The Tim Ferriss Show: Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky — Exploring Creativity, Ignoring Critics, and Making Art

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Listen Here

  • Checkout Tim’s Podcast Page
  • Darren was intorduced to Tim by Dr. Peter Attia, check out his episodes with Tim here
  • Darren on social media: Twitter (@DarrenAronofsky) and Instagram (@DarrenAronofsky)
  • Founder and head of the production company Protozoa Pictures
  • Filmmaker behind Pi (Best Director award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival), The Wrestler, Black Swan (won Natalie Portman the Academy Award for Best Actress and garnered 4 Oscar nominations including Best Picture), Noah, and his latest, mother!
  • Tim HIGHLY recommends mother!
Darren’s Writing Process
  • What does Darren’s writing environment look like?
    • Darren was in Japan promoting one of his movies
    • He discovered these puzzle boxes
    • He tracked down someone who made them and asked him to make him a desk resembling them, which he uses to this day
    • This is the result
  • Darren describes himself as a “nomadic writer”
    • “Procrastination is part of the process”, your brain needs a break every once in a while
    • “Inspiration comes from the strangest places”
    • What Darren used to do, but doesn’t do so much anymore
      • A lot of prep, then he would write a “muscle draft”. He would go somewhere where he could be very alone and just write – he calls this an “isolation retreat.”
      • “There’s that zone where you forget time, and time disappears, and something concrete comes out on the page”
      • He now does these “isolation retreats” less and less
      • On isolation retreat in Woodstock, NY, Darren claims he wrote the first draft of Pi in 18 hours
  • Darren uses the Final Draft software
  • “Screen writing is very much like sculpture” – working slowly away at the big piece of clay
  • On writing –“That unconscious state, where your not feeling body, that’s the state to get into”
  • For mother!, he wrote the script in 5 days. He wife and son were away, and he wrote in the kitchen in his underwear.
  • For many movies, it takes upwards of decades from idea to conception.
Madness, Psychedelics, and Fasting
  • Does Darren have a fascination with madness?
    • “By walking the tightrope between sanity and insanity, you can learn what sanity is”
    • He had an uncle who was schizophrenic and saw how society treated him
    • Schizophrenia is partially genetic, and can sometimes develop in your 20s, so it’s always been in the back of Darren’s mind
    • Darren recommends The Denial of Death
    • Check out Tim’s TED talk
  • What role have psychedelics play in Darren’s life?
    • Shamanism and reaching alternative states have been apart of our culture for a long time, but was later “washed out”. We as a society, are now just getting back to it.
    • Tim’s experience with psychedelics has led him to develop more empathy for the mentally ill
    • Darren thinks that in controlled environments, there’s clearly tremendous benefit, and he’s derived a lot of wisdom from these types of experiences
    • Tim is involved in funding research at Johns Hopkins to use psilocybin to treat treatment resistant depression
    • Darren is on the board of directors for Sierra Club. A big part of what they do involves getting veterans into nature for therapy.
  • Darren has done some experiments with fasting.
    • He fasts once a year, for one day, with friends
    • Tim fasts 3 days per month, and incorporates longer ones throughout the year
    • Darren is interested in fasting as a way to reach alternative states. He describes fasting as a major mood enhancer. He is also fond of the meditative aspect of fasting, the controlling of mind over body.
The Importance of Clarity
  • The more clear and upfront you can be, the better
  • Time is the biggest enemy when filming, so it’s best to get all issues out of the way beforehand
  • Film making is REALLY hard, each time it’s a ton of work, so you want to make the whole process, for every actor/actress involved, as easy as possible
What does Darren want people to take away from his films?
  • The first rule of filmmaking – never bore an audience
  • When people leave the theater, they should be thinking/talking about ideas introduced in the film
  • Darren loves films that make him scratch his head
  • “You want to have an impact. In today’s landscape, a lot of things are disposable. We are bombarded with stuff day after day, so it’s nice to have something to think back about.”
  • Tim describes being in a complete dream like state for a day after seeing mother!
  • Ingredients that help create emotional engagement with a film
    • The close-up shot, which according to Darren, is the greatest overlooked invention of the 20th century
    • Through a close-up shot, you are anonymous in the audience, but you can feel the empathy and can stare into that characters soul
    • Through the linking of emotions, you start to tell a story
    • In every language, and every culture, we can relate to storytelling
  • Darren is on the board of directors for The School of Field Studies, which trains college students to go abroad into sensitive environmental areas and conduct environmental studies
  • When Darren was 16, he also spent a good amount of time in Kenya, where he studied water strategies in ungulates (all animals that stand on their hooves)
    • His time as a field biologist changed how he viewed the world 
    • Every day for him was “mindblowing,” and was filled with new experiences
  • Darren is originally from Brooklyn, NY
How does Darren respond to public perception and criticism?
  • Their mutual friend, Rick Rubin, has said “The best art divides the audience”
  • When facing controversy, keep going
  • “The only thing you have to offer is you, figure out how to communicate that to a cinema at large”
  • “One of the great things cinema does, is bring us into other human experiences”
  • “If it’s truthful to who you are, and you’re concerned about how people will react to it, stick up your middle finger and charge straight into that fire”
Side story – what happens when you try to stay awake for 6 days
  • At one point back in college, Tim stayed awake for 6 days. He had read a lot about the “odd phenomena” that you experience when you stay away that long
  • He stopped because he fell asleep while walking, and woke up half a block later
How does Darren have the tremendous focus required to accomplish what he has, while still having balance in other areas of life?
  • Many creative people run themselves out and sacrifice family/relationships by being singularly focused
  • According to Darren, bringing in other experiences into his life, allows him to better relate to people
  • He uses personal experiences to create art
  • In order to story tell, you need stories
  • When he goes deep into a project, how does he create the balance?
    • Darren averages a film every 2-3 years
    • He says in this span, there’s only around a 50-60 day stretch where he’s completely immersed in the film
    • Once he’s editing the film, it’s more like a 9-5 job
Resources/Advice for Aspiring Filmmakers
What to Do on a Subway
  • Darren has a rule to never take out his phone on a subway, because that’s the best chance to watch people
  • When Darren came to Tokyo for the first time for Pi, he died his hair purple in order to be noticed, without realizing is was relatively common for old ladies to do the same in Japan
The “Month of Fury”
  • 3 rules – 30 days of no refined sugar, no red meat, no orgasms
  • Before filming Requiem for a Dream, he suggested to all the actors that they go on a month of fury, so they understand what it’s like to withdraw
How does Darren write visual components into a film?
  • Blocking – how actors move in a scene, very critical
  • It’s a goal to make the film as economic as possible – you want to have as few camera setups/lighting changes as possible
  • For mother!, they got together all the actors in a warehouse, and shot the entire movie to visualize how the characters and camera would move
  • Staring as an independent film maker, you have very limited resources
    • “Boundaries are the most important thing in art”
    • For mother!, he only allowed himself 3 shots for every scene and no wide frame shots
    • These challenges served to better the film
  • mother! originates from the fact that many awful things are happening around our planet in this enlightened time, there’s many environmental issues
  • There’s no where on the planet that hasn’t been affected by humans
  • Be ready when you head to the theater to see it.  Darren describes it as seeing a roller coaster loop before going on the roller coaster.
  • Darren thinks of the sound in this movie as an additional character
Any advice for a promising, new director to prevent them from getting chewed up by the system?
  • “Do it because you have to do it. You don’t have any other choice but to do it”
  • Tim – “Only write a book if it’s easier for you to write the book, than not write the book”
  • Darren didn’t discover filmmaking until late in college
Darren’s Superpower
  • Darren really values his roots/loyalty
  • He’s still friends with a lot of the people he grew up with
  • His parents always supported him, but always told him to “not work so hard”. They gave him breathing room with support, to find opportunities.
  • This, he says, allowed him to have persistence. “Persistence is 9/10ths of the game.”
If Darren could no longer make films, and had to coach 5-10 aspiring filmmakers, what would he focus on?
  • Darren would teach students who wanted to tell good stories
  • He would want to see the students make the stories as well as they could, and connect with as many people as possible
  • He recommends reading any scripts by Eric Roth, Scott Silver, Chris Terio
Odds and Ends
  • On his Instagram, to promote mother!, he hired two film students to drive across the country and project “mother” in different languages on the side of a van, he’s been posting the images
  • Parting thoughts – go see mother! and talk about it
  • “Dare to be different”
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