard, the more similar connections we heard between all their stories. There were just patterns in these guys' lives. They were on the road for 350 days a year, they became a star, but by the time their career wilted up, their personal lives were messed up, and then they continued on the road of declining stardom.
Watch a trailer for The Wrestler:
Read our interview with Marisa Tomei