Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky is known for his innovative use of music in films. In tandem with soundtrack composer Clint Mansell, Aronofsky has created some of the most unique scores in recent memory, from Requiem for a Dream to Black Swan. Last week at the Toronto Film Festival, RBMA co-founder Torsten Schmidt sat down with the acclaimed director to talk about some of his favorite music-related moments in film, as well as telling the stories behind some of his own work over the years.
Saturday Night Fever
What we usually like to do at Academy lectures is play records. Records that people liked in their childhood, people they admire for the weirdest reasons, stuff that was big in their household. But seeing that, to my knowledge, you did not produce all too many records, we decided to go with film for this talk. Your first choice was something rather local. Do you want to introduce it?
Yeah, so they asked me just to think how music and film has influenced me over the years. I guess I started where it probably all began, which was Saturday Night Fever. I was lucky to grow up in Brooklyn when two major musical forms sort of came and took over the world.
It’s so easy to forget how good of a movie Saturday Night Fever is. It was way over my head at the time. In fact, it was my first R-rated movie. I guess I was 7 or 8 when it came out and stormed the world. Me and my sister were dying to see it, and my dad was not having it, but my mom was like, “Everyone’s seeing it. It’s all going to go over their head.” They took us to the theater to see it, and during the scene in the backseat when there was the blowjob, my dad was hitting my mom. She was like, “Don’t worry, it’s over their head.”
The next day at breakfast, my mom’s making breakfast, and me and my sister are fighting over what a blowjob is. We’re like, “Mom, who’s right? Who’s right?” My mom’s great line was, “Patty, listen to your brother.” I don’t know what that has to do with anything, but it was interesting, because it was the start of disco taking over the world. That was probably 10 or 12 miles from where I grew up. It was interesting just to be at the birthplace of that. And then, of course, a few years later, I was there when hip hop started and became even a bigger phenomenon.
I chose that one just because there’s no getting around it, it was an incredible, seminal thing. I think as far as a film sequence, technically it does so much from the opening title. It starts off in silence and the natural sounds of those aerial shots pulling out of Manhattan, to geographically set you up, and then establishing the characters so quickly. That type of efficiency is just great, great filmmaking.
It’s a very complicated film, because it’s making fun of the characters, but then it has incredible pathos.
How different does the film seem to you now, apart from the blowjob scene, to when you watched it as a kid?
The whole time you’re seeing it, you’re thinking that the girl he really likes, the one who’s always talking about moving to Manhattan, is really classy and wants to go into Manhattan. You kind of miss the whole irony that she is totally as Brooklyn as he is.
I think I missed that whole level. It’s a very complicated film, because it’s making fun of the characters in a certain way, and then it has incredible pathos, like the suicide on the Verrazano Bridge. There’s an incredible realism of what these kids are suffering, and what their lives are, but also the kind of shallowness and ridiculousness of the way they behave. I think there’s something I liked about mythological characters in very normal settings.
Do the Right Thing
You forget that there was this fairytale element to Do the Right Thing, as well as total realism. When you look at that, it’s hard to believe that it was shot in a real location. It was a major film when it came out for all of us, because New York was in a very different place than it was in 1977. Race relations were really boiling over, and Spike Lee completely tapped into what was in everyone’s head every time you got on the subway, every time you walked down the street. He just made it a timeless tale.
I knew I had to pick something from Do the Right Thing. I didn’t know what it was going to be, and then I just saw the opening titles and I realized it kind of brilliantly summed it up – complete realism set in timeless space, if that makes sense.
Spike is able to put a stylistic spin on everything, yet also make everything emotionally true and real. He was able to capture all that pain that was going on, but also have this humor and mischievous style.
West Side Story
Since we were going to talk about music and film, I wanted to definitely choose a piece from my favorite musical, West Side Story. It was really hard, because every number in this musical is incredible. They’re all perfect. I think I chose this one because my 9-year-old likes it the most.
I love that the sets are so realistic, and there is such a striving for this realism, even though they’re dancing and singing. Once again, this kind realism mixed with the fantastical is something I’m just very attracted to, and has definitely been a big influence.
The camera’s in exactly the right place for every single shot, as far as capturing the choreography, telling the story, including the right characters at the right time. From the opening shot, you can see that the bars over to the side are going to end up, for the final verse, behind. The director is already thinking about where the entire number is going to go.
Stop Making Sense
One of the cool things about that concert is, you never see the fans, which is a very rare thing. Concert films always have a cutaway to the fans, and it immediately dates every film out there, which sometimes can be really cool, as in Woodstock, and other times can be – I can’t think of a humiliating one – but I’m sure there’s many of them.
If you remember, he comes out in the opening scene alone with a boom box and sets it down, and you see the back of the stage, and it’s just a bare stage with him and a microphone and an acoustic guitar. By the end, you have these huge numbers with a 15, 20-piece band, backup singers and fully electrical. The way Demme decided to shoot it, and how he captured it, was perfect, because he’s hinting at it. That, for me, is the great thing: When the camera is pushing the story forward, and working so well with the music.
Requiem for a Dream
When I got to Requiem,” it was very important to me to treat the composer like I would treat the DP or the production designer or the editor. They’re an equal partner, I think. I’ve always come from that philosophy, that the composer is one of those major collaborators.
Clint would always get the script at the very beginning of the process, and back then he’d put together a mixtape of some of his ideas. We listened through the mixtape, and we heard that one part and recognized that something interesting was going on there. We cued it up with different parts of the image, and it worked really well. That, I think, gave Clint the first sort of stepping stone of how to begin to make the score that it became.
Clint’s very interested in story, and can see how those different things connect.
We looked at the different characters and tried to create themes and ideas that connected them. Clint would see all the narrative underpinnings of the script and the story, and tried to match up his music along with that. That’s part of the reason I think we’ve had good success. He’s very interested in story, and can see how those different things connect.
I remember giving Clint all the requiems of the great classical musicians – Mozart, Bach, Brahms – and I said, “Just sample it and turn it into something.” That’s what that crazy frenetic thing that plays throughout the third act of the film. It started off with Clint taking samples and mixing them around and distorting them, and then the Kronos playing over it.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
There’s this great moment by Eli Wallach, where he lets go of the pain, wraps himself in his poncho, and takes a breath, and Morricone kicks in with maybe the greatest melody ever written for film music. It’s this idea of using music to enter a new chapter by going back to the main refrain, like the moment with Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo where suddenly he’s the bad-ass in town, and the most valuable chess player on the board. Now, it’s all about how that chess piece is going to be moved.
With this film, Leone makes opera. There’s that great scene later on, when the ugly is searching for the tombstone, and the camera’s spinning, chasing him. It’s no longer just cinema, it’s become operatic.
There’s another really amazing use of sound design by Kurosawa in the film Ikiru. The man is just finding out that he has terminal cancer. Kurosawa had the idea that you’re so lost in your own head, that you’re completely cut off from the environment.
I guess almost everyone has experienced that at one stage in their life or another, how your inner and your outer worlds sometimes just don’t correspond.
Don’t connect. All the visual cues he used from the background, from the welding arc, it was just brilliant. Kurosawa went directly to no noise, so there’s actually nothing in the soundtrack there. He went completely silent, and I wanted to do the same in The Fountain. The studio wouldn’t allow us to do it, because apparently someone might get really confused and think there’s a mistake. I was forced to do that footstep thing, and it still kind of kills me that it’s there. You’re not allowed to have an empty soundtrack in a studio picture.
Usually, if I’m doing a comic book, it’s something that I think is not going to happen.
You could have just put like a really annoying frequency somewhere...
Yeah, but they would have been upset with that, too. It would have been caught technically, and everyone would have complained about it. Not that it was distributed internationally, The Fountain, but if it had been...
How do you deal with the sounds you’ve got in your head, when you’re writing the comic books?
The comic books are really... I’m not a comic book writer. I admire graphic novels a lot, and I think it’s a great art form. I came up with the idea to do a Fountain comic book because the film looked like it was never going to happen. I really wanted to get the story into the world, because I had worked on it for years and years. We found an artist and figured out a way to put it out there. We did the same thing with Noah when it looked like that was going to be an impossible film to make. Usually, if I’m doing a comic book, it’s something that I think is not going to happen, and it’s an act of depression, not an act of joy.
The only film I’ve done that doesn’t really have a score is The Wrestler. It was clear when we were doing the film that the character was into hair metal more than anything else. I wasn’t very familiar with it I started. It was a lot of fun, because we had to find songs. We had very little budget, and we needed a lot of music. It was just a very, very long process.
I think it was probably one of the more difficult projects for Clint, even though there were only eight to ten minutes of music in the entire film from him. That’s because the music, if it got too sappy... It just was very easy to tip this balancing act of reality we were trying to create. Eventually, Clint stumbled on something that I thought was very atmospheric and a little foreboding. It was just a very simple thing that Slash played on. I think it just fit the mood, and we only used it for like eight minutes in the film.
We were paying $5,000 a song for licensing, which isn’t that much. We had a scene where Mickey and Marisa go to a bar and have a drink, and the only song we could get was “Round and Round” by Ratt. We were able to get that because the band had re-recorded it, so it wasn’t the actual original masters. That’s how a lot of bands get around licensing so they get some of the money.
Mickey was like, “I’m going to talk to Axl. It’s not going to be a problem.”
The whole day, Mickey was like, “There’s no way I’m doing that song. There’s no way. Get me ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine.’” The last time “Sweet Child O’ Mine” was licensed was when Guns ‘N Roses were still a band, and I think they had to pay two million dollars for it. I was like, “Mickey, we’re not getting it.” He’s like, “I’m going to talk to Axl. It’s not going to be a problem.” I was like, “All right, feel free. Talk to Axl, go for it.” He calls up Axl, and it wasn’t happening. Axl won’t talk to Slash, Slash won’t talk to Axl. I’m like, “Mickey, we’ve got to do it with ‘Round and Round.’” He’s like, “All right, shoot Marisa’s side first.”
We shoot Marisa, she’s great. We have to turn the camera, and Scott, my producer, comes up and he’s like, “We got ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine.’” But we had already shot Marisa already. I was like, “Umm...” He’s like, “Do we tell Mickey?” I was like, “Fuck, what do we do?”
Of course Mickey already knew because Axl called him. But he was big of heart, and did the other side because we were halfway done. We ended up using “Sweet Child O’ Mine” for the really great moment in the film when he enters the ring for the final fight. It was funny, because the deal we had, he had to actually be singing along with it. There’s this one moment where Mickey is mouthing the words, and that’s how we go around it. Thank you, Axl and Slash and everyone in Guns ‘N Roses for that one.
Full Metal Jacket
The first half of Full Metal Jacket is all about order, and turning these human beings into machines, but there’s this one piece of chaos, which is this overweight soldier, who is just slowly picked on until he eventually explodes. Then, it’s all about bringing these machines and this order into chaos. Suddenly, the whole shooting style changes, and it’s a completely different movie. I think that final shot of the movie is all about taking the grid of that order and sticking it over that chaos, while they’re in hell, literally. They’re in this destroyed landscape, yet they’re perfectly ordered in a grid, singing the great theme song of America, trying to stamp this grid across chaos. It’s this idea, through music, that completely sells the whole point of the film. That’s my theory on that. It’s not bad, right?
I don’t know whether there’s a similar expression in English, but in Germany, we would call it the singing in the forest. When you’re a little kid and you go into the dark forest, and you’re trying to sing whatever sticks in your mind so that you don’t have to feel scared about the ghosts, and so on.
Right, but he literally says in this, “I’m not scared.” Knowing Kubrick, he knew the German interpretation, and wanted to answer it and say, “You’re wrong.” They’re not afraid. They’re completely loose and free, like children, but they’re the perfect killing machines, going across that world of hell.
Then again, if you’re saying you’re not scared, then there’s a good chance you’re shit scared.
Black Swan is not a musical, but music was clearly a big part of it. We always looked at the film as a re-telling of Swan Lake. It was a screenplay that was sort of based on Dostoyevsky’s The Double. I always thought it was a really scary idea, that you wake up one day and someone’s stealing your identity.
I was looking for something to do with that, and I was also looking at something to do set in the ballet world, because my sister had been a ballerina, and I had grown up around it. While doing research for this, I went to a production of Swan Lake and it was this kind of eureka moment. It’s has a lot of doubles in it as well.
I always looked at the making of that movie very much as just a narrative filmmaking version of Swan Lake. I even went as far as taking the whole ballet, and assigning, in order, different pieces of music to each scene. Matthew Bourne, who did the all-male Swan Lake, which was fantastic, came up to me afterwards and he was like, “You didn’t have to put it in order.” It was like a great compliment to me that he picked up on that.