An interview with Darren Aronofsky, director of The Fountain

Fernando Hernandez portrays the Lord of Xibalba and Hugh Jackman stars as Tomas. Photo by Takashi Seida. © 2006 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved.

At 29, Darren Aronofsky catapulted to filmmaking stardom with a little independent film called Pi, a mind-bending thriller about a mathematician obsessed with a numerical code of grand-unifying proportions. Now, eight years later, after the creation of both Requiem for a Dream and a child (with actress Rachel Weisz), Aronofsky is back with The Fountain, a mind-bending thriller about a scientist obsessed with a life-saving experiment. Needless to say, Aronofsky himself is a little bit obsessed with crafting science-fictional universes.

The 37-year-old writer-director says he was always interested in science—his father taught the subject—but he was never particularly good at it in high school. He instead studied filmmaking and animation at Harvard University.

The Fountain, Aronofsky says, was inspired by a series of conversations he had with Ari Handel, his former Harvard roommate, who has a PhD in neuroscience from New York University’s Center for Neural Science. In 1999, Handel and Aronofsky began to discuss the search for the Fountain of Youth and how ideas can interconnect like a Russian doll, with one fitting inside the other.

“I think science is a very structured way to analyze the spiritual world. But sometimes there is a touch of magic that you can’t put your finger on.”

In the film, these multiple layers involve three parallel storylines revolving around a man (Hugh Jackman) searching for a cure for his wife’s terminal brain tumor. Past and future narratives interweave with the present: Weisz stars as both the man’s beloved and the Queen of Spain, and Jackman is a Spanish conquistador in search of the Fountain of Youth and a futuristic astronaut trying to hold onto eternal life and love. Rest assured, it all makes sense in the end—more or less.

I spoke with Aronofsky about modern medicine, mysticism, shapes and psychedelic science fiction. 
Both Pi and The Fountain have connections between science and spirituality. Where do these interests come from?

I’ve always been interested in this connection between the mystical and science, and I think a lot of people don’t think they co-exist, but I actually think they do in a lot of ways. I think science is a very structured way to analyze the spiritual world. But sometimes there is a touch of magic that you can’t put your finger on.

What do you think is going on in terms of both the protagonists in Pi and The Fountain trying to find answers to their problems through scientific means?

I think The Fountain is about the biggest questions that people have been asking since we started asking questions: Why are we alive? Why are we born? What happens when you die? I don’t think The Fountain is about answering them. I think there are some basic ideas in the film about ashes to ashes, dust to dust, that we’re all connected through this endless fountain of matter and energy that comes up and goes back down over and over again. But overall, at the core, it’s just a love story about a man and a woman in love—about a woman who has a tragic reality, and the man refuses to accept it. That’s the emotional heart of the film.

What do you see as the dangers of someone who tries to transcend his reality, often through scientific means?

There’s a lot of ways to answer that. In some ways, we saw science as being like a religion, and how you can become dogmatic with it, and you can forget its relationship to the larger world. And for me, that’s reflected in a critique of how in the West, with the power of modern science, we’ve become detached from a major part of our spiritual existence. Because the reality is, no matter how much we fight death and put it in the corner and make believe it doesn’t exist, we all die. And the thing that makes us human is our mortality. But I think we’ve become disconnected from our mortality by hiding the fact that it’s part of our spiritual journey. In that way, science has its blinders on for trying to create immortality. There is nothing wrong with extending life. It’s incredible that you can be 75 and active and alive. But I had a 95-year-old grandmother who they tried to resuscitate three times, breaking her ribs. And there is something wrong with that. It’s a hard line to know where to draw. But there’s this fighting to keep people alive, even people who don’t want to be alive anymore.

A scene from Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Regency Enterprises’ sci-fi fantasy The Fountain. © 2006 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved.

How much of The Fountain is based on real science?

Everything in the film is real. It’s like Pi. We researched everything. I would visit Ari at the lab a lot, because he pretty much lived there, and I always though it was a great setting for a film. I liked all the research he was doing on decision-making in monkeys and the paraphernalia that surrounds that world. And Ari was able to communicate with other academics and specialists. We also talked to the best Mayan historians and astronomers and experts in Spanish history, and basically researched everything. So everything is true. The fiction is how it all ties together.

Can you talk about the type of science fiction that inspires you? The Fountain seems to be different from most sci-fi.

Sci-fi has definitely been hijacked by techno-lust, hardware-button, Buck Rogers laser-gun movies. When we first started selling it, we’d say, ‘This is a sci-fi film,’ and people would say, ‘No, sci-fi is laser guns.’ And if you look what’s out there in the sci-fi universe, that’s what it is. But being a fan of sci-fi books and graphic novels, I think The Fountain is a movement more towards inner space as opposed to outer space—which is a line I used for Pi. I think there is a tradition of psychedelic, metaphysical, internal science fiction.

How did you imagine the spaceship world of the film?

Hugh Jackman stars as Tomas. Photo by Takashi Seida. © 2006 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved.

We had, at times, different controlling devices and holograms, but the more we played with it, the more we thought these are things that we can understand as a culture now, but actually might look ridiculous to us a generation down the line. So we decided to return the whole thing to an organic base. NASA has developed these biospheres, these spherical glass structures that have a balanced ecosystem that can live forever, in perpetuity. So we decided to create an environment where Tom and the Tree of Life lived in a balance. We developed the whole science of the ship, very deeply, probably too deeply because it doesn’t come across. But we thought if we had figured out how it all worked, it would sit in the background and be more truthful. So that’s how the bubble ship evolved and the organic nature of it.

How did you visually translate some of your ideas into the film? In Pi, for example, you played with spirals and the Fibonacci sequence. Here, you have the sphere.

The Mayans thought that their underworld was a star, which they called Xibalba, which is what we call the Orion Nebula. And if you look at the Orion Nebula, it’s surrounded by a triangle. And the triangle was the basis for the Mayan homestead. The triangle was a big shape for the Mayans. So the triangle came to represent the whole Mayan and Spanish sections of the film.

And then we started to think that forward, and when we got to the present, we thought, we live in a world of squares. Everywhere you look: TV screens, windows, computer screens, our walls, and our rooms, they’re all squares. We live in a square world; so that’s an evolution from a triangle to a square. So then the next step is: What’s the evolution from a square? A circle.

I like to create a visual language for everything we do. And I abuse the production designer and the director of photography to make sense and have a reason for every choice in the film.

It’s funny, because a filmmaker seems to be trying to do the same thing that we were discussing about your characters: you’re trying to force reason on this kind of chaos. It’s kind of the filmmaker’s job to control chaos, no?

I use to joke that Pi was this film about paranoia, but filmmaking itself is an act of paranoia, because you try to tie everything in the film to the character.

Didn’t someone once say that art is a way to transcend death?

People always say that film outlives you, which it does. It’s a form of immortality, I guess.

Hugh Jackman as Tom Creo. © 2006 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved.

Originally published November 21, 2006


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