Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Kate Erbland descends into the pits of despair, drug addiction, and depression while listening to Darren Aronofsky’s commentary on ‘Requiem for a Dream.’
Before he taught Mickey Rourke how to wrestle or Natalie Portman how to Adagio, Darren Aronofsky was showing Jared Leto how to shoot up. Requiem For a Dream was the director’s second feature film – Pi came out in 1998 – and his position as an auteur began to grow from there. Some consider Requiem Aronofsky’s best film. Regardless if you find it engaging or grotesque, there’s no denying the man’s direction on the film is something to be appreciated. Even studied.
So let’s take a few minutes and hear what Aronofsky had to say about Requiem For a Dream. There’s bound to be wonderful anecdotes about the director skipping with Marlon Wayans down the Coney Island boardwalk or buying ice cream in the Central Park with Jennifer Connelly. Surely this commentary can’t include anything too serious. The movie has a giant refrigerator that dances and sings. It may be gnashing and screaming, but it’s all how you look at it, right? Anyway, let’s get into it. The uppers are about to kick in, anyway.
Requiem For a Dream (2000)
Commentators: Darren Aronofsky (writer, director), MUCH love for Ellen Burstyn (deserved)
- Aronofsky starts out by saying how proud he is of Requiem For a Dream. After Pi’s success, the director was offered the chance to do whatever he wanted. He knew right off that he wanted to adapt Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel. Everyone told the director he was crazy. He refers to getting Requiem For a Dream completed as a “war.”
- The film begins just like Selby’s novel. As Aronofsky points out, the first line of the book is, “Harry locked his mom in the closet.” As soon as Aronofsky read this, he knew it would be a powerful way of opening a film. Aronofsky appreciated how subjective Selby’s novel was – something the director strove for with Pi. Aronofsky wanted to capture the subjective tone for Requiem, to put you in the viewpoint of the main character, which is why the opening sequence is a split-screen. Both Harry and Sara Goldfarb are the focal points.
- During the scene where Harry and Sara (Jared Leto and Ellen Burstyn) are arguing, you can hear an orchestra tuning up. “The idea was that it’s an orchestra tuning up, because what we were about to see was a requiem.” Aronofsky states that the main focus with the film was in creating a musical composition, one that climaxes throughout the film’s run-time.
- Aronofsky states that, other than Ellen Burstyn, Kronos Quartet were the most inspirational artists he worked with. Think Aronofsky is a 30 Seconds to Mars fan?
- Aronofsky’s introduction to Hubert Selby Jr. was “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” He discovered the book in his college library, because the word “Brooklyn” attracted his eye. “When you’re from Brooklyn or you see anything about Brooklyn, you’re immediately fascinated,” he says. The book changed his life. He kept it out for a year, reading it numerous times. Once he entered film school, Aronofsky took inspiration from Selby to make his short films. Fortune Cookie, one of Aronofsky’s student shorts, was based on one of Selby’s short stories. When “Requiem For a Dream” was released in 1978, Aronofsky got a copy but could only read halfway through. The novel had several story ideas he had had, but, as he states, “they were written by a much better writer 20 years before I was even writing.” It was Eric Watson, Aronofsky’s producer and co-writer on Pi, who convinced him that Requiem should be his next film. Selby was very open to Aronofsky adapting his novel.
- Aronofsky and Watson optioned “Requiem For a Dream” for $1,000. Aronofsky remembers that, at the time, coming off of Pi, this was a huge amount of money for them.
- Tappy Tibbons (Christopher McDonald) is a character Aronofsky created that isn’t in Selby’s novel. In the novel, Sara Goldfarb mostly watches soap operas and game shows. Aronofsky wanted the film to be timeless and knew the programs they had the character watching could easily date the film. Tappy Tibbons was a character in a screenplay Aronofsky wrote after film school, inspired by self-help gurus like Tony Robbins. Over the years, he developed the character as well as the Month of Fury infomercial Tibbons hosts.
- According to Aronofsky, Tappy Tibbons’ Month of Fury is a self-help plan. The plan consists of three things you have to do in order to revolutionize your life. 1) no red meat. 2) no refined sugar. Aronofsky doesn’t give away what the third step is. He says you have to search on the Internet to figure it out. If you have the Requiem For a Dream director’s cut DVD, go to the chapter selection menu, go to the Chapter 21–24 tab, hit up twice, then hit enter. A hidden Tappy Tibbons informercial begins playing. The third thing is…spoiler alert…no orgasms. This one drives people crazy.
- Selby’s novel took place in Brooklyn instead of Coney Island. Since Aronofsky grew up in Coney Island, he wanted to include locations and events – Harry and Marion (Jennifer Connelly) breaking onto the roof of a building was not in the novel – that were personal to him. Selby didn’t mind the change thinking it still captured the same culture.
- “You could give her five or six notes, and she just bounces and bings between them and just completely hits each one on the nose, and, at the end, she’ll just do a little, extra corkscrew that will just completely screw you up, but it’s completely great and completely blows your mind even though you don’t really know what it is that you saw,” says Aronofsky on Ellen Burstyn. He mentions she lost 40 pounds for the role. She wore several different prosthetic pieces (some which took 4 hours to apply), wigs, and makeup throughout the film and never complained about how arduous it all was. Plus, there are several moments in the film where Burstyn will act in a way that hides the lines on her prosthetic pieces from the camera’s view.
- Aronofsky was not interested in Requiem For a Dream as a junky movie or a film about drug paraphernalia. He was more interested in the before and after of drug use. One of his influences while working on animated shorts in film school was Jan Svankmajer, a Czech animator who, according to Aronofsky, uses a lot of “before and after photos.” Aronofsky used Svankmajer as an influence when attempting to create a film about what drugs do to you physically, mentally, and emotionally.
- The way Tyrone C. Love, played by Marlon Wayans, mixes styles both in the way he dresses and the way he talks is another instance where Aronofsky wanted the film to be timeless, that it should be about addiction regardless of the time period in which it actually takes place. “Ultimately Requiem For a Dream is about the lengths people go to escape their reality, and that, when you escape that reality, you create a hole in your present, because you’re not there. You’re chasing off a pipe dream in the future, and then you’ll use anything to fill that vacuum.” Aronofsky explains that the film is about addiction to anything, not just illegal drugs. It could be addiction to coffee, TV, or even hope.
- Aronofsky mentions there are about 150 digital effects in Requiem For a Dream. He and friends from film school formed Amoeba Proteus, a digital effects company designed to create smaller effects that would go unnoticed. The company has done digital effects on all of Aronofsky’s films.
- The only direction Aronofsky gave Peter Maloney, who plays Sara’s doctor, Dr. Pill, was to never look at Ellen Burstyn. Maloney later told Aronofsky it was the most difficult direction of his career.
- The editing style and the way Aronofsky creates montages in the film is something the director refers to as “hip hop montage.” It’s a technique he’s been developing since Fortune Cookie. He was inspired by hip hop music he listened to throughout the ’80s, and hee would take images and sounds and tell a story by cutting rapidly between them all. He made sure to use the technique across all the stories in Requiem to indicate it was about all drugs and all addiction, not just one. There are also moments for each character where the montage isn’t used – specifically when the character is reluctant to take whatever drug they’re addicted to. It indicates them questioning for only a moment what they’re doing to themselves.
- While filming the scene between Tyrone C. Love and his girlfriend, Alice, played by Aliya Campbell, Aronofsky remembers Wayans performing it very seriously. Not getting what he wanted and knowing the time crunch they had to get the scene done, Aronofsky told Wayans to stop acting
“like a serial killer.”
- “Once again I prove to the world that I’m more of a pornographer than I am a filmmaker,” says Aronofsky as the film fades into the sex scene between Tyrone and Alice. The director notes he really enjoyed shooting the scene mainly because of the actors. “Sex scenes can be fun to shoot,” he notes. This is the man who would go on to make Black Swan. Apparently, he still holds onto this philosophy.
- Aronofsky says the scene where Harry goes to visit Sara was his favorite scene in Selby’s novel, it was the scene that ultimately motivated Aronofsky to make the film, and it is his favorite moment in the finished film. Aronofsky feels this scene is representative of the whole story, how it’s about the difficulty addicts find connecting with the people they love. The scene has three sections: the light side when things are pleasant at the beginning; the dark side when the two begin to argue after Harry finds Sara’s drugs; and back to the light side when Sara makes her confession at the end. Aronofsky sees Ellen Burstyn capturing this performance in this scene as his proudest moment. Aronofsky notes all of Burstyn’s performance in the confession moment was from one, single take. She actually did three takes, but she did each take differently. They couldn’t be combined or cut together. Burstyn is actually out of frame at one point at the end of the take used. Aronofsky was pissed when he noticed this during filming. He went to cinematographer Matthew Libatique to see what had happened. Libatique had tears streaming down his face from Burstyn’s performance. He had fogged up the lens and couldn’t see to properly frame it.
- After filming had completed, Burstyn told Aronofsky that it might happen only once during a stage performance where she would feel like she had completely become the character. She told him that it had happened three times while filming Requiem For a Dream. One was the “confession” scene. The next scene is when Sara has lost it and is trying to explain herself to the TV production company. The last is the very end dream sequence where Sara and Harry come together on Tibbons’ show. This moment was filmed on the first day of filming. The only way Aronofsky can describe what Burstyn is doing in Requiem is that she’s “surfing the character.” He also compares the actress to Michael Jordan in that they both completely lose themselves in the job they’re doing.
- Aronofsky mentions how much he loves playing with sound design. “My favorite device on the mixing board are those little joysticks where you can actually move the sound to different speakers. If you give me that in the editing room, you’ve got to add an extra two days to the budget. Don’t tell the producers that, though.”
- Sean Gullette got upset with Aronofsky on the day they shot the scene between him and Jennifer Connelly at dinner. Gullette had prepared a lot for the scene, but Aronofsky felt the only thing the scene needed, even more important than the dialogue, was Gullette’s character eating a steak. He doesn’t indicate if he’s exaggerating or not – which would lead me to believe that he’s not – but Aronofsky says Gullette ate five and a half steaks while filming this scene. On that day, food won.
- Aronofsky points out the “Snory-cam” shots where the camera is essentially strapped to the actor and held completely in the middle of the frame while the background moves around. Aronofsky wanted each, main character in Requiem to get a Snory-cam shot. The production couldn’t afford what he had planned for Harry. He won’t explain what the shot is, because he intends to use it in a then-future film. It might involve Harry jumping off the top rope of a wrestling ring, but probably not.
- When Marion returns to the apartment after sleeping with Arnold, Sean Gullette’s character, she and Harry sit on the couch quietly, not touching each other. In the uncut take, Connelly and Leto actually did make contact at one point, but Aronofsky cut that moment out of the finished shot not wanting there to be any kind of connection between the two.
- Most of the extras during the grocery store scene are actual junkies brought in off the street. Aronofsky remembers one extra who had to leave at 3AM during filming to pick up heroin as well as some people shooting up on set. This was also the night Jared Leto had his mom and grandmother come to visit the production.
- Aronofsky wanted Florida to become a character in the film. In Selby’s novel, a lot of text and inner monologue is devoted to the characters’ desires to get to Florida, believing it to be the answer to their prayers. Unable to include inner monologues and unwilling to throw in needless exposition, Aronofsky added little moments here and there that make you think of Florida. The Florida orange on the side of the semi-trailer truck is just one. There are several other instances scattered throughout the film.
- The sequence where Sara Goldfarb hallucinates that her apartment becomes the Tappy Tibbons infomercial set was an arduous scene to create and shoot. Aronofsky notes the storyboard document for the 5-minute sequence was 56 pages long. “When people ask me what directing is about, the best metaphor I give it is conducting, because I think you basically have an orchestra of all these different instruments and you basically have to get them to play together to play a single musical piece.”
- Before production began, Aronofsky and Clint Mansell listened to several different requiems from different composers. They picked out their favorite moments in each. Mansell took these, sampled them into a drum machine, and played them percussively. Kronos Quartet added their own notes with sharp violins. All of this was culled together and used for the film’s last act.
- “The film is constructed to build to a climax. It’s that climax which caused all the rating problems with the MPAA.” Aronofsky recognizes how intense Requiem For a Dream is, but he also understands the moral it tells. He believes a rating system is important in the film industry, and he recognizes that people need to know what they’re going to see and what they’re children are going to see in a movie. “But there’s clearly a big, big hypocrisy on what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable in movies. The fact that you can show as much gun violence as you want in a PG-13 movie as long as you don’t show blood I think is completely backwards thinking.” Aronofsky believes it’s much more important to show teenagers the violence guns can cause if mishandled rather than what he calls “A-Team fantasy” where people fall down dead but bloodless after being shot. “The way I look at the world is that guns and violence is bad and human sexuality is good.”
- Selby’s first day on set was when they were shooting Sara getting the feeding tube pushed into her nose. The author lasted 10 minutes before breaking into tears because of Burstyn’s performance. Selby also plays the prison guard who is taunting Tyrone near the end of the film.
- The final 10 minutes are where, as Aronofsky states, all hell breaks loose. He wanted the culmination of all four stories to be as insane as possible. For the scene where Sara gets shock treatment, the director had everyone set up for the shot. He then brought Selby in and had him read that chapter of his novel to Ellen Burstyn as a way to prepare her.
- During the “ass-to-ass” scene, Aronofsky mentions – kind of casually – that it’s based on something he experienced first-hand. No details are given. Not that there need to be any.
- When Aronofsky reached the end of Selby’s novel, he wasn’t sure if Harry lived or died. He asked Selby about the character’s outcome. The author answered, “Of course, he lives.” When Aronofsky asked why he said “of course”, Selby responded that the character had to suffer more. The director remembers some debates about trying to give the movie an upbeat ending. He mentions how his generation was raised on TV shows like The Brady Bunch and Magnum P.I. where every story is wrapped up nicely by the end, how everything works out fine in most movies and TV shows. “As we all know, it doesn’t always work out in the end. Anyone who’s lived 20 years on this planet knows that things get fucked up, and they stay that way.” The director didn’t want to undermine Selby’s message with his version.
Best in Commentary
“When we were amoebas in the primordial soup we were searching for carbon molecules to get high off of.” – Aronofsky on the timeless theme of addiction.
“I really wanted to capture the visual style of Selby’s writing. What that entails is entering the subjective mind of his characters, because, what’s great about Selby’s characters is that you don’t know always where the dreams start and where the dreams end and characters float in and out of ideas.”
Aronofsky’s commentary track for Requiem For a Dream is a very interesting listen. The director has a very subdued voice, thick with a Brooklyn accent making it very distinct. He recorded this track by himself, so there’s no bouncing off another commentator about how something worked out or how a particular day of shooting went. He doesn’t need someone to bounce memories off of. He handles it all well by himself here dishing out insight into his vision for the film, the technical side of completing it, and really getting into what it was like filming some of the more harrowing and unforgettable sequences.
He sticks very heavily to Ellen Burstyn and her stunning performance. He also speaks on Marlon Wayans, Jared Leto, and Jennifer Connelly’s performances, though the time and detail given to them is nowhere near as interesting as what he has to say about Burstyn. Nonetheless, the Requiem For a Dream commentary track is absolutely one you should check out. That goes double if you like the film, triple if you’re an overall fan of Aronofsky’s work.