As Wired‘s Steve Silberman begins in a Darren Aronofsky profile, “Perhaps the most surprising thing about The Fountain (Warner Bros., 11.22) is that the director was able to finish it at all.” Due in no small part, as he gradually explains, to the abrupt withdrawl of Brad Pitt from the Hugh Jackman role in a much more costly and elaborate version of The Fountain than the one coming out three weeks from now.
And yet the scaled-down, present-tense version has a kind of purity, a spirit…a feeling that transcends scale, stars, special effects and all the other trimmings.
“Just before the scheduled start of shooting in 2002, Pitt abruptly bailed,” Silber- man begins. “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. The Fountain — an allegory about the promise of eternal life — died several ugly deaths on its way to the screen.
Like all grandiose dream projects, The Fountain had an exciting beginning. “[Aronofsky] sent an early copy of the script to 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. In June 2001, the press announced that Warner Bros. had ‘fast-tracked’ Aronofsky’s new film, with Pitt and Blanchett as the A-list leads.
“The budget for Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream had been a paltry $5 million. Backed by Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures — the company that financed The Matrix — The Fountain was budgeted at $70 million. Elaborate sets, including a pyramid 10 stories high, were mounted on the Gold Coast of Australia. A huge crew was assembled there, and the former indie filmmaker suddenly found himself choreographing epic battle scenes and massive f/x sequences. 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.”
But eventually Pitt “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-2002, 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.
“Then, just seven weeks before the first day of shooting, Pitt called Aronofsky and told him he was pulling out. ‘After working together for two and a half years, Brad lost trust in me and faith in the project,’ Aronofsky admits. ‘He told me he felt like he was breaking up with a girl.'”