Darren Aronofsky’s Student Films (1991-1994)


Few filmographies are as uncompromisingly independent and fiercely original as director Darren Aronofsky’s.  From his scrappy lo-fi debut in 1998 with PI, to the release of his revisionist biblical epic NOAH in 2014, each of Aronofsky’s feature films convey an artist with an insatiable intellectual curiosity and a deeply-sympathetic view towards the terrors of the human experience.  His strength of vision is both his greatest asset and his greatest liability– for instance, the unconventional spirituality that shaped the unforgettable images of 2006’s THE FOUNTAIN is also what caused mainstream audiences to stay clear for fear of having their fragile horizons broadened.  His willingness to court controversy might have held him back from bigger directing opportunities (he was once attached to direct a Batman film in the early 2000’s, only for his profoundly revisionist take to get canned in favor of Christopher Nolan’s famously “dark and gritty reboot), but it has nevertheless allowed him to accumulate a cultish fanbase just the same.  To some, the study of his career might be read as a cautionary tale; to others, a thorough deconstruction of one of the most vital voices in contemporary independent cinema.  

Aronofsky was born February 12, 1969 in Brooklyn, to Charlotte and Abraham Aronofsky.  Both parents were public school teachers who no doubt influenced his intellectual curiosity from an early age.  Growing up in Brooklyn’s Manhattan Beach neighborhood, Aronofsky was continually exposed to a mix of Italian and Russian & Orthodox Jewish cultures– the future director himself was raised in the cultural aspects of his Jewish heritage, although the religious and spiritual aspects were not as emphasized (1).  Aronofsky’s early hunger for intellectual enlightenment soon led him beyond the confines of Brooklyn, supplementing his education at Edward R. Murrow High School with brief stints at the The School For Field Studies in locations as far away as Alaska and even Kenya (2).  His studies in Africa proved particularly influential, an experience Aronofsky cites as paradigm-changing and that led him to further journey on through Europe and the Middle East with nothing more than a backpack (2).  


Aronofsky’s voracious appetite for knowledge eventually led to his enrollment at Harvard University in 1987, where he majored in social anthropology.  It was here that he met an animation student named Dan Schrecker and aspiring actor Sean Gullette, who would later go on to star in his debut feature, PI (3).  Aronofsky credits these two with stoking his dormant interest in filmmaking, leading to his eventual formalized studies in the craft (4).  In studying the history of the medium, he founds himself particularly enamored of the work of Akira Kurosawa and Roman Polanski, amongst others.  These studies would culminate in his senior thesis film, SUPERMARKET SWEEP (1991).  Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of information to be found about the film, let alone a viewable copy, but it featured Gullette in a leading role and went on to become a finalist at the National Student Academy Awards.  This experience no doubt proved highly influential for Aronofsky, solidifying his desire to pursue filmmaking as a career.


After Aronofsky’s graduation from Harvard in 1991, he moved to Los Angeles to obtain his MFA in directing from the prestigious American Film Institute.  The two-year program resulted in the creation of two short films, the first of which is 1991’s FORTUNE COOKIE— an absurdist comedy inspired by the Hubert Selby Jr story of the same name.  Thankfully, an old VHS dub of the film has been made available in its entirety online, giving us our earliest glimpse at Aronofsky’s artistic development.  Written by Aronofsky and produced by Jody Teora, FORTUNE COOKIE concerns a middle-aged salesman who comes to believe his recent string of successes are the result of the good luck contained with an old fortune cookie he keeps in his pocket.  The short follows his highs and lows, forcing him to contend with the pushy aggressions of a rival salesman intent on figuring out his secrets, and a strange pervert who follows him around and makes unwanted romantic overtures from the cabin of his gigantic Cadillac.  

Aronofsky’s broadly humorous approach strikes a curious tone, exemplified by literal fart jokes and purposely weird performances that would be almost Lynchian if they weren’t so over the top.  To his credit, Aronofsky casts the film entirely with middle-aged actors or older– a notable aspect in the world of student filmmaking, where the casts are typically comprised of the director’s friends or fellow students.  A distinct, albeit half-hearted, midcentury aesthetic defines the production design, with the characters dressed in baggy suits from the 1950’s and affecting a rapid-fire Transatlantic vernacular to match.  Aronofsky even sprinkles a vintage car or two in the background, but beyond that he makes no effort to hide the trappings of contemporary life.  Nevertheless, a degree of deliberate design choice evidences itself in the locations, which juxtapose sleepy, pastel-colored suburban environs with crumbling, graffiti-riddled industrial areas (perhaps as a comment on the breakdown of the American Dream myth, or something similarly heavy-handed in an appropriately film-school way).

Working with credited director of photography Usa Stoll, Aronofsky captures FORTUNE COOKIE in the square frame of analog video, which no doubt was less of an artistic choice than it was a mandate from his first-year directing professor at AFI.  His approach to coverage mostly eschews conventional over-the-shoulder compositions and reverse shots, in favor of having his actors continually break the 4th wall by addressing the camera directly.  A recurring visual motif finds Aronofsky framing his protagonist in a wide, flat composition and moving from one side of the frame to the other.  He repeats the action with the same framing in the subsequent shot, albeit a few yards down the street.  Most filmmakers would cover this same action as a continued dolly shot, but Aronofsky chops it up and fragments the line of movement as another way to convey that his protagonist is moving in circles without actually going anywhere.  The effect is like watching an old-school side-scrolling video game that doesn’t actually scroll when the hero reaches the edge of the screen.  A soundtrack comprised primarily of street performance-style percussion only vaguely foreshadows the urban character of Aronofsky’s future work, but a series of activity-based insert shots (presented in extreme closeup up and edited together in rapid-fire succession to a soundtrack of exaggerated audio effects) immediately call to mind the signature stylistic technique he’d perfect in PI and its follow-up, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000).


While his next student short from this period is also unreleased and only available for AFI student viewing in the school’s media library, Aronofsky’s 1993 short PROTOZOA nevertheless serves two vital contributions to his development as a filmmaker– one being that its successful completion meant receiving his and the other being his first collaboration with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who would go on to become a key creative partner in Aronofsky’s professional work.  The short, which apparently stars a young Lucy Liu, is reported by those who’ve seen it to be about a trio of slackers just drifting aimlessly through life– akin to human amoebas.  Several key aspects of Aronofsky’s directorial signature apparently emerge here, like his quick-cut insert shots and intellectual approach to religion.  PROTOZOA’s title itself would prove influential in Aronosky’s development, becoming the name of the production company in which he’d later produce his features under. (5)

NO TIME (1994)

Aronofsky’s fourth short from this era– 1994’s NO TIME — appears to have been made after his graduation from AFI, and adopts the brazen Generation X attitude that marked pop culture in the 90’s.  At first glance, the film appears to be a slacker riff on improv comedy shows, anchored by a quartet of young actors playing various characters across several vignettes.  Shot by Matthew Libatique on color 16mm film, NO TIME resembles the style of FORTUNE COOKIE with its super-broad humor and moronic fart jokes that seem at odds with the darkly cerebral character of Aronofsky’s future professional work.  The visual style plays fast and loose with the rules of composition, frequently opting for close-ups that are almost claustrophobic in their nature.  It’s unclear exactly what Aronofsky was trying to achieve with NO TIME, unless he was trying to get this particular style of filmmaking out of his system early on.  

Any director’s student films have a strong chance of bearing no resemblance to their professional counterparts.  After all, that’s the nature of film school– to experiment, to feel out, to play in the pursuit of establishing one’s particular voice.  Aronofsky’s professional style is so distinct and singularly his, however, that this quartet of early shorts really does leave one surprised as to how little they predict the unique artistic voice we’ve since come to cherish and anticipate.  Nevertheless, these first efforts constitute a crucial training ground for Aronofsky, and their creation within the confines of the formalized film education system provides him with vital resources and collaborators that would carry him towards professional success in the long-term.  In the short-term, these same resources would give him the confidence necessary to take that first step: the creation of a feature-length effort that would establish his voice as that of an uncompromising indie maverick.