My friend and colleague Tom Georgoulias let me run this interview in my book, Follow for Now.
Sean Gullette is a very busy man. With seemingly contradictory roles as both a webmaster for KGB Media and a computer skeptic, he splits his time between graphic design work and acting. Gullette has been in ten independent films, including the leading role as Maximillian Cohen in Pi, the winner of the 1998 Sundance Film Festival Award for Best Directing. Pi is a film about a brilliant, paranoid mathematician who teeters on the brink of insanity as he searches for the numeric order behind the stock market.
Tom Georgoulias: The film is certainly one of the most intense science fiction thrillers because of the way mathematical concepts are intertwined with flashing black & white images and an electronic soundtrack. You share the credit for writing Pi with director Darren Aronofsky — what prompted the two of you to create this film?
Sean Gullette: A New York character of our acquaintance had written a shelf’s worth of conspiracy theory books, which all hinged on highly improbable (and, in fact, clinically insane) numerical “coincidences”: e.g., J. Edgar Hoover’s day of birth and the license plate number of the limousine JFK was riding in. Quickly we realized that a character who sees a (persecuting) numerical order behind the visible, everywhere in the world, could be dramatically interesting, but that if he was merely insane it would be difficult for an audience to sympathize with him. Who is a real number paranoid? A mathematician. We built a back story for Max, and a character from that story, and then sort of let Max and the writer’s journey dictate what would happen next.
Darren is a very hardworking gifted guy, and I hope and believe he’ll be making challenging films for a long time to come. Our director of photography, Matthew Libatique is on his way to being one of the most interesting young DPs out there. Clint Mansell, who used to front the group Pop Will Eat Itself, did his first film score for us, and it gave an emotional dimensionality to the film that makes a huge difference. Eric Watson, the producer, has a great gift for bringing creative people together and getting one guy’s chocolate in the other guy’s peanut butter. All three of them worked on Darren’s second feature, Requiem for a Dream, which just wrapped. I’m in there too.
TG: Pi is essentially about fundamental questions of the nature of the universe and our understanding of it. Max Cohen is searching for order behind the chaotic systems, and he blurs the thin line between genius and madness. What intrigued you to take on the role of Max?
SG: We just sort of built him from the ground up like a garage robot, using whatever parts and know-how we had available. And I knew this would be an interesting process and I wanted to work with Darren again, ’cause we were friends and we had done a film in school called Supermarket Sweep, and it was a lot of fun.
TG: Throughout the film, there existed a gap between the organic and the inorganic, most notably Max’s isolation and nonstop work on his theory. However, after Euclid crashes and the number is in Max’s head, he ends this separation and accepts the world around him. In discussions with others who have seen the film, some feel that he reached a pseudo goal while others think he simply gave up. You played Max, what do you think?
SG: At the risk of sounding prissy: I did my job. Interpretation is yours. Not only are there no right answers to the questions fiction poses, but mine would be even less “right” than yours.
TG: Aronofsky stated in his DVD commentary that you were a literature guy and one of your first assignments was to sit down and write long streams of digits in order to become intimate with numbers. What other research or steps did you take to prepare yourself for the role of Max Cohen?
SG: In those days I was really kinda “method acting” in my unschooled way — wearing Max’s clothes around, walking the walk, ordering Max’s favorite foods, having filthy fingernails, being a dick to my girlfriend. Other mental devices. It’s a good way to get into a far out character and find details about him, but it’s a lot of work to keep up and I think now there are other ways to get a good performance.
TG: Max Cohen pushes his limits of understanding by pursuing truth through mathematics, while Lenny Meyer and Rabbi Cohen seek to understand through Kabbalism. Both approaches border on extreme fanaticism, yet the underlying principle that drives them and the larger philosophical questions Pi asks are the same. How has playing the role of Max Cohen affected your own beliefs?
SG: To me the film sort of reduces to this: At the beginning, Max looks at a tree blowing in the wind and he sees chaos, and feels a terrible fear and loneliness at the whole organic world he can’t understand and colonize and control with his reason. At the end, he just sees a tree, blowing in the wind, and it’s okay.