Sunday, February 27, 2011

Black Swan; Behind The Curtain

Natalie Portman as the White Swan

It's Oscars weekend, and Darren Aronofsky's dark psychological ballet thriller Black Swan and it's cast and crew are up near the front of the pack, in line for a clutch of little golden statues tonight including Best Picture, Best Director, Actress in a Leading Role, Best Cinematography and Best Editing.
My oldest friend since way back when, a certain Mr Alex Wilson, worked as the Producer's Assistant on the movie and I've been hassling him since October to write a guest blog post. He did, and sent across a whole stack of shots from the Director of Photography and on-set photographer to back up his words. Over to him for the stories from behind the curtain:


When I tell people I worked on Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, almost without fail the first question is ‘What is Natalie Portman like?” My response? “Dedicated”.

Shooting the shooters

There has been a certain level of criticism leveled at the film and at Natalie from the ballet world for not starring a real life ballerina. This is almost not worth responding to, and all you need to do is witness Natalie’s performance and her well earned Golden Globe and Oscar nominations to vanquish any doubts that she was the right choice.

New and Used

Circle of light

A ballet dancer in her youth, she had the core skills and worked herself into the ground for months and months to re-shape herself into a ballerina. The girl did not stop. In fact there is a physiotherapy scene in the movie where she is having a quite graphic rib examination. This was not acted. Darren asked the physio if he could film Natalie, not her character Nina, being assessed for an actual injury she received during filming when she was lifted awkwardly. This not only demonstrates the rigours she went though, but highlights what I found to be the most fascinating element of being involved with this film; the techniques Darren Aronofsky uses on his cast.

Vincent Cassel

The aforementioned physio scene is just one of several real life scenarios that Darren just let exist, evolve and left the camera to capture it. He had used similar techniques in his previous film ‘The Wrestler’, notably Mickey Rourke engaging with real customers when working behind the deli counter.


Black Swan was a film with an A-list cast, often shot like a guerilla student film. My fondest memory being one long night spent running around the New York City subway system with Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, a handheld camera and no filming permit into the wee hours of the morning; risky, but the kind of thing that makes independent films so gritty and realistic.

Mila Kunis

Most films with a nightclub scene do not ring true. The extras are normally dancing to no music, the dance floor is rarely full enough and those that do populate it are impossibly beautiful. What was achieved in Black Swan, in my opinion, is the best club scene committed to film. How was this done? By creating a real club, in a club, with real music, and real clubbers…at 8am on a Tuesday morning. A one off Chemical Bothers remix using samples from Swan Lake is the music used in the scene, giving it a nice twist for those in the know.

Behind the scenes

Darren Aronofsky on location in New York, on what Alex described as "the coldest night of my life"

My last on-set anecdote is the most awkward, but also the most genius: We had worked through until 3am after a long day of filming and Natalie was asked to act out a traumatic and emotional scene for the twentieth take in a cramped bathroom. Nico, the official photographer was snapping away in the corner of the room until Natalie in no uncertain terms requested he leave the room since he was getting on her nerves. This of course is completely fair, and just like anyone else would be in her position, she was frustrated and in need of a release. As Nico left the room, Darren saw an opportunity and sent him straight back in, stood him in the corner and told him to start snapping away again. This had the effect of pushing Natalie over the edge of frustration and emotion; and Darren got his shot. To this day we are unsure whether this was a masterstroke to evoke performance or just to wind up his star.

Portman as the Black Swan, close to the edge?

Black Swan is a beautiful, visceral, dark and intense experience to watch and I hope that you get the opportunity to go and see it. Look out for my shoulders in the subway scene. A cameo sure, but I feel that I really contributed to the scene…

Ballerina on set

The Chrysler Building, NYC, and Alex Wilson, Producer's Assistant and the author of this post.

Thanks for the inside line mate and enjoy the parties tonight, I hope you guys bring home some statues for all of your hard work.

All images are used with the kind permission of the copyright holders, Protozoa Pictures and photographers Ray Lewis and Nico Tavernise.


  1. That was a great read! Thanks for posting.

  2. Black Swan is a masterpiece.

  3. fantastic read, hope to hear more from Alex in regards to future work

  4. Awesome post and congrats to the team on their nominations and win last Sunday.

  5. Great post, enjoyed it very much.

  6. You're so lucky to have worked on this film. I have seen in 3x in theaters. It is truly wonderful. I enjoyed reading your perspective.

  7. Worth a read, better than gossip and co.
    Thanks for sharing.
    And again congrats for the amazing work you've done !!