Writer-director Darren Aronofsky made a big splash when his debut feature pi won the prestigious Director's Award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. He then quickly followed that up with 1999's Requiem for a Dream. But his hot streak and momentum came to a screeching halt in 2002 when Brad Pitt dropped out of his expensive, ambitious sci-fi epic The Fountain — just weeks before shooting was due to start.
Now a completely rewritten, retooled version of The Fountain, this time starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, is finally out, and here Aronofsky talks about making the film and the secrets behind its visually stunning imagery of the cosmos.
POST: It's been seven years since your last film Requiem for a Dream. What took you so long?
DARREN ARONOFSKY: "I had a hard trip in Hollywood when Brad Pitt pulled out and it all fell apart after two years of work. I had to start from scratch again. So I basically have done two films, although the audience will only see one. So I lost a lot of time. I should be on number four now."
POST: The Fountain jumps back and forth from the Mayan culture to the present to deep space in the 26th Century and deals with themes of loss and death and eternal life. Was your first version this ambitious?
ARONOFSKY: "Completely. I set out to do something very different, and I think audiences want to see different things. The whole look of the film evolved gradually over a year through discussions of the script with [DP] Matthew Labatique, who's shot all my films, and production designer James Chinhund, who did Requiem, discussing the themes and the visuals. And ultimately it's a film about movement from darkness into light, from black to white, from shadow to blinding light."
POST: And to present that, the visual effects were obviously crucial.
ARONOFSKY: "We had over 400 shots, all done by Amoeba Proteus, who did my other films. They're the sister company to my company, Protozoa. The founders, Jeremy Dawson and Dan Schrecker, were my roommates at college. They're very inventive, but it was a big challenge since early on we decided to not use CGI at all. So that put big pressure on us as we were trying to do something way out of the ordinary. First, we found this amazing photographer in England, Peter Parks, who's been shooting micro-photography of chemical reactions and bio-organisms through a microscope for the past 25 years, and then we began manipulating it. The result is quite eerie because when you blow up the microscopic images, they look just like photos of nebulae in deep space taken with the Hubble. I really loved the idea of something so tiny representing such gigantic places. It all tied into the film's themes for me. And we did use a very little amount of CGI. In the end, we did most of the effects, but we also outsourced to places like Intelligent Creatures in Toronto, Look Effects in LA and Technicolor. Because we had such a low budget, that made a lot more sense than going to just one big house."
POST: What was the most technically difficult shot?
ARONOFSKY: "When Hugh Jackman's astronaut is floating in zero gravity and flips back and lands on the spinning ship. That was a combination of so many different plates. First there was Hugh acting underwater to simulate zero G, attached to a barbecue spit that spins him. So he starts off in the Lotus position, which he trained 14 months for, and then as he leans back, his legs unfold and he goes perfectly upside down. We held that for 10 seconds, all underwater, then
the spit turns again, so it looks like he's landing. At the same time, the camera had to spin around him, on a track underwater. Then that plate had to match up with the plate of the tree-ship, which was an eight-foot diameter spinning miniature that we shot in LA. Then we had to stick a bubble around it, which was done with CG, and then we had to add the background of star fields, which was done through Peter Parks' work. So getting that all to work together was very complicated."
POST: Do you like the post process?
ARONOFSKY: "I love it, and we spent a long time editing and posting this film, but that's partly because the moment I get back from the shoot, I want to see every single foot of film. So editor Jay Rabinowitz and I spent 10 weeks just watching footage before we even began cutting. Then we spent another few months cutting [on Avid Meridien OS 9 systems using Avid Unity shared storage]. And then we did a ton of work on the audio, with sound designer Brian Emmerich and Sound Dogs. I'm very particular about creating sounds for everything, and I like to place sound in different speakers and take advantage of what Dolby offers you.
"We did a DI at Efilm — there's so many digital effects, it would have been impossible to make it all match without the DI. For me, a DI is so amazing in what it allows you to do. How it's going to affect filmmaking over the next decade is going to be huge."