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

By 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 cane. 

"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 failed.

"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 alone.
 

"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.

Related: Non-Contact Wrestling With Marisa Tomei

Related: Audio Popcorn with Marisa Tomei

Related: The Wrestler PopcornReel.com Movie Review

Related: "The Wrestler" on The Popcorn Reel Ten Best Of 2008

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