Around the turn of this century, Darren Aronofsky wanted to make a ballet movie, inspired by his own sister's dance studies. He also became fascinated by the idea of doppelgangers after reading Dostoevsky's The Double. Already thinking that Natalie Portman would make the perfect leading lady, they had coffee in New York in 2000, when she was fresh from her first turn as Padmé Amidala in Star Wars: Episode I and a student at Harvard.
"She says that I had the entire film in my head, which is a complete lie," Aronofsky told Collider in 2010, to which Portman insisted, "No, what he described to me was so close."
The director continued, "So, we talked a bit about it and I started to develop it, but it was a really tough film because getting into the ballet world proved to be extremely challenging. Most of the time, when you do a movie and you say, 'Hey, I want to make a movie about your world,' all the doors open up, and you can do anything and see anything you want. The ballet world really wasn't at all interested in us hanging out, so it took a long time to get the information to put it together."
He got involved with a script at Universal about a murder that took place in the theater world, called The Understudy, written by Andres Heinz, which Aronofsky hoped could be flexible enough to see his ballet dreams take flight. When a few drafts didn't work out, he took the production independent, eventually getting distribution from Fox Searchlight.
And in the meantime, he had seen Swan Lake. "When I saw the story of the black swan and the white swan, I decided to throw everything away and connect all the characters and myths to Swan Lake," the filmmaker told the Los Angeles Times. "The credits should really say, 'Co-written by Tchaikovsky.'"
Luckily, Portman was still onboard. Aronofsky told Collider, "Over the years, Natalie would say, 'I'm getting too old to play a dancer. You better hurry up.' I was like, 'Natalie, you look great. It'll be fine.' And then, about a year out from filming, or maybe a little bit earlier, I finally got a screenplay together. That's how it started."