The Requiem for a Dream director isn't afraid to get real when giving advice to prospective filmmakers in a masterclass.
In 2015, the Odessa International Film Festival held an hour-long masterclass with Darren Aronofsky. His resume is now filled with a plethora of unique, personal, and often haunting stories, but, as he explains in the masterclass, it took substantial work as well as a lifetime of sticking to his creative intuitions to get there.
"I was playing around with film and visual storytelling for 10 years before I made my first feature."
We face a tough and ever-changing industry and Aronofsky wasn't afraid to shy away from answering the Ukranian audience's questions with some harsh realities. Watch the video for the full session and read what we consider some of the most important takeaways below.
1. Poor financing is not an excuse
"Honestly, if I was making a film now, and I had the limited resources I had when I made Pi, I would be making a film on my cellphone camera," Aronofsky said. "The difficulty of telling stories on film is no longer a financial problem. When we made Pi, shooting on video was nowhere near the quality of what it is now. There are no excuses anymore. You have the power now. So the question then becomes: now that you have that technology and that power, what are you going to do with it?"
2. Focus on stories that only you can tell...
"Why we’re doing this is to tell stories," Aronofsky said. "You can go the Hollywood way and tell big stupid stories, or you can remember that you are in a corner of the world that hasn’t shared so many stories, and you can find a story that is true to your heart and true to your soul that is very personal."
"Every story is personal and every character has reflections of myself, but in the same way that every character has reflections, hopefully, of everybody. "
"For me the big litmus test is: will my friends in Brooklyn think this is cool? What is the story that makes you you? What is the story that only you can tell? It's about figuring out how to entertain people with a story and that can be the smallest things. Filmmaking can take you into the mind of a six-year-old girl from Iran or a 75-year-old man from Canada, and that’s the great beauty of what we do."
3. ...But be prepared not to make any money
"The reality is that if you tell personal stories, you don’t make a lot of money, unless you’re very, very, very, very, lucky and happen to have taste that connects with lots of people," Aronofsky cautioned.
4. Characters should be built from the realm of the personal
"Every story is personal and every character has reflections of myself, but in the same way that every character has reflections, hopefully, of everybody," Aronofsky said. "You can only understand a character if you make them human, and making them human is making them feel the same emotion we all feel, all over the planet, no matter where we’re from."
5. ...As well as the realm of the ordinary
"It’s about finding those ordinary people who you think are ordinary, and really looking closely at their lives to find that they’re actually extraordinary," Aronofsky added regarding characters. "Everyone's story is extraordinary, it's just if you decide to put a lens on it and focus on it. I think it's about finding people that do unique things and then just really figuring out what makes them tick."
"Finding a universal character is just finding a character that is truthful and honest."
6. Most importantly, make your characters relatable
"Anyone is relatable, so what was interesting was taking two very strange people—a ballerina and a wrestler—and trying to prove that point," Aronofsky said. "Wrestling is such a bizarre activity and in America it is considered the lowest art in the world. I mean, most people wouldn’t even consider it art. And then you have ballet, which is incredibly unique in its own way; most people don’t understand what it is. How do you make that relate to an audience as well? They were both relatable because you understood the passion and the desire and the ambition of the characters to make their art, which is something that all people can feel—the desire to do something well. So finding a universal character is just finding a character that is truthful and honest."
7. When choosing a camera, think long-term
"You have to think about the look of the final product and think about how that becomes part of the story," Aronofsky said. "We’re not just storytellers—we’re visual storytellers, so you have to think about the look of the film and how that helps to tell the story."
8. Don't limit the sources of your inspiration
"You want to use anything that inspires you," Aronofsky advised. "It doesn’t have to be just filmmakers. It can be musicians, it can be artists, it can be photographers. As a storyteller, you want to expose yourself to every type of art that you possibly can. That's our job, to experience as much as possible and then figure out a way to use it and adapt it to tell the story you’re telling."
9. As a director, you're just as responsible for an actor's performance as the actor is
"The most important thing between actor and director is trust," Aronofsky revealed. "It's not about confidence alone. It’s about having a comfortable relationship with an actor where you both realize that you’re just trying to do the best possible work."
"It’s about understanding what every scene is about," he continued. "It’s about reading the script a lot and understanding every moment what the scene is about, because not only does that control what the actor should be doing, it also tells you where to put the camera, because if you know what the scene is about you know where the camera’s supposed to be."
"I think before you actually go out and raise a lot of money for a feature film you should spend a lot of time and practice."
10. Make time to find the grammar and language of your film
"Every movie that is well made has a film grammar," Aronofsky said. "You need to figure out a language that tells the story the best possible way. But you’re also restricted by budget, so you have to try to figure out all these different tools you have and how you can create a language that’s best for the movie."
"Pi is a good example," he continued. "We had very limited resources, so I started off with knowing I had one friend who was not really an actor—he was an actor in college, but I thought he was an interesting-looking guy, and I thought, 'Okay, I trust this guy, and I know he is going to be here every day. So I’m going to figure out a movie where he’s the main character because I know I can count on him.' And then as I started to develop it, I realized that it would be really interesting to try to tell a story purely from his point of view. Meaning that if he was not in the scene, we could not show that scene. So for instance, I was not interested in cutting to the bad guys plotting to take over the world I just wanted to see how that impacted him.
"So that influenced the way we wrote the script. But it also influenced the way we shot it, because I wanted to really push the audience into his mind as much as possible. We started to come up with a language of subjective filmmaking where when he was having headaches and he would freak out we would used these different cameras I talked about, the heat camera and the vibration camera, to give a sense to the audience what it felt like to feel that type of pain."
"With Pi, we decided that since it’s Max’s story, we are only going to shoot over his shoulder, because we are telling the story from his POV. So we moved the camera more over, so if they look right into the lens, it’s almost comedic, and you use that for comedy effects because they’re looking right at the audience; we would make the person almost look just into the lens, but just off. And then when we shot Max for the opposite of that, we would move the camera into a profile or a 3/4, so you’re looking at Max, and he’s more like an object, while that person is more of the subject to him. And that became our language for the movie, and we just used it for the entire film."
11. Filmmaking is like telling a joke
"The best book to read for screenwriting is Christopher Vogler’s The Writer's Journey," Aronofsky said. "He talks about the structure of western storytelling. It’s similar to how you tell a joke, which I think is something that’s very universal. Usually, with a joke you set something up, you set it up a second time, and then the third time you put a little twist on it. I think that works with languages and cultures around the planet."
"The same thing applies to stories: there’s a way of defining a hero, giving him or her a bit of a problem and then testing them so that they get to a certain place. It’s a very ancient structure. I can’t say if it's something that we’re born with or something that we’re taught very young, but it's something that all people on the planet seem to react to."
12. Make as many shorts as you can
"Short films are a different art form," Aronofsky said. "Making a great short is very different than making a feature, but you do learn a lot. Every time you’re on set you learn something, but a short film is kind of like a joke. It starts off with a set-up. You set it up and then you pay it off. A feature has three acts, so you have a much longer time to tell a different structure, but short films are a great way to practice and a great way to get started. But once again, you can make a short film on your iPhone, so you should be out making as many as you can. It's a great way to sort of see what connects with audiences and what doesn’t connect with audiences."
"You have to make mistakes to succeed. If you’re willing to take the risk to make a movie, that’s probably a mistake. I think making any movie is sort of a mistake."
"If you’re actually going to go out and raise money, however, there aren’t that many places to exhibit short films," Aronosfky continued. "It's still a world where a successful feature film has a lot more places to go than a successful short film. I think before you actually go out and raise a lot of money for a feature film, you should spend a lot of time and practice. I was playing around with film and visual storytelling for 10 years before I made my first feature."
13. Kill your darlings!
"I have a saying: 'The film isn’t done until you cut your favorite shot,'" said Aronofsky. "Usually, it's your favorite shot for the wrong reason. Either it's your favorite shot because it's so much more beautiful than every other shot in the movie—so it's so beautiful that it makes every other image look crappy—or you remember how much pain you went through to get that shot."
"You have to be completely open to losing everything in the edit room. The main thing to remember in the edit room is to constantly think about your audience. My mentor would always say he had a sign on his desk that said, 'Where is my audience now?” That's what you should be thinking about. You’re not thinking about your own ego."
"You are an entertainer. You want people to be engaged with what you’re doing. You never want to bore an audience. You want the audience to constantly be connected to what's going on or wondering what's going on or scared or laughing or crying. It’s all about that, being honest with yourself if this is working or not."
14. Your biggest mistake as a director was probably making the movie itself
"You have to make mistakes to succeed," Aronofsky said. "If you’re willing to take the risk to make a movie, that’s probably a mistake. I think making any movie is sort of a mistake."
"When you start off with an idea, you get so excited by it that it actually makes you kind of naive and stupid, and you think you can do it. But then when you finish a film and you look back on how many issues you had to deal with, it’s just endless."