Darren Aronofsky’s feature debut, Pi, proved he could create arresting images and a compelling story with little money. From there, the budgets got bigger but the focus remained tight, and he crafted another two more challenging films—the well-received Hubert Selby depths-of-addiction adaptation Requiem For A Dream and the less-well-received The Fountain, an interlocked story of love and death rejected by the public and many critics, but adored by a growing cult audience. Working from a screenplay by Rob Siegel (a former Onion editor and—full disclosure—a friend of this writer), The Wrestler finds Aronofsky peeling back to a style even starker than that of his debut to explore the world of a professional wrestler (a revelatory Mickey Rourke) coping with the strong possibility that his best days are long gone. Shortly after winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Aronofsky spoke to The A.V. Club about the secret language of wrestlers, getting people to take wrestling seriously, and directing his own parents.
The A.V. Club: The last time we talked to you, there were around eight different movies you were about ready to direct. Why this one?
Darren Aronofsky: I spent about a year and a half doing technical post work on The Fountain. Although I do like the process, I think my favorite part of filmmaking is the actors. I kind of wanted to just do a piece that was all about acting, with very few visual effects. I looked over all the projects we had been developing, and The Wrestler with Rob [Siegel] was in pretty good shape, so we started to put all of our powers toward that.
AVC: As big a phenomenon as pro wrestling is, there have been—
DA: Well there’s been no serious films, I would say, not that I really know of. Years ago, when I graduated film school, I wrote down a list of possible films, and one of them was called The Wrestler. There are so many boxing movies that it is a genre, yet no one had ever really done a wrestling film. The more I started to check out that universe, the more unique I realized it was.
AVC: Part of the problem is that with boxing, there’s some question about the outcome, about who’ll win. But it’s different in wrestling. What kind of difficulties did that present?
DA: That was a challenge, as to how you would make a match at the end of the film that isn’t about the outcome as an athletic competition, but an outcome of a personal decision. So that was a hard challenge—and also how to portray something that people perceive as silly and fake, and basically blow off. How do you do a sincere examination of that world?
AVC: So how do you?
DA: Well I think the whole line between what’s real and fake became a big theme when Rob and I were talking about it early on, because there’s this whole idea of “Where’s the real world—is it in the ring or out of the ring?” That was a main reason why Rob fought to keep the stripper in the film. I was open to changing it, because an independent film with a stripper… I was nervous about it. The more we thought about it, the more we realized the connections between the stripper and the wrestler were really significant. They both have fake stage names, they both put on costumes, they both charm an audience and create a fantasy for the audience, and they both use their body as their art, so time is their biggest enemy.
AVC: Did you look into the fate of wrestlers and strippers after they age out of their games?
DA: Well, aging strippers, we didn’t do that research. [Laughs.] But it was clear what happens to them. Aging wrestlers, because many of them had great fame at one point, their lives as wrestlers continue. We met with a lot of the great older guys, from Greg “The Hammer” Valentine to Nikolai Volkoff to Superfly Snuka to Tony Atlas. We talked to a lot of those guys, and had long conversations about it.
AVC: Practically all of the film takes place in this world where it’s either people on their way out, or on their way up. It’s a world a lot of people don’t know exist. What was the most surprising thing you discovered as you looked into it?
DA: There’s so many things that are unique and interesting—the fraternity between wrestlers, the support structure. The fact that they speak their own language, which is filled with sideshow terms, which makes me think that wrestling probably came out of the sideshow business, a “Watch two strong men fight” type of thing. They call the audience “the marks,” they call the wresting match “the show.” They have so many terms that are just their own secret language. Even how they wrestle when they’re in the ring—they’re giving each other hand signals and taps to tell each other that it’s time to take a reverse. It’s a very complicated world that’s just years and years of men entertaining the masses.
AVC: And it’s portrayed as a world with basically no offstage rivalry. Is that an oversimplification?
DA: Oh, I’m sure. There’s definitely guys who are not popular because they hit a bit hard when they’re in the ring, they call them “stiff.” There’s also a lot of pranksters in the game, there’s a lot of practical joking going on, and there were a couple scenes with that that just didn’t make the film. But I don’t think the rivalries in any way would reflect the rivalries in the ring, if that’s what you’re asking. They have their own politics, for sure.
AVC: There’s one memorable scene with an absolutely brutal match. What do you think the appeal to the audience is to have something that violent in a wrestling event?
DA: It’s an interesting phenomenon. I mean, you can’t believe it. The level of brutality we have is nowhere near the type of stuff that goes on. The guy who Mickey Rourke wrestles in that scene is a guy named Necro Butcher, who plays himself. If you go to YouTube and search for “Necro Butcher,” you’ll see stuff that’s way more hardcore than anything we portray. I have theories of the psychology of why these people get off on it, but I think I understand how it evolved.
When the WWF became the WWE and basically admitted that wrestling was entertainment, not sport, basically everyone gave up the illusion that it was real, that it wasn’t staged. The audiences watching most wrestling do know it’s staged, but they still sort of play along with the dramatics of it. But the stuff that excites them is when these guys actually risk their health and their lives. Even in less-hardcore wrestling promotions, they get very impressed when people do these crazy leaps and jumps. In the hardcore world, it goes even further, and people are expecting these guys to hurt themselves for their entertainment. I don’t think they want someone to die, but they’re somehow getting off and enjoying the thrill of knowing that these guys are actually hurting themselves. I think it’s in direct competition with what mixed martial arts is doing. It’s a way to keep it a blood sport, basically. How’s that as my pop psychology of it? [Laughs.] I think that’s where it came from, but I don’t know.
AVC: You’ve changed your style radically with each film. Why so many radical shifts?
DA: Well I’ve been joking that if Madonna taught us anything, you’ve got to reinvent yourself. I think it’s important as a filmmaker, as any person working in the arts, that you’ve got to try new stuff and challenge yourself and take chances. I’ve tried to take a chance with every film I’ve done—I’ve never done it the easy way, and I think that’s because that’s what excites me, is making as big a mountain as I can in front of me, and just trying to mount it.
AVC: There are obviously some real disadvantages to working on such a small budget and with such a handheld approach, but what are some of the advantages you have?
DA: I found it very exciting, very fun, the whole making of this film, because it was incredibly naturalistic. The entire movie is very naturalistic, but in the execution, we tried to keep it as naturalistic as possible. So instead of lighting things for a few hours, we would spend five minutes lighting things, changing a few light bulbs, putting on a few window shades, then we would just go. Usually I talk about how my visual language comes out of the story—the story tells you how to photograph a movie. For this film, it came out of my actor, and I knew that Mickey liked freedom. So I tried to create a sandbox for him that had absolutely no boundaries, so he could basically walk out of the trailer and walk 20 blocks if that’s what he wanted to do. That’s what we were ready for. I hired a camerawoman who has done a lot of narrative features, but also a lot of natural documentaries, Maryse Alberti. I hired a production designer [Tim Grimes] that just got me great locations to work in. We do things like shoot at real wrestling promotions with real wrestling fans and real wrestlers. Everyone Mickey fought was a wrestler. We’d go up into the stands. That scene where Mickey’s watching the wrestling action, the scene ends and everyone’s backstage, and I’m like, “Mickey, go backstage,” we just threw the camera on our back and followed him, and we completely improvised that scene. In the deli scene, half of those customers were real people, they weren’t actors. In fact, at one point, a manager came up to me and said, “Hey, can you ask Mickey to write a bit neater?” I’m like, “What are you talking about?” He’s like, “Well, he’s giving people things, and the prices he’s writing—when they check out, they can’t read his writing.” Mickey didn’t know how much something was per pound! He just would write it, and they would leave with it! So it was madness. It was a lot of fun to have that pick-up-and-shoot speed again.
AVC: Did he do a lot of training for the deli scenes?
DA: He hated the deli scenes. He did not want to be there at all, so he just kind of winged it.
AVC: I honestly felt like I could watch an hour of that.
DA: [Laughs.] There is some more footage.
AVC: Were the deli customers with the last name “Aronofsky” your parents?
DA: Yes, they were in there.
AVC: What was it like directing your parents?
DA: “Mom, scream louder! No, really scream! No, scream, Mom!” It’s fun and they get a big kick out of it, so I’m just happy to have them around.
AVC: Did letting Rourke have his freedom ever work against the film?
DA: If it did, it got cut. [Laughs.] I’m pretty brutal in the cutting room. Generally if something’s not working, it’s gone. But then again, sometimes he’ll do some amazing work, but it’ll be slightly off-key because it’s just too extreme in one way or another. So it’s just an editing job, once you get all that material, to cut it all down.
AVC: How closely did you follow Mickey Rourke’s career before? What was your experience watching Mickey Rourke, coming up in the ’80s and ’90s?
DA: I was a tremendous fan in the late ’80s, early ’90s. And that’s probably why we cast him, ’cause I’ve just been a big fan wondering what happened to him.
AVC: What performances in particular?
DA: Angel Heart was one of my favorite films. Of course Barfly. I just always thought he was spectacular in those films. I remember looking at Barfly, and then seeing what was nominated that year for Best Actor, because he’s never been nominated. I was stunned. That performance is just so remarkable.
AVC: What won that year?
DA: I don’t know. Unfortunately, it was a good year. The other five performances… Bull Durham or something like that, I don’t know. It was a good year, that year. [It was 1987; Michael Douglas won Best Actor for Wall Street, beating out William Hurt, Marcello Mastroianni, Jack Nicholson, and Robin Williams. —ed.]
AVC: Speaking of Bull Durham, these wrestling leagues are kind of like the minor leagues.
DA: Yeah, definitely. That’s what it is. It’s guys who aren’t good enough to get into the WWE. At this point, it’s the WWE and everything else. And everything else is a bunch of these small promotions, the biggest one being Ring Of Honor, which is our final fight, at ROH. That’s the biggest promotion outside of the WWE. And we were able to work with them, because they need any exposure they can get, and they’re considered to be more about the wrestling. We worked with three promotions. The other promotion was the most hardcore promotion in the world.
AVC: There’s one scene where Rourke and Marisa Tomei talk about Kurt Cobain and the ’90s sucking, and the ’90s being the death of fun. Is that just a function of their age, or are they onto something?
DA: [Laughs.] Well, Rob wrote those lines. There were a lot more lines in there that were even funnier, but they just didn’t work—the actors struggled with them. But anyway, Rob wrote that work. I’ll tell you, it’s a big laugh in the movie. The few times it’s screened, people love that. It’s tapping into something. I don’t think it’s purely the spin of casting Kurt as a bad guy, which is a new look at it. The ’90s were a party, I mean definitely maybe not for that grunge movement, but people were partying harder in the ’90s than they were in the ’80s. Don’t you think so? The ’90s was Ecstasy, the ’80s was yuppies. There was that whole Ecstasy culture. People were having a pretty good time in the ’90s.
AVC: All the music cues are sort of tied in with ’80s hair metal. What is it about wrestling and hair metal that went together so well?
DA: [Laughs.] All that stuff came from Rob. You must know that he’s a big hair-metal fan. We would sit there and he would just tell me these bands. I’d be like, “Rob, I have to put this song in now—I have to choose between the Scorpions, blah-blah-blah, and Accept, which one should I choose?” He’d be like, “Scorpions!” So I think he made that connection very well, that those times overlapped. The more it started to come alive, the more we realized how fun and exciting it was. It was a blast trying to go through all that music and choose the right song for the right moment, from the Cinderella song at the beginning to “Balls To The Wall” at the end.
AVC: How have wrestling fans and wrestlers received the film?
DA: I’m going to be showing it to [WWE Chairman] Vince [McMahon] soon, so I’m very excited about that; probably in a couple weeks, I’m going to make a trip up there. But so far—basically it’s been at festivals, and the only wrestlers who have seen it are the wrestlers that helped us on the film—they feel we’ve shown a lot of respect for the craft. As far as Mickey, they say there isn’t a wrestler in the world that would not think he knows how to wrestle, and he’s probably better than 80 percent of the jobbers out there. So Mickey was happy to hear that.
But I’m really curious to see what some of these old-timers make of it. When I won the Golden Lion, I dedicated the film to all the wrestlers, I kind of shared their stories. They’re a unique lot. They’re not organized, they have no pension, no health care, so many of them are tragically dying at a young age. I was talking to Mickey, “Why aren’t wrestlers in SAG?” If you really think about it, the Screen Actors Guild should organize them. I shouldn’t let Vince hear that. But they’re performing in front of a camera, and stuntmen are SAG.
DA: I hope so. I keep getting close, but then I get the opportunity to make something I can pretty much be in complete control of. So it’s a hard opportunity to pass up, and that right big film hasn’t been there at the right time. I enjoyed my collaboration in Hollywood with The Fountain. You’ve got a lot of really smart people there that have a lot of experience in film, you can get a lot out of that, so I’m still looking for the chance to do it. Robocop’s not a script yet; hopefully it’ll be a great script and we’ll go make it.
AVC: Do you feel The Fountain has found a second audience at this point?
DA: Oh there’s definitely an audience for The Fountain. I’d say it’s probably 30-70, 30 percent of people who really get it, and those types of people have seen it a few times. The reality is, to make a commercial movie about coming to terms with death—a lot of people want to see people get killed, not a metaphysical take on death, so it’ll take its time to find people that are open to it, and there’ll always be people that won’t at all want to experience it. It’s my best work, and the final film is the film I wanted to make, and I’m very proud of it. My intention got out there.
AVC: So, more pop psychology for you: Why do people want to watch wrestling and violence, but not deal with a film that has to do with death?
DA: Well, it’s weird, because there is a theme in this that’s very similar to a theme in The Fountain. [Rourke’s character] comes to terms with who he is and has a similar kind of plunge at the end as [in] The Fountain. I think ultimately, wrestling is just an extension of gladiatorial fighting, except more civil in the sense that people aren’t being killed. It’s acting out the whole good-vs.-evil dynamic, but beyond that, there’s the whole masochism element of the wrestling. Why people are into watching people face down death and pain, is, I think… Shoot, I don’t know, there’s probably a billion other reasons, but I think a part of it is by witnessing other people going through it, you can empathize with it, and it makes you feel alive, because feeling pain is one of the things that kind of makes us feel alive. That’s your pull quote right there, “Feeling pain is what makes us feel alive!” [Laughs.]