Darren Aronofsky on the set of his latest film, The Wrestler.
Press conferences have a nasty habit of being rather bland affairs, peppered with anodyne questions asked by cub reporters who haven’t managed to secure one-to-one interviews. American-based press conferences often also feature the odd phenomena of people who stand up and make statements about the film they’ve just watched rather than asking a question about it. The New York Film Festival, however, consistently bucks this trend. The most interesting press conference I attended in 2007 was undoubtedly the one at the festival in which Brian De Palma got into a spat with a film company executive (read about that here). And it was, if anything, topped by the fantastic press conference for The Wrestler in 2008.
Darren Aronofsky’s film tells the story of a wrestler at the end of his career who is struggling to give up the game while also fighting emotional problems on a personal front, including a blossoming relationship with an ageing pole dancer. It stars Mickey Rourke – expected to get an Oscar nod for his powerful performance – who, arguably, knows a thing or two about being washed up and trying to make a comeback. One thing was immediately clear - producer Scott Franklin, Aronofsky, Rourke and co-star Tomei get on like a house on fire and they have also all reached an age where they feel talking about the embarrassing moments on a shoot as well as the glamour. It’s also fair to say that Rourke really has bucketloads of that unquantifiable thing – “star quality”. In dark glasses and clutching an unlit cigar, he dominates the stage throughout, even when the others are speaking and, despite what many may say about his fading looks/surgery decisions, has the sort of magnetism, even now, that few could match. What followed was refreshingly honest and informative. If you want to see them in person there are clips on the official site and we’ve included a couple of them below…
Question: Darren, can you talk about the genesis of the project?
Darren Aronofsky: When I graduated film school, I had made a list on my Mac Classic – just some ideas for feature films and one of them was called The Wrestler. I think it came out of the idea that there are so many boxing movies, that it's basically its own genre, yet no one had done a serious film about wrestling. There's a lot of reasons for that. So it started there, and it just kind of sat on my hard drive for years, then about six years ago, me and Scott Franklin, who was a producer on a couple of my earlier films, started talking about it, and Scott turned out to be a bigger fan of wrestling than I was, when he was a kid, and Scott started to put together some ideas for it. Then eventually the idea of Mickey Rourke came up, and at that same time, we met a writer named Rob Siegel, and so Rob started to write a script and the project started to fuse. That kind of big part of it was the last two or three years.
Question: Can you talk about how Mickey's breathing - the grunts, moans and sub-vocalisations - were part of the performance and the sound design?
Aronofsky: Well, I can't talk about the performance, and I'm curious to hear where it came from, because I don't think I directed that from Mickey. I think that Mickey just brought that. But when I started to edit, we were very aware of it. And it was funny, Mickey hates looping, in fact, he told me many times on set, "We will never loop." But I won that fight! I got him to do a few just sort of grunts, and we definitely played with him a little bit, but most of it was documentary style, most of it was captured and recorded on set and done by Mickey in the moment, so I'd love to hear from Mickey where that came from.
Rourke: We had a pretty extensive rehearsal period. I didn't know much about wrestling at all, and Darren had a really great stunt co-ordinator, who's an actual judge at UFC fights, a gentleman by the name of Douglas Crosby. He brought in a really great team of professional wrestlers, one particular guy from the '80s, who was a famous tag team...
Aronofsky: Afa Samoan. Remember the Wild Samoans? He was one of those guys. He's a really nice guy. (laughs)
Rourke: Yes, he was a very nice guy… so while Darren went on vacation for like two months, he made me stay with these guys. He had a ring put up in his office, and every day, for two hours, Darren made me go to wrestling practice with these guys. At first it was really hard, I didn't get it, because I was formally trained in a different sport, which actually made it harder to learn the wrestling.
In boxing, you're taught to hide everything, so I would have been better off if I'd never had a boxing lesson or fought professionally, because it almost broke every rule that I was ever taught - to show a punch - where I was taught for so many years to do that. The actual grunting was real. We were pretty exhausted, and Darren is very - he doesn't like the word tough, but, relentless, okay? He's a perfectionist, and he really wanted us to...
The wrestling? A lot in Europe, they get confused, "Oh in America, you make all these boxing movies," and wrestling and boxing are like, I said, ping-pong and rugby. It's totally two different sports. One sport you really go out to cause as much damage as you can on your opponent as quickly as you can or you pace yourself to do so, to survive, depending on the opponent, where, with the wrestling, it's all choreographed like a ballet, like a dance, and you work with the other person so you can pull off something that looks a little magical.
What I really didn't know, and what I wasn't prepared for, was that you actually get hurt. I got hurt more in the three months doing the wrestling than I did in 16 years in boxing. I think I had three MRI's in two months, and you know, Darren would screech at me, "You're only giving me 50 per cent," and I'm going, "I can't f**king move, brother, you now, I'm no spring chicken! This would be hard for a 20 year-old to do.” I’ve got to admit, I didn't have very much respect for this sport, so I looked down on it, coming from the sport I was very proud of being a part of for most of my life.
Once I got over that hurdle and realised that it's something else, it's okay to wrestle, it's okay to make believe. What I really didn't know is that I had a new-found respect for this sport as far as it being entertainment because these guys really lay their ass on the line and get hurt, working off the adrenaline of the audience. So when they're throwing themselves over the ring or they're body slamming, they're hurting every vertebrae in their body and their teeth are rattling, and when they go over and they get hit with the chairs, it does hurt... I was so glad when this movie was over! It was probably, I can honestly say, the best movie I've ever made and the hardest movie I've ever made and I was so goddamned thankful the day we were done with it.
Q: What about the grunting when you aren’t wrestling?
Rourke: I was just tired all the time.
Q: Marisa, can you talk about the preparation for your role?
Tomei: I was listening to Mickey, and I was thinking that there were so many feelings that were similar... although Darren did not put up a strip pole in his office for me ahead of time.
Aronofsky: It would have been a great idea!
Tomei: I had to cram it into, I guess, a few weeks, really, but also I thought well, it's not really dancing, it's just about how you look, and then later I found out that, just as you [Mickey] was saying, you're working off the adrenaline of the audience, you're entertaining, and that there was a craft to it and a strength to it. It's difficult. I wound up really enjoying it and learning the tricks and also the personal challenge of standing there and doing that. It’s one thing when it's like a fantasy in your mind, my mind, but I always like to go into things that I'm scared of, so I eventually found it… liberating is kind of a trite word, but it was fun. It was scary, but it was still fun, and it was hard, and how many takes did we do, at one time?
Tomei: It doesn't sound that bad now, 26 takes, but at like, two minutes a pop, when you going on that pole, it's a really strenuous activity, it was really hard. Plus I'm having a shot [mimes a shot glass] between every take. [To Aronofsky] Did you know that?
Tomei: Some of the PAs on set, the girls, were in my corner.
Q: Were the other dancers pros?
Aronofsky: Yeah. Our whole attitude was to try and stick us in as real environments as possible, so for the wrestling, we actually threw real wrestling promotions, with real fans and with all other real wrestlers. In fact, everyone Mickey wrestled was a real wrestler; there were no stuntmen involved. There was partly a financial element to it, but that wasn't really the main motivation to it. It was to try and create as much reality as possible.
Q: Mickey, can you talk about how you into shape for the role and about the make-up effects in the wrestling scenes?
Rourke: I was already working out for something else for three or four months, so once I knew that we were going to do this film, I was sort of heavy training, to try to put on between 36 to 40 pounds, and I tried to put it on the right way, slowly. I had a little help and I ate a lot of protein and pumped a lot of iron and lifted heavier than I normally lift. I had a terrific trainer from Israel who was a professional cage fighter, and he was really disciplined with me, and he'd come over and yank me out of bed at seven in the morning; I'd tried to hide under the sheets like I wasn't there.
Aranofsky: Except on Shabbas…
Rourke: We worked really hard back in Miami with the weight training and continued it, even as we were shooting, an hour a day.
Q: And the make-up effects?
Aronofsky: We had a great make-up team - a team I've worked with on all of my films, led by Judy Chen, who's the script make-up artist, and Mike Marino did the prosthetics and also did the nipple rings, which is harder than you imagine. It's actually a really difficult thing to pull off. But, yeah, it was just a lot of work, it was probably two to three hours of prosthetic work, at least, if not more.
Q: When you hired Rob Siegel as a screenwriter, how did you know that you'd get the quality of script out of him that you did?
Aronofsky: Rob Siegel was one of the first editors of The Onion, and then he wrote a screenplay that made the rounds, a great screenplay that I tried to do for a while. I just kind of liked his dark humour with the drama – he just captured that. The other film was a sports movie, and when I talked to him I had a sense that he kind of understood what we were trying to do. Then we worked for him with two or three years to shape it, so there was a lot of development. I don't know how many drafts he wrote, probably about 30 drafts, but it went through a lot of incarnations to get there.
Q: Mickey, how much rehearsal time did you have with Evan Rachel Wood?
Rourke: We had none at all. I don't really like to rehearse, especially when it's for scenes that you’ve got to visit some dark places or emotional-type scenes. She was very special to work with. She'd go off by herself, smoke a half a dozen cigarettes, and I'd be outside doing the same thing. I don’t even think we said "hello," to each other...
Aronofsky: No, you didn't say, "hello." The first scene, I stuck her in the house and I said, "Let's just try it." Because I knew Mickey didn't want... we wanted to try it without rehearsing to see what would happen.
Rourke: We just got to it and I have to say I've worked with some pretty fine young actresses, and she just blew me away because she would... first of all she's like twentysomething years old and she didn't have any easy scenes to do, and she would nail it, and then I thought, "Wow, she's pretty f**king good." And then maybe she'd do one or two more takes that were off, and she'd go back in the kitchen, smoke 10 more cigarettes, come back, and nail it again, and I thought, "Wow, man, who'd she study with, or what technique did she learn?” Because when I was 20, I couldn't even remember my lines. I was very impressed with her.
Q: Scott, can you talk a little bit about the production and how it came together – there’s French money in the film, isn’t there?
Scott Franklin: The film was financed by a company called Wild Bunch. We tried to finance the film for a long time. It was a challenging film to finance. Mickey's comeback as a lead actor, a lot of people doubted him, and Darren and I never wavered from believing in Mickey, and when the film made its rounds, Wild Bunch was a little bit short in what they were willing to finance it for and how much of a risk they were willing to take, and as we got closer to really wanting to make the film, I think the euro kept rising and the dollar kept plummeting, which boded really well for us, in that they were able to finance the film for the same amount of euros that they originally offered us for, it was about $600,000-$700,000 more. It just all came together, and once that came together, we ran as quickly as we could to get into production so that the dollar would stay where it was. I think we prepped it in two months, once they first committed to making the film. We shot for 35 days – a seven-week shoot.
Q: Did the wrestlers or dancers offer to show you their moves and did that allow for some improvisation?
Tomei: They wanted to know my moves! They actually did. The ones that were hired, that were on the set, but we did... Darren, I don't know how he met Misty...
Aronofsky: Misty who? (laughs) We knew someone that worked in strip clubs downtown... I don't know who introduced us... (looks at Mickey which causes some hilarity)
Rourke: What was her name? Serafina?
Aronofsky: Yeah, a friend of Mickey's and a friend of Serafina's... so anyway, we got someone.
Tomei: And through Serafina we met Misty, and Misty came and hung out with me, so that was mostly how it worked. I was still, of course, quite nervous, but Mickey made me feel better after the first day that I had to do it. I was waiting to see his eyes when he came in, "Does this look right? I know you know! Does this look right?"
Aronofsky: I remember Mickey, with his long blonde hair, trying to show her...
Tomei: How to twirl... He showed me how to do that head snap... actually, he [Mickey] taught me! (laughs)
Q: What about Mickey's wrestling moves?
Aronofsky: As Mickey said, we had a tremendous wrestling team that trained Mickey to do all those moves, everything was choreographed.
Rourke: We were choreographed, and then we had one particular professional wrestler, Tommy Farra. We'd have everything choreographed, and we'd be standing around, huffing and puffing, and then, all of a sudden, Tommy would do this f**king crazy move, and I'd go, "Oh, I wanna do that," and we wouldn't tell Darren, because we had banned Darren from wrestling rehearsal at the time, so every time Tommy would do something that was really tricky and far out, I'd say, "Oh, I wanna do that move, too." So I'd come in on Sundays and not tell him [Darren] that we were incorporating these other kind of scissor moves into it, and it was kind of challenging and fun, and by that time I kind of got my head into it and I really wanted to impress Darren.
Q: Was the choreography worked out ahead of time?
Rourke: There will be a set piece that will be choreographed during a period of time, but then what we do, is we incorporate a move that wasn't originally there. In other words, make it a more exciting move.
Aronofsky: They basically speak a language when they're wrestling. Some of the things, we weren't able to capture, like what is it called? A hitting key?
Rourke: A hitting key is like you touch someone and you squeeze them, and that means that they will reverse another move.
Aronofsky: So they are talking to each other and countering, but usually, a character like The Ram, who was a veteran, would be leading the other guy through, just sort of what we showed, and it's kind of improvisational, but they know the big beats that they hit.
Q: Has the wrestling community seen it? How do they feel about you giving away their tricks?
Aronofsky: You mean this isn’t the wrestling community? We must be in the wrong hall...
No one's really seen it. What I've heard so far from the wrestlers who have seen it, the ones that trained Mickey, is that Mickey is probably better than 80 per cent of the actual "jobbers" in the WWE right now. I think all the wrestlers were pretty amazed at what he pulled off, which was a big compliment. I was very happy. Everyone knows that wrestling is entertainment. I think, if anything, what we're showing, is that it's an actual sport. We show that there’s a lot of blood and tears.
Rourke: Well, it's also like any other sport, football, baseball, boxing, where you reach a certain age, because you're 37 years old, that ball went through your legs, and "Oh, we gotta get another shortshop." You become a certain age and they want to put you on the shelf, and some guys just don't go so gracefully, you know? But it happens in every sport, not just wrestling. Anybody who's ever put on a jockstrap knows what I'm talking about.
Aronofsky: Or a G-string…
Q: If they call you up for Wrestlemania, will you be available?
Rourke: Absolutely! I hear Vince McMahon pays pretty good.
Q: You used the word "relentless" – I think it’s appropriate since you were all ruthless in your pursuit in making this film. What do you think is the mass appeal of self-abuse [such as wrestling or stripping]?
Franklin: I have no idea. We're gonna have to leave that to the film critics.
[It’s worth noting at this point that perplexity abounds among the panel… and is written on the faces of quite a few of the assembled press… there’s an attempt to clarify the question, amid some more good-natured humour from the panel involving, not least, Tomei’s protestations that she, too, was injured too during the shoot. There’s some suggestion that the actors might embrace the opportunity to injure themselves, which leads to…]
Aronofsky: I don't know that actors are necessarily looking to hurt themselves when they take a role; I don't think that's what driving actors, personally. But I think it's something I dealt with in The Fountain a little bit, challenging death. It's the whole gladiator thing - how close to death can you come, like standing off a cliff. The whole adrenaline thing, how much can you scare yourself
Rourke: I'm gonna relate it to, let’s say, a football coach. [Aronofsky interjects: “This doesn’t answer the question!”] It does… I paid Darren a compliment one time, and I said, he was tough. He got upset with me, because “tough” where I'm from and where he comes from, could mean two different things. I mean “tough” like, "I will break my ass for him, like I would a football coach. I want a football coach who's tough, who’s going to make you run the extra mile, who's going to run you into the f**king ground so that when it's game day you're ready to play. And that's what happened with this movie. There was a trust that happened. We were shooting this movie on gas fumes and didn’t have time to piss around, and what Darren wanted, we all wanted to do. He was the coach, he was the general, I won't say, tough, he was not tough, he was relentless [laughs], talented… shall I go on. He used to phone up the nightclubs and say, “Is Mickey in there? I want you to go home.” I said, “it’s only three in the morning!”
Aronofsky: I cut him off at a few clubs.
Q: There was some discussion before about trying to get financing and that there was some nervousness about having it star Mickey. How does the "comeback" feel, Mickey?
Rourke: Well, you know, if I knew 15 years ago that it was going to take 15 years to get back in the saddle and work again because of the way I handled things, I really would have handled things differently, I just didn’t have the tools.
Doing things differently this time around, understanding what it is to be a professional, be responsible, be consistent, those are things that weren't in my vocabulary back then. Change, for me, didn't come easy. I didn’t want to change until I lost everything, and then I realised, man, you better change, or you better blow your f**king brains out. Either you change and you go on with live, or you're just a piece of s**t. I thought it was a weakness to change, because of the armour I'd put on my whole life. I was too proud to change but I had to change because my strength at that time was a weakness. I'm okay with it now, yeah it took me 15, 16, 17 years out of the game, but it's really nice, because I get to come back and work with these people here.