Darren Aronofsky, 30 this year (1999), was a social theory major at college (read
university) sharing a room with an animator. "My roommate would finish the year with
a movie, and I’d finish with a bunch of Cs," he says ruefully from his Manhattan
home. "I decided to switch, and found that film was the first thing that kept me
awake at nights, solving problems and doing mental edits - and film was also the first
thing in which I got an A." And he’s still getting As, at least from critics,
for his latest work, Pi, the title of which may suggest it’s about maths, since it
refers to the Greek letter that symbolizes 3.1415926535897323846…(on to infinity),
the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.
"I wanted to merge genres"
"The hardest math problem in the film is 41 plus 3, and we give you the answer
within seconds," says Aronofsky with a laugh, emphasising that Pi is not a film about
maths. "The core of the film is a thriller," he says, "but I wanted to
merge genres. I grew up on Hollywood movies and was looking for something new. I was
getting bored with a lot of the indie films, too, some of which were arthouse but
repetitive. So that’s why we came up with new camera angles, new ways of shooting
with high contrast black and white film - and new ideas. Pi melds elements of a
psychological thriller with tinges of science fiction – but not as in effects driven,
futuristic films like Star Wars, but returning more towards the Stanley Kubrick
area…we don’t need to see things blow up anymore, we have seen everything blow
up from plants to planets."
More interested in the psychological aspects of his creation, Aronofsky created a
character, Max, who believes there is a cosmic pattern to be found in the numbers that pi
represents. Half crazed with his quest and always apparently on the brink of a new lead
– and perhaps the secret of the universe, no less – Max suffers hallucinations
and dejection in turn. Actor Sean Gullette makes Max a fascinating character study and
carries the film, rather like Geoffrey Rush carried Shine. (Gullette is evidently
multi-skilled: he designed the film’s website: www.pithemovie.com
The brilliantly matched electronic soundtrack spurs the film’s energies. "I
had never been interested in electronic music before, but when I met Clint Mansell, I
realised there are a lot of people like Max, trying to find the soul within the
machine," says Aronofsky. "So it seemed appropriate . . ."
The surprise ending (you’ll have to see the film to discover it) is and will be
debated by all who see it. It was even debated during the shoot, as Aronofsky and Gullette
took divergent views. "Sean and I debated it right up till the very last minute,
whether it happened or not. The thing is, it works on either level. Sean feels it was a
hallucination; I felt he really did it . . ."
"There’s a fine between obsession and
Either way, Max has succumbed to his addiction. Aronofsky is thoughtful for a second,
surprised by the word ‘addiction’. "That’s interesting," he says.
"My next project, which we’ve just finished shooting, is about addiction . . .
but I guess Pi does deal with obsession and there’s a fine between obsession and
His new film, Requiem for a Dream, stars Ellen Burstyn and Jared Leto, and he says the
best one-liner he can come up with for it is: "A hyper-real free-fall into the
deepest recesses of the human psyche. It’s not traditional material," he adds
rather unnecessarily. It’s based on a book by Hubert Selby jnr, author of Last Exit
to Brooklyn – the suburb of New York where Aronofsky was born into a conservative
Jewish family. But while he has great respect for Jewish traditionnand culture and the
history of the Jewish people, he says he finds spirituality in other things.
Raised near Brooklyn’s Coney Island and Luna Park, Aronofsky still loves the
innocent thrills of the rides. "When I came to the Melbourne Film festival last year,
the first thing I did was go to the Luna Park there," he says.
Pi was made for just US$60,000, but it attracted a US$1 million distribution deal with
Artisan Entertainment (and a much smaller one for Australia from beyond Films). Aronofsky
says he is hoping to work within and without the studio system – maybe he’s
thinking of filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who live away from
Hollywood and work outside it to their own rules, but link in for distribution as
required. If Aronofsky’s talent continues to blossom as it does in Pi, he may well
achieve that sort of status.
"I don’t think a movie about God and maths would
make millions of dollars – even with Mel Gibson."
Asked whether he’d been approached bya major studio to re-make Pi for ten times
the budget (rather like Robert Rodriguez with El Mariachi, first made for $7,000 and
remade with Antonio Banderas with Columbia TriStar money for million), Aronofsky laughs.
"I don’t think a movie about God and maths would make millions of dollars –
even with Mel Gibson."