Pi, Darren Aronofsky’s debut feature, is a manic flash through conspiratorial surrealism and number theory. It’s the kind of thing you watch at night if you want to make yourself anxious before you go to sleep.
Pi is also the last gasp of 1990s indie filmmaking, with its heavy black and vibrant white chiaroscuro backing frothy-mouthed intellectualism that either made people turn their heads or turn away. With its fiery peek into one man’s obsession, Aronofsky announced himself as the kind of fierce talent who would go on to make Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Black Swan, and mother!.
Here are 10 facts about the low-budget freakout.
1. It was financed with small investments from Darren Aronofsky’s friends and family members.
It took five years and a lot of $100 checks for Darren Aronofsky to raise the nearly $60,000 needed to make Pi. After his senior thesis landed in the finals for a Student Academy Award and he earned his MFA in directing from the AFI Conservatory, the aspiring pro approached “friends, family, enemies, everyone” with a promise of converting their money into a small profit if the film delivered. It did. Artisan Entertainment bought it for over $1 million.
2. In order to save money, they filmed illegally.
In order to film in many public places, you need permits … unless you’re on an ultra-tight budget, and you’re willing to risk fines and jail time. Aronofsky was willing to risk it, so the crew shot several scenes—most notably on the subway—without securing the proper permits because the young director didn’t want to (or couldn’t) pay for them.
3. Frank Miller’s sin City comic book inspired The film’s look.
Sin City would come out in movie form almost a decade after Pi, but the comic book inspired Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s vision for their film. “Matty was brave enough to take on Reversal film, which many of us shot in film school, and its black and white Reversal, extremely hard film stock to expose,” Aronofsky told IndieWire in 1998. “We didn’t want it to end up looking like Clerks and be all gray. We wanted it to be black or white. We were inspired by Sin City by Frank Miller—he just does white scratches into black ink.”
4. At its heart, it’s about the danger of searching for order.
Pi isn’t so much about math as it is about trying to use numbers to find patterns in reality, whether it’s in the search for God or control or something broaching enlightenment. Max’s (Sean Gullette) focus on his supercomputer’s theoretical capabilities offers a lesson in not seeing the forest for the millimeter of bark you’re examining. According to Aronofsky, “The major point of Pi is that the search for order—for meaning, for God—is usually so one-dimensional and so pinpointed, and often leads to the destruction of the ego and the self and leads to death. And the beauty of the world is in the chaos and in the reality of what is now.”
5. The film was shot from Max’s perspective.
One of the reasons the film is so effective at raising our blood pressure is because we end up seeing the world through its crazed protagonist’s eyes. “The idea behind Pi was to make a fully subjective movie,” Aronofsky said. “We can shoot the other actors almost POV, almost straight-on, but Sean was almost always shot in profile so he was more of an objective, and the audience was seeing his point of view more subjectively … Because we were trying to be subjective, every little gimmick we did, we tried to have a reason for.”
6. There are patterns embedded within the movie itself.
Just as Max searches for—and finds—patterns in life tied to numbers, Aronofsky and company thought it would be fun to use patterns in constructing the movie, leading several fans to come up with some intense theories. “Some of the structural things we did relate back to the spirals and also the Fibonacci sequence,” Aronofsky told Patheos. “For instance, we even shot the film in a ratio called 1.68 which is rarely ever shot. It’s shot sometimes in Europe, but it’s never really shot in America, and the reason we shot that is because that’s the Golden Ratio.” The rest of the patterns you’ll have to find yourself.
7. It was the launching pad for three modern masters of cinema.
Before all the awards and accolades, there was a crew working for deferred pay hoping to make something special. Aronofsky, of course, would go on to ride the ups and downs of divisive filmmaking to acclaim and an Academy Award nomination, but Pi was also the first film for cinematographer Matthew Libatique and composer Clint Mansell. Libatique got his Oscar nod for shooting Black Swan, and has worked with Spike Lee, Jodie Foster, and Marvel. Mansell is a world class composer who, in addition to scoring several Aronofsky movies, has made music for Moon, Black Mirror, and Park Chan-wook.
8. It cost more to finish the film than it did to shoot it.
Pi‘s total production budget was $60,927, which went to set dressing (“computer stuff”), music (“the whole thing was done on a keyboard”), and other unavoidable expenses like trucks and film and camera rentals. Post-production, on the other hand, cost $68,183, most of which went to post-production sound, post-production film and lab work, and film editing.
9. Ant hills gave Aronofsky the idea for the film.
Ants eventually invade Max’s apartment, but Aronofsky also owes the movie to Formicidae pals (as well as a road trip through the Yucatan Peninsula). “We started to notice that in the middle of this plaza there are these giant anthills about two or three feet high,” Aronofsky told The Washington Post. “The openings are like the size of volleyballs, and there are rivers of ants flowing between the different anthills and rivers going out into the rain forest. And we just watched them for an hour, and I just had this moment—one of those epiphanies in life—which is realizing that, here in the center of one of the greatest human civilizations of all time, that’s completely extinct, that’s been inherited by the ants, they’re totally unaware of us … And what the hell are we unaware of that’s going on above us?”
10. It’s made in the sci-fi tradition of Philip K. Dick.
Tossing Pi into one genre is a tough task, but its roots are most clearly in science fiction, which makes the miniscule budget a rarity, especially in the CGI boom of the 1990s. “I always think of science fiction as a state of mind, not special effects,” Aronofsky told Filmmaker Magazine. “All those Star Wars movies took sci-fi down the effects road for the last 20 years. The interesting science fiction is the inner space, the return to the work of Philip K. Dick. Blowing up sh*t doesn’t do it for us anymore.” He also cited The Twilight Zone as a major inspiration and Rod Serling as the “patron saint of the movie.”