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NewCityNet Pi Charted

Unlocking a modern mad-scientist tale

By Ray Pride

AUGUST 3, 1998:  Cyberpunk lives and thrives in Darren Aronofsky's "pi," a relentless, pulsating paranoid thriller about chaos, Kabbalah, Wall Street and the music of numbers.

The 28-year-old American Film Institute graduate, who won the director's award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, found his $60,000 high-contrast black-and-white film the subject of a bidding war, and it went to its distributor for more than a million dollars. The 28-year-old self-avowed "science fiction guy" says the movies in his head are of far greater scale than the usual indiefilm "vision." A few days before we talked, Aronofsky sealed a $600,000 pay- or-play deal with Miramax's Dimension films to direct "Proteus," a big-budget historical sci-fi thriller that takes place on an American submarine during World War II. (He and his co-writer got $300,000 upfront against a $600,000 back-end price for their screenplay as well.) On Tuesday, a deal was announced for Aronofsky to adapt Frank Miller's DC samurai comic "Ronin" for New Line either before or after "Proteus"; that writing-directing deal could go as high as $1.3 million. That's a big leap for a director who cut his entire crew in for substantial shares of the producers' profits - in the then-unlikely case there would ever be any.

"Pi" tempts sensory overload at every turn, with rapid-fire editing, the extremes of black-and-white in cinematographer Matthew Libatique's inventive images, and a propulsive techno score by former Pop Will Eat Itself frontman Clint Mansell, stretching over eighty of the film's eighty-five minutes and becoming the heartbeat thrumming in the protagonist's overloaded brain.

The story is rife with metaphors, taking place partly on the streets of a dirty, angry Manhattan and partly in a room of components turned into a supercomputer named Euclid - a seething, claustrophobic metaphor for its protagonist's migraine-ridden head. Provocative images cling to your mind as you watch: An ant ambles along a wide, flat computer cable that resembles the unbroken infinity of a Moebius strip. The immense, stories-high stock ticker that runs on Broadway becomes a quantification of money streaming across the night sky, all in what Aronofsky calls "a black or white film."

As I enter his hotel room, the hyper Aronofsky is bent over his new Mac G3 laptop, perusing the intricate website for the film (www.pithemovie.com) designed by its star, Sean Gullette. Aronofsky enthuses about his new toy, "the only luxury" he says he's allowed himself from his recent successes. In "pi," Max Cohen (Gullette) is about to have a breakthrough and a breakdown, as ten years of work seem about to reveal a numerical pattern running under the stock markets, the ultimate system of ordered chaos. While there's a Wall Street firm ready to kill for the formula, so is a Kabbalah sect that believes Max's work will unlock their ancient holy texts and bring on the end of the world.

Before telling his crew he was giving them a piece of the producer's fees, how did he explain this story to them? "It's about God, math and bad-ass Jews," he says, laughing. "The distributor used 'faith and chaos' instead. Twenty-four words or less: It's a sci-fi thriller about a renegade mathematician searching for numerical order in the New York Stock Exchange. I didn't mention anything about the Kabbalah. Now I might say it's a ninety-minute roller-coaster ride about the meaning of life. It is hard to describe."

While there are resemblances to earlier movies such as Welles' "The Trial," Aronofsky is more likely to cite the Frank Miller's graphic novels, and the writings of Philip K. Dick and Rod Serling. "Story-story-story" is at the core of movies that he likes. "The bottom line is that 'pi' is a thriller, a chase movie. That's why I don't like comparisons to 'Eraserhead.' They look similar, maybe, but Lynch's film is totally expressionistic and doesn't have a narrative. I'm a total narrative junkie. That's what I aspire to - well-made stories. Stories that actually move. I want my ninety minutes of distraction, I want my ninety minutes of taking a roller-coaster ride. That was the core. 'pi' had to have a thriller [element] before I could add any of the esoteric material." While exploiting mathematical history, Aronofsky says that "ultimately it's not a math movie. The math [in our story] is the cool math. This is a mad scientist story, a retelling of the Frankenstein myth for the digital age. Instead of the monster, we have Euclid, Max's supercomputer." Aronofsky is keen to admit he draws inspiration from any source he can. "For me, writing is a jigsaw puzzle. I take things I think are cool or experiences that are very interesting, things I've read, I try to shuffle the deck, make my own mixture that becomes my movie out of everything I've experienced."

But it always comes back to story. "Everything has to tie into the essential theme, and if doesn't you need to cut it away." He sees "pi" as "an extremely commercial movie," citing the worldwide bestsellers "The Celestine Prophecy" and "Bible Codes," a book about Kabbalah, as proof. "I think everyone is interested in themes that are covered in 'pi,' and that is the star of our movie, the concepts. Since we crawled out of the primordial soup, we've asked why are we here, what's the meaning of life, is there a God, what is God, who is God, where is God? That is the core and essence of 'pi.' I think audiences around the world are going to dig that."

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