Darren Aronofsky's films have been described as both "flat-out brilliant" (Indie Wire on Black Swan) and "downright repulsive" (Forbes on mother!). One thing everyone seems to agree on, however, is the scope of his ambition. There's no doubt that the director is able to craft scenes that are as hard to look at as they are to turn away from. The triumphant Nina transforming into a swan to deliver the best ballet performance of her career, the sound of a baby's neck snapping before it is devoured by a frenzied mob, the naked fear in Sara Goldfarb's eyes when she is subjected to electroshock therapy without her consent – Aronofsky's cinema is both compelling and unnerving. "You want to take the audience on a trip. You want to constantly jolt them to keep them interested," said the director in conversation with Anupama Chopra on day 6 of the Mumbai Film Festival. Amid sips of "chai masala" mixed with an "ayurvedic cure", he gave us an insight into what he's learned over his 27-year-long career:
SELECT IMAGERY THAT WILL HOLD THE AUDIENCE'S ATTENTION
I don't know why I go back to such intense ideas and themes. I think it probably has to do with just always thinking about things are surprising, things that are exciting, that have never been done before. Especially in today's world, where it's very hard to keep people's attention. When you're watching a movie at home on a TV screen, often people are also looking at their telephones or they're looking at their tablets. So creating ideas or emotions or images that are really exciting for people and very different for them…I think these ideas just came out these stories that I was trying to tell. Why I am attracted to a certain kind of story, that you can ask my psychologist for the answer. Requiem For A Dream (2000), there's the famous shot of the guy sticking the needle into the open wound. I knew that most people in the audience would not appreciate that but the entire movie is actually summed up in that single shot. That shot shows you how far people go to feed their addictions and that's what the entire movie is. So it was one of the steps I wanted to take the audience on, to make them believe that eventually his arm would get cut off for his drugs and that all of these other characters would do these terrible things because that's the point of it. The stapler in The Wrestler (2008) is also exactly what that's about – how far people push their bodies for their art. So when I was researching The Wrestler, I found actual performers who were doing that to entertain audiences. And I realised that we would have to do include that. The extreme parts of what people do, people are still doing, it's what makes us human.
CREATE RELATABLE CHARACTERS YOU CAN EMPATHISE WITH
The great gift of cinema is empathy. You can watch a film made here in Mumbai, you can watch a film made in South Africa, you can watch a film made in New York and if the character is real, it doesn't matter what their gender, their orientation, their skin colour, their age is. You can relate to them. That's the beauty of cinema. Watching a movie is actually practising your empathy. Because you're watching a five-year-old girl in Tehran worry about a goldfish in The White Balloon (1995), you are that five-year-old girl. You are all of her worries and all of her concerns. Presenting really extreme images onscreen, if you can actually make the audience feel what that character is doing – the desperateness, the need, the pleasure , whatever it is that they need – that's expanding your own humanity…Captain America is obsessed with doing good. The Hulk is obsessed with smashing things. Characters are very consistent usually and they're all obsessed with what they do. When you start to look at it in a real way, you start to really think about what it means.
DON'T GLORIFY VIOLENCE
I hate violence. I actually treat violence honestly so that I never try to glorify that or I never try to trivialise violence. I think that in so many movies, especially in American movies, I do see it in movies made in India and movies in China, it's all over the world, you see violence that has no repercussions. You see people hurting each other but you don't really see the cost. Even the person creating the violence, you don't see the cost on their spirit. You never see the physical ramifications of that violence. And I think that's really dangerous…That's why I've always been not interested in having guns in any of my movies because of what they do to the human body. Even the way that they sound. Anyone who's actually fired a gun wears those headphones when they're practising, they're just really deafening. But they don't even capture the sound of the guns realistically. They end up dramatising it, making it sexy, normalising it so that becomes part of our humanity.
DON'T UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF A CLOSE-UP
I always say the close-up is one of the most overlooked inventions of the 20th century. It's probably one of the most important inventions. I think as filmmakers, when we were able to put the camera right next to the actor's face, everything changed for cinema. If you're talking to someone, you generally don't make eye contact. Most of the time, you're thinking down there, thinking about something else. But to actually tune in to someone is a very hard thing to do. What the close-up allows is the camera is very close to the actor and you in a dark room are not at all self-conscious. Normally when you're having a conversation, you're talking to someone, your brain is thinking about a lot of different things depending on who that person is to you. But when there's a big movie star, who is often an incredibly attractive person, you're not thinking about anything except for what they're thinking. So it's this portal of empathy. You're imagining what it's like to be that person with these problems. That's the magic of cinema – it's the close-up. Russell Crowe, with the tiniest muscle in his lower eyelid, can twitch it and every single person in the world understands that same emotion. It's where great talent comes from.
KNOW WHEN TO TAKE IT TOO FAR AND WHEN TO QUIT
You never want to do anything that's going to be so extreme that the audience is going to not want to be there with you anymore. So you're thinking: What are they expecting? And what can I show them that will surprise them, wow them, maybe even scare them, but never go so far that I'm going to lose them. So it's always about how far to push it. There's some stuff you hold back and say, 'You know what? That was too much.' The scene in Black Swan (2010)when Natalie (Portman) pulls a feather out of her back and the final thing is her knee cracks back one way and the other knee cracks back the other way and she falls over, the studio was like, 'That's too f*****g far.' and I was like, 'No it's hilarious.' We fought about it, eventually I won. I remember sitting at one of the premieres and when that happened, there were some screams of horror but there were also people laughing and I was like, 'You see!' I got the best compliment. Someone who was working with Ridley Scott on Prometheus (2012) told me that Ridley called everyone to his office to show them that scene. As a good thing, not as a bad thing. The baby eating was in the script. They were terrified. But Jennifer Lawrence, she's such a big star, she was able to make the movie.
MAKE YOUR ACTORS FEEL SAFE
Really what it's about is trust. It's about communication. It helps now that I have a decent track record with actors so that other actors can say, 'Oh he's going to help me get to this place.' But it's very much about spending time with an actor, trying to figure out what they're going to need to feel safe. What you do is create an environment where they can take risks and they want to take risks. A lot of actors will take chances and then get burnt by their directors. Instead of becoming an open flower, they end up closed. Your job very much as a director is to take that flower and make it open up as much as possible to show all of its beauty, to show all of its humanity, to not hold anything back. So you just have to figure out how to do that. It's generally being honest, being trustworthy. Sometimes, little tricks can help. But you'll only want to trick an actor if they're game and open and they want to be tricked. Sometimes you're trying to get an actor scared and based on trust, they know at some point you're going to blow an air horn next to them, just to help them get scared. You don't want to do that to a stranger, you want to do that to someone who knows you're working on the same project, trying to get to the same result.