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Q&A with Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler)

Introduction and transcript by Rob Vaux

Darren Aronofsky hit the ground running and never looked back with his debut feature Pi: a paranoid thriller about mathematical abstraction and the search for God. It established him as one of the most unique and innovative voices in American cinema, a reputation cemented by his second feature two years later. Requiem for a Dream now stands alongside Trainspotting as one of the definitive cinematic statements on addicts and drug abuse. Aronofsky's next film, The Fountain, was far less well-received, but he sprang back into form with this year's The Wrestler, the engrossing story of an ex-pro at the bitter end of his career. Prior to the film's release, he sat down to talk about the film with the press.

Question: Mickey Rourke said you pushed him really hard in this film.

Darren Aronofsky: The thing about Mickey is that he has more talent in his little finger than most actors have in their whole bodies. And it's really easy for him to just coast along. To do really good work, he just has to be challenged. That was my task for the last six months.

Q: That must have been a big risk for you.

DA: Yeah... but why else are we here? It's easy to do the same old stuff, but when you get an idea in your head, you just have to go for it. Mickey just seemed like a really original, unique choice. It's a tough role to cast, because not only do you have a broad emotional range -- from comedy to tragedy and everything in between -- but there was physicality involved. Although Mickey's a big guy, these wrestlers are huge and I really didn't know if he could pull it off. But he put on that 35 pounds of muscle and he showed up ready to work.

Q: Did you ever think of using a real wrestler for the role?

DA: I never thought about using a wrestler, although it's not necessarily a bad idea. It certainly took a long time to find an actor who could do it: someone who would be brave enough and not-vain enough to take it on.

Q: How did the script come about?

DA: The script was an original idea I had back in '92 or '93. I graduated from film school and I wrote down this list of ideas I had for movies. One of them was called The Wrestler, and no one had done anything on wrestling before. Then around 2002, I teamed up with my producer Scott Franklin, and the two of us started to do research and go to all these wrestling events. Two or three years later, we found Rob Siegel, our screenwriter. I read a script he had written called The Big Fan. He actually ended up directing it and it just got into Sundance, which is great. It was kind of like a Hal Ashman script: it had a lot of dark comedy, but also a lot of humanism. I liked that combination. And when I mentioned pro wrestling to him, his eyes just lit up. Twenty-five, thirty drafts later, we shot it.

Q: Were you a fan of wrestling before this process got started?

DA: Like a lot of guys my age, I had an eight-month romance with wrestling, but I was never a huge fan. And it was pre-Hulkamania. Hulk Hogan was actually a bad guy when I was a fan. I actually saw him fight Tony Atlas at the Garden, but by the time I was fourteen, it was out of my system. Having said that, no one's really done a film about it before, and it's such a huge part of our culture. I think at one point, it was bigger than the NFL. It may still be. Then I started going to these independent matches, and you see these legends there -- Jimmy Superfly Snuka, Tony Atlas, Brutus Beefcake, Greg "The Hammer" Valentine. These guys used to sell out the LA Forum, and now they're playing in front of 300 people for 500 bucks a night... and paying their own car fare to get there. There' something really dramatic about that faded glory.

Q: How have the wrestlers themselves responded to the project?

DA: They're very suspicious people to start off with, because they've been taken advantage of a lot and they don't have that much left. So they were very nervous. But we had a few credentials in our corner. One of our associate producers -- a guy named Evan -- had managed some of these guys, so they heard that we were trying to do something that didn't exploit them. The more we got in there, the more open they became. They could tell from the questions we were asking that we didn't want to exploit them or their profession. Our first legend came to a screening just the other night: Rowdy Roddy Piper. We had never met him before, and he had a really, really emotional response to the film. He basically said, "It's not my story, but it is my story," and he thanked us for telling it and being honest. He's really getting behind the film.

Q: How has WWE reacted?

DA: I don't know. We're showing it to Vince McMahon next week. I'm taking the pilgrimage up to Stanford, Connecticut, and we'll see what happens. I'm very curious to meet the man.

Q: That leads to the question of the fight scenes themselves. Was there an urge to overplay it? How do you strike that balance between the visceral reality and the grandiosity of the spectacle?

DA: That was the toughest part of the fight scenes: how to shoot an event which is scripted and yet real. They're not trying to kill each other in the ring, but they do need to sell it as real. We had to figure out how to convey that with a movie audience. The sound effects, in particular were a challenge, because all of the hits were... big. And they were garbled up by the audience. So we had to insert them in post to make them real, but you don't want it to sound like a John Wayne movie. We probably spent most of the mixing time on those scenes, getting the sounds just right.

Q: Was the authenticity hard to get with such a limited budget?

DA: We tried to be as real as possible with this, both in the details and in the performers themselves. We put on real wrestling events with real wrestlers and basically just put Mickey right in the middle of it. And the hardcore stuff we show is really just the tip of the iceberg. The guy Mickey wrestles in the extreme match is named Necro Butcher, and he's a real hardcore underground cult American hero. He's a top billing marquee name; he's the last name on the ticket when he appears and the crowd always goes crazy when he comes out. They know they're going to get their blood.

Q: How much of the shooting style was a necessity of the budget and how much of it was a creative decision?

DA: Probably a little of both, to be honest. You take your limitations and you turn them into strengths. But I also wanted a very feverish, immediate style, something very different than my three previous films. This was an approach I've never done before.

Q: Do you plan for improvisation when taking that approach, or was the schedule too limiting?

DA: Oh, there was endless improvisation. So much of it was improv. Everything from the wrestlers to the deli counter. Half of those people at the deli counter were real customers ordering meat. The scene where he's talking to Necro Butcher about the staple gun, it just happened. We were waiting to go on, and there were other matches going on. So I said, "Hey let's just film a little conversation," and it worked.

Article published 12.18.2008.

Also read: Q&A with Mickey Rourke.

Also read: Rob Vaux's review of The Wrestler.



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