'Give a Shit,' and Other SXSW Film Commandments from Darren Aronofksy

Darren Aronofsky

In this year’s SXSW keynote address, filmmaker Darren Aronofsky shared his ten commandments for independent filmmakers.

The biggest takeaway from Darren Aronofsky’s keynote at this year’s SXSW is that Matthew Libatique is in a whole lot of trouble. The cinematographer, who was worked with Aronofsky on every feature film minus The Wrestler, was a frequent source of good-humored frustration for his director; several times throughout the talk, Aronofsky would attempt to single out Libatique for a bit of praise to discover that he was still not in attendance. This bit of good-natured ribbing provided a nice little throughline for the director’s speech on surviving – and thriving – in the independent film industry.

At the beginning of his talk, Aronofsky noted that the biggest challenge for him of being a young independent filmmaker was actually figuring out how to bring the movie to life. “I had this short film that I really wanted to promote that I made in college,” Aronfosky explains, “but there was no uploading to the internet, where people can click on your Vimeo link and decide if you’re in their festival or not.” To that end, Aronofsky created what he described as the 10 Commandments of Independent Film, a loose group of rules that would help shape his career. Here are each of Aronofsky’s commandments, with a few notes from the director on each.

“Make the Film Only You Can Make.”

For Aronofsky, every part of himself can be found on the screen. “I’m in every one of my films,” he explains. “I try whenever I write and create those characters to instill them with my take on what’s going on.” This is why the director admires other creators who dream up films that only they could bring to life. And that is why Aronofsky argues, you should never begin by writing things you think audiences want to see. “You can’t end up trying to figure out what people want to see because there are huge corporations trying to do that for you.”

“Persistence Is Nine-Tenths of the Game.”

Or close to that, anyway. “I don’t think it’s really nine-tenths of the game, but it sounds better than seven-tenths of the game,” Arofonsky deadpans before describing his own struggles to get several of his films made. In one instance, the filmmaker was notified during a date that his budget on The Fountain had been cut in half by the studio; he went back to the table and burst into tears. Rather than give up, however, Aronofsky went back to the drawing board and reworked the film for the new budget. “The more people who tell you no, the more you know you’re doing something right.”

“Work With Family.”

It was at this point in the keynote that Aronofsky asked – not for the first time – if Libatique was in attendance, before promising to skip his panel later this afternoon in retaliation. That joke aside, Aronofsky explains his approach to a film set: working not as the parental figure for a group of creatives, but as a trusted friend and collaborator. “It’s all about, hey, let’s try to do something that hasn’t been done before,” Aronofsky explains. “Let’s try to push ourselves and each other and just try to do stuff that we’ll be proud of. And the only way to do that is as a family.”

“Do Your Homework So You Can Be Open on Set.”

Pre-production is one of the most important components of filmmaking for Aronofsky. Not only did the director storyboard out every shot in The Fountain – creating a pre-visualization of his movie at a time where that was anything but a common practice – he also rehearsed with his mother! leads for months before actually shooting the film. While your mileage may vary, for Aronofsky, this preparation allows him to feel prepared in moments of frustration, even if that means walking away. “You have to allow for procrastination.”

“Adapt To Reality. Make Your Limitations Into Advantages.”

Most independent filmmakers aren’t going to have the resources of a studio film, which has led Aronofsky to make a career out of turning limitations into creative strengths. In The Wrestler, for example, the filmmaker chose to shoot his movie in a cinema verite style that not only fit the narrative but also kept costs low. Perhaps as a result of this, Aronofsky hates coverage and prefer to do everything with a single camera. “There’s only one place where the camera should be in every scene,” he explains. “And it’s your job as the filmmaker to figure out where that is. The camera’s always telling the story. The camera’s always a participant.”

Don’t Be Afraid of Your Actors.”

Coming to filmmaking through less collaborative artforms – Aronofsky mentions his love of literature and sculpture through the keynote – it should come as no surprise that the less-collaborative elements of filmmaking came easiest to him. “I think editing came very natural to me, and the camera came very natural to me, but I had no idea what was going on with actors,” he admits. This was something that Aronofsky had to overcome in order to ask the kind of performances from his talent that he knew he needed. “You want actors to be in a sandbox where they can create and go for it. And they can fall, and they can make mistakes, and they feel that they can trust you.”

“Where Is My Audience?”

For Aronofsky, this one is simple: a first-time filmmaker should always remember what it is the audience will be seeing. “The job is, between action and cut, to be the audience,” he explains. “To be completely present, to channel and see what’s happening in front of you.” To that end, you should always be looking for the emotion and ensuring that you are seeing on set what you’re asking your audience to see with the finished product.

“Commit To the Vision. See It Through to the End.”

This is another area where an artistic aim can also have a practical side effect, and vice-versa. For Aronofsky, a visionary filmmaker – someone who tells a story that only they could deliver – is somewhat immune to having their project taken away from them. “That was the nice thing about being a filmmaker who tries to do things their own way,” Aronofsky says. “You can’t really be recut. If you put seven cameras on the scene, there are lots of options, but if you’re actually sculpting each shot, they’re being sculpted so that they fit together as a whole.”

“Let Your Child Go.”

“You never finish a film, you abandon a film.” For Aronofsky, this is something he has struggled with throughout his career, continuing to tinker on movies like The Fountain long past the point of diminishing returns. The most difficult thing to do is to walk away from a movie when you still feel there are additional tweaks or changes you can do, but keeping that creative energy focused on what can have the biggest impact is pretty important. “If you go back to it, you’re taking away time that should be spent on a new piece.”

“Give a Shit.”

For his final commandment, Aronofsky reads directly from his notes in an effort not to forget anything. “With all the stuff going on, you have no excuse for making empty films,” he concludes. “Focus on human love and not human violence. Never stick a gun in a movie star’s hands. Fuck the naysayers and try to help change the world.”

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Matthew is a feature writer for Film School Rejects and a freelance film critic at the Austin Chronicle. His writing can be found at /Film, RogerEbert.com, Playboy, and more.