"An old girlfriend of mine told me that all my films were about a search for God," says writer-director Darren Aronofsky. "It was about a week before she dumped me." A few weeks back, though, as the 29-year-old sat in the outdoor cafe at the Sunset Marquis Hotel discussing his latest search for the divine, rejection was nowhere on the horizon. The Brooklyn-born filmmaker's debut feature, Pi, earned him the Best Director's Award at Sundance last January, and it recently emerged as a surprise indie hit, opening to strong reviews and box office in both New York and Los Angeles. Hollywood has also come courting: In just the last two months, Aronofsky has signed on to direct a feature for New Line and one for Miramax's genre division, Dimension.
The film's success comes as a surprise - even to Aronofsky - if only because it's not your typical indie fare. A black-and-white sci-fi movie shot for $60,000, Pi is a flared-out, paranoid vision of a math genius teetering between brilliance and madness as he attempts to unlock the numerical pattern which, he believes, lies behind all of creation. Layered with references to mathematical theorems, art history, Jewish mysticism and the stock market, the film raises more questions than it answers ("I'm big on ambiguity," says the director), and it's loaded with intrigue. Which is a sign of Aronofsky's own bit of genius as a storyteller: He hangs the film's alienation and abstractness on the solid arc of a conventional thriller.
"We wanted to do something totally different, totally original," he says. "To do that, we had to bring in a very traditional skeleton for the film. If we had that strong structure, we could add all the new ideas and visual film grammar on top to really push the limits."
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Whenever Aronofsky speaks about the film's production, he uses the collective "we." It is, in part, an acknowledgment of his close collaboration with producer Eric Watson and Pi star Sean Gullette, but the film was also financed as a communal endeavor. Everyone on the 23-person crew, from production assistants on up, received an equal share of the film's profits after deferred payments were made and investors, the majority of whom are friends and family who put up as little as $100, were compensated. (Artisan picked up the film at Sundance for a reported $1 million.) "The idea behind Pi was to show people we knew how to make films, so they'd let us make a slightly bigger one," he says. Unlike a lot of indie filmmakers, Aronofsky has not been making films since he was a kid. It wasn't until he began doing interviews for Pi, in fact, that he remembered his first attempt at filmmaking, in junior high. "My dad had a Super-8, and I tried to do an animated movie. I shot it for three or four days, just clicking away frame by frame, sent the film out, and it came back black."
Aronofsky didn't pick up a camera again until he became an animation major at Harvard. (He downplays the institution's pedigree, noting that he's "a product of the public-education system.") His first film class brought him his first "A" at the Ivy League school.
Given that early Super-8 experiment, however, Aronofsky couldn't be called a natural. Growing up in Brooklyn, he says, it was just dumb luck that brought him to independent film at all. "In high school we went to see Rocky III at the one mall in Brooklyn, and it was sold out. But there was a poster of this goofy guy with a 'Brooklyn' hat on, and I was, like, 'Let's go see this.' Turned out it was She's Gotta Have It, and it just totally opened my eyes." He lists his current influences as Cronenberg, Polanski, Kurosawa, Gilliam and Tetsuo director Shinya Tsukamoto.
Now that he's headed to Hollywood, Aronofsky isn't too concerned that he'll have to ease up on his art. "I'm excited about working in Hollywood," he says. "I'm going to continue to try and find art through making films. My work is sort of my path."