The hour grows late in the London press junket. The programming is run horribly behind time. Within the suite 206, reporters are packed in like sardines. It is perched on the tables and windowsills of the windows, pouring out the coffee and mopping up the mess with his notebooks. Each time the door opens, he had just arrived, which means that the walls inch closer and there is less air. The tension is mounting and tempers are frayed. The night before, we sat down and we saw the Mother! together. Today, it feels as if we might be living with him, also.
Darren Aronofsky’s new film is an explosion, an assault, a haunted-house horror that whips up conflicting emotions. Some love it, some hate it and some of the grinder back and forth like lost souls in limbo. On the screen, Jennifer Lawrence plays a anonymous heroine whose domestic idyll is invaded by an endless procession of evil to their guests. Worry in the bathroom; are you doing in his bed. “I’m confused”, he confesses, as well as the nightmare begins. And by God, she is not the only one.
Mother! review – there is no gob left unsmacked on Jennifer Lawrence’s anxiety dream of horror and dismay
“Yes, well, that’s the way,” shrugs Aronofsky, drinking bottled water, after I am granted entry to the tranquil suite to the side. “I think that it is okay to be confused. The film has a dream-logic, and that the dream-logic makes sense. But if you try to unscrew it, it is like it is falling apart. So it is a psychological freak-out. You should not over-explain”.
Some of the directors of dazzle and seduce some. Aronofsky simply sinks in his seat. It is the ripsnorting bull of American cinema, flanks matted with sweat, their hooves lifting up clods; which means that, to the surprise and astonishment; and possibly impregnate us also. This pedigree was evident that there was to the right of his 1998 debut Pi, which took a cerebral premise (a mathematical study of the patterns in the Torah) and turn into paranoid fantasy. Then proceeded to thunder through the addict nihilism of Requiem for a Dream, the redeemer of the movements of The Wrestler and Black Swan, before building to the bombast of 2014 Noah (by far his least interesting part of the image).
“I’m always going to be divisive guy,” he tells me. “What can I tell you, I’m like Johnny Rotten.” And yet, Mother! – that was enthusiastically booed at its Venice press screening – it takes a particular pleasure in tormenting his audience.
Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem in the Mother! Photograph: Niko Tavernise/Paramount Pictures
How to describe Aronofsky bloody beast? Mother! it’s like Lars von Trier’s Antichrist as rewritten by Edward Albee, or a garish horror comic by way of primal-scream therapy. It is a praised poet (Javier Bardem) and his lovely young wife (Lawrence), who live in a gothic gingerbread house in a clearing in the forest. The poet wants to fill the house with new ideas, either as a means to inspire your writing or distract yourself from it, and so that opens the door to an ecstatic fan and his busybody wife (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, both delightfully creepy). Long before the place is full of demonic revelers who trash the furniture, and the unit seemingly intractable wedge between the husband and the wife. It is a redundancy to note that the film becomes shrill and hysterical, on the outer edge of control? That, surely, was where Aronofsky is headed to all along.
I’m trying to resist over-explaining the film– but there is a big elephant at large in this room. Mother! it is a film about a monstrous 48-year-old artist and his 27-year-old musa. And during the production, Aronofsky struck up a relationship with your star. Aronofsky is 48; Lawrence 27. So I’m asking the more delicate to address this issue. Did Bardem at any stage ask him if he was playing the director?
Russell Crowe in the days of Noah. Photograph: Sportsphoto/Allstar
Aronofsky grew up in Manhattan Beach, Southern Brooklyn, the son of two teachers. He says his first exposure to the culture was to see the Broadway musical with his mother. Saw The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and he didn’t know what a whorehouse was, and he asked his mother in a loud voice as soon as the curtain came down.
A couple of miles down the road from his house was an amusement park of Coney Island, stinking of brine and cotton candy. He used to ride the Cyclone roller coaster, sometimes 10 or 20 times per day in the summer. He has carried the experience with him since then.
“It is curious,” he says. “Sean Gullette – the man who starred in Pi – is to stay in Rome, and that he only came to the Mother! premiere in Venice. He told me later that he closed his eyes twice during the movie. And I thought: ‘come on!’ If you keep your eyes open all the time, well, it’s like riding the Cyclone with the belt unfastened, and the hands do not touch the rails. And the second you look away, you’ve ruined it. So that’s the dare – and then Sean was and blinked.”
Aronofksy likes to push his audience to the edge. I’ve heard that you like to do to their artists as well. Mickey Rourke – nominated for an Oscar for his brilliant performance in The Wrestler that is described by the director as “an old-style gangster Jew”. He has a reputation of being combative and control, to break the actors down and shooting them in extremis.
Natalie Portman in Black Swan. Photograph: Sportsphoto/Allstar
“No, No,” he says, briefly nettled. “It’s not about to break with them. Break down. That is the game.”
He swallows a bit of water and think about it more. “The actors,” he says. “Sometimes you forget, but I think that the original reason that started to act it was going to be able to cry in front of the class. Sometimes they forget that, when you become big action movie stars, because that is more about the modelling of the act. But to them love, of truth. So I’m always looking for actors who want to roll up your sleeves and let loose and just cry. Javier is not afraid to cry; he’s going to do anything. Jennifer, completely the same. She is still very young; it is not exhausted in the least. And, yes, I was scared in this movie, because she knew that she was going to have to go to some of the big emotions.”
In a recent interview with Vogue magazine, Lawrence spoke of his own experience in the development of the Mother! “I had to go to a darker place than I’ve ever been in my life,” she admitted. “I don’t know if I would be able to ACCEPT.” There were reports that during a stressful scene, she dislocated a rib.
“Yes, she ended up breaking his diaphragm,” Aronofsky says. “She was hyperventilating. Because of the excitement.”
It is true that he immediately ordered to make the whole scene again?
The director snorts. “Well, yes. Pull it together. That is very British, right? Come on, let’s go.”
And how was Lawrence with such behavior? She could not tolerate it?
“No, No,” he says, apparently worried, I’m getting the wrong end of the stick. “I want to say, that gave him time to recover. The thing is that she had been thinking about that scene too much time, and put it all in your head. So, then, the emotions flooded into her and I saw what was happening – because I am from experience – and was able to get the camera in the right place. The shot was originally on your back and gives me back the thing, she recovers and then he said, ‘put the camera in your face, now’, because that’s the kind of emotion that you never, ever see.”
It takes Me a moment to process this. It sounds as if he is saying that he used Lawrence the recovery time of change the position of the camera to best capture your pain.
But then, the Mother! it is a film that positively luxuriates in the pain. It is a great, twisted howl of a movie, overheated and heady; a fascinating experience. As the house filled up with, Lawrence is sent running from one room to the next, in a vain attempt to erase the tears, ordering the intruders to get the hell out. One can see the film as a metaphor of the disease, in which tumors with metastasis, and infest every part of the body. Alternatively, you may see it as a dark parable about the creative process, with the artist deciding what we will and use. In Aronofsky’s world, perhaps, there is not much difference.
The director agrees, but only up to a point. The film is difficult, he admits. Some might even go so far as to see it as a form of dysfunction. But he has never been the type to start complaining about their difficulties.
“I love it,” he says. “The filming of movies, I love it. Those are the moments in your life that you really remember. I remember that, crystal clear waters, the filming of some scenes in Requiem for a Dream, right down to the shirt that he wore on a particular day. And it is still as strong, you know, because you’re alive, because your brain is cooking. Due to that you are living, right there, in that small moment.”
He says that the first thing he did when arriving in London was to pick up the phone to call their parents. I wanted to tell you about the premiere, in Venice, and let them know that he had landed safely. His father was in a nostalgic mood. The old man remembered the family, passing by the local movie theatre when it was the detection of Pi. Aronofsky was still in his 20 years, his career barely heats up. And pointed out the car window and said: “Dad, everything that I want in my life is for the people, whether of joy or boo. I do not want anything in the middle.”
Aronofsky slams his water and laughs at the memory. He says: “Twenty years ago, I guess not much has changed.”
• Mother! it is released on the 14th of September in Australia and September 15 in the US and the uk.