The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents December 2010 Return to Table of Contents
Black Swan
Page 2
Page 3
Resident Evil-Afterlife
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Directing Black Swan

Even before this project came around, I was very interested in doing a movie set in the ballet world. My sister was a dancer when we were kids, so I grew up with it in the house. I’ve always been interested in unique, interesting worlds, and the ballet world definitely felt different. Few filmmakers have dealt with it in a serious way, so I started looking into it. At the same time, I was working on a film version of Dostoevsky’s The Double, about a man who wakes up to discover that his doppelgänger is taking over his life. Then I went to see Swan Lake, which involves a black swan and a white swan played by the same dancer, and that’s when everything came together in my head.

The original ballet of Swan Lake is a very Gothic tale, as it’s about a woman who actually transforms into a swan — by night she’s half-swan, half-human. So very early on, I knew this would be a type of werewolf movie. That concept motivated all the Gothic overtones we eventually incorporated into the look. We weren’t really paying homage to anything specific, but Matty and I definitely drew on a lot of our influences: Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and The Tenant, David Cronenberg, the Dardennes for the camera style, and, of course, The Red Shoes.

We wanted to update Swan Lake and make it more modern, and we were working with choreographer Benjamin Millepied of the New York City Ballet. I would explain to him what I wanted, especially in terms of the emotions I was trying to draw out of the actors, and he would turn those emotions into movement. Natalie Portman danced till she was 13, which was actually pretty important, because early training allows your body to sort of get back to it. A lot of professional dancers have been doing it since they were 5 years old, and their bodies actually transform. If Natalie hadn’t had that background, and then a year of training before we started, she could never have done it.

I used Super 16mm on The Wrestler [AC Jan. ’09] because I wanted to use a cinema vérité feel to tell a story about a pro wrestler, and I really enjoyed the long, sweeping takes that were possible when we just had a man with a camera following the actors. I thought it would be interesting to bring that approach to the ballet world because it would really capture the energy onstage. We wanted to bring the camera right onto the stage and make it dance along with the dancers. We were very nervous about mixing a vérité approach with the horror aspects of the film, because we thought the documentary feel might destroy the suspense of those scenes. We tried to find other films that had taken a similar approach, but we couldn’t, so we just decided to roll the dice.

We used a lot of close-ups. For me, the close-up is one of the great inventions of the 20th century; it allows an audience to sit in a dark room and stare into the eyes of a person who’s emoting without being self-conscious. I’m always about getting close to the actors and feeling their emotions and their presence.

Mirrors are omnipresent in the film, as they are in the landscape of the dancer. When dancers are training, they’re constantly observing themselves in mirrors, so I knew that would be a big visual motif. People have used mirror gags in all kinds of movies, so we tried to figure out creepy and weird ways to use them in new ways. Sometimes those shots involved visual effects; there are almost 300 effects shots in the movie. The visual-effects supervisor, Dan Schrecker at Look Effects, has worked on a bunch of my films. We were actually college roommates, and we used to run an effects company, Amoeba Proteus. Now I collaborate with him through Look Effects, and it’s worked out really well.

I don’t think my relationship with Matty has changed that much over the years. We’ve both become so busy that there’s less time to just hang out, but our work relationship is very similar to the way it’s always been. We clicked in film school; we were among the youngest kids in the school and came from similar backgrounds, so we had a very easy rapport, and that’s continued through all of our films together. We now have more experiences together to draw upon, so we can say, ‘Let’s try to do what we did with that other thing,’ or ‘Let’s not screw this up like we screwed that up.’ We have a lot of common references.

I think both of us have found that as you become more experienced, you get more relaxed, and that allows you to accomplish more. There’s less adrenaline, and you’re more present.


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