Darren Aronofsky is not afraid of much.
Certainly not the press. Though a scant 29 years old and with only one art house film to his name, the novice director appears precociously at ease under the intense glare of the media spotlight. From a profile in the premiere issue of the film magazine Indie to stories on CBS's "48 Hours" and National Public Radio and in the Boston Globe, reporters across the country have been fawning over the independent film Wunderkind since the first-time moviemaker took the award for best director at this year's Sundance Film Festival for his dark, disturbing motion picture "Pi."
The film, by the way, takes its name from the Greek letter representing the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, an endless number that is basically 3.14 and change.
Since Sundance, Aronofsky has been taking adulation in stride. "Getting a standing ovation from 1,000 people was one of the greatest moments of my life," he graciously told the Globe after his dark-horse win.
Such public recognition is all the more remarkable for the film's wonky subject matter. Opening here on Friday, Aronofsky's edgy black-and-white cyberpunk thriller -- about a mathematician and his search for a numerical pattern in the stock market -- has already been lauded by Janet Maslin of the New York Times as "Kafkaesque in its torment and claustrophobic tensions."
Nor is Aronofsky afraid of begging. That's how he and producer Eric Watson financed the dirt-cheap but lavishly visual $60,000 film, by asking every friend, relative and acquaintance they knew to contribute a hundred dollars each. "A few hundred people gave us a hundred bucks," he says with a tone that still retains some astonishment. "Some people gave $5,000, some $300, some $50. I think a lot of people thought it was charity. A lot thought we were gauche to even do it, but we were really polite."
After selling the film to the distribution company Artisan Entertainment for more than a million dollars earlier this year, Aronofsky says those who said no are wishing they had reconsidered.
In a recent interview (his first of several scheduled for the day), a casually black-clad Aronofsky comes across as intense but assured over a breakfast of French toast and orange juice, as though he has done this routine a dozen times before -- which, in the past few months, he may well have.
Reaching toward a reporter fumbling with a tape recorder and a cup of coffee, he pats the table soothingly. "You can put it over here."
Aronofsky has been quick to pick up the studio patter, sometimes sounding more like a slick Hollywood agent than the kid from Coney Island who went on from Harvard University to a master's program at the American Film Institute. "We wanted to position ourselves as smartly as possible," he says, explaining why his strange new film is being marketed as a sci-fi thriller.
Of his next project, a sci-fi/horror film set on a U.S. submarine during World War II, Aronofsky says, in the shorthand of the movie biz, "It's Das Boot' meets The Shining,' and I guarantee you it'll be the scariest movie you've seen in the last 10 years." " Pi' could also fall into a lot of different genres," he admits. "But it's definitely a thriller. It's definitely a chase movie." In the film, which Aronofsky calls a "digital reinterpretation of the mad-scientist story," math genius Max Cohen (played by the director's Harvard classmate Sean Gullette) is pursued not only by ruthless thugs from a Wall Street firm interested in profiting from his research but also by Jewish cabalist toughs. Members of the shadowy sect hope to use his findings -- a universal pattern he has accidentally stumbled upon -- to decode the name of God and usher in the Messianic age. Throughout it all, Max is tormented by his own increasingly torturous migraine headaches.
"There's no doubt that Pi' is fiction and there's no doubt that it's about science," says Aronofsky, reacting somewhat testily to the scrutiny of his film's niche.
Although there's not a single laser gun or alien or asteroid in it, there is a room-size walk-in computer in Max's dingy apartment. Called Euclid, the fanciful amalgamation of futuristic and old-fashioned components was cobbled together by production designer Matthew Maraffi from about two tons of trashed and recycled computer parts.
"It's science fiction in the tradition of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone' and author Philip K. Dick," he explains. Many of their stories took place in the present day in a mundane setting that was only "slightly bent, slightly different, slightly strange."
"Pi's" cosmic subject matter, however, comes across as a weird blend of naivete and chutzpah -- implying that the complexities of the stock market might be reducible to a simple formula, or that in them might lie a numerical pattern, a key that could open the door to understanding God and the very meaning of the universe -- that sets it apart from the more visceral fare of other "roller coaster thrill rides" to which the young director insists it be compared.
And just as there is a touch of hubris in Max, the extravagantly overreaching character whom Aronofsky calls a fusion of his own personality with those of Gullette and Watson, there is a tinge of what might be called cockiness in the auteur's protective attitude toward his baby.
"The studios are trying to make these millennial movies -- these disaster films, these end-of-the-world films -- when they won't seem to realize that Pi' is the only true millennial film out there because it's about the end of the stock market; it's about the Messianic age; it's about cabala."
But really, a film built on a formula for the stock market? Is that plausible? How could a formula take into account things like last month's departure of singer Geri Halliwell from the Spice Girls, which caused the stock of the record company EMI to dip 1.9 percent?
"Yeah, but that might be all predictable," he says. "It might have been predictable through math that Ginger Spice was going to leave. We might be totally predetermined by our numbers." His deadpan face suddenly, almost imperceptibly, lets out a small snort of laughter.
It's a laugh almost of embarrassment, one that acknowledges the ludicrousness of the statement without entirely disavowing it. For in the statement lies the very premise of "Pi." Taking a deep breath, this time Aronofsky explains:
"The major point of Pi' is that the search for order -- for meaning, for God -- is usually so one-dimensional and so pinpointed, and often leads to the destruction of the ego and the self and leads to death." He pauses to collect his thoughts before continuing. "And the beauty of the world is in the chaos and in the reality of what is now, and that's what makes living special. For some reason we're here, and for some reason we're supposed to try and appreciate it."
Sounds more like religion than science fiction, doesn't it?
"I think of Pi' as this sort of anti-religion but pro-spirituality movie," says Aronofsky. He was once told by a friend that all his student films were about the search for God, including his senior thesis, "Supermarket Sweep." That one, "about a TV junkie who gets sucked into a real world of violence and sex," made it to the finals in the 1991 Student Academy Awards, he says, but was "too bugged out" to win.
The origins of his philosophy and many of the ideas that are raised in "Pi" lie in chaos theory, the study of the deterministic factors that guide seemingly random events and behavior. It is a concept he says he first grasped several years ago when he and Gullette were driving to Belize on a road that followed an old Mayan trading route along the southern edge of the Yucatan Peninsula. As they rested along the way in the ruins of a plaza at sunset, the haphazard nature of the universe suddenly began to make sense.
"We started to notice that in the middle of this plaza there are these giant anthills about two or three feet high," Aronofsky says. "The openings are like the size of volleyballs. And there are rivers of ants flowing between the different anthills and rivers going out into the rain forest. And we just watched them for an hour, and I just had this moment -- one of those epiphanies in life -- which is realizing that here in the center of one of the greatest human civilizations of all time, that's completely extinct, that's been inherited by the ants, they're totally unaware of us." He waits for dramatic effect. "And what the hell are we unaware of that's going on above us?"
Needless to say, ants figure prominently in "Pi," representing one of the uncontrollable forces of nature that intrude upon Max's hermetically sealed world of numbers.
But Max is only in some ways like his creator Aronofsky, an artist who is much more comfortable with the unknown, the unknowable and the scary.
Remembering it as distinctly as if it were yesterday, he relates how, as a child, he watched a television special, hosted by Orson Welles, on the 16th-century French astrologer and prognosticator Nostradamus.
"It was called The Man Who Could See the Future' or something," Aronofsky recalls. "It was a real cheesy one, and the ending was like, Orson Welles comes on and he goes, What you're about to see is the future, but Nostradamus always believed that the future could be changed by man.' And they show you it's 1998, and (as they had it) some Arab guy sends over three nuclear bombs to New York and blows up the whole city."
Aronofsky's eyes unfocus, as if he can still see the mushroom cloud. "I had nightmares for years about 1998 being the end of New York," he continues quietly. "For years I promised myself I wouldn't live in New York City in 1998." Then where does he live now?
"In New York." CAPTION: Darren Aronofsky calls his movie "Pi" "a digital reinterpretation of the mad-scientist story." CAPTION: Sean Gullette stars as mathematician Max Cohen in Darren Aronofsky's directorial debut "Pi." CAPTION: "Pi" star Sean Gullette was director Darren Aronofsky's classmate at Harvard.