With sets built and Brad Pitt cast, Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain fell apart just before shooting began. Batman and Watchmen came and went, but the Requiem for a Dream director never gave up on his “psychadelic sci-fi film”
You could say that Darren Aronofsky is a hands-on director. Especially if you’ve spent an hour watching him on his hands and knees, planting flowers for a scene where they burst out of Hugh Jackman’s mouth and chest. This isn’t CG, mind you. This is live.
In another part of the Montreal studio, a gigantic tree is being readied for its scenes as Jackman’s spaceship. Two weeks earlier, the same stage was transformed into a 16th century Spanish palace, where Queen Isabela (Rachel Weisz, Aronofsky’s fiancee) orders conquistador Tomas (Jackman) to seek out the fabled tree of life. Scenes set in the present day, where Jackman’s ‘Tommy’ is married to Weisz’s terminally ill ‘Izzy’, are already in the can, and tomorrow Aronofsky will shoot Jackman flying through space — at least, that’s what it looks like. It is, after all, a lot to get your head around.
On set, it’s the kind of film which no one seems able to describe. “Oh god, don’t ask me to explain it!” begs Weisz. “I don’t even know if I want to begin to explain it to you,” says Jackman. Aronofsky’s no help either. “What did Hugh tell you?” he asks mischievously. Luckily, there’s a few minutes of edited footage to show off, suggesting this mind-bending story will be mind-blowing film. After the impromptu screening, Aronofsky carefully closes Empire’s slack jaw and attempts, at last, to explain some story elements. “In the present day, he plays a kind of troubled mad scientist, and in the past he plays a dashing kind of superhero conquistador who goes and fights in the New World, and then in the deep future he plays a futuristic metaphysical kind of Yogi.” Well, why didn’t he say? “It deliberately plays with the logic of your brain,” says Jackman. “Darren wants you to suspend that part of your brain and just give yourself over to the experience of it. Which is a message of the movie: forget working out the meaning of life, just experience life.”
The Fountain has so far swallowed six years of Aronofsky’s life. Jackman says “it’s a miracle” it’s being made at all, especially after the Brad Pitt debacle. “We were seven weeks out, millions upon millions of dollars spent, and I guess the official story, or what the press said, is that me and Brad had creative differences on the script. It’s a lot more complicated than that.” Aronofsky went away, wrote an “unmakeable” Batman script with Frank Miller (“It was very violent and brutal,” he says. “Death Wish meets Taxi Driver. Our Batmobile was a Lincoln Continental with a Boss engine dropped in!”) and attached himself, briefly, to Watchmen. But The Fountain refused to stop flowing. “It’s kind of the phoenix rising from the fire,” he says. “Which is appropriate for a film about dying and coming back to life.” So how did Aronofsky survive the struggle? “One of the biggest things about filmmaking is patience, and having enough resolve to get through all the pain that happens. You just sit and wait… and try not to become a smoker.”