Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Darren Aronofsky & Marisa Tomei

'Ram' Dipping

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Darren Aronofsky and Marisa Tomei travel well together. And they work well together too. It wasn't long into their first meeting that they figured out why: "We went to the same high school," says Tomei during a recent visit to San Francisco. "He's younger than me. He knew my brother. On our first meeting we were really understanding each other. We had a nice rapport. And he was like, 'yeah. We're both from Brooklyn! We're speaking the same language. I'm not scared of you, and you're not scared of me!" Aronofsky, the director of mind-benders like Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000) and The Fountain (2006), and Oscar-winner Tomei, of My Cousin Vinny (1992), In the Bedroom (2001) and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) have dropped by to discuss their latest film, The Wrestler, which is something different for both of them. Mickey Rourke stars as Randy 'The Ram' Robinson, a former superstar of 1980s still wrestling on a small-time circuit for tiny paychecks and little glory. Tomei plays Cassidy, a stripper, and his only true confidant over the years. (Both actors won San Francisco Film Critics Circle awards this week.) Rather than a high visual style, Aronofsky directs with a more documentary-like immediacy, and the result is an impressively rich character study, set in a unique, sad and fascinating world. The Wrestler opens December 17 in a limited run, expands to San Francisco December 25 and wider throughout January.

Combustible Celluloid: This movie seems so improvisatory. Marisa, what did the script read like when you received it?

Marisa Tomei: It had a lot of detail, and a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff from the world of wrestling. The stuff with Mickey getting his hair done, those details were all in the script. When they got there, they improvised with some stuff, but the scenes were written.

Combustible Celluloid: I'm sure everyone asks you what was it like to work with Mickey Rourke?

Marisa Tomei: I hope people ask him that about me!

Combustible Celluloid: Is he like a teddy bear or is he freaky?

Marisa Tomei: He's like a freaky teddy bear.

Combustible Celluloid: What is Darren Aronofsky like as a director?

Marisa Tomei: He was really detail oriented, very meticulous. His goal with this film was to be actor-centric, as The Fountain was technical-centric. He was there all the time, and open all the time. It was fast and furious, but he liked to do a lot of takes. I've only had that one other time. Nancy Myers (What Women Want) likes to do a lot of takes. It's really challenging. You feel like the well is drying up emotionally, and you have to go deeper to bring that water up again.

Combustible Celluloid: How many takes is a lot of takes?

Marisa Tomei: 30 takes. Even the dance alone was 26 takes. And that was 2 minutes of dancing on a pole. And that was just part of a day. It was a challenging shoot.

Combustible Celluloid: Did you rehearse on this? Do you like rehearsing?

Marisa Tomei: I don't really like rehearsing with film. I prefer to just kind of go with the instinct, and then get the feedback after. Because if you rehearse and start talking about it, then it moves from something mysterious and unnamable to being overly articulated and thought out. Part of the craft is keeping your mind out of it.

Combustible Celluloid: Okay, Darren. Imagine you're a film critic and you've seen the new Darren Aronofsky film and you love it but you're not quite sure how it fits in.

Darren Aronofsky: The first three films were definitely a chapter for me. So I don't know, maybe it's a new beginning. Some people have talked about some thematic links. I think they're there. I wasn't conscious of them, but some people bring them up and they're pretty interesting. Not even shots so much, but themes about the characters. Like characters falling at the end. But I just want to keep challenging myself. And I think that this was a big risk for me in a lot of ways. In some ways it wasn't because it was such a small film, but I was working with a different team and in a different way. It kept it interesting. You gotta keep it interesting somehow. Otherwise I'm just going to end up hanging out and fishing.

Combustible Celluloid: Would you say you're getting more minimalist?

Darren Aronofsky: The first two films were exercises in subjective filmmaking and pushing that to the extreme. When I got to The Wrestler, it was going the completely the opposite direction. Basically the film is 98% objective. It's like a documentary. I call it "proactive documentary." In a real documentary, everything is reactive. If you're watching "Cops" and a guy runs away, a second later, the camera chases after the guy. We didn't have that second delay because we knew what the scene was about and we knew where Mickey or Marisa was going to go, so we were able to choreograph it. So we had this style where we could give a documentary feel and allow realism to happen, but we were ready for it. There's no internal sound stuff, except for two or three times, when he's having the heart attack and when he's walking to the deli counter. I really didn't want to do that, but I couldn't resist. Sometimes it's OK to bend the rules for a good moment.

Combustible Celluloid: Mickey Rourke wouldn't let you strap the camera to him?

Darren Aronofsky: He probably would have. I didn't do that in The Fountain because I was done with it. Every music video and commercial ended up doing it after us.

Combustible Celluloid: Robert D. Siegel has complete and sole credit on the script. Where did it come from? Is it something that arrived on your doorstep?

Darren Aronofsky: It was an original idea that I had, when I graduated from film school in the early 1990s. And then about 2002, when The Fountain fell apart for the first time, I got together with this producer Scott Franklin and we started to come together with ideas as to what it would be like. And a couple years later we hired Rob Siegel. And by then we had some ideas about the world we wanted and we had the idea of an older wrestler. Originally we didn't have the older wrestler idea, but it became pretty clear that if we had a younger wrestler doing something with the WWE, probably I wouldn't get the creative freedom I needed. We thought about making a period piece, before Vince McMahon started organizing all the territories. But then we realized that we were probably looking at a low budget film and we couldn't do a period film. So then I started going to the independent shows and I saw all these legends working 2-300 dollars a night. Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, Rocky Johnson, Captain Lou, Iron Sheik. Even though I wasn't a huge fan, I knew all these names. They were kind of big stars from childhood that I was embarrassed to meet. But they were there signing autographs for 8 bucks. That's when I knew there was a story. Rob came on. And then 25-35 drafts later, we got there. He definitely worked for it. The reason he deserved all the credit is that he did all the hard labor. He'd write it and I'd say, "this is better but it still sucks."

Combustible Celluloid: The authenticity of the film is very impressive. All those details from the old "Ram" Nintendo game down to the fanny pack...

Darren Aronofsky: Getting Mickey Rourke to wear the fanny pack was a bitch. Picture Mickey Rourke, who's mister cool, mister macho, wearing a fanny pack? I said, 'Mickey, every wrestler we've met wears a fanny pack. You've gotta wear the fanny pack.' We got him to wear it for one shot, and that's the shot that's in the movie.

Combustible Celluloid: The scene with The Ram working the deli counter is great...

Darren Aronofsky: Half those people were real people because we didn't have the money to close the deli counter. All the other people behind the counter with Mickey were the women that worked there. And people started coming over. And I was like, 'You know what, Mickey? You should just start serving these people.' And he started serving them. And the manager came over at some point and asked if he could improve his handwriting. And it turned out that people were buying the meat that he was serving them. I'm not even sure if they knew there was a movie going on. We were very stealth. We weren't a huge crew. There was no video playback, and there was no director chair or actor's chair or any of that.

Combustible Celluloid: Marisa, your character wears all kinds of crazy things, from tattoos to G-strings to a more memorable daytime outfit... with those amazing boots...

Marisa Tomei: That cap and those boots! I was so excited when I got those. The costuming was really fun. I worked on it a lot. I always work on it a lot, when I'm allowed to. It's a tangible way of getting in the zone, getting into the history of the character. I have to decide what kind of stripper she is. And I also have to coordinate it with my mood. And then you want to pick the things that reflect her and that are flattering. I was never a big lingerie girl and I got to have all that. And there are certain things that are required in the scene, like he has to put money in at a certain point, so I had to have a certain kind of G-string, because he has to do that action of the money. I didn't want to be stuck doing a scene with him completely topless, so it had to be a certain point in the music, where I still had a bra or whatever on. I had to have layers... It was complicated, a little bit of a Rubik's Cube.

Combustible Celluloid: There's a beautiful scene in which The Ram is meeting with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), and they break into an abandoned ballroom. How did that scene come about?

Darren Aronofsky: In the script, I think it was originally they were going to play Skee-Ball. Then we turned it into a snowball fight, and then it didn't snow. So I thought we need to do something silly and endearing. We were in Asbury Park. We were scouting with Evan Rachel Wood. I could see that space through the crack. I saw it and I said, 'get me permission to go in there.' On the day, we had permission to go in there. It's just this old casino. We walked in there, and I said, 'Mickey, you're going to ask Evan to dance.' And Mickey doesn't like to dance. I said, 'you're going to Waltz.' He said, 'I can't waltz.' So I said, 'I'll teach you!' And there's video of me teaching Mickey how to waltz, which is pretty embarrassing. I remember afterwards, Evan sobbed. She walked away and she was sobbing. She had some personal connection that's her story to tell. She resisted at the beginning, and then afterwards she was glad she did it.

Combustible Celluloid: The ending is a bit mysterious. Can you talk about the ending?

Darren Aronofsky: Before Rob was ever on, I said, 'the ending is he leaps off the rope and that's it.' I don't know emotionally what it means, but that's how you end a wrestling picture. I just have too many cheese alarms. If something's cheesy I just run. I just can't do it. I'd make a lot more money if I had a little more cheese in my arsenal.

November 24, 2008

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