This past weekend, MOTHER! director/writer Darren Aronosky (AFI Class of 1992), cinematographer Matthew Libatique (AFI Class of 1992) and production designer Philip Messina presented and discussed their provocative film with AFI Conservatory Fellows on campus. The film stars Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence as a couple whose idyllic existence in a sprawling Victorian house — which she is painstakingly remaking — is disrupted by the brazen arrival of a pair of strangers, played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer.
Aronofsky and Libatique first met as AFI Conservatory Fellows in the early 1990s, and have maintained a very close collaboration ever since. Their films have included Aronosky’s auspicious debut PI (1998), REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000), THE FOUNTAIN (2006), the Oscar-nominated BLACK SWAN (2010) and NOAH (2014). With MOTHER!, they have made one of their most bold and challenging works yet.
“As a filmmaker you always want to ignite. We were always aware that this was a punch at the audience,” Aronofsky said. “Matty [Libatique] called it a reflection and a cautionary tale and that’s hardcore. When you put something up like that, there are going to be a lot of people who tell you ‘go f— yourself.’ That’s why there’s all this conversation out there. It’s the type of film where, in a couple days, it will mean something different.”
In ways that slowly come together as the movie unfolds, MOTHER! takes beats from the Old Testament, a text which has long fascinated Aronofsky as seen in his cosmic romance THE FOUNTAIN and Biblical adaptation NOAH. “There are great stories in The Bible. They are some of the oldest stories that are still in print, and still being talked about. They belong to everyone, the way a world heritage site belongs to everyone,” he said. “Fighting over whether they really happened or not is, I think, a just a waste of time. But there is power in story, and there is power in these stories because they’ve been being told for so long and refined and changed and interpreted in so many different ways.”
Despite big themes of love, devotion, sacrifice and celebrity, the film is confined almost entirely to the perspective of Jennifer Lawrence’s character. “Darren has always been interested in subjectivity with the camera. Even when we were, the conversation at the beginning of PI was like this: How are we going to stay in the mind of the character?” said Libatique, who shot MOTHER! in 16mm. “The earthiness that we get out of 16mm all goes toward funneling everything toward this main character.”
The film is also entirely tethered to the house inhabited by Lawrence and Bardem. Production designer Messina put an emphasis on organic materials to make it feel like a living, breathing thing.
“It was color and material. One thing Darren and I know talked about early on is that there is a truth in the material,” Messina said. “That’s why the wood’s all stripped. There’s no paint. The plaster is raw plaster. There’s no surface. It is its intrinsic element. There are no synthetic materials in the house at all except the phone.”
Aronofsky describes MOTHER! as the kind of bold, experimental studio feature we don’t often see anymore. “The ’70s made things hyper-real with Scorsese and Coppola and all my heroes, and the ’80s and ’90s leaned into fantasy. A lot of the dream state of film kind of got lost. There are some filmmakers who work in that world, but it’s not that common to see Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem in a film like this.”
He added that casting came together easily, with Lawrence on board even before seeing the script. “She read the script and had a very visceral reaction to it and decided to do it. It was pretty easy casting around her because people want to work with her.”
The film takes unexpected, escalating twists and turns that are impossible to reveal without spoiling Aronofsky’s vision. “I think that’s one of the cool things about filmmaking, which is where s— gets crazy,” he said. “As an audience, people are just pummeled, and that’s the intent.”
Aronofsky said that he expects reactions to be divided, and that audiences will have polarized responses to the film’s disturbing frenzy of sounds and image. “There is a comedy of manners going on that, when I wrote it, there would be people that would laugh at that, but it’s not your typical kind of laughter,” he said, referencing the early setup of the film in which the home is invaded by increasingly rude guests. “I think there are people that, I wouldn’t say are laughing at the filmmaking but with the filmmaking, with the outrageousness and how far we’re pushing things.”
Watch an exclusive clip from the seminar on Indiewire.com.
MOTHER! is now in theaters.