Darren Aronofsky: Hollywood's most ambitious director

Plagued by outrageous misfortune in his early career, his latest film is a hot favourite for the Oscars. Has he struck it lucky at last?

Tim Walker
Saturday 15 January 2011 01:00 GMT
(Getty Images)

In summer 2002, as Darren Aronofsky prepared for the most ambitious movie shoot of his career, he received an ominous phone call.

At less than two months' notice, with almost 500 crew members and a life-size Mayan pyramid awaiting him on set in Australia, Aronofsky was informed that his star, Brad Pitt, was leaving the project. With Pitt went most of the budget. Distraught, the director packed a rucksack and disappeared to Asia for a month.

But he was not deterred. Four years later, after development hell had claimed a number of other productions, the director's passion project was finally released, on a modest budget, and with Hugh Jackman in the lead role. The Fountain is considered one of the century's biggest flops, but even Pitt later said he admired Aronofsky's "tenacity" in bringing the film to completion.

Most people familiar with the director's work would choose another word: obsession. His latest picture, the ballet thriller Black Swan, sees a crazed Natalie Portman driven to madness and violence in pursuit of dance perfection. Melodramatic, sumptuously photographed, and with lesbian sex scenes to leave audiences breathless with outrage or excitement, it is likely to win Oscar nominations for both its star and its director.

Yet Aronofsky's private life is currently about as blissful a place as his prima ballerina's dressing room. As he was making the aforementioned flop in 2005, he became engaged to Jackman's co-star, Rachel Weisz; their son Henry was born during post-production. Just as he's produced a hit, however, the couple have announced their separation, and she is now dating Daniel Craig. Before their split in November last year, Weisz insisted, "In life, [Darren] is very light-hearted. His favourite TV show is The Price Is Right." His films make that claim somewhat difficult to believe.

Charlotte and Abraham Aronofsky were both teachers in the New York public school system, and still live in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, where their son Darren was born in February 1969. He, too, still lives in the city. Despite describing himself as "a classically hypocritical high holiday Jew", Aronofsky was defined, in his youth, more by his urban roots than by his religion. "I grew up in hip-hop culture in Brooklyn," he explained. "There wasn't really a difference between the Jewish guys, the black guys, the Greek guys. We were all listening to the same music, dancing to the same steps, doing the same drugs. I'd say 50 per cent of my friends became millionaires on Wall Street and the other half are probably drug dealers."

As a boy, Aronofsky was awed by the early blockbusters of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Yet he also claims the youthful influence of alternative film-makers such as Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch. His love of film was solidified by studying at Harvard alongside a number of his future collaborators. His roommate Dan Schrecker later became his special effects supervisor; another friend, Sean Gullette, would go on to be the star of his first feature, Pi.

After graduating in 1991, Aronofsky spent a year at the American Film Institute Conservatory, but despite directing a number of well-regarded shorts, it took him a further five years to raise the funds to make Pi. In the end, he generated its $60,000 budget by asking for $100 donations from family and friends, promising them a return of $150 if the film made money.

A distinctive black-and-white debut, Pi featured Gullette as an obsessive mathematician searching for the secrets of the natural world in the realm of numbers. It took more than $3m at the box office, and won Aronofsky the Best Director prize at Sundance in 1998 – when the festival was still regarded as an authentic wellspring of undiscovered talent, rather than a cattle market for the major studios.

His follow-up, developed at the Sundance Lab, was 2000's Requiem for a Dream, based on a novel by Hubert Selby Jnr. With its visually radical realisation of addiction's effect on a group of friends, it is still widely regarded as Aronofsky's finest work. He was uncompromising with his creation, refusing to remove a fleeting shot of a graphic sex act from the final reel, and thus relinquishing any chance of the "R" rating that might have won it a wider audience.

Still, Requiem remained a critical and modest commercial success. Despite his relative inexperience, the young director was soon handed the reins of one of Hollywood's biggest blockbuster franchises: Batman. Following Joel Schumacher's execrable Batman and Robin (1997), Aronofsky was asked to return the Dark Knight to his shadowy roots, and wrote a script based on Frank Miller's graphic novel Batman: Year One.

That tale remained the template for Batman Begins (eventually directed by Christopher Nolan in 2005), and Aronofsky was the first to approach Christian Bale for the title role. But studio heads thought his screenplay too violent, and their interest waned. When they later rekindled the project, Aronofsky turned it down; by then, his attention had been consumed by The Fountain.

Pitt's departure was later blamed on the shortcomings of Aronofsky's audacious script, in which Jackman's characters, a Spanish conquistador and a 26th-century astronaut, both quest after the key to eternal life. The director's friend and co-writer Ari Handel recalled their early discussions of the concept: "I remember Darren saying, 'How cool would it be to cut from a battle scene in some historical period to a man travelling alone in space for an unknown reason?'" The critics' answer? Not very cool. At the Venice Film Festival, two audience members reportedly brawled over The Fountain's merits, but the consensus was damning, and the box office distinctly disappointing.

With just one film – a flop – under his belt in six years, Aronofsky's career seemed precarious. When The Wrestler was released in 2008 to wide acclaim, coverage focused on the remarkable parallels between the life of its star, Mickey Rourke, and that of the middle-aged fighter he portrayed. But its director, too, was making his comeback.

The unifying theme of Aronofsky's work – epitomised by The Wrestler – is a fixation on the body and its fragility. Rourke's character is unable to surrender the spotlight despite the havoc his vocation wreaks on his ageing body. The obsessions of Pi's protagonist are manifested in crippling migraines. Requiem for a Dream's haunting depiction of drug addiction makes it an ultra-effective, 102-minute public health warning: one character loses his arm, another her sanity.

The weakness of the human vessel also fuels The Fountain, and its protagonist's search for a cure for death. Aronofsky has admitted that the brain-tumour plot was inspired by the cancer diagnoses of both his parents, a mere month apart. Both have since recovered.

Black Swan, like The Wrestler, is simultaneously a steroidal sports movie and a body horror flick. The ballet community has deemed it an unfaithful portrayal of its art, but critics have embraced it as Grand Guignol entertainment nonetheless. Despite its darkness and intensity, it is perhaps its director's most purely enjoyable film to date.

Throughout his career so far, Aronofsky has frequently been the victim of misfortune and bad timing. He gave up the chance to direct another of 2011's awards contenders, The Fighter, to remake Robocop – only for that project's studio backers to go bankrupt. He was talked up as a potential helmsman for another comic book franchise, Superman, which will now instead be produced by Nolan and directed by Zack Snyder. With his Batman films, Nolan has proved that a director with an art-house sensibility can be trusted with a blockbuster. Aronofsky is now due to start shooting The Wolverine with Jackman. He's always had the potential to be another Nolan. The question is, does he have the luck?

A life in brief

Born: 12 February 1969, Brooklyn, New York.

Family: He was raised by conservative Jewish parents along with his elder sister. He became engaged to the actress Rachel Weisz in 2005. They have a four-year-old son, Henry. The couple split in November 2010.

Education: Studied live-action and animation film theory at Harvard University before attending the American Film Institute.

Career: His first film, 1998's Pi, won him early plaudits and a Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival. He followed this with the critically acclaimed Requiem for a Dream (2000) and The Wrestler (2008). Nominated for the Best Director Golden Globe for Black Swan and is expected to receive an Oscar nomination.

He says: "It was a really tough film because getting into the ballet world proved to be extremely challenging. Most of the time, when you do a movie all the doors open up, and you can do anything and see anything you want. The ballet world really wasn't at all interested in us hanging out."

They say: "He is a director I would do anything for." Natalie Portman, star of Black Swan

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