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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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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

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

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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