Assembled in a modest air-conditioned hall in the ArtScience Museum on a sweltering Friday afternoon, about a hundred participants turned up for an exclusive event held by the 27th Singapore International Film Festival, and tuned in to the conversation between two men on stage. Decked in a black button-up long sleeve shirt, casual khaki pants and a white cap that had a bright red ‘L’ engraved in an gothic font hailing back to medieval times, Mr. Aronofsky was comfortably slumped on a single lounge chair, his right hand gripping a microphone firmly at its base. Projected right above him on a huge drop-down screen that projected an enlarged image of him down on one knee, camera in hand, eyebrows furrowed, as if there were a thousand flashing cameras pointed at him – probably no different than what he felt now. A masterclass was in session, and seated students were eager to learn from their teacher – acclaimed filmmaker, director, and screenwriter, Darren Aronofsky.
Darren Aronofsky found his directorial fame in the 1998 Sundance Film Festival for his first feature film Pi, at a time where the festival was still toted as a platform propelling virtually unknown directors to the big leagues. For someone who ignited the genre of indie psychological thrillers about tortured souls, from Requiem for a Dream all the way to The Wrestler, this bespectacled, ordinary, and somewhat honest-looking man didn’t appear as utterly damaged as his films seem to portray. Yet his words seem to convey otherwise.
“I think when you get inspired by an idea, you just can’t let it go – it forces you to go through the pain,” like a wise and weary soul he pondered on his past experiences out loud.
“Filmmaking is never that easy, you know, there’s always so many challenges, so many compromises and so many things that don’t go the way you want it to go, and you’re constantly running for the whole time.”
“But,” he counters, “I think sometimes when the film’s done you somehow forget [about the pain]. I hear the same thing about childbirth, you know, and people go back to do it again, so.”
And going back to do it again he does. The director has created and produced about six movies, each film reaching a bigger, mainstream audience, but still carrying the same “tortured soul” vibe from his first film Pi. But that’s not the only thing that Aronofsky aims to tell in his films.
“It’s usually the original idea that stays with the film as an anchor; that passion that gets you in the gut, that makes you willing to face all the ‘no’s and hurdles you’re going to run into”. He emphasises the idea of staying true to the essence of the story – be it a character, a story, or even a fleeting idea – that is worth sharing, especially when this idea “puts the pain in check, because the passion to get something done overcomes it.”
It’s no secret that the recurring “essence” that links all of Aronofsky’s films his portrayal of flawed lead characters struggling for their own ideals of perfection. And this illustration of less-than-perfect figures almost always operates on the visceral, specifically focussing on their corporeal limitations. The depiction of abused, bloodied and damaged bodies can perhaps be seen as a manifestation of the internal pain of his characters, and fans of the director’s body of work will probably be familiar to these disconcerting representations through unique camera angles and rapid cut montages, coupled by befitting sound effects or music to give you the whole grotesque experience.
Such extreme expectations demand willing actors, and Aronofsky has fortunately found different muses who don’t seem reluctant to expose themselves to the harsh mental environment that his films call for. From Anthony Hopkins, Mickey Rourke (“who,” he said, “looked as if he was going to kill me”), and Natalie Portman, the director has had his fair share of working with the biggest and brightest in Hollywood. The key to director-actor success is to give them room for expression – and trust.
“Have trust and faith that there will be something interesting happening.”
And what advice did he have to give to budding filmmakers in a country so adamant about censorship and seemingly risk averse?
“If you want to be a storyteller, the greatest thing you can do is true to you. It doesn’t matter what the story is, if it’s a story that you believe in, if it’s a story that you want to get out – that’s the story people want to hear.
“I think art is all about being honest and truthful. Some people can make art that doesn’t challenge society, and that’s wonderful – beautiful; it’s really hard to be an artist that clicks well with the general taste of people. For some reason I’ve always had a taste that’s meant for something different or underground or liminal or extreme.
“But I think you have to be honest with your art. If what you’re saying doesn’t work with society, you can’t really shake it, you have to continue to pursue what you want to do – it really comes down to where your passion and your honesty is pushing you to.”
A severe silence hangs in the air as the teacher rambles on about a topic considered hush-hush in a still conservative society. He finally brings the masterclass to an introspective close.
“Don’t resist telling the truth.”
First stillness, then a clash of applause erupted, one after another, as loud and fast as a hurrying torrential rain. The masterclass concluded with a hoard scurrying to the front for one more picture, one last autograph, one final brush with a great man dedicated to telling his stories, desolate and sorrowful they may be, but nonetheless a frighteningly real reflection of what each of us could become.