Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis and Darren Aronofksy break down ‘Black Swan’
hollywoodnews.com: Looking at the ads for the new film “Black Swan,” it’s hard to tell precisely what the film is – a ballet movie, a backstage drama, or a horror flick. According to the cast and crew, the only thing they knew for sure about it was that they had to make it. Hollywood News spoke to stars Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis and director Darren Aronofsky at the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, where they discussed the various challenges of preparing and then putting together this remarkably unique film, and finding a cohesive throughline despite the variety of influences, tones and techniques that went into its creation.
Hollywood News: This has been a project in development for a long time. Darren, can you talk about how you got started on this?
Darren Aronofsky: I’ve been a fan of Natalie’s since I saw her in “The Professional.” Luc Besson is one of my favorite directors, and it turns out that her manager is an old friend of mine from college and so I had a little inside line to meet her. We met in Times Square at the old Howard Johnson’s, [and] we had a really bad cup of coffee and we talked about the early ideas I had about the film. But when she says that that I have the entire film in my head it’s a complete lie.
Natalie Portman: No. It’s was close to what you described to me.
Aronofsky: So we talked a bit about it and I started to develop it but it was a really tough film because getting into the ballet world proved to be really challenging. Most of the time when you do a movie and you say, ‘Hey, I want to make a movie about your world,’ then all the doors open up and you can do anything and see anything that you want. The ballet world really wasn’t at all interested in us hanging out, so it took a long time to sort of get the information and sort of put it together. And over the years Natalie would say, ‘I’m getting too old to play a dancer. You better hurry up.’ I was like, ‘Natalie, you look great. You’ll be fine.’ And then about a year out before the film or maybe a little bit earlier I finally got a screenplay together.
Hollywood News: Natalie, what was the appeal of taking on this kind of challenge?
Portman: Well, I had danced when I was younger – until I was about twelve – and I guess always sort of idealized it, as most young girls do, as the most sort of beautiful art, this expression without words. I always wanted to do a film relating to dance. So when Darren had this incredible idea that was not just relating to the dance world, but also had this really complicated character, two characters to go into, it was just an opportunity, and especially with Darren who is a director that I would do anything for – it was just something completely exciting.
Hollywood News: This film is about transformation, and you make a complete transformation on film. What sort of challenge was that?
Portman: Well, it was a great challenge and I had really, really amazing support. I mean all the teachers and coaches and the choreographer, obviously, and the director first and foremost were shaping and pushing along the way. But I started with my ballet teacher a year ahead of time, Mary Helen Bowers, and she started very basically with me, but we would do two hours a day for the six months. That was really just sort of strengthening and getting me ready to do more so that I wouldn’t get injured and then at about six months we started doing five hours a day where we added in swimming. So I was swimming a mile a day, toning and then doing three hours of ballet class a day and then two months before we added the choreography. So we were probably doing eight hours a day and the physical discipline of it really helped for the emotional side of the character because you get the sense of the sort of monastic lifestyle of only working out that is a ballet dancer’s life. You don’t drink. You don’t go out with your friends. You don’t have much food. You are constantly putting your body through extreme pain and you really get that understanding of the self-flagellation of a ballet dancer.
Hollywood News: Can you talk a little about working on the choreography and what that experience was like?
Portman: Well, the choreography [involved] different pieces for Black Swan and White Swan. I had an amazing coach, Georgina Parkinson, who very sadly passed away two weeks before we started shooting. She is sort of the premiere, was the premiere ‘Swan Lake’ coach for Odile/Odette and so she worked very specifically with me on everything from fingertips to where you put your eyes on different movements that are sort of ballet acting. It’s little gestures that you can do that really differentiate between those two characters.
Hollywood News: Given that you have a degree in psychology, Natalie, what would be your professional diagnosis of your character?
Portman: Well, this was actually a case where something that I did learn in school did translate into something practical – which is very, very rare. But it was absolutely a case of obsessive compulsive behavior, the scratching, the bulimia, obviously. Anorexia and bulimia are forms of OCD and ballet really lends itself to that because there’s such a sense of ritual – the wrapping of the shoes everyday and the preparing of new shoes for every performance. It’s such a process. It’s almost religious in nature. It’s almost like Jews putting on their tefillin or Catholics with their rosary beads and then they have this sort of godlike character in their director. It really is a devotional, ritualistic, religious art which you can relate to as an actor, too, because when you do a film you submit to your director in that way. Your director is your everything and you devote yourself to them and you want to help create their vision. So all of that, I think the sort of religious obsession compulsion would be my professional diagnosis.
Hollywood News: Mila, you obviously trained so hard for this – your physicality seemed so natural. How did you make it appear so effortless and sensual for this movie?
Mila Kunis: Thank you. It was far from effortless and sensual. It was three months of training beforehand. I was not a ballet dancer. I think most of the training, you can only fake so much, the physicality, and so you have to kind of immerse yourself in this world in a way that somebody walks and talks and handles themselves. So it was three months of training, seven days a week for four or five hours a day before production started and then during production it was pretty much exactly the same.
Hollywood News: Were there little details that you picked up along the way that made you feel more like a dancer?
Kunis: Yeah. A lot of things change, your body changes. Okay, here’s the thing about ballet that I never knew about. It’s one of the most physically excruciating sports that I’ve ever been a part of, and I say sports because they train constantly, every single day. So your body changes; your shoulders drop, your chest opens up and there’s a certain posture that I naturally don’t have because I slouch. So for three months, I had to constantly stand up straight and the way that they hold their arms because they always move their fingers when they’re dancing. That also changes and it also changes the way that they talk in real life and amongst the feet being different because of the ballet stuff. So there are a lot of different things.
Hollywood News: Can you talk about how you and Natalie prepared beforehand and got comfortable with doing the intimate scenes that you do in this movie?
Kunis: Well, any time that you do any intimate scene on film it’s going to be a little uncomfortable whether it’s the same sex or opposite sex. I think the great thing about this was that Natalie and I were actually lucky enough to be friends prior to production which made it all a lot easier. We didn’t really discuss it very much. We just kind of did it. It made sense for the character. It wasn’t put in for shock value. It wasn’t something that we needed to justify in our heads as to why we were doing it and that was it, but the truth of the matter is that we were friends before we started it. So with that it made it a lot easier.
Hollywood News: There are many realities in the film for the characters. Did you have different direction for those scenes, a different way that you played them or was it all the same?
Kunis: It was the farthest thing from continual. I think that Darren touched on it yesterday, but I think that whenever Natalie [Portman] and I were in the same scene I’m pretty sure that we did it about every which way possible. So whatever she would do I would do the opposite because the truth of the matter is that as much as we worked on the script and as much rehearsal you did you didn’t even know what was going to be played. It was also finicky and you just tried to give as much as you could in every single take and every single take was completely different. So, to answer your Hollywood News there was nothing continuous.
Hollywood News: Darren, this is described in the press notes as a companion piece to “The Wrestler.” You can see some parallels, but how did you approach this in contrast to “The Wrestler?”
Aronofsky: I don’t really think there’s that much difference. I don’t think it’s that much of a big deal. I think people are people and if their feelings are real and truthful they can connect. I keep saying that it doesn’t matter if you’re an aging fifty something year old wrestler at the end of his career or an ambitious twenty something year old ballet dancer, if they’re truthful to who they are and they’re expressing something real then audiences will connect. That’s always been the promise of cinema and that’s why we can see a film about a seven year old girl in Iran or an immortal superhero in America. It doesn’t matter as long as they’re truthful.
Hollywood News: How do you feel the film ultimately portrays the ballet world?
Aronofsky: I think so many dancers are incredibly relieved that there’s finally a ballet movie that takes ballet as a serious art and not as a place to have a love affair. If you actually look at ballet, the ballets themselves are incredibly dark and gothic. “Sleeping Beauty,” “Romeo and Juliet” and of course “Swan Lake” and this movie could’ve been called “Swan Lake.” We took the fairy tale of “Swan Lake” and the ballet of “Swan Lake” and basically turned all the characters, Rothbart, The Prince, The Queen and translated them into characters in our movie reality. So it’s really just a retelling of “Swan Lake,” but yes, it definitely shows the challenges and the darkness and the reality of how hard it is to be a ballet dancer. I think it also represents the beauty of the art and the transcendence that’s possible with in the art all within retelling “Swan Lake.” So there are going to be people who are always going to have issues with things, but the margin by far, the dancers that we have met and talked to are like, ‘Finally, we have a real movie about ballet.’
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