Aronofsky's debut feature first drew attention in last year's Sundance Festival, where he won a director's prize. is a paranoid thriller which tells the story of a reclusive Brooklyn maths genius, Maximilian Cohen (Aronofsky's co-writer and website designer Sean Gullette), who uses a home-made computer to search for a super-advanced mathematical key that can predict stock market movements. Cue nasty corporation interest and the approach of a mysterious Jewish sect...
Aronofsky, lean and darkly ascetic-looking in the flesh (intensive Manhatten yoga sessions and a largely vegetarian diet), plays down the kooky rumours to do with his running away from a plastics factory in a kibbutz in Israel shortly after leaving high school. In Jerusalem, it is whispered, he was pounced on by members of a weird Hasidic sect preoccupied with the numerical significance of the Hebrew language. Didn't they try to convert him?
"That's all exaggerated and overblown," he says. He met some cabbalists in Jerusalem, but that was about it. Though raised in a mildly conservative Jewish household, he does not practise the Jewish faith. The Jerusalem experience was almost incidental to the creation of Aronofsky's film and he tells me that the cabbala element was developed late in the process. "One day I saw the Hasim on the street and just thought they'd look great in black and white," he confesses.
And it was originally an ancient Greek philosopher's modern disciple who was going to make it into . A general fascination with Pythagoras as a "lost messiah" piqued a wider interest in number mysticism.
However, he had considerable Jewish help towards making the movie: 300 of his friends and neighbours chipped in $100 each (pounds 62) towards the $60,000 budget; the Hasidic Jewish actor (and soi-disant "kosher ham") Izzi Lifschutz secured more than $10,000-worth of kosher food by barter to feed the crew, and his mom, dad and relatives helped with walk-on roles and catering. "My mom," says Aronofsky, fleetingly like the Cohen character in the movie, "made me tuna sandwiches when I was really down and talking about driving off the Williamsburg Bridge."
has been called wildly original, but Aronofsky himself wisely disputes this. "I don't believe in original," he says, "and even have problems with the idea of copyright, though I accept that people have to get paid for what they do."
Surely this is a kind of anti-paranoia observation? Does he agree that paranoia is one of the great American exports of the late 20th century?
"I think after Oliver Stone's JFK, paranoia entered popular culture, yes. But after all, in screenwriting school they teach you that everything has to revert back to the main character all the time, which is exactly what paranoid schizophrenics think."
Most critics have mentioned Lynch's Eraserhead and The X-Files as influences on , though Aronofsky himself abhors both comparisons. Eraserhead is by intention static, he says, whereas is a "boiled-down three-act thriller". And as for The X Files, he hates them. "I don't watch TV because I'll get addicted to it in days, but I did see the X-Files movie and it was horrendous. I had no clue what the fuck was going on, it just didn't tie together, whereas in reality these paranoids are exquisite in the detail with which they make everything link." So no comparison with his beloved Twilight Zone episodes? "No way!"
As for the young actors who want cred by being in such movies (he is now being inundated with actors wanting to work with him), he is also wary. "A lot of them are little more than cyborgs who want to be on the cover of Vanity Fair looking pretty. Then they want to do a De Niro and go for really crazy hardball parts. But when it comes down to it..."
He makes a face. Hollywood's taming process, it would seem, has a way to go.
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