Aronofsky’s Mother! Pushing Boundaries And Challenging Conventions

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“But you know the best movies are the ones you keep talking about afterwards. And that comes from pushing boundaries, trying something different..”

The relationship thriller Mother! began when Writer / Director Darren Aronofsky spent five fevered days at his keyboard alone in an empty house.  He knows he might be pressed about the result – Why such a dark vision? His answer? Look around:

“It is a mad time to be alive. As the world population nears 8 billion we face issues too serious to fathom: Ecosystems collapse as we witness extinction at an unprecedented rate; Migrant crises disrupt governments; A seemingly schizophrenic U.S. helps broker a landmark climate treaty and months later withdraws; Ancient tribal disputes and beliefs continue to drive war and division; The largest iceberg ever recorded breaks off an Antarctic ice shelf and drifts out to sea.  At the same time we face issues too ridiculous to comprehend: In South America tourists twice kill rare baby dolphins that washed ashore, suffocating them in a frenzy of selfies; Politics resembles sporting events; People still starve to death while others can order any meat they desire. As a species our footprint is perilously unsustainable yet we live in a state of denial about the outlook for our planet and our place on it.

“From this primordial soup of angst and helplessness,” continues Aronofsky, “I woke up one morning and this movie poured out of me.”

Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem) live in a seemingly idyllic existence in a secluded paradise. But the couple’s relationship is tested when man (Ed Harris) and woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrive at their home uninvited. Answering that knock disrupts their tranquil existence and as more and more guests arrive, mother is forced to revisit everything she knows about love, devotion and sacrifice.

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His other six films gestated with him for years, but this?

In 5 days, he was holding a rough draft of mother! in his hands. “Within a year we were rolling cameras.”

Two years after that long weekend, Aronofsky’s film was headed for its world premiere at the 74th Venice International Film Festival (Aug. 30 – Sept. 9), selected to compete for the prestigious Golden Lion Award for Best Film. Its North American premiere is set for the 42nd Annual Toronto Film Festival Sept. 7-17.

Aronofsky admits mother! is hard to slot into any one particular genre, and that’s because even he can’t fully pinpoint where everything in this film came from: “Some came from the headlines we face every second of every day, some came from the endless buzzing of notifications on our smart phones, some came from living through the blackout of Hurricane Sandy in downtown Manhattan, some came from my heart, some from my gut. Collectively it’s a recipe I won’t ever be able to reproduce, but I do know this concoction is best served as a single dose – in a shot glass.”

“mother is definitely a psychological thriller and you will recognize its relevance to our world now,” notes Producer Scott Franklin. “It has a thriller aspect to it, creepy and discomforting but it is kind of in a genre of its own,” explains Franklin. “mother is the vessel and all of the themes unfold through her eyes.”

”I’ve never seen stories, ideas woven together in this way. I’m still thinking about it. Darren and I are still having conversations about it,” says Lawrence.

“It starts as one kind of film,” notes Producer Ari Handel. “You think you know where you are. Then it slowly takes you further and further. At no moment during those two hours are you able to ever rest and say, ‘Oh, I’m in that movie.  I know the rules of this world.’ Darren always wants to take the audience somewhere unanticipated”

According to Pfeiffer, from the beginning Aronofsky was mysterious about the symbolism of elements in the film but she knew “there was nothing random in every single choice, every single frame, every single word.  There were certain things that were very important to him in the wording, in my dialogue.”

Despite the pedigree talent and vast experience this troupe of actors brought to the film, Lawrence makes it clear that while Aronofsky is a collaborative leader and inclusive of actors’ input in the process: “There wasn’t really any improv. Darren writes it, creates it, he’s a very specific visionary. I try to figure out what that means and where mother fits into his vision.”

“When Darren sat down to write this story one of the main things he was thinking about was the way that human beings live on this planet and what they do to this planet,” says Handel. “And he wanted to dramatize that by shrinking it all the way down:  to one relationship in one house.

“I remember when, a few months after we were deep in the script, he came across this book, Woman and Nature, by Susan Griffin.  It was a piece of ’70s philosophy that also sketched a parallel between how men sometimes treat women and how people treat the planet.  That book reaffirmed for us that we were going to be able to make these two stories, the story of a relationship, and the story of our world, both work at the same time.”

Continues Handel, “I think that environmental layer in the film is part of what makes it so disturbing. Yes we empathize with mother – and Jen’s performance is like a tractor beam pulling us along with her – but I think we also sense that each one of us is also part of that insatiably churning and ravenous crowd that is tearing her world apart.”

mother-poster01With the project shrouded in mystery for more than a year, Aronofsky began to whet his audiences appetite with a brutal poster of Lawrence by artist James Jean (Fables, The Umbrella Academy). It was released on mother’s day, followed by another portrait of Bardem this summer. After fans digested the stunningly beautiful, yet disturbing poster art they began to parse the artwork for clues about the film’s subject, debating the meaning of the smallest of details. Engaging their curiosity, Aronofsky turned his Twitter account into a destination point for mother! clues. But the filmmaker has taken great pleasure in pulling back the curtain slowly.

“I’m not really good at doing genre movies. π (Pi) tried to be sci-fi but it never really got there,” Aronofsky explains. “Noah wasn’t quite your classical biblical movie. No one knew if Black Swan was a ballet movie or a horror film. This film? There are things that are scary and spooky, thriller and romance, things that are surreal. “But you know the best movies are the ones you keep talking about afterwards. And that comes from pushing boundaries, trying something different,” he adds. “When I was a young filmmaker I happened to be in a coffee shop and it was near the NuArt (Theater) in L.A. where π (Pi) was showing and this guy came in with his 18-year-old daughter and a few of her friends. They were sitting there debating about what the movie was about. It was a big moment for me, like eavesdropping on a conversation about something you worked really hard on – a great feeling.

“The worst thing to me,” he continues, “is a movie where you are entertained but in a couple of hours you’re like ‘Oh, what did we see tonight?’ As a director, you want to give people something to think about. This movie? There will be a lot of heated conversation and that’s kind of the fun.”

As for that question Aronofsky anticipates – Why so dark?

“Hubert Selby Jr., the author of Requiem for a Dream, taught me that through staring into the darkest parts of ourselves it is there we find the light.”

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 a roman candle

After initial readings from trusted allies, Aronofsky’s feral concept made its way to Jennifer Lawrence, Academy Award Winner (Silver Linings Playbook) and three-time Oscar nominee (Joy, American Hustle, Winter’s Bone). Her response was “very visceral, very strong,” he recalls. She committed to the film immediately.

For Aronofsky, this created a path for getting the film made. He recalled: “When you have Jen Lawrence, you have a movie.”

Lawrence saying yes was about more than adding a home invasion horror tale to her repertoire.

“One of the greatest things that can happen to you as an artist is to be a part of a movie that starts conversation because it’s an original idea, completely unique,” says Lawrence. “Even though we’re shooting things that are eerie, the allegory is so much bigger. It’s what it all means.

“There’s a million different facets to this movie that certain people are going to relate to, be scared of, intrigued by,” continues Lawrence. She describes the lure of playing mother, the adoring wife and muse to Javier Bardem’s enigmatic poet: “Falling in love is scary. Being vulnerable? Terrifying. Not letting yourself be vulnerable? Also, terrifying.

“It’s one thing to make something lukewarm,” says Lawrence. “It’s another to make something scalding hot. This? It’s a Roman candle. An explosion. A riot of a movie. An expression. Initial feedback: “There’s definitely a moment in this movie where some will say, ‘Darren, you’re taking this too far’ and storm out of the theater. But I wouldn’t have been there if I hadn’t already thrown the script across my hotel room in New York and thought this guy is crazy. But he has to take it all the way.  I think he was right to not shy back and be afraid.

As for that Roman candle, expect an unsettling metaphoric ride that will shock and jar audiences. Lawrence’s dark summation: “A creator always needs a muse. As long as the universe is expanding, men will be using women.”

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always a rule-breaker

Once Lawrence and her co-star Javier Bardem, the Academy Award winner (No Country For Old Men) and two-time Oscar nominee (Biutiful, Before Night Falls) were onboard, momentum kicked in.

Aronofsky then did something else he’d never done before: A three-month  rehearsal in a secluded Brooklyn warehouse.

Producers Ari Handel (Noah, The Fountain) and Scott Franklin, Academy Award nominee (Black Swan) joined the threesome for the script workshop.

By the last two weeks, three-time Academy Award nominee Michelle Pfeiffer (Love Field, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Dangerous Liaisons), four-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris (The Hours, Pollock, The Truman Show, Apollo 13), Domhnall Gleeson (Ex Machina, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and his brother Brian Gleeson (Snow White and the Huntsman, Assassin’s Creed) had joined the collaborative process. (Oscar nominee Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids), who plays herald, wouldn’t join the production until later.)

Aronofsky had a scale blueprint for the house taped out on the floor and he and his collaborator Matthew Libatique, the Oscar nominee (Black Swan) and cinematographer on six of Aronofsky’s films, shot a test version of the entire film. There were no walls in the rehearsal space,  just the tape on the floor demarcating the space they would ultimately build, recalls Aronofsky. “Nonetheless we did every single shot, every single scene. Andy Weisblum, my editor, cut it together. We were able to look at a 90-minute version” sans hair and makeup. “Basically we were getting a sense of the camera movements, the progression and arc of the characters throughout the film before we ever started to shoot.”

This was important because Aronofsky was determined to shoot the film exclusively from mother’s point-of-view, which meant limited options for Libatique. Libatique’s choreography with the camera moved around the house “in long single shots that were handheld, upstairs, downstairs, around narrow hallways,” adds Franklin. “While moving in one direction, he would pan to the left and to the right, to catch the action in a room in the center of the house.”

And that wasn’t the only challenge.  With only a handful of wide shots when mother is alone, “basically, the film is either shot over her shoulder, on her face or what she’s looking at. That’s an incredibly limited amount of shots to take back to the edit room,” concedes Aronofsky. With a running time of two hours, 66 minutes of it is close-ups of Lawrence “yet you wouldn’t realize it,” says Aronofsky. “If Jen, at any moment, wasn’t working there weren’t many places to go. She had to be endlessly specific and good. If this had been a normal studio picture and I didn’t have a great collaboration with Paramount, I think they would have been terrified because there was no typical coverage.”

Says Pfeiffer:  “Darren set a very high bar for himself, thus everyone else. We were doing these wild, crazy, master long shots that went on forever, going down halls, upstairs, downstairs.  You’re sort of in the shot, out of the shot, jumping over cables, hiding behind the camera. You have to remember your lines and not fall down.  But I think we all approached it with a really great attitude and we were all very excited and enthusiastic about the challenge of it all.”

During the rehearsal period, Aronofsky confesses he was anxious – Lawrence seemed so relaxed, the role was so different from anything she had done and he was uncertain whether the part he envisioned for her was possible. But by the time they reached the start of production in Montreal, he realized it was her process – she was finding mother. “I actually probably didn’t meet the character that Jen portrays in the film until the first day of shooting when she showed up in costume, hair and barefoot,” he says. “She’s barefoot the whole movie. mother started to come alive in front of me. The amount of raw talent was insane.”

For the actors, moving from an imaginary rehearsal space to a real wood and plaster set was transformative. “I started forming my relationship with the house in a warehouse where there was just chalk drawings of the outline of the house because that’s when we were doing our rehearsals and that’s when I was kind of starting to find who mother was,” remembers Lawrence. “Once we got to Montreal and on that set, it happened,” she says.  Her imagination was fueled by how mother would walk down the stairs, hold the banister of the staircase, perceiving it like a living entity because “of the intensity of her emotions tied to the house. “  Lawrence describes how interacting with the physical house helped bring mother to life, “I was mostly, always barefoot so I could feel the house.  I knew my character’s reaction to the house was going to be internal. I was actually able to work with the house after using only my imagination in the warehouse. It was incredibly helpful.”

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cast and characters

“When you first meet my character, you realize how much love and passion she’s put into this home,” explains Lawrence. “She’s rebuilt her husband’s house that burned down before she knew him, as much as she can, because she loves Him and she wants to make this perfect environment for them.  She puts her entire heart into it… a real passion project for her. He is this amazing artist who needs praise. He needs to be worshipped and she is willing to give that.  She is in awe of Him. At a certain point, he gets used to her gaze, to her reading everything and loving it.  He needs new stimulation. That’s heartbreaking in any relationship if you feel you’re not enough. [She’s] this woman who’s given everything to try and be everything for this artist, and [yet] he’s not stimulated by her.

“When Ed Harris (man) knocks on our door, that’s the first time we have another character there that’s not just Javier or me.  And he’s a complete stranger, which is exciting for Javier’s character and invigorating and a little scary for mother. “The way that [Him and man] hit it off is intimidating…that only continues to grow throughout the movie.”

To say Javier Bardem’s character is elusive would be an understatement.  At the center of their house is his office, the sanctuary where he works and where his most valuable possession is kept, a mysterious object from the life he lived before meeting mother.  And the mystery only deepens as the film goes on.

“Javier’s character has an inherent darkness,” notes Franklin. “His character evolves throughout the film in a subtle way and you realize the character traits he has towards the end of the movie, he’s had all along. He just hid them.”

The tension between Bardem & Lawrence’s characters begins to bloom when Harris’ character, man, arrives at the house.

“He is this loose electron who comes flying into their nucleus. Things start to get stranger and stranger,” says Aronofsky. As an actor, Aronofsky describes Harris as “game to play anything; completely goes into it and after it. I don’t think he ever does anything that’s not real.”

Harris describes his character’s relationship with his wife (Pfeiffer) as very “affectionate.” Says Pfeiffer: “We represent, as a couple, a lot of what may be missing in (Him and mother’s) relationship. My character is kind of a mirror for Jen’s character. I sort of am there to sow doubt into Jen’s psyche.”