My interview with Darren Aronofsky for The Wrestler proved something of a benchmark because Aronofsky claims the honor of being the first director I've interviewed twice, indicating—I guess—that I have lasted long enough to achieve such a benchmark and that I might stick around for a while to keep conversing with the makers and shapers of my favorite films. The Wrestler was indeed one of my favorite films of 2008. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice International, and has been nominated for three Golden Globes: Mickey Rourke for Best Actor, Marisa Tomei for Best Supporting Actress, and Bruce Springsteen for Best Original Song. The San Francisco Film Critics Circle likewise awarded Rourke Best Actor (in a tie with Sean Penn for Milk). We met in Aronofsky's suite at the Ritz Carlton to discuss the film that has almost singlehandedly resuscitated Mickey Rourke's career. Limping from a rock climbing accident outside of Phoenix, Aronofsky was otherwise in great spirits.
Michael Guillén: Where to start? I guess we need to start with Mickey Rourke's performance, which is not only great but tempered by sheer grace. You don't often see an actor so emotionally naked. Can you talk about casting him and steering him to that performance?
Darren Aronofsky: Well, it was a very hard role to cast, as you can imagine. Now, in retrospect, it's completely obvious when things match up, as they often do; but, it was a very long path. I can't actually remember the light bulb moment. I do know that I was a big fan since I saw him in Angel Heart. I was 18, backpacking around Europe, and in Paris where I went in to see the film and it just blew me away. Since then I've been a big fan. Then like everyone else I've been wondering, "What happened?" It made me sad that he had turned into this joke. But I was always interested whenever he showed up. When the role came up and we started thinking about names, it was hard because—not only did I need someone who was emotionally surprising, original, and had enough depth to do everything: the humor as well as the tragedy—I needed someone who could do the physicality. I remember being originally concerned about the physicality because normally he's about 190. He's a big guy but he's not huge like a wrestler so I was wondering if he could do it. It turns out Mickey's dad Philip Andre Rourke, Sr. was a Mr. New York, a body builder back in the days, so Mickey grew up within the bodybuilding culture. So he was excited to do this. It ended up being six months of lifting to put on 35 pounds of muscle.
The thing with Mickey is that he's lazy. I think that's because he's one of those kids in school that could just coast through without doing any work, getting B+s and driving you crazy. That's Mickey! He could easily put up his feet in any movie and I think that's what he often does—he just coasts through—so my major job became to challenge him and dare him to do better and to do his best work. Working with him became about pushing him to go deeper and deeper because he's got an infinite well of possibility that he can summon up.
Guillén: How does it feel for you knowing that you have revived his career through giving him this opportunity?
Aronofsky: It's great! I kind of had that experience with Ellen Burstyn in Requiem For A Dream—not that I really revived her career; but, the role opened her up to new opportunities—it's a great thing to do. It's a fun exercise to find these unused talents. It's also exciting to find out how many closeted Mickey Rourke fans there are. That's been way beyond my expectations because, literally, just three months ago he was a joke. He'll say it himself. He called me a week after we won the Golden Lion in Venice and said, "What have you done? A week ago I couldn't get a ham sandwich; now there's paparazzi outside my door!" So it's been great to see all these different people who remember how great he once was and excited to see him do good work again.
Guillén: His performance in The Wrestler aligns with a true comeback mythos.
Aronofsky: He's been trying to "comeback" for a while, doing the jobs he's been doing for the last eight-nine years or so; but, I think he's finally found his groove. He's got a team around him that's supportive. The other day it was emotional, I was in Miami and Mickey sent his sister to the screening—who I had never met—and she came up to me afterwards and said, "Thank you for giving my brother his life back." My Mom lives down in South Florida and she was at the screening too, overheard Mickey's sister, and started crying. I almost started crying too. It was very emotional. I don't think I gave Mickey his life back—ultimately Mickey did the work to get there—but, I helped. I gave him a shot. But it was hard, I'll tell you. Every single financier on the planet—except for the one who paid for the film, and paid much too little for it—said no and the reason they said no was for one reason: because of Mickey. Period. I've said this to Mickey. It's not offensive to him. But every single investor said, "Mickey Rourke can't be sympathetic. He can't hold the picture." I was like, "You're wrong." [Laughs.] So we just kept at it and it took us a year and a half until we found someone who was crazy enough in that finance world to take a risk.
Guillén: Can you talk about where the story came from?
Aronofsky: It was an idea first and the idea was to do something set in the wrestling world because in the observation that (a) no one has done it and (b) the more I looked into it, the more I realized that it wasn't just a joke. When you meet wrestlers who used to sell out stadiums of 50,000 people who are now working for $200 a night, there's something dramatic there right away. I met a lot of these legends who I knew as a kid who were completely accessible and beaten down. It was a long trip. When I first started thinking about doing a wrestling picture, I thought it would be about a wrestler in their late twenties, early thirties, but then it quickly became clear that approach would mean they would be in the WWE and getting the creative freedom we needed to work in that arena probably wouldn't happen. Then we thought about making a period piece before Vince McMahon organized all the different territories that used to be fractured and brought them all together; but, then we realized we were low budget and couldn't afford that. Then I started going to these independent shows because I knew I could get into that world—it wasn't controlled or anything—and that's where I started to see these legends and that triggered the realization: "Something dramatic is going on here. What's the story?" I started talking to those guys and hearing their stories and, unfortunately, the more I talked to them, the more I detected these similar threads in their lives, of these guys who were on the road for 350 days of the year back in their glory days, who basically just left shambles of their home life in exchange for fame. Basically they were left out as trash once they got past whatever prime is defined by mainstream wrestling. So we put the story together brick by brick.
Guillén: Returning to your casting, clearly Mickey is great, clearly Marisa is great, but I was equally impressed with all of the small roles in the film. I was really taken by your use of Bryan Anderson.
Aronofsky: Who's Bryan Anderson?
Guillén: Bryan Anderson is the fellow who offers his prosthetic leg to Randy the Ram.
Aronofsky: Oh, the kid, yes. How did you know his name?
Guillén: I'd read articles about his rehabilitation from the Iraq War in Esquire Magazine and his dreams of being a stunt man and I was so impressed that you used him in the film.
Aronofsky: I didn't cast him actually. Douglas Crosby, the stunt man brought him in. The stunt man's an amazing guy who likes to give opportunities to kids that have gotten the short end of the stick, like Bryan. Bryan and Doug were like, "Hey, instead of using the folding chair, why don't you use my leg?" I asked, "Is it going to break?" Bryan answered, "Well, it's made out of this space age material that you can't crack. You can hit it as hard as you want and it won't break." So I went, "Mickey, what do you think?" and Mickey said, "Yeah, let's go for it." The crowd came alive chanting, "Use his leg! Use his leg!" It was just great. We realized right then that it made Randy the Ram a people's hero. But it was almost improvised. I mean, we had discussed it before we started shooting but we basically didn't know what was going to happen with that crowd until it happened; it came alive.
Guillén: And also Todd Barry, the stand-up comic.
Aronofsky: Todd's great! I'm an old fan. I'm a little bit in that scene. I knew a lot of those comedians in the underground New York scene. I always want to use them. Also, the writer Rob Siegel was the editor of The Onion for seven years and also knows a lot of those guys so he said, "Hey, let's write something for Todd." We wrote that role especially for Todd.
Guillén: You alluded when you were talking about writing the script that you knew some of these wrestling legends. Were you a lifelong wrestling fan? Were you a high school wrestler?
Aronofsky: No, no, no. I'm not really a big wrestling fan. I think a lot of guys my age had an eight-month love affair with the sport, y'know? Probably mine was that long, if not shorter. It was before Hulkamania so it was before it became such a cultural phenomena. When I was watching, it was more like something on local TV. But the film doesn't come out of that. It comes out of the fact that wrestling is such a cultural phenomenon but no one has ever dealt with it in a serious way. It just hasn't been, which is strange; but, I think it's because most people think it's a joke. They think it's fake so they think it's a joke and write it off. But the reality is, you look at these guys and they're all dropping dead at 30, 40 years old and the question is "Why?" Where is this drama coming from? The Wrestler is just the tip of the iceberg of the stories that are in this world. I don't know if you know about the Von Erichs? It's an amazing story about three brothers from a wrestling dynasty that all died.
Guillén: I mentioned to Marisa when I was talking with her that I appreciated how you psychologize physicality in your films. You could have had a lot of mimicry and posturing going on to simulate the wrestling world; but, instead, you've created characters that audiences truly care for. I'm also intrigued with the parallel structure you set up narratively between the lives (and bodies) of Randy the Ram and Cassidy. Can you talk a bit about how you set up that parallel narrative structure?
Aronofsky: It just sort of came out in the development process. We just stumbled on it. The reason we originally came up with the idea of the stripper was because in reality when these wrestlers are done wrestling that's what they do. They go to the strip club. Then the more we looked at the life of a stripper, we realized they too have this line between fantasy and reality. Their jobs take them into a world of eroticism, which is similar to the world of super-heroism that Mickey's character enters. They both go into this fantasy world where they dress up wearing almost nothing; they both have fake names; they both wear spandex; they both use their bodies as their art; and they're both endangered by time and aging. Eventually they're both threatened to be put out to pasture as they get older. So that parallel structure you're noting emerged as we kept developing the characters.
Guillén: And you seem to have a thematic preoccupation with redemption from ruin. What's that about?
Aronofsky: Right, redemption from ruin. There's no redemption in Requiem of a Dream. [Laughs.] It's just ruin. I don't know where it comes from. I don't see a shrink….
Guillén: You make films instead?
Aronofsky: Yeah, that's my way to tap it. I don't know where it comes from.
Aronofsky: That's true too. Mickey and Axl actually happen to be great old friends. Surprise surprise! It was a lot of fun. The writer Rob Siegel has a lot of skills and one of his skills happens to be an incredible knowledge of music, including "hair music." In the script he wrote in all these songs that were funny but they often were big hits that we couldn't afford. So then we went to the next tier of hair music, which actually made it somehow more authentic, because those smaller hits of random bands, one hit wonders, have an even cheesier feel to them because they never crossed over. It was a lot of fun for me educating myself on hair music because I knew none of it. I really got into it. I listened to a lot of it. It was fun listening to the lyrics. Basically I discovered that every lyric of every hair music could fit anywhere in the film. The Randy the Ram story is sort of a hair music song. The story of Randy the Ram is totally about, "I'm going to do it for the money. Forget my other life, I'm on the road." Those are all the themes that are there so it was the perfect music for the film.
With "Sweet Child o' Mine", what happened was we were doing the scene in the bar. Mickey was miserable because he hates hair music. He loves Guns and Roses but he hates a lot of hair music. I was like, "Mickey, these are the only songs we can use." There were like three or four songs that we could afford because it costs more money if the actors sing along. I told him, "These are the only three or four songs that we can afford. You have to choose one." He kept putting it off and putting it off and putting it off. He said, "Why can't we get 'Sweet Child o' Mine'?" I was like, "Go ahead, get in touch with Axl and try; but, the last time Axl gave a song to which anyone could sing along, it cost a million and a half dollars." So as the day got closer and closer, it became a possibility because Mickey kept bothering Axl and begging Axl, "Please, let me have it." But you know you have to get the sign-off from everyone in Guns and Roses. But Mickey's friends with all of them, he knows all of them. The day for shooting comes and we don't have the rights. Mickey said, "Just shoot it. I'll get you the rights." I said, "I can't, man. We'll just have to do 'Round the Round.' " So I got him to do "Round the Round." We got halfway through the day and then Axl called and said, "You can have 'Sweet Child o' Mine'." I was like, "Oh gosh, should we go tell Mickey that we got the song? Or just keep going because we can't reshoot?" Because we were on such a low budget that we couldn't go back and reshoot. Axl ended up calling Mickey and telling Mickey and Mickey agreed with me in the end that any of us, anyone, when "Sweet Child o' Mine" comes on could sing along with "Sweet Child o' Mine." It makes them more of a very unique subset that they're both singing to "Round the Round." In the end, creatively, I liked it the best; but, now that we had the rights to "Sweet Child o' Mine", I was like, "Oh great, we'll use it for the final entrance because it's such an important song for us on the film." Mickey used to come out to that when he was a boxer. Whenever he'd do anything athletic in the film, he'd be like, "Put up 'Sweet Child o' Mine' " and we'd blast it so that he was all pumped up when he did his move. For the crew it became our anthem and having it in the film was just a great thing that Axl added. That's why he has that thank you in the end. It's a long story.
Guillén: But a great one! Was it through Mickey also that you secured Bruce Springsteen?
Aronofsky: Yeah, yeah. I had nothing to do with that either. The Boss basically told me that he was doing it because he wanted to help Mickey and he's been hoping Mickey would get an opportunity like this. It turns out he's a big fan of Mickey's. He wanted to help us and he gave us the song for nothing.
Guillén: What I admire in your direction of Mickey is that you got him to offer something different. He's much more restrained and emotionally authentic in his portrayal of Randy the Ram, and not as much a hip poseur as he has been in other films.
Aronofsky: That was a big thing. Probably my greatest conflict with Mickey on this film was the fact that Mickey Rourke doesn't wear any sunglasses through the entire film. [Laughs.] Every day he brought a new pair of sunglasses to the set and I was like, "Mickey, no sunglasses today. People are paying money to look into your eyes. They don't want to look at your face behind mirrored glasses. They want to look into your eyes. That's the gateway. You gotta let 'em in." The thing about Mickey is he's got all this armor on and he's a big guy; but, he's really jelly inside, he's really soft and tender, and that's why he's always wearing sunglasses, is to hide that. He's afraid of the world. He's very afraid.
Guillén: Which really came into play in his scene with Evan Rachel Wood.
Aronofsky: We haven't talked about Evan.
Guillén: I love Evan. She's one of my favorite young actresses. I've loved her since TV.
Aronofsky: What TV show was she on?
Guillén: The role I remember her in was as 12-year-old Jessie Sammler in Once and Again, which I watched religiously for the three or four years it was on.
Aronofsky: She's incredibly talented.
Guillén: How did you pull her into the film?
Aronofsky: It turned out she was a big fan of Requiem. So it was easy to cast her. When they're big fans of Requiem…. She was incredibly well-prepared. It's been great to watch her kick butt. Her up side is infinite as to what she can do if she wants to. She's like a young Meryl Streep. You have no idea what she's going to do. She just turned 21 in Toronto when we screened the film there. She's going to have a big career, if she wants it, if she takes it, if she does it. She can do anything she wants.
Guillén: Speaking of Toronto—where The Wrestler was one of the most difficult press screenings to get into for being so popular—have you been surprised at all by the film's reception?
Aronofsky: I was talking about this last night. We finished The Wrestler two days before the Venice Film Festival; two days before winning the Golden Lion. We finished on a Wednesday, I got to Venice on Thursday, Friday we had our premiere, Saturday they told us we had to stick around for some reason and then we won the Golden Lion. Sunday we left at 5:00AM and sold it that night to Fox Searchlight. So it's been such a roller coaster ride. It's been a lot of lessons. One lesson is—that to make a good film—all you need is an honest performance. Another lesson is you can never ever ever tell. You don't know what's going to come out. It was a hard thing to stick with my gut to go with Mickey because there were a lot of chances to make a lot more money in other situations with other actors; but, it came down to following my instinct. That's my big lesson: if you know it in your gut, you have to follow it.
Guillén: Was it your instinct that led you to scale down from The Fountain to this almost documentary-like feature?
Aronofsky: No, that was Mickey Rourke. There was no money to do it any other way. We just had to move, move, move. It was the only way to do it. I look at these films like—well, I'm not worthy to be compared to Raging Bull, though comparisons have been made—but, if you look at that film, it's just an incredible movie. I don't know if there's a way to make films like that anymore. Every now and then something like There Will Be Blood gets made, a director's given enough time and resources to get through it, but it's really hard when you only have 35 days to make anything as classic as Raging Bull. The Wrestler became about seizing the grunge and our limitations and turning them into our strength. It would be great to have the time and the resources to make a movie the way they used to. Things have gotten so expensive. Something like Raging Bull in today's world would be $60-70,000,000 and to sell it would be another $30,000,000. Raging Bull would be a $100,000,000 movie in today's world.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.