‘mother!’: director Darren Aronofsky on his surrealist masterpiece’s hidden meaning

The writer and director of 'mother!' waxes lyrical on Jennifer Lawrence, surrealism and his love for The Cure

When mother! premiered this week at Venice Film Festival, it instantly divided people. Some critics even booed, criticising the movie’s showy nature as style over substance. Now the dust has settled and most reviewers have lavished praise on an early frontrunner for Best Picture at next year’s Oscars.

Starring Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role, mother! is the story of an isolated couple whose relationship is tested when uninvited guests arrive at their home, turning their domestic Eden into a surrealist nightmare. If you were hoping for a simple, by-the-numbers thriller, then you’ve got the wrong film. Stuffed with symbolism and hidden meaning, nothing is as it seems in mother! Which is just what writer and director Darren Aronofsky (Black SwanRequiem For A Dream) wanted. We sat down with the man himself to talk Macca, movie scores and J-Law.

You wrote the film in just five days. Where did the inspiration come from?

“It just poured out of me in an unconscious fever. It was like when Paul McCartney wrote ‘Yesterday’ out of a dream and in one afternoon. After it was finished, I showed it to my producers and they were like, ‘Wow, there’s something here.'”

Did you always have Jennifer Lawrence in mind?

“I actually wasn’t thinking about Jennifer at all because I didn’t think she’d be interested. I was focused on trying to capture the spirit and the energy of the character.

After we did cast Jennifer, we started to think about who could play against her in this older, commanding male role. Originally it was going to be a guy in a wheelchair, that’s how old this guy was gonna be. But that wasn’t very sexy so I had to figure out something else. Then Javier [Bardem] became a possibility and that was really exciting.”

What did Jennifer bring to the movie that no one else could?

“She’s an autodidact, which means someone who is self-taught. No one ever taught her how to act and yet, not only is she an incredible emotional actress but she’s a technical actor as well, which is very important in filmmaking because you have to know where the lights are. In this film in particular she is dancing with the camera the whole time. So that’s really impressive about her.

She also puts an endless amount of energy and consideration into everything that she does. This film is two hours long. 66 minutes of it is a close-up of her face. Yet it’s not boring. That’s down to Jen’s performance.”

darren aronofsky interview

Left to right: Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem in mother!, from Paramount Pictures and Protozoa Pictures.

Why isn’t there any music in the film?

“We worked really hard on the score for several months, but all it did was take away from people leaning into what Jennifer was feeling. She was giving us all the score we needed. I couldn’t help her with music and I’ve never had that. Every actor can always use a little push in some way. But Jen didn’t need it.”

The movie was booed recently at Venice Film Festival. Does that upset you?

“I don’t care if they cheer or they freaking boo, as long as they react. This film is like tossing a hand grenade into pop culture. We’re taking the biggest movie stars on the planet and seeing what they do in a surreal chamber piece. Surrealism is very rare nowadays and it’s interesting how many people don’t remember that all movies are dreams – living, waking dreams. That’s one of the great things about cinema.”

Is there a secret meaning only you know?

“It’s completely out there now. It was secret but now there are journalists who have gotten it and they’ve gotten it deep. It’s an allegory. Think about our home, where we are and then reduce that to a small house. She [Jennifer Lawrence] is mother. Not our individual mothers, just our mother. That’s what it’s about.”

We recently asked Bastille to pick their 10 best films of all time – they chose your film ‘Requiem For A Dream’. Does it feel good to be recognised by other artists?

“Yeah it’s great. Getting that kind of shout-out is great. Whether it’s from a musician or any type of artist.”

Why do all your characters undergo such cruelty and violence. Are you a bit sadistic?

“I believe that in looking at the darkest parts of ourselves, that is how we see the light. Tragedy is an art form and I find it very cathartic. I do it to all my characters. Both men and women. I’m not gender specific!”

What does your own mother think about the film?

“She hasn’t seen it yet, but if this film was about my mother it would be the story of Mother Theresa. She is an exceptional lady, a great woman and they’re not at all related.”

We’ve heard you love The Cure. What’s your favourite song?

“I like ‘A Forest’. It’s a great fucking song. They’re a great band. I remember when everyone else was listening to disco and I was getting into The Cure. I guess I resist popular culture just a pinch and look for the edges.”

mother! is out September 15