“Back When Brooklyn Was Brooklyn”: Director Darren Aronofsky Talks About Brooklyn, Film-Making, and Hubert Selby Jr. at the New Museum

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Last night, Academy Award-nominated director Darren Aronofsky—who just so happens to have been Brooklyn-born and -raised—was in conversation with writer Lynne Tillman at The New Museum as part of the annual Stuart Regen Visionaries Series; past Visionaries include architect Maya Lin, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, choreographer Bill T. Jones, and chef Alice Waters. In a career that spans just over 15 years, Aronofsky has made 6 films—Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, Black Swan, and Noah—all of which fall under the “love them or hate them” category more consistently—and thrillingly—than any other director’s oeuvre I can think of. By this I mean, is there any other director whose work is more fun to fight about? This, of course, is one of the most fascinating things about Aronofsky—even if you don’t love all of his films, it is impossible not to admire his clarity of vision and his commitment to his ideas. It is also due to this refusal to compromise in his work that he has become one of the few young American directors (the other springing most immediately to mind is Paul Thomas Anderson) who can rightly be called an auteur and judged on their complete body of work.

And so it was with some excitement that we headed into the New Museum after-hours last night to hear Aronofsky talk about his career (and, of course, ok, part of that excitement is just due to the fact that we like going into any museum after-hours for just about any event: The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler was not one of our favorite childhood books for nothing). Over the course of the hour-plus conversation with Tillman (who has seen every Aronofsky film “2 or 3 times,” save The Fountain, which she has seen “5 or 6”), we learned many things (more than 2 or 3, or even 5 or 6) about the director, which we will now present to you in list form, even though lists seem to be pretty much the opposite of Aronofsky’s directorial style, unless you consider split-screen shots to be list-like. We don’t. Anyway!

Aronofsky almost became a sculptor instead of a filmmaker: While at Harvard, Aronofsky was drawn to both creative disciplines—and still finds “filmmaking to be very sculptural”—but was dissuaded from the visual arts due not just to his parents’ dismissal of the form as being nothing more than “arts and crafts,” but also because he couldn’t get into a sculpture class one semester, but could get into a filmmaking one.

Aronofsky became a Fellini fan based on unorthodox reasons: Well, or maybe it’s the most orthodox reason? Anyway, Aronofsky recounted spending his youth in video stores where he was able to “stumble upon” the greats, like Kurosawa and Fellini. But he admitted that he wasn’t attracted to the videos because he knew who the directors were, rather he first picked up Kurosawa because he liked the image of a samurai, and he fell for Fellini due to the fact that the VHS box “probably had a girl with big tits on it.” (It was Amarcord, wasn’t it? Probably!)

Aronofsky is more squeamish about graphic movie violence than you’d think: Despite being responsible for some of the most flinch-worthy, squirm-inducing scenes in modern cinema (that Requiem scene with Jared Leto’s arm! Natalie Portman pulling off her cuticle! ah!), Aronofsky claims that if he sees “a needle go into an arm” he’s “the first one under the covers.”

Growing up in southern Brooklyn contributed a great deal to Aronofsky’s aesthetic sensibility: The director spoke eloquently about the landscape of despair that he encountered daily as a kid, remembering the “Lynchian beauty of growing up like [he] did, a beach covered in trash, the irony of a dead amusement park.”

Aronofsky still loves Brooklyn: Despite having had this to say during his conversations with Tillman: “Growing up in Brooklyn—back when Brooklyn was Brooklyn, and not the kind of creature it is now—there were two kinds of people: the ones who would spend their lives in Brooklyn, and the ones who wanted to escape to the big city;” Aronofsky followed up later by telling me that he “still loves Brooklyn!” He’s here every day actually; his office is in Williamsburg.

Aronofsky likes vampires: Well, ok, not, like Twilight vampires. In fact, probably the cinematic opposite of that! Aronofsky spoke very admiringly of the film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, by young, US-based writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour, and said he was blown away by it at Sundance. He also credited it and other films he saw at the Toronto International Film Festival as being evidence that it was still possible for young directors to make their way without having huge amounts of backing, much as Aronofsky himself did when he made Pi for under $60,000. (Which, he pointed out, is about the same amount as one year at NYU’s graduate film program, at which he teaches. So!)

Aronofsky called Hubert Selby Jr. “Cubby”: As big fans of both Selby and Requiem for a Dream, we were really interested in what Aronofsky had to say about his time working with Selby. We weren’t disappointed. “Cubby” (as his friends called him) was apparently incredibly easy to contact: all Aronofsky had to do was call up the WGA and Selby invited him to come over to his place in LA. While Aronofsky expected to be greeted by a “fat guy with an axe,” Selby was instead a friendly “bean-pole in tighty-whities.” More than just that, Aronofsky spoke of how Ellen Burstyn described Selby as a boddhicitta, or one who “leads people to the light.” Aronofsky recalled the countless Narcotics Anonymous members who attended Selby’s memorial service, and all spoke of how much the writer had helped them overcome their disease. Which, really, came as a beautiful reminder that no matter “how far or how dark we go to serve our addiction,” there is always a hope that we might find the light.

To watch a live-stream of the event, visit here.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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