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Darren Aronofksy on his astonishing, abrasive new film

The maker of Black Swan and Requiem For A Dream discusses his mindfucking new movie ‘mother!’ starring Jennifer Lawrence, Ed Harris and Javier Bardem

Darren Aronofsky isn’t here to make friends. His new film – yes, it’s really called mother! – is an idiosyncratic, batshit nightmare shot on 16mm, and it’s an audacious, calculated move to piss people off. Some will go for it, many will not. Either way, mother! is undoubtedly an over-the-top, claustrophobic horror like no other. If anything, there should be more exclamation marks in the title: it makes PiRequiem for a Dream and Black Swan seem like ASMR videos in comparison. It’s relentlessly abrasive, and it’s hard to know where Aronofsky could possibly go from here. Hopefully somewhere he can relax. Seems like he needs it.

But what is mother! actually about? It’s hard to say, except that its star, Jennifer Lawrence, will no longer seem quite as relatable. Lawrence’s character, Mother, is married to Him, a famous poet and all-round terrible guy played by Javier Bardem. Together, they live in an isolated house, but something’s not quite right. He has writer’s block, she paints the walls all day, and at one point I sincerely thought it was a pseudo-sequel to Noah. That’s when a dying doctor (Ed Harris) and his hilariously malicious wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) turn up uninvited, and it escalates in a fashion that defies all science and logic. Think of it, perhaps, as a mix of EraserheadThe Exterminating Angel, and any disastrous house party where you’re left crying on the night bus. Except there’s a vagina-shaped bloodstain burning through the carpet, a beating heart in the toilet, and plenty more – and this is only the first act.

Still, mother! is more than just Aronofsky’s Rosemary’s Baby. Instead, he’s crafted something perversely moving and nakedly confessional. To be honest, the first thing I did post-screening was get out my phone and scroll to the “personal life” part of his Wikipedia page. I have about 15 theories on what the film is really about, and no doubt people will be arguing about the allegories for years. Overpopulation, global warming, parenthood, social media, marital stress, pain as a source of creativity, intrusive fans, religion – it’s all there, swirling around, with J-Law screaming her head off for good measure.

We met with Aronofsky in London to discuss his astonishing new film. Here, we speak to him about writing mother! in five days, what he considers to be the line he won’t cross, and also his memories of working with Lou Reed and Metallica.

I have a question about the title. Why only one exclamation mark?

Darren Aronofsky: Well, I thought one was enough (laughs). A lot of people asked me, “Why the exclamation point?” Now, finally, people are understanding why. Another answer is that the actual structure of the movie is an exclamation point, and how it’s drawn at the beginning of the film. The actual way an exclamation point is written is the structure of the movie. A straight line and a big dot explosion.

mother! feels quite political. When did you write it?

Darren Aronofsky: I wrote it in the eighth year of Obama, and it’s coming out in the first year of Trump. It’s insane. That’s the thing about filmmaking: it takes a long time from the idea until it comes out.

So what was your state of mind during the writing stage?

Darren Aronofsky: I had this idea of creating this allegory of capturing what’s happening to our home, to the world, and to put that emotion onto the screen. And it’s a crazy time. These little devices that we carry in our pockets are constantly buzzing with insane headlines. We just had a storm that was the worst rainstorm in the history of the United States. These are things that are supposed to happen every 500 years, and they’re happening within years of each other. It’s a crazy time to be alive. I felt that energy, and I couldn’t do anything but bring that type of emotion and feelings to my work.

Some of it feels like you’re visualising the worst parts of the internet – particularly online misogynists on message boards.

Darren Aronofsky: I think it’s a big part of our lives. Anyone’s able to broadcast any crazy idea they want with, in many ways, equal validity to people who have integrity and who actually work hard to find out what is true. And things have gotten deeply, deeply confused, and it’s very hard to understand where there’s truth. On top of that, you have people putting out images that are scarring, because of how disturbing they are.

The camera choices are very restrictive, and you haven’t really done it to this extent since Pi. Why go back to that style?

Darren Aronofsky: I did some similar camera work with The Wrestler and Black Swan, but I really wanted to tell a story from Mother’s perspective. So the camera is with Jennifer Lawrence the entire film. It’s either over her shoulder, on her face, or what she’s looking at. Those are the only shots in the entire film. I wanted the audience to be in her eyes and in her ears and have her experience for two hours.

You had some meta casting with Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, and also Natalie Portman and Winona Ryder in Black Swan. With mother!, were you thinking about Jennifer Lawrence’s celebrity status and how she’s often called “relatable”?

Darren Aronofsky: I wasn’t thinking of it that way, but that’s very interesting. I was thinking more about how I’ve got to get an actor who’s incredibly captivating to watch, and someone who is constantly able to keep things inventive and alive, and moment by moment you want to watch her. That’s an incredibly difficult thing to do, to be brave enough to face all the insanity, and to absorb it, and to be basically the tool that the audience uses to understand the movie.

Brad Pitt quit The Fountain a few weeks before production and delayed the film for years. Do you ever get worried about that happening again when you have an outrageous script like this?

Darren Aronofsky: Actors are revealing themselves when they do movies. It’s scary for them, because it’s them out there who are showing themselves. And this film was asking for every actor involved to really open up their hearts and show themselves in embarrassing, intense ways. But you just have to constantly keep reminding them why we’re doing this and what this is ultimately all about, and to keep everyone excited about working on it.

So I gather the rehearsal period was important?

Darren Aronofsky: Yeah. We spent three months rehearsing in a warehouse out in East Brooklyn. The idea was, because I wrote the script in five days, to try to breathe life into that fever. Because by no means was it finished after five days. That was just the initial emotion and ideas and the structure. And then we had to really get character, and figure out how to make this a story about a husband, a wife and a marriage that’s in danger.

During those five days, did you lock yourself up and hope for inspiration? Or was it like how Paul McCartney heard “Yesterday” in a dream and wrote it when he woke up?

Darren Aronofsky: It’s funny you bring that up. I’ve thought about that a lot. For years, I was jealous of singer-songwriters who can write a song in an afternoon that basically defines a generation. That story with Paul McCartney, that kills me. As a film director, it takes us years to do it. Black Swan was ten years of development. Noah was 20 years of development. The Wrestler was six years of development. The Fountain was six years of development.

So I pumped this thing out in five days, after the idea came to me two weeks before. I showed it to my producers, and they were like, “Wow, there’s something here. We should do this.” Normally, we’d figure out every single connection and detail. In this, we had to figure out all those connections and details while we were making it, while we were editing it, while we were putting it together. It was a constantly growing document. This is the most I’ve ever been able to be like a singer-songwriter.

Were you sober during these five days?

Darren Aronofsky: Yeah. I can’t write non-sober.

“I think where things get exciting and memorable is when you get to the edges of what’s acceptable and you walk that tightrope of: how much can the audience take?” – Darren Aronofsky

I imagine writing this film was very therapeutic, but what’s it like watching the darkest, most disturbing part of your soul projected onto a giant screen?

Darren Aronofsky: I don’t do it for therapy! I do it to entertain people. I guess it’s coming from inside me, but it’s not necessarily me. It’s more what I think will be surprising and exciting and challenging to people. It’s very easy to make things that make people feel safe and that make them feel they understand the story.

I think where things get exciting and memorable is when you get to the edges of what’s acceptable and you walk that tightrope of: how much can the audience take? Of course, there will be people who don’t want to watch the guy on the high wire. They don’t want to feel that tension. And that’s fine. This film is definitely not for everybody. This film is only for people who really want to go on that scary, scary rollercoaster in the park.

There’s a lot of upsetting imagery in the film. How do you decide what line you won’t cross?

Darren Aronofsky: It’s in the gut. There’s always going to be times when it’s crossed. In Requiem for a Dream, we had a long debate about whether the needle should go into that open wound. It’s an incredibly scarring and disturbing image, but it really is what the film’s about. So for me, if it’s not about the movie and what the movie’s about, it has no right being there. If it’s there for an exploitative reason, then it’s not there.

There’s no gore in the film. It’s not a blood splatterfest. I’m not interested in that type of horror film, which I consider more like pornography. I want the ideas to be challenging to an audience, so that people are thinking about themselves.

Is it important for a bleak movie like mother! to still have a lot of comedy in it? Because Kristen Wiig has a supporting role in it, and one of the best things you’ve ever done is cast Todd Barry in The Wrestler.

Darren Aronofsky: I’ll have to tell Todd that! In this film, there’s so much awkwardness at the beginning, and it was really fun to play it up. I always knew that the absurd things happening to her were going to be comedic. I was excited when I saw Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer bring that craziness and humour, and then for Javier to build off of it was exciting.

Kristen Wiig is sort of comedic in a few of her scenes, but then it goes really dark. We cast that during the shooting of the film. We hadn’t been able to find the right person for it, and then Kristen was available and interested. I thought, “Hmmm. That’s a strange choice.” But it’s nice for an audience to be expecting one thing from her and then to get something completely different.

mother! made me think of Stop Making Sense in a way. The progression and the way it’s staged…

Darren Aronofsky: With how things get crazier and crazier? That’s so interesting. Look, Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense is one of my favourite films. It’s the best concert film ever done, and I’ve watched it many times. I’ve loved it since I was a teenager. I’m happy for you to see Stop Making Sense as an influence. I’ll take that.

There’s also some of that intensity in the music video you did with Lou Reed and Metallica. What are your memories of that?

Darren Aronofsky: That was amazing. It’s a shame that people didn’t love that collaboration. I was at a dinner, and Lou was there. I kind of knew Lou. We had a few mutual friends in New York, and of course, he’s a huge hero of mine. Any moments he gave me of his time were amazing.

He said, “Darren, come here!” I sat next to him. He said, “Hey, I’m gonna go shoot a music video with my band. Will you do it, with my band?”

I was like, “Your band?”

He said, “Metallica.”

I was like, “Of course. I don’t care what the song is.” And I actually think it’s a really great track.

They had no money. I think we did it for $50,000, which basically paid for the airfare to get me and Mattie Libatique, my DP, and a few of us over, and we just went into Metallica’s studio, and shot it on Super 8 in black and white. Those distorted, warped images were literally from outside the studio where they had cheap storm windows on it, and they were kind of bent. We built a tent around it and stuck them in front of it, and we just shook the storm windows to create that distortion.

So it was very simple and a few hours in a day that we did it. It was a fun experience. It’s hard to turn down Lou Reed and Metallica asking you to come shoot a music video.

mother! opens in cinemas on September 15