A product of Harvard and the American Film Institute, Brooklyn-born filmmaker Darren Aronofsky seems to have been destined to make the stark, egghead science-fiction movie , which won the Directing Award for Dramatic Competition at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. [Pi]'s concept–a mathematical genius discovers an elaborate numerical code, and must protect himself from those who want it–stems from both Aronofsky's stint on a kibbutz in Israel and the Wall Street fate met by many of his childhood friends. Since the film's word-of-mouth-generating showing in Utah, Aronofsky has signed a multi-picture deal with Miramax. The Onion recently spoke with Aronofsky about the hype, making a low-budget film look expensive, and the reality of compromise.
The Onion: Has all the pre-release attention [Pi] has received built up a lot of pressure?
Darren Aronofsky: Pressure to get laid, maybe.
O: Well, [Pi]'s not a very commercial movie...
DA: Ah, you're wrong about that, friend!
O: You think [Pi] is a commercial movie?
DA: It's a purely commercial movie. It's the most commercial movie of the summer. You want to hear why? Because the star of the movie is the ideas. They're the same ideas people have been curious about throughout time. Look at The Celestine Prophecy, look at The Bible Code, best-sellers around the world. People want to know why we're here, the meaning of life, who is God, where is God, what is God. Those are the sort of the issues that [Pi] plays with. I think if theater owners aren't wimps and people start to realize the film's interesting themes, we'll get them in the theater.
O: The filmmaking itself is kind of a return to the more visual days of indies, directors like David Lynch. Most independent films these days, if they are confrontational, are almost never stylistically confrontational. It's always the subject matter, like the sex, violence, or language. [Pi] is a full-on sensory assault.
DA: From the beginning, we knew we wanted to make a movie that was completely original, unique, and different, because I think audiences have a sort of hunger after seeing the same Hollywood schlock over and over again. There's always interest in seeing something new. Independent films rarely give that to the audiences anymore. When I was growing up, the films that I liked, movies like A Clockwork Orange—I used to go to midnight screenings of that in Manhattan and get blown away... I always wanted to make a film that was as exciting and challenging as that for an audience. The most important part of the film, and one of the reasons I think it's commercial, is that [Pi] is just a thriller. It's a chase film; it's adrenaline-driven. We wanted to make a roller-coaster ride for 90 minutes, where audiences would just be strapped in and stay glued to their seats. With that goal... If we accomplished the thriller goal, I knew that we could push the themes a bit and push the style. If I had the audience sitting there the whole time wondering where the film was going, I knew I could play with the other stuff.
O: Was the idea from the start to make something both visually arresting and intellectually stimulating?
DA: Yeah, we constantly wanted it to be different. We wanted to be visually unlike anything anyone had seen before. That's why we shot in black-or-white as opposed to black-and-white; that's why we fused in all these wild, new types of shots [like the "Heat-Cam" and "Vibrator-Cam"]. We wanted to change film grammar and make choices that were new to the screen.
O: Was that difficult on a low budget?
DA: Oh, yeah. It's a huge challenge. It's much easier to just set up a camera in the corner and play out the scene, but that wasn't gratifying. My favorite types of films make me go, "Wow, that's awesome." We wanted our camera to do that for people. We just stuck it everywhere we could. We were inspired a lot by comic books. The great thing about comic books is that they can stick the "camera" anywhere. There are no budget problems with sticking it 300 feet in the air. So we tried to do that as much as possible.
O: How much did the movie finally cost?
DA: It cost $60,000 to get it to a finished cut. All the shooting, and all the cutting to videotape. It cost more money to get it blown up to 35mm and get it professional-sounding. The film you see on the screen is definitely very low-budget, but it doesn't look that way. It's totally encased in its own visual style, so it works on that [low-budget] level. With favors, though, you could make a movie for nothing. You know, borrow the camera, get the film for free. With [Pi], the actual cost including the favors would be astronomical. It's easily a $2 million movie with all the favors we had, and the crew that worked for deferments. It's a lot of money. That's why it looks like a $2 million movie: It actually was a $2 million movie. But actual dollars spent, cash laid out, is $60,000.
O: Do you think that the "money-first, movie-second" quagmire many young filmmakers must face hinders their creativity?
DA: No, I think it totally expands your creativity. The problem with many big-budget films is that they have the money, and then they're just walking though the moves. I think when you're limited by your resources you have to get more creative. Your boundaries create your reality, and within that reality, you try to turn those limitations into your strengths. The bottom line is that if something doesn't work, you have to cut it. You can't just say, "Well, it was three o'clock in the morning, and my actor was barfing, and it was cold, and that's why it looks like this." You can't do that. Either it works or it doesn't work. Period. The end. So we didn't even want to get into that situation. We basically asked, "What can we do?" And once we knew, we said, "Let's push it as far as we can and make it as exceptional as we can in that direction."
O: Do you already find it a challenge to follow up your first feature?
DA: No, I'm just going to constantly push the edges as much as I can. I have a very big interest in making big Hollywood films, but I want to make sure that they're different and unique. I think any company getting in business with me will expect that of me. I'm not the kind of guy you just hire for a romantic comedy with Julia Roberts. When you're spending other people's money, you have to make some compromises because, you know, it's other people's money. It's always a game of checks and balances. You just have to find the smartest road and make the smartest compromises.