Black Swan Weekend
December 2- Review of the film by Louis Allred
December 3- Interviews with Mila Kunis, and the film’s writers & choreographers
December 4- Interviews with Natalie Portman, Darren Aronofsky, and other cast members

The Writers, Choreographer, and Mila Kunis Discuss BLACK SWAN

By Obed Medina

Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is poised to take on the Oscar race this season and with much fanfare. It’s already receiving the highly anticipated Oscar buzz for his daring film, what he calls a companion piece to last year’s The Wrestler. Both films are tied together by themes of bodily extremes, souls in turmoil, and a director’s eye for pulling its audience into the world of these tormented souls. While wresting and ballet may seem like totally different worlds, in a sense, Randy, in The Wrestler, and Nina, in Black Swan are cut from the same cloth. “Some people call wrestling the lowest of art forms, and some call ballet the highest of art forms, yet there is something elementally the same. Mickey Rourke as a wrestler was going through something very similar to Natalie Portman as a ballerina,” explains Aronofsky. “They’re both artists who use their bodies to express themselves and they’re both threatened by physical injury, because their bodies are the only tool they have for expression. What was interesting was to find these two connected stories in what might appear to be unconnected worlds.” However, Black Swan goes deep into the moments of sheer psychological horror unlike anything that the director has ever done before.

THE WRITING PROCESS
The writing team of Andrés Heinz and Mark Heyman discuss the 10-year process of bringing Black Swan from page to film.

Can you tell us a little about the genesis of this script?

AH: For me it started about 10 years ago. Specifically, it was watching the Bolshevic Ballet and was fascinated by this psychological breakdown of the process and I couldn’t get it out of my head. I happened to be reading The Double by Dostoyevsky and so the entire script came to me very quickly and I melded it into what became the understudy in the script. I had some experience in the theatre world and I set it in the Off-Broadway world about an actress who is suddenly thrust into the leading role and the pressure creates this kind of fracture in her psyche and she starts to have a breakdown where she starts to believe that her understudy is trying to undermine her.

You started the process and then Darren Aronovsky came on board. How did he re-work the story from what it was to what it came to be?

AH: Darren had the idea, initially, about Swan Lake, which is a brilliant addition to this. The process of rewriting was really with Mark, because at that time even though Darren was attached to direct, they couldn’t get the deal with the project. Several directors came and went and, of course, I was thrilled that Darren came back.

Did you have any actress in mind back then when you were writing the script?

AH: I can’t say that I did. I don’t really write with actors in mind, I write with the characters in mind.

It’s been well documented that it’s been a difficult task to get this script from page to screen, How did you and Andres Heinz and the whole crew and cast stay so determined to see it through?

MH: From the time I started re-writing the script to the start of production, that was about a year and a half and that process of translating it to ballet setting came relatively quickly, you know, when you’re making a ballet thriller, that’s very uncharted territory. There’s no roadmap and there’s a lot of people that are scared that they’re going see a movie that they’ve never seen.  It was a very dark time; fortunately Cross Creek and Searchlight came in and helped us out.

Roman Polanski’s Repulsion obviously comes to mind in terms of the persona that the main character, Nina, develops in the film. What were your influences when writing the screenplay?

AH: Absolutely, Repulsion and The Red Shoes were constantly on my playlist when I was writing this screenplay when I was looking for characters.

MH: When Darren asked me to write this, the real staring-off place pointed at Swan Lake, so in a weird way everything in the film happens from the swan transformation to the relationship with the mother, it’s all inspired by the story of Swan Lake. It found its logic from that as we referenced that in the movie.

What was the inspiration for the mother/daughter relationship in the film? How do you access that world of women so accurately?

MH: Uh…Well, (sorry mom!), I think anyone who has a strong mother figure in their life can on some level or another can tap into that, where a mother can take the role of caretaker a little too far. In the screenplay, Barbara Hershey’s character is named Erica. Eric Von Rothbart is the evil villain in Swan Lake, so the idea is that she was the evil trapping Nina into this world.

This film is very symbolic. I wanted to ask you about the scene in the film where the Natalie Portman’s character starts to see herself everywhere, that’s when we know she’s going crazy. Is there a deeper symbolism to that?

AH: In the original script, it comes from accessing the dark self. You start seeing doubles of yourself; it’s a symbol of your darker self.

MH: Yes, and well, again, Swan Lake has a double: a white swan and a black swan and that’s in the ballet. What’s happened is that this woman has disguised herself to look like the white swan to get the prince to fall in love with her instead. And I think, symbolically, the story became about the journey of how the white swan in the ballet becomes the black swan. The character of Nina is the spirit guide. It’s like taking someone down that rabbit hole. For Nina, that anxiety is a fear of letting go.

In doing research for this screenplay, did you interview any dancers in ballet, and if you did, did you find that they all had similar characteristics that Nina displays in the film?

MH: I did talk to a lot of people and there isn’t one single type, but certainly on a professional level you have to be very, very dedicated… You don’t get there casually, so there’s a level of discipline and dedication to this art and there are some that become a little more obsessed than others.

What happens to Nina is a sort of psychotic breakdown. Did you do any research into psychosis for this film?

AH: I had first hand experience with psychosis. Actually, my first roommate at NYU had psychotic episodes, and I went through that, which was a harrowing experience to see his mind disintegrate.

MH: The psychosis I gave her (Nina) was borderline personality disorder, there wasn’t any one specifically that I researched. But I knew an actress in a theatre company and she had just gotten her first big role; she got so obsessed that she started having this recurring nightmare that on opening night if she performed, she was going to die. It didn’t make any sense. The night of the performance came and her whole body started shaking… She didn’t die. She’s OK now, but I think, for her, it was an awakening.

CHOREOGRAPHING THE BLACK SWAN
Benjamin Millepied discusses the dark world of ballet and choreographing the film.

We’ve all read extensively the preparation the actresses put into their roles. Did you find that you had to adjust your choreography to the actors or did the actors adjust to your choreography?

From the beginning I made the dances inspired by the quality of the actors, adjusting the dance – that’s something that I do all the time. It was more them and what they can do with their bodies and adjusting for the camera and for Darren. From the beginning Darren told me he wanted to have the camera as the third dancer in the scenes.

It’s been said that the ballet world was not embracing the idea of making a movie about dancers. Did you find that to be true and how did you meet that resistance as a choreographer?

That’s actually not true. What happened really is that we shot the film in December and January and this is a busy time for theatre companies and we couldn’t use any dancers from any of the ballet companies.

There seems to be a very dark side to this world of ballet.

Darren chose to show the extreme of it. Thinking back on it, the movie does show that dark side. These are things that are part of the art form. Like the character of Nina, I know several girls who eat and breathe ballet, we call them “Bunheads.” As a director, you just can’t get away from that side of it.

THE BLACK SWAN
Mila Kunis discusses same-sex scenes, a rigorous regime, and the Oscar.

You come from a TV background and you’re just starting to make your mark in film, how did the casting come about for this movie?

Hmmm… I don’t know how that came about. That’s probably a better question for Darren, I never really asked, but I got called in and I said, “Alright. I’m game.”

Have you seen Swan Lake on stage and what was your experience working with Aronosfsky?

No, I’ve never really got to see Swan Lake on stage before this until about a year ago. Every time I have seen any ballet, it’s been a fragment of it and so I never get to see the whole thing. Working with Darren has been truly an amazing experience for me. It’s rare that you can find someone that you can trust and with Darren you feel like there’s a safety net underneath you and so he was actually great.

You worked so hard to get those moves as a dancer. How did you make it look so effortless?

It was three months of training each morning Four or five hours a day. I was not that much of a dancer, so you have to immerse yourself into this world in the way we walk and talk, dance. Ballet is one of the most physically excruciating sport that I’ve been involved in – I call it a sport because they train constantly every single day, and so your body changes, like your shoulders broaden, your chest opens up, and there’s a certain posture that you assume, and I’m a sloucher, and so for three months I had to learn to straighten up.

So, with all that training and physical preparation for the role, how relieved where you when it was all over?

Oh my god, you have no idea! It took me five months to lose 20 pounds and it took me hours to gain it all back. The night that production ended, I went to Panda Express at the airport terminal, JFK. I was so excited. And then when I got to LA. I got in my car and drove to In N Out and it was fantastic!

How did you prepare for the intimate scene with Natalie Portman?

As with any sex scene, you both have to be comfortable – whether it’s a same-sex scene or not. The great thing about this is that Natalie and I were good friends. We didn’t discuss it very much, we just kind of did it. It made sense for the character. It wasn’t just for shock value.

How many same-sex scenes do you have in your career and do you feel doing these things that you’re being exploited?

Hmm… Same-sex scene. Well, I did a movie called After Sex with Zoe Saldana. We never had a sex scene, we had what happens after sex… So, this would be my first. As far as being exploited, I think a sex scene is a sex scene, whether you’re filming a same-sex scene or a sex scene with the opposite sex, it all comes down to the director and the trust that you have.

Everyone’s been talking about Natalie Portman’s Oscar-worthy performance in this film, but what about talk about your performance being equally Oscar-worthy? How does that make you feel?

[Laughs.] That makes me very uncomfortable. But you know what, as long as people respond to the film I don’t need to respond to awards, but I don’t know, I think it’s an honor and I’m grateful that people like it and I couldn’t be happier; everything else is all very new to me.

How did you respond to seeing the film for the first time?

I saw it a couple of times, but the first time I saw it was very, very rough, I was like, that’s the movie we made? And then the final cut that I saw, I was blown away by it. I mean, I was there and I remember most of it, but I had no idea how Darren was shooting it because the camera was always there, it was like another character, and so…I was blown away by it!

Mila, are you a Black Swan or a White Swan?

I…Uhmmm… Everyone has a little bit of a Black Swan in them, but… I would say that I’m a little of both. I’m not nearly as adventurous as my character (Lily) in the film. Not really, but at times I play to be.

Up next: Director Darren Aronofsky, Natalie Portman, Barbara Hershey, and Vincent Cassel talk about their role in Black Swan.