Ever since his emergence with the breakout indie feature “Pi” (1998) – a schizophrenic sci-fi mediation on life, death and the cruelty of fate – writer-director Darren Aronofsky became something of a wunderkind who, unfortunately, would fall prey to artistic hubris and creative excess by the time he directed the incomprehensible time travel fable, “The Fountain” (2006). But in between the two milestone films, the director managed to turn grim subject matter – drug addiction, madness and the End Times – into exciting cinema by drawing upon his hip-hop influences to create a hyperkinetic filmmaking style that encompassed high-speed editing and rapid-fire images. But beyond the surface of his filmmaking technique was an obsessive drive to artistically answer the Big Questions of why we’re here and what’s after death. In the process, Aronofsky created a legion of Gen-X, post-punk adherents who flocked to every movie, while receiving a fair share of criticism for his overreaching pretensions. Nonetheless, Aronofsky remained a dedicated artist, steadfastly refusing to succumb to studio pressures on his way to making visually flamboyant, metaphysically probing and emotionally engaging films.
Aronofsky was born on Feb. 12, 1969 and raised in the Manhattan Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. Both his parents, Abraham and Charlotte, were school teachers, giving the young lad an interest in artistic pursuits – if not filmmaking just yet. He was at first, interested in black-and-white photography, then began writing angst-ridden teenage prose while attending Edward R. Murrow High School. Influenced early on by “The Twilight Zone,” Bill Cosby and MTV, Aronofsky began developing an interest in film when he saw Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986) by sheer happenstance – the blockbuster he meant to see was sold out – and was immediately blown away, in part because the film took place in his native Brooklyn. Aronofsky meanwhile headed to Harvard University in 1987, where he studied anthropology, but began shifting towards film, thanks to his animator roommate whose completed films at the end of every year looked much more appealing than a pile of boring papers. He switched gears to general studies and began making short films, one of which, “Supermarket Sweep,” was a 1991 Student Academy Award National Finalist.
A year after graduating Harvard, Aronofsky departed for Los Angeles to attend the American Film Institute, where he earned a master’s in directing. After returning to New York in 1995 with advanced degree in hand, Aronofsky began work on his first independent feature, “Pi,” a surrealist thriller that followed a reclusive mathematics genius, Max Cohen (Harvard classmate Sean Gillette), in his obsessive drive to find a unifying numerical pattern in the stock market, which attracted the attention of a Wall Street company seeking to dominate the financial world and a ruthless Kabbalah sect wanting to unlock the secrets of their sacred texts. Aronofsky put together the project with help from numerous friends and family, generating $60,000 through hundreds of $100 donations, while his mom contributed bagels and cream cheese for the crew. Shot guerilla-style throughout New York City, “Pi” originated from an epiphany Aronofsky had on a road trip to Belize that, despite the seeming chaos of life, there is an underlying order unifying everything. “Pi” emerged from the 1998 Sundance Film Festival a fan favorite, while Aronofsky propelled his career by winning the festival’s Directing Award for Drama.
Because of the relative success of “Pi” – it was a critical darling, but by no means a blockbuster with a $3 million take at the box office – Aronofsky was able to pay back – with a profit – the many contributors who made his first film possible. He then began planning his second film, starting with the desire to make “the darkest, most f***ed up movie possible,” he told The Sunday Herald. That desire led Aronofsky to adapt Hubert Selby’s stark tale about addiction and obsession, “Requiem for a Dream” (2000), in typically bleak and unrelenting fashion. The story followed three young heroin addicts – Harry, Marion and Tyrone (Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans)—in their quest to become successful drug dealers while barely being able to support their own habits. Meanwhile, Harry’s mother (an excellent Ellen Burstyn) goes on a maddening overdose of television and diet pills after she gets a call to appear on her favorite game show. All fall prey to their various delusions, succumbing instead to their overpowering addictions. The stark and often depressing film, which was brought to vibrant life through Aronofsky’s signature hip-hop style of filmmaking, garnered critical kudos, as well as an Best Actress Oscar nod for Burstyn.
Labor of love hardly described Aronofsky’s next project, “The Fountain” (2006), an ambitious and often bewildering tale told in three different time periods, but employing the same actors in different roles who were – thematically at least – linked. Ultimately a love story about a scientist (Hugh Jackman) struggling to save his wife (Rachel Weisz) from terminal cancer, “The Fountain” took Aronofsky six years – and many wasted millions of dollars – to make. In August of 2002, his original conception for the film starred Brad Pitt and was set to film in Australia. But after months of struggling with financing and story issues, a disgruntled Pitt left seven weeks before production, leaving Aronofsky, a large crew and a replica of an ancient Mayan temple in the lurch. After suffering a near-mental breakdown – he disappeared to China for several weeks – Aronofsky returned depressed and withdrawn. Eventually, he resolved to make the film, sanity be damned, managing to get Warner Bros. – the first studio to back the project – to fund a revamped version to be shot on a soundstage, minus elaborate special effects and battle scenes conceived for the original draft. Starring Jackman, Weisz and old favorite Ellen Burstyn, the new “Fountain” was shot for a relatively modest $35 million. Reaction at the 2006 Venice International Film Festival was as mixed as the subsequent film reviews – lavish praise and punishing scorn. Though he struggled long and hard to get his film made, Aronofsky only managed to reinforce his reputation as a gifted, but exceedingly difficult genius.