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Director Series-Darren Aronofsky-The Fountain

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In The Fountain, director Darren Aronofsky interweaves three stories that span a millennium and revolve around the idea of eternal existence, embodied in a Tree of Life. The film stars Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz in multiple roles and has spectacular visuals.The tales encompass an historical epic about a Spanish conquistador, a bittersweet romance set in the present and a science-fiction future.Aronofsky’s previous two films, Requiem for a Dream and Pi, thrust him into the critical limelight. For Pi, he received the director’s award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival and an Independent Spirit Award for best first screenplay. Requiem premiered at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival and later garnered five Independent Spirit Award nominations.Several of the key crew members on The Fountain had worked with Aronofsky on his previous projects so they were familiar with the director’s collaborative but hands-on approach. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique has shot all of Aronofsky’s films going back to their days at the AFI Film School in the mid 1990s. Production designer James Chinlund is a veteran of Requiem. New colleagues include costume designer Renee April, whose work can also be seen in the soon-to-be-released Night at the Museum, and editor Jay Rabinowitz, who cut Broken Flowers for director Jim Jarmusch.Here Aronofsky talks about the project’s journey to completion. Below the Line: It has been six years since the release of your last film, Requiem For a Dream. How much of that time have you spent working on The Fountain? Aronofsky: The initial ideas for the film began to germinate in 1999, after I finished Requiem. I and Ari Handel, who co-wrote the original story with me, have been working on it at different levels of intensity ever since then, along with my other collaborators in the crew.BTL: This film was started twice? Aronofsky: Yes, we first started production in 2002. We got seven weeks into the shoot when the project fell apart. It was completely re-imagined when we relaunched it in 2004.BTL: And rebudgeted? Aronofsky: Yes, we had a $70 million budget on the original project. But after it stalled, it was rewritten to make it smaller and it finally came in at around $35 million.BTL: How long was the shoot? Aronofsky: We shot in Montreal in 2004 for 60 days.BTL: The Fountain takes place in three time periods stretching over 1,000 years but the segments are all part of a single story. What did you do to integrate the sequences? Aronofsky: The task was to unite the segments so they all felt like they were part of the same film. Though each has its own unique setting, we wanted a single vision.BTL: How did you make that happen? Aronofsky: We basically tried to come up with a unifying visual grammar. One approach was to take elements from one segment and insert them into the other two. In the futuristic part, when Tom, the main character, is traveling through space, there are fields of stars behind him. We tried to evoke this image in the other time periods.For instance in the conquistador sequence where he is in the throne room with Queen Isabel of Spain, it’s lit with all these candles. By photographing them out of focus we were able to create something similar to the image of the star fields. We did that also in the contemporary sequence when Izzi, played by Rachel Weisz, is on the rooftop looking down at Christmas lights. These also got thrown out of focus again to look like the universe of stars.There were many ideas like that. We tried to interconnect all the different costumes through the use of materials and color schemes, and also in the production design. Hues in dark colors, brown and dark olives, and shadows denoted fear, while gold and white represented purity and optimism. Renee April who did the costumes was just tremendous in absorbing the emotions of the actors.BTL: The gold costume of the Mayan king-warrior seemed to weigh a ton.Aronofsky: We called him the Lord of Death. It took the actor five or six hours each day to get made up and to put on the outfit before he was finally ready.BTL: Most of your keys were with you on Requiem, and some date back to Pi. Does that make it easier to work together? Aronofsky: At this point they know what I expect—and I’m pretty demanding. But we all work very, very hard and are really focused.BTL: Do you dream up the visual images and put them in the script, or do you ask your director of photography and production designer and costume designer to figure out how to carry them out? Aronofsky: Generally we worked as a team, with ideas flowing back and forth until we arrived at something we could all agree on. So it’s hard to say what came first. I guess it all started with the story, and ultimately finding ways to visually communicate the theme.BTL: What was the starting point like? Aronofsky: Eight or nine months before we ever began shooting, I and Matty, my DP, and James, the production designer, got together in a room and went through the entire script. Sometimes Clint Mansell, the composer, would show up for a few hours and just sit and get inspired. But mostly it was Matty, James and I sitting around and laboriously going through script, trying to make it all work visually.BTL: How do you and your DP work together? Aronofsky: I come up with a shot list for the entire film; a lot of that gets story boarded. Usually Matty and I discuss it, with the production designer. When we’re on the set, I’m more responsible for the framing, Matty is more responsible for the lighting. That’s always been the way we worked together.BTL: What was the first sequence you filmed?Aronofsky: We started with the present day, because it was the heart of the movie in many ways—when Izzi gets ill; the scenes in the laboratory-hospital. I felt once we got that done, it made it easier for all of us, including the actors, to interpret the past and future segments, which were definitely more abstract.BTL: There are some stunning visuals in The Fountain. Most viewers would assume they were created using CGI. But I understand you used CGI sparingly—that most of the effects were shot in-camera.Aronofsky: Very early on I wanted to turn my back on CGI because I felt so many films had become dependent on it, and it had been overused. I wanted to give my film a very different look using more traditional special effects techniques. It was very hard, but ultimately it ended up being cheaper and also more interesting. We had to use CGI in some places, but I’d estimate 90 percent of the film is CGI-free.BTL: How was the Tree of Life, which plays such an important role, created. Did you fabricate it from scratch? Aronofsky: We tried to make it really organic in its appearance and feel. It took a very, very long time. We started in two dimensions, and then started to build it up in three dimensions, which was somewhat easier. Through sculpture we were able to arrive pretty quickly at a basic tree. James then tried to make it a life-sized tree, which was really a challenge. First, there were moulds of actual tree parts. The big secret in trying to make it look really organic was to use actual tree parts we found—to put them together and ‘Frankenstein’ it. That helped a lot in making it seem lifelike.BTL: How big was the tree when you finished?Aronofsky: It was huge—between 30 and 40 feet tall, I’d say.BTL: How did you create the giant bubble that serves as a spaceship transporting Tom and the Tree of Life toward the nebula Xilbalba that is the symbolic “fountain” in the film’s title.Aronofsky: In that case we did resort to CGI. There was no other way to do it, though I really tried. I attempted photographing actual soap bubbles. But the interplay of surface light was nearly invisible to the camera. But in general, I and my special effects supervisors, Jeremy Dawson and Dan Schrecker, used many unusual optical techniques.BTL: I’m told some of your best visuals came from microscopic photography.Aronofsky: Many effects, including the dying nebula, took place inside a petri dish. Chemica
l reactions and micro-organisms were shot in extreme close-ups and blown up enormously.BTL: In the film, the time periods are overlapping. Did you start with a linear beginning, middle and end, and then ask Jay Rabinowitz your editor, to intercut the sequences? Aronofsky: Ari and I always saw The Fountain structured like one of those Russian dolls that has another one inside it, and another inside of that, and so on. In our case, one story was inside another story, which was inside another story. That structure was in the original script. It wasn’t up to the editor to do a lot of intercutting on his own.BTL: How much did you shoot?Aronofsky: I shot a lot. A big reason is it took so long to get going, so when I finally got a chance to shoot, I didn’t want to stop.BTL: How did this affect the editing process?Aronofsky: The first thing I do when I get into the editing phase is to watch everything, every piece of film shot. It took Jay and me 10 weeks to go through all the footage, which is normally the time it takes to do a cut. But it’s very important to get really familiar with the material, to analyze it. I like to watch everything from before I call “action” to after I call “cut.” Sometimes there are some great moments there.After that we started cutting. It was difficult, because we had so many performance takes from the actors. Finding the exact right take proved to be a bit of a challenge.BTL: Did you do a digital intermediate in postproduction? Aronofsky: Yes we did a DI. It was a first for me, but it’s a great process. The amount of creative freedom you have is really tremendous. We tried to use the DI to basically make as seamless a film as possible, in terms of the final look.BTL: Since finishing The Fountain, have you started on another project? Aronofosky: It’s back to the drawing boards trying to come up with something new. I don’t know what it is yet. But I’m open to anything right now.

Written by Jack Egan

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