Darren Aronofsky, Shock Artist

Spoilers for Mother! below

Say what you will about Darren Aronofsky, but the guy knows how to get a reaction out of people. Over the course of his two-decade career, the writer-director has made a name for himself with scenes and characters that engage in, or are beset by, violence and anguish. His latest, the curiously punctuated Mother!, is no exception: In it, a woman played by Jennifer Lawrence sees her life and home destroyed by the actions of mysterious visitors (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) and the inaction of her husband (Javier Bardem). As the movie goes on, the chaos rises to a gruesome crescendo that isn’t easily forgotten. We caught up with Aronofsky a few months before the film’s premiere, while its contents were still top secret, to talk about its allegorical meaning, its startlingly unusual use of Kristen Wiig, and the surprising difficulty of its postproduction process.

My one big question about the movie, the most important question of them all: Where’s Mark Margolis? He’s one of our great character actors and he’s been in all of your movies, but he’s nowhere to be found here! Is it because he was too busy playing Don Salamanca in Better Call Saul?
[Laughs.] Y’know, there wasn’t anything that was good enough for him, was the problem. So I felt like, he’s not a day player; he’s such a great actor. And it’s mostly these small roles. So it was heartbreaking, but I didn’t really have anything for him unfortunately. But I tried.

Did he complain that you were making a movie without him?
I don’t think he does anything but complain.

Is that true?
He’s fine. I think it’s just a … Y’know, since the first time we worked with him back on Pi, the relationship has always been about him complaining. I don’t know if he does it with other people, but at this point, it’s so lovable and it’s just our schtick. He’s great. He’s super hard-working. He comes from incredible technique, incredible skill set, and just great character. And he’s just consistently surprising and hard-working. But you’ve got to have something that’s worth his time, I think.

He’s got one of the great faces.
Great face, great face. It’s great when Scarface comes on in the middle of the night. I’m always waiting for him in the bomb scene.

Anyway, on to Mother! How the hell did you convince a studio to let you do this movie?
That’s a good question. It wasn’t too hard. It wasn’t such a hard thing to convince people to do. I imagine that probably has to do with the fact that we attached Jen Lawrence to it as a first move. And we made it for a very, very low amount of money. So I think that combination allows studios to take a risk. I think that if the price point makes sense, then there’s not much to lose. There’s not much downside. So I think that’s how they looked at it. I think they saw the genre elements that are there, even though they know that I don’t really play genre fairly — I kind of mix it up and stuff. And I think there was some concerns about the extremes of it. But I do think that studios and the people at studios do want to, every once in a while, do something different and roll the dice and try different stuff.

How hard did you have to fight for the baby-eating scene? I mean, Jesus Christ.
It’s funny, that’s where you go to. What’s interesting to me is that, that turns out not to be the really upsetting part of the whole film.

Maybe not, but it’s the part people are going to be talking about.
You think? You know, it just made a lot of sense with … It was a very, very bizarre project. And after Noah, I was working on a kid’s movie, actually. And it’s sort of based on my youth and out of my friends that I grew up with in South Brooklyn. And I was having some problems with it. I couldn’t quite break it. And I had this other idea floating around my head, and normally that’s a very normal thing that is usually like a form of procrastination. Like, you get the great next idea and then … When I was younger I’d be very amateur and I’d go off and write that, and then you don’t get anything done. So a long time ago, I made a rule, when that happens: Just write out the idea and then put it away. And if it’s a really good idea and sticks with you, eventually you’ll get to it. So I was working on this other project for a long time, and then I sent it off to a friend to read, to get some notes. And I had a week alone while he was digesting it, and I kind of had this breakthrough figuring out how to structure [the script I’d put away]. And so I sat for about five days and I pumped it out.

The whole script in five days?
The whole script came out. And after I finished it, I sent it to a few people and they were like, “Wow, there’s something here that’s kind of a reflection on what’s going on. I think you should make it.” So then we just sent it off to Jen and it all sort of started really, really quickly. And it came out of a place where I was … I’ve been very, very jealous, I guess, of songwriters who in a day or in a week, they can write a song that represents an emotion. But as a filmmaker, it’s like two, two-and-a-half, three years at a minimum to get an emotion out. So I was really curious if there was a way to sort of try to capture one type of emotion and put it into something and see if it would work.

How long did the whole thing take to shoot?
It was 50 days, I think, which is a normal thing. But the long part of this process has been post[-production]. It’s coming up on … It’ll end up being, like, a year-long post, which is crazy long.

Why did post take so long?
Well, I think it was a really … I really limited the palette and the shooting, so the film is basically either over her shoulder, on her face, or her POV. That’s the only shots. There’s a few wide shots when she’s alone. But beyond that, the camera is basically in three places. Without wide shots, without inserts and close-ups, it’s very hard when you get into a corner, how to get out of it. The wide shot always kind of relaxes it, and you can cheat certain things and then get back in, and you can change your whole emotion. If you don’t have wide shots, it’s very, very difficult. So getting that exactly right, we had to do a lot of bending. In fact, this film, I think, at the end of the day is going to have more effect shots than Noah.

Come on. Really?
Yeah. A lot of things that no one will ever notice or see, but there’s a tremendous amount of digital manipulation that me and the editor, Andy, are doing on 16-millimeter.

What’s an example of something that might not look like it was complicated, but actually has a lot of wizardry?
We’re very, very specific with operating. So sometimes the operator just slightly misses the timing on something Jen did, and that can be adjusted. You know, there’s things like, there’s tons of different things you can do. You can even affect speeds within a scene. So because there’s long takes within, if a certain section is sort of lagging, you can sort of speed it up. You can also slow things down. So there’s a lot of orchestration in the material after we shot it, which is just a new gift that you get in the digital age. We always sort of complain about how, back in the day, people got 100 to 150 days to shoot. And now everything is super fast. But the upside is, if there’s a C-stand in the shot, or a boom in the shot, it just disappears. Lots of things can be happening on set which I don’t really need to worry about anymore, so it’s a balance. In the beginning of my career, we had no digital effects in Pi. The opening title sequence was made on an early Mac, and then Max’s computer screen was running off of something. [Composer] Clint Mansell worked off an Atari to make that score. So there really were no digital effects, unlike now, where there’s so many. It’s a very, very different way of making films. Even though I’m still using 16-millimeter film.

You mentioned that people who read the script noticed you were hitting on contemporary issues. What issues are those, and to what extent were you intentionally trying to put them in there?
Outside of my film work, all my work is environmental work. So I was interested in doing something in that realm. But I didn’t really want to make a biopic of the guy who founded Greenpeace — even though it’s a fascinating story. But that’s not my style. So I was sort of thinking about how to create this allegory, and then I sort of stumbled on this idea of sort of trying to simplify things to a really basic level; trying to reduce everything to a home and to people in the home. And then sort of kind of do a history of where we are right now, and try to sort of do this parallel universe that kind of captures today, in the present, in the world we’re living. And it’s funny: It was written in the eighth year of Obama, and it’s coming out in the first year of Trump. And that, to me, is interesting to see. I mean, the world has changed so much. And it’s just interesting to see how things like that went.

Do you worry that people will just see it as just sort of a drama of manners, about people who are impolite, and miss the parable?
You know, it’s interesting because I don’t know how people are going to see it, and I don’t think any of us know yet how they’re going to perceive what the film’s about and stuff. What did [the other people at the screening] think of it?

We certainly had a lot to discuss.
Well, that’s what’s interesting, I think. After Pi, I just happened to be in a café around the corner from the Nuart, where it was playing in L.A. And some father and his three grown daughters, like an 18-year-old daughter and her friends, came in. And they were all talking about what it meant. And I just sort of sat there, and it was a great thrill for me to hear the conversation and people talking about it afterwards. Because I guess the big fear is just people walk off the movie and they forget and go, “What did we see again tonight?” Which happens to me sometimes, too. But for me, the most memorable parts are when you see something in cinema that you’ve never seen before. So I forgot what the question was. Where did we start?

Oh, I said, do you worry that people are going to walk out and not think of it as a parable?
I think I always wanted it to work as a relationship film. We did some early screenings, and people completely only got off on that and had an emotional experience. And then within the room, other people started to see other layers going on. And then it started this really great conversation. I’ve been having a debate with the actors on this because they’re like, “Well, you have to let people know the allegory before they go in because otherwise they’re going to miss all these little touches and all these subtle hints you’re giving.” To me, I think that can impact the conversation afterwards. Because a room full of people, I’d say most people aren’t getting the allegory. And then afterwards, as soon as they hear it, it all starts to click for them, and I think that’s kind of fun. So that’s why I kind of want to keep that on the lowdown. I mean, I’m fine hinting when you write your article that there’s more than meets the eye.

A big influence was Buñuel, and Exterminating Angel was a big inspiration, where he could basically set up a scenario that comments on something much larger than what’s happening. So I think people sense it.  But it’s interesting, because people who just see it as a relationship drama, even though all that crazy stuff happens, I guess they see it as some type of expression of that emotion or something. So I don’t know how it really works that way, but I think it’s okay that if people get it that way and they feel it that way. Did you pick up on the environmental stuff?

I mean, look, if there’s a Darren Aronofsky movie with “mother” in the title, you’re sort of assuming there’s going to be some kind of environmental aspect to it and be about Mother Earth. But it’s funny, my co-worker walked out thinking primarily in terms of Biblical metaphors. How often do you read the Bible? Because there’s still so much Bible stuff in here, and that’s true throughout so much of your work.
I mean, I wouldn’t say I read the Bible. I reference the Bible. So I’ll always have the Bible nearby to pull it off the shelf and find what I’m looking for. But no, I don’t read it. I think the last time I read the Bible for entertainment was when I read Robert Crumb’s Genesis.

So is Javier God? Or is he mankind? You’re not going to tell me, are you?
I don’t know. What do you think?

I’m not sure. Why do you like pushing people’s buttons so much with scenes like the baby-eating or Winona Ryder stabbing herself or the “ass to ass” bit in Requiem?
Well, it’s about exciting people, right? I mean, the films that excite me are things that I walk out thinking about. Right now in these times, there’s this kind of helpless rage going on. And I wanted to see if I could capture that emotion so that people could sort of maybe have a cathartic experience and to think about that. But for me it was more like just riding the truth of how it feels to be alive right now at this moment, seeing all this stuff happening around us and not knowing how to stop it or to help it. And even, we find ourselves often participating in it.

We’re being insufficient in our efforts to stop it.
I think it probably felt the same way to be a teenager during Vietnam. There’s these huge forces that are happening that you can look at and go, That’s wrong, and yet no matter how much I scream about it, there’s nothing I can do, and it keeps happening. And I just wanted the movie to howl at the moon.

Do you feel like there’s a responsibility you have as a filmmaker to make sure there’s some kind of environmental content in your work, these days? Noah also had a lot of that.
I don’t know if I always have to. I do think that there’s, for me at least, I try to have a purpose with the art. It’s just so hard to get out of bed when everyone’s telling you “no” all the time, which is just a prerequisite to making movies. There’s just an endless barrage of “no’s” and the problem solving of how to get over “no’s.” So the only way I know to make films is to have a deep passion for it, and just a story probably wouldn’t get me there.

To what extent is Mother! about the act of creating art? Bardem’s character is a poet and his art turns out to be very destructive for the person he loves most. Is there a degree to which the movie is an autobiographical comment on the way your creative process can sometimes get in the way of your personal life?
I knew people would stumble on that. It wasn’t really autobiographical in that way. I was more basing on the character coming out of how I wanted to portray the character Javier plays. I think that was just a result of the truth of playing out this narcissistic character.

With the actors, did you tell them what you saw the symbolism to be?
I think we always talked about it working on two fronts: allegorical and real relationship. And that was, I think, part of the fun for the actors was to work on both of those levels.

How did you learn how to be a good director for Jennifer Lawrence?
As far as raw, natural talent, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like what she has the ability to do. And she has very little formal training. She started acting as a teenager and never went to school for it, yet she’s developed all these techniques that she’s mastered on her own. It was interesting because I think there were a lot of things that the script asked that I have never seen Jennifer do, so I was trying to figure out how we were going to get there. During the rehearsals, she was very, very relaxed. Was present, but never really pushed herself. And it wasn’t appropriate for me to sort of push that, even though I wasn’t sure how she was going to do it. And I really didn’t get to know the character until we started shooting, and she showed up. And it was after the wig came on, and makeup came on, and the costume came on, and the shoes and socks came off — because she’s barefoot in the whole movie — then suddenly she started to get this vocal thing, which was very different for her. And then working with her was … You don’t need to dare or challenge her to go somewhere. She’s totally brave and fearless to go there. You just have to be completely ready and prepared to catch the fastball she’s going to throw at you. Because she suddenly just … It just unleashes and comes out, and you’ve just got to make sure you’re there capturing it in the film, because it’s very, very truthful.

What’s an example of that, where you got a fastball?
During the big climax of the movie, she really went there. I think she knew she was going to do it. To be fair, she told me she was scared of it because she knew this thing was going to come out of her. And sure enough, it did. And I think she hyperventilated and also kind of threw a rib out.

Yeah, during that scene, but just from the breathing. And we had to sort of stop and slow down. And of course, on that day there’s 200 extras, so it’s like, the producers are freaking out. But we had to sort of calm it down, and then go for it again. And the thing is, there’s so much ability there that somehow she can summon it again and again. With her, you usually get what you’re going to get very, very quickly.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable moments I’ve seen on film this year was Kristen Wiig shooting people point-blank in the head. How did that casting come about?
It was kind of a last-minute get. I think we had started shooting when we tested Kristen. And it was a hard role to figure out how to cast, and someone said she’s available, and I said, “Well, let’s try.” I never thought she would go for it, but she was game and she was awesome. She showed up, she was totally game. When she showed up and I was enjoying it, I kind of re-changed that scene — the scene you just talked about with her shooting — there was something else. She showed up then, and it was a little different. And then as I was walking through, I was like, “No, this is wrong. We’ve got to do something different.” And me and my producers just sort of conferenced, and over the two days, we came up with that scene, and then she agreed to do it and it was a lot of fun.

Why do you like close-ups so much?
For me, I think it’s one of the great uncredited inventions of the 20th century, the close-up. I think being super close to Paul Newman and seeing his inner thoughts is one of the great gifts cinema has given to the world. Ultimately, for actors, it comes down to their eyes. You want to stare into the eyes and be close, and not be conscious of yourself as an audience member, and that’s what the close-up allows you to do. I mean, even now in this moment between us, how much eye contact do we make?

We’re doing all right.
We’re doing all right, but now we’re so aware of it. But you’re not self-conscious at all when you’re watching a movie. You can just stare into the soul of these actors. And so I just love close-ups because that’s where the money’s at. I know how to shoot an eyeball really well. I know how to shoot two eyes really well.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Darren Aronofsky Talks the Metaphors of Mother!