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Interview: Darren Aronofsky on “The Wrestler”

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10092008_thewrestler4.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

Brooklyn-born auteur Darren Aronofsky turned mathematical patterns and theories into a brooding thriller (1998’s “Pi”), injected us with a bravura adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s reckless-addiction novel (2000’s Oscar-nominated “Requiem for a Dream”), and raced against the clock of mortality in an ambitious love story spanning ten centuries (2006’s unfairly maligned “The Fountain”). So what’s a filmmaker’s next move, having already zoomed a 26th century Hugh Jackman around the galaxy in an oversized soap bubble containing the Tree of Life?

Curiously, you resurrect Mickey Rourke’s career. One of the most wildly anticipated films of 2008, Aronofsky’s humanist drama “The Wrestler” will close this year’s New York Film Festival. But even before it officially opens in December, the Oscar buzz for Rourke as past-his-prime wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson is already starting to be deafening (and rightly so). Shot with handheld verité techniques that put you right up in Rourke’s fascinating mug, the film chronicles the dreary decline of a once-famous ’80s ring legend as a heart attack forces him into retirement and existential crisis. With his ridiculous blonde extensions and overuse of both tanning beds and steroids, “The Ram” is a tragic anti-hero to root for, especially as he attempts to connect with a fading stripper (Marisa Tomei) and his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). I spoke with Aronofsky about his tremendously entertaining new film, how Axl Rose helped out, and why he couldn’t hit Rourke in the head on-set.

In another interview, you said that David Bowie had it right — it’s important as an artist to continually reinvent yourself. But were you consciously courting a new audience with this film?

You mean, a different audience from David Bowie’s? [laughs] I was just talking about how you’ve got to change, especially if you feel an urge to. For me, the first three films were very much connected. I don’t know, I see them as a trilogy. There’s a joke that they’re the “Mind, Body, Spirit” trilogy, with “Pi” being Mind, “Requiem” Body, and “The Fountain” Spirit. Even though they hopefully had their own visual language, I think there was a connection to the attitude, the team that was collaborating on them. On this film, I’m at different fights in my life, and I wanted to do something radically different.

As a stalwart fan of “The Fountain,” I’m curious if you have any ideas why that film didn’t get a bigger reception as I think it deserved.

Ultimately, it was an art film being released by a major studio. They didn’t know to release it, unfortunately. I think there was a lot of passion behind it, and I love the Warner Bros. marketing team, but they opened us on Thanksgiving Day against seven other films that had TV spots; we didn’t. Once it didn’t perform on the level they wanted, it barely got released outside the United States. [Artisan] made more money off of “Requiem” and “Pi” internationally than [Warner Bros.] did on “The Fountain,” and “The Fountain” has movie stars and much higher production value. You see a documentary like “What the Bleep Do We Know!?”, which connected with a lot of alternative audiences, and I think “The Fountain” could have, too. No matter how much I enjoyed making the film with Warner Bros., I probably would’ve been better served with a smaller distribution company.

10092008_thewrestler2.jpgCompared to your first three features, “The Wrestler” surprised me by just how damn funny it is — comedy hasn’t played much of a role in your work until now. Was that a personal choice, or are you hoping to flex more wit in upcoming films?

It’s funny, [directing] my early short films, I did a lot of comedies. I did five shorts, and I think two of them are comedies. I think those three projects were the three projects that came along, and just happened to not have much humor in them. I don’t think it was conscious. When I started to work on this film, though, I knew comedy would be important, because there’s a lot of wackiness in the wrestling world, to say the least.

How familiar were you with old school wrestling beforehand?

As a kid, I was a minor fan at best. I went to a couple of matches, that’s it. I knew I wanted to do a film set in the wrestling world, and I also knew that there was probably no way that I could work with the WWE, the way I make movies. I needed to find a place in professional wrestling where those types of rights weren’t controlled. That made me drift towards this independent, underground part of wrestling. I got excited because the more I looked into that world, the more interesting it got.

Any major revelations?

Well, there’s just a lot of sadness. These wrestlers aren’t organized. They have no union, no pension and no insurance. You meet wrestler after wrestler who sold out Madison Square Garden ten years ago, basically running on fumes today. There’s a lot of drama there.

Having collaborated so intimately with Mickey Rourke, what misconceptions of him can you personally squash?

To be frank, no one wanted to finance the film with Mickey involved. Only one company in the entire film financing world agreed to do it, and at a number that was nearly impossible to get the film made. And I think most people didn’t think Mickey Rourke was sympathetic. There you have it.

10092008_thewresterler3.jpgYou almost couldn’t get Rourke for the film. How different do you think the film might’ve been with Nicolas Cage or another actor who doesn’t have the real-life parallels to The Ram?

I have no idea. For me, if it’s a painting, the actor’s the poet. It would’ve been a completely different movie, so who knows what it would’ve been with another actor. Mickey Rourke’s in every frame of the film, so the film is Mickey Rourke, you know?

Were there challenges in working with Rourke, or did your no-nonsense pep talks smooth it all over?

I think Mickey’s always a challenge. He’s very smart, very opinionated, and he’s got a real point of view as an actor, but that’s part of what makes him such a great talent. You have to collaborate with that, so it’s not like he shows up and it just works. You definitely have to navigate how to get there.

In the New York Film Festival press conference, Rourke called you a “tough” director, but you seemed pretty opposed to that word.

[laughs] I think I was tough because that was the only thing that would work with him. He needs a certain amount of toughness. He’s an athlete. He’s spent half his career boxing. Since I can’t hit him in the head, I have to use other means to get through to him. He wants to be challenged. Every actor requires a different form of communication, so you have to figure it out. I definitely wasn’t tough with Evan Rachel Wood because she would basically deliver until she was empty. That’s just the way she works. She keeps doing it until she’s done.

What led to you shooting in this fast-and-loose documentary style?

My whole filmmaking training started in documentaries, and so I’ve always had an interest in getting back to it. Right after I did “The Fountain,” I wanted to go make a documentary or something that was less constructed — more natural. I was searching for a project, and sniffing around, “The Wrestler” fit right in. The style of shooting also comes out of Mickey and the type of actor he is.

How did Axl Rose get a special “thank you” credit?

Well, we played “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” I don’t know, maybe three or four hundred times during the course of the film. Mickey’s very good friends with Axl, and Axl was instrumental in helping us to secure “Sweet Child o’ Mine” for the climax of the film.

10092008_thewrestler1.jpgSomewhat related to that, in ode to the barroom scene where Rourke and Tomei gush over their favorite ’80s bands, do you have any ’80s guilty pleasures?

I don’t know if Guns N’ Roses would be quite a guilty pleasure. I was growing up in Brooklyn in the ’80s and listening to hip-hop, so all the music I was listening to is still cool. [laughs] I’m not that much of a hip-hop guy now, but I definitely was in high school.

The film marks the bittersweet changes that happen with the passing of time. As a fellow New Yorker, what are your feelings on NYC today compared to how you remember it while growing up?

It’s funny; a friend of mine, writer Colson Whitehead, wrote an article after 9/11 that was the first piece of writing that helped me mourn the whole situation. He wrote an essay in the Village Voice, and what he talked about is how New Yorkers are always complaining about New York changing: “Oh, when I was a kid, blah blah blah.” He puts the Twin Towers into that kind of perspective, and it’s true. As New Yorkers, that’s part of it. You’re always complaining about how the city’s changing, but it’s not an old-world city; it’s a new-world city. You miss the old Times Square, but there are new things, and eventually they’ll create nostalgia for all the new people who come through. I think that’s what makes the city so great, that it’s constantly evolving.

Though you were only a minor fan, who was your favorite ’80s wrestler?

He’s more of a ’70s wrestler, but I was a very big fan of Ivan Putsky, “The Polish Power,” being an Aronofsky.

[Photos: Mickey Rourke as Randy “The Ram” Robinson; Rourke; Marisa Tomei as Cassidy; director Darren Aronofsky – “The Wrester,” Fox Searchlight, 2008]

“The Wrestler” closes the New York Film Festival on October 12th; it will open in limited release on December 19th.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.