In a departure from The Fountain, his cerebral last film, director Darren Aronofsky takes a decidedly gritty, realistic turn with The Wrestler. Relying on improvisation to garner reality-based performances from a cast composed largely of non-professional actors, Aronofsky tells the comeback story of retired professional wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson, played by Mickey Rourke in a marvelous comeback performance of his own. As he gets back into the game for one final smackdown with his former rival, The Ram tries to find a meaningful life while wrestling with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and a mistrusting exotic dancer (played by Marisa Tomei).
Below the Line: What inspired you to make The Wrestler?
Darren Aronofsky: I wanted to do something very different from what I have done before. My previous three films were incredibly orchestrated. For me, they very much felt like a chapter in my
filmmaking life. This time I tried to find material that would support something that was a radical departure. I felt that this kind of improvisational, documentary, realistic feel could work.
BTL: What was it like working with wrestlers that were not actors?
Aronofsky: You know, they come from wrestling which is incredibly improvisational. Even though wrestlers have a sense of the “tune” they’re trying to play, they make it up as they go along, so it all worked out well.
BTL: How did your costumer Amy Westcott work with the wrestlers? Did they wear their characters’ regular costumes or did she come up with something new?
Aronofsky: A lot of the wrestlers used their own gimmicks. We just helped their wardrobe. Actually, that’s not completely true. The first wrestler was the Tommy Rotten [Tommy Farra] character. Tommy was a wrestler, but that was not his gimmick, as they call it. He was Mickey’s trainer and he was a bit square looking. He kind of looked like a stockbroker. We came up with the Tommy Rotten character for him, so Amy had to completely create a costume. She also created the costume for the Ayatollah and for Mickey as well. There was a lot of collaboration. Mickey liked to have a lot of input. It went back and forth between Mickey, Amy and myself to bring those costumes alive.
BTL: What kind of role did makeup play in portraying the wrestling world of the film?
Aronofsky: There were tremendous amounts of makeup.
Judy Chin is a makeup artist I’ve worked with on all my films. She is completely creative. She brought on this guy, Michael Marino, who did the prosthetics. Mike’s a young guy with a lot of energy and originality. It was fun creating a bloodbath on Mickey’s body.
BTL: What led you to cinematographer Maryse Alberti?
Aronofsky: This is the first time I’ve worked with her. I liked the fact that she had done narrative films like Happiness and Velvet Goldmine and had worked with Todd Slondz and Todd Haynes, but then she took off about seven years and did only documentaries. She did Crumb, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side, which won the Oscar [best documentary, features] last year. I liked the fact that she could do both.
BTL: What’s your process working with your DP. Do you storyboard? Were you looking for a specific color palette?
Aronofsky: You have a lot of conversations beforehand. You talk about what the film is about. You talk about the attitude. On this film it was very important for me to have a naturalistic feel, so we were going for what was out there in the locations we found. Any color palette definitely was mostly subconscious. I wanted a sandbox that had no borders for Mickey Rourke to play in. I had Tim Grimes, the production designer, create sets that were real places. Then I wanted Maryse to light 360 degrees so that Mickey could go in any direction and do anything he wanted. Maryse gave me that. Then Mickey and I went onto the set and he showed me what he was going to do. Camera and I worked out how to capture it.
BTL: Had you worked with your production designer Tim Grimes before?
Aronofsky: It was pretty much an all-new below-the-line team for me, which was real thrilling. On my past films I’ve worked with the same team, but on this film I wanted to try something very, very different. I liked Timothy because he seemed very resourceful and I knew that would be required on a film with such a low budget.
BTL: Did you build anything or were these all locations that you found and dressed?
Aronofsky: Everything was locations. Of course setting up things like the wrestling promotion, we had to take a lot of arenas and adjust them to work. The final match was in a theater that didn’t have a place for the ring, so we did go into locations and acted like a real wrestling promotion would do it. There was a lot of work to get it done.
BTL: How long was your schedule?
Aronofsky: We shot 35 days. Five-day weeks. I don’t do six days. I don’t believe in them. You’ve got to take one day off to chill and one day where you prep. Six-day weeks are too much.
BTL: You must have had a really organized first assistant director to keep it all on schedule.
Aronofsky: We had a great AD. We actually had a problem with our initial AD, who couldn’t get his head around the improvisational nature of the film. I had to replace him five days before we shot. It was a mutual parting. Richard Graves came on, and he had to learn the whole show over a weekend. He was amazing. One of the great people that pulled it together at the last minute.
BTL: Editing must have been tricky since you were working with improvisation. How did you decide to work with Andrew Weisblum, your editor?
Aronofsky: Andrew was the visual effects editor on The Fountain. I was always impressed with his clarity, his assuredness and opinions. I needed a hungry editor, someone that would be able to work within our budgetary limitations. Since he was kind of starting out—he had only cut two films before editing mine—it was a really good match. He did a fantastic job. He has an incredible sensitivity for performance and a really good gut feeling for story.
BTL: Is it true you cut the film quite quickly, in about eight weeks from the end of production, while in Malta?
Aronofsky: I’m not sure, but about eight to 10 weeks. We finished shooting the film in March, so the whole trip’s been under a year. My partner is an actress and she was shooting a film in Malta. I just wanted to keep the family together, so Andy and I traveled over there. Because it’s so easy to cut virtually anywhere in the planet, we were able to pull it off.
BTL: What format did you shoot the film in and what system did you edit on?
Aronofsky: It was shot in super 16 widescreen. We cut it on Avid.
BTL: Did you use a digital intermediate instead of a photochemical process to blow up the 16 mm to 35 mm for screening?
Aronofsky: Yes, we used a DI. So few people now do the [photochemical] blow-up it didn’t make sense. DI is easier and more reliable and you get the freedom to adjust things. I think the DI allowed us to have more freedom on the set. It allowed Maryse to take a few more chances and worry a little less about the lighting issues. Certain things were tweaked, not really color. The contrast was tweaked, but we were pretty true to what we photographed. It was also a very good time to make a deal because the [writer’s] strike had left a lot of the post houses in need of work. We used Technicolor. Tim Stipan was the timer and I thought he did a brilliant job.
BTL: Who else do you credit with pulling the film together within the tight time and budget constraints you were on?
Aronofsky: A film like this only works if you have a filmmaking team that is completely committed and driven, because there are so many compromises that constantly have to be made. To figure out ways to make it all work, you really need the whole team working together to pull it off. The only way these films get made is with a passionate crew.