Long Strange Trip
An Interview with Darren Aronofsky
THE STRANGER: Talk a little about the genesis of The Fountain. Given the scope of the film, genesis seems like the appropriate word here.
DARREN ARONOFSKY: It all started with the Fountain of Youth, actually. I was wondering why this ancient myth of ours—it’s our oldest myth, really; it was in Gilgamesh, all the way through The Book of Genesis, Ponce de Leon, and even in Nip/Tuck, you know, it’s kind of a theme. [Laughs.] Anyway, I was wondering why nobody had ever made a film about the search for it. I was also excited about the idea of making a science fiction thing that had something deep in the past, and deep in the future, and somehow contrasted the two. In fact, that’s how it started, with those two time periods. The present, which is really the heart of the film, came later. One of the early things that got it going was a Uruguayan poet named Eduardo Galliano, who writes all these nonfiction accounts of history from the indigenous perspective. A lot of his examples of myth just intrigued me. So I was reading that, and I was also reading things about Cortez’s conquest of the Aztecs, and it just grew from there. I was also thinking sci-fi, specifically how to adapt David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity” into a film, because I thought that no one had really taken that little kernel of an idea and expanded on it before. I mean, if you think about the lyrics to the song after seeing the movie, you can see a lot of influence there. Our main character is named Tom, actually, after the song. One other element was the background of the person that I was creating the story with, with whom I had gone to college. He wasn’t a writer—he went and got a PhD in neuroscience. He was graduating right when I started thinking about this idea, and I liked his world of neurobiology and the whole lab scene that he was involved in. So all of those things were floating around, and slowly and surely we figured out how to stitch them together.
When did you first start writing it? Was it before your other films?
Yeah. It really started, actually, three weeks before I started shooting Requiem for a Dream. I went to see The Matrix, which had just come out. And what that film did, basically, was take every cool science fiction idea of the 20th century—it took William Gibson’s cyberpunk, Phillip K. Dick’s thing about reality within a reality—and you know, added some guns (laughs) and made it palatable for everyone in the world. So as a fan of all those ideas, I started to think, hey, what kind of science fiction film could I do? So I started dreaming along those lines. Early on, we made a move to move away from Outer Space and take it into Inner Space, which changed our approach.
I wanted to talk about the shelf life of an idea. I know with a lot of filmmakers that when they have a dream project, or something that stays in the hopper for a while, the final project somehow ends up losing some of its luster, and can actually feel more dutiful than anything else. Scorsese’s Gangs of New York is probably the most pertinent example. Just as a writer, I know that when a project lies unfinished for a while, there comes a point where the idea begins to lose its potency, and you start to run the risk of overthinking things. Given this film’s troubled shooting history, how did you combat that?
I think that’s a real danger. You know, it’s like fingerpainting in nursery school—if you keep going, eventually it turns brown. So you have to know when to stop making it a discovery upon a discovery, because eventually you’ll get too far away from the source material. But I also think, sometimes, that writing and re-writing can be like a circle; you know, you start with something very clean and pure, and then build and build and build, and often when you come back, you end up recognizing a lot of what you originally did, but with some cool new advances on it. In this case, with having the film fall apart in 2002, I was then able to step back and say, hey, I don’t need to write this for the studio anymore, I don’t need to write it for any specific actors, I can write it purely for myself and find the real truth in it. And then I wrote it, and it actually went extremely back to where I first started, when I first pitched it. The difference was that it had cleaned itself out a lot, because we had figured out how to do things on a physical level during pre-production, so I was able to bring that into the formula. So, it worked out well. Creatively, we were all working on this the entire time, instead of doing other projects, so it really stayed one process and one film throughout. And, when you think about it, the ideas in the film aren’t those of a normal romantic comedy. We were dealing with the Big Questions of, you know, what does it mean to be born, what does it mean to live, what does it mean to live forever, what does it mean to die, what happens when you die. And there are no answers to those questions, just a lot of ideas out there, of which we tried to absorb as much as possible. As it turned out, I think the amount of time we took was the right time.