Black Swan - Darren Aronofsky and Vincent Cassel
Black Swan - Darren Aronofsky and Vincent Cassel who plays Thomas Leroy © 2010 Fox Searchlight

Darren Aronofsky is known as a daring director who with his dazzling visuals and complex camera angles lures his audiences into haunting and fractured worlds; his unique movies have included The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler.

With his new film Black Swan Aronofsky delves into his first psychological thriller. Academy Award nominee Natalie Portman (Closer), portrays Nina, an obsessive ballerina who is vying for the ultimate role: the innocent White Swan and the seductively evil Black Swan in the theatre’s production of Swan Lake. But as her jealousies and nightmares begin to overtake her mind, she begins to fall into the depths of darkness that would make the Black Swan proud.

I read you met Natalie Portman ten years ago about this project.

Black Swan - Director Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman
Director Darren Aronofsky and Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) © 2010 Fox Searchlight

I’ve been a fan of Natalie’s since I saw her in The Professional. Luc Besson’s one of my favorite directors. I met her in Times Square at the old Howard Johnson’s restaurant, and had a really bad cup of coffee and I had early ideas about the film. She says I had the entire film in my head, which is a complete lie! So we talked a bit about it and I started to develop it, but it was a really tough film because getting into the ballet world proved to be extremely challenging.

Most of the time when you do a movie and you say, ‘Hey, I want to do a movie about your world,’ all the doors open up and you can do anything and see anything you want. The ballet world really wasn’t at all interested in us hanging out.

So it took a long time to get the information and put it together, and over the years Natalie would say, ‘I’m getting too old to play a dancer, you’d better hurry up.’ I’d say, ‘Natalie, you look great, it will be fine.’

Then about a year before the film, or maybe a little bit earlier, I finally got a screenplay together and that’s how it started.

You described this in the press notes as a companion piece to The Wrestler, and you can certainly see parallels to that of two performers literally destroying themselves for their art. How did you approach this from a feminine perspective in contrast to The Wrestler, which had a lot of masculine energy?

Black Swan - Director Darren Aronofsky
Director Darren Aronofsky © 2010 Fox Searchlight

I don’t think there’s really that much difference. I think people are people and if their feelings are real and truthful they can connect. I keep saying that it doesn’t matter if you’re an aging 50-something-year-old wrestler at the end of his career, or a ambitious 20-something-year-old ballet dancer, if they’re truthful to who they are and they’re expressing something real then audiences will connect.

That’s always been the promise of cinema, and that’s why we can see a film about a 7- year-old girl in Iran or a immortal superhero in America, it doesn’t matter as long as they’re truthful.

Can you talk about Natalie’s commitment to this movie?

The role of Nina is quite different from anything Natalie has done before, and she took it to another level. Playing Nina was as much an athletic feat as a feat of acting.

Ballet is something most people start training for when they’re four or five-years- old and as they live it, it changes their bodies, it transforms them. To have an actress who hasn’t gone through all of that, convincingly play a professional ballet dancer is the tallest of orders.

Yet somehow with her incredible will and discipline, Natalie became a dancer. It took ten months of vigorous work, but her body transformed and even the most serious dancers were impressed.

I’m convinced that the physical work also connected her to the emotional work.

How did the movie The Red Shoes influence you and this film?

Black Swan - Vincent Cassel and Natalie Portman
Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) and Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) © 2010 Fox Searchlight

I had heard of The Red Shoes, but I didn’t see it and then (Martin) Scorsese did the restoration a few years ago and I was like, ‘I’d better go and see it.’ It’s a masterpiece, it’s an unbelievable film and I saw that there were similarities in the story, but I think that’s because we both went back to ballet and pulled from ballet the different characters and stuff, and so we ended up in similar places.

I wasn’t really influenced by it, and I never tried to be influenced by it, because it is such a masterpiece. The dance sequences weren’t doing visual effects like that for 20 years – they were so ahead of their time.

So I just kept it in the back (of my mind) and said, ‘We just won’t address it, it’s a long time ago, most people may not know about it.’ But unfortunately they do.

How do you respond to the people who feel this movie is damaging for dancers as it takes a very dark look at the ballet?

I think so many dancers are incredibly relieved that there’s finally a ballet movie that takes ballet as a serious art and not as a place to have a love affair. And if you actually look at ballet, the ballets themselves are incredibly dark and gothic, Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet and of course, Swan Lake. This movie could have been called SwanLake.

We took the fairy tale of Swan Lake and the ballet and basically took all the characters and translated them into characters in our movie reality. So it’s really just a retelling of Swan Lake, but yes it definitely shows the challenges and the darkness and the reality of how it is to be a ballet dancer. But I think it also represents the beauty of the art and the transcendence that’s possible within the art, all within retelling Swan Lake.

There are going to be people that are always going to have issues with things? The dancers we’ve met and have talked about it, are like, ‘Finally, we have a real movie about ballet.’ So that’s our response.


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.