Laugh, cry, or gasp -- in horror, delight, or incredulity -- but chances
are you won't be bored by Darren Aronofsky's sui generis extravaganza, "Black
Swan." He feels pretty good about it, anyway: he's relaxed, dapper looking with his new
moustache, and cracking jokes as he answers questions at a press conference for the
film at the appropriately rococo, near kitschy lobby of Hollywood's Pantages
Theatre. Flanking him are his stars, Vincent Cassell as the tyrannical and
abusive ballet company director, Barbara Hershey as the epitome of the
co-dependent, Joan Crawford s-like stage mother, and lovely Natalie Portman as
the brilliant ballerina who in her obsession with the lead role in a production
of "Swan Lake," does a solo dance on the edge of the abyss.
DOWNLOAD: Press conference with Portman, Hershey, Aronofsky, and Cassel [MP3]
DOWNLOAD: Press conference with Kunis, Millapied, Heyman, and Heinz [MP3]
Q: This is for Darren Aronofsky. How did the film get
Darren Aronofsky: I've been a fan of Natalie since I saw her
in "The Professional." .
And it turns
out her manager's an old friend of mine from college, so I had a little inside
line to meet her. We met in Times Square at
the old Howard Johnson, which is now an American Apparel. Shows you where America is
going...And we had a really bad cup of coffee...I had really early ideas about the
film; she says I had the entire film in my head which is a complete lie. So we
talked a bit about it and I tried to develop it, but it was a really tough
film. Getting into the ballet world proved to be extremely challenging. Most of
the time when you make a movie, and you say, ‘I want to make a movie about your
world,' all the doors open up and you can do anything and see anything you
want. The ballet world really wasn't anything at all interested in us hanging
out. [which contradicts what the film's dance consultant, dance choregrapher,
and co-star, the New York Ballet's Benjamin Millepied, said in a previous press
conference] So it took a long time to
sort of get the information, put it together...and over the years Natalie would
say, "I'm getting too old to play a dancer, you've gotta hurry up." (laughter)
I'd say, ‘Natalie you look great, you'll be fine.' And about a year out before
the film, or maybe a little bit earlier I finally got a screenplay together and
that's how it started.
Q: For Natalie Portman: you've said this was a dream role
for you; tell us why.
Natalie Portman: Well I had danced when I was younger until
I was about 12, and I guess always idealized it - as most young girls do - as
the most sort of beautiful art, this expression without words. I always wanted
to do a film related to dance, and so when Darren had this incredible idea that
was not just relating to the dance world but also had this really complicated
character - two characters, really - it was just a terrific opportunity, and
especially with Darren, who is a director I would do anything for. It was just
something completely exciting.
Q: For DA: How did you approach this from a feminine
perspective versus "The Wrestler?"
DA: I don't think there's really that much difference; I
didn't make it a big deal. I think people are people and that their feelings
are real and that they can connect. And I keep saying, you know, it doesn't
matter if you're an aging 50-something-year-old wrestler or an ambitious
20-something-year-old ballet dancer...if they're truthful to who they are and
they're expressing something real, then audiences will connect. That's always
been the promise of cinema. That's why we can see a film about a seven year-old
girl in Iran, you know, an
immortal superhero in America...it
doesn't matter, as long as they're people.
Q: For Vincent Cassell and DA: Did you two develop a
symbiotic relationship between your job and your role?
Vincent Cassell: No. (laughter) Even though I tried to
imagine what I could take from him. But the closest thing to what I had to play
in a way was the real choreographer of the movie, not that he is as hard as I
am in the movie, but he is French; he is
the same kind of generation that I am. So to see the way he moved, how he goes
from the Opera to the New York City Ballet. Not much from Darren,
unfortunately, he's too nice.
DA: I wish I could be as manipulative as his character in
the film; I think I'm really way, way too direct. I think I've scared away a
lot of A-List actors. In fact, Natalie Portman is the first A-List actor I've
ever worked with in my career. [which might come as a surprise to some of the
actors in his previous films, which include Ellen Burstyn, Mickey Rourke,
Marisa Tomei, and his estranged wife, Rachel Weiss]. They normally say, "you
want me to do what? For how long? For how little money?" So I've lost a whole
lot of movie stars along the way. And I think a more manipulative director
would be like, "Oh, it's not going to be that hard...come in, we'll have
fun." But I think that's when wars
start. Like, "You told me there would be sushi on set everyday..." So, you
know...I'm a little bit too direct, too straightforward I think.
Q: For NP: What was your first meal after the film? For DA:
Tell us a little about "The Red Shoes," how it influenced you...
NP: First meal...I believe was pasta for breakfast, lunch, and
dinner. Just, like, all the time (laughs).
DA: We had no money for the film, and we had to push a lot
of times. And I only found out recently that the person who suffered most from
pushing - I actually don't mind pushing cause it means I get an extra two,
three weeks to get my s hit together - you know, but I found out Natalie was
screaming at our mutual friend and manager that she had to live on carrots and
almonds for another three weeks, what was she going to do...so she was the one
who suffered the most from not eating.
But the question was about "The Red Shoes." I actually
hadn't heard...I mean I had heard of "The Red Shoes" but I hadn't seen it...then
Scorsese did the restoration, then I decided I had to see it. And I was...I mean
it's a masterpiece; it's an unbelievable film. And I noticed the similarities
between the stories I think because we both went back to ballet and pulled from
ballet the different characters and stuff, and so we ended up in similar
places. But I wasn't really influenced
by it; I really could never even try to be influenced by it because it's such a
masterpiece and the dance sequences were, you know; they weren't doing visual
effects like that for 20 years, they were so ahead of their time. So I just
sort of kept it in the back and said it's 80 years ago, or not 80 but, it's a
long time ago and most people may not know about it.
Q: For NP: How do you approach transforming yourself in the
NP: It was a great challenge, and I had really, really
amazing support. All of the teachers and
coaches and choreographer, obviously, and director first and foremost were
shaping and pushing along the way. But I started with my ballet teacher a year
ahead of time, Mary Helen Bowers, and she started very basic with me, but we would do two hours a day for the
first 6 months that was really just sort of strengthening and getting me ready
to do more, so that I wouldn't get injured.
And then at about six months we started doing 5 hours a day where we
would do...we added in swimming; so I was swimming a mile a day, toning, and then
doing three hours of ballet class a day. And then two months before, we added
the choreography so we were doing probably 8 hours a day. And the physical
discipline of it really helped with the emotional side of the character because
you get the sort of monastic lifestyle of only working out (laughs) that is a
ballet dancer's life. You don't drink, you don't go out with your friends, you
don't have much food, you are constantly putting your body through extreme
pain. You get that understanding of the self-flagellation of a ballet dancer.
Q: For NP: Would you train White Swan/Black Swan separately?
NP: Well, the
choreography were different pieces for Black Swan and White Swan. And I had an
amazing coach, Georgina Parkinson, who sadly passed away two weeks before shooting, and she was sort of the
premier Swan Lake coach for the Swans, and so she worked very specifically with
me from everything to fingertips to where you put your eyes on different
movements, that are sort of ballet-acting. You know, little gestures you can do
that really differentiate between those two characters.
Q: For Barbara Hershey: Tell us about your working
relationship with Natalie during the film.
BH: Well I came in rather late; I was only in the last two
and a half weeks; the whole rest of the film was behind them, and I was amazed
at their reliance and energy. And it was really exciting to come in and do this
insular claustrophobic, intense relationship and we got a nice kind of history,
a feeling of ritual. And I tried to copy her eyebrows as much as I could.
DA: She came in and she was like...'"What do you think?" I was
like, ‘Wow, you look...what happened?' She actually painted on...
BH: I matched the eyebrows. Because Natalie has such
fantastic eyebrows. I mean, we were very aware of the symbiotic idea of living
together everyday, forever. So, that was fun. We didn't talk about it too much,
but we knew it.
NP: And Darren did a really beautiful thing: he had Barbara
write letters to me in character, for Nina, for the first portion of the film
that he would hand to me...during sort of important days of shooting, that I
should feel my mother. And Barbara wrote really, really gorgeous letters that
were really in character that really gave a sense...
BH: Of our history. And our love, our connection. It was amazing; Darren is a great director.
That's all I can say. And to suggest that was amazing preparation. Cause I
couldn't be around and she was in the midst of filming. It was this chance to
get to feel each other as characters. It came out of me without any thought; they
were very easy to write, that really shocked me, and it gave me the door to my
character which was great.
DA: And I never read the letters. I don't know if would have
wanted to, but I just thought it should be between the two of you.
Q: For NP: Natalie, you studied psychology at Harvard. How
would you diagnose your character?
NP: Well, this was actually a case where something I learned
in school did translate into something practical (laughs) which is very, very
rare. It was absolutely a case of obsessive-compulsive behavior. The scratching, the bulimia obviously;
anorexia and bulimia are forms of OCD. And ballet really lends itself to that,
because there's such a sense of ritual. The wrapping the shoes everyday, the
preparing new shoes for every performance. It's such a process. It's almost
religious in a way, it's like Jews putting on their tefillin or Catholics with
their rosary beads, and then they have this sort of God-like character in their
director...that it really is a devotional, ritualistic, religious art. Which you
can relate to as an actor because when you do a film, you submit to your
director that way. Your director is everything; you devote yourself to them and
you want to help create their vision, and so all of that sort of religious compulsion
would be my professional diagnosis (laughs).
Q: For NP: Is she Russian?
NP: I didn't really consider her to be Russian.
DA: I think the back story was that you had a lover that was
a foreign dancer, I don't know if he was French or Russian but he left.
NP: I think we kept saying that they named her Nina because
of the little girl connotation.
Q: For NP: How do you find your own balance between yourself
and the role? How do you pull yourself out of that as an actress?
NP: Well, pulling out of it...I'm very much, I like...as soon as
I finish a scene, I'm back to being me. As soon as I finish shooting, I want to
be myself again. I'm not someone who likes to stay in character. I mean, this
clearly had a discipline that lent itself to me being more like my character
while we were shooting than past experiences, but I just go back to my regular
life after. One of the reasons Darren and
I had such...sort of telepathy during this... is that I feel like he is as
disciplined and focus and alert as can possibly be. And that's what I try to
be. I'm not a perfectionist but I like discipline...I'm obedient, not a
BH: You're professional, that's what you are.
NP: I think it's important to work your hardest and be as
kind as possible to everyone you work with. And that's like the goal everyday,
to focus on that.
DA: I mean all these actors were...I've worked with some
method actors and...maybe I shouldn't say this, but -- I think that's all
nonsense. It's film acting and, you know, you just have to be on when the camera's
going. And, sure, if it's a very intense scene you might want to keep that
energy up while the crew is resetting, and they all did that. But, when it's
cut, it's cut. Even when it's action there's still a camera here and all these
people moving around. It's impossible to pretend all that doesn't exist; that's
why they're so good, is that they're able to sort of make believe that's not
there convincingly. But the second you hear ‘cut' someone is coming over to
adjust a mic or put powder on your face, so, you know...it is make-believe. But whatever works. Not to scare away method
actors. Actually I do want to scare away method actors. It's a pain. What are you doing? It's just like - it's not
real. Wow, you're really brooding.
Q: For DA: With "The Wrestler," you did a bit more of a
naturalistic movie compared to the surrealistic film now. Can you say anything
about the difference of approach?
DA: I think it's all about what the story is that we want to
tell. One thing I realized during this...a
lot of times you figure out what you're doing when you're doing the press,
cause you start talking about it and become aware of it. The whole cinéma vérité, hand held thing was a big risk to bring into a ballet
film, because I had never seen a sort of suspenseful film that had a hand-held
camera. I didn't know if in a really intense scene people would wonder with
Natalie wouldn't turn to the camera man and go "help!" you know...so I didn't
know if it was going to work, but then it was, like "fuck it,"' it had never
been done. And I liked that a man could hold the camera, really move the camera
in ways that you can't in any other ways, and the result of that is that the
first third of the film has a very different feel than the last half of the
film because it has a very naturalistic feel which I think actually is kinda
cool cause it makes people think they're watching a very different kind of
movie that can't ever freak out like the way it freaks out. So, yeah it gives
you that kind of immediacy of being in the moment and being in another world.
It gives you little hints, like her fingers, but in general it just feels like
a documentary in the beginning before it freaks out. It kind of worked out for
Q: One of the most
important dancers in the world told a newspaper that this is a very damaging
movie, for dance, for all the people who are compelled to dance. After, there
was a piece in the Sunday "Times," the same thing, a personal opinion.
DA: I saw that
report, and I thought it was really unfortunate, because we've had very, very
different reactions from dancers elsewhere. I think so many dancers are
incredibly relieved that there is finally a ballet movie that takes ballet as a
serious art and not a place to have, you know, a love affair. And if you
actually look at ballet, the ballets themselves are incredibly dark. "Sleeping
Beauty," "Romeo and Juliet," and of course "Swan Lake."
And this movie, could have been called "Swan Lake."
But we took the fairy tale of "Swan Lake" We basically took all the characters of "Swan Lake"
and turned them...The Prince, the Queen...and translated them into characters in
our movie reality. So it's really just a retelling of "Swan Lake."
But yes, it definitely shows the challenges and the darkness and the reality of
how hard it is to be a ballet dancer, but it also represents the beauty of the
art the transcendence that's possible within the art, all with telling, and
retelling, "Swan Lake." So you know, there's going to be
people that have issues with things, but large and by far, the dancers we've
talked with are like, ‘finally...we have a real movie about ballet.'
Q: For VC: Who is
this guy? Where did you get the inspiration to get this character?
VC: Watching Benjamin
Millepied everyone work gave me a lot
of inspirations. With a role like that you initially think, oh I'm a dancer, I
want my moment to shine, or whatever...but then I realized that older dancers,
choreographers, they don't dance; they don't need to dance. They just show.
They've been there, they don't train anymore. So that scene we have, with
Natalie, where I move around her, it was supposed to be a little more ‘dancey'
and then we got on set and realized that scene is about seduction more than
anything else; the dancing is really a second thing.
Q: For NP: How do you think the film will be received? How did you feel
wearing high heels for the first time after filming?
NP: The best thing you can hope
for when you make a movie and you put your soul into it like we all did, is
that people respond to it well. And the fact that audiences have come away
moved and excited and entertained and stimulated by this film is
extraordinarily flattering. As for heels, I like wearing flat shoes; the thing
I was happy to stop wearing were point shoes. Point shoes are torture devices.
Ballerinas are used to them, so it was definitely a case of it being a new
experience for me...but they feel very medieval.
Q: For NP: Any connection between this Nina and "The Seagull?"
NP: I did think about it a lot, probably because of the name, but also
because of...although I think this has a very different ending than "The Seagull," obviously. But
of this young girl who needs to name herself instead of be named by a man; in "The
tells her she is a seagull and she has to name herself later; there's a lot of that
in this, too, where she's being told who she is, and our Nina in this film has
to announce who she is instead of having that projected upon her.
Q: For DA: You like to sort of play with genre conventions; do you
enjoy kind of balancing those?
DA: I'm not really much of a genre guy; this was my best attempt at a
genre film. I think audiences don't need that anymore. Audiences are very
sophisticated; as long as it's fun, and entertaining, and that's what I was
trying to make. And I think it's different, which is what people who are
bombarded by so many different types of media are looking for...a very different
experience. That's what we're going for; something that keeps you excited and
keeps you going and that is hopefully memorable so you talk about it with other
people so hopefully they go to the movies.
Q: For DA: The movie got the Blue Seal award from the Environmental
Media Association...how did that manifest?
DA: This movie? (laughs). Thanks!
NP: Because we didn't use water bottles and stuff like that.
DA: Natalie could probably tell you better than I can.
NP: Darren is a huge environmentalist and made sure there were no water
bottles on set, which is a huge, huge deal. And we were drinking tons of water,
obviously, cause we're dancing, and everyone was given containers and things to
fill it up all over set.
DA: Our starting gift was a Kleen Canteen, with our logo on it. Every
cast and crew member got one.
NP: And then it also has to do with everyone got lunch everyday, and
instead of having Styrofoam, which most movies have, you can have
eco-containers, all of that...I mean once you're conscious of that, that's a
daily thing where' hundreds of people are wasting things that are poisonous.
But anyway...that was all from Darren, he doesn't remember (laughs).
DA: Films are incredibly wasteful; I mean it's a very hard thing...so you
just try to do your best.