How ‘Requiem for a Dream’ Taught Me What a Filmmaker Does

     October 13, 2020

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Requiem for a Dream makes me smile. I walk away from every viewing newly inspired. It’s a rejuvenating, invigorating, and wholly alive piece of cinema.

Now, if you’ve seen Requiem for a Dream, you’re probably asking me, “What in all hecks is wrong with you?” And you’ve got a point! Requiem for a Dream is a drama about four characters who descend into addiction-fueled nightmares. It is, objectively, harrowing, terrifying, and disturbing. It’s a relentless assault on the senses, an unmerciful descent into chaos, a study of four characters ziplining their way to rock bottom. But if you zoom outside of the nuts and bolts of the story and examine, instead, how those nuts and bolts were placed, you just might get inspired, too.

I rented Requiem for a Dream from Blockbuster when it first came out. I wasn’t sure what to expect. But what I got was a film school in a box; a gateway drug (pun fully intended) to the joys, inventions, and thrillingly expansive limits of cinema.

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Image via Artisan Entertainment

Darren Aronofsky directed and co-wrote Requiem for a Dream, adapted from the Hubert Selby Jr. novel (Selby himself co-wrote the screenplay with Aronofsky). The film was Aronofsky’s follow-up to his low-budget breakthrough Pi, a film that’s similarly about obsession leading to madness, and served as a training ground for many of the stylistic flourishes and techniques that found the language of RequiemPi is a fascinating but messy watch; Requiem, conversely, is in complete control. Every facet of Aronofsky’s work, from his photography choices (courtesy of DP extraordinaire Matthew Libatique) to his post-production decisions (courtesy of editor extraordinaire Jay Rabinowitz), is in lockstep agreement with each other. It all tells the story it needs to tell for each script choice, each character beat, each moment with pitch-perfect accuracy  — and all in a noticeable, performative, borderline grandstanding way. As such, Requiem for a Dream functions as a perfect piece of filmmaking for aspiring filmmakers themselves, a large-text instruction manual of how to use the language of cinema most effectively.

Let’s start with its photography! From the jump, color temperature clues us into the psychological journeys these characters will take, where they feel safest versus most threatened, and what happens when these worlds collide. Broadly speaking, Aronofsky and Libatique establish a “warm colors are safe, cool colors are unsafe” palette, which we see happen both on a macro level tracked to the three-act-three-seasons-summer-fall-winter structure of the screenplay (summer scenes are generally warm, winter scenes are generally cold) and on micro levels within many frames and sequences. Warmth is desirable for all of our characters — Ellen Burstyn wants to dye her hair red, Marlon Wayans‘ memories of his mother exist in a warmly hued picture frame, Jared Leto keeps fantasizing Jennifer Connelly in a red dress. Libatique and Aronofsky’s frames both glom onto and heighten these characters’ wants; summer scenes are often borderline sepia in their color correction, and we only get colder and more desaturated as we move on.

This usage of color comes squarely into focus when Libatique and Aronofsky start colliding and comparing these color schemes against each other, sometimes in different sections of the film, sometimes within one frame itself. Leto and Connelly have an initial love scene that is simply bathed in a warm glow; later, when their relationship is deteriorating, they sit apart from each other on a couch in a sickly pale blue and green aura. Burstyn’s artificially dyed red hair starts rotting and graying from the roots up, the symbolism of her destruction literally growing from inside of her and coming to get her. In one beautiful shot, Wayans sits on his bed staring at a picture of his departed mother in a shadowy, warm temperature — directly behind him, taunting him, is a blue, cool, and threatening rainstorm pounding at the window. Color symbolism don’t get more direct than that, but Aronofsky and Libatique don’t always run the playbook normally. Once these rules are set in stone, they start to flip, corrupt, and stop making sense. Leto and Wayans attend a warm and sweaty drug deal in the back of a grocery store, and one character’s eating of an orange (nice Godfather shout-out) signifies an intense danger that happens soon after. Later, the two attempt to drive from New York to Florida, aka from cold to warmth, as a fundamental part of the film’s “mad sprint into despair” sequence. And poor Burstyn’s nightmarish vision of her refrigerator growing jaws and attempting to eat her is punctuated by a warm, orange glow. Set the rules, and then break them — textbook filmmaking!

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Image via Artisan Entertainment

Requiem for a Dream specifically, and Aronofsky generally, are interested in subjectively communicating their characters’ journeys, rather than objectively (a huge part of why it’s such a perfect case study for effective filmmaking, as it makes the style that much easier to track). Every technique is used to get us as close to the brain of the characters as possible; we ain’t playing God, we’re playing His mere mortals. As such, close-ups are the default frame of the picture, to the point where when the characters are arguably at their happiest (which is to say, indulging in their addictions), we pivot to the most heightened, extreme, and downright abstracted versions of extreme close-ups there are.

Most traditional dialogue scenes are covered in close singles, our actors’ faces filling the frame. In fact, sometimes that’s not enough for Aronofsky; during certain sequences of high stress or emotional terror, the camera is literally strapped onto a performer’s chest (a technique called SnorriCam, named after two Icelandic photographers), so when they run around their faces, our entryway into their psychological truth, remains stable as the world descends into chaos around them. Whenever we move away from a close-up, it’s for a startling shift in stakes within the film. Fisheye timelapse sequences show us how characters feel during the maniacal peaks of their highs. Multiple bird’s eye shots, starting close on an actor’s face before pulling out to reveal them in a wide, serve as emphatic periods on where our characters’ emotional states currently exist. And in one subtly compelling tracking shot during a charged conversation between Leto and Burstyn, Libatique jarringly moves the camera across the 180 degree line — an invisible line camera operators use to place the camera in orienting positions during scenes — just as Leto realizes something horrible about Burstyn. As filmgoers and makers, we can sometimes take simple decisions like “a close-up” for granted; Requiem for a Dream reminds us that no decision is inherent, and every decision is intentional.

This process of intentional decision isn’t more evident than in Requiem‘s post-production techniques. Most notably, those extreme close-ups of abstract addiction — cocaine piles smashing against a black surface, heroin getting pushed down into a syringe, coffee getting obsessively sipped, pupils dilating in psychological and physiological shifting — are jammed against each other in rapid-fire, quick-cut montages, each image paired with a similarly jagged, abstracted sound effect. These blasts of energy represent the fierce efficiency at which addicts can get high, the relentless change to one’s emotional state getting high can bring (a scene of Leto in tears followed by one of these montages followed by Leto appearing perfectly calm communicates this cleanly), and the general pace of living these characters are used to (or prefer?) living. Beyond these mini-montages, the editorial pace of the film tends to move at a quicker-than-normal clip (with slower-paced moments and longer takes doubling in their efficacy and intention), highlighted and emboldened by a notably unique, effective, and tethered-to-the-visuals score from Clint Mansell (I’ll save my music theory deep dive for another article, but I’ll just say its usage of motifs, minimalist adjustments in arrangement, and corruption between classical and contemporary forms of music mimics Aronofsky’s vision perfectly).

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Image via Artisan Entertainment

Quick cuts also highlight the inherent tragedy of the film, embedded within its very title: This characters will never be allowed to achieve their dreams. They will always be separated from them, their desires always cruelly snatched from their fingertips before they can truly touch — hence, quick cuts to avoid us (and them) getting too attached. Aronofsky takes this one step further by his numerous usage of split-screens, where our frame is divided into multiple frames with different actions going on. Or in the case of Requiem, sometimes the exact same action. Our very first scene separates Leto and Burstyn not only within the physical realm via Burstyn hiding in a closet, but with this usage of split-screen to exacerbate their emotional separation. Even the previously mentioned love scene between Leto and Connelly occurs in split-screen; despite the two characters being on the same bed, they must reach through the split-screen to reach each other. A particularly effective piece of foreshadowing, of Greek tragedy regarding our characters’ fates — even when they reach through the limitations of their own filmmaking, there will always be a split preventing them from getting what they need.

There are so many other marvelous things about Requiem‘s filmmaking to point out, but hopefully this gives you a primer that can assist you going down the rabbit hole yourself. Addiction, an inherently psychological state of being, has many physical manifestations. Filmmaking, in some ways, is a physical manifestation of an inherently psychological states of being; how can we make a tangible object that represents our intangible human condition? By using every physical filmmaking tactic at his disposal and thensome, Darren Aronofsky shows us exactly how to turn the psychological into the physical, not just with the ramifications of addiction, but with any human experience you wish to apply his strategies too. Requiem for a Dream may mourn its characters’ dreams, but it still serves to spark mine.

Requiem for a Dream is available on a 20th Anniversary 4K Blu-ray set starting today. For more on Aronofsky, here’s our ranking of his films.

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Image via Artisan Entertainment

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