But it's still messing with you on so many levels. Like Burstyn's skittering hallucinations in Requiem , The Fountain 's most haunting images linger in the mind long after the credits roll. When Tomas reaches toward the tree of life, golden filaments bristle and rise to meet his fingers. At the film's climax, Tom and his bubble are blown through galactic clouds and pillars of dark matter that look like nothing else in science fiction. By bucking the conventions of CGI and using an ingenious application of microphotography to simulate space, Aronofsky has given the scenes in the nebula a handwrought quality that evokes the luminous etchings of William Blake.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the movie, though, is that the director was able to finish it at all. Just before the scheduled start of shooting in , the film's original star, Brad Pitt, abruptly bailed. Costar Cate Blanchett left shortly thereafter. At various points in the production, Aronofsky's backers pulled out, studio executives questioned his sanity, and the script went through a radical reincarnation.
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The Fountain — an allegory about the promise of eternal life — died several ugly deaths on its way to the screen. The inside story of the film is a classic tale of a prodigy tempted to excess by Hollywood megabudgets and the commercial potential of boldface names. But in the end, Aronofsky's determination to reinvent sci-fi without CGI helped save The Fountain and his own indie soul.
Weisz was three weeks away from having their first child, a boy. Lanky and rabbinically handsome, the year-old Aronofsky has the unaffected charisma of the hip basketball coach at a Jewish summer camp. He grew up in a close-knit Brooklyn neighborhood just down the boardwalk from Coney Island's Cyclone roller coaster and clanging arcades.
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The endorphin rushes of the midway are still hard-coded in his memory. Aronofsky's first love was not movies but TV. The son of two public school teachers, he would set his alarm at night so he could sneak downstairs and watch The Twilight Zone.
Before he was old enough to ride the D train to Greenwich Village, his cinematic exposure was limited to second-run blockbusters at a dilapidated popcorn palace called the 77 Cent Theater. He jokingly attributes The Fountain 's convoluted timeline to his family's habit of walking in on the middle of the first feature, staying through the second, then sticking around to catch the beginning of the first. He traces his career to the moment in when he saw a lobby card advertising Spike Lee's debut, She's Gotta Have It.
Lee dubbed his DIY approach "guerrilla filmmaking" — a term Aronofsky eagerly adopted. A year later he enrolled at Harvard University, where he met many of his future collaborators, including Handel. He also met his gifted director of photography there, Matthew Libatique. Their first team effort, a short called Protozoa , starred the year-old Lucy Liu. Max Cohen, a migraine-afflicted mathematician, builds a computer to scan for hidden patterns in the stock market and ends up shadowed by a Hasidic conspiracy.
Extracting maximum visual impact from a minuscule budget, Aronofsky and Libatique modified cameras with heat lamps and drills, shooting the film on high-contrast reversal stock that turned every surface into a jagged edge — a perfect visual metaphor for Max's migraines and pervasive paranoia. Instead, its breakout at Sundance was every director's dream. The themes of The Fountain began to emerge. Handel immersed himself in books on astronomy, concepts of the afterlife, and the etiology of brain cancer; his former research career at NYU inspired Tom's quest for Izzi's immortality.
On New Year's Eve, , Aronofsky and his friends built a sweat lodge in a Mexican fishing village called Puerto Morelos to celebrate the end of the millennium. At 2 am, a crimson moon rose out of the ocean "like a devil's horns soaked in blood. It was a heavy omen.
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At that point though, everything seemed to be going his way. Riding the Requiem buzz, Aronofsky was tapped by Warner Bros. Producer Eric Watson recalls, "We came in and said, 'Batman is great, but we have this other script …'" Batman eventually fell through. By then, however, The Fountain was already under way. Aronofsky and his crew flew to Central America to consult with legendary Mayan experts like Moises Morales Marquez, who has guided scholars through the ruins of Palenque for half a century.
They made a pilgrimage to the Guatemala location used by George Lucas for the rebel-base scene in the original Star Wars film, high in the crumbling temples of Tikal. The director sent an early copy of the script to Brad Pitt, who was already an Aronofsky fan. Fifty pages into the script, the actor phoned Aronofsky in tears; the director told him to finish and call back.
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In June , the press announced that Warner Bros. Backed by Warner Bros. Elaborate sets, including a pyramid 10 stories high, were mounted on the Gold Coast of Australia. As the director schemed to fly in hundreds of Guatemalan warriors to fight Pitt, the film's bottom line was stretched to the breaking point. The superstar actor began demanding extensive script revisions during conferences at his house in the Hollywood hills.
The studio was asking for its own rewrites as well. In mid, after endless script wrangling, Village Roadshow announced that it was withdrawing its support.
Everyone on the project was immediately laid off. Weeks passed. Eventually another production house, New Regency, stepped in, and set construction recommenced down under. The momentum was there. Then, just seven weeks before the first day of shooting, Pitt called Aronofsky and told him he was pulling out.
Pitt went off to film Troy , a sword-and-sandal potboiler that earned tepid reviews. Blanchett took a paycheck for her time and moved on to other projects. As The Fountain ground to another full stop, the sets and props were auctioned off, and a wave of Brad-bashing was unleashed on the entertainment Web site Ain't It Cool News: "We estimate there are over 1, people here in Australia, including family and children, who are now displaced and unemployed," wrote an alleged member of the Fountain crew.
But he couldn't get the aborted project out of his mind.
He had come so close to shooting The Fountain that he felt it existed in some parallel universe. He hired artist Kent Williams to create a graphic novel based on the screenplay, published last year by DC Comics — the only version of the story Aronofsky thought the world might ever see. Finally, one sleepless summer night in , Aronofsky stared at the rows of books he and Handel had read to research the film. I decided to start acting like an independent filmmaker again. After two weeks of manic revision, the director handed a new, slimmed-down version of the script to Watson, who pronounced it filmable for half the cost of Fountain 1.
Aronofsky's strategy for resurrecting the film was to "take it back to the family," as he puts it. Warner Bros. A new Izzi was also close at hand: Weisz, the dusky-haired beauty the director had met on a press junket in So The Fountain didn't have Brad Pitt anymore, for however many gazillions he cost.
Writing a cheaper version of the movie let Darren take a more indie route to getting it made. Backstage, he asked the versatile Australian actor what his next project would be. He took the role of Tom the following day. Weisz and Jackman agreed to work at a discount, and Aronofsky got an even better bargain than he thought, for both have recently become major stars.
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