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By Jeffrey M. Anderson
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It's a good time for sci-fi movies. I've said this before, but several of today's sci-fi movies are based on ideas rather than special effects. We had a twenty year run of special effects movies, and now filmmakers are getting tired of that and coming up with stories again. Look at Gattaca, Dark City, The X-Files and even The Truman Show for proof. Add to that list a small, shoestring budget ($60,000) film from New York by way of Sundance.
The name of the film is Pi, a figure that helps calcluate the area and circumference of a circle. Pi is the result of the division of a circle's circumference by its diameter. The number begins with 3.14, but it continues into infinity, supposedly without ever repeating a pattern. This small mystery has baffled great minds for generations. The writer and director of the film, Darren Aronofsky, became fascinated by this world of logic, and decided to make a film along these lines.
Aronofsky was in town recently, and I had the chance to speak with him about Pi. He told me that he set out to make the first cyberpunk movie. "What that meant is to have the guerilla attitude. The street attitude. We shot in the subway. All the subway sequences were stolen, because to shoot in [the] New York City subway, to get a permit [for] one day is probably the budget of our movie."
I asked him about the rapid-fire cutting in some of the sequences. "That comes from my hip-hop upbringing. I've always wanted to introduce hip-hop filmmaking to film. So I've been thinking about ways of doing that for a long time. There's hip-hop art--graffiti, there's hip hop dance--breakdancing, there's hip-hop music--rap, but there really isn't hip-hop film. So for a long time, I was trying to do that--to introduce some ideas. I think it's partly an attitude. I think this film is sort of hip-hop in the fact that we were shooting in subways late at night for 10 of our 28 days. Also, I think it's a way of cutting, musically and stuff. I'm sure it's thematic also. I needs to be anti-establishment. It's a hip-hop cyberpunk film," he adds with a grin.
Pi tells the story of Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), a mathematician who believes that nature is made up of mathematics, and that mathematics contains patterns. His goal is to try and find a pattern in the stock market. This, of course, could net Max a lot of money and screw up the world market at the same time. Some Wall Street types in business suits show up to keep control of Max and the situation. Meanwhile, Max meets Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenman), a Hasidic Jew who is also a mathematician, but of a different sort. He explains to Max that the Torah is also made up of numbers, and that he's trying to find the pattern in it. He knows that the pattern is 216 characters long. Max visits his former professor, Sol (Mark Margolis), who had been trying to find the pattern in "pi" before he had a stroke and gave up. Sol also mentions the number 216. As Max gets closer and closer to the answer, more and more people become interested in meddling with him.
"It's really hard for me, the writing phase. For Pi, it was an 8-month collaboration between me, Eric [Watson], the producer, and Sean Gillette the star. And we basically workshopped it, worked on it, developed it for about 8 months. Normally, how I write, I sort of enter a Nomadic phase, where I put my powerbook in my backpack, and I go from office to office to office, just friends' house, parents' house, grandma's house, relatives' house, borrow a house in the country. I can't sit in one place too long."
I was fascinated how Aronofsky managed to used real math formulas as plot elements, how they all seemed to fall into place in a natural progression. "It did fall into place. It was weird. Me and Sean fought over it a lot. It was just some cockamamie idea I had. I mean, you look at DNA, and you look at the Milky Way. That's kind of weird that they have simliar form, similar shape [a sprial]. We're built from it, while living in a giant spiral. What does that mean? Maybe there are a lot of spirals that we're not quite seeing. We can see the big one. We can see the small one. What's inbetween? That was [one] of the ideas. The more I started to do research, I started to see that there's a lot of books, a lot of people are really into this idea of repeating patterns on all different levels. You start to see spirals in nautilus shells, ram's horns, in the way a plant grows--they grow in spirals, in our bones we have spirals. There's so many of them. Our fingertips, if you look really closely there's spirals. They're everywhere. It's a little creepy."
"It's strange when you start with all these different ideas, and they seem totally foreign and different, and then you start to push them together, and slowly but surely, they start to fit together in a way that you never expected. It's almost like Max, the way he sees patterns everywhere. You're always looking for a unifying pattern for all these different themes in your movie, and as you start to work on them more and more, they to come together."
I asked him where he came up with the number 216, whether or not it was true. "It's true. All the cabal stuff in the film is completely 100% real. Totally non-fictional. I studied with a lot of leading cabal scholars in the world. And they shared with me a lot of their secrets. Everything you see on the screen is completely 100%, totally, fully, completely real."
There's a scene in which Lenny Meyer shows Max a forumula from the Torah. The words for Man, Woman and Child, translate into numbers where the sum of Man and Woman equals Child. "Totally real. There's tons of those. That [one] was something I could show in 20 seconds. But the stuff I learned is so much more in depth, and so much more, you know, convincingly bizarre."
On top of everything else, Max gets screeching, flashing headaches that cause him to halucinate and pass out. These sequences are frightening, unpleasant, and very effective. You can almost feel the pain.
The film is shot in very harsh, gritty, bleak, grainy black-and-white 16mm. "We shot something called black and white reversal. The concept was to make a black or white movie, not a black and white movie. We didn't want any gray tones. We just wanted to make it as much of a comic book as possible--as stylized and as different. The whole concept behind Pi was always to make a completely different film on every level, between the story, the look, the music, the concepts, the spaces, everything. So, we took chances as much as we could." Pi looks like a student film, but it's the absolute belief and trust by everyone involved that pull this film off and make it seem professional. The actors are all very capable, and give natural performances. "They're sort of a who's-who of character actors of New York City. Actors that have a lot of depth and soul and get overlooked by Hollywood projects because they're sort of edgier. And also because they're ethnic. And casting ethnic characters is a very hard thing to do, but I think it's pretty important. It's also interesting, too. It's like, when you see a black woman bad guy running a Wall Street firm --instead of being unbelievable, it's actually kind of interesting. And also it's different, and it's sort of refreshing. And having an Indian sex symbol, being an object of sexual desire, is something you never ever see, but it totally works. I mean, she's totally, 100% sexy. So, I think it's very important. And having badass Jews, as opposed to the traditional sort of Jews that you see in film--is important."
The editing is sharp, and the camerawork makes claustrophobic angles work. My only complaint is that it is difficult to see the elaborate computer setup in Max's room, where we spend most of the film, clearly. In fact, the whole film in general may be too grainy for most people's tastes. "Less is more," Aronofsky said in response. "There was a lot of detail there that I knew we wouldn't be picking up because of the type of film we were using. We wanted it to be in darkness and in shadows a lot because no matter how good you do something, when you're working on a limited budget, it's never quite good enough. So, less is more. People fill in the holes."
When the plot sticks with the math, its genuinely exciting and interesting, but when we go to Max's headaches and halucinations, we get into some seemingly gratuitous nightmare imagery (brains, blood, tumors, etc.) that will turn some people off. Still, the film moves fast (it's 85 minutes long), and I think it's destined to pick up a cult following of people who are tired of the same old thing. Aronofsky came up with an interesting theory about that. "While working on this movie on paranoia, I started to realize that the filmmaking process is a paranoid experience. Because they always tell you in filmmaking that every single scene should relate to your main character, relate to your theme. And that's exactly what paranoid schizophrenics think their world is. That the entire world relates to them. So filmmaking is a paranoid experience."
Aronofsky won the Directing Award for Dramtic Competition at Sundance, and has already struck a deal with Dimension Films to do a horror film called Proteus. If Pi is any indication, we can look forward to it. "I have two projects actually," he says. "One is a Hubert Selby Jr. (The Last Exit to Brooklyn) adaptation of one of his novels called Requiem for a Dream. I've been working with him, and it's been just a great, great opportunity. It's been amazing. We've been working together. He's sort of my hero--the main reason I'm a writer is because of his work. It's pretty sick. The other project is Proteus, which is a sci-fi horror film set during WWII. That's gonna be a pretty scary movie. In fact, I'll go on record right now and tell you it's gonna be the scariest movie you've seen in the last 10 years."
Finally, I asked Aronofsky about some of the film's little mysteries, the unexplained images. "I won't answer these," he replied. "These are all open--the idea behind a lot of the imagery was for interpretation--for people to get what they want out of it. We had ideas behind what everything meant in the film. I mean, there wasn't a shot that wasn't discussed in the film. Everything was talked about. But most things, I think, are better, for you to talk [about afterward]. It's like, in The Shining, asking what the bunny was."
June 25, 1998
Partial Darren Aronofsky Filmography
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Below (2003) [screenplay & produce]
The Fountain (2006)