Interview: Darren Aronofsky on “The Wrestler”

22 January, 2009 (22:00) | by Sean Axmaker, Directors, Interviews | By: Sean Axmaker

Darren Aronofky comes across as a very centered, easy-going, down-to-Earth guy. Not what you’d expect from the guy who directed Pi, Requiem For a Dream and The Fountain. Maybe not even The Wrestler, though his love of the story and the characters comes through when he talks about. I interviewed Darren Aronofsky in Seattle back in November, 2008, during his national press tour to promote The Wrestler, which had won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and was the buzz of the Toronto International Film Festival. Since then, the film has been praised as one of the best films of the year and Mickey Rourke’s tender turn as aging wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson the comeback story of the year. Rourke earned a Golden Globe Award and early Thursday morning, January 22, both he and co-star Marisa Tomei were honored with Oscar nominations.

Early in the film, in the scene where Mickey Rourke’s character, Randy, has slept in his van and wakes up the next morning, he’s instantly surrounded by kids who adore him and he adores them, I though to myself, “He’s Wallace Beery in The Champ!”

(laughs) Sure. When we cast Mickey it was pretty hard to get the film made, and the reason was is because pretty much every financer in the world said that Mickey Rourke wasn’t sympathetic. So it was important for me to prove them wrong. And I think after the first three or four minutes of the film, you’re kind of hooked into Mickey. It’s partly because of that scene but I think it’s also because you look into his eyes and he’s very truthful, he’s filled with soul, he’s filled with spirit, and there’s just a burning desire in him.

Mickey Rourke as Randy "The Ram" Robinson

Mickey Rourke as Randy "The Ram" Robinson

Mickey Rourke has been doing great work for the last eight years but no one has been noticing it because they’re mostly small films and supporting roles.

He’s also had to play tough guys a lot. One of the great things about Mickey, that I remember from Angel Heart and The Pope of Greenwich Village and Barfly, is that even when he’s this incredible tough guy with all this machismo, there’s so much softness inside. And when you meet Mickey, that’s who he is. There’s a lot of armor built up, but it’s really covering up all this fear.

Casting him as a wrestler also evokes the boxing career he had after he left acting in the nineties.

Sure. I thought that, since he was a boxer, it would be very easy for him to learn how to wrestle. It was actually, I think, twice as hard for him. In boxing you want to hide your punches, you don’t want your opponent to see the punches. In wrestling, you want people in the back rows to see the punch coming two minutes before it ever happens. So Mickey really had to unlearn how he moved in the ring. I think also, as a boxer, you really look down on wrestling because it lampoons what you are doing. So it was hard, at the beginning, until Mickey learned to respect it as something that was as much sport as theater. Once he accepted that there was something theatrical going on, he was able to understand how to approach it.

Was he your first choice for the role?

He was. It was a very hard role to cast, though, because not only did you need the sadness and the humor, you also needed the physicality and, to be honest, now it looks like, “Yeah, sure, he can do that,” but he had to put on 30 pounds of muscle to get there. He just wasn’t that big. He was about 190, which isn’t a huge guy, and when he was boxing, he was boxing at 185, so he had to go a long way. It took him about six months of lifting to get there.

It really shows, but without being overt about it. He carries himself like someone who has lived his whole life that way.

Yeah, definitely. I think he has, somewhat. His dad, in real life, was a Mr. New York bodybuilder, so I think he has it in his culture.

Rourke was not a wrestling fan. Were you?

No, I wasn’t that much either. I think like most guys my age, I had about an eight month long romance with it, went to one match, but it was pre-Hulkmania so it was something on late-night local TV. But that was it. The wrestling became so big in the nineties, it was this cultural phenomenon, yet no one has ever looked at it in a serious way. And it just made me wonder, there’s got to be something going on here that’s interesting.

You evoke that era in the opening credits, but by the time we get to him twenty years later, he’s in bush leagues of the business. In the first scene, it looked like they were either in a YMCA hall or a high school gym where someone had just put up a portable ring and bunch of folding chairs. It just looked so local.

That’s how these things are. How it started is, first we thought we were going to cast a twenty- or thirty-year-old actor to play a wrestler and it became pretty obvious to us that there was going to be no way that we would have the creative freedom to do something with the WWE. So then we thought about doing it as a period piece, before Vince McMahon had started organizing all these promotions and territories, but we realized we were a low-budget film so there was no way to do that. Then I heard about this independent circuit and started to check it out, see what it was about, and what quickly became the most interesting thing was the last match of the night, where all these legends would come out. Guys who were selling out Madison Square Garden ten years ago were now working for $500 a night. And so I just started talking to them and their stories really were extremely dramatic and that’s where it led to trying to find an older actor who could do this.

So was this an original story by the screenwriter, Robert D. Siegel?

No, it was an idea I had. When I graduated film school in the early nineties I wrote it down as an idea and then in ’02, me and the producer, Scott Franklin, started working on ideas and doing research. We read a script of Rob’s and really liked him and brought him on in ’05, about the time Mickey came on, to start working on the script. I was in post-production on The Fountain so there was no way I could write it, and I wanted to try to speed up the process, because I was conscious of the six years it had taken me to do The Fountain and I wanted to get something ready to go. So I had already started to work with a bunch of writers on other things. And I really enjoyed it. Bringing a writer to the table is bringing another brain to the collaboration and there were things that only Rob could have brought. Rob was the editor of The Onion for seven years and was a very, very funny guy, understood hair metal, which I didn’t, brought that to the script, and definitely had a real sense of humor that he brought to it, and was willing to do the hard lifting, which he did. We would give him notes and he rewrote it maybe 25 times to get it there. We tried a lot of different avenues to get it to work.

Mickey Rourke: In the ring and in character as The Ram

Mickey Rourke: In the ring and in character as The Ram

Music has a really interesting way of creating worlds when you put a movie together. I was never a fan of hair metal, but when you hear it, it immediately sends you back twenty years.

Yeah (chuckles). Mickey wasn’t a fan and I wasn’t a fan, but you know what? The whole movie could be the lyrics of a hair metal song. If you listen to hair metal songs, they all fit so well with the film, so it was a lot of fun learning about that music and finding the right Cinderella song and finding the right Scorpions track.

It also fits the strip bar aesthetic perfectly.

Totally. You get a lot of hair metal there still…. Well, that’s what I’ve been told.

So bringing another brain to the collaboration, bringing another voice to it, was that a difficult transition as a director to marry your sensibilities and ideas with another voice?

When I read his script that he wrote, I really connected with it because the aesthetic was something very close to me. He’s from Long Island, I’m from Brooklyn, we’re about the same age, so I think culturally we come from very similar places. Our aesthetics line up pretty well. The way he expanded things I thought was funny and great, like all the hair metal stuff.

So how long had you been trying to The Wrestler made?

We started, in all seriousness, around ’02, but probably since The Fountain was finishing up, I targeted this as one of the front-runners and then spent about two years trying to get the money. So it took longer. I was ready to go earlier.

So after coming off The Fountain, which was a big, complex production that was also hard to get off the ground, did you think that doing a smaller, low-budget indie film would be easier to produce?

Just about anything I ever touch gets really hard to make. I don’t know. After Pi, everyone was saying, “What do you want to make?” I showed them the book Requiem for a Dream and people didn’t even return my calls. The Fountain took six years and The Wrestler I thought would be easy because it’s a small film. It’s really hard to finance anything that’s outside the norm. It’s really hard. It costs so much money to promote these movies.

When did Marisa Tomei come into the film?

Later on. I didn’t really want to hire an actress until I knew if I could make the film with Mickey because you have to line up the actor with the actress. And so about a month and a half out I’d say we started talking about it. Of course she was very nervous about certain elements of it and we just had a lot of honest talks about it. I think she did a really commendable job.

You don’t see a lot of women over forty in the movies expressing their sexuality that way, although in this case it’s not really sexuality, it’s a job. You don’t have to say much in the script to remind the audience that it’s just a way that she can make good money as a single mother.

Marisa saw it more than that. I think she was the dancing as some type of artistic expression. I guess she met a bunch of strippers that do get a certain adrenaline from being on stage, or doing a lap dance, having that control, having that attention. There is some type of expression happening there.

The way her character came across to me that she once had that engagement but now she’s just going on instinct or reflex.

Yeah, I think she’s trying to get… She’s almost more of a mentor in the film, in the sense that she’s aware of the line between the real world and this fantasy world and the Ram is not at all aware of it. It was the interesting parallels between the two characters: both performing on stage, both having stage names, both wearing spandex, both using their body as their art, both endangered by time and by age as affecting the way they make money, and both easily confusing the real world and the fake world. And I think what Marisa did so great was that that line between the two worlds, she walked it like a drunken tightrope walker. You didn’t know which way she was going to fall and that’s what made it dynamic.

When she looks ahead, she sees herself leaving that world. Ram is all about finding a way to continue wrestling, to stay in his world.

That’s where they split.

Evan Rachel Wood and Mickey Rourke

Evan Rachel Wood and Mickey Rourke

The thing that made me so upset with the character of Randy is that, after years of neglecting his family, he gives up trying to reconnect after things go bad after only spending a couple of weeks.

But I think he knows he’s just going to cause pain. Ultimately the film’s about a guy who wants to be loved and he gets his love from his work, and then when he can’t do his work anymore he tries to get his love from these two women, but it’s probably asking a little bit too much, a little bit too late, and he doesn’t know how to do it. He just knows how to get love in one way and he just goes back to it. Did you ever see a film called The Entertainer?

The Laurence Olivier film?

To us, more than sports movies, that was more interesting to us: a guy who just has to entertain. There was this documentary on TV about Al Jolson, and he used to just go up to people on the street and say, “Do you know who I am? I’m Al Jolson,” and he used to sing to them. Because he had to entertain. I think that was an interesting character and just very unique.

It really is a showbiz film set at the bottom rungs of the business. But he needs to keep his body like an athlete to do his work.

And it is athletic, like stunt men. These guys are clearly putting their physical health at risk. So yes, it’s as much a sport as it is theater. And in fact, when they’re backstage, they’re not acting like athletes, they’re acting like they’re in a production in Macbeth.

I love Ram’s relationship with those younger guys. They all treat him like royalty and he takes on the role of mentor. Rather than lording his reputation over them, he is supportive and encouraging.

Which is how it is with these older guys. They’re mentors to a lot of these younger guys. These young guys look up to them. The reason they’re in the business is because of their legends.

You could say the your earlier three films – Pi, Requiem For a Dream and The Fountain, have a more European sensibility in its style and approach to storytelling. The Wrestler feels very American in its storytelling, but a storytelling style out of the seventies. And also out of the thirties.

It’s a very red-blooded, blue-collar American film, I think. People don’t really tell stories in that world anymore. It’s not really any part of the world that’s really explored anymore. Mickey comes from that world so it was a great place to explore, shooting in Jersey on the edges of the great New York City. Madison Square Garden is far away. It was great to get into that world.

He’s a long way from Madison Square Garden but he’s the king of the local Veteran’s Hall.

That’s where these things are. Everywhere we shot were real locations and we put on real wrestling promotions. We couldn’t afford to print up those banners and aprons for the mats so we used the real promotions rings and we used real wrestlers and all the fans were real fans. And how we would do it is we would put on a wrestling match and when that was over, me, Mickey and the camerawoman, Maryse [Alberti] would run out, we’d shot a little piece of the match, do two retakes, the crowd would start to get restless, before they booed us we’d get out of there, we’d put on another match, and we’d basically leapfrog through the night. And it was great because the fans understood the theater of it, so they knew what to chant. As soon as we started to shout “Ho-ly shit!” they all started jumping in. They got the game. And the fans across the board were great. There were the hardcore fans, which were definitely rough and tumble and there was a lot of profanity toward us, but I think even they enjoyed because it was a different experience.

You said you cast real wrestlers in the film. How did you cast them?

Basically we had one of our producers, who got a producing credit because he was our contact into the wrestling world, this kid Evan. He was just a fan, we knew him through a friend, and he kind of manages a few of these guys, so he was our in there. He set up these casting calls, we would do it at my office, my office ended up smelling like Ben Gay for three weeks afterwards, and these wrestlers would come in, get in their gimmicks – that’s what they call their set-ups – and then… It was a very low budget film, we actually had a small loft space as my office, and we built the ring in the office. We had to move the all the desks and everyone out of there so Mickey could work, and then when Mickey wasn’t working, we’d literally be in the ring, doing our networking and computer stuff, so it was very tight. But we got through it. That Necro Butcher guy in the hardcore match, you go to YouTube and look him up, you see he’s this underground American cult hero. He’s the top billing name at all these events, and when he comes out the crowd goes crazy. And I remember when he came in. He doesn’t have a cell phone, he lives in Pittsburg, and he drove to see us. He drove nine hours and he was late. I was done, Ben Gay was burning my nostrils and I had to go home. I got to the train and as I was getting on the train, the phone rang. “Necro has shown up and you gotta come back.” There was no other person on the planet I would have gone back for, but because of who he was, I went back and I’m really glad I did because he was such a sweet man. He does this incredibly masochistic stuff but he’s just a very sweet guy.

Darren Aronofsky

Darren Aronofsky

You’ve been attached to an adaptation of the novel “Flicker” for some time. I’ve heard that you are a big fan of that novel. I am too. Is anything happening with that?

Actually, just recently, some new life breathed into it. I’m not going to direct it, hopefully I’ll get a chance to produce it. It’s a tough one to adapt, as you read. I just love that world of old Hollywood and there’s a lot of great stuff in there.

I have read some updates on a movie you are working on called The Fighter with Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg.

It’s only Mark Wahlberg, no one else is attached. It’s a really great script that a lot of people developed, I developed it most recently with Scott Silver, a great writer. And we’re waiting on trying to figure out how to get it made. There’s a lot of politics around it, we’re just trying to figure it out. It’s complicated and boring.

Being that it’s so hard to get movies made, it must be frustrating to be a director.

It is, it is. It’s hard to get things that are any good, or to attempt something that’s different.

Judd Apatow hasn’t asked you to direct one of his comedies?

I’d love to do a comedy. When I heard David Gordon Green was there [directing Pineapple Express], I was so jealous. A marijuana romp? I’d love to do that. A bunch of my student films were comedies, two out of three student films were comedies. And Chris Rock came to me after Requiem, over and over again, saying “Tragedy is the inverse of comedy, man. Do a comedy.” So I’d love to. It’s just finding the right material and getting the right opportunity to do it. Four Christmases, I read that script and wanted to direct it but didn’t get to. I was reading them all, but you’ve got to find the right one where it’s people going in with the right attitude. I think the way Judd Apatow is making films is incredibly exciting because he’s essentially got his own studio going on and he’s got pretty much creative freedom. I thought Superbad was the best film of last year. I chose it – I’m in the Academy – and it was up there, and for the DGA awards I thought Greg Mottola did a great job. It was a really tender, brutal film about that couple of years in a man’s life and I really liked that whole thing, I thought it was a very touching movie.

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