When Darren Aronofsky first tried to pry open the back stage doors to look inside the somewhat secretive, highly competitive world of ballet, they were slammed shut.
Aronofsky was researching his latest film, Black Swan, and assumed that the ballet world would embrace his project and help him get the details exactly right. The reaction was not what he expected or indeed, hoped for.
“They are very insular,” he says. “Usually it’s like ‘oh you want to make a movie? Sure!’ But they’re not like that. They were very indifferent and very unfriendly. It was extremely difficult to get into that world.
“They don’t give a shit about anything but ballet. They really don’t care about movies. It’s not their art and it doesn’t seem like they are interested in it.
“I guess it’s some type of popular culture thing. I don’t know. They are really focused on their ballet - they live, breathe, die by ballet and nothing else seems to matter that much.”
Aronofsky was undeterred and eventually found a key collaborator who would prove invaluable both in preparation and as a key member of the production team –acclaimed dancer Benjamin Millepied, who choreographed the stunning dance sequences in Black Swan.
“There were people who were kind of interested – some dancers, some disgruntled dancers and some major stars,” he says. “Eventually, we started working with Benjamin Millepied and [he’s] deeply respected in that world.
“He’s a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and one of the youngest, hottest choreographers out there; he also has a lot of interest in film. Benjamin opened up so many different doors for us and got us into a lot of places.”
Aronofsky’s idea to make a psychological thriller set to the backdrop of ballet goes back almost ten years to when he first discussed it with the actress who would become his leading lady in Black Swan, Natalie Portman.
“I met with Natalie eight or nine years ago,” he recalls. “We met in Times Square and had a coffee and I had this idea for something set in the ballet world.
“So it was slowly evolving over the years and it finally came together after The Wrestler. I was working on it with Mark [Heyman, screenwriter] and it was a very hard script to finish because understanding the ballet world was really complicated.”
Portman stars as Nina, an ambitious young New York based ballet dancer who is on the verge of a career breakthrough as she wins the ultimate double role – playing the innocent White Swan and the seductively evil Black Swan in a lavish new production of the classic Swan Lake.
But as the opening night approaches, the physical and psychological demands that are heaped on the emotionally fragile young dancer, a perfectionist who drives herself relentlessly, take a terrible toll as jealousy and nightmares begin to engulf her.
Vincent Cassell plays the ballet company’s brilliant, but demanding choreographer and artistic director, Thomas Leroy, and Mila Kunis is Nina’s brash young rival, Lily.
For all the actors – and in particular for Portman – making Black Swan would represent a considerable physical and indeed, emotional challenge. Portman, who studied ballet herself when she was a child, trained for more than a year before filming even started.
She showed incredible discipline and self-motivation to reach the standards needed to convincingly portray a professional ballerina, says her director.
“You don’t really need to push Natalie that much because she’s incredibly hard working and disciplined and present and willing to go for it. She rarely complains. She’s tough,” he says.
“She’s a tiny little girl but she’s built of some strong material and she really went for it, over and over and over again. She was very prepared so I didn’t really need to push her that much emotionally and she did the physical training as well. She was incredible because it was a very hard role for her.”
For Aronofsky, Black Swan is a bookend to his previous, critically acclaimed film, The Wrestler, which won the Golden Lion for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival and earned Oscar nominations for its stars, Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei.
Even though the worlds of professional wrestling and the high art of ballet couldn’t be further apart, Aronofsky says there is common ground.
“I do see them as companion pieces. I look forward to the day when a theatre plays them as a double feature,” he says. “There are so many similarities between Mickey’s character and the Nina character in Black Swan.
“They are both artists that use their bodies to express themselves and they do a tremendous amount of damage to themselves in the process, except one is the highest art, and one is the lowest art, if you can call it an art. Most people wouldn’t call wrestling an art but I like that comparison. The stories are very different but there is a comparison.”
In Black Swan, Aronofsky uses the latest CGI technology to enhance the terrifying nature of Nina’s breakdown. In one memorable scene, the young dancer is in costume as the Black Swan and can see feathers sprouting from her skin.
“The story of Swan Lake is during the day she’s a swan and at night she’s a half swan and half human creature, so it’s a werewolf tale,” he laughs. “So I was excited to make a were-swan movie.
“Then I had the idea of taking Natalie Portman and turning her into some type of creature, which was even more delicious fun. So, that just became a major part of the film.”
Whilst Aronofsky is delighted to discuss the thought provoking aspects of his films, he’s happy too when an audience finds its own interpretations and meanings. Making a film is an organic process, he says, and he’s always slightly surprised by the end result.
“I think it’s always a surprise,” he says. “There’s something about the material that’s interesting and attractive. It’s got to have something that connects with you because it takes years to make these things so it’s got to be something that you can come back to.
“With Black Swan I was very excited about the werewolf element, the transformation, the metamorphosis and I liked the idea of shooting dance, and the movement of dance, like the nightclub scene, between Lily (Mila Kunis) and Nina. There were things that were always exciting about it.”
Black Swan opens nationally on January 20 and you can win an in season pass at beat.com.au/freeshit.