Darren Aronofsky was a serious young man, a nature boy. He grew up in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, where the beaches were beautiful but cluttered with trash. His interest in the environment took him to Alaska to study the behavior of seals.
“There was a moment, we were kayaking around,” he said of the trip with the School for Field Studies, a charity on whose board he now sits. “I was eating a candy bar and I dropped the wrapper in the water and it went under. And I realized that that thing was going into this pristine environment that I was in and there was no way of ever taking back what I had just done.”
Now 39 with a boyish grin and bramble of brown curly hair, he’s spent the past two years working on The Wrestler. A month ago, it wasn’t finished. Two days before the Venice Film Festival, it wasn’t finished. A day later he was holding the Golden Lion. Sold the film the day after. Left Venice at 6 a.m., sold the film in Toronto at 5 a.m. the next day.
On Thursday afternoon he was still suffering from the whiplash of it all. We had planned on coffee but he was eager to wolf down a $15 organic burrito at a Mexican restaurant he recently discovered on Third Avenue and 10th Street, near where he lives. Before sitting down, his wife, British actress Rachel Weisz, called for an update on his schedule for the day. Finding time for meals has been difficult lately.
“It’s been a real whirlwind,” he said. “You know, it was just, it was all a whirlwind.”
The film is about an over-the-hill wrestler, played by Mickey Rourke, who tries to piece together a life outside the ring after his body begins to fail him.
Mr. Aronofsky has relied heavily on special effects to construct a visual universe in previous films such as Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain. With this film, the visual language came out of the beat-up, old and fragile actor before him, Mickey Rourke, whose life and career had so much in common with his character’s. The story of an aging wrestling sensation Randy “the Ram” Robinson led the director to create—with trademark meticulousness—as natural a sandbox as possible for Mr. Rourke to roam around in.
“There’s another big theme in the film, this whole sense of reality, real and fake,” Mr. Aronofsky said. “Most people when they hear about wrestling, they go, ‘Oh, it’s just fake,’ and they kind of blow it off.’”
Mr. Aronofsky spent a lot of time hanging around wrestlers researching the film, and indeed all of the wrestlers in the movie, save Mr. Rourke, were professional wrestlers. The matches might be fixed, he said, but 260-pound men who make a living jumping off the top rope onto a concrete floor suffer very real consequences. “You meet these guys, who when we were kids we were fans of, now in their 50s and 60s, if they’ve lived that long, can barely move. It’s tragic. There’s a few megastars that sorta can creep by on their former fame but still, it’s incredibly humiliating to be where they are.”
It’s enough to make a man cry watching Mickey Rourke’s character desperately cling to his former fame. “He has a difficult time distinguishing his real life and his imaginary life,” said Mr. Aronofsky. “He’s not sure which is real and which is fake. Is being in the ring real or is that make-believe? Is real life real or make-believe?”
When he was making his first movie, Pi, about a severely paranoid mathematician, it dawned on him that a character in any movie is by nature paranoid. “What they teach you in screenwriting is that every scene should relate to the character’s story. And that’s what paranoids think about their world, is that everything that’s happening to them is on purpose, that there’s nothing random, that’s all scripted for them. So I think as a filmmaker you’re constantly making these kind of very insular, paranoid stories where everything makes sense.”
Once he steps off his insular set, Mr. Aronofsky is a free man. The real world—except in certain extraordinary instances—is not interesting enough to distract him. The reason people go to the movies, he said, is to forget ourselves, to “see things they’ve never seen, go to places they’ve never been, or see things they’ve never seen, or hear things they’ve never heard.”
“Have you seen this game Spore?” he asked. “It’s really interesting. Basically what the game is, you start off as a single-celled creature and you slowly evolve onto land. You’re like in the primordial soup on some random planet, you go onto land, you grow legs, you come on land and then you create a tribe. And then you create a civilization and you start building buildings. And then eventually you become celestial and you can go not just in your solar system, not just in your immediate solar system, you can go out and go to other solar systems and interact with other races and other primitive peoples, and other people more sophisticated than you.”