Originality only happens on the edges of reality

DARREN ARONOFSKY is the award-winning filmmaker behind cult classic films such as Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Wrestler. His first film, 1998’s Pi, won him early plaudits and a Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival. He is perhaps best known for Black Swan, which was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. His biblically inspired epic Noah opened at #1 at the box office and grossed more than $362 million worldwide. His latest movie is mother!, a psychological horror-thriller film starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem.

What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
I was a terrified freshman walking through the library my first year at university, when I saw the word Brooklyn out of the corner of my eye. Being from Brooklyn and for the first extended time away from my hometown, I was immediately interested. I slipped Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn off the shelf and devoured it in a single night. I had never seen anyone attack the page like he did. He deeply inspired me to write, which eventually led me to my form of storytelling. Eventually I would make another one of his books, Requiem for a Dream, into a film and even get pretty close to him as a dear friend.

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
Every single film I have ever made was at first met with a chorus of “no”s. It led my producer at the time to even come up with the quote, “When everyone is saying no, you know you’re doing something right.” So I think all success starts with tremendous rejection, and being able to look past those attacks is key.

What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)?
I bought a really good spatula. It’s amazing what the right tool can do to your breakfast. [Note from Tim: I got a photo of Darren’s spatula, and it looks like the very well-reviewed and <$10 Winco TN719 Blade Hamburger Turner.]

What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”?
Most of the game is about persistence. It is the most important trait. Sure, when you get an opportunity, you have to perform and you have to exceed beyond all expectations, but getting that chance is the hardest part. So keep the vision clear in your head and every day refuse all obstacles to get to the goal.

When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?

I was blessed with parents who always said to me when I left them to go off to work, “have fun” and “don’t work too hard.” It gave me permission to excuse myself when it’s just not happening. I think procrastination is a major part of the creative path. If you think you are just wasting time in general, even though you may not know it, your mind and body are solving problems you can’t face head on. So it’s okay to take a walk, get lost in a bookshop, watch a movie, or go for a swim (just don’t get lost on your phone).

What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
If you put ten people in a room and they have to choose an ice cream flavor, they’re gonna arrive at vanilla. There is always constant pressure to conform. But originality only happens on the edges of reality. And working on that line is always dangerous because it’s only a short step to disconnected insanity. So resist temptations and advice to play to the middle. The best work always comes from pushing the edge.

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