Filmmaker Aronofsky Talks Science and Exploring Planet Earth with Will Smith

Darren Aronofsky’s film career has often steered viewers directly toward life’s mysterious and gritty complexities. This now includes scientific-real-world scenarios as well as fictional narratives. Though, the Academy Award-nominated director says the push toward science has been with him since his youth.

Aronofsky’s most popular Hollywood features are known for their graphic, often surrealist portrayals of the human experience and psyche. Viewers delve into addiction in Requiem for a Dream, fear of death and mysticism in The Fountain, the Bible’s worldwide flood story in Noah, and a haunting allegory of humanity’s violent relationship with religion and our planet in Mother! Now you can add Welcome to Earth to his credits — a documentary series released on Dec. 8 on Disney+, with Aronofsky as executive producer and director.

The project spans six episodes, following actor Will Smith as he teams up with elite National Geographic explorers around the world. Together they venture into Earth’s far-flung, daunting corners: driving up and down the desolate sand dunes of Namibia, repelling into a vast cave to scuba dive in a 600-feet-deep underground lake, and trailing sharks in research boats to one of the Pacific’s most remote and smelly islands.

(Credit: National Geographic/Freddie Claire)

Production wise, the docuseries achieves mesmerizing visuals — like you’d see in blockbuster nature-docs, such as Planet Earth — paired with characteristic Smith-in-action one liners and narration. So, plenty of “OK. That’s ridiculous,” and “My grandma used to tell me…” in lieu of British-lilted soliloquies by Sir David Attenborough.

For Aronofsky’s part, the series gave him the chance to immerse himself in the elements, as well as the type of research and advocacy that has long been part of his personal life. The filmmaker currently sits on the boards of The Sierra Club and The School for Field Studies. This week he answered questions from Discover about the roots of this project, and the arc of science in his own life.

Q: Your career as a filmmaker seems to have focused on fictional features, often exploring the human psyche and mature or controversial themes. Why the pivot to science, the real world and documentary style?

A: I don’t really think of it as a pivot. Before I ever wanted to become a filmmaker, I trained as a field biologist in Kenya and Alaska. I learned early on that this world is such a strange, unbelievable place.

Q: The term producer can mean many things in the industry — and you had executive producer credit on the One Strange Rock docuseries in 2018 (also starring Will Smith). What was your level of involvement on Welcome to Earth?

A: It takes a huge team to create a show like this, so while I was an executive producer, there were so many people involved. For my part, I was on location with Will for a lot of his expeditions: the Bahamas with Diva [Amon, a marine biologist], Vanuatu with Erik [Weihenmayer, a blind mountaineer who has summited Mount Everest], and Australia with Cristina [Mittermeier, also a marine biologist]. After shooting, we all came together to figure out how best to shape these incredible experiences into the story of the series. 

Q: The “Descent Into Darkness” episode that you directed explores the theme of fear, where we watch Smith and an ocean explorer plunge 3,300 feet into the pitch-black deep via a submersible. How would you hold up on that journey?

A: I would often show up at locations a few days before Will and put myself through parts of the challenge in front of him. It was all to make him feel a bit safer. But who wouldn’t take an opportunity to journey to the bottom of the sea?

Q: Your filmography suggests a personal fascination with humans descending into dark places. Why is that subject important to illuminate?

A: A character’s true nature is exposed when their back is up against the wall. The beautiful thing about filmmaking is that we could be watching a 6-year-old girl in Spain or an 80-year-old man in Iran and still connect with the pains and triumphs that person experiences as if they were our own. It’s not so much about the descent; it’s about what the darkness reveals about our true selves.

Q: What is one thing you learned about the planet (or anything, scientifically) during this project that really stuck with you?

A: Our planet is a beautiful mystery and we’ve only scratched the surface. I could never think of half of the things we witnessed while out with Will and the explorers. The complexity of systems is a wonder to behold. On the episode about smell, we witness a web of connections between bird poo, dead decaying turtles and hungry sharks.

Q: How would you describe your relationship with science as a kid? And how about now, as an adult?

A: As a kid, I spent two summers with The School of Field Studies that completely changed my life. The experience gave me an incredible appreciation for the natural world and connected me for life to environmental issues. The experience changed the way I perceived the world and the way I work. Now, as an adult, I aim to use my filmmaking and storytelling to share this appreciation of the natural world with audiences.

Q: Any unforgettable moments or experiences you had off-camera while filming that you can share?

A: One of my favorite moments was being at Vanuatu with Will and Erik at the top of the volcano. To feel the force of it through your entire body was indescribable. Will and Erik say during that episode that you don’t need eyes to see what’s happening there and they’re exactly right. You could feel every part of that massive volcano through its powerful movements moving through and past your body. I have never felt that before.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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