On Sunday, Brendan Fraser took home a Best Actor Oscar for Darren Aronofsky‘s The Whale. Now, coming only two days later, Aronofsky wants to take you all the way back to 1998 to relive his first film (or, maybe more likely, watch it for the first time), back in theaters for one day with a newly remastered print, Pi.
It’s actually a very unique story. Back in 1998, with absolutely no leverage to do so, Aronofsky brokered a deal that would return the rights to Pi back to him after 25 years. What seemed like an eternity back then to a young filmmaker has, now, come to fruition. The rights for Pi returned to Aronofsky and he turned around and sold it again to A24, who are now putting it back in theaters for “Pi Day” on March 14th.
It’s interesting watching Pi today. It feels like a movie pulsating with every topic Aronofsky would explore with later films. As the protagonist, Max, becomes obsessed with numbers, it does feel like there’s a numerical formula from this film to follow that lays out Aronofsky’s entire career. When I mentioned I can draw a direct line from Pi to The Whale, at first Aronofsky poo-poos this notion, before actually conceding I may have a point.
Ahead, Aronofsky tells us how he negotiated this pretty unusual deal, and what it’s like trying to get back in the head of the filmmaker he was in his 20s.
You took a break from your never-ending press tour for The Whale to do press for a different movie.
[Laughs] I mean, it’s kind of slowed down, The Whale stuff. I haven’t been doing that much for a while. Just moderating a few Q&As with Brendan and Hong and the makeup department. But otherwise, just been getting ready for the next thing.
Is this more fun? Talking about a 25-year-old movie? As opposed to having to try and sell something new?
Sure. I mean, I’m happy to do this. I’m pretty happy to do the press at the beginning. It’s just that when you’re up to your 400th interview, it’s a lot. But this is one day of press and it’s happy to bring back the memories. This whole thing’s been kind of just a gas and a lot of fun the whole time.
So I re-watched this a couple of days ago. By the way, after this I realized I hadn’t seen The Fountain in a long time either. Both are around 90 minutes, which made that pretty easy.
I like the 90-minute movie! Pi is 79 minutes. I love that length.
So here’s what went through my head while watching Pi. This is my theory. It is like watching your Big Bang, everything condensed about what you make in movies just crammed into this first thing and then it explodes and informs all your other movies. The spiral from Pi is all your other movies coming out of Pi to this day.
Yeah, I don’t know… There are some original ideas that show up, but I can’t account for them. I just sort of follow what I’m interested in and have been lucky enough to make those types of movies. So that’s exciting.
I can make direct comparisons between Pi and The Whale.
Two people who are both obsessed, addicted…
They’re both about two shut-ins.
And then someone offering religion shows up.
There are some parallels here. And that surprised me.
Yeah, no, well, you just surprised me. I never thought about it. Oh, yeah, the religion pushes through the doors and starts to try to make him more religious and stuff. So that’s funny.
How do you feel when you go back and watch something you made in your 20s?
I was happy after I watched it. Because we did this arduous task of going back to the original film. So, basically, the same film that passed through the camera is this film called Black and White Reversal…
Yeah, I was reading about that.
Yeah, it gets developed and it’s like a Polaroid thing and I had never seen that ever projected, because we treated that like our negative. And then when we cut it together, we actually cut those positives, and then we had to shoot it with 35-millimeter negative and then we had to print off that negative. So the only thing I ever saw was a third generation down. So, for me, it was so interesting because there was so many more details and the whole look of it was different when we went back and scanned it all at 8K. The IMAX people were like, “We’ve never seen anything like this. Most people want to get rid of the grain and they want to get rid of the texture.” They were nervous to show it to me. And I was like, “No, I love it.”
I am a fan of grain.
So finally, when I did watch it all together for the first time, I was like, “Oh, there’s some totally crazy ludicrous ideas in this.” But ultimately, it’s pretty nonstop interesting. And so I think it could play. People will actually enjoy it. It constantly keeps your attention.
I remember in the ’90s thinking it was a weird movie. It doesn’t seem as weird now.
It was weirder at the moment. It’s just the world has gotten really, really weird.
Maybe that’s it.
I think the world’s gotten more weird. But I think back then, people weren’t really doing sci-fi in independent films. And working in black-and-white reversal was kind of a fresh idea. So I think it was different to what was out there in the landscape. But anyway, just how it played out.
I read that a lot of the cost of this movie just went into buying the film. Are you envious of filmmakers in their 20s now that can just go out on their phone and start doing stuff and don’t have to worry about that?
Back then, there was no way to make a film except if you actually bought film and filmed something and cut it together. And then there was no way to distribute film unless you got a distribution deal. There was nothing to do. It’s so exciting right now. If I was a young filmmaker, I would definitely be using my smartphone and just going out in the streets and telling stories with that and trying to figure out how to use the different tools that are available now, which are expanding so quickly in such a crazy way at this moment. It’s a great time to be a storyteller.
Pi aged well. I completely forgot it takes place in the 90s except when a floppy disk shows up.
And the rotary phone.
Oh and that.
The thing is, there were at the time of course touchpad phones or whatever they call them, but I chose to go rotary to kind of confuse the time and the aesthetic a little bit.
It’s not a movie filled with cultural references that are dated.
There are none. And it’s set in Chinatown, which hasn’t changed at all. Actually, I had dinner last night on the corner where we shot a scene where Max comes out of the train station. I was like, “Oh, that’s weird to be right back here again 25 years later, or 26 years later.” But yeah, I think the ideas, they still work. I mean, even predicting the stock market and all those ideas and people looking for patterns and stuff, it’s all kind of still in culture here and now.
And the prediction that a recession was coming. You nailed that one. It came.
Well, you always know that’s going to happen.
I’m fascinated by this contract. So how did this work? Why did you get the movie rights back? What contract did you have where you all of a sudden own the movie again and you can sell it to A24?
Not me, but all the filmmakers. It happened because, it was very much like this socialist pact amongst the filmmakers where I, as the director, had the same amount of ownership as anyone who worked on the film for that length of time. So when we went to Sundance, I was really in awe of Jim Jarmusch, who always basically got his films back after seven years. He would finance them out of Japan in places and then just licensed them for under a decade. And so when we started making the contract, I was like, nope, we’ve got to get it back. We’ve got to get it back. And I was so annoying about it. Eventually, the head of the studio was like, “Fine, give it back to him in 25 years.” And so it was always in back of my head. So it was just that.
Well, yeah, but as your first movie, that’s a lot of…
Yeah, that’s exactly the word. You probably weren’t in much of a position to be making demands and yet you did.
I was in no position. No position. We only had one company, Artisan was bidding on it at the time. There was no one else that was bidding on it. So we didn’t really have any leverage. But it was just an important point. There were a few important points that we wanted to make sure would happen and we kind of stuck to our gun and we were lucky that they decided to honor them.
Is this the only movie you had that deal with?
Unfortunately, that’s correct.
So you don’t get Noah back in 15 years or anything?
No, I think once they start spending real money, there’s no way in hell you’re getting it back.
So you get the rights back, was the plan always to resell it?
Well, that’s why I teamed up with A24. We had such a great run with The Whale.
I didn’t know if there were other options before that.
Yeah, it’s all been very quick. We got the rights back in January. January 21st. And then we made the deal. We were already making the deal. I knew it was coming up and the one thing I really wanted to do was an IMAX screening because I thought it would just be a lot of fun to do it.
On Pi Day.
Yeah. I’m hoping that this becomes a yearly tradition where people can go check out the film at IMAX on Pi Day as a way of celebrating mathematics.
This makes me think you had a very nice experience with The Whale, working with A24.
Oh, they’re amazing people and they’re very honest. They’re very straightforward and it was a great journey with them. So I’m happy to be in business with them. The other thing I like about it is that they’re such a youth brand. There are so many young people who love them and I’m hoping that they can help introduce Pi to that younger audience.
I’ve wanted to ask you, especially after watching these two movies back to back, Pi and The Fountain: why do most of your movies have these pretty deeply religious themes? But you’ve never been pigeonholed as a director who only directs about religious themes, but yet they’re present a lot.
I don’t know… I think that the mythology… I’m more interested in religion, not for spiritual reasons, but I love the mythology of it. I love how they take on larger meanings because they are these stories that are so integral to our culture and to our reality that they affect people in lots of ways. So it’s like, I just think there’s a lot of power in story. And using the oldest stories we know to reinvent them and reinterpreted them is been always something I’ve been interested in.
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