AUDIO: Press conference for "Black Swan" [MP3]

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 started?

Darren Aronofsky: I've been a fan of Natalie since I saw her in "The Professional." [1994].

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 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 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 film?

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 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 perfectionist.

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 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 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 us.

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 Seagull," he 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 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 you just try to do your best.

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