Darren Aronofsky on the science behind ‘Pi’ and ‘Requiem for a Dream’
The Oscar nominee spoke with Janna Levin, Scientific Director of Pioneer Works, about her career blurring the lines between art and science.
Few filmmakers have blended art, religion, and science better than Darren Aronofsky. In the 25 years since the release of his first film, ‘Pi’, the director has carved out a niche for himself, telling stories of people obsessed with finding order in a chaotic universe. Sometimes these people are mathematicians, sometimes they are saints, but they are all chasing forbidden knowledge hidden in the universe.
With these themes in mind, Aronofsky recently sat down with Pioneer Works Scientific Director Janna Levin to talk about the scientific influences on his work. The tableau, which is the museum’s Science vs. It was part of his Fiction series, and affected all eight of Aronofsky’s feature films.
The conversation started with a discussion about “Pi”. While the 1998 film – which will be re-released in IMAX next month – is a significantly smaller affair than most of Aronofsky’s films, it remains a fascinating exploration of his worldview. The film tells the story of an obsessed mathematician (Sean Gullette), whose attempts to find the patterns that connect the universe lead him on a dark journey through the world of mathematics and mysticism.
“I remember having huge arguments with Sean about how much we believed there were actually patterns going on. But there must have been something there. I had a math teacher in high school and I remember him telling us all these crazy things about pi,” he said. “So I thought it would be good to start with a main character who is very involved in calculations. I thought this was great because I failed in high school and I thought it would be really interesting to learn about it.”
His next film, “Requiem for a Dream,” is less specifically scientific. The film tells the story of four Coney Island residents whose struggles with various addictions eventually blur the line between reality and delusion. However, Aronofsky explained that after deciding to make a film of Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel of the same name, he began to study the science of addiction.
“There is a science to addiction,” he said. “I read ‘Requiem’ and what was amazing about it was that it was able to show that the psychology of addiction doesn’t have to involve hard drugs. It can be with food, chocolate, coffee, and the psychological mind works the same way when dealing with substances.”
While editing the film, he used the same mathematical approach that made “Pi” such a success. The entire film essentially builds to an intense musical climax, and Aronofsky and his editors went to great lengths to meticulously construct the final close-ups using mathematics.
“The whole film is a movement from wide shots to increasingly tight shots,” he said. “One thing we did was build up to the final climax, when all hell breaks loose, mathematically. We said we were going to cut eight frames, then six, then four… it was like a snare drum to speed up to the explosion at the very end.”
Aronofsky finally addressed the controversy that has followed him throughout his career. From the blunt portrayal of heroin addiction in “Requiem for a Dream” to the confusing nature of “The Fountain” (which even he jokingly didn’t understand) to the use of fat suits in “The Whale.” always raved about his provocative films. However, Aronofsky explained that he is not particularly bothered by criticism as long as he is doing something new.
“It always amazes me how thin everyone’s skin is,” she said. “It excites me when things go wrong in my films. It’s kind of what I live for, to see things I haven’t seen before.”
Watch Aronofsky and Levin’s full conversation, an IndieWire exclusive, below.
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