With its bruising mix of bone cracking and blood and an athletic protagonist sacrificing her body for her art, Darren Aronofsky's new psychological horror ballet flick, "Black Swan," has more than a little in common with his last effort, " The Wrestler."
"There's one big difference, though," Aronofsky notes. "I think anyone can become a decent wrestler in three or four months if they're somewhat athletic and willing to hurt themselves. But it takes 20 years to become a dancer. We only had six months — at the outset, anyway."
That six months turned into a year because no studio wanted to make a psychological horror ballet flick. The movie's long road to financing gave lead actress Natalie Portman additional time to train, both a blessing and a curse, given the rigors involved. It also gave Aronofsky extra time to plot a project that he's been thinking about since finishing his M.F.A. in filmmaking from the AFI Conservatory.
Aronofsky initially envisioned "Black Swan" as a modern take on Dostoyevsky's "The Double," in which the main character becomes convinced that someone is replacing her life. At one point, it revolved around an off-Broadway understudy, but after Aronofsky saw "Swan Lake" for the first time, he had a eureka moment.
"It blew my mind when I saw one dancer playing both roles," he says. "It was better than 'The Double' because it had two clearly drawn characters — one innocent and virginal, the other a seductress and possessive."
The movie has aging ballerina Nina (Portman) finally getting her big break — the lead in "Swan Lake." But although she's perfect for the White Swan, the ballet company's manipulative director ( Vincent Cassel) pushes Nina to lose herself and "find her dark impulse" so she can fully inhabit the sensual Black Swan. As she tries to heed his advice, she gradually loses her grip on reality.
Aronofsky, working with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, employed the same gritty, handheld-camera approach he used in "The Wrestler," giving the first third of the movie a documentary feel before pulling the rug out from his audience. Mirrors are everywhere in the ballet world, and though Aronofsky calls mirror gags the "oldest scare in the horror playbook," he couldn't resist trying to add a few new pages to the manual.
"I got off on the idea of doing these shock scares," Aronofsky, 41, says. "We brought in digital ways of erasing the camera so we could have all these impossible shots. We shot through one way mirrors. The challenge was to reinvent a way to scare audiences."
The movie drained everyone. Aronofsky had a 40-day shooting schedule and just a $13-million budget. That meant, for instance, when it came time to film the climactic performance of the four-act "Swan Lake," they had one day to shoot each act. Mornings were spent working out lighting. Then they'd shoot the taxing ballet scenes in the afternoons and late into the evening, after which a turnaround crew would come in, strike the sets and prepare for the next day.
"I've never had enough money, and I've always appreciated it because it sticks you in a box and allows you to create within that box," Aronofsky says. "But this time, we really did not have enough money and the box was too small for what we needed to do."
Small wonder then that Aronofsky's next movie will be the big-budget "X-Men" spin-off "The Wolverine," with Hugh Jackman, his lead actor in 2006's "The Fountain."
"I've been the only person in the room who wants to make the movie for the past five movies," Aronofsky says of his quirky choices. "And I'm exhausted by it. So I'm excited to make a film that everyone wants to make. People think I'm crazy, but everyone thought I was crazy for working with Mickey Rourke and then for making a ballet movie. I like the challenges that come with change."