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The Fountain of youth
The Fountain of youth
Director Darren Aronofsky attempts to bottle Bimini’s waters. Some people want to build a better mousetrap. Darren Aronofsky had to build a better spaceship.

"There is no reason a spaceship would be built like a giant truck in space," argues the fillmmaker, not unreasonably. He had cause to debate the issue. His ambitious cosmic fable, The Fountain (in theaters Nov. 22), traces a love story across a thousand years, from 16th-century Spain to contemporary America to interstellar space—which is where the spaceship comes in. As Aronofsky sees it, Hollywood's imagination—driven by pulpier visions of the world of tomorrow—has been sorely lacking in this regard.

"In Star Wars and all these movies we've seen, they've built these ships that look like trucks in space," the director complains. "Early on, we decided we're not going to do that. It's not realistic. Slowly, we realized that the most important thing about traveling through space is the view. You don't want to be looking at a steel wall! You want to be looking at the view, because that's the only thing that's kind of interesting. So why can't it be clear? The most sophisticated evolved form is a sphere. It's completely simple and infinite and represents all the different symbols. So we eventually came up with this idea of traveling through space in a soap bubble."

And so that's what Hugh Jackman's 26th-century astronaut floats in—garbed as if bound for a yoga retreat in a pristine Zen-like biosphere, complete with an ancient tree that bleeds immortality-giving sap—as he approaches a distant star and a final revelation about that mysterious wellspring: the Fountain of Youth.

"I was wondering, 'What is sci-fi gonna be in the 21st century, now that we're living in the future?" Aronofsky explains. "I was thinking about how to make something different. And also reading about conquistadors and stuff, and suddenly the idea about the Fountain of Youth emerged. No one's made a film about the Fountain of Youth, even though it's been in all of our cultures forever, from Genesis to Gilgamesh to Ponce de Leon, there's all these stories about the search for the Fountain of Youth."

It's a far-flung saga, to say the least—and a giant leap forward, in terms of cost and design, from his previous independent efforts, Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000). But Aronofsky never takes the easy route. Both those earlier efforts were jittery with obsessive detail. Pi tackled mathematical theory and Jewish mysticism. Requiem, adapted from Hubert Selby Jr.'s cult novel, anatomized drug addiction. Rather than sketch his cinematic worlds from the outside in, Aronofsky is immersive. He makes bold choices, especially in editing and cinematography, that plunge the viewer into the radically subjective realities of his characters.

"I'm more of a tapestry maker than I am a filmmaker," says the 37-year-old Brooklyn native. "I take different ideas I'm interested in and figure out how to make a puzzle to somehow connect them all."

The Fountain, which veers from hard science to utopian myth, delves into cutting-edge neuroscience, Mayan creation lore, the Spanish Inquisition, avant-garde botany and the crafting of fine stationery, among other things, all rather seamlessly interlaced. An early setback proved an advantage. The film was originally supposed to begin production in 2001, but star Brad Pitt dropped out of the project 17 weeks before shooting. With the studio already $18 million in the hole, The Fountain ran dry. Aronofsky took it in stride. A few months after the collapse, he came up with a new screenplay. "The cheapest version that captured the message and the ideas," he says. "The no-budget version."

By that, he means $40 million. That sum could've ruined a studio 20 years ago, when Michael Cimino made Heaven's Gate. Today, it's chump change—though more money than Aronofsky had ever worked with. Because he has employed the same creative team since Pi, the director was able to make an impressively smooth film that required a lot of complex technical expertise. Because he had to wait three years for Warner Bros. to give him the green light, there was plenty of time to sort through production issues.

"We had to ask ourselves a lot of questions," says Matty Libatique, Aronofsky's cinematographer of choice since they attended the American Film Institute together. "Like: 'How the f— does a nebula work?' You know, you're in space. How far away is the light, and what's it going to look like? One-billionth of the population of the world knows what that scale is. The nuts-and-bolts thing was a great challenge."

Libatique alludes to brainstorming sessions—"think-labs"—that were a bit like "being in your 20s doing bongloads and watching TV … Darren gives all aspects of the process equal value. You need to bring something to the party, or you're not going to be able to play. It's a commitment and investment into the film and your intellect."

The crew screened Werner Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Alejandro Jodoworsky's Holy Mountain for inspiration to recreate a primal rainforest set on a Montreal soundstage. Meanwhile, Harvard neuroscientist Ari Handel came onboard to co-write the script, lending his knowledge on such matters as monkey brains—on which Jackman's present-day persona experiments in an effort to rescue his dying wife, Izzi (Rachel Weisz, Aronofsky's offscreen partner) from a destructive tumor. Perhaps most impressively, Aronofsky spurned the use of CGI to create his magic nebula. Instead, he hired Peter Parks, a British natural history photographer, to take macro-photos of chemical reactions—exotic, yet organic, images that could be magnified and processed to look like a realistic nebula.

"He's using every element to make it an experience," says British rock musician Clint Mansell (of Pop Will Eat Itself), who composed The Fountain's score. The music, performed by Kronos Quartet and Mogwai, was as essential as all the other facets. Rather than come together as an afterthought, which is the case with most films, the score arose as part of the process.

"It's instinct and listening to what the film is telling you it needs," says Mansell, whose pieces, whether somber or ecstatic, had to lend a thematic coherence to a work heavy on metaphysical symbolism—without coming off as New Age pablum. "I wanted to create a mood and allow it to flourish. It's important to feel organic, and not like someone's pulled it out of their ass."

If The Fountain succeeds, Hollywood may have to pay more attention to that credo. Maybe, just maybe, Aronofsky has built a better spaceship.

"Everyone said no to this fillm at least once, including the studio that made it," he says. "Every actor, every actress, everyone turned me down. But it's like my producer said. When everyone tells you no, you must be doing something right."