Darren Aronofsky's directorial debut is a science fiction thriller about
mathematician Maximillian Cohen who believes that
the universal questions that have plagued humankind
for centuries can be solved through a pattern of
numbers. As his search progresses, however, he finds
that the solution lies somewhere altogether different.
Filmed for a mere $60,000, Pi made its world
premiere at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival where
the 29-year-old Aronofsky received the Directing
Award for Dramatic Competition. It also earned him
a $1 million deal with Artisan Entertainment and
a $600,000 contract to direct the Miramax/Dimension
film Proteus about a World War II submarine crew afflicted
by Nazis and monsters. For now Aronofsky is allowed
a brief respite to bask in his newfound success.
Released this past July, the black and white Pi is inventively
shot and tightly scripted. A phenomenal first film
on the level of Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir
Dogs or David Lynch's Eraserhead, there's many an
accomplished director who would like to claim Pi
as their own.
I read that Pi was Eraserhead influenced but
I didn't see that in your film.
DA: I think it's a shallow connection: both films are black and white and
about one character. Lynch's film is very impressionistic
and expressionistic, but Pi is really about
a story. We were trying to make a thriller the whole
His movie is so static whereas your camera is constantly moving.
We tried to keep it moving, keep it exciting. We really wanted a roller
coaster ride for 90 minutes. That was the goal.
It reminded me of the Japanese film Tetsuo. Was that an
Definitely—not the film per se—but Shinya Tsukamoto's entire
career. I'm a huge fan of his. About two years ago,
I was at Sundance and saw his latest film Tokyo
biyori. It totally inspired me to go out to make the cyberpunk
movie in America. No one has done the cyberpunk
genre over here.
One shot that was really interesting in Pi was when it
appeared that some sort of camera was hooked to
the main character, Max.
That's called a "Snorri-Cam." These Icelandic photographers named
the Snorri brothers were using it for still photography
and we adapted it for motion pictures. Max is in
the center of the frame and the background is moving
around him, the idea being that Max is separated
from his environment and from his world.
Wasn't Rod Serling also in the mix somewhere?
Sure. Rod Serling's totally the patron saint of the movie.
Is that in terms of the story?
Just as a genre in general—the idea of placing science fiction in
the present and making it psychological as opposed
to effects driven. It preserves the tradition of
Serling and Phillip K. Dick in that it works the
lines separating paranoia, insanity and genius.
What makes your film sci-fi?
It's science fiction in the tradition of those two I just named. And it's
science fiction in the sense of the retelling of
the mad scientist story. The only difference between
my film and Frankenstein is that the monster
is named Euclid. It's just a digital retelling of
Frankenstein. In another science fiction
sense, it's a cyberpunk movie. It's about computers
becoming conscious and a mathematician searching
for a miracle order in the universe.
In that aspect, it reminded me of 2001: a Space Odyssey.
Kubrick's science fiction is always about the psychological. There's serious
stuff in that movie. All the effects are inspired
by ideas, as is the case with A Clockwork Orange. In fact, A Clockwork Orange had a huge inspiration
on Pi in that I was fed up with all the films that had been
coming out that weren't really edgy. In the theaters
this past summer, there were no films that had any
sort of style or direction—that were cool,
hip and different than other films. Growing up,
I always wanted to see A Clockwork Orange. I've seen it at least ten times in the movie theater because it's so riveting.
I want to aspire to those heights.
Pi's sound quality was very impressive for such an inexpensive
That's a big failing for independent films and I wouldn't allow that to
happen. With a lot of them you say, "This is
pretty good but something's wrong. It feels cheap."
But nine out of ten times it will be because the
sound is bad. We hired a really great sound guy
and spent the money on expensive mikes. I also brought
in the sound designer and composer very early on
so that we could create an entire soundscape. That
was very important because we were working with
such abstract film stock and shooting a lot of very
strange images. It was very important to base the
film in a very good sound world.
As far as the theme of the film, were you trying to make a particular
anti-technology statement at all?
There's sort of an anti-science, anti-technology sentiment, but I think
there's more of an anti-religion, pro-spirituality
statement. That's more of what's going on there.
The fear of technology undergirds the film, but
it's not at the forefront. It's more about a guy
who is detached from his humanity, his emotions.
He's become like a machine and is basically a robot
running a giant supercomputer in his apartment,
who has to reach out and find his humanity.
Do you think religion keeps people from finding their humanity?
No, I think religion is often very different than spirituality. Religion
is often about rules and people trying to control
our lives who are actually very unspiritual. Another
message of the film is that God can be found anywhere,
and, in fact, everywhere. And so you don't necessarily
need a religious dogma to get you to spirituality.
I would say Max is a very spiritual person, but
his spirituality almost killed him.
So all these things—like religion or technology—keep you
from reaching your ultimate goal?
Well, they can. They're basically tools to help us become spiritual. If
they're abused, they won't help us get there.
The key scene of the film seems to take place when Sol Robeson tells
Max the story of how Archimedes discovered the principle
of buoyancy. You seem to be saying that it's important
to step back from something in order to reach the
Sure. There's a lot in my film. A big part of it is about asking "Why?"
and "What is the meaning of life?" The
age old questions that people have wondered forever
like, "Is there a God?" "Who is God?"
"What is God?" Pi suggests some answers
but also asks a lot of questions.