by Anthony Kaufman
Deep in the bowels of the Vernon C. Bain prison barge in the Bronx, “Pi” director Darren Aronofsky is shooting his new feature, “Requiem for a Dream,” an adaptation of the cult novel by author Hubert Selby Jr. (most known for “Last Exit to Brooklyn“). Grips, guards, and guys with plastic mouse noses and bulbous stockings on their heads walk freely in and out of the prison gates. Inside, lights and a camera crew collect closely around a jail cell. Director of Photography Matthew Libatique, who also shot “Pi,” stands behind a 35mm camera, examining the frame, while Aronofsky, thick with beard and moustache, shifts back and forth between a video monitor and the scene played out before him.
“Somebody help us! We need a doctor,” screams actor Marlon Wayans while fiercely gripping the prison bars. “Can somebody fucking help us!” The dialogue is over, but Aronofsky continues rolling, asking Wayans to do it again, increasing the actor’s exhaustion, his intensity. As Wayans repeats his cries for help, Aronofsky mouths the words, his own face mirroring the agony in his actor’s performance.
On the surface, it may not seem so different from the set of the director’s gritty breakout debut, but look closer, and you begin to see the difference between the “Pi” budget of $60,000 and the reported $5 million that “Requiem” will cost. First off, Wayans. Acting his heart out, audiences will likely be surprised by the famous young comedian’s performance as Tyrone C. Lovek, friend — and fellow addict — of protagonist Harry Goldfarb (played by rising actor Jared Leto) as the two spiral into an inferno of drugs and delusional dreams.
Then there’s the camera and the film — 35mm color opposed to the black and white reversal they shot for “Pi.” Also, the rear wall of the jail cell is a large, conspicuously colored green screen — for a special effect they will fill in later. The crew is also much larger and experienced, roughly 50-60 people, a full-sized New York union shoot, instead of the handful of film students that worked on his debut feature. During lunch, another disparity comes into focus: where “Pi” relied on the kindness of friends, family and pizza joints, “Requiem” requires a full catered meal in the prison’s mess hall where 5 pounds of catfish gets eaten in all of 5 minutes.
Over lunch, producer Eric Watson elaborates on some of the differences. “For us, it’s a huge leap. And we didn’t want to jump into it like we knew what we were doing, but to surround ourselves with people who actually did know what we were doing.” Watson is referring to the film’s executive producers, Bandeira Entertainment and Industry Entertainment (the latter of which is slated to produce Aronofsky’s “Ronin” project for New Line). “We didn’t know how to deal with Hollywood. We’re casting name actors now, and we had to navigate this whole system that we had no experience in, so we tapped into these people to help us with agents and managers.” In addition to Wayans and Leto, the film stars Jennifer Connelly (“Dark City“) as Harry’s girlfriend and Ellen Burstyn (“The Spitfire Grill“) as his TV game show addicted mom.
Originally to be financed by Artisan Entertainment (which scooped up Aronofsky and “Pi” in the early days of Sundance 1998), the deal was changed to a negative pick-up, where “they [Artisan] have a commitment to distribute the film once it’s completed,” says Watson. Sibling/Protozoa Productions are now producing, with Artisan’s role restricted to marketing and distribution. “They’re letting Darren make his movie,” says Watson. “And the negative pick-up is more conducive to that. Because their production people don’t have to be worried about what we’re doing. They know they’re going to get the movie when it’s done. And that allows us to make our movie without them being hands-on involved.” According to Watson, Aronofsky will also retain final cut on the picture.
Lunch finishes almost as quickly as it began and the crew — with Aronofsky in the lead — returns to the prison cell. As the guys in the mouse masks begin mobilizing for the next scene, Aronofsky takes a second to discuss the project. “I wanted to work with Selby for years and years. When I was an undergrad in college, I was studying for finals — and I was walking through the library and out of the corner of my eye, I saw the word ‘Brooklyn’ and the book was ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’ [by Selby] and I blew off my finals and was instantly fascinated by it.”
After graduating from Harvard (despite the finals), Aronofsky’s first short film at the American Film Institute (AFI) was based on Selby’s story, “Fortune Cookie,” from his collection, “Songs of the Silent Snow.” After finishing film school, the native New Yorker was on the look out for novels to adapt and began reading “Requiem for a Dream.” “And I actually couldn’t finish it,” he says, “because it was so close to the stuff I was working on and it rang so true.” Encouraged by Watson to take up “Requiem” again, Aronofsky finished the novel while they were editing “Pi” and decided to make it their next collaboration.
Now back in the saddle after almost three years, Aronofsky is “excited” to be working again. Regarding the sizable scope and budget of his second film, Aronofsky feels the challenges are always the same. “Never enough time. Every day is a compromise. I don’t know if I will ever be in a situation that I’ll get everything that I need to make the film the right way. But it is interesting — a lot of mistakes end up being your best things. Those constraints often help you in the long run.”
Five mice guys now amble in the jail cell behind us, trying to look ominous. Aronofsky explains it’s a dream sequence in which Wayans’ character is being plagued by “bad forces.” “We’re exploring a lot of the camera tricks we did on ‘Pi,'” says the filmmaker, “and bringing them to new levels and also trying new stuff — now that we have more toys.” Looking at the mice men, he laughs, “We’ll see if it works. I don’t know, it’s an experiment.” A fog machine begins to sputter smoke amidst the weird-looking mice figures and Aronofsky returns to his crew. Libatique mounts the camera and the team gets ready to shoot. Aronofsky watches the scene, then comments loudly to the crew, “Is it too weird? Do I have any idea what I’m doing?”
There’s at least one person on the prison barge that believes in Aronofsky, Hubert Selby, Jr. himself, a graying elderly man who sits silently behind the video monitor in a folding chair. What does the renowned author think of the director? “He absolutely sticks to the emotional essence of the book. This guy is going to be a really great filmmaker.”
Time will only tell with Aronofsky heading for big-budgeted productions at Dimension Films (the WWII sci-fi thriller “Proteus“) and New Line (the comic book adaptation of Frank Miller’s “Ronin”). “I’m really glad we did this before doing one of those,” comments Watson, who isn’t daunted by their sudden move into the big leagues. “Filmmaking comes down to the same thing — you have to tell a story and you have to tell it well. It’s the same basics no matter what the size of your budget. So we’re approaching those projects the same way we approach any film at any budget level — and that is, to make the best film we can. Yeah, maybe we’ll make a bigger movie, and that may be perceived as selling out, but selling out is really when you’re not true to your vision. For us, budget doesn’t matter as much as that we retain the movie we want to make.”