"It's a punk movie"

Director Darren Aronofsky talks about why his junkie movie, "Requiem for a Dream," really isn't a junkie movie and about writing the script for the next "Batman."

Published October 13, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream" is so traumatic, so buzzingly difficult to watch, that it takes a few hours of restful silence after it ends before you realize that the movie, so preoccupied with festering sores and crusted spit and crushed spirits, is actually about love and hope.

At certain points, the seductively beautiful film is so hard to watch that you want to shield your eyes and beg for release. And right at that point, Aronofsky makes it even harder to bear.

On the surface, the script, based on Hubert Selby's novel and faithfully adapted by Selby and Aronofsky, tells two parallel stories of addiction. In one, junkie hipster Harry Goldfarb (a rail-thin Jared Leto) slouches around with his best friend, Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), investing small amounts of cash in heroin and shooting up bits of the profits.

Their goal is to work up the drug-dealer food chain so that they can buy a "pound of pure" and sit back in smack bliss while street urchins hustle their dope. With all the cash and free time, Harry promises his loving, sophisticated girlfriend, Marion (Jennifer Connelly), that he'll help her open a retail shop where she can sell some of the clothes that she draws on loose sheets of drawing paper.

In the other story, Harry's mother, Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), spends her days watching infomercials and eating chocolates alone in her small, solitary apartment near Coney Island. After a vague phone call that promises to put her on television, she starts taking diet pills so that she can fit into an old, fancy dress for her big moment.

As the characters in both stories spiral deeper and deeper into addiction, they meet paranoia, self-loathing and desperation. They lose grip on the dreams -- the American dreams -- that sent them into their drug frenzies, and they become more selfish and more self-destructive. And addiction laughs at them even louder.

"Requiem for a Dream" is Aronofsky's second feature after the jittery, paranoid "Pi." Like that film, "Requiem" is wickedly shot, heavily stylized and expertly edited, both visually and audibly. (The split-screen images and surrealist set designs are showy and impressive, but the sound design is astonishing.)

Aronofsky and I met recently in a hotel room on Central Park West in New York. It was early in a day full of interviews for him. He had much to talk about: Just a few days earlier, Hollywood trades had announced that he would be developing a script for -- and potentially directing -- "Batman V."

Why are so many young, talented filmmakers drawn to drug movies, particularly heroin movies? At this point, heroin movies are almost their own genre.

"Requiem for a Dream" is not about heroin or about drugs. In fact, I was never interested in making a movie about junkies -- I find junkies really boring and uninteresting. What was amazing to me about the novel, and what I tried to do in the movie, was the counterpoint of this Sara Goldfarb story, which completely deconstructed the movie as a drug movie. The Harry-Tyrone-Marion story is a very traditional heroin story. But putting it side by side with the Sara story, we suddenly say, "Oh, my God, what is a drug?"

What Selby is saying is that anything can be a drug -- it doesn't have to be smack. It could be TV, it can be coffee, it can be chocolate, it can be food, it can be hope, it could be love, it could be sex. The idea that the same inner monologue goes through a person's head when they're trying quit drugs as with cigarettes, as when they're trying to not eat food so they can lose 20 pounds, was really fascinating to me. I thought it was an idea that we hadn't seen on film and I wanted to bring it up on the screen.

I'm sorry, but I want to stay on this: Do you think that people keep coming back to this drug subculture because it's a good place to look for larger metaphors and bigger stories?

I don't think that's what it is. The films that pop into my head are "Drugstore Cowboy" and "Trainspotting."

Did you see "Jesus' Son"?

Yeah, but "Jesus' Son" really isn't about drugs either.

Exactly. And neither is "Drugstore Cowboy" or "Trainspotting."

Well, I think "Trainspotting" is -- a lot.

Well, it's about hope and life.

Yeah, but you really can't make a film ... I guess drugs act as a struggle. A lot of those films have a similar theme -- which is at the core of "Requiem" -- which is that battle between addiction and the human spirit.

In a lot of ways, we looked at "Requiem for a Dream" as a monster movie. The creature was invisible; it lived in their heads. Addiction. That's the human struggle. All of us have our addictions, whether it's procrastination or workaholism or TV -- we're constantly dealing with that struggle.

Even though it's not a drug movie, I have to say that the use of drugs makes it probably the most harrowing, nasty, difficult to watch of them all. Did you set out to make something that's absolutely flattening?

That's the point of the movie and the book: the lengths people go to escape their reality. This film is a nose dive into the ground and, beyond the ground, into the sub-basement of hell. When I pitched the movie, I told people that I wanted it to be like you jumped out of an airplane and about midway coming down you remember that you forgot your parachute. That's where the movie begins -- the second you realize you forgot your parachute. And the film ends five minutes after you hit the ground, and you're alive during that last five minutes, catching your last few breaths. For me, that's what the film was, a roller coaster that smashes into a brick wall. I wanted no catharsis at the end; [I wanted it to be] just as harsh and intense as possible. It's a punk movie where the audience is a mosh pit of emotion.

Did you just come up with all that on the fly?

I did actually. I've been saying it's a punk movie, but I never said the mosh pit of emotion.

You know, growing up in Manhattan, we used to go see "A Clockwork Orange" at the 8th Street Playhouse, or to Waverly Street Theater to see "Stop Making Sense" or "Eraserhead." All those films were these exciting, forbidden films, and I think that's where "Pi" and "Requiem" come out of -- trying to make those types of films.

What about the 1966 John Frankenheimer film "Seconds"?

I didn't get to see "Seconds" until after I did "Pi." It got rereleased on video in '98 or '99. I was blown away by that movie; I was really impressed. Frankenheimer was doing shots that I did in "Pi," and he did it years before, and I was impressed by it. It comes out of a similar school, out of "The Twilight Zone," which is where "Pi" came out of.

Back to smashing into brick walls -- do you think there's a danger in going at such full speed, a danger that the view might be overpowered or so beat down that people don't realize what's going on in the film?

I think that's definitely happening in the film. I think the film is pummeling. People are like, "You punched me for 90 minutes."

Personally, I was very fed up. You walk out of most movies and you go, "Oh, that was good." But basically, that's the only impact. This film is about tremendous impact. We wanted it to be crashing through the screen as long as possible. And I think that people are definitely not going to hang with this movie. People who are looking for really light entertainment, I beg of you, don't come see this movie, because you'll be very upset. If you want to go and just rock out for 100 minutes, then this is a good film.

You alluded to this earlier, and you said in the preface to the new edition of Selby's novel that the movie opened up to you when you tried to sketch the character arcs, but then realized ...

... That it was a monster movie.

How do you personify ...

That's the interesting thing: How do you personify addiction? You basically realize that the subtext to all of the characters' conversations is all about that struggle, that battle. It's about addiction taking little steps in each scene to further devour our heroes' lives.

With Sara, there were actual visual ways to personify it. The fridge coming alive is a complete visualization of her addiction, as is the television characters coming alive -- all of those characters represent her addiction having body and form and devouring her.

Every scene, my D.P. [director of photography] and I would say, "OK, where is Addiction in this scene? What is Addiction thinking? What is Addiction doing to basically make these characters suffer more?" That's what Addiction does: It's a terrible monster that eats the human spirit.

I wanted to talk to you about working with Selby and translating the book into the movie. A lot of the scenes ...

Have you read the book?


How do you think I did?

I was actually amazed at how faithful it was to the plot, but I thought that it must have been difficult for you to cut, because so many of the scenes you use from the book are so visual that you just move them to the screen. But so many that you didn't use are just as good. For example, I can't believe that you didn't want to film a scene at the morgue where, in the book, they all meet to shoot up.

I did. It was about money. I had to film that scene at a little party at their apartment -- real cheap. The scene where the TV came alive -- Tony Balls shot it -- that lifestyle scene was one of my favorite scenes. It just wasn't crucial to the narrative.

Selby had started writing a version of the screenplay about 15 years ago, but he had lost it. I started writing it, and got about three-quarters of the way done when I got a call from Selby -- he had found the draft in his basement. He sent it over, and I would say about 80 percent [of the two versions] was the same. Basically, we were telling the same story. It's about getting the essence and then adding ornamentation.

To get really particular, why did you switch the dream from Harry to Marion? Because in the novel, it was Harry who wanted to open a coffee shop. And in your version, it's Marion who wants to open up a clothes store for her designs.

Well, the coffee shop didn't work because of Starbucks. America has changed; Selby should have invested in coffee shops back then, because back then, in '78, it really was a novel idea. We went through a lot of things of what the dream was. It went from them wanting to open up a club down at Coney Island to his father being a baker and wanting to open a bakery, until eventually I thought that it might add something to Harry's character if he believed in his girl's dream.

I read Jennifer Connelly as saying that all these characters have holes to fill. I'm sure there are many themes, but I thought it was not about the holes but about what happens when they try to fill them. And you seem to be saying that when people try to fill holes things fall apart. That's pretty bleak.

I think that there are holes you can't fill -- bottomless pits. Ultimately the film is about the lengths people will go to escape their realities, and what happens when you chase after a fantasy.

Wait. Why do they have to escape their realities?

Because they're chasing after a dream that's never going to happen. They're not dealing with their now and their reality. Sara's not dealing with her loneliness. She's got this pipe dream that she's going to be on television and that she's going to be loved by millions of people. I think that's what Selby is saying: When you chase after that fantasy, you create a hole in your present, and then you use anything to fill that hole, to forget about the present, to stay believing in that fantasy and that future. And that's why it's not really a drug movie, because anything can fill that hole. It could be tobacco, food, drugs, and ultimately what it really is is hope.

I have five minutes left. I have to ask you about "Batman." Tell me what drew you to it and why you want to develop it.

I am going to write "Batman [V]" with Frank Miller. I'm also writing a science-fiction story, and that's going to be set up in a studio really soon. We'll see which one happens first, because it's not like I'm definitely doing "Batman," which everyone seems to think.

What do you mean not definitely?

Well, I'm going to write it and we'll see what happens. We'll see if they let me make the script that I'm interested in.

Why were you drawn to it?

I just think it's a great story that's been told two different ways in the last 10 years, both interesting, but not the way I would tell it. I think it's an amazing story that touches very deep in the American consciousness.

What part?

There's something about vengeance and justice that are really deep issues for Americans. And vigilantism. But to tell you the truth, I haven't even started on it. We've been talking about doing this for a long time. It seems like it's finally happening, but it's a long road.

Which was the best "Batman"?

For me, I would say No. 2. I liked Michelle Pfeiffer and the Penguin. I liked that whole tone. I think Tim Burton's great.

And who's the best Batman?

Yet to be seen.

By Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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