Darren Aronofsky on return to India, violence in his films, and why he believes in pushing the audience

Devansh Sharma

Nov 01, 2018 15:27:18 IST

Darren Aronofsky visits India regularly. He admits he finds catharsis in getting lost among the crowd. He first found solace in the country when he took exile here after Brad Pitt pulled out of his film, The Fountain, days before the shoot was scheduled to commence.

"When you come to India, you can't control anything. Every corner is so surprising. It just feels impossible to cross a road here. It's kind of similar to making a movie. You need that persistence of vision. You have to believe you'll discover something exciting on the other side of the road," says Darren, during his Masterclass at Jio MAMI 20th Mumbai Film Festival.

 Darren Aronofsky on return to India, violence in his films, and why he believes in pushing the audience

Festival Director Anupama Chopra and Darren Aronofsky in a still from the Masterclass at Jio MAMI 20th Mumbai Film Festival. Facebook

The repercussions of violence

From his directorial debut Pi to the recent Mother!, all of Aronofsky's films have violence and obsession in common. While he believes the obsessive streak is not a function of his fairly balanced life, he does confess to getting obsessed while shooting. "I can relate to my characters when I'm on set as we're equally obsessed. But I believe that's only because everyone is obsessed with something. Captain America is obsessed with doing good. The Hulk is obsessed with smashing. Obsession is a part of my stories because I ground them in real people. Even in Mother!, where the characters are symbolic, they still feel real. Everyone's extreme. We just need to find out why that's the case," explains Darren.

In his quest to trace the cause of human obsession, he often resorts to violence of an excruciatingly high degree. But he defends his choice by claiming that the violence is more real than recreational. "I treat violence honestly. I don't trivialise or glorify it. In most of the action films in Hollywood and Bollywood, you don't see the cost of violence to the spirit. You only see the physical ramifications. That's dangerous. For example, in a martial arts film, the action is so stylised. There isn't even a drop of blood. Even if there is one, it falls on the floor poetically, in slow motion. This isn't violence. It is some sort of an abstract dance."

Aronofsky's brand of violence steers clear of all the Hollywood action cliches that spy thrillers and superhero films have drilled into the viewers' heads over the years. But Darren does not go for the head. He goes for the skull. "I've made a conscious decision not to have guns in my films. The way they are used in popular cinema is unrealistic. In reality, one has to put headphones on while shooting because the sound of the gunshot is so deafening. Films have just made guns look sexy by dramatising them. And in the process, they've normalised them."

The violence in Aronofsky's films is often self-inflicted for he studies his characters through an introspective lens, as is evident by the frequent close-up shots in his screenplay. "The close-up shot is the most overlooked invention of the 21st century. When you watch an incredibly attractive movie star inside a dark hall, their eyes serve as a portal of empathy. My favourite actors, thus, are the ones with expressive eyes. These are eyes that you can see into. Russel Crowe can twitch a single muscle in his lower eye lid. You can make the audience feel so much by doing so little."

Close-up shots are important

The close-up shots are often accompanied by mirror shots as his characters survey the damage caused to their bodies, often by themselves or their insecurities. "Every artist has a medium. In The Wrestler and Black Swan, the medium was the body itself. When your instrument of art gets away from you, it takes a toll on you. Natalie Portman's character is a ballet dancer in Black Swan, who sees her body fade away. Mickey Rourke is a wrestler who puts staples on his body just to test how far he can go physically. These are mere costs of living, and of being an artist. Why do we never see CIA agents deal with the consequences of their brutal actions when they wake up the next morning?"

Natalie Portman in a still from Black Swan. YouTube

Natalie Portman in a still from Black Swan. YouTube

Cinema and empathy

The question looms large on Aronofsky's cinema as he pushes his characters, and in turn the audience, through ordeals of extreme discomfort only to come out of it with more empathy. "The great gift of cinema is empathy. When you watch a movie closely, you exercise empathy. When you get transported to my character's world of pain, when you feel all of their concerns, you expand your own humanity. The intense visuals in my films are all the more important today because it is difficult to hold people's attention. In a world of smartphones and tablets, it takes a lot to hold your audience. As far as the question of why I use violence to do so is concerned, I don't know. You should ask my psychologist," he says, displaying characteristic sense of humour.

However, he is wary of the fact that in his bid to evoke empathy for his characters, he cannot risk his own empathy for the audience. "I've to ensure that the experience is not so extreme that the viewers feel like they don't want to be there with you. I don't go so far that I lose them."

Having said that, Aronofsky maintains that he believes in his cinema. He does not consider the opinion of the studio backing his films representative of the audience at large. "There was a scene in Black Swan in which Natalie's knees crack one after the other. The studio said that's taking it too f*cking far. But I said it's hilarious! Ultimately, I won, only to find out I was right. I did see some people laugh at that scene in the hall. Also, Ridley Scott, when he was making Prometheus, showed the same scene to his crew before they shot the film."

On standing by his conviction

He is also empathetic towards his actors since he is aware he pushes them to their limit. "I sense when they get uncomfortable. Natalie had to shoot a fantasy lovemaking scene with Mila Kunis in Black Swan. I could sense their discomfort so I wrapped up the shoot in half a day, though we'd set aside two days for the same." But at the same time, he is proud that almost all his collaborators have been on the same page so far. They signed up for all the struggle only because they shared the empathy he feels for his characters. He reveals that Jennifer Lawrence probably pushed the studio to include the baby eating scene in Mother!. "She's a star. She could convince them better than I could."

It's ironical then that all his films have received a polarising response. But he does not seem to mind. "An individual should be responsible for their choices. Surrendering them to someone is extremely dangerous. When people fight over whose story is right, they end up wasting a lot of time."

Updated Date: Nov 01, 2018 15:28:03 IST

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