Darren Aronofsky discusses his dark, audacious new movie starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem.
Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence star in "mother!"
Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence star in "mother!"
Paramount Pictures

Despite the caginess surrounding the movie’s development, Darren Aronofsky and Jennifer Lawrence are ready to tell you what “mother!” is about.

Specifically, they’re not hesitating to outline the story’s defining parable, which can’t be gleaned from the trailers. “I don’t see the allegory as a spoiler,” Lawrence said Sunday during a press conference at the ongoing Toronto Film Festival, where “mother!” screened.

The movie’s marketing ― including a poster that emulates “Rosemary’s Baby” ― presents “mother!” as a home-invasion horror of nightmarish proportions. That’s an apt logline, except it shortchanges how layered the film actually is.

Aronofsky, whose credits include the similarly dark “Requiem for a Dream” and “Black Swan,” wrote “mother!” in five days, alone in his house, conjuring biblical ideas presented in Genesis and Revelation. Casting Lawrence, whom he’s since begun dating, and Javier Bardem as a married couple living in a remote mansion, the director concealed the plot from the public until its first trailer debuted in late July. Even then, a certain mystery remained. The only obvious story line involved another couple (Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris) arriving unannounced, much to Lawrence’s character’s vexation.

It’s easy to see why secrecy was key: “mother!” is a scorched-earth thrill ride brimming with metaphor upon metaphor. Audiences wouldn’t have the same experience had they known months ago what the movie contained. Now that studios tease out details from tentpole projects well before they open in theaters, the cryptic nature of “mother!” has been refreshing. It’s an art-house firestorm that will shock, and perhaps infuriate, audiences when it opens Friday in wide release. What a beautiful thing to behold.

It’s hard to discuss “mother!” with anyone who hasn’t seen it. Hell, it’s hard to discuss with anyone who has seen it. But I did exactly that with Aronofsky in Toronto on Monday. Our conversation is general enough not to contain spoilers, though I recommend revisiting it after seeing the film. But first, let’s talk scarves.

Darren Aronofsky arrives at the Torono Film Festival premiere of "mother!" on Sept. 10.
Darren Aronofsky arrives at the Torono Film Festival premiere of "mother!" on Sept. 10.
Rick Madonik via Getty Images

You’re wearing a signature Darren Aronofsky scarf. Are you aware that people are into your scarves? People being the internet.

[Laughs and looks confused] Look, I wear scarves, truly, because the weakness of my body is my throat. Whenever I get a cold, it starts in my throat, so it’s purely a Band-Aid. But I’m making the best of it, so thank you very much.

Since the press screening on Sunday morning, I feel like everyone here has been swapping notes about their interpretations of the movie. There are a lot of readings, which begs an admittedly broad question: Is there a wrong interpretation?

I think anyone who thinks that it’s darkness for darkness’s sake is a wrong interpretation. They’re not really thinking. There’s no way we’re condoning violence in this film.

Is that the response you’re hearing?

Oh yeah. We knew that as soon as you throw a punch out at the audience, certain people get angry and punch back. And that’s not at all the intention. The intention is from one of my teachers and mentors, Hubert Selby Jr., who wrote “Requiem for a Dream”: “By exploring the darkness, you explore the light.”

This in no way condones the violence that it’s showing and the horror that it’s showing. It’s a reflection. It’s a cautionary tale. It’s a tragedy that’s supposed to lead to catharsis. And you realize that all these characters have an insatiable appetite that needs to be filled with consumption. As soon as you recognize that they’re all kinds of tragic characters, it kind of frees you up to go, “Oh, there are larger ideas here.” We always knew there were several metaphorical strains going through it, and that’s great. We want people to talk about it and question it. That, for me, is a big win. But I completely have an intent with the film.

And when you say “intent,” you mean the allegory? The idea that Javier Bardem’s writer character, who is the dominant force in the characters’ home, is a Judeo-Christian God figure?

There’s the Judeo-Christian stuff, but that was really more of a structural thing. For me, it was about telling the story of Mother Nature and giving the audience this subjective experience of what it was like to be the giver of life. I was inspired by [Mexican filmmaker Luis Buñuel], who basically, in “The Exterminating Angel,” took a dinner party and locked everyone up in a room and gave a reflection on society. I thought, Hey, that’s a really clever idea: to reduce this global experience we’re all having on this planet and turn it into a single home. Because throwing out a piece of trash in the streets of Manhattan — you just would never do that in your home. That’s a thing you learn in kindergarten. But once it’s in your own home, you can relate to it.

You’re implying a more ecological view than I was expecting to discuss, which proves how many threads the movie has. There’s also a metaphor about the creation of art. Bardem’s character is a poet figure with hordes of devotees feasting on his work, while Jennifer Lawrence is just hanging around renovating their home. Did you intend to posit the idea of the artist as god?

Yeah. That’s great that you leaned into that. That’s there, too. And that’s the type of film this is. It’s very mysterious when you walk into it. You think it’s one type of picture, and then it shifts and you go, “Oh, it’s this type of picture.” It becomes something else. I think it’s OK to have many interpretations.

Look, people talk about how there should be room in writing to have different interpretations. I think cinema, especially out of Hollywood, has gotten very narrow in trying to get as many people to have one experience as possible. I’ve always been here for the rickety rides, the rides where every time you go on them they’re just a little bit different. Everyone can talk about their own experience when they go on it. In this, to me, there’s a lot of dream logic — or, more likely, nightmare logic. And it’s really a ride for those who want to basically think and to talk and have a different experience at the cinema.

Jennifer Lawrence and Darren Aronofsky film a scene from "mother!"
Jennifer Lawrence and Darren Aronofsky film a scene from "mother!"
Paramount Pictures

When thinking about the toiling-artist implications in “mother!,” a natural assumption would be to view Bardem as a surrogate for yourself.

I see the connection. When I did “Black Swan,” everyone asked me if I was the Vincent Cassel character. The truth is, I was the ballerina. And I’ve never wrestled a day in my life, but I was the wrestler [in “The Wrestler”]. I was the conquistador in “The Fountain,” and I was the math wiz in “Pi.” I connect to all these characters.

As a filmmaker, though, you are basically a selfish narcissist for about three months every two or three years, when you’re actually making the movie and you’re working 20-hour days. Personally, I call my friends and family and say, “Hey, I’m disappearing for the next three months.” But then filmmaking is a 9-to-5 job where you can go to work and come back and be a parent. It’s a nice balance. But I do kind of feel what it’s like to get lost in the work. I do get lost in my work. Drawing a character that really is one of those driven creators is just an exaggeration, in the same way that [Lawrence’s character’s] caregiving is an exaggeration of myself as well. So I think it’s very easy to see the male ego in the movie and critique that. I’m very aware of that, but I think it really comes from a defense of her. That was the idea: to really give the audience a sense of her.

I think the one thing everyone can agree on is that your sympathy is exclusively with her character.

Oh yeah.

That’s a complicated idea when thinking about the movie from your perspective. Bardem’s writer gets lost in his own work, to the point of ignoring or rejecting his partner’s wishes. And here you are casting your own partner in the movie.

She wasn’t my partner at the time, to be fair. But yeah, I really wanted the audience to be inside of Jennifer’s head and to experience that pain from her side. And if you think about it from that ecological point of view, it’s very, very similar. The nice thing about the film is you can definitely watch it again and see it in different ways. I think that’s what allows for the violence and that intensity of pain. It’s very truthful to what’s going on right now.

But, first and foremost, the thing we wanted to make was an exciting, scary film. That’s why I leaned into the home-invasion genre. I know once you have a genre-esque framework, you could put all these big, lofty ideas. But at the core of it, people can enjoy it as a home-invasion film, which is anything from “Night of the Living Dead” to “Straw Dogs” to “The Purge.” It’s all these movies where people are trying to break into your home and take what belongs to you and take away your safety. It’s something everyone understands.

In “Black Swan,” I knew that it was scary to lose your identity. That would be very scary for people, to wake up one day and someone is trying to replace your life. That was the core of “Black Swan.” With this one, I’m hoping people will connect with the idea that it’s scary to lose your home and your partner.

You must have had some bad houseguests along the years.

[Laughs] You know what, you’re actually the first person to think: Is there anything autobiographical there? Actually, the only bad houseguest I’ve had [...] once came and rearranged his guest room. It was pretty hilarious.

The element that makes “mother!” an effective home-invasion thriller is the sound design. The house sounds like it’s alive as Lawrence moves through it. It reminded me of “Repulsion,” the Roman Polanski movie.

Oh, interesting. I didn’t really study that for this, but I’m sure we were working with the same kind of ideas, which are about how to create a subjective universe for everything to reflect back. Because there’s no score in our film, which is really kind of weird and rare, I really had to use the kind of expressiveness of sound design to bring the audience into her experience.

“mother!” opens Sept. 15.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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