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Darren's Dream

A Q&A interview conducted by the AUDIENCE and recorded by MARY KALIN-CASEY from Reel.Com concerning Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem For A Dream".

Aronofsky appeared at the recent Mill Valley Film Festival, in Marin County, California, and followed a screening of his film with an engaging Q & A session with the audience. Though one might expect the man behind such intense, bleak, and challenging works to be a potentially prickly interviewee, the director was jovial and communicative, with a sharp sense of humor and a friendly, upbeat manner. Here, Aronofsky shared his insights into Selby's work, detailed his creative and technical processes, touted the Requiem Web site (one of the finest ever created for a film), and recounted the making of his Dream.

Darren Aronofsky: We're psyched to be here. The last time I was here, actually, we mixed the film up at Skywalker [Ranch], and I drove by this theater every day searching for food, in between breaks. So it's really cool to be back here. It's always hard to do a Q & A after this movie because it's like going in front of a firing squad or something.

Q: What was it about Requiem for a Dream that grabbed your attention?

DA: Well, I think it starts with Selby, because I've wanted to work with Selby forever. And his material, when I read it, makes me feel deeper than I ever feel. I think it's because he takes you to places where characters are in their darkest places. And he can show you incredible humanity because he has an ability to empathize with humanity and how it causes pain for itself and how we can cause pain for each other. And I thought, there are enough Hollywood films and also independent films that basically have a happy ending. Anyone who's lived for 20 years on this planet knows, in the end, that it doesn't always work out; it's not always the Brady Bunch ending. And I think that's what Selby is about: saying, "Hey, look; this is tragedy." Tragedy up to 80 years or so ago, when Hollywood really began controlling entertainment was a real form. And now you really don't get that; people can't have a catharsis and have a reaction when they watch tragedy.

Q: What is Hubert Selby doing right now?

DA: "Cubby," as he likes to be called, is 72, 73 years old. He lives in Los Angeles in the one apartment building that looks like it should be in Brooklyn and he's doing very well. He came to Cannes for the premiere of the movie. And he wrote a new novel that came out two years ago, called The Willow Tree, that was just released in paperback. And he's writing.

Q: Do you think, in this film, that dope is a metaphor for TV, or TV a metaphor for dope?

DA: I think Selby's point is that there's not a difference; I think that's the point of the film one of the points of the film and why the Sara Goldfarb story exists: to counterpoint the more typical story of addiction that we've all seen before. It's about the lengths people go to to escape their reality. And when you escape your reality, you create a hole in your present because you're not there. And then you use anything to fill it so it could be TV, it could be coffee, it could be chocolate, it could be food, it could be heroin. It could be tobacco, alcohol, sex, love. Ultimately, hope is what you try to fill that hole with to believe in the future. And what happens is that hole gets bigger and bigger and bigger, sort of like the hole in Harry's arm, until it will eventually engulf you.

So that's really what Selby is saying, at the core: That same psychological struggle to get off heroin is the same thing as "I want to lose 25 pounds and not eat food." That thing of, "There's some food over there, and I'm really hungry. But I'm on a diet. But I haven't eaten anything for a day, so maybe I can have just a little bit. But I really shouldn't because I'm trying to lose weight." That inner monologue we all, I think at least me and most of the people I've talked to deal with in some way, in our lives. Selby actually pointed out a great one to me, which we didn't use in the film, which was when you get dumped and you're waiting for the phone to ring for your girl or your guy to call you and you keep wanting to call them and then hanging up when you get their machine. That same trying to get away is the same thing he was talking about; it's that same addiction.

Q: How do you feel about the MPAA controversy and the film being unrated? And how has Artisan handled that?

DA: I'm actually pretty excited that it's going out unrated because I want audiences to be aware that it's really a different type of movie I think that if people come in thinking that it's just a normal film, they're going to be very, very upset with me and my mother. [Audience laughs]

So it's great. Everyone now knows that something's going on here, and we've warned them before they come in. And I think that Artisan completely understood that it was more commercial the way it was than if we cut it, because I think what makes the film commercial are the lengths the films takes it's about the lengths people go to to escape from reality. To pull back from that would undermine the whole purpose of the film.

Q: Could you talk about how you created some of the "time-lapse" scenes and the digital effects?

DA: Well, we did a bit of everything. For the shot that pans across the room [in which widowed housewife Ellen Burstyn cleans her apartment], it was a robotic camera. The only way to do a moving, time-lapse shot is with robotics. The camera moves a millimeter, takes a picture, moves a millimeter, takes a picture does that over 40 minutes to do the entire shot. So Ellen, at age 67, was cleaning that apartment for 40 minutes, totally in character, in a 40-pound fat-suit and prosthetic neck. And after the first take, she asked me to do a second take without my knowing that she actually hurt her back on the first one. But she wasn't happy with it, and the second take is the one in the movie. That was the type of commitment she brought to the film.

Q: The characters in this film are in such an intense state. How was it for you, making this film, to be immersed in this difficult subject?

DA: I imagine that it was probably hard on the actors, but, when you're a director, it's sort of like you're connecting the dots. The only time you really have an emotional experience is between when you yell "action" and "cut," when you try to be open to see what the actors are doing. But the rest of the time you're smoking cigarettes and chewing your nails and getting screamed at by Eric [Watson, co-producer of Requiem]. [Laughs]

Basically, it's very intense, but I would say that because of the seriousness of the material and the commitment of the actors, there was a really deep focus on the set. There was a lot of passion that people brought to the show. When people were doing really heavy emotions, instead of that pouring out onto the crew, I think we just got really good at our jobs because we didn't want to keep the actors in that pain for that long. So we just made sure that none of us screwed up technically. There were a few tears. Whenever you get the union guys sad or walking off the set because they can't handle it, you know you're doing something right. [Audience laughs]

Q: The roles in Requiem for a Dream are very demanding. How did you select the cast?

DA: Well, Ellen Burstyn is Ellen Burstyn. Personally, I think she is one of the greatest living actors in the English language [The crowd applauds enthusiastically]. Tell people about her performance because it's a very hard film to get recognition for, and she deserves it for what she did. Any sort of sexism or ageism I might have had was completely undone by working with Ellen Burstyn. Because I just realized that it's about the artist. It has nothing to do with what the body is; it's purely what's inside. The type of mastery she's done of her craft is just amazing, totally inspirational.

Jared Jared Leto, "Harry," an upcoming young actor whom I've known about for a few years he's done a bunch of movies and TV, he was really committed. He was in American Psycho and Fight Club, you're going to be seeing a lot of him. Jennifer Connelly we all fell in love with her when she was 12 or 13 in Once Upon a Time in America. She came in the room and wowed us. And Marlon Wayans from Scary Movie to this scary movie. [Laughs] They were just the best actors for the roles. A lot of the cameos are people that were in Pi, like Sean Gullette, who was the star, "Max," plays the shrink in this movie. Samia Shoaib came back, and Mark Margolis. So it was great. To work new actors, old actors good actors.

And Chris McDonald, "Tappy Tibbons." We shot all that in one day, all the TV stuff, and he really convinced the audience to go on this diet. [Laughs] At the end of the movie they were really into it. They had to cheer all day, and for an audience of extras who are getting paid $50 to $75 per day to be cheering, it's really hard, brutal work. When we wrapped, they all gave Chris a standing ovation which was an unheard-of thing because they loved him so much.

Q: What kind of direction did you give the actors to get into these difficult roles?

DA: With Ellen, of course, we didn't have to do anything. She did a lot of the research on her own; she's a real professional. And also when I cast her, she was in a show. And she happened to be in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, which I didn't actually know. I had heard of the play, but I didn't know it. And me and Eric [Watson] went to see it, and we realized she was rehearsing for Requiem for a Dream every night. [Audience laughs]

And the young actors, they all gave me about a month and a half for no money. So it was a lot of work. We went over every single detail of the script. Jared lost 25 pounds for the role. So they were really deeply committed.

Q: Editing is such a crucial element to the tempo of this film. What is your approach to editing? Is it preconceived?

DA: I do a lot of previsualization, so I know what it's going to look like and how it's going to cut. But there's no way to really previsualize something like that three-minute climax at the end. You just shoot that and you have a sense of how you want it to cut together, but you really can't do that until you have the footage and know it's going to work. I just try to keep it moving. I think the biggest crime is to bore an audience, so I just want it to be a big rush, as much as possible. We worked on Avid which is a digital-editing system and I think that's the only way to cut a film like this. I think that if this film had been cut in the traditional way, it wouldn't have been this movie. The only reason this film exists is because of digital technology.

Q: How did you end up bringing in the Kronos Quartet in on the score? [Audience applauds enthusiastically]

DA: The CD rocks. It just came out by the way, on Nonesuch Records. Well, Clint Mansell was my composer on Pi, and he's really a very interesting composer. A lot of the samples in the movie, like the [makes a whoosh-dub sound] that you kept hearing, are actually samples from a Bruce Lee movie those are actually Bruce Lee punches. He does really great things with samples and electronics. And as he started to deliver material for this overture which is what we called that main piece with the strings it became really clear to us that we needed a live string accompaniment.

So, we were thinking about how we could do this, and we figured we'd go to the best. I had seen Kronos play a few times I'd go to see some weird concert, and there would be this weird start-up, and it would be Kronos warming up. [Laughs] And then I saw them do Dracula the thing they did so brilliantly with Philip Glass. We showed the film to David Harrington, who is one of the members of Kronos, and he really dug it. Then everyone worked really hard to make it happen, because there were so many limited resources. No one really could understand what Kronos and the filmmakers understood about what they could add to the movie. So it was really, really difficult to get done, and I think the results speak for themselves. They really gave their heart and soul for very little money and lots and lots of hours. Without them, the film definitely wouldn't have had the impact it's had on people. It takes it to a whole 'nother level.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about adapting the screenplay?

DA: I've been really lucky because I've worked with writers that really are not prima donnas when it comes to their material. They understand that movies are a different form than written text, and they're completely open to interpreting their information for a movie. I don't know if you've seen the Web site? It was done by these artists in the U.K. and it's not an electronic billboard like you see on most movie sites; it's actually a really beautiful piece of art that stands on its own. And the way they interpreted the movie into a Web site is sort of what I did with the novel and turning it into a movie. But Selby was incredibly generous and open. We had a few arguments, but not really. It was very, very easygoing.

Q: How far along is Batman: Year One, and what else are you working on?

DA: Batman's just a development deal, and we're not on the set treating it. It's a good way to just try and work with a studio and see how it works. And we've been working on something for 11 months me, Eric, and a friend of ours which is this science fiction film that I call a "post-Matrix, metaphysical science fiction film." You know, The Matrix kind of f**ked up everything because it was such a badass movie and it used up so many cool science fiction ideas that it's like, "OK so what do we do now?" [Audience laughs] So, I don't think we've done something that's going to revolutionize the genre like Matrix, but I think we've figured out something that's going to fill the years 'til someone else comes along and f**ks up the genre again. [More laughter] So we're really, really excited about that and to give a little hint it's back toward Pi, but on a much more ambitious scale. And we'll see what they let us make. It's really hard to make a big film, even Batman or this untitled project which actually has a title, but I can't tell you and hopefully we'll get one of them made soon.

Q: How difficult was it getting this film made?

DA: When we were trying to make the film, everyone said, "No!" After Pi, everyone was like, "Whatever you want to do! Whatever you want to do! We'll make it!" And then we mailed them the script for Requiem for a Dream, and they didn't even return our phone calls. And Eric Watson, in his everlasting wisdom said, "When everyone is telling you 'No,' then you know you're doing something right." And I really believe that. I think the reaction we've been getting has been great. Everyone loves it except for People magazine and U.S.A. Today, so that means everyone loves it. [Audience laughs] All the right people love it. And so we are very, very happy.

The bottom line is, when you make a film, for three years you have to wake up every day and live with the film. And so to do that, to get up out of bed and be excited about it, you have to be passionate. I know films get made without passion; I don't know how they get made, probably with a lot of money. But for me, it just doesn't work that way; you have to believe in something, believe in what you are doing.