'Mother!' Director Darren Aronofsky on the Movie's Inspiration and Symbolic Meaning
In seven days, God created Heaven, the Universe, Earth, the natural world, and the first man and woman. In five days, Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky banged out a script encompassing all of God's efforts. Plus everything that's ever happened since. Plus a little of the future. Plus the unfathomable. Let's just say Aronofsky isn't so happy with how God's experiment's been going.
Mother!, the writer-director's breathtaking new thriller, stars Jennifer Lawrence as a woman trapped by her husband, his adoring fans, and a three-story Victorian, and fires off religious and earthly metaphor like explosive shells out of a World War I trench mortar. Sold as a star-studded horror-movie attraction, Aronofsky's film immediately rattles expectations with the innocent incineration of an ingenue, the introduction of a magical stone, wielded by "Him" (Javier Bardem), that can reverse the inferno, and the awakening of "Mother," played by Lawrence in a draped white shirt, who gracefully begins winding through the hallways of her in-progress renovation job. Only at the end of the film do we realize what we've witnessed is an extinction level event, and that Mother is one of many who will suffer the inevitable hell. Maybe?
IT it is not. Reportedly inspired by Susan Griffith's 1979 feminist touchstone Woman and Nature, which drew a line between the male-female relationship and the treatment of the planet, Mother! Is a treatise on romance, creativity, the environment, the allure of organized religion, and society's sadistic dedication to interpretable commandments. It's robust with blunt symbolism and brutal imagery that will send some viewers into a fury of conversation and others into straight fury. The movie proudly wears its "F" Cinemascore like a badge of honor (as it should).
Aronofsky loves a good puzzle -- this is a man whose custom-built office desk is basically Lemarchand's box from Hellraiser, after all -- and Mother! is full of unlockable pleasures. The character parallels, the cryptic objects, the infuriating asides from an assortment of party crashers, every blood-soaked, vaginal crack in the wood of Mother's violated home… then those moments that aren't spoilable so much as unspeakable. All you want to do after Mother! is pick Aronofsky's brain about it -- so that's what we did.
Thrillist: In press notes for Mother! you say, "As a species our footprint is perilously unsustainable yet we live in a state of denial about the outlook for our planet our place in it … From this primordial soup of angst and helplessness ... I woke up one morning and this movie poured out of me." But was there a specific incident that pushed you over the edge?
Darren Aronofsky: I don't know if there was a last minute thing that affected it. It's a very good question. I've been thinking about these issues for a long time. I was trying to figure out a way to capture all that emotion and to put it onto the screen. Then I had this breakthrough where I was like, "You know what? It would be fun to return back to the Black Swan genre, the Requiem for a Dream genre of psychological horror."
Then I thought about the home invasion movie as something that really hadn't been explored in a while. I think it's a very relatable genre for people because everyone has had a house guest that won't leave. Turning that into a nightmare is something I think people can relate to.
Then I had this connection of making something larger about not just the single home but actually make it a microcosm for the entire world and tell the story of mother nature in this home. As I was thinking about how to structure it, I suddenly realized that going back to the beautiful myths of the Bible could actually be a starting off point to unfold the history of people on the planet.
You've worked Biblical myth into a number of your movies, but also Biblical mysticism. Pi dealt with Kabbalah. Noah found room for Methuselah and rock monsters. Did you look outside to auxiliary text for Mother!?
Aronofsky: This one's really just playing with stuff that's in the Old Testament and the New Testament. It covers both and so the film actually unfolds in order in the same way that the same stories from The Bible.
Are there direct connections everywhere? My mind jumped to the Great Flood in a scene where Javier Bardem stands in the doorway as it begins to pour rain.
Aronofsky: I promise you, it all lines up [with The Bible]. That was the breakthrough, the road map I had to get through this.
The allegory in Mother! feels worldly -- you're not just unpacking American Christianity or a certain sect. You've been all over the globe over the years, so did your travels inform the movie?
Aronofsky: I would imagine, I think. Since I was very young, like a teenager, oh actually even before that, my parents used to pack me and my sister up in a car every summer and drive across the United States. I definitely had the bug when I went to, I graduated high school early and backpacked around the world for six months. I definitely have had that in my gut to explore as much of this beautiful planet as I can.
Apparently Anthony Bourdain is a big fan of Mother!, making we wonder if you two are close after you joined him for Parts Unknown's Madagascar episode. Did the trip make an impact?
Aronofsky: I had an amazing experience! Madagascar's a very, very impoverished place. Their biggest currency is a four dollar bill. It's just hard to kind of grasp the poverty there. That's an intense thing to be around and to witness face-to-face and see people struggling like that. It's an incredibly, incredible beautiful place and it was an amazing place.
Leading up to the shoot, you spent three months rehearsing with Jennifer, Javier, and the rest of the main players in a Brooklyn warehouse. Your notes on the film make it sound like a technical rehearsal -- figuring out how to pull off long shots in the confines of the house -- but did you discover anything with Jennifer along the way?
Aronofsky: To be truthful, in that five-day writing process, there was a lot of symbolism. The ideas of the movie, the structure was there, the set pieces were there. I wanted to make these characters real. I think that's what Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem did. They were able to translate these big allusions and metaphors into human characters.
Knowing a bit about your life, your relationships, some turbulence over the years, I imagine you applied personal experience to the micro conflict. Are there specific moments that feel self-incriminating.
Aronofsky: Whenever I make a character I tell a story. I'm always finding something that's truthful and part of me. I wasn't the ballerina yet I made a movie about the ballerina. I wasn't a wrestler, but I was able to relate to Randy the Ram [in The Wrestler]. I wasn't a conquistador [like the main character of The Fountain] and I'm definitely not a math wiz [like Max in Pi]. I think that's your job as a filmmaker is to relate to these characters and figure out what makes them human and how am I going to turn them into something that the whole world can understand. Sure I've had experiences that are connected to this, but it's not... I just try to find the humanity of all of it, if that makes sense.
Was there awareness, and possibly intention, about making a movie where a male artist pushes a woman to her breaking point that required you to push Jennifer to physical extremes?
Aronofsky: Look, actors want to act. If you go to an acting class somewhere on Broadway you're going to see actors not choosing scenes from a TV show sitcom. They're going to be doing scenes from Tennessee Williams. That's because they want to -- that's what they love to do. I'm always looking for actors that remember that and don't want to just show up. There's a place for that where you just show up and you do your job, and you do your little thing and that's it. The fun thing about some of these movies is to push actors all the way to the edge and see what happens.
So Mother! didn't require a safe word.
Aronofsky: No, no, no. You're talking about 30, 40 seconds of intense emotion that actors are doing. We're never really going to, it never goes really that far.
Although I imagine there was serious stunt work involved with pulling off the scenes in the final third, where the house becomes a battlefield for religious war.
Aronofsky: Doing a Molotov cocktail inside of a closed house with a room full of people is a very, very dangerous thing to do. You could see why. Doing a Molotov cocktail outside is a lot safer. There were a lot of things that were very intense. Jen takes that roll down the stairs towards the end of the movie. It's a big stunt. But we're not in Fast and Furious category here.
You shoot most of the movie in claustrophobic close-up on Jennifer, which reminded me of the recent Holocaust drama Son of Saul. If it wasn't a direct inspiration, what is it about that style that leant itself to this allegory?
Aronofsky: You're the first person to bring that up and, yes, I saw Son of Saul at [the Toronto International Film Festival] two years ago. It really, of course, blew my mind. I became friendly with the director [László Nemes]. We both have this thing around with subjective filmmaking. I think he took it to such a masterful level that was really inspiring. Trying to tell a film purely from one character's point of view I think can have very, very tense and horrific results. That's what we were trying to do. We were trying to make this scary roller coaster ride, but tell it all from Jen's character, and then just see the fun that unleashed from that.
Did color play an important role in conveying the film's drama?
Aronofsky: We spent a lot of time -- me, the costume design, make up, my production designer Phil Messina, Dan Glicker the costumes, and Judy Chin and Adrien Morot my makeup people -- talking about all those details to figure out the palate. The idea here was to start off with something very natural, giving it, it's organic, be able to build character. Slowly but surely moving it more and more and more into an intense, fevered state and, as the humans arrive, starting to bring in non-organic materials. Materials that were not natural for the setting.
At the end, Javier's character completes a poem, which we don't actually hear, but instead see as silent images. Did you have an actual poem?
Aronofsky: Those are the unknowable words. You can't ever really know it. It had to be something that was very, very expressive in that way. It didn't go beyond that. There was no way of sharing it with an audience. Saying that this type of work that could, it inspired. That's just the impossible.
OK, one blunt "what does it mean" question: what's the yellow dust all about?
Aronofsky: That's the one thing that I have not shared with anyone. But if you see it a couple more times you'll get a vibe for it.