The psychological thriller Black Swan, set in the world of New York City ballet, follows Nina (Natalie Portman), a ballerina whose is completely obsessed with and consumed by dance. When her company’s artistic director casts her as the lead in “Swan Lake,” she must learn to play both the innocence and grace of the White Swan, as well as the sensuality and seductive nature of the Black Swan. Unsure whether she can let go and get in touch with her dark side, Nina begins to question the motives of Lily (Mila Kunis), a new dancer who has impressed everyone with her natural ability to lose herself in her performance. As Nina’s fears take over her life, she quickly spirals out of control, into a world of paranoia and delusions.
During a press conference to promote the film’s release, Academy Award nominee Natalie Portman and director Darren Aronofsky discussed the difficulty of bringing ballet to the big screen, sacrificing yourself for your art and how flattering it is that people are responding so strongly to the film. Check out what they had to say after the jump:
Question: Darren, can you talk about first meeting with Natalie for this film, 10 years ago?
DARREN ARONOFSKY: I’ve been a fan of Natalie’s since I saw her in The Professional. Luc Besson is one of my favorite directors. It turned out that her manager is an old friend of mine from college, so I had a little inside line to meet. So, we met in Times Square at the old Howard Johnson’s, which is now an American Apparel. That shows you where America is going. We had a really bad cup of coffee and we talked about early ideas that I had about the film. She says that I had the entire film in my head, which is a complete lie.
NATALIE PORTMAN: No, what he described to me was so close.
ARONOFSKY: So, we talked a bit about it and I started to develop it, but it was a really tough film because getting into the ballet world proved to be extremely challenging. Most of the time, when you do a movie and you say, “Hey, I want to make a movie about your world,” all the doors open up, and you can do anything and see anything you want. The ballet world really wasn’t at all interested in us hanging out, so it took a long time to get the information to put it together. Over the years, Natalie would say, “I’m getting too old to play a dancer. You better hurry up.” I was like, “Natalie, you look great. It’ll be fine.” And then, about a year out from filming, or maybe a little bit earlier, I finally got a screenplay together. That’s how it started.
Natalie, why was this a dream role for you?
PORTMAN: Well, I had danced when I was younger, until I was about 12, and I always idealized it, as most young girls do, as the most beautiful art. It’s an expression without words. And I always wanted to do a film relating to dance, so when Darren had this incredible idea that was not just relating to the dance world, but also had this really complicated character – or two characters, really – to go into, it was just an opportunity, especially with Darren, who is a director I would do anything for. It was just something completely exciting.
Darren, can you talk about approaching this story from the feminine perspective, as opposed to The Wrestler, which was very masculine?
ARONOFSKY: I don’t think there’s really that much difference. I don’t make that much of a big deal out of it. I think people are people and, if their feelings are truthful, they can connect. It doesn’t matter if you’re an aging, 50-something wrestler at the end of his career, or an ambitious, 20-something ballet dancer. If they’re truthful to who they are and they’re expressing something real, then audiences will connect. That’s always been the promise of cinema. That’s why we can see a film about a 7-year-old girl in Iran, or an immortal superhero in America. It doesn’t matter, as long as they’re truthful.
Are you ever as manipulative a director as the ballet director is in the film?
ARONOFSKY: I wish I could be as manipulative as Thomas Leroy in the film. I’m really way too direct, and I’ve actually scared away a lot of A-list actors. Natalie Portman is the first A-list actor I’ve worked with in my career. Everyone else went, “You want me to do what? For how long? For how little money?” And they walk away. I’ve lost a lot of movie stars, along the way. I think a more manipulative director would be like, “Oh, it’s not going to be that hard. Come in and we’ll have fun.” I think that’s when wars start. They’re like, “You told me there would be sushi on set, every day!” I’m a little bit too direct and straight-forward.
Natalie, how did you approach transforming yourself for this role?
PORTMAN: It was a great challenge, and I had really, really amazing support. All of the teachers and coaches, the choreographer and director, first and foremost, were shaping and pushing along the way. I started with my ballet teacher a year ahead of time, and she started very basically with me. We would do two hours a day for the first six months, and that was really just strengthening and getting me ready to do more, so that I wouldn’t get injured. And then, at about six months, we started doing five hours a day. We added in swimming, so I was swimming a mile a day, toning and then doing three hours of ballet class a day. And then, two months before, we added the choreography, so we were doing probably eight hours a day. The physical discipline of it really helped for the emotional side of the character because you get the sense of the monastic lifestyle of only working out, that is a ballet dancer’s life. You don’t drink, you don’t go out with your friends, you don’t have much food and you are constantly putting your body through extreme pain, so you get that understanding of the self-flagellation of a ballet dancer.
Did you train separately for the White Swan and Black Swan?
PORTMAN: The choreography were different pieces for black swan and white swan. I had an amazing coach, Georgina Parkinson, who very sadly passed away two weeks before we started shooting, and she was the premiere coach for “Swan Lake” for Odile/Odette. She worked very specifically with me on everything from fingertips to where you put your eyes on different movements, that are ballet acting. There are little gestures you can do that really differentiate between those two characters.
What was your first meal after you finished filming this and could eat again?
PORTMAN: My first meal was pasta, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I ate it all the time.
ARONOFSKY: It’s funny, the thing about that was that this was a really hard film to make. There was really no money for the film and we had to push it back a lot of times. I actually don’t mind pushing because it means I get an extra two or three weeks to get my shit together, but I only found out recently that Natalie would just be screaming at her manager that she had to live on carrots and almonds for another three weeks. She was the one who suffered the most from not eating.
Darren, how did The Red Shoes influence you and your choices in making this film?
ARONOFSKY: I had heard of The Red Shoes, but I didn’t see it. And then, Scorsese did the restoration a few years ago and I was like, “You know what? I better go and see it.” It’s a masterpiece. It’s an unbelievable film. And I saw that there were similarities in the story, but I think that’s because we both went back to ballet and pulled from ballet for the different characters and stuff, so we ended up in similar places. But, I wasn’t really influenced by it. I really didn’t ever try to be influenced by it because it’s such a masterpiece. The dance sequences were so ahead of their time. I just kept it in the back of my head. It was a long time ago.
Natalie, what was it like to wear the pointe shoes?
PORTMAN: Pointe shoes are torture devices. Ballerinas get used to it, so it was definitely a case of it being a new experience for me, but they feel very medieval.
Did studying psychology at Harvard help you in playing this character?
PORTMAN: This was actually a case where something I learned in school did translate into something practical in life, which is very, very rare. It was absolutely a case of obsessive compulsive behavior. The scratching and the anorexia and bulemia are forms of OCD. Ballet really lends itself to that because there’s such a sense of ritual, with wrapping the shoes every day and preparing new shoes for every performance. It’s such a process. It’s almost religious, in nature. And then, they have this god-like character, in their director. It really is a devotional, ritualistic, religious art, which you can relate to as an actor because when you do a film, you submit to your director in that way. Your director is your everything and you devote yourself to them because you want to help create their vision.
Natalie, how do you find your own balance when you fully put yourself into a role, and how do you pull out of that when you’re done?
PORTMAN: As soon as I finish a scene, I’m back to being me. As soon as I finish shooting, I want to be myself again. I’m not someone who likes to stay in character. This clearly had a discipline that lent itself to me being more like my character, while we were shooting, than past experiences, but I just go back to my regular life after. One of the reasons Darren and I had such telepathy during this was that I feel like he is as disciplined, focused and alert as could possibly be, and that’s what I try to be. I’m not a perfectionist, but I like discipline. I’m obedient, but I’m not a perfectionist. I think it’s important to work your hardest and be as kind as possible to everyone you work with. The goal, every day, is keeping focused on that.
ARONOFSKY: I’ve dealt with a few method actors, but I think it’s a bunch of nonsense. It’s film acting. You just have to be on when the camera is rolling. Sure, if it’s a very intense scene, you may want to keep that energy up in between the takes, while the crew is resetting, and they would all do that, but when it’s “Cut!,” it’s “Cut!” Even when it’s “Action!,” and there’s a camera and all these lights and people are moving around you, it’s impossible to fully make believe that doesn’t exist. They’re so good because they’re able to make believe that that’s not there, convincingly. But, the second it’s “Cut!,” someone is coming over to touch your mic and someone is putting powder on your face, so it is make believe. I don’t know. Whatever works. Not to scare away method actors, but I actually want to scare away method actors ‘cause it’s a pain. It’s like, “Come on! What are you doing? It’s not real! Oh, you’re really brooding? Go to your trailer. I’ll see you in an hour.”
What was it like to work opposite Barbara Hershey as your mother?
PORTMAN: Darren did a really beautiful thing, where he had Barbara write letters to me in character, as Erica to Nina, for the first portion of the film, that he would hand to me on important days of shooting that I should feel my mother. Barbara wrote really gorgeous letters that were in character and really gave a sense of our history, our love and our connection.
ARONOFSKY: And I never read the letters. I just thought it should be between the two of them.
Darren, how did you develop your shooting style for the film?
ARONOFSKY: I think it’s all about what the story is that we want to tell. The whole cinema verite, handheld approach to The Wrestler was a big risk to bring over into this ballet film because I had never seen a suspenseful film that had this handheld camera and I didn’t know if it would work. I was worried that, during a really scary scene, everyone would wonder why Natalie wouldn’t turn to the camera man and go, “Help!” But then, we were like, “Fuck it, let’s just go for it.” It’s never been done, and I really enjoyed having a man hold the camera, so that I could really move the camera in ways that you can’t, in any other way. The result of that is that the first third of the film has a very different feel than the last half of the film because it’s got this very naturalistic feel, which I think is actually kind of cool. It makes people think they’re watching a very different type of movie that can’t ever freak out the way it freaks out, yet it gives you that immediacy of being in the moment and being in this other world, with little hints. In general, it just feels like a documentary, at the beginning, before it freaks out. It worked out for us.
Can you talk about playing with genre conventions for this?
ARONOFSKY: I’m not really much of a genre guy. This was my best attempt at a genre film. I just haven’t been able to do that. I think don’t need that anymore, where you just have a very specific genre. Audiences are very sophisticated. As long as it’s fun and entertaining, it’s okay. That’s what I was trying to do. I think it’s also very different, which people who are bombarded by so much media are hungry for. It’s a very, very different experience. We were going for something that just keeps you excited, keeps you going and hopefully is memorable, so that you talk about it to other people.
How do you think ballet dancers will respond to this portrayal of the art form?
ARONOFSKY: I think so many dancers are incredibly relieved that there’s finally a ballet movie that takes ballet as a serious art and not as a place to have a love affair. If you actually look at ballet, the ballets themselves – like “Sleeping Beauty,” “Romeo & Juliet” and “Swan Lake” – are incredibly dark and gothic. This movie could have been called Swan Lake. We took the fairy tale and the ballet of Swan Lake and translated all of those characters into characters in our movie reality. It’s really just a retelling of “Swan Lake.” It definitely shows the challenges, the darkness and the reality of how hard it is to be a ballet dancer, but I think it also represents the beauty of the art and the transcendence that’s possible within the art, all within retelling “Swan Lake.” There are going to be people who always have issues with things, but most of the dancers that we’ve met and talked to about it are like, “Finally, we have a real movie about ballet!”
Natalie, how do you feel about all of the Oscar talk for this film and your performance?
PORTMAN: The best thing you can hope for, when you make a movie and you put your soul into it like all of us did, is that people respond to it well. The fact that audiences have come away moved, excited, entertained and stimulated by this film is extraordinarily flattering. It’s a great honor.