Making the leap from directing sweaty, slabs of meat to pretty, dainty dancers might seem like an odd move for The Wrestler’s Darren Aronofsky, but it was actually that film’s success that has paved the way for upcoming ballet psychodrama, Black Swan.
A twisty-turny thriller set in the world of the New York Ballet, the idea for Black Swan has been kicking around for a good while, with Aronofsky first pitching the idea to Universal back in 2007.
But whilst the project was initially fast-tracked by the studio, it was eventually placed in turnaround limbo while Universal waited for another studio to stump up development costs.
In fairness to Universal, a ballet-based mindfuck hardly looks like a guaranteed smash on paper. Aronofsky’s star had also waned somewhat since the success of the critically lauded Requiem For A Dream, with 2006’s The Fountain clocking up some distinctly iffy reviews.
However, it’s funny how a few Oscar nominations can make studio execs think twice. With critics queuing up to lavish praise on The Wrestler, Aronofsky was suddenly a man in demand.
MGM were apparently keen to recruit the director to breathe new life into the Robocop franchise, before they found themselves without a pot to piss in, and rumours persist that he will team up with Angelina Jolie to adapt Ron Rash novel Serena.
This newly-replenished industry clout meant Aronofsky could afford to pick and choose however,with the director deciding to place Black Swan squarely at the top of his list.
Overnight Pictures (the team that financed Robert Rodriguez’s upcoming Machete) were initially working in tandem with Aronofsy’s own company, Protozoa Pictures, before Fox Searchlight snapped up development rights in November of last year.
The studio had previously distributed The Wrestler and were clearly confident that Aronofsky could repeat the trick a second time.
So what exactly is it that Aronofsky will be serving up? The story of a washed up ballerina, looking for one last crack at the big time before her heart gives in? Er no, nothing of the sort actually.
The film will focus upon talented ballerina Nina, the star turn in a New York production of Swan Lake, who finds her position under threat upon the arrival of sexy newcomer Lily.
So far, so generic you might think, but this is set to be a far more complicated affair than it first appears. Because instead of simply hating each other’s guts, Lily and Nina soon forge a rather unsettling relationship that leads them down some very dark paths indeed…Bring It On, it ain’t.
Next: Tiny Dancers[page-break]
The first major morsel of casting to hit the news was that Natalie Portman would be playing Nina, and according to the star, it was a role that Aranofsky had always had her in mind for.
“Darren and I started discussing doing the film in 2000,” Portman told USA Today, confirming that the project has been on Aronofsky’s radar for a lot longer than the three years since he presented it to Universal.
“The fact that I spent so long with the idea allowed it to marinate a little before we shot.”
It should prove to be one of the biggest tests of Portman’s acting talent to date, with her character forced to grapple with plenty more than the odd dance routine.
Not only will Nina find herself at loggerheads with her new rival, but she’ll also have a domineering mother to deal with in the form of Barbara Hershey.
Factor in Vincent Cassel’s sexually manipulative dance master, and she’s set to have quite the time of it. However, the adult nature of the part is apparently what drew Portman to the project in the first place.
“I'm trying to find roles that demand more adulthood from me,” she told MTV last year, “because you can get stuck in a very awful cute cycle as a woman in film, especially being such a small person."
"I'm a really late bloomer. In my own life, it's only been the last couple of years where I'm like, ‘I'm an adult.’"
Her character Nina is initially drafted into the film’s production of Swan Lake as the White Swan, a paragon of poise and innocence.
Lily (Mila Kunis) on the other hand, is the polar opposite, a sexy, sultry dancer plucked by Cassel’s character to play the Dark Swan.
“My character appears and is everything that (Nina) wants to be in life,” Kunis told Collider. “Her character is very professional, very strict and very neurotic."
"And, my character is very loose. The talent that my character has in ballet comes naturally to her.
She’s not as technically as good as Natalie’s character, but she has more passion naturally, and that’s what Natalie’s character lacks, and so it’s a battle. It’s a yin and yang.”
However, when asked to explain any further, Kunis goes all coy on us, particularly when it comes to discussing the film’s more “psychological” element.
“(Lily’s) not a bad girl,” she insists. “There’s no protagonist and antagonist. There really isn’t. I don’t know how to do press for this because I cannot explain this movie to save my life."
"There are no bad people in this movie. As far as (Natalie’s character) and I go, it’s just an unfortunate tale.”
With much of the film’s pre-release buzz making reference to a “supernatural element”, we’ve got a sneaking suspicion that Kunis’s character might not be everything she seems…
Next: Dancers In The Dark[page-break]
Dancers In The Dark
Aronofsky’s films could never be described as cheery. From Pi’s exploration of mental breakdown, to Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s relentless journey of self-destruction, the director tends to concern himself with troubled individuals and the tales they tell.
Black Swan promises to be no different.
“It’s very unique in tone,” Natalie Portman told MTV. “I think of it as a psychological thriller, like Rosemary’s Baby in (terms of) genre.”
So whilst we can probably assume little baby Satan isn’t going to pop his head up, it seems fairly apparent that Portman’s character is going to be just a teensy bit disturbed.
Her character is in a world that’s just falling apart all around her,” confirms Kunis. “And so, because everything is falling apart around her, crazy things start happening.”
Indeed, it’s when Portman and Kunis strike up an unlikely friendship that things start to go awry, with Nina’s dark side coming rather startlingly to the fore.
Take a look at the trailer. It doesn’t look like Nina’s a very happy girl, does it?
Now at the risk of throwing up a spoiler, it looks as though Lily and Nina are two sides of the same coin. Check out the part when Nina is walking through the tunnel. The figure coming towards her is clearly Natalie Portman, but when she turns around, it’s somebody else entirely…
Kunis says it’s worth familiarising yourself with the Swan Lake story before watching the movie. “If you know the story of Black Swan, you’ll get what the story is about,” she says.
“The characters are ballerinas dancing Swan Lake, and the characters within the film mirror the story of Swan Lake. It’s a fascinating story.”
Obviously we’re well up on our ballet at Total Film, and we couldn’t help noticing that a large part of Swan Lake revolves around a sorcerer who transforms a princess into a swan by day and a woman at night.
So is Kunis Portman’s inner woman, struggling to break out? Or is she something more sinister than that? Whatever she is, she leads Nina into plenty of trouble along the way.
Portman has made plenty of references to the “extreme situations” the film throws up, and supporting actor Sebastian Stan reveals that Aronofsky has conjured up a very dark ride indeed.
“My part was the more fun part of the movie, I suppose, because I guess the rest of the movie is very intense,” he told IESB.net. “My character is out with his friend, one night, and they have no idea who these girls are or what their relationship is.
"They meet up and get wrapped up in the drama that happens between the two girls. They're pawns in their game that’s going on, which is all infiltrated by Mila Kunis' character.”
Hmm, sounds like there are definitely two real girls then. Or perhaps Stan is just attempting not to give the game away.
In any case it seems like the most unsettling thing Aranofsky’s turned his hand to since Requiem For A Dream. That scene with Portman and the mirror certainly gives us the willies!
And speaking of which, there’s another standout scene that probably deserves our attention…
Next: Mila And Nat, Sitting In A Tree[page-break]
Mila And Nat, Sitting In A Tree…
It could be Danny Dyer behind the camera rather than Darren Aronofsky, and people would still flock to see Black Swan. Why? Because apparently there’s a very steamy sex scene in it…between Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman.
Film website Scriptshadow got their mits on a copy of the script this time last year and could barely contain themselves over the scene in question.
“In this movie Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis have sex,” pants reviewer Carson Reeves, “and not just nice sweet innocent sex either. We’re talking ecstasy-induced, hungry, aggressive, angry sex.”
In all seriousness though, Portman has been quick to play down the story, claiming to MTV that the film is, “not explicit in any way.” Therefore, salivating expectations of a full on lesbian romp may have to be shelved, although the trailer does show the pair sharing a kiss.
Kunis meanwhile, thinks all the speculation is a bit daft. “It’s two girls making out, and guys have a thing for that,” she says. “Nat is like every guy’s dream. She’s a nerd’s idea of heaven. The whole thing is silly, but I can see why people care.
"Anything sexual in this film is not there for the sake of being sexual. I think people are hoping it's like two girls making out and pillow fighting. It's not smut!”
In fact, the films more sexual elements may well fall upon the Gallic shoulders of Vincent Cassel who plays dance master Thomas Leroy, a teacher with a rather unhealthy involvement with his pupils.
“That’s how he works with them,” says Cassel to Indiewire, “it’s through sexual relationships. That’s how he controls them. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s very hard on them.”
Sexual tension galore then, if not the graphic, semi-porn that some were apparently hoping for. The whole thing seems suitably intense however, and Portman has admitted she has become more comfortable playing sexual roles as her career has progressed.
“I was figuring out my own sexual identity, likes and dislikes and all that stuff, and it’s weird to be doing stuff on film as you’re figuring it out,” Portman says of her earlier, more tame work.
“Also, being a sexual object when you’re a kid is really uncomfortable. After The Professional, I was already getting creepy letters.”
However, the main test for both actresses was not the lesbian kiss, but rather the need to sharpen up their dance steps…
Next: All The Right Moves[page-break]
All The Right Moves
When it came to Black Swan’s ballet scenes, Aranofsky wasn’t going to settle for any half-measures from his two leads. Famed ballet mistress Georgina Parkinson was drafted in to train up Portman and Kunis, and the process was rigorous.
“I’m training for a ballet movie, which is a thousand times worse than anything that I’ve ever done,” said Kunis to Collider in December last year. “I’ve been doing that for five months, and it has been the most physically strenuous thing I’ve ever done in my whole life.
“I didn’t realize what you have to put your body through,” she continues, “in order to look like a ballerina, walk like a ballerina and dance. You can’t fake ballet. You can fake running."
"You can fake looking like you’re active and throwing things and shooting a gun. You cannot fake ballet. That’s what I’ve learned. It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Her director was clearly impressed though, telling USA Today that, “Mila's arms are incredible. Her arms are better than her body double's!”
Portman had a bit of an advantage over her co-star in that she had a childhood background in ballet. “I took ballet until I was 13,” she says. “I had always hoped to do a dance film. It is the most emotional form of expression.”
Clearly it was worth the wait, as Aronofsky says she pretty much nailed it. “Most of these women who are here started dancing when they were 4, 5 or 6 years old,” he told USA Today.
“Their bodies are shaped differently because they started so young. She was able to pull it off. Except for the wide shots when she has to be en pointe for a real long time, it's Natalie on screen. I haven't used her double a lot.”
It seems as though authenticity was top of the agenda for Aronofsky, who certainly knows his Swan Lake from his Nutcracker. He had flirted with the idea of a ballet-based drama before, even hiring writers to work on a screenplay named The Understudy that was set in the world of Broadway.
“Maybe only The Red Shoes had a realistic point of view of this unique world," said the director. "It captured the human drama and the sacrifice.” He came to find that this world would serve as the perfect backdrop for a psychological chiller, particularly given the plot of Swan Lake.
“The original script had this idea of being haunted by a double,” says Aronofsky. “Swan Lake is about a double, a White Swan and a Black Swan, so the connections started to come alive.”
Even the soundtrack has ballet at its heart, with regular Aronofsky-collaborator Clint Mansell attempting to create a score that would have its DNA firmly rooted in that of Swan Lake.
“One of the ideas we’ve got is building the entire score out of elements from Swan Lake,” the composer told Little White Lies.
“I mean it would have to be vastly screwed with, but that’s a starting point. Sometimes we’ve had ideas in the past and you put them into practice and they just suck, so we’ll see.”
Having created the soundtrack for every Aronofsky film since his debut feature Pi, Mansell should be fairly confident that this one won’t suck, although we’ll have to wait until the Venice film festival to know for sure…
Next: Next Stop Venice[page-break]
Next Stop Venice
Black Swan will get its first airing on September 1st, when it opens the Venice Film Festival at the Sala Grande cinema. It’s a fitting destination for Aronofsky’s latest work, after the director bagged the prestigious Golden Lion award when he brought The Wrestler to town back in 2008.
“The cast and crew of Black Swan are both excited and humbled by the selection committee’s invitation,” gushed the director. “It is an honour to walk the great red carpet on the Lido, and we are excited to premiere our film to the wonderful audiences in Venice.”
Well, he’s got to say all that really, hasn’t he? However, as only the fourth American director ever to win the Golden Lion (The others were John Cassavetes, Robert Altman and Ang Lee, so he’s in good company.), the festival is bound to hold a special place in his heart.
And as far as his cast are concerned, he fully deserves a second crack at the trophy.
“I keep on saying to Darren, ‘but you’re French, don’t you realise?”’ says Cassel, referring to Aronofsky’s style as a filmmaker.
“He wants to make those strange kind of movies, you know? They’re different, they’re independent, they’re not easy to sell most of the time, but they’re really special.”
Mila Kunis meanwhile, insists that the ballet training would have been a deal-breaker, had it not been for the man behind the camera.
“(I agreed to it) because I love Darren Aronofsky and, if anybody was ever going to get me to do it, it would be him,” she told Collider.
“If I was ever going to trust anybody to make me look like a ballerina, it would be him. I have two left feet!”
And not to be outdone, Sebastian Stan chucks his two-penneth in as well, describing himself as, “very fortunate and grateful to get to work with Darren Aronofsky.”
“From the time that I met him, Darren was just very direct and specific,” he said. “Even on set, he just knew what he wanted, at all times. That was a different process. He would come in and expect you to be able to improv.
He would give you a backstory of the character, and then he would just expect you to live in that world. He encouraged everyone to live in that world, the entire time that we were shooting, whether we were actually on camera or not.”
So will Aronofsky be leaving Venice with another trinket for the mantelpiece? From what we can glean from the trailer, it looks like he has every chance. It’s a rare trick to be able to create a genuinely creepy atmosphere from a two minute teaser, without giving the game away completely.
And the poster art alone is enough to give us the shivers…expect this to be the talk of the Festival, giving it some welcome buzz before it arrives on US screens on December 1st.
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