This weekend sees the release of Darren Aronofsky’s latest movie, Mother!, a film in which the New York auteur torments his collaborative (and, to those of us not above the gossip columns, romantic) partner Jennifer Lawrence in a myriad of ways to the point of intense hysteria. With this in mind, we ask the question: if this is how he directs the woman whose parents he’s looking to impress, what wringer would he put the rest of his cast through?
After the surprise success of debut feature Pi, which won Aronofsky the Directing Award at Sundance 1998 and a cool $3.2m in box office gross, Hollywood’s Hot Young Thing du jour was told he could make anything he wanted, with financiers in the palm of his hand. This not being the most honest of industries, a lot of the money men went quiet when he sent the script for his followup project, which would turn out to be something of a difficult second album.
The screenplay he was selling was an adaptation of revered Brooklyn author Hubert Selby Jr’s Requiem for a Dream, a passion project of Aronofsky’s ever since he’d become obsessed with the writer in school. In brief, the book tells the story of four characters living in Brooklyn (replaced in the film by Coney Island) struggling with addiction, delusion and obsession, all struggling with how to navigate such waters in the shadow of New York City.
When Aronofsky asked Selby for his blessing, it transpired that the latter had once worked on his own screenplay years prior. When compared, the two pieces had more than a passing resemblance, with the scripts “80 percent” the same, as Aronofsky put it. One thing the two differed on was the age of their leads; Aronofsky wanted them to be much younger, between 14 and 16, to further demonstrate the devastating impact of drugs and elicit a greater emotional response from the audience. Though Selby agreed, the film’s producers put their foot down, owing to the fact they felt the film would be too horrific for American audiences. Begrudgingly, Aronofsky relinquished the point.
With this situation resolved, the team set to work on casting the film’s three core characters. Long-time character actor Giovanni Ribisi, a post-Scream Neve Campbell and virtuosic comic Dave Chappelle were earmarked for Harry, Marion and Tyrone respectively, though all three declined. Though it’s a tragedy that we’ll never know what Chappelle would’ve brought to the film, Requiem settled with fellow comedian Marlon Wayans in a rare dramatic role, before completing the trio with Jennifer Connelly and one Jared Leto.
More often than not Leto, A Serious Actor, throws himself headfirst into roles; be it by blinding himself for Blade Runner 2049 or being an all-round petulant shit for the entire near-decade-long Suicide Squad cycle. But let it be known that his humble, early forays into method acting featured plain ol’ starvation. A slight man to begin with, Leto dropped 25 pounds to portray the heroin-addled Harry Goldfarb, before befriending a group of addicts to better understand the disease and give a more respectful performance. He even went as far as shooting up water in their presence to gain their trust – “People would be uncomfortable if they’re all shooting up and you’re not,” he remarked. The friendship proved genuine, as many of the group turned up as extras in the film.
Not all the parameters set to flesh out the character were self-imposed, however. Aronofsky banned Leto and co-star Marlon Wayans from sex and sugar, mankind’s two most enticing evils, to instil a deeper thirst in the pair for the scenes ahead. As they twitch and jerk down the final act’s tragic spiral, sick with cravings, the prep-work clearly pays off.
Viewers may still be most aware of Jennifer Connelly for her young turn in the equally horrific tour-de-force The Labryinth – and though being dragged around a magic kingdom by David Bowie was arduous, her experience on Requiem was on another level. To get into character as Marion, a dress designer, Connelly started making clothes for herself. In fact, most of her wardrobe in the movie was self-made. Late into the film, as the core trio disband and their lives start to unravel, the emotional phone call between Marion and Harry is a brief moment of delicacy. The call itself was done for real – both sides were shot simultaneously on adjacent parts of the set through a live phone hookup. One of the film’s most notorious scenes (let’s just call it the “ass to ass” scene), from Marion’s closing act, actually stems from something that happened in Aronofsky’s presence – though he’s never disclosed any further information. Probably best to leave it there, Darren.
If the youthful good looks of the film’s adolescent trio provide the tragic face of the film, Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn is its heart and soul, delivering one of the 21st century’s finest performances. But it nearly never happened. Horrified by the script, she initially turned down the role of Sara Goldfarb, Harry’s mother, who becomes obsessed with the idea of appearing on a daytime game show. It was only upon viewing Pi that she changed her mind. Still, her initial fears weren’t exactly assuaged: over the course of the film she shed 40 pounds, and often spent over four hours in prosthetics, to better become the character who goes on to grow addicted to diet pills. During production Burstyn went through four necks, two fat suits and nine wigs.
Burstyn’s performance is heartbreaking – especially during an impassioned monologue on how it feels to be approaching the twilight of your life. Upon letting his camera accidentally drift off-target, cinematographer Matthew Libatique found himself at the brunt of Aronofsky’s ire. On examination it transpired that the camera drifted due to Libatique being so moved by Burstyn’s performance, with his tears fogging up the camera’s eyepiece. This was the take that made it into the film. To this day, Burstyn cites Requiem as “the biggest challenge I’ve ever encountered,” and it truly stands as a monolithic piece of acting.
Aronofsky has said of Requiem that “the film is constructed to build to a climax,” and through its use of quick cuts and a hypnotic score it achieves such a feeling with aplomb. Shot like a hip-hop montage to get the sense of overwhelming addiction and loss of control, the film contains over 2000 cuts (where a film of similar length averages only 600-700). He originally saw the film as having a score consisting of reworked hip-hop, in much the same way that Black Swan later used pieces from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. However, as the hip-hop genre is not one of composer Clint Mansell’s strong suits, they went with some instrumentals Mansell had been working on. Considering the score has since been heard everywhere from Lord of the Rings trailers to Sky Sports football coverage, it’s safe to say that Mansell’s sitting pretty.
Requiem for a Dream is often considered one of the most harrowing films of the century, so it’s no surprise that it was born from a stunted production and challenging shoot.