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MAMI 2018: Darren Aronofsky discusses India, religion and actors in masterclass

The American filmmaker spoke at a special masterclass held at Liberty cinema on 31 October 2018 as part of the 20th Mumbai Film Festival.

Sonal Pandya

Last week, American filmmaker Darren Aronofsky stopped by the 20th edition of the Mumbai Film Festival to talk about his directorial career. The 49-year-old filmmaker was in conversation with festival director Anupama Chopra in a masterclass held at Mumbai’s Liberty cinema.

The one-and-a-half-hour session was helpful for the young filmmakers in the crowd as the self-deprecating Aronofsky spoke about his experiences at film schools and how he worked on directing actors. In a lively question-and-answer portion, he even debated on religion with an aspiring film critic.

They debated the meaning of god, with Aronofsky rejecting the possibility of a higher force that controls everyone.

“I think it’s very important for individuals to be responsible for their choices and what they do in life, and to surrender that choice to someone who is going to make those decisions for you, it gets scary,” he replied. “I think surrendering your responsibility as a conscious being and life is a big mistake. It leads to many dangerous things.”

Aronofsky’s last few films have had biblical themes and he shared why he is often drawn to them.

“I think the Old Testament, just like many ancient texts that are the core of many cultures and religions, are incredible storybooks, and they are filled with these early stories on our ancestors trying to understand, without modern science, what was going on, and why we are here. The poetry that formed these founding myths belonged to every single person on the planet, and they are actually more powerful as stories, as storytelling. When people started to fight over whose story is more right, they are missing the whole point.”

He also quipped that while he does not believe in god, he did like Ganesh. The director told the audience that he enrolled in an acting class for around three months to bolster his knowledge of the process actors go through.

“When I started directing, I really had no idea what actors were doing," he said. "I promised myself that the day I could cry in front of the class without being self-conscious, I would quit. And that day came and I quit the next day. I think it was just understanding what it takes to do something like that, to be emotionally open, not to strangers, but to people you know from acting class.”

The filmmaker went on to say it was all a matter of communication and trust between actor and director.

“For all the young filmmakers out there, it’s very much about spending the time with an actor, trying to figure out what they are going to need to feel safe,” he explained. “Because what you are trying to do is create an environment where they can take risks and where they want to take risks.”

For Aronofsky, the process of filmmaking has both good and bad, but there have to be dark moments for the light moments to emerge, he said. Aronofsky’s most dreaded moment on a film is always the first time he goes into the edit room.

“It’s funny because Martin Scorsese has that [online] masterclass thing and the first quote is like talking about that exact same moment, so it was nice to hear from the master as well. When you finish shooting a movie, you feel so great. It’s just been a marathon and you are exhausted. Then you go in and tell yourself that it’s going to suck, I know it’s going to suck, and then it really, really, really sucks,” he stated to laughs from the audience. “You realize that you will be in the room with this editor for the next few months, and you start chipping away and start figuring out how to make it work.”

The reason he explained is that all that hard work on the sets does not represent well on the screen in the rough cut. Interestingly, Aronofsky’s first cut contains no music.

“I think it’s cheating,” he said. “Music is only going to make something better. It sometimes fixes things. But it’s never going to be as hard to look at something without music, because it’s just honest. You are just looking at sound and dialogue and that’s all you have to work with.”

His film Mother! (2017) is his first that has no score altogether, and he revealed his motive of not including music in the psychological horror film.

“I was terrified but what I realized is, music is such a powerful tool. It’s really telling the audience how it’s supposed to be feeling and the whole exercise of Mother! is I did not want the audience to ever know what Jennifer Lawrence’s character was feeling. The second we put music into the movie, it just fell apart and fell flat, because suddenly everyone was much more comfortable and I wanted the audience to be more uncomfortable, like the character in the film, all the time.”

American film critic Rex Reed called Mother! the worst film of the century. But on the other hand, it was defended in an essay by Scorsese who said it was “tactile, so beautifully staged and acted”.

“I appreciate big mainstream Hollywood movies, but to wake up every single day and fight for something you believe in, you really better believe in it. I usually choose things that inspire me because there is something. It’s much greater than I am, it’s much greater than my friends, my community, it’s just something that I feel I want to spend years making,” the director said when asked why he has no desire to direct a superhero film.

After some of his film projects, Aronofsky has disappeared to decompress. Many a time he has come to India and it has taught him something each time.

“When you are directing, you are a complete control freak and you have to worry about every single detail of what's going on, but when you come to India, you can't control anything,” he said to applause from the audience. “Every street you cross, you’ll never get exactly on the side you wanted. I like to come and just sort of get lost here. Every twist and turn, every corner that you go around, is always interesting and surprising. I try to get back here whenever I can.”

His classmate at film school was Faroukh Mistry, a cinematographer, who shared several Indian films on VHS with Aronofsky. He lamented that he then had time to watch films, but now since he has so much to watch on TV, he doesn't have time for films.

The Q&A session provided some interesting moments where young filmmakers and a couple of famous faces got the chance to ask their favourite director about his work.

Actor Ali Fazal asked a question about sound design being part of the initial scripting stages of a film and newcomer Ishaan Khatter, who was wearing a hat similar to Aronofsky's, shared a light moment when they tried to pin down a favourite closeup from his films.

Aronofsky also said that while he prefers film, it does not matter if one uses the digital medium or film.

“When you work in film, there is definitely something that gives it a bit of a different look, I don’t think it’s necessarily appropriate for everything," he said. "I think every story has a purpose and it should have its own film for it. I think if I were starting off now as a filmmaker, I would definitely not be working in film. I would probably be working with my iPhone to tell a story, figuring out what’s the best way to exploit vertical framing to do a movie. I would be playing with the latest and the cheapest. Once again, it comes down to storytelling.”

He told the would-be filmmakers in the audience to share their own personal stories and advised those of them in film school to not be competitive with their peers.

“You should create alliances and make friendships because that can end up leading to some of the most rewarding relationships you have in your entire career," Aronofsky said. "That’s the strength of film school.

"The other thing is to take as many risks and chances as you can. When I got to film school, I had never directed anything with a female lead character and the third film I did had a female lead. That was because I was challenging myself, I wanted to see if I could do it. Now, I’ve made more features starring women than men.”

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