Black Swan: Interview with writer/director Darren Aronofsky

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Darren Aronofsky is the director of "Black Swan," starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. The film, which is already an Oscar favorite, is being released by Fox Searchlight on December 3.

From wresting to ballet


“Some people call wrestling the lowest of art forms, and some call ballet the highest of art forms, yet there is something elementally the same.  Mickey Rourke as a wrestler was going through something very similar to Natalie Portman as a ballerina,” Aronofsky explains.  “They’re both artists who use their bodies to express themselves and they’re both threatened by physical injury, because their bodies are the only tool they have for expression. What was interesting for me was to find these two connected stories in what might appear to be unconnected worlds.”  


The two films are also tied by a lead performance that dives well beneath the surface, says Aronofsky, who compares Portman’s commitment to that of Rourke.  “The role of Nina is quite different from anything Natalie has done before,” notes Aronofsky, “and she took it to another level.  Playing Nina was as much an athletic feat as a feat of acting.”  


“Ballet is something most people start training for when they’re four or five years old and as they live it, it changes their bodies, it transforms them.  To have an actress who hasn’t gone through all of that convincingly play a professional ballet dancer is the tallest of orders.  Yet somehow, with her incredible will and discipline, Natalie became a dancer.  It took ten months of vigorous work, but her body transformed and even the most serious dancers were impressed.  I’m convinced that the physical work also connected her to the emotional work,” states Aronofsky.


On Natalie Portman as Nina


“The story became about Nina’s fears of losing who she is,” continues Aronofsky.  “That is something I think everyone can relate to, but Nina becomes completely overtaken by those fears until her reality becomes inseparable from the character she is playing.”  


Aronofsky approached Portman several years ago to talk about the film, then still in a fledgling state.  “Very soon after I first started thinking of the idea for BLACK SWAN, I met with Natalie for coffee in Times Square,” he recalls.  “She had done a lot of ballet before she became an actress and had continued doing it over the years just to stay in shape.  She told me straight away that one of the things she’d always wanted to do was play a dancer.”


The rest of his cast


“Mila plays Lily as someone who has exactly what Nina wants.  She is much freer, more alive and more sexual than Nina,” says Aronofsky.  “Lily has the freedom to express herself and that becomes the source of both great allure and intense friction for Nina.”  


“Vincent is one of my favorite actors on the planet,” says Aronofsky.  “I’m a big fan of his work in both his French and American films.  Here he plays a Machiavellian character – the artistic director who is all about the art, and doesn’t care about the victims he leaves along the way.  He was wonderful to work with in the role, in part because he moves so beautifully.”  


Aronofsky says of Winona Ryder, “Winona was fantastic for the role because she is such a superstar herself.  I think the audience will really connect to her as the famous prima ballerina who is being pushed out as Nina steps in to replace her.”


Visual Design


“I was excited to shoot a psychological thriller mostly hand-held because I couldn’t think of a time when it had been done before,” says Aronofsky.  “There are sometimes a few scenes in thrillers where you see from the monster’s POV with a hand-held camera, but to do the whole thing hand-held in a documentary style felt unique.”


And then there are the mirrors, which play a major role in the film’s visual architecture.  “In the world of ballet there are mirrors everywhere,” explains Aronofsky.  “Dancers are always looking at themselves, so their relationship with their reflection is a huge part of who they are.  Filmmakers are also fascinated by mirrors, and it’s been played with before, but I wanted to take it to a new level.  Visually, we really pushed that idea of what it means to look in a mirror.  Mirrors become a big part of looking into Nina’s character, which is all about doubles and reflection.”


The task of forging the physical world of BLACK SWAN fell to production designer Thérèse DePrez.  Here, she faced the double challenge of designing both a Manhattan-based psychological thriller and an on-screen production of “Swan Lake” meshing them together in every detail.  “I’ve wanted to work with Thérèse for a long time,” says Aronofsky.  “She created a really big canvas for us on a very tight budget.  She created a world that is not the real world, but feels like it is real, which is a very hard thing to pull off.”  


“From the music, costumes and sets, to the melding of choreography with camerawork, every aspect of shooting the “Swan Lake” scenes was a major learning experience but each paid off,” Aronofsky notes.   “We started out knowing very little about ballet, about how to shoot it and how to get people excited by it, but I think the film really works to connect people to the art form, to make it accessible,” he says.