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Aronofsky Talks the "Nightmare" of Getting 'Black Swan' Made

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood September 15, 2010 at 1:19AM

Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan opened the Venice Film Festival and took the Lido by storm. I talked with the director about the long "nightmare" of getting the script right and financing the film, casting Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassel, shooting in a gritty up-close verite style, and how he set about "creeping out" the audience.
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"Black Swan"
"Black Swan"

Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan opened the Venice Film Festival and took the Lido by storm. I talked with the director about the long "nightmare" of getting the script right and financing the film, casting Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassel, shooting in a gritty up-close verite style, and how he set about "creeping out" the audience.

AT: Do you have a sense of who you made this movie for?

DA: I never do that. For me it's like, "it's got a lot of good scares, and I think a lot of people my age will enjoy it."

AT: I think it's going to play young, and for men too, but women are tricky, just because it's so intense. You're always intense.

Darren Aronofsky
Darren Aronofsky

DA: Should have taken that staple gun out!

AT: No. You gotta do what you gotta do. Everybody wants you to take chances.

DA: It's not about taking chances, it's about making memorable films. You're in the world with so much media, so many distractions, that you gotta give people something that they're not going to forget. That's what we all want, and we go on the roller coaster just to be brought to the brink of insanity and terror. I like to be pushed and I like to push; it's fun.

AT: What took this project so long to get made?

DA: It was really hard. Every time I think it's going to get easier and easier, and every time, no one wants to make these movies. So once again we had no one who wanted to make the movie. I thought having Natalie Portman, a legitimate movie star, having Vincent Cassel, an international movie star and Mila Kunis, who's a big domestic star, and my supporting cast with Barbara [Hershey] and Wynona [Ryder], I didn't think it would be as hard and it was a nightmare.

AT: Didn't [foreign sales agent/financeer] The Wild Bunch come out well on "The Wrestler"

DA: And so did Fox Searchlight, but they both said no.

AT: What was the commercial risk for them? Was the budget too big?

DA: The money on the screen was $13 million (with some back expenses to Universal). It was developed at Phoenix for a while, and then I brought it into Universal, so they owed some money, but it's under $15 million in the end.

AT: Natalie Portman was attached for a long time?

DA: I've been a fan since "The Professional," literally, I love that movie, so I've always known her, and her manager was a year above me in college, so we kind of grew up in the business and she was like, "oh, you gotta meet Natalie," so I met Natalie a long time ago, and I've always liked her and thought about her for stuff. We met in Times Square. She says it's eight years ago (she was a junior in college). We went to the Howard Johnson's and had a coffee. My sister studied ballet as a kid, so I was really interested in it. When I started to think about things for features, I was like, "wow, it would be really interesting with the ballet world, because no one has done anything really serious in that world since "The Red Shoes," unless it's a kind of romantic "Turning Point": you see a dancer spinning and then it cuts to Anne Bancroft and she's at the bar, like sweating. It's a little silly.

AT: How did you pull the dancing off with Portman? Did she do everything? The toe work must have been someone else?

DA: Not everything, but a lot of it. That shot, in the opening prologue when she walks off into the light and she's flapping her wings, and she's on point, that is 100%, untouched, no digital Natalie Portman. When the camera pulls out on her and she's on top of the ramp and she's bleeding, and she's on point, right before she jumps--that is Natalie Portman on point. She was able to, she got up on point, she was doing pirouettes, you know, it was amazing. There are wide shots in the film where we did use a replacement, but that's because physically the body is transformed when you start dancing at four, your turnout - that you can't recreate.

AT: But she did study ballet?

DA: I think only till thirteen and now it's just a hobby. Two months out I was really nervous. I was like, "Oh, my gosh." Then something clicked. She became---the grace appeared, the struggle disappeared. All the shots when we're with her - that's her, there's no other way to do that otherwise.

AT: So it turns out Vincent Cassel also studied ballet. How did you come up with him?

DA: I've been a fan of Cassel since "La Haine," Kassovitz's film. He's got so much charisma, he's so unique looking and so sexy and so powerful and so dangerous. There's just so much going on with him. I didn't know that [Jean-Pierre Cassel] was the Fred Astaire of France until he showed me some footage of his father. I had heard that [Vincent] moved very well, he had done some martial arts so I knew that he was into athletics and sport; that was good. Originally the role was written for a Russian, but ballet is very international; we were always trying to make it an international cast. One of my producer partners on the film, Ari Handel, said, "what about Vincent Cassel?" and I was like, "oh, yeah, duh!" It made perfect sense. We met in London and it was done.

AT: So back to the development process…the writing of the script came when?

This article is related to: Directors, Festivals, Genres, Headliners, Studios, Darren Aronofsky, Toronto, Thriller, Natalie Portman, Fox Searchlight


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.