In Focus

Director Darren Aronofsky: A 'Fountain' Quest Fulfilled

It took director Darren Aronofsky, left, six years to get the time-bending drama
It took director Darren Aronofsky, left, six years to get the time-bending drama "The Fountain," starring Rachel Weisz and Hugh Jackman, to the big screen. (By Takashi Seida)
By Nick Kolakowski
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 24, 2006

Not many indie filmmakers can persuade a studio to pony up $35 million for a film described as a "love poem to death," but somehow Darren Aronofsky pulled it off. In fact, the Brooklyn-born director of the zero-budget "Pi" (1998) and the harrowing "Requiem for a Dream" (2000) seems rather laid-back about his achievement.

"I'm sorry it took so long," he jokes while on tour to support "The Fountain," a time-jumping sci-fi romance starring Hugh Jackman as, at various times, a conquistador, a cancer scientist and a space traveler; Rachel Weisz plays a wife, a Spanish queen, and finally a ghost. Spanning three eras, the movie follows conquistador Tom as he fights through the South American jungle to find the mythical Tree of Life; neurosurgeon Tom, in the modern day, as he battles to save his wife from cancer; and spaceman Tom, in the 26th century, racing across the universe in a bubble containing him, the now-dying Tree of Life and his wife's ghost. (See review on Page 35.)

Indeed, Aronofsky's six-year journey to get "The Fountain" to the screen comes off as a more benign version of the obsessive quests his antiheroes often pursue. Originally set to begin shooting in late 2002 with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, the production fell apart in a spate of still-unexplained "creative differences."

The collapse knocked Aronofsky, who at 37 still has the engaging but unkempt demeanor of a philosophy graduate student, back a few steps.

Instead of returning to work immediately, he grabbed a backpack and spent the next few months touring Asia. When he returned home, he says, "One night I couldn't sleep and went into my office. . . . All the books I had read or partly read were sitting across from me, and I said, 'This is in my blood.'

"I started off as a no-budget filmmaker, and I was curious about what a no-budget version of this film is," Aronofsky says. "I just started writing, and two and a half weeks later it emerged." With Pitt's departure, the budget was lowered from the GDP of a small nation to the relatively paltry $35 million mentioned above. Even the film's climactic space sequences -- done without computer graphics, only old-school techniques -- have a stripped-down quality despite their sound and fury. (In place of computer animation to create nebulae and dark matter, Aronofsky relied on a photographic technique that magnifies microscopic reactions in water by hundreds of thousands of times, transforming a dash of yeast or solvent into a swirling backdrop of infinity.)

Those space sequences have drawn comparisons to the masterwork of another auteur filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick in his "2001: A Space Odyssey." But unlike that film, with its famously enigmatic ending, Aronofsky insists that "The Fountain," no matter how ambiguous, has a definitive interpretation: his. "It's very much like a Rubik's cube, where you can solve it in several different ways, but ultimately there's only one solution at the end," he says.

The nature of that solution, though, is something he refuses to discuss during interviews. "Follow the clues and how it all adds up," he says, predicting that "the engine that drives 'Lost' will drive people to watch [the film] again."

Quest for an explanation aside, "The Fountain" comes with the same mash-up of diverse influences that marks Aronofsky's other films.

While "Pi" folded everything from the stock market to mathematical genius to the Torah into its story, "The Fountain" takes neuroscience, Mayan creation legends, nebulae and the psychology of survivor's guilt and stretches them out, plot-wise, across 10 centuries.

That's what happens, Aronofsky laughs, when you write while "listening to David Bowie's 'Space Oddity.' " Still, compared with "Requiem for a Dream," with the hyperkinetic editing of its third act, "The Fountain" comes off as downright funereal. "We worked long and hard to create its own language for it," Aronofsky says. "The content dictates the film grammar."

Early reaction to the film has been mixed. Variety reported that "The Fountain" (which it described as a "hippy trippy space odyssey-meets-contempo-weepy-meets-conquistador caper") was booed at the Venice Film Festival.

"The movie is divisive," Aronofsky admits. "The same way 'Requiem for a Dream' was when it came out and was viciously attacked. The day after it premiered -- and we had a 10-minute ovation for 'Requiem' -- Variety said I shouldn't be in films, I should be in therapy."

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