If there's one thing director Darren Aronofsky has proven over the course of his relatively young career in Hollywood, it is to expect the unexpected. In his first three features he told stories of mathmeticians, drug abusers, and lovers whose romance spanned thousands of years. So while no one necessarily predicted his next film would tackle the world of professional wrestling, anyone following his career has surely learned that Aronofsky's ambitions cannot be predicted. There are very clear thematic throughlines demonstrated in his first four features, but his distinctive take on the subject matter has made him one of the most exciting directors to watch this decade.
The Wrestler tells the tale of the downtrodden former wrestling star Randy "The Ram" Robinson (aka Robin Ramzinski). Mickey Rourke's deeply emotional portrayal has been the talk of the town over the past month, and the actor was just nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance. More than just a story about a single individual, The Wrestler is an examination of the less-glamorous afterlife of a professional wrestling star. Still wrestling two decades after his prime, The Ram lives a desolate existence, estranged from his daughter, working odd jobs to keep up his rent, and facing the brutal consequences years of performance-enhancing drugs are having on his body.
We sat down for an exclusive interview with Aronofsky to discuss his high-buzz new film and what he learned about the dark side of professional wrestling.
ReelzChannel: By coincidence, I happened to watch Requiem for a Heavyweight before seeing this and I thought that there was a very strong parallel.
Darren Aronofsky: That's hilarious. Yeah, we watched it, of course. I'm a big fan of Rod Serling's. I've seen it several times and I definitely watched it before we got deep into this film. He definitely got wrestling right, even though it's not really about wrestling. He understood what it was and what it meant to a boxer, so hats off to that. It's a beautiful movie. A bit different, but there are definitely similarities.
RC: Both movies really leave you cold in the end. I felt like I walked out of The Wrestler in a bit of a haze.
Aronofsky: Oh good. (Laughs)
RC: Growing up, were you a wrestling fan or was it just something that fascinated you from an outsider's perspective.
Aronofsky: I think the fact that it was just such a phenomenon. It's such a big part of our culture, yet no one's ever done anything serious with it. I got into it a little bit, but not really. It was more just watching it explode around the world.
RC: You mentioned that you first wrote down this idea when you were in film school. Was it something you kept coming back to throughout the years?
Aronofsky: Yeah, I kept thinking about an angle and how to get out under it and figuring out who the character was. It wasn't until I teamed up with my producer, Scott Franklin, that we really started doing the research.
RC: What was the start of that research?
Aronofsky: I think one of the first things we did is we kind of had a meeting with a bunch of wrestlers. I think there were five wrestlers and I think two of them are dead at this point. One of them was in his '30s. He had an overdose. Tiger Khan is his name. We just kind of met at a bar in Port Authority, which was near my office back then. We were just brainstorming and started to hear their stories. The more stories we heard, the more remarkable it all became.
RC: In terms of the drug use, how much did you want to focus on that? Also, in terms of the wrestlers, is that something they are embarassed about or pretty open about?
Aronofsky: It's a mixture. Amongst themselves, they're all open about it. I don't think it's looked upon very well, but there's no way you do a wrestling picture and [not] deal with steroids. We didn't even talk about all the other drug usage, but it's a big part of the culture.
RC: Do you think some wrestlers might be upset about this unveiling of what goes on behind the scenes?
Aronofsky: I don't know. I think most of that stuff is pretty public information at this point. All their tricks and secrets are on the Internet and covered pretty well. We had our first [wrestling] legend come see it. Rowdy Roddy Piper came to see it and he was deeply, deeply touched -- he was brought to tears by it. It's been good so far.
RC: You mentioned Brutus Beefcake as one of the mid-range wrestlers you drew upon as a basis for the character of The Ram. For a guy who's achieved this level of success, where did the money go?
Aronofsky: Some of the old-school guys did hold it together and they've got a little security and they've got a house. None of them are really wealthy, except for guys like Hulk Hogan and the big stars. But most of them, they weren't making that much money back in the day. This is before it became this multimillion-dollar phenomenon. You gotta remember, it was big, but it wasn't the same type of money there is now. You know, time goes by and people lose and spend their money. A lot of their characters and their names, and even the images of themselves, they signed over years ago and make nothing out it. They've got no pensions, they've got no worker's comp, they've got none of that.
RC: So there's no union or group they belong to?
Aronofsky: They are not unionized, no. In fact, that's why the WWF turned into the WWE, because they were being forced to unionize their workers and that was stopped. But it's criminal that they're not part of SAG. They should be part of SAG. They're acting.
RC: When they are in the hard-core matches like the one you show in the movie, is part of the payment they received the medical care that goes along with it?
Aronofsky: They always have a medic for these guys.
RC: Are those sort of an underground thing or is it a sanctioned event where they sell tickets?
Aronofsky: Oh yeah, they sell tickets. It's actually illegal in New Jersey, but it's totally legal in Philadelphia. Look up that guy, Necro Butcher, go to YouTube and look him up.
RC: Was Mickey the first choice that popped into your head, or was it when you met him?
Aronofsky: Yeah, it was when I met him, he seemed right. A lot of fire in his eyes.
RC: He said that if he met you 15 years ago, he might have kicked your ass.
Aronofsky: Did he say that? Well I probably wouldn't have worked with him 15 years ago.
RC: He also spoke about the events of his life and how they helped to aid the performance.
Aronofsky: Yeah, he was just such an original. He's just a complete original and there's no one like him. That's exciting as a director.