Much has already been made of "The Wrestler" as a comeback vehicle for its star, actor Mickey Rourke. But for director Darren Aronofsky, the film also represents a form of creative rebirth.
Having first come to the attention of audiences with his visually audacious films -- 1998's "Pi" and 2000's "Requiem for a Dream" -- Aronofsky seemed poised for a broader crossover with 2006's "The Fountain," an ambitious time-travel story about love and loss.
"The Fountain" had an infamously long and tortured production history -- including an abrupt shutdown, a change in its lead actor (Hugh Jackman replaced Brad Pitt) and a drastic reduction in financing -- which could easily have stopped Aronofsky's career in its tracks.
According to Aronofsky, "The Wrestler" symbolizes a break from his past and a new start. "My producer and I broke up as a team, and [for 'The Wrestler'] I used a different director of photography, new production designer, editor, and so it became a new chapter in my filmmaking life," explained the 39-year-old director. "I just really wanted to do something different."
"The Wrestler" follows Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Rourke), an aging wrestler who once filled arenas and now scrapes it out in local gymnasiums and small-time shows. Following a heart attack, he tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and romantically pursues a friendly stripper (Marisa Tomei), but finds himself draw back into the ring.
Aronofsky recalled with astonishment the whirlwind weekend that introduced "The Wrestler" to the world. Just days before its premiere last September at the Venice Film Festival, Aronofsky was finishing the film. Then it screened for the first time on a Friday night. Festival organizers told him to stick around for the awards ceremony the next night. The film picked up the main prize, the Golden Lion. Sunday morning, he boarded a plane for the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film screened to a rapturous audience that evening. The film was sold to distributor Fox Searchlight Pictures after an all-night negotiating session.
Since then, the narrative of Rourke's comeback has taken a powerful hold of the media and has been building steam with the public. The actor has been doing a lot of interviews , telling his personal story with a bracing earnestness. Aronofsky has had to accept that Rourke may exaggerate aspects of their working relationship -- "Mickey's a storyteller, if you haven't figured that out," he said -- but the director also believes that "the ends justify the means" for all it took to get the performance from Rourke.
"I think the reality about Mickey is, he's so talented, he can coast through a film and actually be pretty good, and he's done that way too much," said Aronofsky. "I just had to push him every day. I had to, honestly, get him out of bed and fight to keep him on set to do the work. But . . . there was no one more natural and more giving. Just getting him to the starting line was probably the most difficult thing I've ever done in my career."
Aronofsky refers to the process of working with Rourke as both a "battle" and a "collaboration." He explained how, despite an initial hesitation, he allowed Rourke to have his character wear hearing aids, but noted with pride how he thwarted Rourke from indulging in perhaps his most notorious on-screen trademark.
"If there's any accomplishment that's my greatest accomplishment in this movie," he said, "it's the fact he never wears sunglasses in this film. I fought him every day about the sunglasses, because he wants to hide. I guarantee you, there aren't many movies where he doesn't wear sunglasses.
"One thing Mickey does, he tries to protect himself from people looking into his eyes. You look into his eyes and he's an open wound, there's so much pain, there's so much struggle, so much wisdom, love and soul, but he hides it."
Aronofsky is married to the actress Rachel Weisz, who appeared in "The Fountain," and he credits her in part with the impulse to make a film minus the visual filigrees of his earlier work, focusing instead on the performances. Leaving behind his earlier emphasis on visual effects, Aronofsky creates the world of "The Wrestler" with a spare, pared-down style of hard-bitten, hand-held realism he calls "pro-active documentary."
"Living with an actor," he said, "watching her really work on her craft, has been inspiring. And I realized I love working with actors, and as a director, the only time you get to be in the moment, really connected with the art, is between 'Action' and 'Cut,' when you're watching these other people and you're sort of surfing along with them. You're just feeling, trying to be really present. Yet most of the time as a director, you're worrying about the future, regretting the past, and you rarely get that type of expression.
"So when I was finishing up 'The Fountain,' all I wanted to do was work with actors. I kept telling my agent, 'I've got to get an actor's piece; find me a play or something.' I think when I first went to Mickey and Marisa, that's kind of what I pitched them; this is their film."