So what was “Mother!” really about? In a keynote address at SXSW on Saturday morning, director Darren Aronofsky offered his take on his recent drama starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem that divided audiences.
“I wanted to make a film about Mother Earth and how we treat Mother Earth,” Aronofsky said about Lawrence’s character, a pregnant woman who endures a series of traumas while living in a quiet farmhouse with her poet husband. “The way I see we treat Mother Earth is incredibly disrespectful. We pillage her, we rape her, we call her dirt.” He noted how the British don’t use that word.
“That’s why Jennifer played the character the way she did,” Aronofksy said. “There’s a lot of emotion.”
As for Bardem’s character, Afronosky confirmed that he was meant to represent God. “I looked at the Bible and how the Old Testament God is painted,” the director said. “When you think about that God, if you don’t pray to him, he kills you. What type of character does that? For me, it was about interpreting that to human emotion.”
Aronofsky’s one-hour address was wide-ranging, focusing on how he got his start in the film business as a breakout indie director of the ’90s with “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream.” True to the religious themes from many of his movies, he titled his talk “The 10 Commandments of Indie Film.” “With all humility,” he said, “I’m a hack writer compared to the guy who wrote the Bible.”
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As a story teller, Aronofsky said he sees himself through all his characters. “I’m in every one of my films,” he said. “I’m the wrestler. I’m the ballet dancer. Both Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem’s character. I’m every character in every movie.”
He alluded to the political climate under the Trump administration. “Art is about disruption, especially today,” he said. “With all the shit going on, you have no excuse to make empty films.” He urged young artists to focus on “human love, not human violence.” And he had this advice for them: “Never stick a gun in a movie star’s hands. Never stick a gun in anyone’s hands if you can help it.”
One of his commandments—“commit to the vision”—illustrated the challenges even the most accomplished directors face when it comes to dark or edgy material.
Aronofksy revisited some of the battles he had to fight on his 2014 Biblical epic “Noah,” which studio executives at Paramount Pictures weren’t initially pleased about. “When the film started to test, it wasn’t doing too well,” Aronofsky said. “We went to some really small places in the country. Surprise, surprise! The evangelicals weren’t going for it.”
He almost lost control over the edit of the film audiences saw. “At one point,” he said, “they took our 2-hour-20-minute cut and turned it into a 85-minute cut with gospel music. It tested on point lower than mine. Certain films can’t be tested.”
In the end, he managed to hold on to the movie. “’Noah’ ended up becoming a worldwide hit, but it was a huge, long battle. Eventually, I did get my cut.”
Aronofksy said when he pitched 2010’s “Black Swan,” he was met with a different kind of resistance, despite casting Natalie Portman in the lead role. He got back notes that said: “Look, horror fans don’t like ballet. Ballet fans don’t like horror.” He took a pause. “Wrong!”
On 2008’s “The Wrestler,” financiers told him not to cast Mickey Rourke, because the actor was too much of a liability. He used the film’s $6 million budget to shoot it like a documentary, sometimes even using real people who didn’t know they were in a movie.
“In the deli scene, where Mickey is slicing turkey, he really sliced the turkey and he really wrote some random number price,” Aronofksy said. “That woman didn’t realize what was going on and paid for it. Mickey doesn’t have the gloves on. It was shady.”
Aronofsky spoke about the importance of building trust with his cast. “I’ve worked with some difficult actors,” he said. “I think some diretors deal with that by creating a father-son relationship. I can’t do that. I’m always a friend of the actor.”
On 2000’s “Requiem for a Dream,” Jared Leto went to great lengths to play a junkie. “He’s very Method,” Aronofsky said. “He did inject himself with water. Dude you’re an idiot. What the fuck are you doing? Do not do that. You know what a needle feels like going into your arm.”
Aronofsky said he prided himself on intense preparation. For “Mother!” he held three months of rehearsals, where he talked to his actors about the allegorical meaning of their characters. He even shot a “test” version of the film in a warehouse in Brooklyn, without any makeup or the right wardrobe. “There are no walls,” he said. “It was kind of like ‘Dogville,’’ he said, of Lars Von Trier’s experimental drama filmed on a soundstage.
“There are only three shots in the entire film,” Aronosfky explained of his latest release. “The camera was over Jennifer’s shoulder or her face. In general, it would go back and forth. And then we had her point of view of what she’s looking at. There are no wide shots in the entire film.”