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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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Final Countdown

The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…