The History of Requiem for a Dream
Darren Aronofsky was just a few years out of film school, and a year off his 1998 indie phenom of a debut Pi, when he started making Requiem for a Dream. But in some ways, it was a project he’d been preparing for all his life — an adaptation of a book by his literary idol, Hubert Selby Jr., that he set in the areas of South Brooklyn where he grew up. “I guess the preproduction on this was years and years,” he said. “It was a lot of my childhood and youth.” Ellen Burstyn, who’d get an Oscar nomination for her role as Brighton Beach widow Sara Goldfarb, was the lauded veteran working with a trio of fresh-faced performers in different periods of transition. Jared Leto, who played her smack-addicted son Harry, was on the cusp of a transformation from teen television-show dreamboat to movie star. Jennifer Connelly, as Harry’s girlfriend Marion, was a former child actor navigating what’s historically been an often-fraught path toward a grown-up career. Marlon Wayans, as Harry’s best friend and partner in crime Tyrone C. Love, was a well-known comedic talent proving his capacity for drama. The 2000 feature, made just as the independent film scene was moving past a ’90s heyday toward something new, is an intersection point for many now-prominent careers — a movie made by the young.
And it feels young. The thrill of Requiem for a Dream comes from it being the work of artists who hadn’t yet been told what they could and couldn’t do, for better and, maybe in one instance, for worse. It took on uncompromisingly dark material with such an exuberant sense of style and boundless energy. Twenty years after Requiem made its debut at Cannes and tangled with the MPAA over an NC-17 rating, it remains an influential cultural milestone that continues to reverberate through different media, and an ending that still has viewers curling up in the fetal position like the characters do right before the credits roll. Aronfosky’s second feature was a formative one for a whole swathe of budding cinephiles who’d sneak a director’s-cut version of the DVD home to watch a transgressive story of addiction destroying four lives, all told in gloriously maximalist fashion, from the mini-montages of drug use to the time-lapse interludes to the famous Kronos Quartet–performed score. This is the story of Requiem for a Dream, two decades on, from the people who made it — including Aronofsky, the film’s stars, and many pivotal members of its crew.
Requiem for a Dream, a movie about four people whose lives are gradually destroyed by their various addictions (and the emotional voids they’re trying to fill), was based on a brutal, poetic 1978 novel by author Hubert Selby Jr., who died in 2004. Selby’s 1964 book Last Exit to Brooklyn had already been adapted into a 1989 film, one that starred Stephen Lang, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Burt Young.
Darren Aronofsky, director: When I was a freshman in collegeAronofsky went to Harvard, and then studied directing at AFI, where he met future collaborators Matthew “Matty” Libatique and Eric Watson. , I was walking through the library and out of the corner of my eye, saw the word “Brooklyn.” I grew up in Brooklyn, so I pulled it out, and it was Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr. It completely blew my mind, that book, and just made me start thinking about being a storyteller.
When I got to film school in Los Angeles, they told me, “You’re going to do a bunch of short films.” Selby wrote a collection of stories called Songs of the Silent Snow, and there was one called “Fortune Cookie,” about a door-to-door salesman who can only make a sale if he has a good fortune. I was like, “Oh, I’ll adapt that.” I called the Writer’s Guild to see if I had to get permission, and the Guild gave me [Selby’s] home phone number. I called him up and he said, “Oh, come on over.”
Eric Watson, producer: My only awareness of Selby at that point was Last Exit to Brooklyn. A guy I went to high school with, Sam Rockwell, that was the first movie he had a big role in, so we all went with him to see the premiere at a small theater in San Francisco.
Aronofsky: When you read Hubert Selby, Jr. you’re expecting someone more like Henry RollinsRollins, who is definitely not slight, was a huge fan of Selby’s. . But he was very slight, and he was dressed in a pair of underwear. He lived in a studio, maybe a one bedroom — a small, humble thing. And he said, “Here, I’ve just been working on this translation,” and handed me a Lao Tzu poem that he had been working on arranging. He was this incredibly peaceful, gentle soul, and he gave me his blessing1991’s Fortune Cookie was one of several shorts Aronofsky made at AFI. He also worked with Libatique and Watson on a 1993 short entitled Protozoa that Watson describes as a sign of things to come but also “pretty embarrassing.” .
Watson: After we made PiThe 1998 thriller Pi was famously made for $60,000. It won Aronofsky the Best Director award at Sundance, where it premiered, and went on to become an acclaimed $3.2 million hit for distributor Artisan Entertainment. , we were the indie darlings of that year. Everybody was asking us, “What do you want to make next?” We met all these executives who wanted to work with us and said “anything you want to do.”
Aronofsky: There was a great book shop in Venice Beach, where I lived, that I hope is still open. Requiem for a Dream was on the shelves, and I picked it up and I started to read it, and it felt so familiar that I never finished it.
Watson: Darren and I were roommates in Hell’s Kitchen, and he had this book on the shelf called Requiem for a Dream. I asked him, “What is that?” He said, “It’s a Selby book, but I couldn’t finish it. It was just too much for me to handle.” I’m like, “Well, can I borrow it?” I took it with me on a skiing trip with my parents and grandparents and it ruined my vacation. But I read it cover to cover, and then I got back and I said, “We got to make this into a movie.”
Aronofsky: So I read it. It’s just very cinematic, the book. Images were popping off the page in my head, of how to interpret this. We went out, we found Selby, and I think we optioned it for a thousand bucks. The novel is actually set in the Bronx, and the first thing I asked him, I was like, “Look, I don’t know the Bronx at all, but I know this south part of Brooklyn where I grew up. Do you mind if I set it there?” He was like, “No.” I rented an apartment out in Sheepshead Bay, and I just started working on it.
Watson: Selby had written [a screenplay adaptation] years before. He finally found it in somebody’s attic and sent it to us and we looked at the two drafts and they were really similar.
Aronofsky: I was able to blend them a bit, but unfortunately [Selby and I] never really got to work in the same room, which would have been an amazing experience.
Watson: We sent the finished screenplay to all those people who’d said “anything you want to do.” Nobody called us back. So we learned a lesson about Hollywood — they don’t always mean what they say. But we went to Artisan, the company that had bought Pi at Sundance and kind of built their brand around our movie. They said, “Well, we believe in you guys. If you put a cast together, we’ll give you this much money.”
Aronofsky: It was still challenging. I think three weeks before we were shooting, our budget got cut by $1 million. It was very scary. I can remember getting that phone call that we lost a quarter of our money. I think I might have shed a few tears.
Watson: We engaged a casting director named Mary Vernieu, who helped get us in front of a lot of actors. And a lot of people said no to us.
Aronofsky: Pretty much everyone in the cast was not what I was aiming for at the beginning of it. I went to a lot of actors before I settled on this cast. I may have told Ellen, but I think she was fourth or fifth down the list. There were a lot of great actors that said, “No fucking way.” I had offered it to Anne BancroftBancroft was, at this time, coming off playing the Miss Havisham equivalent in Alfonso Cuarón’s 1998 Great Expectations and voicing the Queen in Antz. and I had a beautiful conversation with her, and she told me that it’s the first role she passed on that she had to talk to her shrink about. And I was like, “I guess that’s a compliment.”
Ellen Burstyn, Sara Goldfarb: My agent sent me the script and I read it and I called her and I said, “This is the most depressing script I’ve ever read. Who on earth is going to want to see this movie? I can’t imagine.” And she said, “Before you turn it down, there’s a little movie called Pi, you should look at.” I had never heard of it. Within the first three minutes I went, “Oh, I get it. The guy’s an artist. Okay.” So I said, all right, I’ll do it.
Darren came up to Hartford, where I was doing Long Day’s Journey Into NightBurstyn was playing Mary Tyrone in the Eugene O’Neill revival — another addict, though as Burstyn points out, “hers was a kind of smoothing out the rough edges” , and we met after the play. He was a very young man, but I was impressed with his film. So I felt secure.
Aronofsky: I didn’t really know Jared’s work at all. So I had to really educate myself on him. And I think there were a bunch of actors I went to — the who’s who of who was hot back then — and they all passed on it.
Watson: Tobey Maguire, that was someone who said no to us.
Jared Leto, Harry Goldfarb: I remember how badly I wanted to be a part of the film and how badly I wanted to work with Darren. He made me earn it, for sure. There were multiple auditions. I knew he liked me, but he wasn’t a hundred percent, so there was a period of courtship. I remember him calling me one time. It had to have been two in the morning, and I picked up the phone and was laying in bed, and I sat there pitching myself. I wasn’t shy about it either, it wasn’t that sort of process. It was like, listen, I see the opportunity here to challenge myself in a way that I’ve never been challenged before and I know that doesn’t come around too often.
Once I got the role, I remember reading with a lot of people for other roles. Darren read with every actor in town for the part that eventually went to Jennifer.
Watson: We had a lot of actors show up for that role. We were surprised at the response that we got. We had a session where Jared was already onboard, and we had Jennifer come in, because she wanted to do the film. They hadn’t met each other. They did the scene, and she basically threw him around the room in the audition. And we were just like, wow.
Leto: I think she threw a chair across the room.
Jennifer Connelly, Marion Silver: I remember loving the script and feeling strongly about it. I found it moving. Devastating, but also really moving. I remember wanting so much to be part of it: I really want to fight for this one. And it was a bit of a fight. I think Darren wasn’t entirely convinced about the idea of me for a while.
Aronofsky: I definitely loved Jennifer’s work from Once Upon a Time in AmericaConnelly was 12 years old when she made her film debut in Sergio Leone’s sprawling 1984 crime saga, appearing as a young Deborah, who was played as an adult by Elizabeth McGovern. , one of my favorite films. At the time, I don’t think her career was thriving for some reason, but she gave one of the best auditions I’ve ever seen to this day. She came in, and I was not expecting anything, and she left with the role.
Marlon Wayans, Tyrone C. Love: I started out with the script and I was like, Oh, hell no. I’m going to kill myself. And I’m a happy person. But when I look at a movie, I don’t just look at the script. If there’s a book, I read the book. If there’s a director attached, I watch the director’s work. And that’s exactly what I did. I read the script, I read the book, and as soon as I saw Pi, I knew what the movie would be.
Watson: [Wayans] had gone to the performing arts high school in New YorkWayans attended Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, the school that, in a previous incarnation, inspired the movie Fame. . We knew that he had that background with him, and that capacity. And in the auditions, he was able to show a lot of range and capacity to handle dramatic scenes. We had no fear about it. We knew we’d be okay. We certainly were questioned by others [about the decision to cast him] until they saw the movie, because he wasn’t taken seriously. And he never really chose to do [drama] again, but he could have.
Wayans: It’s not that I don’t do drama. I haven’t been on the top of the list, because people don’t know if I can do drama or not. I studied drama for four years every day.
Aronofsky: I wanted to cast Dave Chappelle. I had a bunch of friends that were in the comedy scene, and I’d seen him onstage and thought he was amazing. I begged him, but he wasn’t really interested in acting at the time. So he passed. But I always felt like a comedian for that role would be great. There were so many great actors for that role that could have done it, but Marlon just came in and there was a level of commitment — I think he didn’t shower for three days.
Wayans: I slept in the same clothes, literally, for ten days. I barely washed. I would talk like the character. My boys would come over to the house — Omar Epps was concerned, like, Are you okay?
Aronofsky: We were with the casting director, and at a certain point [Wayans] leaves, and there’s this explosion, a big pop outside. Marlon was in such a daze — it was one of those lots that has those nails if you go the wrong direction, and he tore out his tires on his car. He came in and we ended up having more time together, because they were waiting for his car to get towed. The fact that he was from New York, from a neighborhood I knew well growing up — I felt that he could really connect to the character.
Christopher McDonald, Tappy Tibbons: I auditioned with Mary Vernieu in a room, and she sent that off to Darren, and Darren said, “He’s our guy.” I went to his little apartment in Midtown, and we went up on the roof and he said, “I’m gonna ask a few questions.” I ad-libbed all this stuff about Tappy TibbonsTappy Tibbons — an Aronofsky creation who’s not in the Selby book — is the motivational speaker type whose television show is a favorite of Sara’s, who hopes to appear as a guest on it. , just crazy stuff. I was channeling Tony Robbins, walking down the street, talking to people. Some people knew me but didn’t know my name. And I said, “Yeah, I’m Tappy Tibbons, you’ve seen me on TV” — just stopping random people in the streets and making up, like, “30 days, it’ll change your life.” I just riffed on it, and then [Aronofsky] did use a lot of it in the movie.
lose weight for any film I’ve ever doneLeto reportedly lost 25 pounds for the role, which was not the only dramatic physical transformation in his career — he put on 67 pounds for Chapter 27 and lost 30 to 40 pounds for Dallas Buyers Club. . It was my idea, and I thought that given the circumstances, given my own personal experiences around addiction and addicts, it was appropriate, physically, that he’d be in that place. I also thought that if I lost a lot of weight and was restricting my food intake, that would put me in a place of constant craving. I thought that was a good place to be.
Connelly: It manifests differently, that hunger. The lack of safety manifests differently for all of the characters and is expressed in different ways through different vices and specific addictions. I just tried to focus mostly on that sense of something missing. A lot of people can relate to that feeling.
Wayans: I’m not the kind of guy that stays in character. When they say “cut,” I’m back to Marlon, back to having fun. Jared is the opposite of me. Jared is super-method. He stays in it the entire time. So when they say “cut,” he’s eating like, raisins and a nut, and I’m eating lunch. I’m not starving myself, because I noticed black guys were still buff even though they were heroin addicts. Not everybody gets skinny, not everybody gets emaciated. So I would tease Jared often because he was crabby because he wasn’t eating.
Aronofsky: I was just Jewish mothering [Leto], and trying to constantly feed him, just because I wanted him to have the energy to get through it. But he was healthy and young, and it must help create a space for him to feel free to do what he has to do.
Matthew Libatique, director of photography: Marlon would literally be in the heaviest scene, and then cut and tell a joke. Whereas Jared and Jennifer really, it was harder for them. They had to interact with each other and deal with themselves.
Connelly: Our working relationship was good. It was at times slightly volatile — which I think was part of our characters and what they were going through at the time. It was sort of conveniently volatile during the volatile scenes, which was probably more of a reflection of our youth.
Watson: They approached acting from a different place. Jennifer was a classically trained film actress, and she really hit her stride around take five, six and seven. Jared, he had had a lot more background in television, he hit his stride around take one, two, and three. And so trying to find that magical take four was all the thing we were doing.
Libatique: There’s a scene we shot, where Harry and Marion fight in Marion’s apartment, with a handheld camera. We shot it twice. Emotionally, Jared was really there between takes one and five, and Jennifer was better later. [Darren] comes to me one day. He’s like, “I want to shoot that again. I’m going to shoot that scene again.” I’m like, “Are you kidding me? We don’t have the time to shoot that again.” And then I realized, he’s right. Because the actors needed a certain amount of time to be prepared for where they had to go.
Connelly: My son, Kai, was a baby at that time, and so I had him with me on set. He was with me every day. I was still nursing him. It was a very strange, split world, because the reality of my life was so different from the reality of Marion’s life at that time. I have an amazing photograph somewhere, where I’m getting ready to go out and I have this intense, elaborate makeup on. And I’m looking in the mirror and doing my makeup and you can see the camera in the photograph. And you can see I’m holding Kai as a baby at the bottom of the frame, getting ready to do this scene that’s a really difficult time in this character’s life.
It was the beginning of having to learn to surrender to the moment and not hold on to something. I had to learn to do all of my work ahead of time, and then surrender to the scene in the moments that I was there and we were filming, because I wasn’t really able to walk around inhabiting someone else’s world.