The dA-Zed guide to Darren Aronofsky

Inside the dark mind of the director behind the altered realities and x-rated inspirations

Darren Aronofsky
Darren Aronofsky filming on location in Iceland Photography by Niko Tavernise, Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises

Since he was 13-years-old, the story of Noah and mankind's demise at the hands of God has obsessed cult director Darren Aronofsky, and we're celebrating his environmental epic with Aronofsky on Dazed – an in-depth look of his work as an auteur of our time.

Cinematic auteur Darren Aronofsky has been pushing the boundaries of film since his debut Pi nearly 16 years ago. His movies are both provocative and engrossing, and have sparked controversy pretty much everywhere – the latest being a boycott of his most recent film Noah by various Christian and Muslim groups. With his last few films becoming awards season darlings and Noah topping the box office in the US, check out our A-Z guide on the boundary-pushing filmmaker and pretend that you’ve been a fan longer than your one friend who obsesses over Requiem for a Dream.

A IS FOR ALTERED REALITIES

One common theme in many of Aronofsky’s films is the idea of perception vs. reality. Nina hallucinates ripping off her own nails in Black Swan, while Sara Goldfarb pretends she is competing on a game show in Requiem for a Dream. Sometimes characters may take drugs to reach this altered view, but just as often they get there in their own right. Typically right before suffering some sort of terrible mental breakdown.

Requiem For a Dream Eye
Requiem For a Dream Eye via giphy.com

B IS FOR BLACK & WHITE

Aronofsky’s first feature length film ever, Pi, was shot in black and white – a motif that has cropped up in several of his films. Most notably it was used for the motif of good vs. evil in Black Swan, with main character Nina slowly shedding her good girl (white swan) ways in favor of the racy appeal of more adult activities and success (black swan). Funnily enough, Aronofsky had to fight to get Pi shot that way, saying on the DVD commentary for The Fountain that “a movie about math and God in black and white doesn't exactly excite financiers.”

Pi Movie
Pi Movie http://croquis-agaceries.tumblr.com/

C IS FOR CAMEOS

Lots of directors enjoy making cameos in their own films (here’s looking at you Tarentino) and Darren Aronofsky is definitely no exception. He had a particularly infamous cameo in Requiem for a Dream – “ass to ass!” – and has also cast his parents in several of his films. More recently, though, Aronofsky has put the spotlight on his 7th grade teacher who he claimed in a recent interview with Variety, “inspired [him] to become a writer.” Ms. Fried has two brief scenes in the film: one where she has a short interaction with Russell Crowe and another where he notices her corpse in a river.

D IS FOR DON'T DO METH

Though Aronofsky’s work tends to prominently feature drug use (see letter U) it is rarely cast in a favourable light. In fact, it is usually the cause of terrible death and destruction in his character’s lives, leaving them with nothing and no one to help them. Cheery! Equally as bright was the anti-meth campaign Aronofsky directed for The Meth Project, which depicted teenagers high on meth having convulsive attacks and attempting suicide. If you’ve been feeling a particular urge against your better instincts to try meth recently, check out one of the advert below.

E IS FOR EFFECTS COMPANY

On the director’s commentary for Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky talks forming a visual effects company fresh out of film school. Along with university friend Jeremy Dawson, the company Amoeba Proteus was formed. The company was made in order to focus on the smaller digital effects in large-scale films. Though they eventually disbanded in the mid-00's, Aronofsky used it for two of his films, Requiem and The Fountain.  

F IS FOR FILM SCHOOL

For grad school, Aronofsky attended the American Film Institute to study directing alongside Doug Ellin, Mark Waters, and Scott Silver. There he made several short films – one, Protozoa, even starred a young Lucy Liu. Check out one of his early collaborations, No Time. But be warned: it’s pretty fucking strange.

G IS FOR GRAPHIC NOVELS

If movies aren't really your thing, you can also check out a few of Darren Aronofsky's films that have been adopted for a more hands-on medium. A professed lover of comics himself – he was actually in talks to direct the most recent Superman film – Aronofsky wrote the graphic novel adaptation of his film The Fountain. "I said at least if Hollywood fucks me over I'll make a comic book out of it," Aronofsky once decried. Fans of Noah will also be excited to hear that an adaptation of that film is in the works as well.

H IS FOR HARVARD

Before attending AFI, Aronofsky got his start in the Ivy League. While at Harvard, he studied film and anthropology – maybe proving that it’s not an entirely useless degree once and for all. He later teamed up with fellow Harvard alum Natalie Portman for Black Swan – the movie that would earn Portman her first Academy Award.

Portman Gif
Natalie Portman on SNL tumblr.com

I IS FOR INSTABILITY

Along with drugs and altered realities, a lot of characters in Darren Aronofsky’s films seem to be in danger of losing their minds. In a gruesome and utterly unforgettable scene in Black Swan, perfectionist Nina tries to clip off a hangnail and ends up ripping off a significant portion of her skin, only to realise moments later that she's hallucinating. Ellen Burstyn's memorable Sara Goldfarb (Requiem) also suffers from delusions, believing that she's a contestant on a reality TV show. "You're whacked out!" a man shouts at her on the train when she suffers a breakdown in public.

J IS FOR JENNIFER CONNELLY

Noah will mark the second film collaboration between the two, making Connelly the only of Aronofsky's leading ladies to star in two films of his so far. The pair first worked together on Requiem, where Connelly played doomed junkie Marion. That roll was allegedly supposed to go to Neve Campbell, but she withdrew from the project after finding out there would be full-frontal nudity. As Noah's wife Naameh, Connelly will hopefully be allowed a happier ending in this film than she was in Requiem

Jennifer Connelly in Requiem For a Dream
Jennifer Connelly in Requiem For a Dream via giphy.com

K IS FOR KOHLS

Not everything Aronofsky does is dark and heavy. Hey, remember that commercial where JLo dances around in that warehouse while simultaneously changing from one brightly-coloured outfit to the next? That was directed by Darren Aronofsky. He also directed Jessica Biel’s classy black and white ad for Revlon where she gets ready for a night out with Pharell Williams. A bit of a departure from his usual films, but the usual Darren Aronofsky aesthetic is still present (if you squint).

L IS FOR LUX AETERNA

You’ve probably heard this song before without knowing what it’s from. The haunting strings of Clint Mansell’s leitmotif for the film Requiem for a Dream has been featured in several trailers outside of the movie it initially came from. The most widely recognized version of the song can be found in the trailer for The Lord of The Rings: Two Towers, but it’s most memorable use remains the ending montage of Requiem where it plays in the background as all of the main character’s lives go to hell. Aronofsky is such a fan of Mansell’s work that he’s had him score every single one of his movies so far (the tune starts around the 1:00 mark).

M IS FOR MARK MARGOLIS 

He’s probably now best known as Breaking Bad’s silent, bell-ringing Tio, but Mark Margolis has appeared in every one of Darren Aronofsky’s films, starting with Pi where he played mentor Sol Robeson to the main character Max, and recently culminating with the watcher Magog in Noah. Fans of the actor will be glad to hear that even in his smaller roles, like pawnbroker Mr. Rabinowitz in Requiem, Margolis still has more lines than he did on Breaking Bad.

Mark Margolis
Mark Margolis cvasquez.tumblr.com

N IS FOR NO HOLDS BARRED

No holds barred wrestling matches, or as they're now better known by, "hardcore matches" are shown in all their gritty, violent detail in Aronofsky's film The Wrestler. Some of the matches incorporate weapons like thumbtacks, staple guns, barbed wire and glass, and Aronofsky does not shy away from showing the brutal injuries that result.

O IS FOR OSCARS (OR LACK THEREOF)

Unfortunately, there hasn't been too much Academy love for Darren yet. Though he did get nominated for best director following 2011's Black Swan, Aronofsky is still sans an actual Academy Award. He has however been featured on several online lists of "greatest directors to never win an Oscar."

P IS FOR PERFECT BLUE

Aronofsky has admitted to being a fan of anime, particularly the psychological thriller by Satoshi Kon and Sadayuki Murai, Perfect Blue. The animated film, which was adapted from the graphic novel of the same name, follows a pop star attempting to become an actress as the lines between her reality and fantasy slowly blur together. Aronofsky even purchased the rights to the film in order to replicate the famous bath scene that's featured in Requiem For a Dream.

Q IS FOR QUESTIONABLE MATHEMATICS

Despite being a film entirely about advanced mathematical theories, Aronofsky's first feature film, Pi, features very little actual math. In fact, the most difficult problem to actually appear on screen is "41+3" and the answer is given to viewers moments later. Instead, the film places a lot more emphasis on the idea of pi as a never-ending number, and the parallels it holds to everyday phenomena. 

R IS FOR RELIGION

It’s safe to assume that religion was probably a pretty big influence on Aronofsky’s latest film, Noah, but a lot of his other films have pretty heavy religious overtones as well. Pi, his first feature film, featured its main character looking for God in the form of a mathematical equation. Similarly, The Fountain focused largely on death and the different ways we may come to terms with it. Even the drug-fueled Requiem for a Dream had noticeable references to religion, with Harry’s visions of Marion on the pier paralleling his idea of heaven, and the final overhead shot of each of the characters that makes it appear as though they are all slowly descending into hell.

S IS FOR SEX

It wouldn't truly be an Aronofsky film without some controversial sex. Actually, Noah is the first Aronofsky film to not feature a sex scene since his debut film Pi. The perhaps most infamous sex scene from Aronofsky's work is the Natalie Portman/Mila Kunis drug-fueled romp that drew criticism from groups for its alleged exploitative and inappropriate nature.

T IS FOR THE TREE OF LIFE

Aronofsky beat Terrence Mallick to this one with his 2006 movie The Fountain. In it, Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz find themselves locked in a desperate search for a cure to death in three different periods of time. The Fountain was – like most of Aronofsky’s films – highly polarizing, getting booed at the film’s press screening at Venice Film Festival, but also receiving a ten-minute standing ovation following the public screening. While the characters do eventually find the elusive Tree of Life, it ends up coming at a price – as do most forms of happiness for people in Aronofsky films.

 U IS FOR UNDER THE INFLUENCE

Drugs are pretty heavily featured throughout all of Aronofsky’s movies, though typically never in a glamourised light. The jerky, strobe-filled club scene in Black Swan invokes a frightening hellscape, mirroring the character’s slow moral degradation; Mickey Rourke’s ageing wrestler Randy Robins snorts coke on his continued downward spiral past rock-bottom. And that’s not even getting into all of the terrible things that happen to the trio of junkies in Requiem For a Dream. Aronofsky also sheds light on the negative side-effects of perceived “lesser” drugs, like the diet pills Sara Goldfarb gets addicted to in Requiem that slowly loosen her grip on reality.

V IS FOR THE VATICAN 

Now Aronofsky can finally join the ranks of Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin on the list of people who have hung out with the Pope. After certain Christian groups pushed for a boycott of Noah, Aronofsky decided to take the fight to the highest earthly authority on God. “It was really inspirational,” he has said of meeting the Pope. Pope Francis has not yet seen Noah, but his willingness to meet with the film’s makers seems to bode well for a future viewing.

The Pope
The Pope http://giphy.com/gifs/67CTLCU7NPLji

W IS FOR THE WRESTLER

Arguably the first mainstream film Aronofsky made, The Wrestler is also one of the darkest – and that’s saying something. Maybe it’s the film’s open ending, which seems to imply the death of main character "The Ram", or perhaps the way the film unconsciously parallels main actor Mickey Rourke's life is a bit too closely. Despite its heaviness, The Wrestler was Aronofsky's highest grossing movie at the time it was released and also earned two Oscar nominations for its two lead performers.

X IS FOR X-RATED

Though all of Aronofsky’s films feature material not particularly suitable for children, the only one to actually get above an R rating from the Motion Picture Academy was Requiem For a Dream. I'm going to hazard a guess that it might have had something to do with the double-headed dildo. Aronofsky attempted to appeal the rating, but after being told that he would have to heavily cut out parts of the film's final montage opted to release in unrated instead.

Y IS FOR YOUTH

Youth is an elusive thing in Aronofsky movies. Either his main characters are searching for it, like the titular Wrestler or Sara Goldfarb in Requiem, or they are too consumed with desire for something more to actually enjoy it, like Nina in Black Swan. This desire is literally embodied in The Fountain, where two characters search desperately for The Tree of Life (see letter T). 

Z IS FOR ZEN SHIGOTO

Going along with his love for anime, and in particular Satoshi Kon's anime, Aronofsky contributed a personal message in honor of Kon's death in the memorial book Kon Satoshi Anime Zen-Shigoto. Kon's adaptation of the graphic novel Perfect Blue, mentioned above, served as inspiration for certain scenes in Aronofsky's Requiem For a Dream and Black Swan.

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