Filmed under a veil of complete secrecy, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! opens in cinemas across the UAE today. James Mottram looks at other movies shot this way, and the impact it has had on their subsequent success
Keeping secrets: Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! opens in cinemas across the UAE
Before Darren Aronofsky’s new movie Mother! had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival last month, critics were rightly intrigued. A home-invasion tale, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, this latest psychological thriller from the director of Black Swan and The Wrestler had been shot under a veil of secrecy. The first trailer was just a black screen with random snatches of dialogue. The second, despite having visuals, gave almost nothing away, other than the fact that this was most certainly not going to be a romantic comedy.
For those who have managed to avoid the bare essentials, Mother! is the story of a couple – a writer played by Bardem and his much younger homemaker partner (Lawrence). Neither are given names. Living in a beautiful, isolated house, their seemingly perfect lives are disrupted when unexpected guests – played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer – come to stay. That is about as much as you can glean from sparse pre-release publicity information, although it barely covers even the first third of an increasingly schizophrenic film.
Early word had it that Mother! was bonkers. A PR agent, who had seen it early, told me that the final act was insane and he fully expected it to cause major controversy in Venice. In the end, he was half-right. The finale is completely crazy; an indescribable assault on the senses – an apocalyptic blend of horror, humour and satire. Immediately, it was a love-it-or-hate-it sort of film. There was no middle ground, no sitting on the fence, which may account for why it was kept under wraps.
Aronofsky was particularly coy in the run-up to the Venice premiere. “It’s a cruise missile shooting into the wall, this film,” he told New York magazine. “I want audiences to be prepared for that and prepped that it’s a very intense ride.” Suggestions that the film was nodding to Roman Polanski’s occult classic Rosemary’s Baby were not exactly wide of the mark, but something of a decoy. Mother! is its own unique thing, but the expected controversy never quite arose.
In the end, the box office for Mother! was hugely disappointing, with a global haul of US$39 million (Dh143.33m) to date, just north of its $30m budget. Hardly a disaster, but when you consider the $329m that Black Swan made around the world, you can see why executives at studio backers Paramount must be doing a lot of soul-searching. After all, here was a film driven by two Oscar winners and one of the world’s most celebrated directors. What went wrong?
Perhaps the secrecy that surrounded the film did for it. Rightly or wrongly, audiences these days are used to being spoon-fed trailers, clips and other elements of a carefully orchestrated marketing campaign; the element of surprise – especially when you are paying for the privilege of watching a movie – isn’t always welcome. The same could be said for another secrecy-enshrouded project, Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi masterpiece. The film has struggled at the American box office in particular, making just $31.5m on its opening weekend.
When the film was finally screened to the press, a “polite” request from Villeneuve was read out, asking critics to keep plot details absent from their reviews to allow paying audiences to experience the film in the same unspoilt manner. It was understandable, with the filmmakers and cast remaining tight-lipped in the run-up to release. But given that Blade Runner is now 35 years old, meaning younger generations may only be dimly aware of the original, perhaps holding so much back from casual viewers was a mistake.
Villeneuve remains adamant that keeping filmgoers in the dark is a vital part of the experience. “I always loved secrecy,” he told me. “I always loved that people knew as little as possible. They will go into the cinema and discover the movie. But today with the internet, people want so much to know … I don’t understand really why. Apart from being excited … it diminishes your pleasure as a viewer.”
For Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve was more than happy to play along with the studio-ordered secrecy. “I liked the idea because it will be more interesting for the audience.”
In many ways, this covert behaviour runs counter to typical Hollywood wisdom: shout about your film as loudly and blatantly as possible. Only a privileged few directors get to keep their movie hush-hush, doubtless based on their past reputations and the sway they hold over the studios. A good example is Christopher Nolan, notably on his own sci-fi project, Interstellar, which took the theories of physicist Kip Thorne and spun them into a time-bending space adventure.
Nolan’s approach filters through to his collaborators, who similarly operate on a code of silence. “People misunderstand,” says his regular composer Hans Zimmer, who was nominated for an Oscar for Interstellar. “They think we’re secretive in the Chris Nolan world. We’re not secretive in a horrible way. Don’t you think … there are no surprises left? When you go and see something, when you go and hear something … there’s nothing new anymore. Everybody knows everything, so nobody gets to experience anything anymore.”
Frequently compared to Stanley Kubrick, Nolan may well have learnt from the master. Kubrick increasingly worked in secrecy, notably on his 1999 swansong Eyes Wide Shut, which was shot at Pinewood Studios in England for a year, stirring up all sorts of rumours about the then-married co-stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Put it down to the power of imagination, but the end result – as brilliant as it was – was rather tamer than one might have expected, given the hush-hush build-up.
In many ways, the master of modern-day secrecy is J J Abrams. From Lost to the made-under-the-radar monster movies Cloverfield and its spin-off 10 Cloverfield Lane, Abrams has learnt exactly how to tease audiences. Release just enough information to draw them in, then rely on viral marketing. As he said when Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released: “My instinct is to typically keep things quiet … but the truth is, I want to make sure that the fans aren’t feeling like we are holding back for the sake of it.” It is a lesson Aronofsky may well need to learn.