Darren Aronofsky at El Gouna FF gives a masterclass in personal filmmaking

The American filmmaker talked about inspiration, meeting one's heroes and making personal films the audience wants to watch.
Darren Aronofsky at El Gouna FF gives a masterclass in personal filmmaking

It took him more than thirty years but Darren Aronofsky finally made it back to Egypt. “I haven’t been in Egypt since 1987,” he admitted, “which is probably before most of you were born, so it’s really amazing to be back.”

Soft spoken and kind, Aronofsky stole the show on the fourth day of GFF. At one point the Brooklyn-born filmmaker opened a bottle of water for talk moderator and GFF international programmer Teresa Cavina, who struggled with a short bout of cough, and handed it over to her. A collective “awww” went up from the audience. 

It’s not how you’d expect the man who has made such powerfully disturbing, surrealistic films to be. And yet it makes perfect sense once he begins talking about his creative process, and everything that has brought him to the successful filmmaker he happens to be today. 

One of his initial inspirations was Spike Lee, Aronofsky conceded. “How you could go out and become a director seemed like the great mystery,” he said, about growing up in an era before videocameras and iPhones. “Right when I was an older teenager, I randomly ran into the films of Spike Lee, he is also from Brooklyn where I’m from,” the filmmakers continued, “and it changed my prospective of what a movie could be, ‘cause mostly I was surrounded by Hollywood movies.” Seeing what Aronofsky calls “an independent possibility, a different way of approaching filmmaking that could be personal,” kicked off his imagination and the rest, as they say, is history. 

It was a splendid, dry and balmy late afternoon in Gouna and listening to a great maestro, the filmmaker responsible for such contemporary classics like Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan and The Wrestler really felt like a dream come true. It is breathtaking to see how El Gouna Film Festival has flourished and really come to stand on its own merits in the five years since its inception. Kudos to those who envisioned it and built it.

Now back to Aronofsky.

Throughout the fascinating masterclass, the American filmmaker talked about his creative process, and the word “personal” came up quite a bit as Aronofsky pointed to the films he loves, which always present a brand new way of looking at the world. He admitted before starting to shoot Black Swan he went and watched as many productions of the ballet Swan Lake as he could, all around the world. The most inspiring one came in St. Petersburg and coincided with his desire to make a film that would be influenced by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novella The Double

Another writer whose work left a considerable imprint on Aronofsky is the late Hubert Selby Jr., whose books inspired the filmmaker but also who wrote the novel on which his namesake film Requiem for a Dream is based. “The energy that was on the page was super exciting,” Aronofsky conceded about Selby’s writing, but it was his producer who insisted this was a film they needed to make. “You should never meet your heroes,” Aronofsky revealed, “because they’re always a letdown — when I first met Hubert Selby he was completely not what I expected because his writing was so powerful, so dangerous and so scary that I was picturing this huge monster and he was really this slight, sickly older guy.” But Aronofsky agreed that it’s ultimately OK to meet your heroes, though adding “you’ve got to spend a lot of time with them to really get to know them and understand how they work.”

During the entire talk, he encouraged questions from the audience and was supportive of the filmmakers in the audience, even asking for a show of hands to count their presence. 

Without reservations, Aronofsky talked about his next project, The Whale, a psychological thriller based on the play by Samuel D. Hunter. “All my characters,, the main character dies at the end of every movie, except for Noah, he doesn’t die, I couldn’t rewrite the Bible. Even the new one, The Whale, the main character dies at the end — sorry I gave away the ending!” He admitted facetiously. The Whale tells the story of a man whose personal choices have alienated him from the daughter he loves and who binges on food out of pain and guilt.

What became increasingly apparent during his masterclass is how deeply the filmmaker affects each viewer, as every audience member who asked a question or made a comment had a personal favourite, and they ranged from his earliest feature Pi to The Fountain, Cavina’s choice, to mother! which is this writer’s most beloved. 

Finally, an anecdote by Aronofsky which had to do with fashion and the special place it obviously occupies in his films. I mean, how many of us became obsessed with Natalie Portman’s Rodarte wardrobe in Black Swan, a choice which proved both brilliant and controversial as cinematic costume designs go.

During the filming of The Wrestler, the filmmaker talked about how “one time, Mickey [Rourke] was like “I  just bought a $3,000 Dolce & Gabbana jacket and I wanna wear it in the movie” and I said, Mickey you are living in a trailer, you can’t wear a $3,000 Dolce jacket.” Aronofsky continued the story, “he said, “I don’t care, I’m wearing it, I don’t give a s**t!” So I said, let’s make a compromise: give it to me for two days and let me just work on it and I’ll give it back to you and you can wear it.” 

After giving it to the costume department and asking them to “put it in the dryer with 14 stones for three hours, slice it up and duck tape it back together,” as Aronofsky told the audience, and beating the hell out of this three thousand dollar thing, he returned the jacket to Rourke who “looked at it, nodded and he stuck it on — it was totally beat up but the cut was still Dolce & Gabbana and it still looked f**cking good!”

El Gouna Film Festival continues through the 22nd of October. 

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