Darren Aronofsky Delivers His Ten Commandments of Indie Filmmaking
The visionary director's SXSW keynote was a wide-ranging masterclass on the art of making movies, pushing filmmakers to bring their unique visions to the screen.
During his first trip to SXSW, filmmaker Darren Aronofsky delivered a wide-ranging keynote that centered around his "10 Commandments of Indie Filmmaking," which, though its title may be tongue-in-cheek, was both passionate and informative, complete with lessons from his career, thoughts on the role of a director, working with actors, and more. Check out the mother! director's thoughts on everything from directing actors to camera placement, the importance of preparation, as well as the role of art in a chaotic time.
1. Make the film only you can make
Right off the bat, the director made clear that these were interesting days to be a filmmaker. "In this moment, when people are demanding all different types of voices, it goes back to why are you doing this. And, for me it was always like I want to tell my stories." He professed most people admire stories that "only exist because that filmmaker made them," and rattled off a list of names: "Kubrick, Fellini, Gilliam, PTA, Quentin, Kurosawa...You would not have seen the movies they made come out with any other filmmaker. That's really all you have to offer. You can't figure out...what people want to see, and what people want to know...as an independent filmmaker, it's that original voice that's our main gift."
2. Persistence is 9/10 of the game
Aronofsky related how, while working on The Fountain, which took six years to make ("that movie could be a keynote itself"), he was on a date at a bar, when he got a phone call informing him that his budget had been cut in half. "I started crying," he said. But, he regrouped, rewrote the script, made it cheaper, figuring out, he says, another way to make it work. When he was trying to put together The Wrestler with Mickey Rourke (who would go on to be nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards), the actor was still somewhat radioactive and "people said, 'We love the script, but Mickey hurts you.' And I said, 'The only way we're doing this film is with Mickey.'" Then, while trying to put together Black Swan with Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, and Vincent Cassell already on board, the writer/director was told, "Horror fans don't like ballet and ballet fans don't like horror." The point is, there are always going to be challenges, no matter what level you're at.
3. Work with family
He stressed the importance of unity and a feeling of family on set that extended from the P.A.s to the stars. "It's not how you treat the people you know, it's how you treat the people you don't know." He related that he's worked with some (unnamed) difficult actors, and said that rather than trying to play head games in order to get the performances he wants, he finds it far more effective to be "a friend of the actor. It's always, 'Hey, let's try something that's never been done before. Let's try to push ourselves and each other and do stuff that we'll be proud of and the only way to do that is as a family.'" He stressed that, especially as beginning filmmaker, it's crucial to seek this feeling of family, because there will be moments when you're tested, and it's far better at those times to have a tight knit team when they arise.
4. Do your homework, so you can be open on set
Because time is so limited on a set, Aronofsky is in favor of massive preparation, like the preproduction for mother!, which saw Aronofsky rent a warehouse in Brooklyn and do three months of rehearsals with Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem. "We taped out the entire house, and we went through page by page, line by line, figuring out everything. There were no walls, it was just tape on the floor, it was like Dogville." At the end of this process, the rest of the main cast joined them along with a small crew and they shot everything on video as they'd blocked it out. "There were only three shots in the entire film, the camera over Jennifer's shoulder, or on her face, and in general it went back and forth, or we had her POV. We had to figure out exactly where we're going to do this transition, where you're going to turn around. We cut it together and had a two-hour version without walls, without makeup, costumes, hair."
But he also stressed the importance of procrastination, as in, "If you're working on a project and you're really passionate and you run into a wall, go to a museum, take a walk. Your brain is still working; there's parts of your brain that's figuring it out. I used to be hard on myself...that's time I regret, because I could have just relaxed into it and allowed it to pour over me."
5. Adapt to reality
"Make your limitations into advantages." During the shooting of Pi, Aronofsky decided to film in black and white because, even though it was more expensive than color (even then, there were few labs that processed 16mm black and white stock). The reason? They didn't have the money to "create a color palette," and not having enough control of the image would have meant no control over the mood, and Pi is all mood. "We went even further, because Matty ended up shooting reversal [a non-negative stock with far less latitude], so if he didn't hit the exposure exactly right, things would go either too white or completely black. We put all these difficulties against us, knowing we had to the deal with the limitations."
"The job between action and cut is to be the audience."
Plus, doing your homework helps you figure out where to put the camera, and according to Aronofsky, "there's only one place where the camera should be in every scene, and it's your job as the filmmaker to figure out where that is." He professes not to understand how filmmakers can work with multiple cameras, and says every movie he's done has been with one camera only, since "the focus has to be on making one shot work. It's not just about the performance that's happening in front of you, it's, 'how is the camera helping to tell the story?'"
6. Don’t be afraid of your actors
While the technical side of filmmaking came relatively easily to him, he confessed that at the start of his career, "I had no idea what was going on with actors." He says that actors want to go to emotional places, and so as a director, his main job is to "create an environment where they feel safe....You want actors to be in a sandbox where they can create, and fall, and make mistakes, and they feel that they can trust you and I guess that's a hard thing to do as a first time filmmaker....That's your job. Get that trust, and honor that trust. If you're going to make an actor look bad, you need to let them know. If you think they might be embarrassed....as long as there's honesty and truth, that's the main relationship."
At the start of his career, he admitted that it was intimidating to work with actors, especially legends like Ellen Burstyn. He recounted that during pre-production for Requiem for a Dream, he took a day trip with the actress to Coney Island (where the majority of the film takes place). "I had a point and shoot camera with me, and I was nervous. I was afraid to ask if I could take her picture."
7. Where is my audience?
"You always have to think about your audience. We are not making films for ourselves, we are making films for, hopefully, mass audiences. The job between action and cut is to be the audience." That is, the job is to be present, to see what's happening in front of you and "looking deep into the emotion. Of course, in the back of your head, there's technical stuff, but...you're really trying to feel if it's truthful, and thinking how it helps to tell the story. That's your job as caretaker of the film." On every film, he said, the idea was to make sure that every take and individual decision "are all adding up to this one thematic idea. Does this make sense?"
The same thing happens in the editing room, though at that point, it's hardest to see the footage "with a fresh pair of eyes. I am an audience member, seeing this for the first time." It's easy to lose perspective, though it's crucial, especially when doing "something crazy," to lead the audience "by the hand, through the story." He cited mother!, where the audience meets Jennifer Lawrence, a "woman deeply in love, and as things get worse and worse, and eventually just go batshit, as an example of making sure that everything is clear and comprehensible.
8. Commit to the vision
"It gets really, really hard when you commit to a vision," even though it's crucial to "see it through to the end." Aronofsky discussed the rough roll-out of Noah, when the studio tested the film "in the middle of the country...the evangelicals weren't going for it." Under pressure to do a recut, he said that "a nice thing about being a filmmaker who does things their own way....[is] you can't really be recut. If you put seven cameras on a scene, there's lots of options, but if you're sculpting each shot, if they're being sculpted to fit into a whole," then there's not much outside forces can do. Still, the studio tried to take his 225 minutes and cut it to 85 (it fared even worse, and he eventually got his way.)
"Certain films can't be tested. You have to let audiences have a chance to find things."
"Certain films can't be tested. You have to let audiences have a chance to find things." Even though spending so much time fighting for a movie can cost something in the way of vision, Aronofsky said that he was proud that "every film I've done is my movie. Every cut, I've decided myself to do them."
9. Let your child go
In a similar vein, you have to learn to let go. Paraphrasing the famous quote, he said, "You never finish a film, you abandon a film," but that it varied from movie to movie as to the degree to which he wanted to keep tinkering. On The Fountain, he admits that he "got lost and tied up with the thematics. The theme of the film is to let things go, and to finish it....and I couldn't." But eventually, he put the work aside because "if you go back to it, you're taking time you should be spending on a new piece which has more potential."
10. Give a shit
It's no secret that Darren Aronofsky is outspoken when it comes to the environmental themes of some of his films, and he told the audience that today, "Art is about disruption....You have no excuse to make empty films. It doesn't have to have a political objective, although that's great, but it has to be honest and human. Making something deeply human is what it's all about. Don't worry about being preachy or overearnest. I'll always beat you there. Focus on human love, not human violence. Never stick a gun in a movie star's hand....Fuck the naysayers, and try to change the world."
At the end of this edifying hour of discussion, the filmmaker quoted "his hero," Neil deGrasse Tyson (Aronofsky is set to appear on an upcoming episode of the astrophysicist's podcast): "'Creativity that satisfies and affirms your worldview is entertainment. Creativity that challenges and disrupts your worldview is art.'" Then, the filmmaker concluded his talk at SXSW with his own words: "So go be artists, please. And entertain us as well."