THE POPCORN REEL
CONVERSATION WITH DARREN ARONOFSKY, DIRECTOR OF "THE WRESTLER"
Darren Aronofsky directing Mickey Rourke as
Randy Robinson in the squared circle of the wrestling ring, on the set of "The
Wrestler", which expands its release in the U.S. and U.K. on January 16.
(Photo: Fox Searchlight)
Aronofsky's Angles In The
(Non-∏) Squared Circle
Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel
December 31, 2008
SAN FRANCISCO, California
Last month, on a pre-Thanksgiving morning, Darren Aronofsky was hobbling through
a sixth-floor corridor of the Ritz Carlton in this walking city, with a walking
"I hurt my leg climbing a mountain", he says.
Considering the fact that one of his interviewers was also on crutches, the
conversation could have devolved into an exchange of war stories if all else
"You can walk, you don't look so bad", he says.
Before the interviewer can respond, the director has something else to add.
"I'm only kidding. Just kidding."
What Mr. Aronofsky can't kid about however, is the visual style of his films.
Each of them is an undeniably powerful and distinct experience, leaving you
agape or assaulted or in awe.
The first three films he directed, "∏", "Requiem For A Dream" and "The
Fountain", respectively fit the "a" adjectives in the prior sentence. With
his fourth and latest film "The Wrestler", however, there is something different
-- a Super 16mm film stock and an absence of the visual power that this
Brooklyn-born director has honed to a tee. "The Wrestler", now in movie
theaters, is winning acclaim and praise from awards bodies and film critics
alike and is expected to garner several nominations in January including for
Mickey Rourke, who plays the title role as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a has-been
professional wrestling champion from the 1980's who is now content to quietly
skulk around the semi-pro circuit in New Jersey. Though battered and
bruised, Randy just can't get enough.
Bruised and a little broken but none the worse for wear, Mr. Aronofsky can't get
enough either, and on this day he talks about numerous matters, the first of the
change in visual style for "The Wrestler".
"I don't know what it was, it just felt like it was time. So I just tried
to find something as radically different as I could. I felt this was kind
of a big challenge . . . I didn't want to do any of the kind of subjective
filmmaking that I did in the other films where I used sound effects . . . it
just sort of emerged, the style. And it was scary not to have those
crutches to lean on."
The two journalists in the room laugh at the pun, which presumably is intended,
given the quick wit of a director who is known for pushing his actors. Mr.
Rourke has said in a number of interviews that "Darren pushed me really hard",
but with all the good things being said about Mr. Rourke's work in it as well as
the acting by Marisa Tomei, how bad can pushing a performer really be?
(It's not like Mr. Aronofsky beats his actors with the walking cane he uses.)
"The Wrestler" will provide a certain excitement for some wrestling fans who
grew up with the WWF (now the WWE) and the WCW, etc., but Mr. Aronofsky's film
isn't a wrestling extravaganza. The final frame of the film "wasn't going
to be a Rocky moment, an Adrian moment -- it never was", said Mr. Aronofsky, who
has been sipping coffee during the conversation. "We didn't know
emotionally what [the final shot of the film] would mean . . . ", said the
director, who said he had an idea for "The Wrestler" back in college. The
film does have some real professional wrestlers in it, among them Kid USA and DJ
Hyde, though not any wrestler from the more universally-known wrestling
foundations in the U.S.
Financing for "The Wrestler", as for many films, was a thorny issue. Mr.
Aronofsky had sought out the French for assistance but when that was a no-go, he
said "it was time to put on the independent film hat" and go back to a
small-scale budget for the film, which also stars Evan Rachel Wood as Stephanie,
Randy's estranged daughter. The film, released in the U.S. and Canada by
Fox Searchlight Pictures, was shot primarily in New Jersey, with some scenes in
New York City and Pennsylvania. New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen, the
Long Branch-Asbury Park native, contributes a song to the film, which plays over
its closing credits. (The a cappella song is also called "The Wrestler"
and appears as a bonus track on Mr. Springsteen's forthcoming album "Working On
A Dream", which arrives in late January.)
Of Marisa Tomei, the Brooklyn-born Oscar winner who plays Cassidy, a single
mother and nightclub stripper in "The Wrestler", Mr. Aronofsky cites that though
Cassidy is a physical exhibitionist, "she was as much a romantic interest as she
was a mentor" to Mr. Rourke's Randy Robinson. Miss Tomei plays an
important role and the director agreed that she draws a definitive line between
her daytime and nighttime endeavors, something that Randy does not.
As for the main performer in the film, Mr. Rourke, who spent several years in
the early nineties as a real-life professional boxer, found it difficult to
adapt to life on the big screen as a wrestler. "It was almost twice as
hard for him to learn how to wrestle because boxers move completely differently
from wrestlers, you know?", Mr. Aronofsky commented. "A boxer . . . wants
to hide their punch. You know, they don't want their opponent to see the
punch coming. In wrestling, you want people in the back, back rows to see
that punch coming three minutes before it happens. But Mickey had a really
hard time with it . . . and he also, I think boxers, even more than most people,
have disrespect for wrestlers . . . it kind of dirties their sport, which is a
real sport as opposed to this theatrical thing that wrestling is."
Mr. Rourke trained for three months to get into top physical shape for the role,
and the cameras show that the sculpted physique that viewers see in "The
Wrestler" is really his own. Of those months of training, the 39-year-old
director said "it took . . . about a month and a half [for Mickey] to just like,
okay, relax and say, 'this could be fun'." Mr. Aronofsky added that "I
think he even had a pride-macho thing about, 'oh God, I'm playing a wrestler.'
It was embarrassing for him a little bit."
Mr. Aronofsky didn't model Randy "The Ram" after any particular wrestler from
the 1980's although he said that he as well as audiences who see the film can
readily identify with him. Other wrestlers in the film, specifically
Ayatollah, played by Ernest Miller, was based on the WWF wrestler The Iron
Sheik. Robert D. Siegel, the former editor of the satirical newspaper
The Onion, wrote the screenplay for "The Wrestler".
According to several published reports, the director will next be directing a
new edition of the film "RoboCop", and said that he thought the world of the
original film, which he added that he wouldn't dream of tampering with.
Darren Aronofsky may have tampered with the visual style of his own films to
great effect no less, but he knows, unlike some directors, to leave others
"The Wrestler" will be released widely across the U.S. and the U.K. on
January 16 with a wide opening in Canada on January 23. The film is now
playing in limited release in the U.S. and Canada.
Mr. Aronofsky, who is engaged to British actress Rachel Weisz, whom he directed
in "The Fountain", lives with the actress and their two year-old son in
Brooklyn, New York.
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