Best known for complex, visually arresting films like Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky scales things back for The Wrestler, the emotionally engrossing tale of Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke).
Twenty years after his apex as a popular, Hulk Hogan-esque 1980s wrestler, The Ram is a shell of his former self, performing in un-televised matches for much smaller crowds and much less money. Worse, he’s completely alone — a development he tries to combat by reconnecting with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and starting a relationship with a reluctant stripper (Marisa Tomei).
[tt stern-enzi reviews The Wrestler: A-]
CityBeat recently phoned Aronofsky, who was happy to talk about Rourke’s sensitive, go-for-broke performance as well as the science behind procuring the appropriate ’80s Hair Metal songs.
CityBeat: The Wrestler is a pretty radical shift from your previous films. Why did you scale things back this time?
Darren Aronofsky: I don’t know if the scale mattered to me. Scale rarely matters. Ultimately, your job is the same no matter how big or small something is. You have a limited amount of time and a limited amount of money, and you’ve got to make due with what you’ve got. I just really, really wanted to work with actors, so I was looking for an actors’ piece. And even though this has action sequences in it, I realized there was a lot of performance in it, and that got me excited.
CB: Why were you interested in telling this particular story?
DA: I don’t know. From the beginning I always thought it was interesting. No one had ever done a wrestling picture. Boxing has long been a film genre, but no one has ever done a really serious film about professional wrestlers. I think most people think wrestling is a joke. Even as I was developing this film and talking about it, people kept saying, “Why are you making a film about a wrestler?” They couldn’t get it.
But the more I looked into it I realized that there’s a whole world here. There are thousands of men and women who have dedicated their lives to it, and then there are millions of fans worldwide.
What’s it all about? So I was very curious about it for a long time. I don’t think until I finished the film I realized how much respect we were going to show for the craft. It wasn’t a conscious effort. I was just very open and honest to what we were witnessing, and I tried to bring that to the screen.
CB: The narrative parallels Mickey’s own career as an actor pretty closely. Was he hesitant at all to delve into this material so intimately?
DA: I think so. I didn’t really talk to him all that much about that. I’m not the type of director that gets into the psychology of another person. I kind of let them do their work and I’ll comment on that. But I knew making the film and working with the writer to create this script, we were definitely channeling what we thought his reality might be into our fiction. I know Mickey had some reservations. He was nervous because he’s a method actor and he knew he was going to go to some dark places.
CB: The pop-cultural references work really well. A lot of films don’t get that right, and that often takes you out of the world they’re trying to create. The Heavy Metal references are spot on, and the video game with the Ram’s own character — all that stuff really adds another dimension of authenticity. How did you go about tackling that aspect of the film?
DA: The Heavy Metal was something the writer brought to the script. Rob Siegel is a big music fanatic and has a real understanding of it. Unfortunately, the songs he wrote into the script were songs we couldn’t afford — they were the real A-list of the Hair Metal era. So my job became which of the B-minus-level songs could make the film. I had to go from Def Leppard to Cinderella, which isn’t actually a bad thing, because I think that made it even more authentic. I think it helped us that we had to lower our level of Hair Metal songs (laughs).
CB: One of things that kept coming to mind when I saw The Wrestler at the Toronto Film Festival was (French filmmaking duo) the Dardenne brothers — I had seen their new one, Lorna’s Silence, the day before. The handheld camera work and the intimate, verite style you used was very similar. Were the Dardennes on your mind when putting this together?
DA: My training when I was a student in the early ’90s was very verite influenced. I started off in documentary and it was a style I always wanted to get back to because it was something I had really moved away from. There were a lot of influences: a film called Fat City, which is a boxing movie from the ’70s; Requiem for a Heavyweight, another boxing movie; a big film from the ’50s, which was a character study, called Marty; and I definitely love the Dardennes. Their films are electrifying. So I was excited by that, as well as the Dogme movement — just really simplifying things down to the drama.
CB: Are you surprised by how well received the film has been with both critics and audiences?
DA: Sure, I mean you’re always surprised. You never can tell. You always hope that people will want to watch the story you’re telling. We’re just so happy that people are crying and laughing with Randy “The Ram” Robinson. It’s a big thrill.
CB: It would be cool if the film gives Mickey a chance to revive his career. Whether accurate or not, he’s sort of become this caricatured figure, which is a shame because there’s no one like him as an actor.
DA: That’s what’s exciting about him. As a filmmaker, you don’t want to use one of those cardboard guys out there; you want to use someone who is original and special.
THE WRESTLER opens Jan. 16. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.