Darren Aronofsky’s nightmarish thriller Mother! lost out at the box office this weekend to a much more traditional one-word horror film, It. Even so, there’s little doubt that Mother!, a violent biblical allegory that was greeted with awe and bewilderment by critics, is a film that audiences will be discussing, dissecting, and arguing about for a very long time. During the press junket for Mother! (which stars Jennifer Lawrence as the title character, Javier Bardem as her unnamed husband, and Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris as their mysterious, uninvited houseguests), Yahoo Entertainment had the opportunity to present Aronofsky with some of our burning questions. Here, a spoiler-filled Q&A that addresses whether Bardem is a villain, what Mother! has to do with The Giving Tree, and how Kristen Wiig (whose character is credited as “herald”) ended up in the film’s jaw-dropping third act.
You recently endorsed Shel Silverstein’s book The Giving Tree on Twitter. Is Mother! a dark version of The Giving Tree?
I think The Giving Tree is really dark. I’m sorry! It’s amazing that that is one of the best-selling children’s books of all time. It’s really, really a sad story, and I remember reading it the first time for my child and getting to the end going, “What? That’s the end?” [Laughs] Because I didn’t remember it from my own childhood. I think Shel is an incredible poet, and we were very aware of it when we were making this movie, because we were telling a story that had similar ideas behind it.
Some reviews have wondered if you are speaking from the point of view of the poet (aka Him, played by Javier Bardem). Do you think the poet is defensible?
Hmmm, that’s a good question. I don’t think I’m condoning his behavior in any way. No, I’ve always seen him as the bad guy, but I think Javier was a genius in complicating that, because he does have so much love for Mother and he does care about her. And he kept really pushing that. And I was open to it, knowing, though, that [Javier was] eventually going to be the bad guy. Eventually it’s going to turn bad. But I thought it was interesting to create villains that are complex, because they’re much more interesting. And that was his instinct, and I thought it was very, very, very smart.
Why is Kristen Wiig in this movie?
I don’t want to talk about it too much because it’s a bit of a spoiler. I love that it’s a surprise. But I just needed someone for that role, and I thought, the way I explain it is the film is very much kind of dream logic, or nightmare logic, and within dreams and nightmares sometimes certain faces pop in and you’re like, “Why was Barack Obama in my dream last night?” or “What was Oprah Winfrey doing there?” [Laughs] But that thing happens for people, and I kind of liked the idea that the audience for a second is like, “Whoa! What’s — this is —” and then just gets lost in it. So for me it’s just entertainment value, because the bottom line for me is, I’m trying to keep an audience at the edge of their seat for two hours. So I’m happy to use all bells and whistles to get that done.
I read a write-up that pointed out how references to the Ten Commandments were scattered throughout the film. I’m wondering if there are other little, hidden things that people can look for on a second viewing.
Can you give us some hints?
I think the real way to start is by looking at the credits. The credits have a lot of hints. And once you figure out what everyone represents, it will all unfold. But every single detail, even lines of dialogue, is taken from the most famous book in the world.
I really want to know what’s in the medicine bottle that Jennifer Lawrence keeps drinking.
That’s the one question I don’t answer.
What do you do to make sure your stars aren’t traumatized making the film like I was, watching it?
[Laughs] Sorry! It’s a very different situation on a film set because things are done in pieces. It’s no way the same experience you have when you watch it and you add all these pieces together. When you’re doing different fragments, it’s just a single emotion for 10 seconds to 40 seconds. So you call “Cut,” someone like Jen Lawrence is very much like a light-switch actor — you say “Action,” she’s on, you say “Cut,” her whole body language changes; she grabs a copy of Wuthering Heights and starts reading in a corner. She is like that, Javier is like that, Michelle and Ed, of course, are like that — so you don’t have to worry about their safety when you’re dealing with actors like that.
Jennifer Lawrence on the perils of breastfeeding an animatronic baby in ‘Mother!’:
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