“Once you decide to do something with someone like Mickey Rourke, it is pretty near impossible,” Aronofsky acknowledges, explaining that he nonetheless wanted Rourke, with his bullish body and volatile emotions, from the outset. “In fact, every single financier in the business said no to us.”
Finally, French production company Wild Bunch gave Aronofsky $6 million. (“Leave it to the French to understand Mickey Rourke,” he says.) Still, the measly budget required compromises: Rourke accepted a $100,000 salary, and Aronofsky worked for scale and agreed to a tight 35-day shooting schedule. With no money for extras, Aronofsky relied on one of the film’s producers to rally real-life wrestlers and fans for crowd shots in New Jersey; for another key scene, the director had to shoot at a grocery store during normal business hours because he couldn’t afford the cost of shutting it down. But by having Rourke interact with actual customers at the deli counter, Aronofsky made a virtue of financial necessity, creating a quasi-documentary feel that is one of the film’s strengths.
“When movies are made outside the studio system, there’s such an authenticity to them,” says Peter Rice, head of 20th Century Fox’s specialty division Fox Searchlight, which acquired U.S. distribution rights for The Wrestler for $4 million in an all-night bidding war after the movie won top honors at the 2008 Venice Film Festival. “They cost a fraction of what studio movies cost, and because the fiscal risks are lower, people get to be creatively reckless. It’s the hallmark of independent film.”
Aronofsky recalls that after Venice, some of the same financiers who had earlier turned him away confided to him that they wished their decisions “didn’t have to be purely dependent on movie stars and could deal with the possibility that a good film could happen.”
Of course, Aronofsky’s best efforts weren’t necessarily destined to be good—an indie film can be just as self-indulgent or plain awful as any studio pic. Still, the studios’ algorithms aren’t fail-safe either. Last fall Warner Bros.’ Body of Lies starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe fell flat at the box office. As of press time, it was too early to predict the eventual fate of Benjamin Button, Gran Torino, Seven Pounds and Valkyrie, all examples of top-notch talent working with every advantage the studios can supply. But insiders have fretted that these films may prove to be too long, too depressing or too overwrought to attract audiences—or to sway Academy voters. It’s one thing that Australia earned just $20 million over the five-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend; studio heads understand that prestige comes at a price. But it’s quite another if the big budgets also fail to return big results on Oscar night—especially if a scrappy upstart runs off with the coveted golden statuettes instead.