Requiem for a Dream: Downward Spiral

Adventurous techniques add a harrowing, hallucinatory edge to this cautionary tale of addiction directed by Darren Aronofsky and photographed by Matthew Libatique.

At top, Marion and Harry (Jennifer Connelly and Jared Leto) hatch their desperate plan.

Unit Photography by John Baer

In Requiem for a Dream, Director Darren Aronofsky’s followup to his 1998 Sundance Film Festival hit π, neuroses and narcotic addictions send four Brooklyn-based characters spiraling into a modern hell that rivals the horrors of Dante’s Inferno. For middle-aged widow Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), loneliness and low self-esteem lead to dependence on a television game show and dangerous diet pills. Meanwhile, her wayward son Harry (Jared Leto) and his friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) scheme to make a quick fortune selling drugs, but soon find themselves high on their own supply. Swept up in the pair’s perpetual search for their next chemical bender, Harry’s girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) sees her own dream, a career in fashion design, go up in smoke.

In weaving these narrative threads together, Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique employ a variety of adventurous photographic techniques, ratcheting up the characters’ tensions to a fever pitch before revealing their respective fates in a downbeat and truly disturbing denouement. 

This piece originally ran in AC, Oct. 2000. Some images are additional or alternate.

The picture’s plot is based on the novel of the same name by Brooklyn native Hubert Selby, Jr. (Last Exit to Brooklyn), who co-wrote the screenplay with Aronofsky, a longtime admirer of the author’s work. The 31-year-old director, who also hails from Brooklyn, first became fascinated with Selby’s oeuvre while studying for finals during his freshman year at Harvard University. “I was a public-school kid going off for my first semester of college at Harvard, and I’d really never studied before in my life — all public school really ever did was teach me how to cut classes,” Aronofsky admits with a rueful laugh. “I was studying really hard for my freshman finals, trying to catch up, and one day as I was walking through the library, I noticed the word ‘Brooklyn’ on the spine of a book. When you’re from Brooklyn, and you see anything about Brooklyn, you’re immediately interested, so I pulled the book off the shelf. It turned out to be Last Exit to Brooklyn, and when I started reading it, it just blew me away — I’d never read anything so emotionally honest and intense, and Selby’s writing style was like nothing I’d ever encountered before.”

Several years later, while attending the American Film Institute to study filmmaking, Aronofsky adapted one of Selby’s stories for a short film titled Fortune Cookie. After graduating from the AFI, he began reading more novels and soon became fascinated with Requiem for a Dream. Later, during the making of π, he passed the book along to his business partner, producer Eric Watson, who was equally impressed by the material. “Eric’s reaction was, ‘We’ve got to make this,’ so we optioned it and started developing it,” Aronofsky recalls. “After π came out, we had the opportunity to do more commercial or mainstream fare, but I thought Requiem was a nice step. It was a $4.5 million film instead of a $60 million film, and I saw it as a great opportunity in terms of creating an interesting visual style and continuing to evolve as a director.”

Ellen Burstyn and director Daren Aronofsky discuss a scene within the set depicting Sara Goldfarb’s apartment.

Soon enough, however, Aronofsky found that most studio executives didn’t share his taste for Selby’s grim tale of addiction. “After π everyone was saying, ‘Whatever you want to do, just send it to us and we’ll do it.’ Then, when we sent them Requiem, no one even returned our phone calls. Eric told me, ‘When everyone’s saying no to you, you know you’re doing something right,’ and I do believe there’s merit in that statement.”

The project was eventually backed by the independent company Thousand Words, and Artisan Entertainment later made a negative pickup on the completed film. “That was great for me, because it gave me complete creative freedom,” Aronofsky asserts. “We always knew we were going to try to break down some barriers narratively, visually and aurally; we wanted to try to make a film that was completely different from anything that had been done before, and I encouraged all of my department heads to go for it. Of course, all of the special techniques we applied had to advance the story, because we didn’t want the film to turn into this self-indulgent, MTV type of thing.”

Requiem does feature a wide range of unconventional visual tactics, including the liberal use of split screens, macro and high-speed photography, fisheye lenses, grad filters, and special body-mounted camera rigs that provide some unique perspectives. During their initial discussions, however, Aronofsky and Libatique focused on tying the film’s look to its narrative arc, which covers three seasons; summer (when the characters experience their fleeting moments of happiness), fall (which marks the onset of their decline) and winter (the depths of despair). 

The cinematographer recalls, “Our conversations about Requiem began up to a year before we even started filming; we’d talk while we were walking around in New York or L.A. Darren is really open to my ideas about lighting, and I respect his eye. Our initial discussions were about color and how we were going to use it as a part of the film’s visual language. We’d shot n in black-and-white, so the language was simplified on that project; we were able to keep the visual language so specific that it went hand-in-hand with the story, the music and the effects. Requiem had to incorporate color, but we wanted to do it in a way that wasn’t overly complicated or distracting. We tried to simplify the palette, and I also used color temperatures to create a monochromatic tone. We also wanted the film to have a ‘timeless’ quality, and we went for that sort of look in all areas — costumes, hairstyle, makeup and production design. The movie wasn’t supposed to take place in one specific moment in time. I’ve always enjoyed films that take place in Any City, USA, or any city in the world.”

DoP Matthew Libatique supervises the use of a special “Snorricam” body rig attached to Burstyn. Built by camera technician Mike Ferra, the rig was equipped with a modified 35mm Eyemo that provided unique perspectives at key points in each character's dramatic arc.
DoP Matthew Libatique supervises the use of a special “Snorricam” body rig attached to Burstyn. Built by camera technician Mike Ferra, the rig was equipped with a modified 35mm Eyemo that provided unique perspectives at key points in each character's dramatic arc.

The filmmakers’ visual inspirations included the films Klute and Interiors (both photographed by Gordon Willis, ASC), All That Jazz (shot by Giuseppe Rotunno, ASC, AIC) and Christiane F. (Jurgen Jtirges and Justus Pankau), as well as the still photography of Nan Goldin and Philip-Lorca DiCorcia. Aronofsky adds that he was particularly influenced by Goya’s “black paintings,” which the great Spanish painter created toward the end of his life. “It’s an amazing experience to see Goya’s work at the Prado Museum in Madrid,” he offers. “You first see all of his happy, beautiful paintings, but you eventually progress to his later, darker works. 

“In Requiem, we wanted to make that same sort of transition with our characters, so Matty, [production designer] James Chinlund and I came up with an approach of ‘magical realism’ that eventually moves into ‘artificial naturalism.’ We strove for the timeless feel of a fable because we wanted to show that addiction is a human story that can happen at any time or in any era. We had a great structure incorporating summer, fall and winter, and I wanted all of the department heads to work together like an orchestra trying to create one musical piece. We wanted summer to have a magical but realistic feel, where everything was very warm, but we wanted the end of the story to have an artificial feeling with ugly light produced by heavy-duty fluorescents, as well as sodium-vapor and metal-halide fixtures.”

Jennifer Connelly plays Marion Silver.

Toward that end, Libatique made extensive use of Kino Flo units on the film’s various sets, particularly within Sara’s apartment and Marion’s loft space, which she shares with Harry. “For interior work, we relied mainly on fluorescents or softboxes,” he confirms. “When we were in Sara’s apartment, we used a softbox that we built so we could change our tungsten globes to daylight globes and then compact fluorescents as the seasons progressed. The Kinos were also perfect for this show because we could just change the tubes to get the right color temperature for whichever act we were shooting. Obviously, our close-ups were augmented a bit, but all of the stuff in Sara’s apartment was pretty practical.

“The set depicting Marion’s place was one long corridor, in the style of a typical New York loft. James Chinlund built in a skylight, which allowed us to bring in some warmer light for a daytime feel in the summertime scenes. Once again, though, we used Kinos liberally because we could just change out the tubes over the course of the story. We eventually progressed to a greenish feel in the third act. Everybody knew what the language of the film was, and James worked accordingly; he always provided windows for the summer scenes, and we used fluorescent practical units to justify the lighting in the darker portions of the film.”

Marlon Wayans and Jared Leto, shot in the warm natural light of summertime.

Libatique adds that part of his overall lighting philosophy was to “use as many practical sources as I could to help the actors work naturally. I tried to keep movie lights out of the environment as much as possible. If actors feel as if they’re in a natural environment, I think their performances become more genuine.”

Aronofsky concurs: “I had four amazing actors — three talented younger actors and the older master, Ellen Burstyn. They all had different needs, so my approach was to create a sense of safety and security that would allow each of them to give the best performance. I always want actors to have the liberty to move around or do something different, and I don’t like them to feel restricted by the camera or the lighting. Matty is really good at giving them a lot of room in which to work.”

To enhance the film’s seasonal transitions even more, Libatique manipulated his film stocks and employed a variety of filters. His emulsions of choice were Kodak’s 100 ASA EXR 5248 and Fuji 500 ASA Super-F 8572. “The 48 is one of my favorite film stocks; I love it for exteriors,” he says. “In tests, though, the Fuji stock rendered colors in the way we wanted them to be rendered for this picture, so I used it on most of the film. Kodak’s Vision stocks were a bit too saturated and contemporary for the timeless look we were after, but I did use Eastman’s 48 for hot exteriors, such as the scenes of Sara and her friends sitting on the sidewalk. For those sequences, we tried to simulate that really hard light you get in the heart of the summer. If those scenes hadn’t been staged in the sun, I would have put the characters in the shade and made the light a bit more beautifying. Instead, I used the 48 in conjunction with coral filters to make that warmth really pop. I used corals for the interiors as well, but I went a bit heavier for exterior shots. After the first act, I pulled the corals entirely.

“For night exterior scenes set in the summer,” Libatique adds, “we used a lot of sodium-vapor units to establish a warm reference that we could play with as the seasons progressed. There’s a line in the film where Tyrone says, ‘Summer seems a long time ago,’ and I immediately latched onto that when I read the script; I really wanted to convey that passage of time in the look. During the first two acts, I pulled the film two-thirds to give those scenes a softer feel and to take the bite out of the colors. Pulling the film also opened up the shadow areas and changed the toe of the film’s exposure curve. To soften the image even more, I used heavy Tiffen Soft/FX filters. As we transitioned to the fall, we began shifting from tungsten Kinos to daylight Kinos, which we left uncorrected to create a colder tone. We also changed over from sodium-vapor to metal-halide fixtures as practical sources for night lighting; we sometimes had those outside the windows of our interiors to get a cool cast and a touch of green.”

Connelly dons the Snorricam rig for a critical sequence that foreshadows her character’s fall from grace.
Connelly dons the Snorricam rig for a critical sequence that foreshadows her character’s fall from grace.
The Snorricam perspective.

Libatique continues, “For the winter scenes, I removed all of the diffusion, pushing the Fuji one stop and rating it at 1,000 ASA so I’d get more grain; as a result, the images became a bit harder and more contrasty. At that point, I also dispensed with the 48 entirely, using the Fuji 500 even in the middle of the day. The winter segment begins with a motioncontrol shot of Sara walking past a bunch of people on the street, and that was a tough one to start with. We were shooting with a Milo motion control rig at one frame per second, using 500 ASA film pushed a stop to 1,000, and I had so much ND [neutral-density filtration] on the camera that you could barely see through the lens! We shot different plates of people walking at a frame per second, and then we shot Ellen’s plate separately; the plates were later composited in post. We did that sequence with the Milo rig on a raised track; the Milo has an arm on it that we could extend, and we just repeated the move over and over again.

“For our winter interior scenes, we switched the bulbs in all of our key lights to cool whites, which rendered everything a bit more green. In fact, the images were so green that our timer at Deluxe Toronto, Cathy Rait, had to back things off a bit. I sent her some tearsheets of visual references I was using for the film, and she understood what we were doing right away. We just made a few tweaks here and there.” 

Libatique also augmented the film’s ambiance by employing grad filters for a number of sequences. “That’s something I picked up while working on music videos, where tools like Power Windows are used during telecine. I like to do that type of thing practically in-camera so that I can force the issue and focus the frame on what’s important. On Requiem, I used an N6 or an N9 at the top and bottom of the frame — you still see what’s there, but it creates a shadow area. It’s almost like cutting the light, but you do it in front of the lens. 

“I also like to vignette the corners of the frame, and my assistant, Justin Francis, was a saving grace because he kept notes for every setup. He created a matte on the computer, took it to Kinko’s and made a transparency; then AC Jim Bartolomeo then stuck it on a clear filter that we just threw on the camera.”  

Since he was working mainly with practical light sources, Libatique was able to maintain a fairly consistent aperture of T2 or T2.8 throughout the shoot. “I generally like to work at those stops because I prefer to have less depth of field,” he says. “Even in exterior situations, it’s rare that I shoot even to a stop ofT5.6. It’s tough on the focus puller, but the shots in Darren’s films are very specific. Jim Bartolomeo did a really amazing job. I did the majority of the handheld work on the film, and he just hit as many marks as he could. We would follow the actors, and he always had a stop of T2 or T2.8 to work with. He didn’t complain, but he did sweat a lot!”

The cinematographer notes that Requiem was the first film he and Aronofsky shot in the 1.85:1 format; π was framed in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio. “On Requiem, we knew we wanted to use the 1.85:1 format,” Libatique says. “Anamorphic was out of the question because it just didn’t serve us in terms of the way Darren saw the frame. He composes a lot of things symmetrically, and he likes to use faces in the center of the frame. Anamorphic doesn’t work for his type of framing because you’d either be too far away from the subjects to get their entire faces in the frame, or you’d be so close that you wouldn’t see details like the actors’ hair, or what they’re wearing on their necks. Those little things are important to Darren. 

Aronofsky consults with actor Sean Gullette, whose character, an unscrupulous psychiatrist, provides Marion with desperately needed cash in exchange for sexual favors. In two separate scenes, the characters meet at a chic restaurant lit in an elegant but ominous tone. "We shot the scenes at a real restaurant," Libatique notes. "I used Kino Flos underneath the glass tables throughout the restaurant, and those units motivated the characters' key light. The second scene between them was colder and more blue, so I just changed out the tubes. We also used longer lenses on both of the actors in the second scene to make the background a bit more distorted and out of focus; the first scene's close-ups were shot with a 50mm lens, while the second's were done with either a 75mm or a 100mm."

“I think more and more, Darren sees the possibilities of framing in 1.85:1 and beyond,” Libatique adds. “He’s starting to like 1.85, so he’s working that format to his benefit. He’s very strong in terms of framing. When you go into a film with Darren, there are only a few places where the framing is not centered, and those are specific choices as well.” 

Aronofsky agrees that he prefers balanced frames, noting that a key influence on his compositional style is the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. “Certain aspects of my compositions also come from watching TV, in terms of centering the subjects and using a lot of POV angles,” he admits. “Overall, though, I’d say my framing is based more on my gut feelings — when you pick the camera up, a certain approach feels right aesthetically. I don’t think it’s a particularly intellectual decision for me.” 

On Requiem, Aronofsky’s instincts led him to interpret Selby’s tale with some highly stylized camerawork that helps to convey the characters’ intense emotions. “Camerawork is expressionistic, and you can use the camera and sound to really add to the emotional fate of the characters,” the director agrees. “With π, I was trying to make a really subjective movie, in that everything sprang from [main character] Max Cohen’s brain. Every single shot was motivated by his mindset. We tried to do something similar with Requiem; it’s a very subjective movie, but it has four main characters instead of one.”

The filmmakers’ use of shifting perspectives is introduced in the picture’s very first sequence, in which Harry and Sara are shown in separate split screens as they argue within the latter’s apartment. After Sara has locked herself in her bedroom, Harry’s attempts to speak to her through the door are shown on one side of the frame, while Sara’s reactions are depicted on the other. Aronofsky explains, “When I was reading the book, I thought right away that the first scene would be a perfect spot to use a split-screen because it involved two major characters who were having two completely different subjective experiences of the same event.”

Later in the film, split screens are used again in a similar fashion during an intimate conversation between Harry and Marion, whose bodies and faces are shown in a series of fragmented close-ups on either side of the frame. Libatique notes that “the entire film was storyboarded, and Darren set up the blocking so the split screens would work together in concert. We did all of the split screens digitally and then went back to film, and that gets tricky sometimes in terms of color rendition and contrast. You can also see a bit more grain in the image because of that process. The [postproduction team] went to intermediate stocks to digitize the film, and then they did the effect. The tricky part is getting it back to film, so they created ‘wedges’ for me to look at. I was basically looking at small 35mm frames to try to judge how they were going to match the picture. We’d see numerous tests and maybe they’d come back wrong — for example, the contrast might be a bit heavy, which typically was the case. We’d therefore have to ease up on that digitally and then go back to film again and try to match the look a bit better.”

Libatique’s main camera on the show was a Panavision Gold II equipped with Ultra Speed MKII lenses, but he also used a Panastar and a “Panavised” Arri-3 for highspeed work and macro photography. Several sequences in the film, mainly shots of the young characters doing drugs, were photographed with an 8mm lens at one frame per second. “During preproduction, we tested a bunch of different frame rates, and we eventually settled on one frame per second. We used intervalometers, keeping all of those sequences at one frame because Darren likes to have consistency with any effects. In general, our films are heavy on technique, so we want to keep things simple, sleek and streamlined.”

The film’s depictions of substance abuse are punctuated by a series of macro montages in which the characters are shown using drug paraphernalia. These super-closeup views were shot with a 90mm macro lens attached to either the Panavised Arri-3 or the Panastar. “We set up a tent on a stage where our second-unit cinematographer, Richard Rutkowski, would work. We had a long shot list because we did so many of those little shots. Part of Darren’s visual language is to repeat images over and over, but we never reused any of the individual shots — each is unique to the montage in which it appears. If we knew we needed 25 of them, we’d shoot 25. We used a lot of Kino Flos for the lighting, and a lot of that work relied upon reflections to grab shape from the subject and object. Almost all of the footage was lit with Kinos; we used very little tungsten.”

Borrowing one especially effective technique they’d exploited on π, the filmmakers also occasionally attached a specially modified Eyemo camera to a body rig worn by the actors, thus lending certain scenes the expressionistic, subjective feel that Aronofsky sought. On π, the rig was dubbed the “Snorricam” in honor of the filmmakers’ friends the Snorri brothers, a pair of Icelandic photographers who had built it from scratch; for Requiem, Libatique employed a different rig that had been developed by independent camera technician Mike Ferra, who has his own shop in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. “We used the Snorricam for the defining moments in each character’s arc — when life has definitely taken a turn for the worse, and there’s no going back,” the cinematographer explains. “Mike Ferra’s version of the rig is nice and sturdy, and it’s easier to use with wardrobe and so on. His rig is completely modular, and it’s attached to a vest that the actors wear under their clothes. He modifies an Eyemo that can be used to shoot at different speeds, and it comes with a Canon mount. We generally used the rig with a Canon 14mm lens.”

In addition to flashy camerawork, the filmmakers used visual effects to intensify key sequences. The work was done by Amoeba Proteus, which is the digital arm of Protozoa, the company that Aronofsky co-owns with producer Eric Watson. Aronofsky’s partners in Amoeba Proteus are two of his college buddies, Jeremy Dawson and Dan Schrecker, who lent their skills to the striking title sequence for π. On Requiem, the duo contributed several eye-catching effects, including a vivid, Felliniesque hallucination in which the housebound Sara is ridiculed by a pair of life-sized, electronically distorted phantasms: game-show host Tappy Tibbons (Christopher McDonald) and an idealized version of Sara herself. “Tappy’s show, which Sara watches religiously, was shot practically on video, and all of the things you see in full-frame were shot off of monitors,” Libatique explains. “We shot the game show on a stage using Betacam, and for the monitor shots we used an Arri-3 with a sync box and 24-frame playback. We lit the show stage mainly with Par cans, and I used spotlights on Tappy. We didn’t want the show to seem too big, but we did want it to have some life since Tappy is an evangelistic, Tony Robbins type of character.

“For the scene in which the TV people come to life in Sara’s apartment, we shot the people practically in the apartment set, and Amoeba Proteus added some ‘broadcast noise’ over their entire bodies. The effect was originally planned to be more subtle, but I think the stronger end result was the best way to go with it. To mimic the feel of Tappy's set, we rigged some Par cans on large frames within the apartment set, and to add even more insanity, we hung up this huge disco ball and just pounded two Xenons into it. The overall effect is pretty disturbing.”  

Indeed, Libatique reports that the film had a particularly powerful effect upon Selby (who has a cameo in the film as a prison guard) when it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. “After the screening, he was crying,” he recalls. “I mean, how do you react when you see the film version of a book you wrote years ago in front of a bunch of people you don’t know at a film festival in France? While Requiem has a lot of technique, viewers will care about the characters if we did our jobs right. I think it’s an honest portrayal of Selby’s story, and I feel lucky that I had the opportunity to work on it.”

Libatique and Aronofsky would later collaborate on the films The Fountain, Black Swan, Noah and mother! He was invited to join the ASC in 2002.

Richard Rutkowski became a member of the ASC in 2019.


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