Darren Aronofsky opens the door to his Mayflower Hotel suite. The blinds are drawn and the lights are off, but in the gloom I can see an emaciated, half-dressed woman sprawled woozily on the couch. The principal light comes from a small open flame, over which a lank-haired youth is cooking a spoonful of milky liquid that gives off an acrid smell.
Well, hardly. The director of Requiem for a Dream may savor extreme subjects, but his approach is all business. Indeed, since his 1998 trip to Washington to promote his debut feature, pi, Aronofsky has become even more focused. Although the Harvard and American Film Institute graduate’s latest film features a gallery of heroin and amphetamine addicts, he barely responds when asked if he’s personally engrossed by drugs.
“I don’t know,” he says hesitantly. “Drugs are kind of interesting.”
There’s still an element of Brooklyn swagger to Aronofsky’s conversational style, but his remarks have become as streamlined as his wardrobe. Two years ago, his pants and shoes featured clashing stripe patterns. This time, he’s attired entirely in black, white, and off-white.
His answers are just as meticulous. Virtually any question elicits a crisp paragraph that neatly balances self-assurance and the requisite praise for his collaborators. So how did Aronofsky like working with Hubert Selby Jr., who helped the director co-write the script for this adaptation of Selby’s 1978 novel?
“It was cool. He was in L.A., and I was in New York. It wasn’t like we were sitting around a keyboard working together. But we traded notes back and forth and had a lot of conversations. We eventually arrived at a screenplay that we were both happy with.”
Aronofsky notes that Selby, who’s best known for writing Last Exit to Brooklyn, “lives in L.A. in the one building that looks like it’s Brooklyn.” This seems like an opportune time for the director to expand on his hatred for Los Angeles, a subject he discussed freely in 1998.
“I like L.A. just fine,” Aronofsky says warily. “I’m happy living on the East Coast. I’m more of an East Coast person than a West Coast person.”
A longtime Selby fan, the director is pleased to be shining a spotlight on the man he calls “one of the underrated great American writers. It was funny: When we went to Cannes, no one wanted to talk to meeveryone wanted to talk to Hubert Selby Jr.”
Aronofsky doesn’t think the press in France had it quite right, however. To him, actress Ellen Burstyn is just as important as the novelist. “Working with her was such a thrill,” he says. Her performance is “the best thing I ever had the opportunity to capture.” He even uses such Oscar-night phrases as “stellar cast” to describe Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, and Marlon Wayans.
A showy film with many directorial flourishes, Requiem for a Dream is not exactly an actors’ showcase. Yet Aronofsky insists that “I really love working with actors. I studied acting so I could communicate with them better.”
He reveals that in 10 weeks he achieved his acting-class goal of having “a breakdown in front of the class” but insists that he would never do such a thing in a movie. “No, no! Never, never, never. I never had an interest in being in front of the camera. I hate it.” He laughs. “It’s so revealing. To be good, you have to be totally open and honest.”
Still, much of the film’s characterization is established not by bravura performances but through visual motifs. As in pi, Aronofsky strapped cameras to actors’ chests. “I like very much the subjective nature,” he explains. “The actor is frozen in the center of the frame and the background is moving, so it basically separates the character from the environment.”
“I wanted to create a totally subjective universe for each character,” he adds. “They’re always disconnected from each other.”
The film’s disconnectedness is in part a matter of rhythm, which the director credits to hiphop. “The cutting of those montages of the different addictions comes out of growing up in hiphop culture and trying to turn visuals into something I used to hear when I was a kid,” he says. Clint Mansell’s score, however, features not the Wu-Tang Clan but the Kronos Quartet. Aronofsky calls the new-music foursome “just amazing,” but he doesn’t claim to be a follower. “I was definitely a fan of their track record,” he says.
Aronofsky says that his next script is for a science-fiction film that will take him to entirely new territory, but he concedes that “there are a lot of connections between pi and Requiem. There were a lot of things we couldn’t do on pi, because we didn’t have the money, that we were able to explore with Requiem for a Dream.”
He notes that “there are over 150 digital effects in the film. I started a digital-effects company, and we just did them in house. We did them on PowerBooks…and then eventually finished them up on high-end machines. But we did most of the groundwork on cheap machines. That’s how we got it done for a good price.”
This movie is set in Coney Island, the director’s childhood neighborhood, which featured less prominently in pi. Aronofsky transplanted the story from Selby’s chosen locale, the Bronx, because Coney Island, he says, “had been such a big influence on me artistically. I’d been wanting to shoot there for so long.”
Requiem follows two other films about heroin addicts, Larry Clark’s Another Day in Paradise and Alison Maclean’s Jesus’ Son, that were not exactly commercial successes. But Aronofsky says he “wasn’t really concerned, because I was really into the Selby vision. This was a monster movie for me. It was a modern horror film in the sense that you didn’t see the creatureit was an invisible creature. Addiction with a capital A. It was about addiction killing the human spirit. I thought that was a very different tale than any of those films’.
“We’re three very distinct filmmakers,” he continues. “I think those films may be more interested in that culture, whereas I wasn’t really interested in drug culture. I was more interested in how anything could be a drug, anything can be an addiction. So that coffee, TV, masturbation, whatever, were all drugs.”
With this comment, Aronofsky has made short work of my questions; when I tell him so, he lets down his guard. “Oh gosh, I’m sorry,” he says, apparently almost embarrassed. “Last time I bullshitted more? I was probably less confident.” Mark Jenkins