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Darren Aronofsky’s Elegant, Dangerous “Swan” Dive

Darren Aronofsky’s Elegant, Dangerous “Swan” Dive (photo)

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As a director who has long found the beauty in some of the ugliest places imaginable, it’s not surprising that Darren Aronofsky gravitated towards a film involving a production of “Swan Lake.” Inspired at first by his sister’s years in ballet and then intrigued with Dostoevsky’s “The Double,” the director has once again found a tale where he can get in your head after reaching your heart, predicated on the plight of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a fragile ballerina who is driven to madness by the pursuit of perfection, the competition of a rival dancer (Mila Kunis) and the dare of her ferocious director (Vincent Cassel) to embrace the wild abandon of the Black Swan when she’s already so perfect in the role of the untouched White Swan, both onstage and off.

It’s a duality that in many ways extends to the production of “Black Swan” itself, the gleaming gem of a psychological thriller that resulted from a decade-long development period, a grueling 42-day shoot and a limited budget where there were strains well beyond those of Tchaikovsky. However, Aronofsky rose to the challenge with a transformation nearly as dramatic as his central character in what feels like an accumulation of everything he’s learned from previous films, whether it’s sly use of special effects he picked up from “The Fountain,” the naturalism of “The Wrestler,” and the narrative precision he perfected in “Requiem for a Dream” and “Pi” as everything appears to spiral out of control. (If he separates himself from Nina Sayers, it’s how he makes it all look effortless.)

True to his own techniques, Aronofsky pulls off something of a reversal when you speak to him, exuding a warm, relaxed persona that’s decidedly at odds with the emotionally tormented protagonists in his films – apparently, the only nightmares he’s had lately were on his shooting schedule, as he’ll explain below, along with why cinema should have an orgasm and the lack of transformation in his next film, “The Wolverine.”

12012010_blackswan5.jpgSince you’ve had the idea for a film set in the ballet world for a while, did the themes that you initially want to explore in that setting change or have additional resonance after the years spent trying to get it made?

I’m sure they have. [laughs] I think that’s what the whole development is. You develop things and they become what you’re thinking about at the time and where your mindset is. Then slowly but surely, they kind of become something. The connection between “The Wrestler” and “Black Swan,” which a few people have been talking about is probably because over ten years we were pushing both of these films together, thinking about them and probably that’s why there are certain themes that overlap.

Given that they share similar themes, has the criticism in some circles that “Black Swan” is misogynistic struck you as some sort of double standard? Was that something you thought might become an issue going in?

I don’t know. I think it’s just if you portray anything not fully positive, you can run into trouble. It’s funny. Natalie’s a really good person to ask about this because she sees it as a feminist film, so I think people will always try and find their own take on things. But it wasn’t really a consideration. We were just trying to create a very, very human character with big struggles and just to have fun and make something that’s really very different.

That extends to how you filmed ballet. How much did the actual artform affect how you wanted to film this?

We definitely wanted to try and shoot ballet in a way that had never been shot before. Most of the time when you see ballet on film, it’s shot from the back of the auditorium and from the wings and very early on, I knew I wanted to go onto the stage and capture the energy and the swirling and the glory and the challenge and the breath and the sweat of the craft. So that type of camera move informed what we were going to go for, which was going to be this camera that had a lot of dexterity and a lot of ability to move.

12012010_BlackSwan4.jpgAfter filming something relatively straightforward like “The Wrestler,” this is a return to a more fragmented form of storytelling. Was there something in particular that informed the structure of this film?

Really just “Swan Lake,” the ballet. We basically looked at the ballet and translated the ballet into a movie and all the characters come out of characters in the ballet, all the music comes out of the ballet, the colors come out of the ballet. Everything was built as if we were telling a live-action version of the ballet and dramatizing it.

I remember a great quote of yours where you said, “Cinema should have an orgasm” – are third acts particularly important to you?

I think it’s just the structure of film. I don’t think it’s me in particular. They always talk about the climax – that’s the word people talk about as emotionally the highest part of the film, so we just try and have all the departments try to get to a peak point together.

This may be a product of screenwriting credits, but as the second film that you haven’t been credited as a screenwriter on, has it changed the job of directing?

It doesn’t change that much. I really work with these writers as if I am a writer. I don’t actually do any of the writing, but I really am on my hands and knees going through everything line by line and scene by scene and message by message. And when I come up with ideas, I’ll tell it to them and let them do the writing on it. So that’s why I think both “The Wrestler” and “Black Swan” are not written by me, but definitely connected to my psyche in a deep way.

Has your attitude toward directing changed?

I don’t know if I’ve changed my opinion of what I do that much. I feel like what I did on “Black Swan” is very similar to what I did on “Pi.” It takes a lot of passion, a lot of focus and a lot of attention to detail to get to a place where it all starts coming together and coming alive.

11272010_AronofskyBlackSwan.jpgYou’ve said you don’t know when you’re done editing a film until you’ve cut your favorite shot out of it. Was there a favorite that hit the cutting room floor here?

We had such limited resources on this film, seriously limited resources, and we were trying to make a lot with a little and I don’t know if there’s much on the editing room floor. It’s funny because Fox was saying “Can you put together for the DVD missing scenes?” There really aren’t missing scenes. [laughs] So that won’t be one of the features on the DVD.

Was this a really tough shoot?

It was a really challenging shoot. Normally, you get the call sheet and you have four or five days on your schedule that are really tough days. Every day on the call sheet was a nightmare and it was basically like there was no break. Every day was like “Man, everything’s got to go perfectly right if we’re going to get this done.” And of course, things never go perfectly right and you end up losing things, so it was a really big, challenging production and by the time we got to post, whatever money we had snuck out of post for production ended up costing us down the road, so it was a pretty tough road the whole way through.

This may be a total reach, but based on what you’ve been doing lately with “Black Swan,” “Wolverine,” and “Machine Man” [an adaptation of Max Barry’s novel about a man who begins to reinforce his weaker body parts with titanium], is it coincidence or is transformation something you’re particularly interested in these days?

That’s interesting. No, I don’t know. It’s not conscious. It’s definitely very coincidental. “Machine Man” was just a cool idea that came to us and Mark [Heyman], who wrote “Black Swan,” was interested in it, so we got involved. It wasn’t something we pursued and put up. And “Wolverine,” I don’t know how much that’s about transformation. It just looked like something fun to do.

You’ve spoken about your sister, who once was a ballet dancer, as a reason to make “Black Swan.” Did she enjoy it?

She really liked it. She left ballet a long time ago, so she’s not coming from the dance world as directly, but more coming at it as a sibling, and she was very proud of it and really liked it.

“Black Swan” opens in limited release on December 3rd.

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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

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

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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