As he’s quick to admit, the Jefferson Hotel lounge is not Darren Aronofsky’s kind of place. Baroque music plays discreetly in the background as the Coney Island-bred filmmaker sips coffee and discusses his love of comic books and hiphop. Aronofsky slightly resembles actor Michael Rapaport, and in striped pants, blue-and-green-striped shoes, and a black sweater whose V-neck provides an occasional glimpse of a white undershirt, he looks more streetwise than book-smart. If the 29-year-old director were 10 years older, you might mistake him for a former member of 3rd Bass.
Aronofsky, however, is the Harvard-educated director of pi, a philosophical thriller that is already a financial success. Made for a mere $60,000, the movie was sold to a distributor at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for $1 million. Aronofsky and his partners promised their backers, mostly friends and family, that they’d pay them $150 for each $100 invested, and they’ve already made good on the vow.
“We just wanted to do the film by all means necessary,” says the filmmaker, naturally using a Malcolm X paraphrase that was popular with ’80s rappers.
pi is about a reclusive computer genius named Max Cohen, played by Aronofsky’s longtime friend Sean Gullette, who’s trying to discover a mathematical formula that describes the universe’s inner order. His efforts are of particular interest to a Wall Street investment firm and to a group of scholars of the Kabbalah, arcane Jewish mysticism. The film draws on Pythagoras, Buddhism, underground comics, and cyberpunk, but the director has a simpler description. “It’s God, man, and badass Jews,” he chuckles.
Aronofsky met Gullette at Harvard, and then went to Los Angeles to study at the American Film Institute, where he spent “three years too long.”
L.A. is “not that righteous of a place,” the filmmaker says. “It’s not that inspirational. But I learned a lot from L.A. It’s good to be depressed for some point in your life,” he laughs. “It teaches you about the depths of your soul. I had always been very positive and driven and happy. It wasn’t till I got to L.A. that I breached the darkness inside me.
“L.A. is a very noir town,” he adds. “In many ways, I think it’s more noir than Giuliani’s New York. More apocalyptic. Sicker things happen.”
Apocalypse was certainly on Aronofsky’s mind when he wrote pi. “I just thought having the mathematician trying to hack into the stock market was kind of a catchy idea,” he says. “And then the more research I did, I realized that I didn’t come up with the idea. Or that my fiction was totally real. There are so many mathematicians out there who are trying to unlock the secrets behind the stock market.”
The director is equally convinced he’s onto something with the film’s Kabbalah subplot. “My Hasidic connections in New York hooked me up with some of the leading Kabbalah scholars in the world,” he reports with serene self-importance. “I think it’s really cool stuff. I saw some things that I can’t even explain. It blew my mind. I tried to share some of those secrets on film, but I only touched the tip of the iceberg. As far as the Kabbalah stuff, everything in the film is real. It’s all true.”
Aronofsky isn’t entirely sure that Kabbalah scholars will be pleased to have their specialty turn up in a low-budget thriller. Knowledge of the hermetic studies, he admits, “hasn’t become public, but I don’t think they have a problem with sharing it. I’m hoping I don’t turn into a Salman Rushdie.”
The look of the film is easily as striking as its range of philosophical, religious, and mathematical notions. “The goal was to make a fully subjective movie,” the director explains. “We wanted pi to be a 90-minute roller-coaster ride into the mind of a genius renegade mathematician. So we created all these rules. So, for instance, we never cut away to bad guys plotting to take over the world; you’re always with Max. We would shoot over Max’s shoulder. But we would never shoot over another character’s shoulder, because you would be in the other character’s head.”
Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Labatique used a “heat-cam” that created ripples on film, a “vibrator-cam” that shook the image, and a “Snorricam”, a rig invented by two Icelandic brothers named Snorri, that strapped to Gullette’s body. “Those were the shots when he was running through the subway and he’s in the center of the shot and the background is moving around all wild. The idea was to show Max separated from his world. To add to the subjectivity.”
pi was shot on high-contrast stock, Aronofsky explains, because “We didn’t want to make a black-and-white movie; we wanted to make a black or white movie. We didn’t want all the grays. We wanted to make a highly stylized film. We were inspired by Frank Miller’s [film noir-inspired comic book] Sin City.”
In interviews, Aronofsky has often credited the influence of Miller and of comic-book writer Alan Moore, whose The Watchmen he says is “awesome. It will change your life.” He’s talked less, however, about what seems the most direct precursor to his film, Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto’s 1988 flesh-and-metal freakout, Tetsuo: The Iron Man.
“I’m a huge Tsukamoto fan,” the director admits. “I owe a lot to him for this film. I think he’s the first real cyberpunk. I saw [Tsukamoto’s] Tokyo Fist at Sundance three years ago, and that’s what inspired me to make a cyberpunk movie in America. He’s just outstanding. I think the difference between me and him, though, is that he’s more impressionistic. I’m much more into narrative. Tsukamoto’s films are amazing, but a lot of people can’t watch them because they don’t have a story.”
Adding to the cyberpunk feel is the score by former Pop Will Eat Itself member Clint Mansell. “He’s always wanted to do a soundtrack,” says Aronofsky, who notes that Mansell was selected by producer Eric Watson, who knows electronic music well. “I was a little nervous at first, but then I realized that the smooth electronic music actually worked as a great contrast to the grainy feel of the black-and-white film. And then as I started to meet these electronic musicians I realized that they were just Max Cohens. They’re all recluses who hang in tiny dingy rooms with a bunch of computers, creating their beats.”
pi’s Max Cohen is not just a recluse, however. He’s a tormented loner whose throbbing headaches are depicted on screen with horror-movie intensity. “At first he was an insomniac, and it sort of evolved into migraines,” recalls Aronofsky. “[A] lot of people who walk the line between genius and madness suffer from physical ailments that are usually psychological in origin. A lot of geniuses over history have suffered from headaches. Newton suffered from headaches; Jesus Christ suffered from headaches.
“When I started doing research into migraines,” he continues, “I just couldn’t believe the extent. Then I got a book by artists who are migraine sufferers, drawing their attacks. The similarities between those images and the images I was planning to shoot were so remarkably similar. There were images of God’s hand reaching into a brain and pulling it out, drills going through heads. The greatest compliment I received from the film is when migraine sufferers come up to me after [a screening] and say, ‘Thank you. No one ever believed me. Now I can show them the film and say, ‘This is what it’s like.’”
Some might say that the message of Aronofsky’s cerebral thriller is that peace comes only to those who abandon their intellectual pursuits. “That’s a pretty harsh analysis,” the filmmaker responds, “but I have heard that. Sean, the actor, is totally on [that] side. For me, though, [Max’s] quest was destroying him. And the point of the film is that the beauty of life is in the chaos that is now, and not to be constantly looking for this unifying order. Because when we die we’ll all find that. But for some reason we’re here for a short amount of time, and there’s a lot of life to appreciate. That’s the peace Max finds. You could argue that it’s an anti-intellectual film, but it’s definitely pro-existence. So there’s a balance.”
He chuckles. “Did that make any sense, or what?” —Mark Jenkins