Born and raised in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brighton Beach, writer/director Darren Aronofsky seemingly embodies the edgy spirit of today’s independent American filmmaker. Aronofsky made his debut at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, which premiered his unique, sci-fi-flavored thriller “Pi,” earning him the event’s Director’s Award and a nomination for Best First Feature. Shot in stark 16mm monochrome for only $60,000 and featuring an unknown-yet-talented cast, “Pi” trails an obsessed mathematician on his odyssey to decipher the secrets of the title’s mathematical conundrum.
Post-Sundance, “Pi” was celebrated at various high-profile venues, including the Deauville Film Festival, the GijÃ³n International Film Festival, the Thessaloniki International Film Festival and the Independent Spirit Awards. The seemingly uncommercial film was picked up by Artisan Entertainment for a reported $1 million, and grossed about $5 theatrically in the U.S.
Aronofsky’s sophomore feature, the $4.5 million Artisan Entertainment release “Requiem for a Dream,” a gritty drama based on the 1978 novel by Hubert Selby Jr., premiered out of competition at Cannes. Set in Manhattan, “Requiem” centers on a depressed woman, Sarah (Ellen Burstyn), who is obsessed with television and hooked on diet pills, while her son (Jared Leto) is addicted to heroin. He fantasizes about making a lucrative drug deal in order to lift himself and his equally addicted friends (Marlon Wayans and Jennifer Connolly) out of their desperate position.
Film Threat spoke to Aronofsky about obsession, addiction and Cannes.
[ What was your reaction to hearing that “Requiem for a Dream” would premiere at Cannes? ] ^ (Laughing) Well, I’m a Brooklyn kid, so it’s an unbelievable thrill to be at the Cannes Film Festival. I’ve only been there once before, and it was in 1987. I’d graduated high school, so I backpacked around Europe with about 12 bucks in my pocket. I arrived in Cannes during the festival and I remember standing by the red carpet outside the Palais and seeing all the celebrities walking in. Because I couldn’t afford a place to stay, I slept under a bush. True story. So going back to Cannes this time will be a different experience. We’ll see how generous Artisan is!
[ How did you become interested in Selby’s novel “Requiem for a Dream”? ] ^ Hubert Selby is a very important figure in my life. When I was a freshman in college (Harvard) and studying for my first finals, I was terrified because I was a public-school kid from Brooklyn. I hadn’t learned anything except how to cut class and get away with it! So I was at the library trying to learn something, but out of the corner of my eye I saw the word Brooklyn. So I went over to a shelf and found Selby’s book “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” This was the first time I was exposed to his work, and it changed my life. It totally blew me away that there was writing like this. The initial connection was that it was about Brooklyn and I’m from Brooklyn, but his writing style, the energy – the fever that his words burn off the page with. I don’t think anyone captures inner monologue better than Selby, and his ear for what’s going on inside someone’s brain as they reason about what they’re going to do is just unbelievable. And his ability to capture the vocal sound of voices – the distinction of slang and the different ways people speak – is like poetry. It’s very realistic, but he captures the essence of it and puts it on the page. When I went to film school at the American Film Institute, I had to make three short films in my first year, so I started reading short stories by my favorite authors. My first student film I did was called “Fortune Cookie,” and was based on one of Selby’s short stories – about a salesman who gets addicted to fortunes, and can’t make a sale unless he has a good fortune from a fortune cookie. When I graduated, I concentrated on reading novels by my favorite authors, and I started reading “Requiem for a Dream,’ which I couldn’t finish. It was just so intense and honestly brutal – and so close to the writing I was working on in my personal life – that I didn’t want to read it anymore.
[ At what point did it come back into your life? ] ^ While we were cutting “Pi.” My producer, Eric Watson, saw the book on my shelf and borrowed it to read during a ski vacation with his family. He came back and said that it had ruined his vacation, but that we must make it into a film. So I finally finished reading it and agreed. At that point, we had absolutely no money or resources, so we optioned it out of our own pockets. Then, when “Pi” hit, there was a big discussion about what we would do next. We’d quickly signed deals with both Miramax and New Line, and we had a case for making a bigger film, but, artistically, we had to get “Requiem” out of our system. It touched us so close, and was so human, that we had to get it done. So gave up some big pay pays laughs to make this film – I made just a little more than I had on “Pi.”
[ Working on “Pi,” you had a day job and paid for things largely out of pocket. How was your mental state different while working on “Requiem,” which had a small, but reasonable, budget? ] ^ Well, on “Pi,” I ate pizza and falafel for dinner every night. (Laughs) That’s all I could afford! But on this film I ate a little better, although I usually lose weight while working on a picture – 10 to 15 pounds a month. But the creative process was very similar. On the set, you’re dealing with the same challenges and problems. You have a limited amount of time and money, and those limitations affect what you can do creatively. So “Requiem” was similar to “Pi” in that we really pushed what we could do creatively. Instead of ever just shooting something “normally,” we always tried to do something different. But the advantage in having a bigger budget is that you great to work with really great artists and crafts people. My camera crew on “Requiem” was unbelievable. By the second day my cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, who’d shot “Pi,” and I learned that these guys and girls could put the camera any-f*****g-where I wanted it. They could do anything.
[ You assembled an amazing cast for the picture. How did the material help attract such actors? ] ^ Well, the lead role of Sarah Goldfarb – played by Ellen Burstyn – is one of those parts that rarely comes around. You always hear the complains from older actresses about the fact that there are no good roles for women. Well, this was an amazing role. But a lot of actresses were terrified of the part because it was so intense. It was a great role, but it wasn’t just playing a grandma cooks dinner in the kitchen. Ellen Burstyn was the first and bravest actress to come in and say, “Let’s go for it.” And she f*****g kicked a*s! (Laughs) I’m so proud because her performance is the best thing I’ve ever captured. She would come to the set every day and open her heart and just flood our lens with love, literally. When I wrapped her, I said to her, “Few people get to play with Michæl Jordan every day.” I’d felt like a high school basketball coach going on-on-one with Jordan every day – and Ellen always put the ball through the hoop. And the kids – Jared Leto, Jennifer Connolly and Marlon Wayans – I wanted a commitment from them. This was very difficult material, we were paying them SAG minimum, we had about 40 shooting days, and I wanted a six weeks of rehearsal. So it was a major commitment for them to take this on. Jared lost 25 pounds for his role – and he’s already sleight. Jennifer’s part was extremely difficult… she had to go really, really far…
[ Can you give us an illustration of that? ] ^ Well, this film is about addiction versus the human spirit. And it’s a one-way ticket into the sub-sub-basement of Hell. It goes really, really deep into human pain and sacrifice, and there are no holds barred. When I started to structure the script, I began by looking for the hero of the movie. Would it be Jared’s role, or Ellen’s role? But it was neither of them. Instead, the hero of the film was their enemy, it was addiction. I slowly figured out that we were making a monster movie, but there was no physical monster. Instead, it was this monster that lived inside their heads. And in every scene, addiction is heroic over the characters. And what the film is about is how all addictions are the same – whether they be an addiction to drugs, masturbation, television, hope, love, food – it’s all the same. The struggle to say no to a cigarette is the same struggle to say no to sticking a needle in your arm. And that human struggle is what Hubert Selby captured in his book. To visualize that on the screen – a thing we all deal with every day – was a very human thing. And that was a challenge. (Laughs) Doesn’t that sound good?!
[ Yeah, I want to see it right away! ] ^ (Laughs) It’s not a film for everyone. But I think we’re in that same sort of genre as “In the Company of Men” – those films that are really intense. I grew up on Disney films and I’m a big fan, but there’s also an appetite for something different. I think Selby is one of America’s great writers. He’s so hard-core, and so honest, that any pulling back, any softening of the material, would have been disrespectful to his work.
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