On the stage of the Performing Arts Center at SUNY’s Purchase College, about 45 minutes north of here, Natalie Portman, wearing a tutu and a distressed mesh top, elegantly pirouettes and then dips into the arms of dancer and choreographer Benjamin Millepied. “That’s it,” director Darren Aronofsky calls out. “Very nice.”
But something apparently is not quite right. Millepied, who stands not unlike the statue of David in tights, quietly confers with Portman and then, separately, with Aronofsky. Soon, “Let’s do it again,” the director says.
It’s the middle of January on Day 21 of the 42-day production of “Black Swan,” Aronofsky’s Dec. 3 release and the follow-up to his critically acclaimed “The Wrestler” from 2008. Once again, award season attention is swirling around Aronofsky’s ability to draw a remarkable turn from an actor who is playing a performer perilously close to the edge. “The Wrestler” starred Mickey Rourke as a lumbering, doped-up giant who’d been chewed up by an unforgiving profession. In “Black Swan,” Portman plays Nina, a ballerina who’s way too deeply invested in playing the lead in a production of “Swan Lake.” She becomes increasingly unhinged in her pursuit to satisfy the demands of her choreographer ( Vincent Cassel) to embody not only the controlled, beautiful white swan but also the passionate, unbridled black swan of Tchaikovsky’s ballet.
One of the film’s central themes — that there’s a tension between control and losing oneself in the pursuit of artistic perfection — is taking curious shape on Aronofsky’s set, as he tries to harness a powerful new element outside of his expertise: dance. “Normally, when I work with an actor, I am telling them what a scene is about, and they turn it into emotion,” Aronofsky says. “But Benjamin turns it into movement.”
It’s a collaboration that the 41-year-old director says he relishes, noting that the initial seed for this film was planted when he was growing up in Brooklyn with a sister who was an accomplished ballerina. While editing his second film, 2000’s “Requiem for a Dream,” Aronofsky began developing a script called “The Understudy” that was set in the theater. He eventually incorporated his fascination with Dostoevsky’s “The Double” and moved the story into a ballet context. Years later, Aronofsky suggested his director of development, Mark Heyman, take a pass at the one-time “Understudy” project that had been originally written by Andres Heinz (screenwriter John McLaughlin also worked on the script).
The similarities between “The Wrestler” and “The Black Swan” — the films, though depicting very different forms of entertainment, even have endings that echo each other — didn’t deter Aronofsky; “I immediately got that one was considered the highest art and the other one was the lowest,” he says. “But I was never afraid of it. It’s exciting. It’s a diptych.”
But while the protagonist of “The Wrestler” is on his last leg, Nina is getting her first shot and is soon pitted against her failed, similarly dance-obsessed mother ( Barbara Hershey) as well as the company’s lead dancer ( Winona Ryder) and a rival dancer ( Mila Kunis), with whom she fights and gets frisky. It’s a lot for an actress to chew on. Think “Mommie Dearest” meets “Repulsion” meets “Single White Female.”
“I have always been into performance,” says Aronofsky. “The actors run the show. It’s their faces that are on the screen.”
Portman jumped on board when the film began taking shape and she started dance training a full year ahead of the start of production. Although Portman had taken dance for close to 10 years as a child, “she didn’t have good basics,” says Millepied, a star dancer from the New York City Ballet whom Aronofsky hired to choreograph the film. Millepied was concerned with Portman’s abilities when they first met in April 2009. “When I first saw her, I thought, ‘My God, how am I going to do this?’” he says.
“I thought I had had a pretty serious dance education,” Portman says. “But I essentially started from scratch.” She trained with a coach throughout the summer production of her next film, the Universal comedy “Your Highness,” which shot in Belfast, until she met again with Millepied in September 2009. “I was blown away,” he says of her improvement. “She had so much control over her body.”
Once “Black Swan” production began, the actress found it helpful to “have this extreme discipline, which bled into the character,” she says. Portman had a dance double primarily for the wide-shot scenes, but Aronofsky says she performed 90% of Nina’s dance sequences and even dislocated a rib during the shoot. Portman says she was able to “integrate that pain into the performance.”
On the set at Purchase College, which is passing for a Lincoln Center stage, Aronofsky paces with a hand-held video playback monitor, waiting for cinematographer Matthew Libatique to set up the next shot. “Boring as …, right?” he says to a visitor. “Wrestling is a lot more exciting.”
One might think that Aronofsky, the director of psychologically fraught (“Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream”) and cerebral (“The Fountain”) films, would be more intense while working. But that’s not the case, according to Kunis. “I don’t know if I should ruin his reputation,” she says. “The thing about Darren is that he is one of the chillest people to work with. But people perceive him to be a dark, manic director.”
Not that he isn’t suffering. “Every film feels like a small suicide,” he says of the multitude of pressures of directing. Which is partly why, he adds, he doesn’t get to achieve that same liberating abandonment of his actors, who can get lost in playing a part.
“Directing is a lot of administration,” Aronofsky says. “And maybe a few moments of artistry.”