Darren Aronofsky traces not only his second film, Requiem for a Dream (2000), but also his very career as a filmmaker to a moment in the Harvard library when he first stumbled across the work of celebrated author Hubert Selby Jr. "I was a public school kid from Brooklyn facing my first exams freshman year of college and I was terrified," Aronofsky recalled. "I hit the library and tried to learn. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the word 'Brooklyn.' Now, when you're from Brooklyn and you see anything related to Brooklyn, you're immediately interested."
He pulled out a worn copy of Last Exit to Brooklyn, Selby's 1964 classic of brutality and desperation on the Brooklyn waterfront. "This was before the movie, and I had no clue what I was about to open. From sentence one, I was done, and so were my finals. I blew them off and I read. This was storytelling. This was understanding. This was a deep yet simple examination of what makes us human. I now knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to tell stories." That decision led him to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles (where his first project was an adaptation of Selby's short story "Fortune Cookie"), and ultimately, to his debut feature, pi (1998)
Producer Eric Watson became a fan of Selby's when he read Aronofsky's copy of Requiem for a Dream over a holiday vacation after pi (1998) finished shooting. Tracing its characters' rise and fall, the novel burrows deep into their psyches to deliver a wrenching portrait of human yearning. "It's a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of all dreams and desires and the lies we use to create the illusion of happiness," commented Watson. "The book really resonated with me; I couldn't put it down and stayed off the ski slopes."
Selby noted that his characters believe a change in their external circumstances will bring fulfillment. "Everybody is looking for something on the outside to make them feel better."
In all, the decision to follow up pi (1998) with an adaptation of Requiem for a Dream was an easy one, according to Watson. "It was a natural progression in budget size, and scope of what we were doing. It was also a personal film for us." They got in touch with Selby and quickly secured the rights.
Then pi (1998) premiered at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, where it became an immediate sensation and garnered Aronofsky the award for Best Director.
Made for $60,000, it was boldly original in subject matter and style: a black-and-white film about a mathematical genius obsessed with decoding the hidden patterns of the stock market, told from the hero's subjective point of view. Artisan Entertainment moved swiftly to acquire the rights, forging a relationship with Aronofsky that continues with Requiem for a Dream (2000). Released in July 1998, the unabashedly intellectual and experimental pi (1998) broke through to become a commercial as well as a critical success.
Aronofsky acknowledged that Pi (1998) brought him and Watson a lot of attention, but ultimately they decided to proceed with Requiem for a Dream (2000). "After pi (1998) did well at the box office we had the opportunity to do many films on many different scales. Although we have a desire to make bigger movies, we knew that for the time being we had to turn our backs on them and do Requiem for a Dream," said Aronofsky.
"Making the film was a big risk," he continued. "It was different than most films one sees and the subject matter was very difficult. But I felt that there was a great visual story in the material and that it was dripping with emotional honesty. So we closed our eyes and dived right in."
Requiem for a Dream (2000) tells two stories, one about a lonely widow named Sara Goldfarb; and the other about Sara’s son Harry, his girlfriend Marion and his best friend Tyrone. Harry is Sara’s only child, and the one person she has left in the world. Afraid of losing him, she chooses to overlook his most egregious behavior, reassuring herself that everything will work out in the end.
Harry and Marion, meanwhile, have pinned all their hopes on each other, embracing the romantic ideal of a love that elevates every other aspect of life. Sharing confidences in hushed voices, the streetwise, opportunistic Harry and the poised, sophisticated Marion reveal themselves to be vulnerable human beings who have spent most of their lives feeling alone and unsure. Now it is as though they have finally come fully into existence, and they revel in the sensation of having found that one person in the world who makes them feel whole. As long as they have each other, they believe, the real world hardly matters.
But when the real world turns ugly, Harry and Marion's romantic utopia starts to crumble and they quickly descend into bickering, betrayal and despair. The wounds they inflict on one another cruelly invert their most intimate moments. Harry, who once made Marion "feel like a person," effectively asks her to prostitute herself when he pushes to borrow money from Arnold the Shrink. Marion, whom Harry believed would "make everything all right" for him, ferociously castigates him and blames him for all their problems. Angry, hurt and afraid, Harry and Marion withdraw from one another. Chances to halt their downward spiral slip through their fingers, as each accedes to the other's self-destructive demands.
The relationships between the characters lie at the heart of the film. Observed Aronofsky, "Requiem for a Dream (2000) is about a lot of things. Mostly, it's about love. More specifically, it's about what happens when love goes wrong."
The tragedy of Requiem for a Dream (2000) is that Harry and Marion never actually stop loving one another, even as they are destroying their lives; their love is not so much lost as wasted. Indeed, love is not enough to save any of the characters. Harry pleads with Sara to give up her diet pills, but relents when he realizes the depths of her loneliness. Unable to assuage his mother's pain, Harry seeks to numb his own.
All the characters in the film are trying to alleviate their internal suffering, whether through love, coffee, chocolate, drugs or television. The root cause is what matters, not the methods, Aronofsky declared. "The beauty of Selby's work is that he shows that all these different addictions actually are very similar: they're all there to fill a hole that we have inside of us."
Aronofsky wanted the film's atmosphere to underscore the universality of Selby's themes. One way he sought to achieve that was by fusing the novel's 1970s vernacular with contemporary consumer technology like cordless phones and big-screen TVs, and then placing them within the ageless landscape of his native Coney Island.
"We felt that the story of Requiem for a Dream (2000) was timeless," Aronofsky explained. "One of the strongest elements of the novel is Selby's use of slang. I didn't want to change Selby's poetry, so I preserved it. I felt his slang would work because words come in and out of style the way haircuts and clothes do. By mixing this language with modern technology and the nostalgia of the Coney Island neighborhood, I hoped to invoke the timeless setting of a fable."
It is the happily-ever-after that Sara, Harry, Marion and Tyrone are chasing, each in their own way. They have many different dreams, all quite common: hopes for wealth, success, recognition, fame, security, love. Like any mother, Sara Goldfarb wants to see her son married with children, and keeps telling herself that it will come, one day. When a phone call promises her a shot at game show glory, it gives her a new lease on life. Said Ellen Burstyn, the Oscar®-winning actress who plays Sara, "She never thought she would go on television. That's a very exciting thing in her life. It revitalizes her."
Suddenly, Sara is the star of the local gaggle of yentas, who clear a place of honor for her on the sidewalk where they sun themselves and kibitz. Remarked Burstyn, "There's a lot of humor in the early parts of the film. Sara's a funny character. She has a sense of humor, about herself and her situation."
Beneath her jocularity, Sara is acutely aware of her loneliness. Remaking herself for television brings focus to what she feels is a purposeless existence. Noted Selby, "Sara's a product of another time, when a woman was just supposed to clean the house, cook the food and take care of the men. And now there are no men for her to take care of."
Sara's belief that being on television will change her life for the better is a popular one in a culture of reality programming such as "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire" and "Big Brother." Her favorite program, "The Tappy Tibbons Show," pledges nothing less than transformation, and in record time. As Eric Watson pointed out, "We live in a quick fix culture. As the pace and volume of communication has increased, so has our desire for instant gratification. I think that people's dreams are the same, but the delivery mediums have become much more sophisticated in the past one hundred years, particularly with the telephone, radio, TV, and the Internet."
Sara looks to television, to chocolate and to her burnished hopes to give ballast to her life. Her son Harry is searching, too, which inspired actor Jared Leto to lose 25 pounds to reflect his character's inner hunger. "He's an empty shell, and he's looking to be filled up. Harry's looking for love, for happiness - to be filled."
In Marion, Harry has found someone whose emotional hunger matches his own. As portrayed by Jennifer Connelly, Marion is a bright young woman whose cool fašade conceals deep-seated anguish. "I think she is incredibly lonely, and feels very alienated from almost everyone," the actress commented. "I think she's never truly been loved or felt loved."
Harry and Marion are disconnected people trying to come together, who seem to have a good chance of doing so. Connelly summarized the couple's vision of a shared life: "They're going to be united, they're going to fill the space in each other that needs to be filled. What they missed from their parents, what they are missing out on in life in general, is somehow going to be sated by one another."
Marion clings to that dream, at tremendous personal cost. "She needs so much to believe that she and Harry could be good for each other," Connelly stressed. "I think at the beginning of the film, she had been hurt a number of times and had kind of closed off. Then she found Harry and it seemed like the world was opening up for her again."
Marlon Wayans also saw his character, Tyrone, as searching for connection. "He lost his mother when he was eight years old. Tyrone's dream is to one day be loved again and have that feeling of safety he had when he was young"
Connelly commented, "There's this incredible longing in all of these characters and the need to fill it. The film explores the question of how they fill it, for lack of a healthy path? Where do they go? Everyone in the film is longing to be connected and the tragedy is that it never really happens. They all sort of miss each other."
From the outset, it was obvious that Requiem for a Dream (2000) would not be an easy project to fund. After reading Aronofsky's screenplay, Watson recalled, "It was clear that Darren was going to apply a highly innovative visual approach that would lift the film from a straight narrative story into a film that explored themes through its visual language. 'Highly innovative visual approach' translates into more time in the filmmaking process and therefore more money and resources to execute the film. Darren and I made a decision early on, that if we couldn't execute this visual style, then we wouldn't be able to capture the essence of the book." Watson credited producing partner Palmer West, his company Thousand Words and Artisan Entertainment with helping them obtain the financing they needed to make the film without compromising their vision.
In casting the film, Watson said the first priority was finding the right actors to play Sara and Harry Goldfarb. "We knew we wanted to build the cast around the mother/son relationship between the Sara Goldfarb and Harry Goldfarb characters and our first casting decision was going to be a simultaneous one. When we found out that Ellen Burstyn had responded to the script, Darren and I became very excited about the possibility of working with one of America's greatest living actors. Jared Leto had done a reading with us that had revealed elements of sincerity and honesty that we wanted Harry to have and we felt that he was the right match with Ellen."
Aronofsky described working with Ellen Burstyn as a rare privilege. "Few people get to play with Michael Jordan everyday. And that is how we all felt. She was an incredible professional, an inspiration. Everyday she opened her heart and flooded our lens with love."
He noted that the role was physically as well as emotionally demanding. In addition to having a camera mounted on her for certain sequences, Burstyn spent four hours every morning being fitted with prosthetics. "She wore four different necks (both fat and emaciated), two different fat suits (a 40-pound and 20-pound suit), and nine different wigs. It was a technical nightmare that she accepted with open arms. It was a true inspiration. And then there was her performance. I remember once Matthew Libatique was operating the camera and he had a hard time keeping her framed because his tears were fogging up the eyepiece."
Libatique wasn't the only person moved to tears. Hubert Selby Jr. remembered a visit to the set: "I was watching Ellen Burstyn for about 10 seconds and she had me crying. Oh God, is she great."
For her part, Burstyn relished the experience. "One reason why I wanted to do the role is that it's been a long time since I've been this challenged, if ever. Darren has the most complicated and complex use of camera technique and rigging technique that I've ever seen."
She offered no regrets for any physical discomfort. "I am so impressed by Darren Aronofsky. I think he's the most exciting young director to come along in a long time. When I saw pi (1998), I recognized that he was a really big talent, and I wanted to do whatever he was doing."
Her fellow cast members expressed similar sentiments. "He's got such a vision and determination and this style that's completely different. It's intoxicating," said Jared Leto. In plunging into a dark and demanding role, he added, "I could just throw myself to Darren and trust what he was doing, let him guide me on the way."
Aronofsky applauded the dedication of Leto and his other young stars, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans. "Jared, Jennifer and Marlon all went to the edge. Jared lost 25 pounds, Marlon proved himself as a dramatic actor, and Jennifer faced her role with complete bravery and confidence. They were deeply committed and gave the production a month of rehearsal time. They all took the roles for minimal pay and did the project because they believed in Selby's message."
The director was delighted to find a suitably wicked part in the film for Hubert Selby Jr.. himself. "It was our line producer Ann Ruark's idea to make him the Laughing Prison Guard. When she suggested it I immediately agreed. The end result is that Selby is laughing at his characters at the climax of the film. It is the perfect spice for the film."
Selby knew his novel was in good hands with Aronofsky. "The guy is a terrific filmmaker. pi (1998), I thought and I still think, is one of the most original stories I have ever seen on the screen. It is absolutely remarkable, a remarkable story. So obviously, the man's a good writer, too, and I'm sure he lives cinematically. I see everything as a story; I'm sure he sees everything as a film. So he comes from a different direction, but I think we end up in the same place, with the same awareness of what is motivating the people."
Requiem for a Dream (2000) expands upon the subjective approach that Aronofsky and director of photography Matthew Libatique first explored in pi (1998) "One of the main reasons I was attracted to Requiem for a Dream (2000) was that it would allow me to pursue some elements of film grammar I explored in p yet it had a completely different narrative," remarked Aronofsky. "In Requiem for a Dream (2000) I had a similar opportunity to make a purely subjective film, but I had four main characters instead of one. This complexity excited me because it made me wonder how I would deal with different subjectivities within the same space and time."
One answer was split screens, which could be made to represent different points of view in the same scene. They also reprised special camera riggings from p, including the Heat-Cam, the Vibrator-Cam, and Aronofsky's favorite, the Snorri-Cam, which attaches the camera to an actor's body. "It's the ultimate in subjective filmmaking. I tried to have each of the main characters have a moment with the Snorri-Cam."
The director also revisited a technique he calls hip-hop montage, inspired by the 80's hip-hop culture he grew up with and its aesthetic of sampling, recombining and collage. He applied the technique to the process of drug taking, which he distilled to a rapid succession of images set to Clint Mansell's hypnotic techno/hip-hop score. "I wanted to show an audience as quickly as possible what someone is like before using a drug and what they are like after using that drug; that contrast is what I found interesting," the filmmaker explained. "Also, the repetitive nature of the hip-hop montages hopefully captures the obsessive nature of addiction."
To bring the visual intensity to an even more subjective level, Aronofsky augmented these in-camera techniques with over 100 digital effects. All of these shots are reality-based, in the vein of the famous feather shot at the opening of Forrest Gump (1994). In order to complete these sequences within the budget, he knew that a guerilla approach was needed. Forgoing expensive research and development for creative prowess, he enlisted the services of digital artists Jeremy Dawson and Dan Schrecker and with them formed Amoeba Proteus, the digital arm of Protozoa. Dawson and Schrecker designed all of the shots on desktop computers, using basic effects in startling new ways.
Clint Mansell's original score for Requiem for a Dream (2000) strikingly combines electronic music with classical string arrangements performed by the celebrated Kronos Quartet. Mansell found that combining new and old sounds made it possible to craft a score that mirrored the film's timeless atmosphere. He composed specific string parts for the score, and used samples to flesh them out. "Once we had everything in place, we thought it would be great to get a performance of all these parts with real strings, because they would impart a different sort of life and vibrancy to the music."
Aronofsky approached the Kronos Quartet after seeing them perform in New York. They were intrigued by the idea behind the score. After listening to the music and watching the film, Kronos signed on to participate. To Mansell, it was an enormously satisfying experience on a number of levels. "They were great to work with. That a group of musicians with their reputation and their taste wanted to be involved with what we were doing was fantastic."
Requiem for a Dream (2000) marks Aronofsky's first color feature. The filmmaker was characteristically diligent about using that tool as effectively as possible, studying up on the subject and reviewing color images. "We tried to figure out how we wanted to limit the palette of the film so that we could control it and hopefully thereby make a statement with our choices. Our first decision was to almost completely eliminate the color red from the film. The only place we allowed for red was Sara's hair and her dress. We did this because the color red was at the core of Sara's dream. We wanted the color to leap off the screen."
In its beautiful desolation, dotted with evocative relics of the past, Coney Island can be considered a character in the film. Aronofsky was thrilled to be making a film in his hometown. "It was a dream my entire life to return to my childhood neighborhood and shoot a film. The unbelievable aesthetic of Coney Island has influenced me since I was a child. I grew up on the Cyclone (Coney Island's famous wooden roller coaster) and I've always wanted to present my streets to the world."
The director was also delighted to have family and friends nearby. He cast his mother Charlotte as one of Sara's yenta friends, while his father Abraham played a man reading a newspaper on the subway. Aronofsky reported that his father tinkered a bit with his role. "He actually asked if he could call Sara Goldfarb 'a whack.' I said sure, and now my dad has his first speaking line in a motion picture."