Darren Aronofsky Interview THE WRESTLER

     December 23, 2008

Written by Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub

Since the Venice Film Festival, I’ve been hearing the insane buzz regarding director Darren Aronofsky’s new movie “The Wrestler”. People have been raving about not only the film, but Mickey Rourke’s performance as Randy “The Ram” Robinson. And now that I’ve seen it, I understand why.

Simply put, “The Wrestler” is one of the best films I’ve seen this year and I cannot recommend it enough. Performances from the entire cast are amazing, and as you watch the movie, you feel like you’re watching a documentary rather than something scripted. Go see this movie.

Anyway, I recently was able to participate in roundtable interviews with everyone who made the movie and the one below is with director Darren Aronofsky.

During our conversation, Darren tells some great behind the scenes stories, the casting process, what will be on the DVD, and a lot more. Trust me, this is a great interview with a extremely talented director.

As always, you can either read the transcript or listen to the audio by clicking here. Finally, here’s a link to some clips from “The Wrestler” and here’s Matt’s review.

Question: So we were just talking a few minutes ago about the photography from behind him for part of the film. I mean for a lot of the film actually there’s a lot of literally following him and I’m just wondering can you talk a little bit about your choice for doing that?

Darren Aronofsky: I don’t know. It just sort of came and a lot of this film the first time I kind of went and I did a lot of preparation but I didn’t come to set with a shot list. I just sort of waited for the actors to create what they were going to do on-set. And I just really wanted to be open to what they were doing and then figure out how to photograph it. So, there’s really no way to…if you’re doing naturalism there’s really no way to walk backwards with an actor on their face because first of all to move a camera backwards that quick it’s a pain in the butt, but also-you know-the actor has to sort of block it out because it’s right there. So it’s much more easy to go right behind him and this whole documentary approach it just sort of made sense. And I think at the beginning of the film why there’s so…you’re going to be with Mickey’s character for 100 minutes and I think people are curious about Mickey and what he looks like and I wanted to give it a slow introduction and the way he uses his physicality is so unique. I mean, he’s such a full-body actor. He’s not just a face, you know? So I think that I wanted to emphasize that.

Why is this such an important film for you to make? What made you want to do this project?

Darren: It’s always the hardest question because it’s not something you’re really conscious of. It’s something that you feel in your belly and you know if you make a film you’ve got to live with these characters for 2 years and you’ve got to listen to many, many people say no to you. So you’ve got to feel it down there. You never know why it happens, it just sort of percolates up.

Did you have a particular though in wrestling?

Darren: No. I mean, when I graduated film school in 90 something—3 or 4 or something, I made a list of ideas for films. And one of them was called “The Wrestler” and it came out of the observation that no one had ever taken a serious look at this yet. It’s such a major phenomenon in the United States. It has such a long history and it’s such a huge, popular sport. And no one’s ever documented it. I think that’s mostly because people hear it’s fake and they think it’s a joke. But for me the whole line of what’s real and what’s fake is-you know-if you’re 250 pounds jumping off the top rope no matter who you are you’re going to feel that, so it’s not really fake. There’s the whole reality happening.

I was going to say that a friend of mine told me that recently a lot of the professional wrestlers from the 80’s have begun dying because of stuff that they’ve done. The hardships that they’ve put into their body. How much did that…did you research any of that? Did you know about that?

Darren: The ones who have made it this far are far and few in between. I mean, these guys have lived a really hard life and-you know-when you meet someone who 10-15 years ago was playing in front of 50,000 people and now they’re suddenly in front of 200 people and they’re not just doing it for the money. They’re doing it also to hold onto their craft and hold onto the glory. It’s really dramatic. We’re going to do a premiere and we’ve got some legends coming down and one of them is in a wheelchair and it’s very, very sad. They’ve got no protection, no pension, no worker’s comp. Nothing. And they worked 350 days a year and by the time their bodies were used up-you know-their real lives were basically in shambles. So you know it’s a story that hasn’t been told and we wanted to tell it.

Did you spend much time going to the matches and were there specific things you picked up, if you did, going to those matches that wound up in the movie?

Darren: Oh, everything. I mean, well first of all everything you see with the…every wrestler you see in the movie is a real wrestler. All the fans are real fans. We put on real live wrestling promotions and put on the matches and when the match was over me, Mickey and the camera woman would run out into the ring. Shoot a piece of the match and we’d leave and a match would be put on. We kind of leap frogged through the night. My co-producer became a wrestling promoter to get it done. And so they were all real moments. And you know, Mickey’s speech at the end, that we witnessed someone from the Hart family—one of the young Hart offspring’s that made the speech and we looked at each other—me and the writer—and we’re like we’ve got to use this. This is great. And Mickey actually 2 days before he did that, re-wrote it and made it a little bit of his own.

Can you talk a little about the tone? I was so impressed that it could have been so over the top and kind of a phony…because some of those matches do come out like that and even when they’re onstage I didn’t feel that. Was that a hard tone to find doing it?

Darren: Yeah, I mean we were just being realistic. It was very tough because-you know-you’re doing something…it was an interesting sound issue because you’re doing…the hits are fake in one way but they’re real as well in the sense that Mickey was actually getting hit but he wasn’t getting hit full-force like a real…and neither do real wrestlers. They’re holding the punches but they’re still hitting each other and making huge noises so when we got to sound design-because those noises were underneath crowd and the camera noise and all that other noise-the question was what type of sound effect to put in because you want to put a sound effect in that’s real, but not John Wayne real, you know? Or John Wayne fake. So this whole line between fake and real was a real challenge as a filmmaker because you’re showing something that’s scripted and you’re showing something where these athletes are taking care of each other but they’re also putting on a show and they are actually hurting themselves and each other, so that line was really a big challenge of how to get that right. But, one again, we were going for something that was naturalistic and realistic.

I was particularly speaking more about the performances when they’re onstage like a Hulk Hogan, who are just so over the top, and I didn’t feel you did that in this which I really liked. Did you feel that when they were onstage that they were three times bigger than life or did you choose wrestlers that…?

Darren: Well, I mean Hulk Hogan happens to be the biggest of the biggest performance and that’s why he’s the biggest star, but there are wrestlers that definitely were the level of Randy the Ram that we were…I mean Randy was never supposed to be Hulk Hogan style fame. He was supposed to be like a middle ranged star. He was never supposed to be that famous. And none of these names will mean anything to you but like a Brutus Beefcake, Greg the Hammer Valentine level. It’s not the super-duper level but anyone…I mean have you ever heard of Greg the Hammer Valentine? No, you haven’t but all the people who were in wrestling for a little bit you’ve heard of them. So he was famous within that world but never really broke out of it. And I think Hulk started this whole other type of wrestling where it became as much about the performance as about the athletics, but there were a lot of guys that were just more about the athletics and on the same type of level of performance as The Ram.

Can you talk about why Mickey was your best choice for this role?

Darren: Well, in retrospect it seems obvious, but you never really know that when you’re casting. It’s very hard to put your finger on it. It was a very hard role to cast because there was the emotional end of the role, which someone had to pull off the humor as well as-you know-the sadness and the tragedy and to find an actor that surprising it’s hard, you know? But when you meet Mickey…have you guys had him in here yet?

He already was.

Darren: He’s-you know-he’s got all this armor, you know, and he’s got all these flashy colors on him and they’re basically all to distract you from looking in his eyes, which are just alive with so much soul and a lot of pain. And as a director when you look in them you just see the fire burning and you’ve just got to…it gets exciting. You want to capture that when you see that. And the physicality was tough. Now it seems obvious, but normally he’s about 195, which is…he’s a big guy but he’s no where the size of these wrestlers and he had to put on 35 pounds of muscle. So when I first met him I didn’t know if he could do something like that and you know 6 months of lifting, 5,000 calories, he did it.

How different would the movie have been with Nick Cage?

Darren: I mean if I were a painter it would be…it’s about color, you know? The actor is the color. I mean, that’s how—it would have been a completely different film. Who knows what it would be?

The first match that we see—Randy and where he actually cuts himself—that match seemed to have kind of like a grittier more underground feel than the other fights that we see him in.

Darren: Grittier than the hardcore match?

Yeah. There was something about it. It had this underground sort of feel, so…

Darren: I think it had to do with the room. It was the room. The room was a dancehall in Jersey. It was a place where they actually threw wrestling events and the lights really never come down. There’s no big spots and that’s how they do it there. So I think it feels less of a stadium than the…the next two matches were bigger arenas and more traditional wrestling places. And I think that’s what gave it that feel. You see really deep into the stands and stuff. CZW and the ring of honor fights where you could see 4-5 rows into the fans and that’s it. And I think that’s what gave it that feel. It just feels very low rent, but it is low rent.

You know what really compliments the tone of the film too is what you show backstage. The camaraderie that exists between these guys that if you don’t know anything about the profession, you might think that some of it’s for real and yet they’re choreographing everything. Is that intentional to show that?

Darren: Oh absolutely. I mean, you know…yeah. I wanted to show as much as the world as possible. A lot of that was improvised and it just sort of happened. We were backstage with the wrestlers and I said “hey guys just talk about your matches” and we just shot it. The scene with Necro Butcher—the guy with the staple gun? That was just an improvised scene when they talked about it. We were waiting to go onstage and I said “oh we’ve got some time. Let’s just shoot you guys talking” and I said “Mickey, ask him where he’s from, where he got his name and ask him what you’re going to do tonight” and the Necro just made up those lines and it came alive.

Is he a real guy and is that his act?

Darren: Oh yeah. He’s the Necro Butcher. He’s kind of this underground cult American hero.

He was really tame in the movie.

Darren: Yes, exactly. Got to YouTube and look up Necro Butcher. If you want to—if you want some more gore. If you dare. He’s kind of this top-billing marquee name. He comes out…he’s always the last match pretty much and he’s underground and the crowds go crazy when he comes because they know they’re going to get blood. But he’s the sweetest guy in the world. He’s actually changed his name. CZW now calls him Hollywood Dylan Summers. Dylan Summers is his real name and he’s got a manager named Aaron Aronofsky.

The perils in the story between Randy and Pam are just-you know-that’s the central in the story, but can you talk a little bit about developing her…Marissa’s character because I thought that was really another interesting aspect of the story? It’s just she’s going through a very similar situation as….

Darren: Yeah, well that was always when you’re doing an independent film and a stripper shows up a lot of red flags go off because it could be a cliché. But the similarities between a stripper and a wrestler which first of all the truth of the matter is that when wrestlers are done—real wrestlers are done with their matches—they usually take their gate and go to the strip club. So that’s probably where the idea started, but then the more we thought about it—an aging stripper and an aging wrestler have a lot of similarities, you know? They’re both onstage using their bodies and they both have stage names. They both create a fantasy for the audience. They’re both endangered by time. So it just became very interesting and for us, as much as she a romantic interest she is a mentor for him because she’s kind of got a better sense of what’s real and fake while his whole sense of real and fake is he kind of ignores it.

Can you tell about the casting of Marissa for this role?

Darren: Well, you know I think she’s always talented. Often underused. Brings a lot of complexity. I thought it would be a very surprise performance from her because she’s often very…. she’s cast as being very sweet. And I liked the fact that she played against it, you know?

If I could bring us back to Randy’s place in the hierarchy, where he’s obviously not supposed to be to top superstar. It’s a lot of parallel to the character of Jake the Snake Roberts, who I don’t know if you or Rob Siegel went back to the documentary “Beyond the Mat” because Jake and Randy’s stories parallel greatly, especially the daughter angle, the recreational drug use, although Jake’s was a little more serious than that. Did you go back into that to look into that? Did you draw from that?

Darren: Well, we were working on the film for a long time before that came out and when that documentary came out we were a little concerned because we saw the parallels, but then again I was relieved because it meant that a lot of people would see that documentary and would be introduced to that world so it wouldn’t be so alien. Unfortunately a lot of these old-timers that we met, a lot of these legends, Jake the Snake’s story isn’t very original. There are many, many guys out there with the same story so it’s almost a cliché, you know? They work 350 days a year and by the time, as I said, their bodies are done their home lives are destroyed. Then they’re just sort of driving on fumes, you know? For me, Rowdy Roddy Piper came to a screening the other night and he was the first legend to see it and he said it’s not my story but it is my story. And so I think a lot of legends are going to relate to it.

He’s seen the story over and over again.

Darren: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. Yeah.

One of the things about your filmography is your jumping from genre to genre. I wanted to know if you could talk about what interests you about…

Darren: I didn’t know I did any genre films. What would be a genre?


Darren: “The Fountain” is sci-fi? Is it really?

Well, I could make it sci-fi, but what I’m mostly curious about…I wanted to also just talk about the fact that your next scheduled to do a big sci-fi movie for MGM.

Darren: I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Yeah, I don’t know either, but according to the always accurate IMDB.

Darren: No, no. I never heard about that.

You do switch a lot between big budget and low budget films, so can you talk about the challenges of both and was it a relief after the long slog of The Fountain?

Darren: Well it wasn’t for me a long slog. “The Fountain” –every minute of the 6 years I worked on it was filled was excitement. (Laughter) and it was. It was a long trek and it’s all part of the journey to make a film and it was what was necessary to get the film made. But, you know, this one was exciting because it was all about actors and that’s something that I’ve always loved doing is working with actors. And you get to do so little as a director that when I started that’s all I really was interested in was just unleashing Mickey and Evan onto cellulite and see what would happen.

As a quick follow-up, is there a big budget film coming next? Will you be rebounding?

Darren: I have got no idea what’s next. I don’t have a script yet so I’m waiting. That’s the first step.

Then I’ll ask you, what can fans look forward to of this film on DVD/Blu-ray?

Darren: Well, the guy who made the documentary on “The Fountain”, which was a really good documentary, which is on the DVD did one on “The Wrestler”. And he really outdid himself. It’s a great documentary. I just saw the first cut yesterday and it’s fantastic. There’s some really cool stuff. Some nice bloody wrestling extras.

Are there deleted scenes?

Darren: I don’t think I’m going to do deleted scenes. Although in the documentary there’s a lot of deleted stuff. The guy who directed it asked for it so I gave him a lot of the really cool shots we weren’t able to use. In fact, I just remembered one I’ve got to tell him to use. Sorry. I’ve been meaning to tell him forever, sorry.

While you’re writing that down, I wanted to know what’s your thought as a filmmaker in future projects regarding 3-D and IMAX?

Darren: I think it’s great and I think all these new technologies are great to try and draw people in, but I think the bottom line it comes down to stories. And you’ve got to hook them with stories because they’ve been trying to put 3-D into the world for…I remember when I was—in the 80’s I don’t actually remember the year, but they put out a bunch of 3-D movies and you go and you see one of them and if the film sucks it’s just a gimmick, you know, and you can only do that much type of stuff reaching out in front of you before it’s flat. So it’s all about the stories. So you’ve got to figure out interesting things to tell them. 3-D and how that technology works and interesting things. I mean this film in IMAX would be no better. It really wouldn’t. It would be impossible to shoot really because of the size of those cameras, so you’ve just got to find the right medium for the right story and ultimately hopefully those mediums will be used for good stories. Let’s just…Do you guys have any questions because I sort of got a signal.

I was just curious in all this research that you do on wrestling and the wrestlers was there something in particular that really surprised you that you weren’t expecting to learn?

Darren: Oh yeah. The complexity of the brotherhood and sisterhood—because there’s a lot of sisters in it—was really not just the fraternity that they were all friends and all of that stuff—not friends but they all kind of respected each other but it’s a real craft. They have a whole language of moves and there’s a whole history of it. They speak their own language which kind of I think of comes out of…he might be able to tell us more… I think the whole history comes out of carnivals and I think they probably have come fight the Strong Man. If you pin him, you get a dollar whatever it is. And then it evolved into something, but they speak in their own language where the audience is the mark. They call it “the show” for the event. The good guys “the baby face” and the bad guys “the heel”. They have a whole language about that’s their own which is very much like carnie language. So just the complexity of the world was interesting. It’s not just as silly as most people think it is.

I was just going to ask how you feel about Mickey’s personal journey because he’s come through a lot to actually have this comeback opportunity and he’s getting a lot of talk about awards.

Darren: Yeah, yeah. I’m psyched for him and I’m more excited as a fan because I’m really curious to see how other directors use him, so it’s great. Thank you guys. See you later, bye-bye.

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