In the summer of 1998, I had the chance to interview this up-and-coming filmmaker whose indepenedent, black-and-white movie Pi was picking up some healthy buzz. Since then he's directed Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, and married Rachel Weisz. Clearly, he's doing something right.
Putting Ideas Back in SF Movies
by Chris Galdieri
by Chris Galdieri
Pi, a stark black-and-white film that cost $60,000 to make, may turn out to be one of the best science fiction films of 1998. And it doesn't feature a single asteroid, comet, monster, or special effect.
That's fine with writer-director Darren Aronofsky, who financed his debut film by soliciting $100 donations from friends and relatives. "The idea of making psychological sci-fi films, as opposed to effect-driven sci-fi films, is really attractive to me," he said. I think Hollywood's sort of forgotten that science fiction doesn't mean special effects. Science fiction could be concepts and ideas. So we tried to avoid the special effects and make it more about the haunting mind of a mathematician."
That mathematician is Max Cohen, the protagonist of Pi, played by Sean Gullette. Cohen is a reclusive young mathematical genius obsessed with finding a numerical means of predicting the stock market. As his research progresses, he finds himself pursued not only by a Wall Street conglomerate but also by a group of Hassidic Jewish Kabbalah scholars certain that Cohen's research will reveal to them the long-lost true name of God. Aronofsky didn't worry that the film's eclectic themes would alienate audiences, however.
"I don't think Pi is strictly necessarily a math movie. The hardest math problem in the film is 41 plus three, and we give you the answer, like, five, ten seconds later. Mostly it's the really cool math you hear at cocktail parties," he said. "The most important thing about this film for me was to make a thriller. I wanted to make a very tight-knit roller coaster ride, so that in 90 minutes we try to keep people glued to their seats. And I figured that if I succeeded in that, then I could introduce some more esoteric ideas. At the core of Pi is a chase film."
Aronofsky's interest in his film's theological themes stems from his experiences with Kabbalah scholars he met during a trip to Israel. "They showed me a lot of their secrets, not knowing I was going to put them into a movie," he said with a laugh. "When I was studying with them, I saw things that were pretty much miracles, that, as a secular person, totally blew my mind."
The use of the Kabbalah scholars as major players in Pi is also the movie's most visible manifestation of Aronofsky's desire to make his film and his cast as diverse as possible. The decision, Aronofsky explains, had more to do with defying expectations than with political correctness. "Hollywood is very limited in what they'll cast, and so, besides having badass Jews, which you'll never see in a Hollywood film, we had one of the bad guys [be] a black female, which you'll never, ever see...besides being a bad guy, she's also head of a Wall Street firm, which is breaking stereotypes, too," he said. "It was very intentional to cast as many interesting actors as possible."
Casting isn't the only distinctive part of Pi, however. Aronofsky shot the movie on high-contrast black-and-white reversal film to give it a look unlike any other film around. "It was purely a creative decision. In fact, it cost more money to shoot the film stock we shot than color film. It's basically used for music videos. It's never been used in a feature film before," he said. "If you expose it correctly, you get the effect you want, which is a black or white movie, not a black and white movie."
Aronofsky is also a comics fan, and comics influenced several aspects of the film, from its gritty look to the voice-over narration by Max Cohen. "Frank Miller's Sin City is what inspired the look of Pi...Kevin Smith said that Pi is a comic book and that was great. We were trying to make a comic book," Aronofsky said.
Pi will become a comic book in form as well as style later this summer when Dark Horse Comics releases a graphic novel based on the movie.
Aronofsky also had comics in mind when he and Sean Gullete wrote Max's voice-over. "When I was writing the script I didn't spend any time working on the voice-over, because I knew when I had the images and cut it together I would have a better sense of the type of stuff to write. When it got done [Sean and I] just basically sat around for a long time to get it where we wanted," he said. Finding the right balance between the images on screen and the words of the voice-over was a priority for Aronofsky. "It was a hard process because there's a danger of being cheesy and a danger of being too much on the nose, so we tried to get a very careful balance for the voice-over."
The movie's bare-bones budget forced Aronofsky to be extremely creative in constructing sets, particularly the set for Max's supercomputer, Euclid. "What we did for that is, we basically recycled about three tons of computer parts. We begged cop stations, hospitals, universities, called up everyone around the tri-state area, asking them for any parts they had. We drove around in a white van and loaded up on old Macs and IBMs. The concept was very much like Terry Gilliam, to take old technology and reinvent it as new technology," he said. In retrospect, Aronofsky thinks Pi's tight budget turned out to be a benefit in constructing the supercomputer. "If I had a million dollars and built a Euclid supercomputer it would look dated in five or six years, just the way HAL [of 2001: A Space Odyssey] is dated. So, we wanted to make something that would be timeless. So we took all these computers and we shelled them and ripped out different microchips and created, basically, a computer sculpture."
Now that Pi has been released, Aronofsky is working on two new film projects, Proteus, a science fiction/horror film set on an American submarine during World War II, and an adaptation of the Hubert Selby Jr. novel Requiem for a Dream. "[Proteus] will be the scariest movie you've seen in the last ten years. I know it's a boast. And the reason I say it is, for me, I haven't seen a scary movie in a long, long time," he said. "I haven't had nightmares from a movie in a long, long time. And I've been wondering why that is...I have a feeling that, like sci-fi, horror has gone down a road of effects movies...horror's become just about gore. So for me, it's about trying to figure out how to make stuff scary again. I think the way to do it is to be psychological."
Aronofsky thinks that his success with Pi can serve as an example to other aspiring filmmakers. "Six months ago, I was nobody. So anyone can do it. It's a lot of homework and a lot of hard work, that's all it is," he said. "It's all about the work. It's all about the craft." And what's his advice to anyone with dreams of directing? "Be as completely and fully original as possible. Be completely yourself. Pi, if anything, will hopefully show people that you can do something totally different and find success through it. It's much easier to get recognition for something completely original."